It can be argued that it is our imaginations that drive us forward, enabling us to create theories and inventions, new ideas and stories. Our imaginations enable us to perceive our lives as bigger, better or simply different.
Nothing is created without it having been imagined first. And creating stories as children is an excellent way of connecting with and strengthening our imaginations from an early age. Writing helps to fulfil that need we have to reach out, connect and communicate with others.
It was a love of reading that made me want to write my own stories, to create my own worlds. From the age of seven or eight, I started writing stories and poems for my own amusement, but it was only when I was in my 20s and after years of working as a computer programmer that I thought of pursuing writing as a career.
Malorie Blackman is a judge in BBC Radio 2’s 500 Words competition, along with HRH the Duchess of Cornwall, Frank Cottrell-Boyce, Charlie Higson and Francesca Simon. The competition closes at 7pm on 22 February. Find out how to enter here.
As a child, we had a number of non-fiction books at home, including a full set of encyclopaedias, but my dad thought that I would never learn anything from fiction. Dad was a great believer in a good education and acquiring knowledge, so he was happy for us to have non fiction books, but fiction? “It’s a waste of time, Lori. It’s not real. It’s not true. You need to live in the real world.”
But Dad was wrong. Fiction teaches us empathy, shows us we are not alone, allows us to walk in the shoes of others as well as all that other good stuff about improving vocabulary.
Recent studies have shown that reading widely for pleasure has cross-curriculum benefits for children, enabling them to grasp new concepts and ideas more easily.
As a consequence of my dad’s attitude, practically every Saturday and most holidays found me at my local library. Rain or shine, a packed lunch in hand, I’d head off to the public library to read as many books as I could during the day before taking out enough books to last me until the following week.
I can honestly say that I would never have become an author if it hadn’t been for my local library. The librarians got to know me and would recommend books that I might enjoy. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë were both librarian recommendations when I was 11. To this day I thank them for that.
I devoured so many library books – both contemporary and classical – that I could never have afforded to buy. My reading tastes were eclectic to say the least, ranging from Ancient Greek and Roman stories, Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, Victorian novels, myths and legends and contemporary novels across all genres.
Thousands of books over a number of years and yet not one of them by an author of colour. The Color Purple by Alice Walker was the first book I read by a black author, and that was when I was 21. Even with my active imagination, I never considered becoming an author because I’d never come across any authors of colour before then.
And far more insidious was the belief that though I loved stories, I was not really a part of the world of literature because I never saw myself or my life reflected in any of the books I read. That’s why it is so important to me to do as many school visits as possible, to show all of our children that authors come in all shapes, sizes, backgrounds and colours.
I remember vividly how certain books unlocked the doors to wider reading and the introduction of new concepts, ideas, visions. Reading Chocky by John Wyndham when I was ten had me devouring all the science fiction books I could get my hands on. In later years, reading Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry revised my low opinion of westerns.
For me, this is the joy of reading – the immersion into different world views and different ways of thinking and being. Every author I know wanted to write for the same reason – a love of reading.
Radio 2’s 500 Words is a truly wonderful annual competition that I only wish had been around when I was a child. With two story categories, for five-to-nine-year-olds and ten-to-13-year-olds, 500 Words is an open invitation to the nation’s children to dust off their imaginations and write a 500-word story.
In 2017 there were over 130,000 entries. But to any child thinking of entering, don’t let the fact that so many children send in stories put you off. If you never enter, you’ll never win! So what would be my advice to any child or adult who wants to write and who isn’t sure where to start? Enjoy yourself.
If you enjoy writing your story, we’re more likely to enjoy reading it. Don’t copy anyone else’s style. Your style is what will make your own story unique.
Write from the heart as well as the head. Don’t be afraid to write about the subjects that make you laugh, cry, scared or angry.
Don’t just think about what you’re writing, feel it too. That’s what will lift the words off the page. Create characters your readers will care about. Have your characters take us through the story so we can experience their journey with them.