School Visits in Saudi Arabia

I’ve just come back from ten days visiting schools in Saudi Arabia. Thanks to Authors Abroad for organizing the trip and to the three schools for their warm welcome: the King Faisal School, the American International School of Riyadh and the British International School of Al-Khobar.

Carsten Niebuhr
I was excited to visit Saudi Arabia, not least because I have a tenuous family connection with the country. In 1761 a young German cartographer called Carsten Niebuhr set off to Arabia as part of a six-man academic expedition organized by the King of Denmark. The trip was fraught with illness and quarrels (recounted in lurid detail in Thorkild Hansen’s book Arabia Felix), but it did prove to have some academic usefulness: Niebuhr’s transcription of the cuneiform inscriptions at Persepolis proved to be a key turning-point in the decipherment of cuneiform.

Carsten Niebuhr was the only member of the expedition to return to Europe alive. As his great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandson, I am very glad he did.

Back to the twenty-first century…King Faisal School is a boys’ school in Riyadh’s Diplomatic Quarter. During my visit the boys showed great imagination developing stories set in Riyadh and other Saudi settings. The day after I left they held a Young Author event, where students sold their own books in Arabic or English.

The American International School of Riyadh has a beautiful new campus on the north side of the city. I met lots of enthusiastic readers during a packed schedule of assemblies and workshops, and even managed a selfie with Readosaurus Rex, the pride and joy of the Elementary Library.

School starts and finishes early in Saudi Arabia, so I had plenty of time in the afternoons to lose at Risk to my host family and to explore downtown Riyadh: the beautifully preserved Al-Masmak Fortress, notorious ‘Justice’ Square and the dizzyingly tall Kingdom Tower. The black and white photograph below is from 1951 and shows a street of barbers and dentists in a street near Al-Swelem Gate (wince).

One night my hosts treated me to dinner at Nadj Village. We sat on plush Arabian carpet and feasted on camel meat and flavoured rice, surrounded by Arabian antiques. I thought of my seven-greats grandfather and imagined him enjoying just such a meal at the Ottoman court in Jeddah, in a pre-oil pre-Saud pre-warplane Arabia.

Arabia Felix indeed.

Don’t Spill the Milk artwork

Back in September I enjoyed visiting Bishop MacKenzie in Lilongwe, Malawi. It is now Book Week there and Year 4 have been doing some wonderful paintings inspired by DON’T SPILL THE MILK. Well done, all of you!

If art is your thing, you may also enjoy these ALL ABOARD colouring sheets, drawn by Christopher Corr. Click on an image to download a printable pdf.

colouring1

colouring2

Fulani folk tales about Rabbit, Hyena and Crocodile

One of my favourite things to do in Burkina Faso was to visit remote cattle-herding settlements and listen to folk stories told by ingenious Fulani men, women and children. Many of these stories were ‘trickster’ tales, where a small cunning rabbit succeeds in outwitting larger, fiercer creatures. The downfall of the big creatures tended to be provoked not just by the rabbit’s cleverness, but by their own greed, pride or anger.

Crocodile and Rabbit in Fulani folk story

Last September my new book for schools came out. Published in the Harper Collins ‘Big Cat’ series, it is a collection of four traditional Fulani tales in which the wily rabbit pits his wits against Hyena and Crocodile. It is illustrated by Steve Stone, who has brought the tales wonderfully to life.

new book of Fulani folk tales

Fulani folk tale workshop

This year I am offering Year 4 workshops based on the book. The format of the session is as follows: we start with a quiz that highlights the importance of the ‘trickster’ figure in ancient and modern storytelling, from Anansi to Puck to Robin Hood to Bart Simpson. Then we use concrete examples to tease out general characteristics of trickster figures. Finally, children work in twos to create and present their own trickster characters. This workshop is a great introduction to stories from other cultures. See my school visits page for details, or write to me at sahelsteve@gmail.com.

Able Writers Day pupil self-publishes debut

inspired_by_Able_Writers_Day

I met Parris at a recent Able Writers Day. This Year 6 girl had a great imagination and a real feel for dialogue. Over the course of the day, she learned some techniques for building interesting characters and she applied them cleverly in her own work. By the end of the day, she had the makings of a brilliant short story, and won some ‘Goggle-Eyed Goats’ postcards for her trouble.

That was at least a month ago. This morning I got a message from Parris’s mum, to say that Parris was really inspired by the Able Writers Day and has just finished her first book, a gripping ‘memoir’. I am totally thrilled to hear this, and wish Parris all the best in her onward writing journey. It’s exciting when a young person gets fired up about any sort of creativity, especially story writing.

I read Parris’s book and enjoyed it so much, I gave it a five star review on Amazon. Here’s a link to Parris’s book and my review: From Parris to London

Able Writers Days are coordinated by Authors Abroad, in association with Brian Moses.

The breakout novel and writerly obsession

I used to obsess about writing the breakout novel. ‘When I write The Breakout,’ I used to think, ‘then I’ll stop drinking instant coffee and start drinking real coffee.’ I was living in the future, and obsessing about the idea of what my legacy as a writer would be.

Which is ironic, because my favourite poem has long been Ozymandias by Percy Shelley. ‘I met a traveller from an antique land, who said Two vast and trunkless legs of stone stand in the desert…’ The poem conveys the fleeting nature of human power, fame and achievement. ‘Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.’ Too right. (I used to recite the poem to my daughter Liberty when she was a colicy six-week old, to try and pacify her. Probably just made it worse.)

So imagine my delight to find these colossal disembodied fingers at the Amman Citadel this morning. Along with one sorry-looking elbow, they are all that remains of a thirteen metre high statue of (probably) Hercules. I am so grateful to Shannon O’Donnell for her permission to reproduce her wonderful pictures here.

photo by Shannon O'Donnell
photo by Shannon O’Donnell

Beside the fingers of Hercules stands the Jordan Archaeological Museum. It’s full of treasures. For me the highlight was seeing the mindmeldingly ancient Ain Ghazal statues, the oldest statues ever made (circa 7000 – 10000 BCE). Some have one head, some have two. The significance of the two-headed ones is not known. I just love their expressions.

photo by Shannon O'Donnell
photo by Shannon O’Donnell

As I walked back down Citadel Hill, I remembered STACKS, a David Harper art installation, and perhaps a literary equivalent to the fingers of Hercules. Stacks is a homage to trees and to the environment, but it also reminds me that ‘of the making of many books there is no end’. The grass grows around the bookshelves, as it does around the fingers of Hercules.

stacks

Let’s live and love and write while we still can. And if the ‘breakout novel’ never comes, that’s okay! Hercules and Ozymandias can testify that breakout isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be anyway.

Able Writers Day

Able_Writers_Day

If you are looking for an author to visit your school, look no further than Authors Abroad and their stable of bushy-tailed children’s authors. I joined up just nine months ago but in that short time I have been hugely impressed by the enthusiasm and efficiency of this agency.

The ‘Abroad’ in Authors Abroad does not primarily mean overseas (although the agency does cater for schools all over the world), but rather ‘far and wide’ or ‘in circulation’ or at the very least ‘out of the house’. It’s fun to sit at a desk dreaming of knights and dragons, but it’s lonely as well, so what could be more fun than a day out in Weston-Super-Mare or Accrington? I’ll tell you what. A day out in a school in Weston-Super-Mare or Accrington, encouraging young uns to dream of knights and dragons, too.

One speciality of Authors Abroad are Able Writers Days in association with Brian Moses (writer, performance poet and progenitor of Able Writers Days everywhere). Brian’s big idea was to offer a whole day of workshops for children who are already demonstrating a knack for writing. One school hosts the gig and three or four other schools pile onboard, each sending a carful of their brightest and best scribblers.

Since last September, I have tutored Able Writers Days in primary schools all over the country. My favourite thing about the Able Writers Day is that I get to spend a whole day with the same students, rather than gadding about from class to class. This means the students have time to delve deep into the soil of storytelling, unearthing precious #writetip nuggets.

show_tell

Write what you know. Show don’t tell. Chase your character up a tree and then throw stones at him. Good advice, all of it, but it needs time to percolate. Able Writers Days provide a synthesis of theory and practice designed to take your most gifted writers to the next level.

Here is the format of my Able Writers Day for Years 5 and 6. Note, this is only what I do. Other authors do different things.

Session 1 (9.30 – 10.45)
a) Write What You Know – an introduction to my books, and my life in West Africa
b) Premise – I describe the ingredients of a strong story premise, then everyone thinks of one
c) Character – how to come up with an interesting MC (main character) – students work in groups to develop a character, then present these characters to the class.

Session 2 (11.10 – 12.10)
a) Putting pen to paper: Each student writes the first paragraph of their story, introducing setting and character. Through sharing and peer criticism, students learn how to Show, not Tell.
b) Inciting Incidents – We watch a video montage of ‘inciting incidents’. Each student writes their second paragraph.
c) We talk about how to write suspense and action. “There is no terror in the bang of a gun, only in the anticipation of it” (Alfred Hitchcock).

Session 3 (1.00 – 2.10)
Stories are driven forward by either a problem to solve or a treasure to find. We talk about plotting, ‘story mountain’, setbacks and climax. Students work on their stories for an hour, during which time I aim to give individual comments/help to each student.

Session 4 (2.20 – 2.40)
a) Able Writers Award Ceremony – prizes for best premise, best character, best opening, best story
b) Ten Minutes of Q&A about storytelling and writing
c) Book sales, signing, photographs, goodbyes.

Ofsted have highly praised these Able Writers Days. The programme gives the children the opportunity to work with an established writer, builds links between local schools, and serves as an excellent professional development day for accompanying members of staff.

For more information about Able Writers Days, or to book an author, contact Keeley Ferguson at Authors Abroad.

keeley@caboodlebooks.co.uk

Happy World Book Day

Happy_World_Book_Day

Yesterday was World Book Day, and it was my favourite World Book Day EVER. I spent it with the fantastic staff and students of Mudeford Junior School in Dorset, who had all dressed up for the occasion. I was thrilled to get a photo taken with the fancy dress prizewinners – see how many book characters you recognize!

Author visits to schools in 2015

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I enjoy visiting schools regularly to conduct creative writing workshops and Able Writers Days. Here is a link to the Stephen Davies School Visits webpage (with details of what these visits involve) and below is a list of the schools I will be visiting this term and next:

14 January Cinnamon Brow Primary School, Warrington
27 January Bournville Primary School, Weston Super-Mare
2 February Wyvern Primary School, Leicester
3 February Liverpool College Prep School
4 February Greenbank Primary School, Liverpool
5 February Lancaster Road Primary School, Morcambe
6 February Henry Cort School, Fareham
10 February Invicta Primary School, Blackheath
26 February Macaulay School, Lambeth
2 March Marlborough House School, Hawkhurst, Kent
5 March Mudeford Junior School, Christchurch
6 March Prendergast Vale School, Lewisham
9 March Burstow Primary School, Horley
11-12 March William Cobbett Junior School, Farnham
29 June Gloucester Road Primary School, Cheltenham

As you can see, there is still plenty of space on the itinerary. If you are a teacher or librarian and you would like me to visit your school, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Stephen Davies school visits