D. D. Everest on inspiring children’s imagination

Children’s author D. D. Everest considers the importance of feeding children’s imagination, encouraging them to read books and inspiring them to write their own stories. In particular, he advocates the importance of libraries, which inspired the magical library in the Archie Greene trilogy. 

Chris Evans, the host of Radio 2’s Breakfast Show and now the new Top Gear, is an unlikely muse. But the success of his 500 words short story competition for kids suggests that with the right encouragement children can be inspired to write.

The competition, which concluded last week with a showcase of the best entries on Radio 2, has encouraged a whole generation of children to try their hand at writing. Since it began six years ago, nearly half a million children have put pen to paper – or fingers to keyboard.

Inspiring children: an alchemical ignition

Inspiration, as Evans’ idea demonstrates, is a wonderful thing. It’s a sort of magic, an alchemical ignition of the imagination. With it, writers can create masterpieces; without it, even the most mundane documents remain unfinished. So how do we teach children inspiration? How can we fire up their imagination?

In my Archie Greene trilogy, I use magic as a metaphor for human imagination. The story is set in the Museum of Magical Miscellany in Oxford. When he unexpectedly starts an apprenticeship at the Museum, the hero Archie Greene discovers the secret world of the Flamekeepers, whose job it is to protect the world’s most magical books

A reference book Archie uses, Mudberry’s Guide to Magic (13th Ed), even suggests that magic and imagination share the same etymology.

The word imagination comes from the same source as magic, and many leading authorities (including Gideon Hawke, from the Museum of Magical Miscellany) argue that human imagination is the last vestige of the magic that we all once possessed.

Bringing our imagination back to life

The problem is that as we grow older our imagination loses its magic. Hawke is responsible for identifying magical books that were lost in the fire that destroyed the Great Library of Alexandria. He relies on a magical device called an Imagining Glass, which resembles an ordinary magnifying glass but magnifies the imagination of the person who looks through it.

Unfortunately, most of us don’t have a magical instrument to inspire us. But with the right encouragement it is possible to see beyond the mundane and bring our imaginations back to life

Finding inspiration in the Archie Greene trilogy

In the second book, Archie Greene and the Alchemist’s Curse, Archie discovers that he and his cousins have a rare gift for writing magic. Inspired by a group of seventeenth century magic writers called the Alchemists’ Club, they set out to rewrite the fading spell books in the museum and restore magic to its former glory.

Armed with enchanted quills, the children are asked to imagine something from the natural world. Bramble scribbles a spell for a bumblebee; her brother Thistle conjures up a caterpillar. But they do not last because they do not use original magic.

When danger threatens, Archie produces a spell all of his own, inspired by nothing more than the magic of his own imagination. Archie is an exception, of course. Most children are more like Bramble and Thistle. They need help to find some inspiration.

In the Alchemist’s Curse, Archie discovers a place called the Darchive. Kept in total darkness, it contains magical books that must never see the light of day. Sadly, too many kids’ imaginations suffer the same fate. That’s why they need help.

Giving children permission to express themselves

Children need to be inspired to read and write. Nice as it is to sell a few books, when I go into schools to do readings and run workshops, it’s the opportunity to inspire the children that attracts me most. In part it’s a hangover from my own childhood. At the state schools I attended we didn’t have author visits. (Perhaps authors didn’t get out much in those days.)

I became a journalist as a way to make a living from writing. But as strange as it may sound for someone writing for national newspapers, it took a long time for me to have the confidence to explore my imagination.

That’s why I try to give the children I see permission to write to express themselves regardless of their upbringing or their literary leanings. Most of all I try to spot the one or two children who, with a bit of encouragement, could become writers.

He or she is there in every classroom. Usually quiet and a little intense, they sit at the back of the room, or even more likely off to one side. These days I look out for them. I can tell when I find them because they engage in a way that I can identify with. There is an electric current I can feel. After all, I used to be one of them.

My own children are older now, sixteen and eighteen. They write for pleasure — not all the time, but occasionally, when they aren’t too busy taking exams. They were rarely inspired to do so by school assignments, preferring to seek their muses independently.

I was lucky with my son — inspiring him with The Hobbit at a very early age. It’s still paying dividends now with unexpected conversations about Middle Earth. He’s just read The Silmarillion – which, as even the most hardened Tolkien fans will agree, is not an easy read (but obviously more inspiring to him than revising for his A-levels.)

Taking inspiration from what interests us

Magical worlds like Tolkien’s are the stuff of fantasy, but reality can be almost as exciting. When I was invited to do an event at the new Bodleian building a while ago, I found a quote on the official website: “Many people believe there is a maze of tunnels underneath the libraries.”

It fitted brilliantly with Archie’s world, and I could picture it in my head. Underneath our feet, I was able to tell the small number of excited children who came to the reading at the Bodleian are 39 kilometres of bookshelves with space to house 1.4 million rare books. Exciting!

When I visit schools, I use the Great Library of Alexandria and the Bodleian in Oxford to weave history and mystery into my talks, and to give Archie’s story added depth. I encourage the children to feed their imagination with whatever interests them – pets, holidays, their friends and relatives, anything that inspires them. Above all, I implore them to read.

Inspiration, after all, literally means breathing in. And what we breathe in matters. Books are magical because they are like doors that open on exciting new worlds – through those doors children can find the inspiration to unlock the doors of their own imaginations.

And if all else fails, there’s always Gideon Hawke’s trusty Imagining Glass for a little magic.

Archie Greene and the Alchemists’ Curse, the second in the Archie Greene trilogy, is available to buy now.

D. D. Everest’s debut novel Archie Greene and the Magician’s Secret (part 1 of the Archie Greene trilogy) was shortlisted for the National Book Awards (2014) and long-listed for the Branford Boase Award (2015). Archie Green and The Alchemists’ Curse, the second book in the trilogy, is published in June 2016.