Myra Zepf, Northern Ireland Children's Writing Fellow based at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen's University, talks about writing for and by children, the joy of multilingual storytelling, and a few of her favourite Irish words.
What does learning to write creatively do for a child's education and development?
Creative writing builds children's literacy, helps them to organise their ideas and inspires persistence and pride in their work.
The real magic of creative writing, however, reaches far beyond the scope of formal education. In a world where children's mental health is increasingly of concern, creative writing is therapy. In a difficult childhood, it can be a safe place to explore, reflect and build resilience.
Writing can enrich all of our lives, children and adults alike, by opening the door to our own vast imaginative energy and our eyes to the world around us.
What turns a young reader into a young writer?
Wouldn't it be great if we could get healthy simply by watching other people run?
Happily, this is exactly how it works with reading and writing. By reading, children are training their creative 'muscles' and this affects their own writing.
Many avid readers will instinctively try their hands at writing. Those who need a little nudge and who are already enthusiastic readers may enjoy trying some fan fiction, or taking a story and changing the ending, to get started.
How can adults encourage children to read in parts of the world where books are hard to come by?
A love of words is just as often verbal as written. Telling stories to children – folk tales, childhood memories or inventions straight from our own imaginations – is like gold in awakening their engagement with story making and with language itself.
On a practical note, sharing books which exist is key, whether amongst friends and family, via schools or in the wider community. Swap, share and make the most of books. Don't forget that children love to read and re-read the books they love.
'A love of words is just as often verbal as written.'
How do children benefit from reading, as well as speaking, in multiple languages?
Often when children are multilingual, some of their languages are stronger than others or have strengths in different places.
My children speak Irish, German and English, for example, and have very different needs and skills in each. Reading is a wonderful way to fill in vocabulary voids and to familiarise children with new idioms and expressions – especially in minority languages where they may hear the same voices over and over.
But perhaps most importantly, reading in other languages opens the doors to deep cultural understanding and shared frames of reference. It feels like it is an important part of our identity as speakers of a specific language that we share a canon of classic stories with our language community. All Irish-speaking children will know the stories of Fionn Mac Cumhail, for example, just as all German-speaking children will know and love Pippi Longstocking. This is a shared literary heritage that unites us.
Has the market for Irish-language children's books changes since you were a child?
Speaking of a scarcity of books, when I was a child there were very few children's books published in Irish. My father used to translate English books for us, both verbally and by sticking in his own carefully crafted translations into the books themselves.
Nowadays, Irish-language children's publishing is vibrant and diverse, with numerous publishers and a selection of beautiful books coming out each year. There are re-tellings of ancient myths, such as Balor the evil giant, written by Caitríona Hastings and dramatically illustrated by Andrew Whitson. There are new songs for young children to suit every season in Bliain na nÁmhrán (the year of song), written by Tadhg Mac Dhonnagáin. And there are many translations from well-known authors such as Roald Dahl and Jeff Kinney.
'Reading in other languages opens the doors to deep cultural understanding and shared frames of reference.'
What are your favourite Irish words that don't exist in your other languages?
Every language has its own way of looking at things. I love the Irish word for 'jellyfish' which is smugairle róin. This literally means 'seal's snot' which is an image that always makes me laugh.
Another favourite is sceitimíní which is a particularly bubbly kind of joyful excitement. Or smidiríní which is what we call all the broken pieces of something.
Often the sound of the word is what makes it so special:
- smugairle róin is pronounced smug-er-lya-roween
- sceitimíní is pronounced sketch-a-meeny
- smidiríní is pronounced smid-er-eeny
Have you been surprised by the way young writers have interpreted the theme of 'peace'?
I have been delighted to see how widely and how differently the children have interpreted the theme of 'peace'. Some wrote about nature, set their stories in history or explored emotional and provocative real-world settings.
They understand that peace can be a state of mind, or the act of finding acceptance or resolution. I also love the local detail that shines through their stories. You can almost see, taste and hear the different landscapes and cultures through the descriptive detail of the stories, as well as the names of the characters.
Can you give us your best advice on shaping a story about conflict for child readers?
All good stories for children are about conflict. Whether this is facing evil villains, dealing with loss or finding acceptance, these problems are at the heart of all stories.
It is important when writing for children that a child plays the leading role in overcoming the problem and that they resolve the conflict themselves. And this shouldn't happen too easily. The most satisfying stories are those in which our child hero must battle against great odds and work hard to save the day.
Registration for the Peace and Beyond international conference in Belfast, Northern Ireland, 10 - 12 April 2018, is now open.
You can read the winning stories in the Commonwealth Class competition, which Myra Zepf will read at the conference.