The Ice Warrior was the story that started me writing for children. It came about more than 40 years ago. I was teaching English in a tough boys’ school in Hackney. One day I tried out an idea for creating a story out of random elements. I got the class to sit in a big circle, gave them all a small piece of paper each and asked them to write on it something that they liked to read about in books. It could be a character, a place, a situation, or an interesting object. I got them to fold their piece of paper and pass it to the person sitting on their left.
The idea was that I would then point at someone (could be anyone), and they would start to tell a story that included whatever had been written on their piece of paper (without telling us what it was). When they had got that far, they would stop, and the person on their right would take up the story and develop it to the point where they had been able to work in whatever was written on the piece of paper they’d been handed. The story would move round the circle, and go wherever each storyteller took it in turn. I describe the process in more detail in the blog “Was that true?” which you can find by clicking on the “Thoughts” section at the top of the homepage.
I was trying to show them that a story could go anywhere, and that facing the challenge of fusing apparently random elements might help them come up with one that was unique, precisely because it hadn’t followed the well-worn path of any particular genre.
You probably won’t be surprised to hear that they couldn’t do it. I was asking too much of them, and at that moment I made a pretty life-changing decision. Every good teacher knows they shouldn’t ever ask any child to face a challenge that they’re not willing to face themselves, right? I collected in the pieces of paper, shuffled them, opened the first one and began telling them a story. It took forty minutes (it was a double period) and
I was mentally exhausted at the end of it. The class had listened to it, gripped and in complete silence, for the whole time. When I finally got to the last piece of paper and the end, there was silence for a few seconds. Then one of the boys put his hand up. “Was that true, Sir?” he asked me. He was serious.
During the next school holiday, I wrote the story down. When term started again I read it to other classes. It went down well, and encouraged a lot of keen, young writers to try the technique for themselves. The school holiday after that was the long summer one, and I had a go at writing one or two more stories from ideas I’d jotted down during the term. After a year I had enough to fill a slim volume.
It was 1975. The publishing world was simpler and more open-minded then. I sent the collection directly to Penguin and had a letter back from them three weeks later saying they wanted to publish them. They quite liked the stories in general, but the one that really wowed them, the one that they thought made me worth investing in at the time, was the story I had made up during those forty intense minutes in that classroom in 1974.
The Kestrel hardback and the Puffin paperback have been out of print for decades. You can read that story now if you like by clicking on the link below. It changed my life.