5 tips for children's literature workshops

Last weekend I went to Balingup, two hours from home, to take part in the community’s annual Telling Tales in Balingup festival. I was there with a bunch of other talented writers and illustrators including Deb Fitzpatrick, Teena Raffa-Mulligan, James Foley, Kelly Canby and Jen Banyard. We were all equally excited about spending a weekend hanging out with book-loving kids. The town goes all out to make the festival happen, opening up spaces in cafes and shops, halls and libraries, and so on, and the children can go from space to space for loads of bookish fun.

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I was there to read My Silly Mum to children aged 3-7 years, and my plan included singing silly songs about a vomiting dog called Bill, playing games like Thingamabob (think Pictionary, but simpler – ‘I’m thinking of something that has a trunk, green leaves…’), create some story characters, and help show younger readers how wonderful books and writing can be.

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It was a fantastic weekend (more on that in another post). I’m no stranger to working with children, but every time is different. Here are my top tips for festivals/holiday activities like this:

1. Be flexible. Just because you’re scheduled to run a workshop or tell stories to children aged 3-7 years doesn’t mean you won’t get older or younger children, or all boys/girls, or all six year olds.

I ran four sessions over the weekend. The first had children aged 3-7 years, the second was all girls of mixed ages, the third had a two year old boy and a nine year old boy (plus a handful of girls aged 4-7 years), and fourth was all girls aged 5-7.

My presentation changed slightly each time, depending on the group. I did a lot of drawing games with one group, and worked on a character study with another. Go with the flow!

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2. Be on your toes! If you are reading and you miss a word, chances are, a child will tell you.  Likewise, if you’re drawing and you’re not quick enough at drawing in all the features children expect.

‘Where are the ears?’, ‘Where are the hands?’, ‘Where is the fingernail polish?’, ‘Why are there only three fingers?’ and ‘I wanted you to draw a round nose’ – all of these comments came thick and fast as I was drawing (upside down, mind you) a version of a silly mum according to the children’s rapid-fire instructions.

3. Expect the unexpected. Some children will not shy away from telling you all sorts of home truths. ‘My dad sometimes tries on dresses’, ‘My dad is kind of boring’, ‘My mum is pretty grumpy’, and ‘My mum farts and blames it on us. All. The. Time’ were among the (hilarious) gems I heard at the weekend. This festival sure lived up to the telling tales moniker. You will come away with some great anecdotes if you keep your ears open.

After one session, where we focused on developing a ‘my silly dad’ character, illustrators Kelly Canby and James Foley both drew their own versions of the silly dad the kids devised. We were sitting in the Mushroom Cafe and it was fascinating watching their interpretations come to life.

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4. Be sensitive. Sometimes a child will tell you something, or act out, because the theme of your story or presentation has a different significance for them. For example, after I finished reading My Silly Mum to one group, a child told me (after the story) that she didn’t have a mum. In another group, the nine-year-old boy’s grandmother explained that he didn’t see his mum at all, but she felt it would be good for him to hear the story (he seemed to enjoy it). So, in each case, I added that sometimes we had other silly but lovable people in our lives, and when it came to our drawing activity, I suggested an alternative for those kids.

5. Have fun. Loosen up and enjoy the session. I played the ukulele badly and sang a stupid song or two, but the kids were laughing and that was all that mattered. Did I mention that for one session I was doing this in a café during lunch time? It was full of people! You just have to forget about the adults and focus on entertaining the kids.

Lastly, when you get home (or when you have a quiet moment), evaluate how things went. What could you do differently? Better? What would you do next time? I brought a variety of My Silly Mum colouring sheets created by my illustrator, Veronica Rooke, (which proved very popular, thanks V), but next time, I’m going to incorporate a craft activity, like making My Silly Mum puppets from paper plates. And I think I’ll work on some new, but equally silly, songs.

One more thing – yes, it’s nice if you sell some books at events like these. But if you don’t, or you don’t sell many, that’s OK, too. Sometimes relationship building is just as good.

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