Part 1 of our mini-series on the Craft of Writing
Your Child's Writing Life: How to Inspire Confidence, Creativity, and Skill at Every Age
By Pam Allyn
Avery Trade; 2011
Reviewed by Katherine J. Barrett
As a writer, I love to share my enthusiasm for literature and the written word. As a mother-writer, I'd like to pass that enthusiasm onto my children, see them read with passion and write with creative abandon. But kids don't always gravitate toward their parents' interests -- often they bolt in the opposite direction. And at school, creative writing tends to be sidelined as teachers focus on more basic skills and standardized test scores.
Pam Allyn believes failure to teach creative writing to children and teens a grave mistake. The first chapter of her new book, Your Child's Writing Life: How to Inspire Confidence, Creativity, and Skill at Every Age, however, will likely have parents scrambling for notebooks and thrusting pens into their youngsters hands. "Writing is key for academic achievement and prosperity in life," Allyn says, "because capable writers are able to think and learn more easily, more effectively and with great confidence and success."
Allyn boasts a wealth of experience and research to back up her stance. She founded LitWorld and LitLife, international and US literacy organizations, has taught children around the world, and raised two daughters of her own. Allyn has also authored several books on how to encourage kids to read (including What to Read When and Best Books for Boys). But she bills Your Child's Writing Life as the first of it's kind: a book focused solely on creative writing from birth through the teenage years.
While Allyn is adamant that writing skills improve grades and prospects in life, she also maintains that writing must stem from joy. "As parents," she says, "our biggest job is to teach our children to fall in love with the things that will transform them...." We cannot "teach" someone to fall in love, but we can plant a tiny seedling with as much care as possible and hope it roots. The remainder of Allyn's book suggests ways to do so.
A child's writing life, according to Allyn, may be unlocked and nurtured with five keys: word power, reading life, identity (or voice), time, and environment. Summarized by the handy acronym, WRITE, these keys give children the confidence to put pencil to paper. Allyn's subsequent chapter, a stage-by-stage guide to kids' literary development, provides parents additional tools to keep kids writing.
In the second half of her book, Allyn lists twenty "grand mentors," authors who bring, as she says, "powerful stories and glorious language" to children. Many of these books and writers will be familiar and well-loved: Ezra Jack Keats' The Snowy Day for younger kids; Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid for more confident readers, for example. Each entry suggests ways the book might help kids appreciate and emulate fine writing.
I found Allyn's penultimate chapter the most useful and original in her book. All creative writers -- kids, teens, and adults -- get stuck. We all wonder, at times, where to begin, how to express deep emotions like loneliness, how to give advice, or how to admit that we're lost. Allyn offers over fifty pages of prompts that turn these hurdles into creative starting blocks. Very young writers might use the sidewalk as a page, for example, and pull passers-by into their story. Kids aged 7-12 could attempt a graphic novel, build a story from a restaurant menu, or invent a new land based on maps and atlases. Teens may prefer to use social media -- blogs, facebook, or emails -- as writing prompts.
My sons would like these prompts. I'd like to try them myself. Even better, I'd like to try them with my sons. Allyn agrees. In her closing pages, she says, "Here's my wish for you, and for your child: that writing keeps you close to each other. That writing gives your child a voice. That writing inspires you as a family." Sure, creative writing may boost grades or help get jobs, but those promises won't likely spur young kids to sit down and compose. Like the well-worn writing adage, we need to show not tell. We need to share the magic of writing by sitting down to read, write, and create -- together.