Title: Unicorn Girl
Author: Anne-Marie Conway (@amconway_author)
Publisher: Eponine Press
Page count: 216
Date of publication: 31st October 2018
Perfect for Year 4, Year 5 and Year 6.
Today, I ‘m delighted to welcome best-selling children’s author and drama teacher Anne-Marie Conway to The Reader Teacher. Here, she shares with The Reader Teacher her exclusive guest post about why creativity and childhood experiences are ‘at the heart’ of the school workshops she does for new book Unicorn Girl.
I’m also incredibly pleased that Anne-Marie Conway and her team have given me TWO signed copies of Unicorn Girl and two unicorn charm necklaces to be given away with the books! Read on to find out more!
As a drama teacher, I know the power of the imagination and how important imaginary play is, whatever your age.
I began using creativity to deliver the curriculum very early on in my teaching career. In my first job as a general primary teacher, I quickly felt constrained by traditional teaching methods and began to take a more creative approach to what I did. I had a planning meeting every week with my parallel teacher and while she liked my ideas she didn’t always have the confidence to incorporate them into her lessons. In the end we came to an arrangement; she taught maths to my class and I taught literacy to hers.
Nowadays, of course, it’s harder for teachers to hide in the wings. With ‘Teacher in role’ as well as other drama techniques being part of the National Curriculum, educationists everywhere need to find ways of delivering it themselves.
I can’t imagine working any other way. I am currently doing author visits to support my new book, Unicorn Girl, and inspiring the students to think creatively is at the heart of what are proving to be popular workshops.
In the book, my heroine Ariella has recently moved house and school. She is smaller than everyone else, is being picked on by the school bully and is desperately worried about her baby brother, Boo, who was born with a hole in his heart. Enter Albert, a frightened and scruffy young unicorn foal who looks like he needs her help.
The story is about their journey together and is illustrated with beautiful black and white drawings that I use as the starting point for the workshops I do.
At the beginning of each school visit, I lay out three very large versions of these pictures; one from the start of the book where Ariella and Albert are unsure of themselves and each other; one from the middle of the book where they are gaining in confidence and one at the end where they have overcome the hurdles in their way. I don’t want to spell it out much more than this because I don’t want to spoil the story! But you get the idea. There is a narrative arc to this. The characters develop.
The pictures give the students a way of talking about the themes in the book, even if they haven’t read it yet. But to get them imaginatively involved, I ask them to choose the one image they like most and ‘graffiti’ onto it the words and phrases that come to mind. This process involves some pairing up, a lot of chatting and a great deal of walking round the pictures and deciding what to do. And that’s before they start practicing on different pieces of paper with coloured pencils to get exactly the right image, preparing to draw it one last time onto the final picture – no second chances.
The feedback so far has been fantastic. The walking around and freedom to be creative makes it easier for everyone to talk about what’s in front of them. Sometimes it gets noisy and messy but it’s never dull.
My passionate belief in using imagination to connect with children comes from personal experience.
When I was 13 years old, my father announced to the family, out of the blue, that in six weeks’ time we would be going to live in Israel. It would be difficult to exaggerate the impact the move had on me – leaving behind my friends, my school and everything that was familiar to start a new life somewhere where I didn’t speak the language or know a single person. I wondered if I would ever fit in or be happy again.
It’s perhaps no surprise then, that the main characters in my novels often find themselves living in a new area or starting a new school, just like Ariella. It’s a theme I come back to again and again, almost as if I’m still coming to terms with the trauma of moving all those years ago.
I remember, during those first few weeks in Israel, I developed a strange coping mechanism. I used to pretend I was in a movie. I would stand at the bus stop, waiting for the number 90 bus that would take me to my new school, and I would imagine a camera crew filming me for a ground-breaking documentary. I devised the script in my head: Anne-Marie is waiting for the number 90 bus that will take her to her new school. Steam rises from the boiling tarmac, the air around her filled with clouds of sandy dust.
I used to tell myself that when the filming was finished, I’d be going back to my old life and the nightmare would be over. Not only that, but I’d be a huge star. (And this was years before the concept of reality TV even existed.)
Ariella in Unicorn Girl escapes into her imagination too. I’ll leave you to decide exactly how, but Albert appears in her life shortly after her beloved Granny Rae dies.
Albert has fallen through an invisible barrier that separates the unicorn world from the human world and he has no idea how to get back. It was important to me, when I was writing the book, that Ariella would be instrumental in helping Albert, rather than Albert appearing solely to help Ariella. I wanted their relationship to sustain her, but ultimately empower her. Albert is trying to get back to his old world, but Ariella can’t go back. She has to find a way to fit in to her new world, however difficult that might be.
The journey they embark on is funny and touching and full of setbacks but on the way, almost without realising, they grow strong and brave and full of courage, until finally, they are able to scale the emotional, as well as physical hurdles in their way.
Pretending to star in my own movie helped me through some dark, lonely times, too. It helped me to navigate the new and unfamiliar world that was so alien to me, until, slowly, without even realising, the gap between observing my new life and living it, got smaller and smaller.
I don’t think my response to a distressing situation was unique, nor is Ariella’s. A lot of children retreat into an imaginary world to some degree. It is part of how they negotiate their way towards the adult world. This is where drama in the classroom can be so powerful. If children are already working through thoughts and fears in their imaginative worlds, teachers can connect with them quickly by meeting them on familiar ground. We need to have faith that if we meet children halfway, if we stretch out a hand, they will stretch theirs back to meet us.
In practical terms, for teachers, this can mean dressing up, getting into role, entering into the drama. As soon as you put on a hat, or a cloak, or change your voice, students believe. And there are plenty of techniques to help you guide and control this more creative approach to learning. I use a tambourine to signal what I expect from the group. A shake means; ‘Finish up, sit down, it’s time to share what we’ve been doing.’ A loud bang means; ‘Freeze’. It’s important to keep activities short so that the pace of the lesson moves along, and it’s useful to stop at regular intervals to make sure the children are focused and on task.
Although, in my experience, whilst the lessons might be more chaotic than the average maths lesson, there is nothing sweeter than the noise of children devising a piece of drama to enhance and deepen their learning.
The workshop I now do around Unicorn Girl has brought together so many strands of my life, it’s caught me by surprise. I use the content I’ve created as an author, the skills I use as a teacher and the insights of that young girl, finding herself vulnerable and alone in Israel.
I’m out of my comfort zone a lot of the time – learning new things with every visit. But one thing’s for sure…I’m never bored.
Unicorn Girl is available from Peter’s and good bookshops as well as on Amazon and Kindle. Anne-Marie Conway is currently booking school author visits for 2019.
For more information, please visit www.annemarieconwaybooks.com
Big thanks to Anne-Marie and Michele for all your help in organising this stop on Anne-Marie’s blog tour and for providing the prizes for the giveaway. Extra thanks also to Anne-Marie for writing such an inspiring guest post, especially at this busy time of year!
So to celebrate the blog tour of Unicorn Girl, I am delighted to say that Anne-Marie has kindly given me TWO signed copies of her book to give away to one of my followers on Twitter along with two unicorn charm necklaces.
If you’d like a chance of winning this superb prize, simply retweet (RT) this tweet!