(I recently attended an interview for a job. At time of writing, I don’t know about the outcome of the job but, irrespective of that, I wanted to share the transcript of what I said. A couple of things to finally note, I gave them a copy of this poster as a handout and I’ve taken out any reference to names in the below.)
Thank you for letting me speak to you today. I’m here to talk about the relationship between creativity and story, and young people’s self-awareness; namely the relationship between something very externally rendered and visible, to something more internal and perhaps much less visible.
That in itself is a sweeping statement but it’s one of those statements that talking about creativity perhaps engenders. You have to start big, to go small; you can’t focus in on the nuts and bolts without understanding the overarching concept itself.
And yet even that itself is a sweeping statement because creativity is one of those concepts that presents a different face to nearly all of those who participate within the act. Can we pin it down at all? And can we pin it down within the educational framework itself; can we define this skill that we require children to exhibit on a regular basis – whether that’s through drawing a picture for the fridge, or solving an elaborate piece of algebra?
So let’s try and do precisely that. I’m going to begin in fact, by recognising the useful criteria that appear in ********* strategic plan for 2015 – 2020. There, ********* talks about the need to engender integrity, inclusiveness, community, professionalism and academic excellence in all that it does.
Those factors for me seem to underpin the idea of creativity to a rather eloquent degree, and in fact come to highlight how best the ‘creative act’ can help young people come to realise who and what they are within contemporary society.
Integrity is, as ********* itself defines it, openness, transparency and honesty. When applied to story, these qualities have a potent reach particularly when applied to the fantasy – reality judgements of the developing literate. According to the work of Laville et al (2013) children of that age, namely 3-8, are more likely to trust the make-believe as real when it comes from a positive source. Therefore, if a character that you trust tells you to do something bad, you are more likely to do it because of that character’s qualities for yourself. This is perhaps the emergence of fake news, as much as I dislike that expression, but I’d instead like to argue for it as a challenge towards the act of reading. That is to say, it should be considered as one of the earliest points where we can start to question the integrity of a text and discuss with children whether or not the textual act as rendered is something that can, or indeed, should be replicated in real life.
The problem with such an assertion is that the text has to allow that flexibility.
A good piece of children’s literature manages to do that. It allows that flexibility of interpretation by allowing for that flexibility of readership. A bad piece doesn’t. A picture book, for example, with a rhyme that works when read in a publishing office in London loses a quality if that rhyme is not precisely reproduced elsewhere. It is not the same book. And so the integrity of that text starts to lose itself amidst the noise of interpretation until there’s very little of that text left.
So – if you take somebody like Shirley Hughes – an author who has lasted for years with her work – and simply just study those images and the construction of her books and the rhythm that’s present therein, you start to understand the relevance of integrity towards children and indeed, the enduring appeal of her work. Hughes has nothing to hide from her readers and I think that’s a really interesting thing to present to the child – that the model of the book, that space between front cover and back, can actually give you a very specific form of truth that you do not get easily elsewhere in the world.
We read to find ourselves within children’s and young adult literature, that much is obvious, but I think we also read to find models of behaviour and being. We’re starting to touch on the second criteria of ********* strategy here – the notion of inclusiveness, of a text that is representative of the world that we live in. It’s important to note that this isn’t a tokenistic act and I don’t ever want to argue for it as being such. It’s a realistic act, and it’s fallacious to deny that act to a readership because, in doing so, you are denying both the integrity of the world that you’ve created but also of the world that you live in. And that matters, whether it’s a maths textbook where the people in the answers are all of the same ethnicity or a novel which denies the existence of differently abled individuals.
Representation, I suspect, is the more potent way to describe it, and the representation of values and behaviour matters. I’m not asking for Victorian didacticism but it’s important to recognise that children can and do model themselves after that which is found within story. Indeed, as ********* project, carried out by *********showed, children are able to recognise the behaviours located within a text and to understand the impact and potential that these behaviours may play within the ‘real’ world. I’m going to stay on that notion of potential for a moment longer because I think that’s a key one for us to consider.
We are individuals within the world. We inhabit a space and make it place through our lives, labelling the shops down the road as the one with good bread or the one with the offers on on an evening, or the bus stop as the one we take to work, and we understand those spaces through our story.
And when we’re adults, that’s a relatively fixed story. We recognise our pattern and we stick to it and we very rarely diverge.
But children’s literature – story – allows us to figure out what that pattern can be in the first place.
When we read and experience story, we experience the community of the world in a shape that might not be familiar to us, in fact in the case of something like The Hunger Games it may be so wildly dissimilar that we label it as dystopia but in fact, even in that, we recognise similar virtues, faith and morals. We recognise the commonality of ourselves.
We recognise the strength of togetherness, the corruption of absolute power, the bravery of the individual. And that’s what I mean about potential. The idea that ‘if you get the right book to the right child at the right time’ exists for a reason. Because that sentiment is more than that, it’s a truth. Stories show young people their potential in how to be.
I wondered if I should be giving you more facts and figures in this presentation, whether I should be talking more about reports such as Clark and Foster’s 2005 study for the National Literacy Trust on reading habits and the benefits of reading for pleasure, or even the Yale report that was released only a few days ago, but then I realised that I am giving you data. I experience qualitative data on a daily basis, with the readers and adults that I support in their reading habits, through my blogging, librarianship and advocacy, and with every single passionate ‘yes’ that I get whenever I talk about the injustice of Amy ending up with Laurie in Little Women.
I am a visible supporter of literature and the power of experiencing story, and I will fight for your right to read how and what in the way that you want. I am no advocate of those lists you find that are written by somebody who hasn’t ever seen a child but tells them what they should have read before they are three months old.
But what I am an advocate of is the reader and their rights and I think that sometimes we forget the role they play in this discussion.
Let’s go back to the overarching theme of this presentation: What is the potential of using creativity and story to help young people develop wellbeing, understanding and learning about themselves?
I don’t think you can fully realise that question without understanding the position of the reader themselves. Somebody like Daniel Pennac – who, as you’ll see on the handouts I gave you – is really interesting to consider at this point because he argues for the importance of developing readers as much as the reading itself. His ‘Rights of the Reader’, illustrated here by the incomparable Quentin Blake, are really interesting because they recognise that the impact of story itself, of everything good and bold and brave within that story, is almost nothing without an empowered reader. And those behaviours that he highlights – the right to read out loud, the right to read anything, the right not to finish a book, the right to read it again – this start become basic human truths. These are behaviours that we want in adults, members of our community and society. The freedom to read anything, in any shape that it’s presented. freedom to read again, to devour and re-engage with something throughout our lives, to return to it over and over again.
These are vital notions for the development of our selves. Even now, I’ll read something like Black Beauty and find something new in it that reflects against the person that I am now. And I suppose that’s it, right there, that’s the crux of this presentation. Creativity and story, the act of storying, stays with you throughout your life. You may finish the read, but the act of reading, of finding yourself in Neverland or in Middle Earth, that act of self-location, of identification, of empathic connection with something other, that’s the act that stays with you forever. And in a way I suppose that’s the answer to the question I posed at the start of this talk, that’s it right there. Potential.