Independent Story of the Year 2: Wanted: the best children's writers - Jenny Gilbert talks to actor David Schneider and his young friend Skye about the books they enjoy
Thursday 31 March 1994
Many children know perfectly well how to read; the trouble is, they don't want to. They don't believe they are missing out on something more satisfying and stimulating than television, Take That, or computer games.
This is what the Story of the Year competition is about: finding writers who can hook this vital age group on the reading habit for life, with plots that twist and turn, characters who convince, and endings that surprise or even shock.
It is not easy. It is arguably harder to write for children than for adults. The writer must not condescend but at the same time show good judgement of what makes sense to a child. He or she must remember what it was to read at this age - but not be old-fashioned.
This year's judges include the award-winning writers Anne Fine and Terry Jones as well as schoolchildren from around the country. They will be looking for a shortlist of 20 funny and sad, magical and exciting stories to read again and again. Write us such a story.
How to enter: see right.
DAVID SCHNEIDER, 30, an actor, appears regularly on radio and television and was in the spoof news programme 'The Day Today'.
He lives in central London with the actress Sandy McDade and her son, Skye, aged seven, who goes to Prior Weston Junior and Infants School, near the Barbican.
Skye: The Hobbit is my favourite book, I don't know why, it just is. I like Bilbo Baggins. Gran read it to me when we were on holiday in Portugal. We stayed in a hotel and it rained. It's a really long book and it took the whole holiday and longer. My mum and David finished it off when we got back. I want the one after it now, The Lord of the Rings - that's even longer. It's three times the size of The Monster Book. That's my biggest book. It's got facts. You can find out nearly everything, like 'Why do some animals lay millions of eggs?', and things about bats.
David read me The Secret Garden, and Mummy did, too. Mummy's good at accents. I've got a puzzle book and a tape of it, and I saw the film. But the book was more interesting. I want to be like Dickon, because he knows about animals and everything. He had a lamb and a moor pony.
I liked Esiotrot. It's about this tiny tortoise who grows bigger and bigger when it's owner says 'Esiotrot'. But then he doesn't fit in his little house any more so she has to say Esiotrot backwards. That's Tortoise.
I really liked a book we read called Flat Stanley. Stanley's a boy and he's lying down and a big board falls on him and makes him flat. He's not hurt, he really likes it. Then his brother decides to get flat and he starts piling books on himself, but it doesn't work.
We usually do reading at bedtime. After school my favourite thing to do at home is playing schools with Mummy. First she's the teacher and tells me about lots of different things, like Columbus discovering America. And sometimes I'm the teacher. She used to play it, but she doesn't much now. So I play it by myself. I teach Tony (he's a polar bear and he's a week older than me), Woofy and Freddy (he's about 37 and used to be David's).
David Schneider: When I got involved with Sandy and met Skye about four years ago I hadn't had any previous experience of kids and initially felt quite panicky about it. But the fact that Skye was very into books gave me something to latch on to. A bedtime story is very much a part of Skye's structure. It's also the ultimate reward / punishment. If things have gone badly, he won't be read to. That's our big stick.
But although it's a regular event, there's never one of us who for a significant period of time, without interruption, will read to Skye. When Sandy and I are working we'll alternate, and in the holidays it's his father, Tam, who lives in Scotland, or his gran. He has a mosaic of readers, and rarely do any of us get the chance of seeing a story through to its end. I'm getting quite possessive about Watership Down at the moment, because it was the first book that I enjoyed as a kid, and really loved. Sandy read a chapter the other day and I wasn't too pleased. But you have to accept that if you want to read a book through Skye, you're going to have holes in your reading.
It's a dreadful confession, but I'm sometimes aware when I'm reading that I'm using it as practice for my audition for A Book at Bedtime. I can almost hear myself reading it in an Anthony Hopkins voice with that beautiful expression of his. (I've never told anyone this before]) And I can get something out of it even if it's a boring story: dialogue practice, accents . . . Sandy and I both had a go at those with The Secret Garden - whether they matched I'm not sure.
Recently we did the Iliad and the Odyssey with him, and you get all these ridiculous names like Thermopedes, and I would say Ther-mop-ides and someone else would say Ther-mo- po-daus or something, and Skye would have to be the arbiter of correct pronunciation.
Not every book has been a success. We tried Beowulf - he had a beautiful copy of it as a present, and I assumed it would be an easy, kiddie version and then I could pretend to my friends I'd read the real thing. But it wasn't, it was only slighty adapted and very difficult. We tried a few pages and Skye just thought it was hilarious and kept saying, 'What is going on?'. So we called it a day.
The current dilemma is over Lord of the Rings. Skye's desperate to read it, but we're holding back because we don't think he's quite ready. Also, I want to be the one to read it - I used to love it and do war-gaming with it and so on. There might be some problems over that when the time comes.
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