The Godmother

It was a scary moment when I was first asked to be a godmother. I could feel the wings heavy on my newly responsible shoulders. What gift would I wish for my fairy godchild? It was obvious at once. Books. That’s what I would wish for her, books and reading all wrapped up in a warm blanket of story that would comfort and help her for the rest of her life. A small, rather less romantic voice whispered in my ear that reading would also be the key to Life in other ways less associated with cuddles and blankets; like school; like exams; like a career. And so it was.

Reading is the greatest gift I can think of giving, partly because it was given so generously to me. Every member of my family read to me, gave me books, encouraged me towards the library – and told me stories. I don’t remember a time when my mind was not filled with Water Babies and girls who were orphaned and sent to wicked relatives; children who lived in a barn (until their parents miraculously returned from an air disaster in South America) or Mad Hatters and tea parties. Favourite books changed over the years, as they do, but some of those books can still appear before my eyes as if they are still with me – and some I have bought again, as an adult, and given to children myself.

I can’t understand what is so difficult about this matter of children and books. WHY are our children not reading? And don’t talk to me about the Internet. What do you do there except read? Yes, I do understand the whizz-bang appeal of computer-generated activities that move at the speed of light. I also see the power in teaching that computers offer and the benefits of … well, one could go on for hours.

The simple fact is that if we give our children enough books, of the right kind, they will choose to read. And when they read with enjoyment, they read more and they read better – until the whole process becomes a self-fulfilling journey towards War and Peace or Steve Job’s biography, or whatever takes their fancy in a library or on an iPad. (I mention those as being particularly large books; there are better smaller ones.)

We need a climate of action about reading and we need to take it seriously. We need to bitch and moan and tweet and shout and yell and get on Facebook and You-Tube. We need to write to the papers and email our contacts list and do whatever we do to bring the matter of children and reading to the fore. It is critically important. In fact, I would say, there is no more important issue in Education right now than that of reading; reading in home languages; in English; local books and the best that are published in other countries, but books. We just have to give our children that gift – whether we are wearing wings or not.

Lesley Beake has worked in education and writing for children all her life and has just published her 90th book for young people. She is, with co-founders Gcina Mhlophe and Sindiwe Magona, one of the motivators for the Children’s Book Network, an organization committed to all of the above – Children, Books and Networking.

Why do we do it?

I can’t remember ever – even after hundreds of school visits and workshops – being asked the question: ‘Why do you do it?’ But it is a question that writers often ask themselves. Because writing is not an easy thing to do. Especially, it is not an easy thing to do well. The question people DO ask is: ‘Where do you get your ideas?’

I was once asked that when I was waiting for something routine (allergy tests) at Karatara Hospital outside Windhoek in Namibia. A young man was being helped in with a football injury. Several women in traditional Herero dress were comforting a friend. A stretcher was rushed towards Emergency. Things were happening. Things that could each have developed into a full-length novel. That’s when the Sister asked me where I get my ideas from.

They are everywhere.

The most critical piece of kit for a writer is a good memory. The ability to remember a place – any place – let’s call it ***. And the small, small things, like what a disappointment, for example, go in for school dinner and find out that it was horrible liver and onions day, or to miss a bus and be stranded with no money, or to have your heart broken; memory is paramount.

The second most important thing is a notebook. Write it down. When you discover the horrible liver, miss the train, or have your heart broken, WRITE about it. Those cryptic notes:

3.00 am. He isn’t home. Again. Will he ever be?

Now examine the all-important ***. Try inserting Istanbul. A new story instantly begins to materialize out of the dusky smoke. Try Chicago instead. It will be different. Now try somewhere you know really well – certainly the best option if you haven’t actually been to Istanbul or Chicago. The story is set free to go where you will it to go. The story is free to explore your real memories of the place you perhaps know best, the inside of your own head.

The lights of the train twinkled their goodbye as my running footsteps faded in my ears. I was too late. It was cold. Rain was coming. I felt in my pocket – hopelessly There was the useless ticket. There was no money. The last train was rapidly disappearing towards *** and I was alone. Alone.

But the question was … Why DO we do it? Because it’s fun!


The Beginning

I was sixteen. We were leaving Scotland for Africa, forever, in a few days. Our house had been sold, the furniture distributed; only a rusty wheelbarrow remained in the garden, forlorn among the weeds, (but with a beautiful view of the gentle Pentland Hills). I sat for a while, sadly, and then I thought I might write a book.

That book became – after many, many rewrites – a story for young readers called Rainbow. Writing it got me through some difficult days – and I enjoyed making it, although I quickly began to realize what very hard work it was.

The story involved a boy, busy climbing a tree. Without warning, he is struck by a falling rainbow holding an enticing, many-coloured rope with which to climb to adventure. The only connection with reality was the old apple tree I was looking at when I had the idea. The finished book held echoes of practically everything I had read as a child.

Maybe all first books have to be like that, especially those written by young people. Writing is not an easy craft to learn and – like most crafts – it has to be learned by doing it. I know where the images come from of a potential author gazing out of a window, quill pen in hand, and suddenly seeing how the spring time garden can be turned into a host of golden daffodils. The image lingers on of writing as some sort of inspiration that descends without warning, taking the writer by complete surprise and resulting in a splendid story, or the beginning of a trilogy.

Rainbow undoubtedly surprised me, but it was a long hard slog to write. It was useful mostly for the things it taught me, the many things I didn’t know. Because to write successfully, you really have to examine what the poet Mary Oliver once called ‘the machinery of your wits’. You need to offer yourself up completely to the process. Many years later, when I had practiced for a couple of decades, I once again wrote something that was, really, just for me, about that same time of change and disruption in that garden where my first book began.

Here it is …

I remember one day going to our old house, empty of everything now, and sitting alone in the garden on the wheelbarrow, which was neither worth selling nor worth taking to South Africa. It was a very still early summer afternoon and clouds of midges spiraled in the faint sunshine. I was quite comfortable in the wheelbarrow, swinging my legs idly and contemplating the future. Maybe I wanted to distract myself from the unknown, but there suddenly came to me, quite out of the blue, an idea for a book. It would be about a boy who climbed up a rope he found in a rainbow one day. It would be called, I decided after a pause for thought, Rainbow! Nothing more happened to the subsequent manuscript for about twenty-two years, but it took my mind off things very effectively.