An exciting, ambitious and imaginative voyage

Posted on: 01 Mar 2016

Nicholas Hopton, Rendcomb College’s Head of English, describes how pupils from the Gloucestershire school published a children’s book, ‘The Paper Cut Collection’.

Seeing work published and celebrated is important to most authors. Texts need readers… and not just those wielding mark schemes and red pens. The potential for publication can instil pride and purpose in young writers. Creativity is exciting.

These values underpin pupils’ experiences of studying English at Rendcomb College. They also explain why, when Amy Bird, the College’s Head of Art and Photography, dropped by to ask whether the department would like to help the entire Year 8 cohort create a children’s book, the answer was an immediate YES!

Creating the Characters

Amy’s idea was to take Eric Carle’s iconic collages as a starting point. His perennially popular book The Very Hungry Caterpillar inspired the pupils to produce their own illustrations by inking, printing, stencilling and collaging with tissue paper. They invented charismatic creatures, taking pride and pleasure in their work as they learnt new skills associated with creating textures and colour combinations. Knowing that their characters would appear in print gave the project an extra edge and every child in the year group rose to the challenge. An attractive menagerie of parrots, crocodiles, dolphins, sloths, giraffes, monkeys, hummingbirds and many more soon populated the art studios. In other contexts, this would have been ‘job done’ – a grade, some feedback and the chance to take your work home and stick it on the fridge door. Not so on this occasion. It was time to bring the creatures to life in words…

Crafting the Stories

In one of Eric Carle’s books, the artist’s drawing of a star launches a creative process that ends with an entire universe appearing on the page. This is how we wanted the Rendcomb College pupils to think of their animal art – a launch pad for an exciting, ambitious and imaginative voyage. Working in small groups, the students dreamt up characteristics and possible plot lines for a selection of the collage characters. Two chameleons became the rather smug Kelvin and Klein, Hercules the Hippo was agreed to be a lazy loafer and Penelope Peacock emerged as a planner of spectacular parties.

Looking at a variety of children’s books and getting feedback from younger siblings helped the students plan accessible and appealing plots. Simple quest narratives in which a sympathetic lead character attempts to solve a problem proved popular with 4-6 year-olds, the target readership. All the groups ended up constructing a tale based upon this formula. In the first, Gandalf the Giraffe seeks help finding breakfast. The second story charts the disorganised Mr. Crocodile’s attempts to find his hat. In the final tale, a friendly tortoise searches for someone to teach him how to swim.

Simple premises maybe, but the pupils sprinkled them with charm and engaging language. They made sure that each character had a distinctive voice, incorporated refrains to encourage less-experienced readers and used words playfully. Little details such as Mr. Crocodile going ‘STOMP! STOMP! STOMP!’, the description of bubbles coming from the mouth of a panicking fish and an intriguing opening statement that ‘Timmy the Tortoise was looking for an adventure’ showed how thoughtfully the stories had been crafted. After they had helped to edit and refine each other’s work, it was time to set about sharing their creations…

Publishing the Book

The pupils’ excellent art and writing inspired the staff to take the project further than we had envisaged. Rather than using a photobook website to construct the book and offer parents the chance to buy copies, we decided to go all out for a fully-fledged publication. Staff from the Art Department spent many hours preparing the illustrations and text before designing each page with great care. Given Rendcomb’s charitable ethos, it felt important to use the project to support Roald Dahl’s Marvellous Children’s Charity so we arranged for £1 from every book sold to go to this worthy cause. We also sought advice and cooperation from local independent bookseller Octavia’s Bookshop in Cirencester and applied for an International Standard Book Number.

Our aim was to launch the pupils’ book around World Book Day with events at Octavia’s and in school. This proved to be an exhilarating race against time and an education for the teachers involved. Anticipation grew among the pupils as we kept them informed of progress; their excitement at the prospect of the stories being on sale and shared with the general public galvanised us for the final push. At last the day came when The Paper Cut Collection was despatched to the printer and we all held our breath…

Seeing Songs

In Eric Carle’s book I See a Song, a monochrome violinist starts to play and, across each page, wonderful images appear. As the patterns form, the musician himself becomes ever more colourful. Such is Carle’s vision of the transforming power of the imagination and we got a compelling sense of its truth throughout this project. Collaborative, creative, challenging and developmental, it brought the best out of the pupils and gave them the chance to ‘see songs’ for themselves.

We have been fortunate to enjoy recent visits from illustrious artists and writers such as portraitist David Cobley and poet Simon Armitage, each of which has been inspirational. Looking forward to a World Book Day on which Rendcomb College pupils (nee, authors and illustrators!) are publishing their own children’s book, however… now that’s even more special!

16_03_01 Nicholas Hopton Head of English

About Nicholas Hopton

Head of English at Rendcomb College, a co-educational, boarding and day school for 3-18 year olds which is set in the idyllic Cotswolds.