Published on: 13 January 2010 Author: Nii Ayikwei Parkes
The award-winning poet and author Nii Ayikwei Parkes, writer of Tail of the Bluebird, became our second Writer in Residence back in 2009. In this blog Nii discusses The Gruffalo and the beauty of writing for children.
And suddenly one year is gone and another begins. But what a lovely holiday it was; lots of snow, wind, chaos and, best of all, The Gruffalo on the television. I've always loved The Gruffalo, brilliantly derived from a traditional Chinese tale- the mouse is a classic trickster character, like the best of the Mmutlas, Brer Rabbits and Ananses. He's terrified, but he thinks on his feet and comes out smiling. What I specifically like about the animated BBC version is the metaphoric resonance in the casting.
See, the mouse is this tiny thing, an ant with the heart of a gi-ant and to bring him to life, to pump this large, large heart into his voice, the BBC picked James Corden, a real big boy. Just the right size to take on Robbie Coltrane as the Gruffalo! The best thing about watching it over the Christmas holiday, though, was that it was my daughter's first speaking Christmas, and watching The Gruffalo with her was such a surreal experience; while I was focused on story, she was enthralled by imagery, so every once in a while she'd say 'Look!' and the entire experience would shift on the turning of an animated leaf. And, of course, she wasn't scared one bit.
That, precisely, is the beauty of writing for and working with children- the very different ways in which they perceive the world, the way a story gains extra dimensions within the realm of their attention span. And the love for the outrageous. I have sessions in schools sometimes where I make up stories with different groups of kids starting with my asking them for a character and they come up with the most incredible stories- we've had a vengeful crippled horse called Clipit (because of the sound of his hooves and wooden leg) and a skeleton with a pumpkin head that smashes its own head when it gets angry.
Almost invariably when I retell the stories to adults they can't even believe that children liked them, but it seems to me that children actually LIKE things to be outrageous, they LOVE stories to be scary, but they also want the phenomenology; the causal underpinnings to be right. They don't mind someone being slapped, but they need to understand why- as we get older (I speak for myself here) we allow a bit more of the random, that which can't be explained, to slip by. The learnings from my live storytelling in school were very helpful when I came to reinterpret the Ananse stories I remembered as a child; I started each with the bones of the plot, but before I rebuilt the narratives, I made notes of all the blanks that I felt existed when I was a little boy listening to other people tell the stories and filled them in.
Remembering those stories was an incredible process. Memory is an amazing thing; in some cases I could remember clearly where I was sitting when I first heard a story, whose hand I was holding, what time of day it was. And that's why I felt so blessed to be sitting in a warm room in December, ensconced in a sofa, with my daughter in my lap, watching The Gruffalo – unlikely as it seems, someday in the future, she just might remember the first time she heard that story. And if I have to watch it with her again and again for that first memory to have me in it, then that's exactly what I'll do.