Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

The storysellers

Three bright ideas that have become powerhouses of literacy and creativity

Tim de Lisle | November/December 2014

CHAPTER 1: The Museum of Stories

On a summer’s afternoon, Oxford is looking as it does in the imagination, clad in shades of glowing saffron. Tourists are trickling out of Christ Church, the grandest of all the colleges and even more of a draw since its hall landed the plum role of Hogwarts’ dining room in the Harry Potter films. Some of the tourists will know that it also has an older claim to fame in children’s literature: it is where Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) was teaching maths when he told a story to amuse three girls in a boat, the daughters of the dean of the college, about the adventures of a child called Alice. As he sat in his rooms in the early 1860s, expanding that story into a book, Dodgson had a view down Pembroke Street.

About 70 years later, another don with a sideline as a storyteller could have thrown one of his books into Pembroke Street, had the urge come over him. J.R.R. Tolkien had rooms at Pembroke which came with his job as Oxford professor of Anglo-Saxon. One day he was marking exam papers written by 16-year-olds for the School Certificate. Possibly bored, he reached for a sheet of blank paper. “In a hole in the ground”, he wrote, “there lived a hobbit.”

If these two weavers of world-famous fantasies could walk down Pembroke Street today, they would be sure of a big surprise. Within a few yards, they would stumble into the Story Museum. Oxford is a city of stories, and a city of museums—the Ashmolean, the Pitt Rivers. But until the 21st century nobody had put the two together. The person who spotted this was Kim Pickin, a branding executive who had settled in Oxford and brought up three sons there. She had been working on a project about Britishness and what the rest of the world liked or disliked about it. “Children’s literature is such an important aspect of British culture, probably our most loved export,” she says. “It was fascinating to see how ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ is loved in Japan. And children in Africa read ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’, and of course lions mean more to them, and snow means less.”

Pickin had no experience of working in a museum, let alone creating one, but she had drive and persistence, and she was very much her own person (in the age of the mobile phone, she didn’t have one). Slowly she turned her observation into a mission. I was introduced to her four years ago by a mutual friend who knew that Intelligent Life had a passion for museums. Kim had just got the keys to her new kingdom on Pembroke Street, so she offered us a guided tour. It was an odd place, to say the least: a former sorting office that had also been Oxford’s first automatic telephone exchange, spanning three assorted buildings, pre-Tolkien but post-Dodgson, wedged around a triangular yard. There were still hooks on the walls for the mailbags (Wantage, Abingdon), and a sign in the canteen listing sandwiches (egg mayonnaise, 20p). No two rooms were alike, except that they were all cold. The feel was functional with a twist of eccentric, halfway from an abandoned hospital to a rabbit warren. In the land of stories, a rabbit warren is a des res, but it wasn’t easy to see how this one was going to mutate into a museum. Kim showed us round with a mixture of pride, joy and apology.

Four years on, the Story Museum is holding a launch party for an exhibition, “26 Characters”. It’s May 2014 and the entrance on Pembroke Street, once forbiddingly industrial, is now friendly and bright. The foyer is lined with books for sale, so visitors enter through the gift shop. Every guest is handed a blank badge and a Sharpie and told to be a favourite children’s character: becoming someone else, an indispensable component of childhood. I choose Lyra from “His Dark Materials”, a local heroine, albeit from a parallel universe. “We’ve already got one Lyra,” says the woman on the desk. “We gave her a chameleon to be her Pantalaimon.”

Crossing the yard, which now has a giant strip cartoon along one wall, the guests gather in a large first-floor room. I find Kim Pickin and inquire about progress. “We’re open six days a week, we have exhibitions and author events.” So is the museum fully launched? “No, we’re at the end of the first chapter. Two-thirds of it isn’t done yet, but we’re using it in its rough state.” A wry smile. “It’s a bit leaky in places.”

Soon she is making a speech, thanking authors and supporters; standing at the back, with a sharp gaze and flowing grey hair, is a man who is both—Philip Pullman, the museum’s patron. A class of schoolchildren, aged about seven, sit on a mat at the front, wearing badges, one saying Alice, another Horrid Henry. A smaller boy walks past, blond, bespectacled and solemn, despite wearing a full-length crocodile suit.

The exhibition is about dressing up too. Pickin—who still doesn’t have a mobile—now has a co-director, Tish Francis from the Oxford Playhouse, and a team of ten, mostly young women. They have cajoled 26 children’s authors into picking a favourite character, not their own, and being photographed as them. Pullman is Long John Silver, Malorie Blackman is the Wicked Witch of the West, Charlie Higson is Tolkien’s Boromir, and Francesca Simon is Carroll’s Queen of Hearts. The photographer sounds equally far-fetched—Cambridge Jones—but turns out to be a pseudonym rather than a complete fiction. His portraits are classy as well as engaging, some life-size, others no bigger than a book, each set in a tableau that takes you into the character’s world: Just William’s shed (for Terry Pratchett), Badger’s study (Neil Gaiman), Magwitch’s graveyard (Michael Morpurgo). The designs, by set designers from “Harry Potter” and “Doctor Who”, are lively and lavish. Once you pass Pullman and Higson, your path is blocked by a wardrobe. “It might be worth opening it,” says a steward with a glint in his eye. You step through into yet another world dreamed up by an Oxford don: Narnia, recreated with a gleaming carriage that you can sit in, drifts of artificial snow, and a shot of Holly Smale, author of “Geek Girl”, as the White Witch. Writers, it seems, are suckers for witches.

The exhibition is light on its feet, yet full of wit and wonder. It catches some of the essence of children’s literature—the playful charm, the vivid sensuality. It makes you want to go back to the books, and lets you start right here, as each tableau includes an iPad, playing extracts read by Olivia Colman or Christopher Eccleston. It turns the strangeness of the building into a strength, with fresh surprises lurking round the many corners. A stainless-steel sink survives from the old canteen and tucked beneath it are the Borrowers, watching “The Simpsons” on their tiny telly. Across the room is a spooky lab for Dr Jekyll (Anthony Horowitz). “That’s where the ceiling is leakiest,” says Pickin, still proudly apologetic.

The plan was to close “26 Characters” in November, but there have been more schools wanting to see it than there are slots, and some punters keep coming back: “the record is seven times so far”. So they will keep an edited version open indefinitely, still with 26 characters, but in smaller spaces.

All this is funded largely by private donations, with some help from the Arts Council. Pickin has raised £6m so far, including two hefty gifts at vital moments: £150,000 from an anonymous well-wisher early on, which allowed the museum to be more than a one-woman show, and £2m from another nameless fairy godparent later, which helped secure the building. Pickin also gives credit to the Garfield Weston Foundation, which dispensed tough love, pointing out that she didn’t have a track record in the field and suggesting she pick up experience and put on events in schools before landing herself with premises. Stage two of the funding starts now, aiming at another £9m. All being well, the buildings will be fully converted and modernised with a rooftop walkway, fully accessible to buggies and wheelchairs. The freehold belongs to Merton College and the museum has a lease for 130 years, “which is about as good as it gets in Oxford, unless you’re a college”.

The place is so appealing to the child inside the adult that it’s hard to tell if this is a children’s museum or not. “We think of ourselves as aiming at all ages,” Pickin says, “which sounds a bit ridiculous, but we’re trying to give everybody a story-rich experience. The child bit comes in because we’re trying to focus on the stories that everybody can enjoy together. That could be ‘The Iliad’ or ‘The Odyssey’ as well as ‘The Gruffalo’. It’s less likely to be experimental French literature.” As if to illustrate the point, in September there was a surprise birthday party in the middle of the Narnia scene—for a girl of 19.

The young visitors don’t just look and learn: they write. In a big room at the top that will one day be a small theatre, there’s a giant wheel of story ideas. The nearest wall, papered with stories way above head height, shows how many people have taken up the invitation. There’s also a dressing-up room, equipped with a rack of theatrical costumes, a set of clapperboards and satisfyingly chunky words that allow you to concoct an unlikely title for a story—The Such-and-Such Something of Somewhere. Once dolled up, you sit on a speaking throne, which declaims your title as if by magic. The game relies on microchip technology, but brings an old-school bonus: forced to pick an adjective and two nouns, the kids get a quick grammar lesson, smuggled in like carrots in their pasta sauce. Which chimes with one of Pickin’s guiding mantras: “Strawberries, not spinach. And not chocolate either.” The Story Museum is good for you, but not aggressively so.

In the yard is a boat where children can play while their parents have a coffee, and a sofa where anyone can sit even if they haven’t paid for a drink, reflecting a “pet peeve” of Pickin’s from when she used to push her boys round museums: “you’re tired by the time you get there, having lured them and wheeled them.” Still in the yard, there’s a shed where you can fire gobstoppers into the mouths of some of Richmal Crompton’s characters. “We felt we hadn’t fully exploited the catapult possibilities in ‘Just William’. I’m just kind of acting out what I’ve always wanted to do. And still do, after hours.”

Pickin runs her team in a collegiate way, and says her litmus test for a project is whether they are having fun. A poster on the wall plugs a new venture: singles evenings. “It’s partly because we have some gorgeous youngsters working on the team who are out looking for a mate. And there was an office conversation about how excruciatingly embarrassing those things can be.” To break the ice, the singles are told to bring a favourite book. “I think we have 20 boys and 20 girls each time, and we have a literary conversation menu, and between that and the cocktails people relax a bit.” It’s for people in their 20s and 30s, “but we’ve been asked if we can do it for older people.”

The museum still puts on workshops in schools, and every year it choreographs Alice’s Day, a joint effort by 20 Oxford institutions, including the Bodleian Library. This honours “Alice” as “the birth of modern children’s literature—after ‘Alice’, children’s books became less stuffy and more entertaining”. The same revolution was sorely needed in museums, and it took a lot longer. There are some famous old museums whose default position for decades was to be half-dead. In the past 30 years, they have woken up to the need to graft the active on to the passive. A new museum has the advantage of being able to begin in the active: the Story Museum doesn’t even have a permanent collection. “It is pretty rough, a lot of it,” Pickin says, “extremely cold and slightly damp in the winter, which would make it impossible to store any treasures.”

Like the other quirks of the place, this has been a blessing in disguise. If you’re trying not to be stuffy, it helps to have no stuff. In August, Mark Cousins, a Belfast film-maker whose CV includes organising flash mobs with Tilda Swinton, wrote a piece for the Observer arguing that middle-class arts administrators tended to bring “a deadness” with them. “They get the content right, the ideas, the themes, the politics. But they haven’t a clue about how to embrace things…They don’t understand the warmth and feel of buildings, so well described by Gaston Bachelard in his book ‘The Poetics of Space’…He says that the spaces that we love are ‘especially receptive to becoming’—welcoming places reduced of inhibitions.” The Story Museum proves the exception to the rule, a middle-class creation that fully embraces the need for a warm welcome. The quote sends me off to look up Bachelard. He was a physicist, a philosopher—and, before that, a postmaster.

CHAPTER 2: The Sport of Reading

In a quaint old theatre in Falmouth, Cornwall, a tall gentleman in a top hat stands facing the stage, like a conductor. Behind him is an audience of about 100, mostly parents and teachers. Spread out on stage are seven square tables, each bearing a buzzer, each flying a national placard and each occupied by four children, in school uniform, intent, nervous, waiting to pounce. They are aged 10 to 13, which makes for a diverting variety: one of the boys is a hefty six-footer, shoehorned into grey shorts, while a few of the others could almost be his offspring. This is the final of the Kids’ Lit Quiz, the “University Challenge” of children’s books. It is both a world championship and a well-kept secret.

The first round consists of film clips, the man in the hat says, and each one will have “a literary aspect to it”. The children have to identify the film, swallow their nerves and hit the buzzer first. Their team will get two points for a right answer, minus one for a wrong one. A still from the first film appears on a rather hazy screen at the back of the stage. Before the picture begins to move, someone buzzes.

       “New Zealand!” says a deep voice.

       “‘Shrek’!?” says a high voice.

       “‘Shrek’ is correct!” says the man in the hat.

The same thing happens five more times, prompting the man in the hat to turn to the audience. “Took me about 100 hours to find those clips,” he says, in a tone of outraged delight. “Took the kids six seconds to spot them!”

The man is not just the ringmaster and question-setter for the Kids’ Lit Quiz but its founder and driving force. His name is Wayne Mills, and he is four days into retirement from his day job as a senior lecturer at the University of Auckland. His subject was education itself, so he saw many schools. “I would go to assemblies and the prizes would be dished out for sport, sometimes maths and English and so on,” he tells me. “But never ever did I see anyone being recognised for being good at reading. That was the catalyst.”

He knew that boys were liable to lose interest in reading, and that, even for a bookworm, it could become a chore as they read less for fun and more for knowledge. “This is the age group where, round about now, reading drops off.” So he targeted the under-14s and turned reading into a competition. The Kids’ Lit Quiz has a telling subtitle: the sport of reading. “I talk about the quiz being a sport because the kids have to try out for the team—you may only see four kids here, but there may have been 80 or 100 trying to get into that team. And they practise, and travel together, and high-five, and so on.” Mills gives them a pep talk about sportsmanship, stressing that even if they finish last, they have done very well, and urging them to applaud each other. “These kids have rarely ever lost. They’re clever kids and they have to learn to lose gracefully.” The Singaporean team, not the best at buzzing, emerge as world-beaters when it comes to magnanimity.

In Falmouth, there is plenty of high-fiving and clenchings of fists. The brainboxes are often every bit as competitive as the jocks, and here they have the chance to show it. For the spectator, the contest has the ebb and flow that a sports fan wants to see. There are enough rounds to sort the sheep from the goats and the hares from the tortoises. The boys buzz more early on—this is the first time they have outnumbered the girls in the final—and the all-male team from Australia race into the lead, with South Africa, also all-male, on their tail. The four girls representing Britain start slowly, then sneak up into third. Australia pull away, Britain stall: we think it’s all over, but Australia freeze, South Africa fade, New Zealand surge, America flicker, Britain have one big round and keep going. The result is in doubt till the moment the compères, a comedy act called The Two Steves, read it out, agonisingly slowly, as if this were a TV quiz show—which it surely should be. The winners are Team UK, City of London School for Girls, who also won in 2010. In a twist worthy of the back pages, their line-up contains two Australians, an Irish girl—and only one Briton.

It all began in 1991, when Mills, then working at the University of Waikato, held the first Kids’ Lit Quiz in Hamilton, with 14 schools taking part. It took him 15 years to reach Britain, which hosted the first world final in Oxford in 2007. How many schools take part now? “Thousands,” he says. “We’re in 11 countries, if you count Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as separate.” He has his eye on India next. The quiz was in Shanghai for five years, but it relies on local volunteers, and the co-ordinator there pulled out. It carries on in Hong Kong, whose team couldn’t come this year because they had gone home to their families in different countries. Mills feels for them: “they got the best score in the world.” In every nation, the questions are Anglocentric. “In New Zealand, we publish about 125 kids’ books a year. You guys publish about 15,000. Why would you want to read any other nation’s books?” Kim Pickin was right about British children’s books.

Any team that makes it to the final has come a long way. They will have won their regional quiz, back home in Johannesburg or Toronto, seeing off maybe a dozen other schools over ten rounds of ten questions each. At this stage the answers are written and the questions are concise: “Which novel begins, ‘In a hole in the ground lived…’?”

They meet the other regional winners in the nationals, where buzzers appear and the questions mushroom—though that may be the wrong vegetable to invoke, as Mills delights in coming up with questions of many layers. “This author was born in Victorian England,” he will say, “and wrote around 40 books for children. She has been credited with pioneering a new kind of children’s literature, dealing with ‘tough truths’. She had five children herself and was a founder member of the Fabian Society. One of her books became a well-loved film, ‘The Railway Children’—” whereupon the contestants will spot the name nestling inside the onion: E. Nesbit.

Long, educational and demanding, the questions are designed to favour the brave or the supremely informed, of whom there seem to be plenty. “I was really impressed with the finalists’ knowledge,” Mills says a few days later. “The cream really rises to the top.” And here is another parallel with sport: the quiz unabashedly rewards the best. At the dinner after this year’s final, Mills sat next to a woman from a Toronto bank which was putting C$16m into literacy. “But it all goes to the bottom end,” he says, with a twinge of envy. “We do need to support kids who can’t read, but nobody is doing much for the kids at the top end.” The Kids’ Lit Quiz has had various sponsors over the years, but looks as if it could use a big one, and a PR: in New Zealand and South Africa, it draws TV crews and reporters, but in Britain the silence has been deafening, perhaps because the schools that have done best in it have been private, apart from Cockermouth in Cumbria.

We are talking at Mills’s British base in Bracknell, Berkshire, the home of his son-in-law’s parents. A small grand-daughter pops a quizzical blonde head round the door. She is at the stage of nursery rhymes and picture books, which form one end of the spectrum for her granddad’s questions. The other end is “The Hunger Games”, which just squeezes in: “I suppose you could say it’s awfully violent, but it’s also an indictment of society and reality shows, and there’s a degree of black humour.” Just beyond the pale is “The Fault in Our Stars”. “John Green is one of the best teenage authors in the world, but there are instances of sexual behaviour.” The boundary was tested by Robert Muchamore’s “Cherub” series, in which children are trained to spy on terrorists. It begins when the hero, James, is 11 and innocent enough. “But soon he’s 17 and his girlfriend is shagging his best friend on his bed, and someone is videoing it. And kids are reading the whole series.” Still, even Harry Potter gets a girlfriend in the end, doesn’t he? “Yes, but we don’t see him consummate it.”

Mills writes every question himself, charging only expenses and a fee for the rights. For his 23 years’ service to reading, he has been made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit. Even more usefully, the quiz has a celebrity alumna: in the New Zealand team of 2009, which finished second, was Ella Yelich-O’Connor, better known as Lorde, who had a global hit last year with her song “Royals”. The trip to the world final in Johannesburg was the first time she had been overseas.

Now that he is retired, Mills wants to put the quiz on a more businesslike footing. At the 2015 world final in Connecticut, the first to be held in America, he will launch the Kids’ Lit Quiz app for Apple and Android (99 cents). “It’ll have 100 questions at level one, 100 at level two, and once you get through, the world-final questions. And no multiple choice. If you don’t know the answer, you have to go and read the book.”

CHAPTER 3: The Crunch of Reality

Back to Oxford—a very different Oxford. At the Story Museum, Kim Pickin called the location “a good mix of town and gown”. At Oxford Spires Academy, three miles away in Cowley, it’s more a case of town and veil. This is a co-ed state secondary with 1,100 pupils, many of Asian descent. It bears the scars of decades of political wrangling. It has been a grammar school, a comprehensive, a foundation school and now an academy, answerable to Whitehall rather than the city council. It is outstanding at one thing: growing writers.

Wayne Mills had said you could tell a lot about a school by its library, “and often in Britain it’s a broom cupboard”. At Oxford Spires, the library is the dominant building, light, airy and large enough to hold an event. On a warm July evening, it hosts the launch of “Wings”, a paperback anthology of writing by the school’s First Story group. The book is on sale for £10, so I buy it and read a couple of poems—“Wings” itself, by Maah-Noor Ali, and “For My Future Lover”, by Esme Partridge. One is a riff on the myth of Icarus, the other, as its name suggests, a future love poem (“It takes everything in me to wait for you”). Both are vivid, succinct and touching.

First Story is a charity that “supports and inspires creativity, literacy and confidence in challenging UK secondary schools”. “Challenging” means the school must be in the bottom third in terms of the pupils’ “postcode affluence”. First Story sends in a writer-in-residence to spend an afternoon a week coaxing teenagers to write. At Oxford Spires, for six years now, it has been Kate Clanchy, poet, novelist and former teacher. She is standing in the library with Katie Waldegrave, another ex-teacher and the co-founder of First Story.

This school wins all the prizes,” Waldegrave says.

Clanchy looks abashed, but only briefly. “We do win everything,” she says, “the Foyle’s, the Betjeman, the Tower...”

When I check the Foyle’s Young Poets of the Year, open to 11-to-18s, Esme Partridge, 16, is the winner. The Christopher Tower poetry prize, run from Christ Church but open to all British 16-to-18s, was won in 2013 by Azfa Awad, 18, an Oxford Spires student, returning today as the Oxford youth ambassador for poetry. When the shortlist for the Betjeman poetry competition for 10-to-13s appears, two of the three nominees will be from Oxford Spires.

Teenagers mill about, raiding bowls of crisps. Some are in purple school V-necks, others in jeans, many in hijabs. Then everyone sits down and the principal, Sue Croft, makes a speech. “I commend every word in this,” she says, brandishing the book. “Such a powerful, emotive, brilliant publication. I’m so proud of it. Lots of great things have happened to Oxford Spires, but the two best are First Story and Kate Clanchy.”

The kids go up on stage to read their work. Writers are often made of opposing forces, shyness and showmanship, and you can see that here. Maah-Noor Ali is quiet and quick. Jasmine Burgess, twice a Betjeman finalist, is more measured; at 13, she already has stage presence. Esme Partridge, clear, good at pauses, gets a laugh before she starts by saying “this is a poem I wrote in the night, feeling far too beautiful and too clever for my own good probably.” You believe her when she comes to the line, “it takes a lot of boy to scare me.”

Creative-writing exercises can easily be hazy, but these kids’ work has the crunch of reality. It homes in on home, on family and ethnicity. Half the pupils in the school have grown up with English as a second language. The first reader calls himself “a very proud Nigerian”; others mention Tanzania, Bangladesh and Hungary. One girl dedicates her poem “to a lovely lady who was my counsellor when I had depression”. Another writes about “my dad having a really bad case of pneumonia”. A third reads “a letter to my dad who passed away”. Her voice is calm and piercing. “I sometimes feel cold,” she says, “as though part of me is missing.”

Oxford Spires is exceptional, as its trophies attest, but it is only one of 50 schools that have a First Story group. Each one produces an anthology, which features every member of the group. At First Story’s office near the Tower of London, 150 anthologies sit proudly on the shelves: around 2,500 teenagers have become published authors. All this began in 2007 when Katie Waldegrave, then teaching in a challenging school near Heathrow under the Blair-era Teach First scheme for graduates, met William Fiennes, author of “The Snow Geese” and later of a series of walks for this magazine. “We were introduced by mutual friends,” Waldegrave says. “I was a teacher interested in writing, he was a writer interested in teaching.” Fiennes had formed a writing group at the American School in St John’s Wood. “He was talking about what it did for those students, how they became more confident. But that’s a very swanky private school.” She should know: her father, Lord Waldegrave, a Tory minister in the 1990s, is the provost of Eton. “I was saying it would never happen at a school like mine. And to Will’s eternal credit he said ‘let’s give it a go’.”

So they did, on a Wednesday afternoon. Fiennes gave his time, unpaid; Waldegrave, conscious that staying late usually meant football or detention, lured the kids with “a lot of bribery—biscuits, and having a famous person helps”. Even if they hadn’t heard of him? “Yes, but they could Google him.”

Left to their own devices, the kids didn’t write about what they knew, they wrote about what they had read. “It used to be Harry Potter, now it’s vampires. At my school, we didn’t have any white students in the group, nobody had a name like Jane or Mary, but they were writing stories about Harry and Jane and boarding school.” Drawing them back to reality meant getting them to put down their pens. “Kids are keener to talk than write, as most of us are, so we would get them talking about their lives and say ‘that, there, is a story’. Will was brilliant at that, showing them there was a story under their nose.”

This took time, so they decided that the arrangement needed to run for a school year. They set up as a charity, appointed a board, spread the word and sent writers into eight schools. “We were probably really naive. We thought we can just raise a bit of money, I’ll send some e-mails…” Would they have done it if they had known what they were getting into? “Probably not, but I’m very glad I did.”

First Story now employs nine people, “mostly part-time, so we add up to about five”. One of them is a paid intern, Jay Bhadricha, who was a member of an early First Story group and went on to read English and history at Exeter. Just as boys are usually outnumbered by girls among the young writers, so Jay now finds himself the only man in the office.

Over the years Waldegrave has learned which planets have to be aligned for the system to work: “It needs a teacher who loves the idea of it, ideally two, and the head teacher, and the head of department. Schools are complicated places.” After getting the writer free at first, the schools now pay about a third of the actual cost of £13,000, with the rest covered by private donations and an Arts Council grant. First Story has an annual budget of just under £700,000. Waldegrave, who achieved her ambition in 2013 with a biography, “The Poets’ Daughters”, wants to write more, so she is stepping back. The new director is Monica Parle, a Texan with a big smile who has been on board for four years after working in publishing.

As my tour ends, what strikes me is the genes these three projects share, beyond banging the drum for literacy. Each started as just a spark in the mind of a thoughtful person. They all turned that thought into action, even though they had no experience of the field. They all showed grit as well as get-up-and-go. The three projects run on a wily blend of idealism and pragmatism, warmth and steel. And they are all inspiring. First Story runs a residential summer school, with one or two kids from each group. This year they spent five days in rural Somerset. “We drive down in coaches,” Waldegrave says, “and they’re absolutely silent, homesick.” But they soon warm up. As Will Fiennes put it on Twitter: “60 teenagers, writing. Also: water fights.” While she was there, Waldegrave got into a debate with an inner-city kid about a sheep. “He was pretty sure it was a pig.” Not only was he unused to the country: he clearly hadn’t read many children’s books.

 

Readers' comments

Sign in or Create your account to join the discussion.