Sept. 17, 2008
Brian Falkner makes writing a sport for young readers
A funny thing happened to Brian Falkner on the way from journalism and copywriting to his career as a screenwriter: He became one of New Zealand's most popular authors of fiction for young readers.
Falkner, who is in residence this fall at the University of Iowa International Writing Program, explains: "I didn't set out to write a children's book at all. I set out to write a screenplay. I was very interested on screenplays. I was reading all sorts of books about screenplays and writing different concepts for screenplays. And then something happened.
"What happened was that a New Zealand filmmaker had a short film accepted for the Sundance Film Festival -- a phenomenal success. I knew indirectly the person who had written the screenplay -- basically came up with the story out of thin air. Creative New Zealand, the funding body for the arts in New Zealand, were very excited that this film was going to be screened at the Sundance Festival, so they scraped together some money and sent over to the festival the director of the movie and the producer of the movie. The screenwriter was left out.
"And at that time I thought, this is odd. I don't think my ego could handle that. If I had a movie that was made -- you created the story, you invented the characters and wrote the whole things; but, nah, you don't count."
That was the end of the screenwriting ambitions, but Falkner didn't abandon the screenplay story on which he had been working. "The idea I was working on had to be a children's book because the central character was 13 years old," he says. "So that's how I came to write a children's book. But it was one of those lucky things because that is probably the field I'm most comfortable in."
That first book was "Henry and the Flea" ("The Flea Thing" in later release outside New Zealand), which was nominated for the Esther Glen Medal and listed as a notable book by the Children's Literature Foundation of New Zealand.
Since then Falkner has published two more highly successful books for young readers: "The Real Thing" and "The Super Freak," and now he's going truly international with Oct. 28 worldwide release of "The Tomorrow Code," about teenagers who receive coded messages from the future.
Responding to his first book, critic Claire Buckley wrote, "I wasn't just pleasantly surprised, I was quite blown away, for a first novel for children ... (T)he author really tapped into the way children think and their perspective on the world." Which is exactly what Falkner was trying to do.
"There is a fundamental difference in way that children think, and if you can get that flowing into the story, I think that kids can tap into the story a lot more easily," he says.
"I notice from my own children, and hearing their conversations with their friends, the sorts of things they talk about, the way they talk about them, and the things that are important to them are really quite different. A lot more things are possible for a child."
Having discovered how to tap into how children think, Falkner has now become a sort of one-man crusade for reading and writing, visiting schools in New Zealand and beyond, including his trademarked writing competition, Story Sports.
"I found that if you took some writing exercises, split the class into smaller groups and called them teams, and gave them points for how well they did, even the tough kids in the tough schools in the tough parts of Auckland, who previously would have just folded their arms and sat there and looked at you the entire time, would be in their groups discussing, and looking over to see what the other teams are doing and trying their best to do a better bit of writing than their mates in Team A or Team B," he explains.
"Suddenly they were really putting effort into writing. And it was quite an eye-opener for me. If you make it competitive and call it a sport, then kids who don't like writing will do it with enthusiasm and energy. We now run it in schools all around New Zealand. We get kids excited about writing. We have regional competitions and interschool competitions, and it's starting to take off in a big way."
He has also used a competitive taste test, based on the main character in "The Real Thing," whose acute sense of taste enables him to identify different brands of cola. And for that contest he has a special prize: "The person who gets them all correct, I write down their name, and they end up being a character in one of my new books. The kids love that."
Yes, Brian Falkner HAS definitely tapped into the way children think.
Learn more at http://www.brianfalkner.com.
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