Lyn Gardner: How book sharing with my children helped me write my novel

Published on: 16 June 2011 Author: Lyn Gardner

There is a great deal of discussion and research about the benefits bestowed on children whose parents regularly read to and with them. Perhaps what is less documented are the benefits that writers gain from sharing books with their children.

Olivia's First Term

I would never have become a children's writer if it had not been for book sharing with my children, and I'd certainly never have written Olivia's First Term, which has just been published by Nosy Crow, were it not for my eldest daughter's enthusiasm for Ballet Shoes and Malory Towers and my youngest child's desire to read something about theatre that was more contemporary than Pamela Brown's delightful The Swish of the Curtain.

Olivia's First Term, the first in a series, is a tale about two sisters, Olivia and Eel (nicknamed because she never keeps still) whose dad is a high wire walker and who have grown up in a travelling circus. But their lives change dramatically when an accident forces them to move in with their estranged grandmother who runs a successful stage school, The Swan Academy. It is a family story, a school story, a circus story and it is a theatre story that draws upon a world which, as the deputy theatre critic of The Guardian, I'm very familiar.

Ironically it was my job in the theatre, a job that takes me out five evenings a week and therefore creates a fracture in traditional family life, that led to book sharing with my children and my exposure to so many children's novels.

As most parents are winding down with their children, I was peeling mine off me and heading out to work. If I couldn't read my kids the traditional bedtime story, I knew that I would have to find other ways and times to share books. When they were young that often meant that we had breakfast stories, but as they got older and could read themselves, the emphasis shifted from reading to them to reading with them.
We would always begin a novel together, but often we would then read it in parallel, with my daughters generally reading at bedtime and me catching up at some point during the next day. Over meals and at other points during the day we would talk about the particular book that we all had on the go.

Without intending to, we were operating our own informal family book club, and it has made me wonder whether sharing a book with your older child has as many benefits as reading it to them, maybe even more as it really makes you all think and talk about the book, its characters and their motivations.
It was fun and brought us together creating a shared bond and a family book-swapping tradition that has continued into my children's teenage years, but for me it was also an education in contemporary children's literature from Jacqueline Wilson to Philip Reeve. I introduced them to my childhood favourites (not all of which have stood the test of time) and they introduced me to theirs such as Malorie Blackman and Neil Gaiman.

Without that exposure I would never have taken the step to become a children's novelist myself. My children loved going to the theatre but often also felt ambivalent about it because it took me away from them night after to night. But reading brought us together, and in Olivia's First Term, the two passions come together to create a novel that I hope can be shared by parents and children, and, who knows, might even light the touch paper for some other would-be writers.

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