People have been telling short stories ever since prehistoric accounts of memorable hunting trips were painted onto cave walls. A good short story doesn’t contain a complicated plot and too many characters; instead the focus is on one main concept and the way it is told. Edgar Allen Poe defined it as a piece that can be read in one sitting. In a good short story every word is carefully chosen. There is little time and space in which to make an impression. A good short story can take as long to write as a novel. They are the equivalent of life drawing for an artist. It is where a writer’s skills are honed.
These days many boys and girls are reaching puberty while still in primary school. It is then a boy’s attention span will drop, and his interests become vastly different to a girl’s. Adolescence is a time of confusion. It is when the social group is everything, when both genders are fixed in their determination to meld with their peers and reject adult ideas and control. In my first collection Killer Virus and Other Stories, each of the ten stories involved a thirteen year old boy involved in some new and different experience.
But while there is a big push to get more boys reading, it seems girls are being neglected. As a result of better nutrition and more exercise, pubescence is happening earlier to girls, sometimes as early as Years 4 and 5. This led to My Horrible Cousins and Other Stories where I hoped to introduce girls to a variety of writing genres, improve their analysis and comprehension skills, encourage them to develop their own creative talents, and help equip them with enough communication tools to navigate the challenges they will face. What I didn’t want were stories that sounded like chatty trend-driven magazine articles giving advice on fashion, gossip or the latest pop heroes. Instead I wanted girl characters that were strong and resourceful, good at overcoming adversity in differing situations and able to solve any problems thrown at them.
My third and latest collection, Space Footy and Other Stories also features twelve year olds, only once again these are boys. I am always aware that our students come from various ethnicities and I try to create appropriate characters and situations. The aim is to give young readers the opportunity to finish something short and satisfying. However when it comes to style and pacing, in every story things seem to take almost as much time as in real life and I use dialogue whenever possible to enliven the action. Here is an example from the lead story:
Ioli kicked the ball. Hard. ‘Bet you can’t kick that high,’ he yelled to Aarvi.
The ball sailed overhead. Ioli glanced nervously around. Spaceship hangars were strictly out of bounds. If Security caught them playing Space Footy, they’d be in BIG trouble.
Only one ship, Starship X, was moored in here. It was the biggest spaceship Aarvi had ever seen. Its roof nearly reached the ceiling and its sides were twice as wide.
Starships flew to this space-station from many planets. This one was from Earth. Not that Aarvi had ever been inside a starship. Nor had he ever been to Earth. But he’d seen holograms of Earth’s inhabitants. Humans, they were called.
Humans looked weird. Short and squat, their nostrils were in the middle of their faces in a bony knob called a nose. Because they had very short arms and no tail, they had to balance on only two legs. With no body hair, they had to cover their skins to stay warm.
Humans were so ugly, even viewing their holograms made Aarvi shiver.
It shouldn’t be hard for any youngster to realize that Igs and Humans are metaphors for different ethnicities. Each boy in this collection is different and each story takes on a new direction. Some of my themes include Science fiction: Space Footy, Freaky. Adventure: The Alien. Humour: Liar, Liar. Historical fiction: The Hippodrome. Mystery: Ghostercise. Magic realism: Rollerblade Heroes. Reportage: Medal of Courage.
All my stories vary in length and difficulty. I am always aware that chronological age doesn’t mean an equivalent reading age. Though all have twelve year old protagonists, they vary in complexity of comprehension, word usage and syntax. Most are split into small chapters to make life easier for the slower reader. But even if the language varies, the themes of self reliance and personal problem solving remain consistent.
Every time I write a new book, my website always provides comprehensive teacher notes that aim to assist in understanding my motivation and intentions. I am aware of shortage of preparation time, thus I try to provide background to my work, some helpful exercises and the inspiration behind the stories.
We need stories to fire our imagination and to keep us thinking and dreaming. We need them to tell us something about our past, to make some educated guesses about our possible future, and to help us make friends. Stories help us empathize with other characters in similar or different situations, and give us a sense of what is right and what is wrong. Hopefully, they attempt to put some order into a disorderly world.
The Australian Literature Review