After weeks of no homework (for some), no deadlines (except for those of our own making perhaps) and the occasional pyjama days, the new school term is now in full swing and I, like millions of other parents, am just beginning to once again get my head around the daily routine of taxi-ing to and from school and a whole host of other favoured activities of the moment.
School dominates children’s lives; it’s somewhere they have to go, even when they don’t want to and a place where they are pushed to achieve every day. So why then are schools such a popular topic in children’s books? Surely the last thing they want to read is a story about being at school again? Wouldn’t they rather escape to a fantasy world on planet Bish Bosh than somewhere they already go to everyday?
I couldn’t resist last week re-tweeting (@lonerganbooks) the picture of the timetable board at Kings Cross, listing Hogwarts train as being “on time.” J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series has made Hogwarts the most famous fictional school in the world now. So much so it has become a part of our lives. So what makes Hogwarts such an appealing setting? Is it because the extraordinary occurs amidst a familiar setting or is it because our imaginations could almost believe that a school like this could really exist?
Using familiar settings in stories is about sticking to a situation a child can identify with but twisting it and making the mundane interesting and the opposite of what might be expected. One of the first British writers to start the trend was Angela Brazil with The Fortunes of Philippa in 1906. Due the books success she went on to write a total of 49 novels based on life at boarding school. Since then many authors have followed suit with their own twist on school life.
There are schools for everyone in the book world. Schools for unlikely spies (Spy School by Stuart Gibbs), space travelling dinosaurs (Astrosaurs Academy by Steve Cole), L’Etoile for those who want to become famous (School for Stars by Holly & Kelly Willoughby), a school for ghosts (Mountwood School for Ghosts by Toby Ibbotson), budding ballerinas (Ballet School Secrets by Janey Louise Jones) and even the differently gifted at the Alice B. Smith School (Ottoline Goes to School by Chris Riddell). The graphic novel, Jedi Academy by Jeffrey Brown cleverly combines a familiar school setting for trainee Padawans with the Star Wars planet Coruscant. If we have schools on earth, why shouldn’t there be schools on other planets?
However, it’s not just about who the school is for; there are many other ways to put a twist on school life as we know it. Flour Babies by Anne Fine is set in an average comprehensive school but she develops a humorous situation by observing how the characters interact and the relationship between pupil and teacher. It’s feels good to laugh at all the things that can go wrong when looking after a flour baby and to make fun of the teacher’s attempts to make lessons more interesting. Its’ a book about school life and how the children and teachers learn to deal with each other.
Other books focus on delighting in mishaps and chaos. Children find it amusing to read about things they know shouldn’t happen at school. Darrell Rivers and her friends provide the reader with endless entertainment doing what they’re not supposed to do in Malory Towers by Enid Blyton and Rafe Khatchadorian racks up thousands of points breaking every school rule in Middle School by James Patterson.
Another way to make school life more exciting is to create unusual characters who can do things a child might wish would happen in school. The magical teacher known as Mr Majeika by Humphrey Carpenter who turns St Barty’s school bully into a frog and then forgets the spell which changes him back again is a good example of this. Other authors switch the writing style to a day to day diary format such as Tom Gates by Liz Pichon and Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney. Often these books are written from the pupil’s point of view and concentrate on common issues that occur in schools as in Diary of a Sixth Grade Ninja by Marcus Emerson which broaches bullying but with a very humorous angle to it.
So next time your children are struggling to come up with ideas for their creative writing homework, try and get them to think about mixing the absurd, unexpected and surprising with everyday occurrences to help put an interesting spin on their writing.
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