Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

The Pupils Making It Up as They Go Along: Resources

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

The Pupils Making It Up as They Go Along: Resources

Article excerpt

The weekly serialisation of books is nothing new. But what if you give reluctant readers the power to tell the author what happens next at the end of each chapter? Jo Knowsley reports.

The children were unequivocal. One of the characters needed to die.

A young adventurer had been mortally wounded as his party was pursued in their deadly mission to find a key to their past. And a decision had to be made.

Welcome to The Soterion Mission, a rollicking adventure story set in a world 100 years hence, in which a relatively mild flu epidemic has changed human DNA so that nobody lives beyond the age of 19.

The e-book was penned by Stewart Ross, a former teacher and one of Britain's most popular and versatile authors, with more than 230 published titles to his name. But this is a story with a difference. Every week the young readers have had to make a choice about what happens at the end of each chapter.

In this instance they had three options: make the characters stop and care for their friend until he passes away; have them carry him with them as they flee (though this would slow them down); or abandon him to die so they could carry on with their mission (the option they unanimously selected).

Ross was commissioned to write the book by Fiction Express, a revolutionary new online publisher that started life offering weekly serialised e-books to teenagers; stories that allowed them to help make up the plot as they went along.

The scheme was so popular that in February this year the company launched Fiction Express for Schools. More than 130 schools are now subscribed and thousands of children read the stories each week. The programme, designed to boost reading and literacy among children aged 8-12, is simple. Pupils start reading the first chapter online on a Friday afternoon and have until the following Tuesday to vote on which of three options they want the author to use to take the story forward.

The author then has three days to write the next chapter, developing the story in the way the young readers have chosen. The books each run for five chapters, which are designed to fit into a single half term, and each is around 1,000 words, convenient for guided reading sessions.

Ross, who has written two books for Fiction Express and is now working on a third for the primary market, was impressed by the idea when the company first approached him.

"I have four kids and they spend their lives on the phone," he says. "I also go into a lot of schools. To many children today, just the idea of a book can be very off-putting, so it's great to have something they find so engaging.

"At the same time, schools can get stuck with a Neolithic attitude towards books and reading, which is a shame.

"This is certainly a challenging way for an author to work. It forces you to stay focused on the plot. You do sacrifice character development and subtlety somewhat - and of course you know where you want the plot to go. You just have to take it there in the way directed by the pupils.

"As a writer it is interesting because writing can be a lonely experience," Ross adds. "You can lose sight of who you are writing for. But with this you have to imagine each week that you are facing a classroom of kids. It's hard at times, but exciting. It stops you drifting into an isolating, artistic world of your own."

The greatest surprise for Ross was how hard-headed and practical the pupils were in making their choices. "They were utterly unsentimental," he says, "though there is a dog in one of the plots and they seemed to care more about it than many of the characters. …

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