Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Shoutsouth 2015 - An Insider's Report

ShoutSouth is a Creative Writing Festival for schools from South London boroughs. It is run by CWISL - the Children's Writers and Illustrators in South London. The event brings together children and local libraries with local writers and illustrators. It is a time of celebration - of all forms of storytelling - drawing, writing, drama and more. Experienced writers and illustrators run workshops and mentor the children for three days.

Patricia Elliott, long standing member of CWISL gives us an insider's view of the festival.


The first day of our children's festival of story-making, the third CWISL has run at London South Bank University. 100 children aged 9 to 13, from 10 state schools. The schools and age-groups will be mixed together in a melting pot of four 'big cat' groups: Leopards, Tigers, Lions and Panthers. 

It's a warm day. We CWISL authors and illustrators arrive in LSB's cool, airy spaces and take a deep breath. Only half an hour to set up. We rearrange the rooms to make them more child-friendly, stick up posters, lay out the pencils, crayons and exercise books donated so generously by Derwent, put our books out on a display table.

Then the peace is shattered. The children have arrived! Excited but slightly overwhelmed by their new surroundings, they are wonderfully well-behaved under the eagle eyes of their teachers. 

The festival begins, with Margaret Bateson-Hill retelling an Indian folktale. The children are absolutely quiet, enthralled.

Margaret telling a chilling tale filled with sweet milk and snakes,

Now to the first workshop, the 'Spark', about how to find that first inspiration for a story. The children have been divided into their cat groups and are now in their rooms. In my group, Panther's, they investigate their notebooks and pencils. The crayons are called enticing names, like 'Butterscotch' and 'Fudge'. 'Can I eat mine?' a very small boy asks hopefully.

Mo sparking ideas

We have an abundance of admirably literal-minded boys in Panthers. The characters they come up with for Mo O'Hara's story grid are well-known footballers, wrestlers, film stars. It is when Mo plays three musical excerpts that their imaginations are really fired and some vivid story ideas emerge – an apocalyptic battle between the Moon and the Earth, an ex-soldier mourning the dead after a war, a music box fairy who turns evil at night, Christmas clowns. The workshop is interrupted by a fire alarm – definitely not part of the festival, but yet another thrilling experience for the children. We return, rather hungry.

Lunch over, it's time for a plenary with illustrator Bridget Marzo, who shows us all how two rough circles can be transformed into character's faces: a goody, a baddie. The conflict between them will be the story.  

100 students, more than 20 teachers and 20 writers and illustrators draw together.

Back in Panthers, a workshop with illustrator Gillian McClure. She shows the children first the roughs then the finished artwork for her books, and then how to draw their own characters in their story situations as if through the lens of a pair of binoculars. The results are (mostly) impressive. 

Gillian McClure presenting a student's work after her workshop


Acting emotions
The hottest day of the year so far. Mo starts the children off with a drama session in which one child has to 'direct' four others in a scene conveying an emotion to be guessed by the audience. Afterwards I hear one small Panther announce to another, 'I think I'll be a film director when I grow up.' One writer lost for posterity, then. 

Chitra Soundar showing how to plot a Story Mountain
Then Chitra Soundar leads the 'Spot the Plot' workshop. It's time for the children to shape their ideas into stories. We authors are on hand to help with any questions or problems. The children work hard, with the guidance of worksheets. Interestingly, many of them return to their first ideas.

Patricia Elliott leading Mad, Moody and Murky

The last workshop: 'Mad, Moody and Murky' is about how to make stories more vivid for the reader by adding mood and atmosphere and showing the emotions of the protagonist without 'telling'. We imagine a gentle beach scene and then turn it into something more sinister. Afterwards, they write busily. Finally they read out the beginnings of their stories. One, written in the first person, by a little girl, is so good it transfixes the authors.

And Saturday? The last day.

The children bring their parents, guardians, siblings. Teachers come. A morning of writing, with authors on hand to perfect, among them Beverley Birch, Sarah Mussi, Sara Grant, H.L. Dennis. The adults have their own writing workshop with Sam Osman, younger siblings draw with Loretta Schauer.  

A party, with cake generously co-sponsored by Pea Green Boat Books, who are also running the bookshop where the children can have their choices signed by the authors. There's a grand award ceremony, with the handing out of certificates for everyone.  

And Margaret tells a final story. 
It won't be the last, though...

To the schools and students who took part – thank you for coming and we hope you enjoyed it as much as we did!

To LSBU and its staff, a special thank you for letting us use your lovely rooms free of charge, and for your help and tolerance. I hope that many of the children will be encouraged to come to you as undergraduates in years to come.  

BUT THE THING THAT'S MOST IMPORTANT OF ALL to say is that the authors and illustrators of CWISL put on this festival unpaid because we all believe that it's vitally important to stimulate the imaginations of children, to encourage them to read and write and expand their horizons. Schools do this already, of course, but with ShoutSouth! it's a chance for children to interact with 'real live' authors, to receive their help face to face, to see that we're actually quite normal (I think!) and that they, too, can aspire to becoming writers one day.

Watch out for the children's work on ShoutAbout!, CWISL's creative writing magazine, in due course.  

Patricia Elliott's new MG novel, The House of Eyes – A Connie Carew Mystery, is published on  2nd July by Hodder Children's Books