We are delighted to host a guest post by Barbara Henderson, author of Punch and Wilderness Wars (see our review here).
In this blog post, Barbara discusses how her experience of being a teacher fed into creating a fictional classroom in her new book Wilderness Wars.
Teaching – but not as you know it!
I’m a writer, but I am also a teacher, and I was certainly a teacher long before I was a published writer.
Maybe this is the reason I wanted to write for young people: I can see first hand the magic that a good story can weave in children’s imaginations, and I long to be part of that magic.
I don’t know if you knew, but being a teacher can be a distinct advantage when it comes to writing for young people. Not only do you know (inside out!) the environment where they spend so much of their time, but it makes you an attractive prospect for publishers and agents: they know you can pull off a school visit because you are used to standing up in front of classes and holding their attention already.
Unfortunately, being a teacher doesn’t guarantee publishing success; it’s still a very competitive world out there. But it may give you the edge when writing about school settings.
When I sent the first draft of Wilderness Wars, my new eco-thriller for children, to a publisher back in 2013, her response was a 'no'. But one section of the feedback really sticks in my mind:
‘I particularly enjoyed some of the scenes in the classroom in Wilderness Wars. They had interesting detail and knowledge behind them - for example, the assignments that Mr Johnston set the children, with the variations for Em and Zac, read like assignments that might really be given to this age group by an imaginative, engaged teacher. Am I right in thinking that you work in a school when you are not writing?’
Was it that obvious?
So, the school scenes were the best thing about the manuscript. The publisher recommended I wrote an entirely school-set novel. I had a go because I thought it might get me published, but it didn’t. Lesson learned: Write what you are actually excited about.
I was excited about writing the Skelsay classroom in Wilderness Wars, a world in which nature fights back against our thoughtless destruction of wild places! What would it be like to be employed by a construction company, to teach children of families involved in an ambitious building project in an extremely remote location? A single-teacher-school with pupils ranging widely in age, with a considerable amount of independence and no-one to watch your every move?
The teacher in Wilderness Wars is not my point-of-view character – as a children’s novel, the principal roles have to be filled by kids – but he is one of my favourites. An oddball, an activist, an imaginative bundle of energy, determined to inspire the pupils in his care. He turns the plain portacabin of his classroom into a place where things can happen. And how many of us would dream of a wood-burning stove in our classrooms on a stormy day!
The Skelsay school room, set on my fictional Hebridean island, is also a plot device: things happen on school field trips (the kind of trips that would never be allowed to run in the real world – but risk assessed ‘safe’ activities don’t make for exciting thrillers, so I had to take some liberties!) and during classroom time. The overarching theme of nature fighting back is continually balanced out by small-scale classroom dynamics, the likes of which we see every day; something believable in the face of the fantastical.
Now in 2018, with an improved manuscript, a publisher who liked the book enough to invest in it, and with five more years of writing practice behind me, I’m pleased to say that the mix feels just right!
Why? The classroom is an environment we all recognise, but without many of the constraints we’d expect, and located in an interesting, atmospheric place we’d love to visit.
Young readers will find an anchor point for their own experience: they might not recognise the island world, or the construction world – but they definitely will recognise the school world.
As I say, being a teacher can be an advantage!
Read our review of Wilderness Wars here.
Many thanks to Barbara for sharing this guest blog post with us.