I’ve just come back from a week spent working with kids at a school in São Paulo, Brazil. It was hot and exhausting, but also, as ever with school events, rewarding. São Paulo itself is not a beautiful city. It’s like a hot Croydon that goes on forever. However the Brazilians are hugely engaging and friendly, and the expat teachers charmingly quirky …
Anyway, the whole experience gave me much to ponder. One pondering strand concerned simply how blessed and lucky I was to have stumbled on a career that took me to Brazil, giving me the opportunity to moan about how hot it was. I’ve had various jobs, most of them boring, some of them soul-destroying. Writing – whether it’s sitting in front of my computer trying to turn vague ideas into readable prose, or visiting schools and unleashing my really quite impressive (if I say so myself) chimp impression, is truly never boring, and my soul remains substantially undestroyed.
And linked to this is the essential fact that almost everyone involved in the world of children’s books is delightful – from librarians and teachers, to the people who work at the publishers, and on to the writers themselves. I’d maintain that I’m basically quite nice, but I’m probably the least nice person I’ve met in this job (I’ve been known to gossip; I occasionally say mildly rude things about my rivals; I once drew a rude picture on the side of a white dog with a marker pen). This point – the delightfulness of my colleagues in the business – was driven home by the fact that Phil Earle was with me on the trip. Not only is Phil a superb writer for teens (and most recently, mid-graders), but he just drips decency and good humour from his every pore. And the fact he has six toes on each foot and constantly blames other people when he breaks wind are secrets that will go with me to my grave.
The other strand of my pondering was cultural differences and similarities among young readers. These kids were educated primarily in English, despite being almost all born in Brazil. Nevertheless, I expected more of the things I said to go, not so much over their heads, as past them, or through them some how. And yet they laughed in the right places; were dismayed, appalled and disgusted, more or less where English kids would have been. Or at least they were up until the age of 13 or 14. About then I noticed that it was harder to keep their interest, harder to make them see that what I said might be relevant to their lives.
And this was something more than that disengagement we find with UK teenagers, which makes talking to Year 9 and 10 kids such a challenge. It was simply that those universals that had kept the younger children focussed – the comedy of the body and embarrassment, the joys and excitements of friendship, etc etc, had become, well, diluted, by more specific elements, by the Brazilianess of their concerns. To really get them, I would have had to be more entwined with the daily realities of their lives, more attuned to the things that were important to them, the things that made them different and special.
Well, it was only my second trip. Perhaps next time I’ll have found the key. But my point is that to grip teenagers even in our own culture, we have to make that leap of understanding, to unlock their secret world, to feel our way in to the grainy textures of their lived experience.
Or I suppose there’s the option of more fart gags for 8 year olds …