Claire King

Claire King Edited Choices (10 of 10)

Posts Tagged ‘reading’

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.

Books that make you cry

Posted on: January 13th, 2013 by Claire - 6 Comments

I was sitting on a packed train looking at my smart phone and weeping copiously. I couldn’t help it. I had sunglasses on, but it had gone beyond that and people were staring. It being London, though I was left alone with my pocket tissues and my apparent grief.

But the grief wasn’t real, it had been conjured up in me by the author of the book I was reading. I was slightly embarrassed about the tears, but I couldn’t stop reading, because I had to know what happened next, and because on some level, it felt good to be crying.

Yes really.

Woman reading on train platform.

Sometimes day-to-day life can be routine: Going from one place to the next, dealing with chores and work and the mundane necessities of running a household. Finding time to be interested in and kind to the ones we love. Of course on one level this is great. How lucky I am to be living a life without hunger, suffering or tragedy. And yet it feels good to be reminded of the breadth of feelings that makes me human, and the possible lives that I am not living. It can make me feel more alive to experience something – joy, fear, sadness, anger, the tumultuous experience of falling in love – even if only on behalf of a fictional character. And when I leave the character behind, everything looks a little different. And I count my blessings.

I love books that make me cry. Or laugh, or in fact feel any kind of strong empathetic reaction to the characters. It means I’ve suspended disbelief, it means I care, it means I can have the rush of emotions – and the cocktail of chemicals that accompany them – without any drama in my own actual life.

Ten novels that made me cry (there are many, many more):

1) The Time Travellers Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
2) Whatever you love by Louise Doughty
3) The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
4) The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
5) Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman
6) Love Story by Erich Segal
7) Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières
8) To kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
9) Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
10) The Help by Kathryn Stockett

And it’s not limited to adult fiction. Since the startling hormonal uprising that is childbirth I’m now floored at their bedtime by:

– The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams
– The Ugly Duckling (yes, really)

And in the future we can all look forward to tears over Watership Down and The Little Prince… oh yes.


Photo (c) Moriza via Flickr creative commons

You Are What You Meet

Posted on: May 17th, 2012 by Claire - 2 Comments

This week there were various articles published reporting the results of a survey which suggests that we ‘become similar to’ the characters that we read about in books.*

This spawned a series of remarks such as “So this makes me a bonnet-wearing, blood-sucking, 30-something, single, serial-killing hobbit sharing my summer holidays backpacking through Thailand with three other children and a dog called Timmy.”

Yes, the idea itself is intriguing, but can quickly be dumbed down so much as to be ridiculous, and to allow conclusions like the above.

The attention grabbing headline, though, You are what you read is interesting: a play on words linking consumption of literature to consumption of food. The parallel is useful because the same rules apply. When we eat a prawn we do not become a prawn. When we eat cheese, we do not become cheese. When we eat radishes we do not become radishes or indeed ‘like’ radishes. But we do take on some of the constituent parts; we nourish ourselves with the energy, the calcium, the fats and vitamins and proteins.

Nourishing…another word that is often used to describe reading matter, with its antonym being ‘trashy’. We often class reading matter into things that are ‘good for you’ to read, and others we describe as trashy in the manner of junk food – often tasty but largely unhealthy.

As a society we are quick to draw conclusions about what fits where. Graphic novels – nourishing or trashy? Science Fiction? What about ‘Women’s Fiction’?

I think that whatever literature we consume, from The Beano to Dostoyevsky, there is usually some goodness in it for us. We may find some characters inspiring or aspirational, where we lack role models around us. We may learn from their actions. We might feel a sense of injustice on their behalf or be compelled into hopefulness. Perhaps we will find the humour in their situation which helps us to find the humour in our own. This, I think, is the essence of reading. Not that we become the characters themselves, but that we experience them and their stories and learn from that experience.

Just as though we had met them in real life.

Here is an excellent article on the neuroscience of reading fiction which takes that thought further, suggesting that our brains assimilate the books we read as though we had actually had those experiences ourselves.


* Here is the MSNBC take on it and Here is the Daily Mail’s take on it


The Illicit Pleasures of Dorothy Whipple

Posted on: February 13th, 2011 by Claire - 15 Comments

You might think you've got it covered, but we all know what you're reading.

Yesterday I had the privilege of hearing Nicola Beauman, founder of Persephone books, talking about women writers and some of the constraints that they face in the literary world. In particular, why female authors are notably absent from the literary canon, despite the fact that their work is excellent and much appreciated by readers.

Nicola gave the example of Dorothy Whipple, who is one of their most popular authors at Persephone, although she was not considered to be a ‘serious writer’.

She also mentioned that it was not unheard of for ‘serious writers’ to own Dorothy Whipple novels and hide them away inside other books, as though they were shameful reading, a sort of literary guilty pleasure.

This was an interesting point, because only that morning my friend had admitted to me that she now regularly reads Jilly Cooper on her Kindle on her morning commute, when previously she would have read something more literary or maybe a decent biography. “The thing is,” she said, “now no-one can see what I’m reading.”

It’s true, you can’t judge a person by the cover of the book they’re reading when you can’t see the cover. Indeed, romance seems to be the fastest growing genre on e-books and part of the reason is that readers who may have been bashful reading romances in public, or even in front of their husbands, can now download entire back catalogues and read them discretely, while claiming to be working through something more highbrow.

Where does this shame come from that tells us what we ‘should’ be reading? What kind of books we should enjoy and what books are a sort of literary gluttony? Are e-readers helping to throw off the shackles of snobbish oppression, and will our new status as anonymous readers change our reading habits? Will people still buy Jonathan Franzen in hard back so they can show off on the tube?

But the most important question is…What’s your guilty pleasure?

Short stories – seducing writers and readers alike

Posted on: July 21st, 2010 by Claire - 11 Comments

I recently wrote a bio for a publication, where I described myself like this: “Claire King has an open relationship with her novel and a variety of short lovers.”

I mean this sincerely. As a writer I love my novel, I do, I do, and I want to make it work. But sometimes I just want something different. I want to let off steam, let the wind of a stubborn image blow through me until I have it down on paper. I want to use a completely different vocabulary, tackle a different theme, I want to do something dirty, or fast, or clandestine.

At the Bristol Short Story Prize ceremony last week, the writer Sarah Salway gave a great speech about short stories. About their power to pin down a writer until she has wrestled them into submission. Bertel Martin, chair of the judging panel, said that for readers, a quality of a great short story was to be able to re-read it, and read it again, and each time discover something new. A hidden depth or richness.

And that’s another wonderful thing about short stories. You can go back for seconds and it doesn’t take up a whole week of your reading.

So you choose – as a reader, your next weekend could be a wonderful, novelicious monogomy-fest or it could be a promiscuous fiesta of short fiction.

Now, what if you fancy a few dalliances, but aren’t sure where to meet short stories? Never fear. Sarah made the brilliant suggestion that we all share our recommended short story reads, and kicked off with three: Alice Elliot-Dark, Lydia Davis and of course the Bristol Prize Short Story Anthology 3!

Bertel Martin recommended La Gioconda Smile by Aldous Huxley and  Rain Darling by Merle Collins

Valerie O Riordan says this on her blog “And so, my recommendations are Nik Perring’s Not So Perfect and Denis Johnson’s Jesus Son. You’d have to be a hard-hearted crazy bastard of a person not to love Nik’s work, and I just adore Johnson.  Go and read.”

@BristolPrize has also added Amanda Davis’s collection ‘Circling the Drain’. Return to it often. Unusual, edgy, playful stuff.

Jonathan Pinnock recommends “21 Stories” by Graham Greene, “Labyrinths” by Jorge Luis Borges. “A Perfect Vacuum” by Stanislaw Lem, “Exotic Pleasures” by Peter Carey, David Gaffney’s “Sawn-Off Tales” and more! To read more on that, go and visit Jonathan’s blog!

Bristol Prize winner Valerie O’Riordan has this to say in her interview which you can read here:
f you were to read just one story, check out ‘The Ledge’, by Lawrence Sargent Hall. But bring tissues, and maybe don’t read it on your lunch-break, unless you want to go back to the office all tear-stained and emotional – it’s the saddest thing I’ve ever read.
Flannery O’Connor’s ‘Collected Stories’ never get old or dull, and ditto anything by Annie Proulx – these two ladies make tiny isolated rural American villages seem like the most fascinating places on earth. Gruesome and bleak and hilarious.
Junot Diaz’s ‘Drown’ is a stunning first book about the Dominican diaspora in New Jersey. Everybody adores his novel, ‘The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’, but for me it’s all about the short stories.
Denis Johnson’s ‘Jesus’ Son.’ I’ve clearly got a thing for American writing, but Johnson’s work captures the elegiac in the mundane filthiness of his protagonists’ miserable lives. And he does brilliant dialogue.
‘Brief Interviews with Hideous Men’ by David Foster Wallace. Wallace shows you there’s nothing you can’t do with the short story form. This blew my mind.

And I personally would like to add Sarah Salway’s own collection, Leading the Dance. Much darker and edgier than I had expected from a lady who blogs about benches!

Finally, check out the Short Review website for plenty more recommendations.

So, dear readers, go forth and multiply, and by all means please set me up on a few blind dates by commenting below…