Posts Tagged ‘literacy’

Chloë: "Fairytales help me function in the real world"

Chloë: “Fairytales help me function in the real world”

Experts tell me my blogs are too long. They insist you don’t have the time (or intelligence?) to take in detail.
I think experts cater for the average – and that’s not what I’m working with, here.
I think you read with cuppa to hand and brain provoked into firing off your own ideas. That’s what blogging is about, isn’t it? But today I experiment: the long blog has been split into 2 parts. You tell me what you think – add your comment or use the Contact Form below.

When I perform as the Dragon Whisperer, every audience includes one child who asks, “Are dragons real?”

To the child whose voice quavers with anxiety I answer, “I am a storyteller. It’s my job to make things up. What do you think?”

To the grinning, streetwise brat as well as to the gravely enquiring child I respond with a straight look and “Dragons are real to me. You’ll have to make up your own mind.”

I believe these responses empower children to sort out their own thinking; and that’s the point, really.

A few young people find fiction an irritating turn off. Was Richard Dawkins, disparager of fairytales, one of those? Many reluctant readers need facts – wild truths, outrageous reality, biographies and encyclopedias. Fiction phobes relish real life stories about how their heroes overcame disadvantage and setbacks. Engage their imaginations with how the real world is constructed, from weird sea creatures to the craziest twists of history: because truth is, of course, stranger and more wonderful than fiction. Every day.

Relief in fantasy

It’s quite disturbing to hear an eight-year-old claiming that fantasy stories help her ‘escape’. I have to hope she was repeating what she’d heard adults say.

But fantasy / fairytale as escapism for teens and adults is also valuable.

BBC Radio 4 intelligentsia might fret about teen boys immured in bedrooms playing internet wargames and watching endless films; I suggest this is still feeding imagination – and diverting the rogue waves of testosterone. Better films and fantasy than rampaging down the road with an Uzi. (Yes, this is a whole different subject, for another day.)

Put it another way: if your life is dull or difficult, if physical or mental health is on the blink, then fantasy can provide significant relief.

More adaptable

For more than 30 years I’ve been pummelled by phases of depression, some more derailing than others. Millions of people face the same mood management challenges that I do, and likewise refuse to resort to alcohol or other substances.

I can’t change my world: only my response to it. For me, that means a short trip into fantasy – dragons, space ships and all; sometimes in a book or film, sometimes at a live action roleplay game. Thus refreshed, I face my real world tasks in a stronger and more adaptable frame of mind.

In my mid 50s, I still NEED fairytales in order to function.

I hazard the guess that Richard Dawkins loathes Narnia author C S Lewis, whose work was as much Christian allegory as children’s entertainment. I read the whole series repeatedly between the ages of eight and twelve and took no interest whatsoever in the Christian connections. The stories were just rattling good reads. So I’ll give today’s last word to the creator of Aslan, so thrillingly “not a tame lion”.

“Since it is so likely that (children) will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.” – C S Lewis 


Blog revised (divided to make shorter pieces!) after expert advice that you can’t cope with long articles…
Tell you what, you tell me: comments below. And anyway, you’ve probably seen Part 2 of this already, thanks to blog layout. Hey ho.

The hero who faces the dragon can inspire or warn many generations

“…Let them [children] at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage”

PART 1:   Richard Dawkins won his headline coverage at the 2014 Cheltenham Science Festival by belittling fairytales and suggesting that childish fantasies should be dropped in favour of “a spirit of scepticism”.

Dawkins has a string of letters after his name. My late father, the entomologist Professor A D (Tony) Lees, had only BSc, PhD and FRS [Fellow of the Royal Society, Britain’s top club for scientists. You don’t get many of them to the pound]. From my earliest years, my father read to me and encouraged me to love stories.

In his own boyhood, my father was partly inspired to follow the way of the naturalist by reading the children’s fantasy series Dr Dolittle.

Before that story was razzamatazzed by Hollywood, Hugh Lofting’s stories about the little portly doctor from Puddleby-on-the-Marsh nudged young readers to consider very serious subjects indeed. The Dolittle books explore friendship, family, multi culturalism, moral dilemmas, money management, cruelty, ignorance, courage and the stultifying effect of narrow thinking – including academic snobbery… Lofting himself was a WW1 veteran and international civil engineer.

Relief from logic

My father – and his colleagues – sent me exploring Narnia, Middle Earth, Japanese poetry and mythology, Jules Verne proto steampunk science fiction and of course the spoof scientific methods of Sherlock Holmes. For these very serious scientists such fiction provided relief from the business of hard logic – as well as springboard moments of ‘What if..?”

Several models of mobile phone, medical diagnostic devices and even the latest space ship design derive directly from the enduringly popular TV science fiction series Star Trek.

“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairytales,” Albert Einstein is alleged to have said.

The author Beth Webb says “Fiction inspires scientists to imagine the impossible.” All my life I’ve seen how the arts and science mutually nourish each other. I’ve observed author Sir Terry Pratchett deep in discussion with performers and scientists as he developed more of his glitteringly successful, magi-technical Discworld. Good fantasy writers start from real science in order to create plausible fiction.

And yes, bad fantasists distort science to con the less well informed. Look at almost any so-called UFO website; it’s very nearly impossible to find genuine information.

But the professors from around the world who dined at my father’s table, talking shop until my mother and I crept away in exhausted incomprehension, valued creativity from fine art to fine words. Very serious scientists love fantasy.

Great beards in the sky

Dawkins complains that fairytales indoctrinate children in “supernaturalism”. An ardent atheist, he worries that fables put young minds at risk of being caught in the webs of religion.

But isn’t it exactly the other way around? I suggest that young people experienced in the difference between fantasy and reality are far LESS likely to be taken in by claims of resurrection, virgins in heaven, tablets of stone, divinities with animal heads, guided thunderbolts or any of the great beards in the sky that rulers have invented to control the general population.

The woodcutter takes charge of the dragons, tricking them out of their treasure

Legendary hero Stan Bolovan wins wealth and happiness by keeping his nerve: a lesson for children? (Illustration from ‘Dragon Games’ story in DRAGON TALES CD and e-book by Chloë of the Midnight Storytellers)

I can’t have been the only child who was disappointed to discover that her toy magic wand didn’t work, and that no amount of burrowing to the back of wardrobes led to a snowy lamplit land. Privately, without fuss, I confirmed the difference between make-believe and the real world.

Dawkins fails to credit children with their natural bloody-minded common sense. We know in our bones – I revert to eight years old here – that frogs can’t turn into anything (except interesting corpses…), that superheroes don’t fly to the rescue and that dragons don’t light up our skies. And we see pretty soon that prayer can ease fear but it doesn’t stop earthquakes or save loved ones.

The uses of metaphor

As it happens I deal in make-believe on a daily basis. For the purpose of children’s entertainment I have constructed the fantasy world of Agent Green the Dragon Whisperer – lead draconics expert and field operative for DCHQ, Dragon Conservation Headquarters.

In costume and character I tell stories about dragons, plus traditional folktales and legends from many cultures around the world. I must be doing something right because it’s no trouble to keep a couple of hundred primary school pupils completely spellbound. Even teen and adult fantasy fans – especially Tolkien/LOTR enthusiasts – enjoy my Masterclass in the Care & Training of Dragons.

But what is actually the point of fairy stories and folktales? (As the very teutonic academic demanded at the end of my Tolkien Society presentation in 2012).

Beth Webb (also on Facebook) writes elegant fantasy fiction that is adored by an extraordinary range of children and teens. She also works with the UK’s most gifted and talented young people – frankly, the great thinkers and top boffins of our future – in writing courses bubbling with joyously outside-the-box creativity. Most of her students won’t become professional writers but they do go on to communicate more effectively with the rest of their world. They never forget the critical and constructive thinking skills – yes, the ‘spirit of scepticism’ – and the creative freedom opened up for them under Beth’s guidance.

Educationalists around the world assert

  • For children transitioning from concrete thinking to abstract thinking, the structure, phrasing and imagery of fairytales/folktales demonstrate the uses of metaphor.
  • Fairytales accustom children to narrative structure and develop their vocabulary. Children who grow up hearing, telling and reading stories move more easily into written work at school.
  • Fairytales allow children to experience fear and danger at a safe remove. Children observe how wit, courage, creative thinking and co-operation solve problems.

I would also say that fairytales and folklore help connect young people to their cultural roots. Equally, stories from different cultures give children insight into other ways of life and different values. In a world where belief systems are clashing with ever bloodier violence, and the great beards of temple, church and mosque are prescribing and proscribing with ferocious zeal, stories become a last chance to broaden cultural horizons.

Very definitely fairytales promote scepticism: think of all the mocked and unloved third sons or daughters of storyworld who shine as role models, defying convention and authority to save their families. Consider Dawkins’ improbable frog prince, and the Beast in his rose garden: apparently impossible partners for a human – yet their gentleness and delightful good company invite us to take the difficult step of looking beyond appearances, beyond prejudices.

And now refill your glasses for Part 2: scroll up to the next blog post title ‘Fairytale: A Great Escape’


If you’d like to be entertained by live Story Cabaret (spoken word fantasy for audiences of adults) or would like workshops to inspire your own creativity, as well as for secondary schools Year 7 – Sixth Form, please check out my work

I also supply storytelling for primary and junior schools and family events as Agent Green the Dragon Whisperer

If you’re really keen, Dragon Tales the e-book for Kindle is available for a teensy tithe of treasure – only GBP£2.56 – including more illustrations

Photo on 2012-02-03 at 18.11

From my fluffy little paradise…

I’ve just been horrified by reading a book from the Teen section of the library. I’m researching what publishers think teens want. Because I don’t wish to publicly attack an author about whom I know nothing, I’m not going to name the work.

The story, first published in 2007, zooms past in 134 pages of big print with gulfs of white space between lines. I read the thing in 20 minutes.

It’s about an Edinburgh ‘hard man’ who tries to save an ex girlfriend from a gangster. The action unrolls like something low budget out of Hollywood: starts with a road rage incident – showing us how ‘hard’ the hero is – and continues with guns, murder, assaults, kidnapping a mum in front of her children, and all the trappings of lowlife subsistence, to the final shoot-out in which the mother dies.

Every page – and I mean every page – is splattered with expletives. Someone has to shout  “f—–g” in almost every paragraph, and “c–t” is thrown in every three pages. This in a book for teens and, unavoidably, children. When women the world over are battling a tidal wave of hatred, I really don’t think it helps to use anyone’s body part as a swear word.

Vomit and violence

Presumably the layout is meant to make the book ‘cool’ for a target market with poor reading ability. Ditto the brutally short sentences. Stabbing phrases. Scenes barely set. Colours and faces sketched without detail. Done for pace and hard boiled effect?

It’s like Philip Marlowe for 12-year-olds. ‘Spender’ (Jimmy Nail) dumbed down for the semi literate. A highlight comedy moment, b t w, features a small girl vomiting in the back seat of a car and the hero’s dog trying to eat the result.

There are some … jokes. The bad guy is called Banksy and his sidekick is a Jack Bower. Ha very ha.

There is nothing here to show impressionable young readers that life can be anything other than a sewer.

Nothing in this story suggests that anyone can escape a sordid existence of fear and violence. Indeed with its humour, swearing and slick style, this book glorifies the worst of everything. Guns are admired, chopping off a finger is a spinetingling tale, smashing up someone’s car is shown as a thrill – and justifiable.

But the young people who are likely to read this book are exactly the ones who, I’d say, desperately need to see that life can change. That they DON’T have to endure being bullied and used and terrified. That they DON’T have to endlessly say fuck and cunt, and hurt people, to gain status.

Wallowing in negativity

Yes, I know, my middle class is showing… Yes, I know my life is a fluffy little paradise compared to what millions of inner city kids go through.

But I keep my eyes and ears open as I float around being all posh and useless. I happen to think pretty much everyone gets scared and pressured. Sometimes it’s at knifepoint or by social media; sometimes it’s over years working for lousy bosses who constantly threaten unemployment.

People need hope – especially our young people. Grim school environments don’t help. From my admittedly limited experience with a widely spread sample I’d say that large numbers of students throughout the UK currently see education as pointless. Punishment for existing. The OECD recently identified that English young people start adult life with nearly the worst literacy and numeracy skills in the developed world [see ].

I think that writing about decay and despair became necessary during the 20th century, especially after the first and second world wars, into the Cold War. But I also think that wallowing in negativity and/or sleaze became worthy – “read these books because they’re good for you” … and then intellectually fashionable… Think (in slightly random order) Crome Yellow succeeded by 1984Kes (originally A Kestrel for a Knave), A Clockwork Orange, Lolita, Lord of the Flies.

We don’t want Pollyanna but neither do we now need hopeless-and-horrible fiction. We all have bad times, friends with troubles. We watch international tv news: we bloody well know life is hard. And science has made it very clear:  if all you can imagine is failure – then that’s all you’ll get.

Our teenagers need stories that help them imagine how they go about success. How to think their way out of difficult situations and how to overcome disadvantage.

As far as I can see, this book fails its teen readers. Miserably.

  • So, you tell me: what does a story like this do for (young) people whose lives are affected by violence and/or real hardship? Does this story glorify brutality or does it warn against it? I am trying to understand: what good is a book like this?
  • If you’re itching to know title and author, message me via the Contact Form.

Writing: not a proper job, is it?

Writing: not a proper job, is it?

Last week young adults in England were revealed to have very nearly the worst literacy skills in the industrialised world. In the same week, an author making a school visit in England was so shabbily treated that she drove home afterwards thinking quite seriously of jacking in the whole lonely, poverty stricken game.

My friend is no celebrity author. Let’s call her Fiona. Now in her sixties, she has steadily and rather quietly developed her craft over a lifetime with a modest frisson of success in the last 10 years. Fiona’s books for very young children are loved so much, they have to be cuddled in bed… Her series for young adults has won fans who like their fiction to contain thoughtfulness and compassion as well as swashbuckling action and evil magic monsters.

Fiona has also raised four highly intelligent and extremely challenging children alone, surviving on a low budget for decades.

Risky – but the only chance

Author visits are slightly notorious as cheap ways for schools to provide high quality inspiration for their pupils. Sometimes the publisher can afford to pay the author’s travel costs; the pocket sized publisher now producing my friend’s books can’t. What’s more, if my friend wants to sell books at festivals or in schools she must first buy them from the publisher. This is the real world for most authors.

The school in this incident contacted Fiona asking her to visit but declined to book her for formal workshops, for which she charges a perfectly fair, non-celebrity day or half day fee. The school insisted it was “too small” to find that kind of money. Nonetheless Fiona was required to prepare and provide four hours of sessions with various classes. Lunch was not provided. Neither were travel costs.

However, Fiona believed she had an agreement with the teacher who contacted her. They had discussed notifying pupils and parents to bring money in that day to buy Fiona’s books at the end of her visit. It’s risky because you can’t know if sales will cover your travel and book purchase costs, but for many authors it’s the only chance they get.

No customers

As Fiona drew breath between classes, the teacher forcefully demanded, “We’d like three books for our library. You will sell us three for the price of two, won’t you?” Perhaps the teacher didn’t know that Fiona doesn’t get her own books free of charge. Taken aback, Fiona stalled.

Having delivered four cracking sessions of inspirational literary creativity – Fiona is an experienced and rather brilliant tutor – she was disconcerted to see teachers vanishing after her last class. Where was she to set up her book stall?

The school office knew nothing about her arrangement and directed her vaguely to the library, where the only available table was in a corner behind a screen. Unsurprisingly no customers came in.


While packing her bags and book boxes back into her car, Fiona chatted with pupils she’d met earlier and several parents. It became clear no-one she spoke to had known in advance about the author visit – and they certainly had no idea they could buy her books that day. The school had made no attempt whatsoever to fulfil the arrangement that was Fiona’s only means of covering her costs, let alone earning an income to pay her bills.

Exhausted, nearly in tears, Fiona drove the near 30 miles home wondering why she bothers with any of it… She’d make a better living filling shelves in a supermarket.

This school effectively stole from Fiona the value of a day’s work and her costs of doing it – as surely as if they’d snatched her handbag or burgled her house.

I suspect that school did this knowingly. Even if not, they’re guilty of blinkered ignorance: they treated Fiona as some kind of lady writer of leisure, floating around schools for the fun of it…

Anyone who knows publishing will know the crushing commercial pressures of the modern industry. An author is a business not a charity.

Not a proper job

“Well,” you say, “She’s not a dentist or a plumber. We don’t NEED what she does. She’s not doing a proper job. She could write in her spare time.”

And there you have the core attitude in Britain – the reason why our young adults compare so abysmally in literacy skills, falling an eye wateringly long way behind students in the Czech Republic, Estonia and South Korea.

Writing professionally can’t be a hobby. It’s nine to five graft. You’re engaged in complex tasks: factual research, character and plot development, and simply stringing together words in ways that will keep readers turning pages. Yes, authors enjoy much of what they do. And it is demanding – sometimes all consuming – work, easily equivalent to the strategic planning and management of a large business.

Then – just like a ‘real’ business – there’s the promotional and marketing work. If you’re filling shelves or teeth, you don’t have to write press releases and interact with social media; you don’t have to flog around the country speaking to audiences in the uncertain hope that enough people will be moved to pay out less than a tenner each, so that you can eat and keep warm this winter.

Because somebody gets job satisfaction, is that a reason not to pay them?