Story Writing. Co-creating a book with drawings and words.

I wrote this when I was working full time in a centre and I think it might be useful to some people. Imagine the scene: half a dozen or more children between 3- 5 years old  around a table.  Drawing and writing tools are available and premade books,  made of folded and stapled A4 pages. I like to round the corners and sometimes sew the spine with coloured wool instead of stapling but that is just me. All the children are drawing and I am helping a number of children to complete their image and to dictate a page at a time. While they draw the next page, I help the next child. It’s a pretty fluid affair.

Various ethical, professional dilemmas that can arise in this process and here are some of  my thoughts.

How does one create a sequential story line without putting words into a child’s mouth? How does one ask questions that leave the playing field wide open? What does it mean to co- construct a story?

Usually the first page is no problem as a drawing will invariably appear, even if it is in a simple scribbled form. There will be colour and there will be form of some sort. Sometimes a child will volunteer information as to what they have drawn, and sometimes not.

Pitfall number one: small children do not necessarily draw “something”. They simply draw, so if there is no volunteered indication as to what they were intending to represent…I may make some suggestions. “Well, I wonder what that could be? Is it something going around very fast? Or is a stormy sea? Actually it looks a bit like a cowboy to me, because I can see his hat (see Jeremy’s page one, to which we added eyes)? What do you think it looks like?” Given a generous scope , time and a few ideas as to what it might be, then the child usually states emphatically what they think the drawing represents. And so then whatever they have said become the words.

And of course there are more questions. Azraena’s sad teddy bear was quickly identified but then I asked her where the bear was? Was he alone? Was he at home? At the beach? In a forest?

Is this putting words into their mouths or scaffolding them into the idea that they can be the chooser and the decider; that there are infinite possibilities and no right answer? Azraena volunteered, without it being a proffered option, that the sad bear was by a pool.

And so we arrive at page two. Many children at this point will simply start a completely new topic. Tashi surprised me by being quite clear that she was not really interested in the idea of connections between pages and a linked sequence. I try to guide the children to follow story protocol and to connect page two to page one, which usually isn’t so hard because a child will often have leapt to the punch line before you have even recorded the first two sentences. Cameron was adamant that his father would do a jump and crash. So I slowed it down, and together we explored what a jump looked like and how one might draw a car. This took quite a while but the plot did not die while we were onto that.

This is equally hazardous terrain. Cameron was adamant that he could not possibly draw a car. For a boy who is obsessed by Lightning McQueen and Rory, that is remarkable to me, and it also seems to me that it would be a very empowering experience for Cameron to get past his idea that he couldn’t possibly. Many writers in the areas of early childhood education and the arts, such as Ursula Kolbe and Felicity McArdle, would say that when children say they ‘can’t’ it would be better to interpret their statement as meaning that they need a ‘leg up’ or a way in. So we started with how many wheels a car has, and how many you could see if it was side-on (using the profile of the sellotape holder as our model). So Cameron drew two circular ‘wheels’, and then there was the problem of how to get a ‘body’ on top of the wheels. I pointed out that racing cars tended to be long and low, and that trucks were big and chunky, and I enquired as to what shape stock cars are usually. I hoped this dialogue would reassure him that there was no right way. He gained in confidence after drawing three or four cars. (Right way up and upside down! – by turning the page round!)) and I would hope that opportunities will arise in the near future when Cameron could practice this new skill in drawing cars. It is certainly where his ZPD is, as regards the visual arts, as he rarely involves himself in the visual arts area at all.

Having established key characters and place by this point, ( Dad at the race track, caterpillar in the sunshine, sad bear by the pool, a cowboy and a lion in Africa, and so on) then the next important thing in a story line is to establish action. What did they do? What did they say? What did the caterpillar eat? How did the man feel when he saw the lion? And so on. Each crossroad in each story invites a multitude of potential and by page four, most children have warmed to the plot and are keen to move the story on, by advancing onto the next page.

Some children will draw a picture on all five pages before one gets a chance to write down their story line, but it is amazing how flexible and adaptable their images can be. With a tweak here and an addition there, a shape becomes a balloon, or a wave. I acknowledge that on the last page of Finn’s book, I commented that the image looked like a wave and we discussed whether or not Finn’s Dad liked to surf and Finn eagerly sketched in the marvelous figure of his Dad on a surfboard. And we added a little blue to make it more wave like. These are all simple skills in the world of visual arts. Water doesn’t have to be blue but it does help when one wants to make an image more easily ‘readable’. Equally a teddy bear is more easily recognizable if one puts its ears on the top of its head. There was much hilarity at the table from Jack when I wondered whether a teddy bear would look like a teddy bear if its ears came out the sides like on our heads? When Luke wanted to draw Woody, I went and got the pink cowboy dress up hat so that Luke could get a better idea of the broad sweep of the curve of the rim so as to draw Woody’s hat. Knowing how to draw has a lot to do with knowing how to look.

Sometimes ethical issues arise in other ways. Both Cameron and Finn wanted to write stories that included the virtual demise of their fathers in horrendous car accidents. I somehow felt it would not be good to put that down in ineradicable print. So I suggested that maybe we could modify the injuries and bring in some sort of medical aid to make them better. This led to an excited contribution from Josiah who had clearly seen the St John’s people in action and he told us all about stretchers and we learned the name of the vehicle that has a siren like a police car and looks after injured people: ambulance.

When I revisit the experience in this write up, I am struck by the number of small side conversations by people who contributed ideas and knowledge even though they weren’t writing a story themselves. In fact, in an attempt to stop Cameron annihilating his father, I read the first three pages aloud to three different children, asking them what they thought might happen next, just so as to give Cameron more options. And it certainly was a gripping first three pages. The solution arose because Cameron wanted help to draw his Daddy at the wheel of the car, and then he calmly stated that Daddy climbed out of the car.

In terms of ethics, I have to also admit that by the time we had saved his Dad’s skin, Cameron pretty much wanted to start an entirely new story in which Dynaco Chick and Lightning McQueen and Booster were having a race. Having got so far I was very keen for Cameron to persist and find an ending to this story. There was a brief power struggle of sorts, and I am glad I persisted in encouraging him to find his ending by asking him what happened next, and what did Dad do, and once again, I think Cameron surprised himself by coming up with the idea of a new car, and not only a new car, but a Lightning monster truck. So we were both happy, and certainly Cameron was very proud of his book. It was interesting to hear at pick up, out of the corner of my ear, Cameron’s Dad commenting on the text, and maybe completely failing to appreciate the effort that Cameron had put into creating a recognizable visual image of a car.?

It is also worth recording that two days later, when we were making snakes outside and exploring patterns of alternating colour that seemed to be a very exciting and attractive challenge to children like Tate and Amelia, Cameron came right at the end of the morning and wanted to make a snake too. I demonstrated how one could alternate rollers to get the pattern and he ended up holding one in each hand and virtually danced his way down the page, to create a beautiful pattern which I later cut into a snake shape at his request. He also explored transforming a yellow strip into blue and watching it turn green instead. He didn’t want that one to be cut. Later we used our fingers to dab a little red paint onto where the eyes needed to be and made the tongue red.