Beverley Birch at Hampshire Writers’ Society

Report by Peter Hitchen

The Society’s April gathering hosted two exceptional women writers, both ideally placed to talk with insight and experience about the very specific nuances and skills involved in the subject of writing for children.

Special Guest: Judith Heneghan

Being the Director of the Winchester Writers’ Festival and a highly regarded and extensively published specialist of children’s literature, Judith Heneghan was ideally placed to open Tuesday’s proceedings.  Judith is a Senior Lecturer and also a Programme Leader on the University of Winchester’s Creative Writing provision where she has taught since 2006.  To date she has written 50 nonfiction books as well as feature articles, novels and shorter fiction for children.  Previously to her role at Winchester, she worked as a commissioning editor of adult nonfiction and a freelance editor of children’s nonfiction.

Judith’s enthusiasm for Winchester’s annual Writers’ Festival was infectious.  She explained that its aims for this year were to build on its past successes and to inspire, encourage, educate and to facilitate learning for all the delegates. Networking opportunities for novice and experienced writers attending this year’s festival will be more extensive than ever, as will the list of contributors from the greater writing world.  Contributors will include luminaries from some of the best known publishing houses and literary agencies in the country as well as the wonderful author and broadcaster, Lem Sissay.  Further information about the planned programme, along with competition and other details can be found here: http://writersfestival.co.uk/

Main Speaker: Beverley Birch

Beverley Birch is a prolific author of critical acclaim having produced in excess of forty books.  Her prodigious output includes picture books, novels, biographies and retellings of Shakespeare.  Her publications have been translated into more than a dozen languages.  They are in the admirable position of being amongst the top ten per cent of books borrowed from UK libraries.

Beverley’s own childhood years were spent in East Africa where the wide open spaces of Kenya afforded the opportunity for formative and adventurous experiences largely free from the interference of adults.  She eventually left Africa for England to study for ‘A’ levels before graduating from Cambridge University with a degree in Economics and Sociology.  After graduation she started to work as an editor and in 1981 she became a full-time writer.

As would be expected of someone with the breadth and depth of Beverley’s professional literary experience, her talk was packed with insights into what being a  writer entails and what writers have to do to produce work of real merit.  Of course, ‘merit’ in writing is a subjective quality but Beverley’s appraisal of what it really means was grounded in a plethora of practical and theoretical examples.  ‘We need to constantly refresh our understanding of why we need to write’ she told her audience and then explained that this writing should be centred on exploring the underpinning themes of the stories that writers create.  All stories, we were told, have specific, fundamental themes that should challenge child readers to see things anew. In doing this, it should enable children to reposition themselves in the light of these new, vicarious experiences.  But what are these themes?  They are many and varied and over her long career Beverley has seen all of the following underpinning the work that she has been involved in either as a writer herself or as an editor for others; love and friendship, loyalty and betrayal, redemption, loss, maturation, power, obsession and corruption are all on the list.

Beverly was at pains to explain that this was by no means a definitive list but that whichever of these themes was at the heart of a story,  they should be rendered in a way that is suitable and accessible for children.  The narrative gravity associated with these thematic issues should be apparent to discerning writers as they produce their work and this in itself is indicative of the fact that ‘writing for children’ is not a euphemism for dumbing down the literary responsibilities of the author.  If anything, these responsibilities should weigh more heavily on children’s authors than they do on those involved in other aspect of producing good writing.  Beverley said that children’s authors should ‘dive inwards in the process of writing and that in doing so they should trust their subconscious to render a story that is both important and transporting for the child’.  She concluded by offering some sage advice for those starting out on their publishing journey.  Writers should not write in order to seek or support the contemporary ‘hullabaloo’ that seems to be endemic in the contemporary literary scene for ultimately that hullabaloo is ephemeral.  Rather, writers should stay true to themselves and produce work that will endure beyond the here and now.

Surely this is what great writing is all about.

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