Mary Sutcliffe Remembers Jan

I can’t be sure of the exact date but sometime in the late 1980s, perhaps 1988, Jan visited the small village school where I was a teaching head – Finmere in the very north-east corner of Oxfordshire. In those days, author visits to schools were in their infancy but with financial help from our parent teacher association, Southern Arts and a supportive local authority advisor we had established a pattern of workshops and talks as part of our literature curriculum. I’d been influenced by Aidan Chambers, having undertaken a course with him, and in 1988 Margaret Meek’s seminal booklet, or ‘workshop’ as she always referred to it, How Texts Teach What Readers Learn, was published by Thimble Press. That this included one of Jan’s brilliant short stories is not insignificant.

Whenever an author was to visit the school, I made sure to read at least one novel aloud to the whole class- aged 7-11 – and the children were asked to read at least one other book for themselves so that the visit had a purpose and they had good experience on which to draw. I think the main books I chose were Thunder and Lightnings and Nothing to Be Afraid Of.  We’d undertake ‘Booktalk’, using Aidan’s framework and study of the books would be a major part of the curriculum. This was going to be especially important with Jan, as I was to discover.

She arrived by bus on the appointed day, and carried out two sessions with the children. The first was with the whole class and she talked about her writing, asked them what they’d read and enjoyed (or not). I won’t ever forget her telling the children, rather sternly, before inviting their questions that they shouldn’t ask her what she did for her ‘proper job’ as the writing was it! I think the children were as non-plussed as I was – they wouldn’t have dreamt of asking such a question. It was part of her somewhat brusque persona that belied a very generous spirit.

After lunch, eaten with the children, which I’m not sure she enjoyed, she undertook a writing workshop with a small group of about nine children- the older ones in the class. She had a selection of postcards from which they chose and asked them to write, for twenty minutes, without talking, describing what was going on in the picture as if it was in the middle of the story. They loved it and when she asked them to read out what they had written no one was reluctant. Afterwards, she simply asked them to consider whether what they had written could be the beginning of the story, and of course it could. Such a brilliant teaching point and so well made. She then talked about short story writing and the particular challenges of it, the need not to get embroiled in long introductions with descriptions of character, place etc.

Jan felt very strongly that when we asked children to write stories we were asking them to take on the most difficult form of all – the short story – and she made that point when I invited her to contribute to the children’s literature programme for the English specialists at Westminster. I think she undertook a writing activity with them too but I don’t remember the details, I’m afraid. What I do remember is that she was insistent on a very small fee, said that she was pleased to do it and that she lived nearby after all. So generous and yet she presented as a rather gruff, almost severe, personality. What she did appreciate, I think, was the fact that we’d prepared for her visit. She had such integrity herself that her expectations were high. Quite rightly of course.