Asha Nehemiah: Staying on My Toes–Happily

There’s this activity I like to do when I’m on an ‘author’ visit to a school. I read a little from my book, stop at a dramatic point and ask the children: What do you think happens next?
And depending on the story I’ve chosen, the question could be phrased a little differently. How do the children tackle the bird who snores loudly? What happens to the boy who finds he can’t stop himself from talking in poetry? How do the children get to safety when they’re stranded in the middle of a river, in a leaky boat, with the villain just having thrown away the oars?
The children enjoy this exercise. How about a silencer fitted on the beak? Maybe the boy starts talking in Japanese so that his teachers can’t understand his cheeky verses. They use the hair-oil to make their hair grow super-fast, braid it into a rope, which is fashioned into a lasso and then…
I can’t believe that it’s taken them mere seconds to come up with these answers. You would have to actually read my stories to realise that the children’s solutions are often far more creative than the ones I’ve supplied. Plus it took me days, weeks–even months!–to painstakingly prod my stories forward when I’ve been stuck at the same dramatic points.
I feel so energised when I encounter this raw, unbridled creativity in children – but I am also awed and humbled. I realise that I’d better be on my toes. If I want these wonderfully creative children to read my books, surely I’ll have to give them stories that are more exciting , more fantastic and more engrossing than the ones they can dream up for themselves.
And I do get to hear a lot of amazing stories from children, thanks to my publishers who organise school visits for me. Some months ago, I was writing a wacky series about two children who want to win a prize on a website. So when I visited schools, I would casually check how many eight-year-olds browse the internet-–hopefully under parental supervision. It wouldn’t do to be out of touch with reality, I thought virtuously, not realising how behind the times I already was.
My tentative questions had the kids cracking up with unabashed laughter-–leading everyone in school to assume that I was telling them very funny stories indeed! Browse? Of course they did. Many had their own computers. In addition to collecting information for school projects, they used the internet to listen to audio stories, read comics, and even become characters in stories on interactive sites. Many used cool story apps on their mom’s phones. They recommended podcasts and digital story sites to me! They even got me hooked onto a site where I could listen to bedtime stories read by famous actors.
The choices of 24/7 entertainment–many of them absolutely free–were amazing. One more reason to be on my toes. I am not worried that stories will become obsolete. But if I want children–all children-–to read my books, I have to give them options that are as good as (hopefully, even better) the ones that come to their homes via internet, TV and mobile phones.
And with every single day that I sit down to write, I come across new reasons to tell my story a little better, tweak my book just that little further. Polish the writing more thoughtfully, shape the plots with a lighter, more playful touch.
There are 12-year olds writing marvellous books for children. There are publishers offering all these amazingly gifted children the chance to turn their stories into books. There are content producers working with global teams of talent to provide fabulous reading material for children.
All of which leaves me with only one option. I just have to continue to stay on my toes! It’s a delightful way to work. It’s a happy place to be.

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