Over the past few months I’ve been working with students from Beckfoot Upper Heaton school in Bradford, running creative writing workshops for First Story, a wonderful organisation that places writers in schools to encourage students in creative writing. Today we launched our first anthology of student’s writing. I’m very proud of them – they’ve worked so hard and with such enthusiasm. The finished book looks amazing! A big thanks to Si Smith who illustrated the characters and the front cover.
Here are some pictures and my introduction to the book. Enjoy!
One of the first things that stood out to me when I started to work with the group from Beckfoot Upper Heaton was the banter, bravado and general good humour of the cohort. This was a group of (mainly) boys who enjoyed the surreal, the bold and the audacious. I think the title of this anthology captures that sense of youthful confidence well. We Have Conquered Earth is not a shy title! It had rivals for the prize – Prepare for Epicness being one of my favourites. I also liked, Do Not Knock, which captured the penchant for horror and the macabre that is sprinkled throughout the book, but also said, ‘Don’t knock us, or our writing!’ In the end, We Have Conquered Earth seemed to best reflect the weird and wonderful characters we had birthed, and the comic-like illustrations Simon Smith created to accompany them. So, I decided to be brave, throw off the straightjacket of subtlety, and jump headlong into this world of superheroes and monsters! I hope you enjoy stepping through the doorway into this strange and remarkable world too!
The anthology is divided into three main sections. To begin with, the focus of our weekly sessions was on the realities of life in Bradford, and reflections on our own identities. These sessions led to the first few pieces of writing, which explore our perceptions of the city and of our own names. I think these works highlight interesting conflicts, best expressed in the lines, ‘Bradford is hardly ever sunny. It is a sunny place.’ The group saw the city as being both, ‘magnificent’ and at the same time, ‘full of thugs’, both ‘The bluest part of the sky,’ and yet, ‘A broken water bottle leaking onto the carpet.’ That sense of polarity was also expressed in the writings about our names, which saw ferocious tigers and gentle sounds expressed in the same few lines. I think the group’s writing captures the reality of life, where good and bad co-exist around, and inside, all of us.
The idea behind the second section of the anthology arose from a project I worked on last year called, Stories from the Forests of Leeds. For that project, we imagined the city as a forest in a fairytale and asked what sort of characters might inhabit it. What tales would emerge from the shadows? In stories, the forest is a place of transformation, it’s where characters go to face their fears, battle monsters, escape as outlaws, or throw off disguises. This was an ideal opportunity to venture into the Forests of Bradford. We started by examining a big map of the city, identifying interesting place names, and then building characters in response to them. The students created flags, adding one sentence character descriptions to them, and then sticking them to the map. I’ve found in both forest projects this process builds a rich city mythology, which can be expanded and explored. In this anthology we introduce you to some of the characters of the Forests of Bradford in a sort of Encyclopaedia of Forest Folk. I’m hugely grateful to illustrator, Simon Smith, who brought these characters to life in his wonderful drawings. Simon took a trip into Bradford City Centre and sketched some of the people he saw there. Each character you see is based on one of those sketches of a real life Bradfordian. I’ve included a couple of these work in progress sketches at the back of the anthology.
The final part of the book is made up of monster stories. These reflect some of the themes in my current Firebird Chronicles book The Nemesis Charm. Throughout our First Story sessions, I’ve read sections of my work and the students have looked at my writing journals. We’ve talked about the process and experience of being an writer. I’ve been encouraged by the enthusiasm of the students to learn more about what it means to be an author and to engage with the writing itself and with the process of creating it. Monsters was a theme that particularly captured the students’ imaginations. Although at first glance, it may look as though these stories are purely fantastical, they do contain kernels of truth and real experience – fears from our own childhoods, the way we react physically and mentally to threat, and little pieces of our own history, like the Star Wars lamp and blue blanket Sahil Hussain mentions in his story I Am The Shadow.
I’m incredibly proud of the effort and enthusiasm with which the students have approached First Story this year. I hope you enjoy the fruits of their labour, and join us as we celebrate the victories of conquering blank pages with new pieces of creation. For WE HAVE CONQUERED EARTH!