It’s almost a year to the day since The Nightmare Catcher was first published and as well as setting the children a writing challenge, as ‘author’ I’ll also be fielding questions about the book, its character and its themes.
Since we established SMP in the Carnegie School of Education in 2018, we’ve had plenty of time to think about the word ‘author’ and what it means. Michel Foucault is one of many theorists who have problematised the term, alerting us to the underpinning power dynamics of ‘author’ – what he terms the ‘author function’. According to Foucault, the author function serves to obscure the processes of the origins of writing, elevating the writer, who is normally already in a position of cultural privilege, to the much-vaunted position of author – someone whose power is omnipotent and cannot be challenged or replicated by lowly readers.
When we established SMP, we aimed to disrupt the author function in two ways. Firstly, we wanted to co-construct our stories with children. Through drama and creative writing workshops, the children we work with become co-authors of our stories, establishing setting, fleshing out characters and developing plots. One of our ideas here was that child readers would be more interested in the resulting stories because other children had been involved in authoring the text. As far as we know, there are no other children’s publishing houses working in this way.
Our second aim was to work with children who are not represented in mainstream children’s literature. There are a number of recent research projects which emphasise a clear lack of diversity in children’s publishing in the UK and we wanted to address this by making underrepresented children the co-authors of our stories. For The Nightmare Catcher, we worked with children from diverse ethnic backgrounds from Beeston Primary School. Our more recent books have seen us work with girls from South Asian backgrounds as well as a mixed gender group from Czech and Slovak Roma backgrounds.
And all of these children have brought so much to the stories that the SMP team, as culturally positioned adults, could not have even dreamt of! For The Nightmare Catcher, the children were so passionate about gaming that they decided the story would focus on a gamer called Jay. The children drew directly upon their experiences of the gaming world to give Jay an avatar called Drift, an enemy called Sycerasops, and a dark and scary underworld of Nightmare Caves with different challenges to overcome and escape.
But the children we worked with did more than author just the gaming parts of the book. They were receptive to our idea that Jay’s mum was ill and that this was affecting Jay’s wellbeing. They drew pictures of Jay’s bedroom. They decided that Jay would have a ‘good’ gaming chair, but that it would be old, from a time when his mum was working and they had more money. They decided that Jay would be worried about his mum and that he would scratch the arm of his gaming chair. They decided he would be an only child but that he’d have a bunkbed where his best friend used to stay before things got difficult at home. And they also decided that Jay would still have the Unicorn which his mum had given him when he was small.
So when I’m doing my virtual ‘author’ visit this national writing day, I will try to explain to the children why I am not really the author of The Nightmare Catcher. I’ll try to explain to them that whilst I was responsible for writing the words they have read, the authors of this book were actually many different people. Perhaps I’ll show them the credits page and the list of contributors and their roles, which reads more like film credits than the credits you’d expect to find in a book. And I’ll definitely tell them about the children who were also the authors and who, we hope, will continue to be authors in the future.