Claire King

Claire King Edited Choices (10 of 10)

Posts Tagged ‘Children’

Truths and Lies

Posted on: August 17th, 2015 by Claire - 3 Comments

Every now and then I hear so many wonderful things about a book outside my usual sphere ( I tend towards contemporary adult fiction) that I have to read it. Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls is one of those books. It’s a children’s book, but really you can read and appreciate it at any age. Since finishing it a few days ago I have been trying to explain to people why it is such a good book without bursting into tears.

This is partly just my general temperament, but partly because it is such a beautifully truthful, beautifully human story. A story that happened to coincide with several other things I have read, watched or listened to in the last couple of weeks that have a consistency of theme – the kinds of stories we tell our children.

Stories wreak havoc

A Monster Calls tells the story of  how a young teenage boy deals with his mother’s terminal cancer. There’s also some bullying and a bit of broken family dynamics thrown into the mix. Not so much about having adventures in the fresh air and drinking ginger beer, then. Is this the kind of subject matter that our children really need to be dealing with at that age? The Danish think it is.  They actively teach empathy to children, and believe that we shouldn’t shy away from engaging children with stories that tackle tough topics. We all want to protect our children, but at the same time we want them to fly the nest ready to face the world, and by reading about different kinds of emotions – fear, sadness, anger – children develop their ability to connect with their own emotions and empathize with others.

This is nothing new. Most of the books we read our children contain dark elements (even Guess How Much I Love You if you look hard enough); the storytelling tradition is full of devils, wicked stepmothers, and wolves who eat children. Many of us grew up with the moral lessons of Aesop’s Fables, but also Hans Cristian Anderson’s Ugly Duckling and the Emperor with his new clothes, and the Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, so many of which have gone on to be sanitised by Disney (Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White…).

Fairy tales can teach us truths about foolishness, arrogance, selfishness and good versus evil, but what else are children taking out of these stories? For example, I listened to this broadcast from the excellent Radio 4 Misogyny Book Club series:  ‘Unhappily Ever After’  which discusses how such fairy tales portray male and female roles. If you think back to the kinds of stories you were read, and then later read yourself as a child, can you remember what they told us about how men and women behaved in the world? Which actions were rewarded and which warned against and how the world was described? There was almost certainly much less diversity than we try to insist on these days. And possibly the gender stereotyping was inconsistent with the way we would like our own children to think?

cinderella quote

In the broadcast, Rosie talks first about the fairytales she read, how they portrayed the ideal woman and her aspirations – for the “good” female character it usually culminated in marrying the prince. But interestingly she compounds this experience with her later reading as a teenager, notably Twilight, and talks about how she responded to that story and the relationship portrayed in it by entering into a string of abusive relationships.

I haven’t read Twilight, and I don’t believe that in itself it is a bad book that will turn teenagers towards abusive relationships, but as we grow up we do take our context from the stories we are told, and more and more these days there it seems harder to find a balance. As well as books, we are told stories by our teachers, our peers, our parents and other people we trust. We are also fed stories in the other media we consume, notably in commercial “storytelling”: The adverts that tell you how buying things will make you more popular. The TV shows that show kids how anybody can be a pop star if they want it 110%. The glossy magazines with their beauty essentials and airbrushed models. And the internet…which brings me onto the subject of pornography.

porn warning

Pornography is another kind of storytelling, I believe. Boy meets girl. Boy fixes girl’s washing machine. Fellatio results.

Something else I came across last week was this video on what our children are learning about sex from the internet. The children (16 year olds) talk about what they have ‘learned’ from watching internet porn and how it influences their thinking and behaviour with the opposite (in this case) sex.  It then shows the effect of bringing a Belgian sexologist in to a UK School to change the narrative. It might seem strange to include porn as ‘stories’ – on so many levels – but the children who are watching it seem to believe it is fantasy.

A Monster Calls has fantastic elements. Central to the plot is a walking, talking yew tree. Shaking off the boundaries of the real world allows complex ideas to be conveyed simply and poetically. In fantasy, magic and the supernatural can provide conduits for telling very human stories. It doesn’t matter if the protagonist is a wizard or a scarecrow, a sentient robot or a flying nanny, the characters are sympathetic and the story is one that the reader can relate to, and find truth in. Every story we write, fantastic or realistic takes the reader on a journey, asks them to consider a situation, empathise with the characters and wonder what they would do in a similar situation.

Yew Tree Monster

Yet the further our stories get from fantasy, from what we know cannot be true, and the closer they get to resembling the world around us, the harder it can be to tell where the truth ends and the fiction begins.

Our children must learn to discern which stories are fantasy, which are fictionalised portrayals of events that could happen in real life and which hold no truth at all. And here is where the danger lies. We have a responsibility to tell the truths, as hard as they might be, because if we don’t then lies will take their place. At every age, from the first stories we read to them, to the books and magazines they read and the websites they visit during their teenage years, the stories we tell our children inform their view on the world.



A report from the YALC (Young Adult Literature Convention) talking about whether sex should be included in YA books.

list of Young Adult Titles that get first sex (awkwardly) right.

My blog post on Why I think 5 part story structure is less important to kids than storytelling


How Stories are Made

Posted on: September 25th, 2013 by Claire - 33 Comments

I was surprised to discover this week that my eight year-old daughter is learning ‘Five-part Story Structure’ as part of her school curriculum. It’s not something I ever learned at school, and in fact was only exposed to for the first time quite recently, long after I’d started writing seriously myself.

One thing that makes it particularly surprising is that my younger daughter, who is nearly six, has just started in the class where French children are taught to read, and some of the children in her class literally don’t know how a book ‘works’. (Not all of them. And you can make your own guess as to whether my own children love to read and engage with stories). Yet two years later they are already moving on to learning the constituent parts of a story.

If you don’t know the five parts, typically they are:

  • Exposition: Setting the scene. “Once upon a time…”
  • Rising Action: Building the tension. “But then…”
  • Climax: The really exciting bit. Sometimes known in our house as ‘the Bad Part’*
  • Falling Action. “And so”
  • Dénouement or resolution: Ending the story. “Happily ever after.”

*I’ve been telling my daughters about ‘the bad part’ of stories for a while, because if they stop reading (or listening, or watching) a story when it all seems too scary to bear, they never get to see the hero pull through, and you are left without a satisfying and cheerful resolution.

Little Red Riding Hood

So in the exercise they are completing, they are comparing Charles Perrault’s original version of Little Red Riding Hood with the later Brothers Grimm version of the story and seeing how they differ at each of the steps. For example, unlike the milder Grimm telling (where Little Red Riding Hood and her Grandmother are rescued by the woodcutter, who slices open the Wolf’s stomach and sets them free, relatively undigested), in the dénoument of the original story, Little Red Riding Hood is lured into bed, and then promptly eaten by the wolf. The End.

Anyway, having thought on the matter, firstly I’m not sure that this is the right time to give children such a functional view of story telling. Isn’t this a time when stories should be something that they delight in, or in which they see echoes of their own struggles and realise they are not alone? As GK Chesterton put it, “Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

Secondly, the five part story structure seems to me a very oversimplified explanation of how stories are built. Unless the writer is being very formulaic, the journey between the opening and closing of a story can differ wildly from one story to another. Could this be a case of teaching a basic ‘rule’ first, and then going on to cover the exceptions? But are the exceptions not in the majority?

Here is a link to an illuminating and funny Kurt Vonnegut talk where he plots out the structure of some well known stories.

My final exception to the teaching of story structure to children is that if we are going to teach anything about storytelling we should start with the magic. We should explain to them why we tell stories, the profound effects that stories can have on human beings in terms of emotional responses, learning and social skills. We should explain that telling stories makes us human, and that we can all do it, and in fact we do all do it every day. That when my daughter walks in from school and says “Guess what happened to me today!” the magic is already starting.

10 Things People Say to Published Authors

Posted on: March 8th, 2013 by Claire - 35 Comments

Two years ago I wrote the post – 10 Things Children Don’t Say to Writers – where I talked about confidence, and other people’s reactions when you say you’re a writer. It proved to be one of the most popular blog posts on this site.

Mummy is Writing

We can only see the back of your head.

At that time, March 2011, I was newly signed up to Bloomsbury, but The Night Rainbow‘s publication was still two years away.

This last month I have, at last, been enjoying celebrating publication, including launch parties, signings and a lot of chatting to a lot of people, mostly about being a writer. And things have changed. People say different things to me now that I have an actual book available to buy and read.

Broadly, they seem to fall into three categories:


Things people say that make me feel proud and happy. E.g.

1) I’m so impressed.

2) What a great achievement.

3) You’ve inspired me to get back into my own writing.

Hearing this is like the clouds clearing and the sun shining right onto my little patch of Earth. When you’re an unpublished writer, you don’t get enough of this food for the soul. The struggle is the thing, and it can be a lonely one.


Things people say that make me want to run away and hide. E.g. 

4) When is the film coming out?

5) When is the next book coming out?

6) Have you stopped work altogether now?

There’s nothing really wrong with the questions in this category. They are well-meant and show enthusiasm and a high expectation of success. So I tried to work out why I feel agitated with them rather than flattered. I think it’s that I worry I feel the bar marked ‘Success’ is being set too high and that in the end I am going to disappoint people after all.

Signing a book

Chatting at a book signing

And most notably, a *lot* more questions about my writing. E.g.

7) Have you always wanted to write?

8) Who are your favourite authors? (Note – if you ever put me on the spot with this question, be warned that I’ll expect you to reciprocate with your own list!)

9) What inspired your novel?

10) What else are you writing?

They are the kind of questions that often don’t get asked to unpublished writers. Which interests me because it’s not the same for other artistic pursuits. If someone says they are a painter or a sculptor, even on an amateur level, people seem interested and feel free to ask about it. Why is that?

It’s as if, for some, I have passed through a kind of fine, mysterious membrane that separates writers who are interesting (or approachable?) from writers who are not. But I think that membrane only exists if you believe it does. So I suggest next time you meet someone who says they are a writer, why not take the time and ask them about themselves and their writing? You could be surprised what you find out.


Meanwhile, for those who read the 2011 post, what are my children now saying about my writing?

– My mummy wrote that book!

– You’re in a book shop / newspaper / magazine! That’s so cool!

– I’m so proud of you, Mummy. 

…And, after they have spotted the book in the umpteenth bookshop I take them into ‘just to check’…

– Please can we choose a book now?


Child's drawing

A child’s eye view of a book launch party

Monkey see, monkey do.

Posted on: October 29th, 2012 by Claire - 8 Comments

If you have children, or nieces, nephews etc, you’ll have seen their capacity and inclination for imitation. They don’t just copy the gestures and words others use, but the way we behave with other people, the activities we engage in and the tools we use. It’s one of the things that makes us human.

Since they were very young, my daughters have been used to me going away regularly for work. I was writing, but it happened on trains, or at night when they were asleep. But the Christmas when they were 5 and 3 I got a book deal. “Why are you so happy?” they asked. “Mummy is a writer,” I told them.

Within weeks, their games had changed. Previously, playing at being Mummy involved putting on shoes with heels, packing a case and sweeping out of the house, calling back, “I’m off to work. I’ll  be back on Friday, try and be good for Daddy.”

Now, aged 7 and 5, they get out pens and paper and they write stories, poems, anything and bring them to me like offerings. “I am a writer,” they say.

They way they engage with books is different too. They notice when a book is published by Bloomsbury. They are interested in the authors and illustrators of books, make connections, write fan letters even.

And recently, I’ve noticed something else. If I read on my Kindle, computer or phone, they go for computer games (or else choose a different activity altogether). But if I sit and read a paper book, within minutes they are rifling through their books for something to read themselves. In the parenting game of teaching by example we have hit a stumbling block:

My children don’t think reading on an electronic device is the same as reading a book.

Photo (c) Jer Kunz via Flickr Creative Commons


A Lesson in Creativity.

Posted on: February 23rd, 2012 by Claire - 29 Comments

I’ve just taken up piano for the second time.

I started playing not as a child, but in my early twenties. I lived in a rented apartment in Kiev that came with its own piano. I took lessons from a melodramatic and usually heart-broken Ukrainian musician who became a great friend. As my fingers crashed on the keys, so my Russian and her English crashed together to make some kind of vodka-fuelled conversation. We enjoyed making the music. Natasha let me take shortcuts, gave me free rein to experiment, as you might with a child learning to speak. We laughed a lot. It was fun, it was rewarding. After a few months I could play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata from start to finish, from memory. There are 6 year-olds in the world who could play it better, but for me it felt like an achievement.

So now, 15 years later, I finally have my own piano and I can play again. I thought I would like to add a bit of Bach to my repertoire, some Satie, maybe even Philip Glass. I found a new piano teacher, a highly organised German lady. No more tipsy, strung out evenings teetering between music and friendship. Now I have strict 30-minute lessons, squeezed into days already full-to-bursting.

I showed my new piano teacher what I could play.

“You’re using the wrong fingers,” she said. “It’s no good.”

I looked at my fingers. My wrong fingers. I wasn’t sure what she meant.

“You have to use the right fingers in the right places. Otherwise, when you move on to other pieces of music, they are going to get all tangled up. And what are you doing to the pedal?”

It turns out that although I could play the piano, I couldn’t actually play the piano. So I’ve been re-learning where to put my fingers, where to put my feet…and why.

At first it broke everything. There was no music, just disjointed staccato jabbing at keys with weak little fingers and overenthusiastic thumbs. I thought I had made a big mistake. I’m not a piano player after all. What would I tell my mum, who had saved up to buy me that piano for my 40th birthday?

Of course I couldn’t. So I carried on. The neighbours made comments. They thought it was my 4 year old (pictured above) playing…Still, I carried on. My new teacher is very encouraging and hardly ever laughs.

And now after a couple of months it’s starting to come back together again. Better than that, it feels more fluid than before. More comfortable.

Why am I telling you this?

I was speaking to someone recently who told me she used to win prizes in short story competitions. And because she was encouraged by her success, she wanted to write a novel. And she took a writing course, which she thought would help. On the writing course she started to learn techniques.

She discovered that she needed something called an ‘inciting incident’, that her story should have an arc, that her book should be divided into fifths and at each part something specific should happen. She copied down lists of things never to do, and more lists of things to always remember. She found it all overwhelming. She panicked, convinced that she wasn’t clever enough to write fiction after all. She stopped writing altogether.

There is a joyful expression of language, or music, or art that we have instinctively as children. Until at some stage someone tells us that we are not necessarily doing it ‘right’.

Some people take it in their stride, are lucky to find helpful coaches who explain how a little theory can help in the long run. Some people are less lucky. They are hit over the head with rule books and shame until they give up. Sometimes, as adults, we really know how to train the joy out of people.

What advice would you give to the woman who stopped writing? I told her to forget the rules for now. To write some stories that pleased her. To play with her words and find her delight again. I don’t know if that’s the right advice, but it made her smile.


Posted on: November 25th, 2011 by Claire - 17 Comments

I’m one of those human beings who needs the symbols and ceremonies that mark our little lives.

The beginnings, endings and milestones along the way. I believe that they are important, psychologically.

I like birthdays, weddings and although I don’t enjoy them, I very much appreciate funerals. I always loved the first day back to school, and last day of school before the summer holidays. I love launch parties and recognitions of success. So what am I trying to tell you? OK, I’ll spit it out. I have a birthday with a zero at the end coming soon.

In forty days and forty nights, I’m going to be… (can you guess?)

Forty gets used a lot in religious texts. They seem to use it to mean ‘a big number’.

I remember my mum turning forty. I was sixteen. And forty did seem like a big number to me then. It was the age of mums and dads. An age to joke about, to celebrate, but in a mocking sort of way. In an ‘Over the hill and off the pill, get your slippers out’ sort of way.

For my mum, forty came in the heart of a storm. She was too busy surviving to worry about celebrating, reflecting or looking forward. It was all she could do to keep the boat afloat with her kids in it. My mum, by the way, is amazing. And her life since forty has just got better and better.

For me, forty comes in fine weather. I loved my twenties, although I was rather volatile for much of the time. I loved my thirties too, although I was in rather a hurry and sometimes a bit overwhelmed. I’m thinking that my forties are going to be brilliant, and for now I’m just thankful.

I’m thankful for my family. I’m thankful for our good health. And I’m thankful that we are bouncing along the regular ups and downs of the day-to-day, living the little trials and joys of our lives, with clean drinking water, untouched by earthquake, famine or flood. I’m thankful for the opportunities I’ve had so far, and the opportunities I have now.

And there’s no big wish list from this blogger. Everything I want from my forties has to come from me. I want to be a good mother to my girls, a good wife to my husband, a good daughter to my mum. I want spend as much time with my family and friends as I can, while I can. I want to seize the opportunity I have to write novels and have them published well. I want to be true to myself, and try and make myself a better person at fifty than I am today.

Hello, 40, you’ll be welcome.

10 Things Children Don’t Say to Writers

Posted on: March 4th, 2011 by Claire - 39 Comments

This is us watching you write. We can only see the back of your head.

I was just reading Alison Wells’ post about self-confidence/self-doubt where she makes the point that her children accepted the fact she’s a writer without question. I believe this is because (at least with small children) they have not yet forgotten that Mummy is a super hero.

If I told my daughters that I’ve decided to be a spaceman, they’d probably say, “Good idea, that sounds exciting!

The kind of things my children do say about my writing are:

It’s good you are writing books. Books are important because they tell us about things that happened when we weren’t there.


Will you write a story for me? With a zebra in it?

On the other hand, the kind of things my children don’t say include:

1. Have you written anything I might have read?

2. Have you got an agent yet?

3. Just short stories? So you’re not actually an AUTHOR or anything.

4. It’s all going digital anyway.

5. Have you had anything published? So you write for, like, a hobby?

6. Literary Fiction? What exactly does that mean?

7. Can you get me a free copy of your book?

8. Have you made, like, millions?

9. I don’t read much.

10. I’m going to write a book too, when I’m not so busy. (If children want to write a book they just go and get on with it).

These are the kind of things that only grown-ups would say. Because grown-ups have forgotten that we can be whatever we want to be. Because grown-ups may have become just a teensy bit cynical. Now, this is just my hypothesis, so I look forward to your comments!


Posted on: June 7th, 2010 by Claire - 4 Comments

I’ll tell you a story
About Jack a Nory;
And now my story’s begun…

As a girl I loved Jackanory* The storytellers held me enthralled. These days my children are just as entranced. Storytellers, and the tales they tell, draw us out of our world and into another. I have always wanted to be a storyteller.

So, now I ask you to please excuse my virtual backflips today. The shortlist for the Bristol Short Story Prize 2010 has been announced and one of my stories, ‘Wine At Breakfast’, is on it! Before I go off at a over-excited tangent, I want to re-iterate congratulations to the other longlisted writers. Getting to the top 40 out of almost 1500 entries is bloody brilliant. That longlist was my first major competition recognition and, as my Gran would say, I was chuffed to little mint balls.

All of that chuffedness made me wonder: what is it about telling stories, stories that people respond to, that rings my bell…and the bells of the thousands, millions of other of writers out there, pitching and rolling in the sea of prose?

Their need to write was so great they scratched at rocks with needles.

We humans are crazy-thirsty for storytelling. Storytellers are passionate and creative – we tell our stories out loud, we sing them, write them down, paint them, act them out, whatever it takes to capture an audience and call up their emotions. Entire industries are built around storytelling in one form or another. But behind that armies of amateurs (from the French ‘to love’) persist in writing, painting, acting, singing, for little or no financial payback. What makes us do it?

For me it’s the tiny shift I can effect in others – as a girl I loved having my stories published in the school magazine. I would hang around watching faces – any reaction was a payoff – feasting on readers’ emotions. It is thrilling that you can make people angry, sad, disgusted, joyous, amused, through well chosen words.

But storytelling is not just about getting people to feel something. Human culture has been rooted in its practical uses since the very origin of language. Through entertainment, stories have taught moral codes and problem solving, taught us our history and hinted at our possible futures. Stories tell us, ‘You are not alone. You are not the first and you will not be the last’. We still tell these stories to our children, at dinner parties, at seminars, in bars. Business or personal, fact or fiction, stories endure after the cold facts are long forgotten.

My love is writing, which holds a special place in storytelling; the advent of writing marks the (official) start of history. Since then, our stories have been passed down over millennia, via the first stone tablets, paper and ink and now digital media. As technology advances, the way we tell our story and the stories themselves morph and grow together. These days we can tell a story to those who live on the other side of the planet, who sleep while we are awake. We publish e-books, update our statuses, we twitter little bits of flash out into the ether. Are our stories becoming more sophisticated, more diverse or more diluted? One thing is for sure, stories are dynamic – they grow and evolve. Over time, they are interpreted in new ways, elaborated and changed to stay relevant. Stories are born of influences we may or may not be able to pin down, but then, just like children, we launch them into the world and they live their own lives. Scary, but rewarding.

That’s the other reason I’m so excited by the BSSP shortlisting – there is a possibility that next year my story could be chosen by a Bristol school for adaptation by pupils, along with other stories published in BSSP anthologies. Please cross your fingers for me, my chuffedness would be great. Also for fellow Twitterers Jonathan PinnockValerie O’Riordan and Clare Wallace.

How about you? Are you a storyteller? What rings your bell?


*Jackanory – a BBC children’s TV series


Post Script: It’s not just me. My four year-old daughter recently self-published her own e-book: you can read it exclusively, here – it’s free.


Amélie (author). It is a book about a cat.


Once upon a time, in spring, there was a cat.


(Illustration - author's own)


De De Der (sound effect) The cat was in the fire.


The end: Vets.