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Book Note: Your Child’s Writing Life


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.

Read more about LitWorld and LitLife here. Then enjoy this essay by Pam which we published in 2010.

Katherine J. Barrett is a former senior editor for Literary Mama and  current editor-in-chief for Understorey Magazine. A mother to three young boys, Katherine recently returned to Canada after four years in South Africa. She is the author of the Literary Mama columns Mother City Mama and Of This Fantastic Peach. Katherine holds a PhD in Botany and Ethics and has previously taught at the University of British Columbia.

Katherine lives in Nova Scotia with her family.

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I completely and one hundred percent agree. My thought is if my child's teacher isn't encouraging her to grow, she should be writing. My daughter that is. She has been reading since she was 3 (her sister taught her--except for reading to her I didn't do any of it). And now the teacher doesn't know what to do with her except to have her read to an adult. I think I'm going to remember this advice because i want my daughter to keep pursuing, not wait for everyone else!
Thanks for this review, Katherine. This looks like an interesting book. My oldest son has over the last year gotten really into creative writing and has been working on an epic fantasy novel (more diligently, sometimes, than I work on my own MFA). I wonder sometimes how much to encourage or direct him and how much to stand back and just let him go with it. I'm very aware that my interference could quash a good thing, so I've gone with the get out of the way approach (and given him access to my laptop as much as is reasonable). Right now his main focus is on getting published, having a bestseller and getting rich, but I'm hoping that he's also enjoying the process so much that he'll keep doing it even if the whole get rich thing doesn't quite pan out.
Thanks for the review of this book. I am raising a 12 year old daughter who I can see has the yearnings of a writer and I would like to encourage her talent.
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