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Sunday, 4 October 2015

Fictional Characterisation with Primary School Children

Author Johanna Baker-Dowdell shares her own love of story characters and how this has been translated into an engaging and memorable classroom activity. Lucky students!

Some of the characters I discover in the books I read stay with me for years because they have been written in such a way that captivates me.

Great characters have me holding my breath as they take on a challenge, cheering when they succeed and crying with them when things don’t go to plan. Favourite characters from my childhood reading include The Velveteen Rabbit, Wilbur, Charlotte and Fern from Charlotte’s Web and anyone created by Roald Dahl.

Noah and Ethan Baker-Dowdell were very excited
 when their copy of Race To the End of the World
 arrived in October last year.
Following on from my previous post about storytelling with preps, I wanted to share a characterisation session I put together for my son Noah’s Grade 3 class.

Reading did not come naturally to Noah at first, but he always loved books and the stories they contained, so I knew he would find his own way of deciphering the words eventually. With some help from his school’s literacy teacher and reading at home, between us we fostered a love of reading that I’m sure will last Noah’s lifetime.

In the past year Noah has devoured most of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, all of Andy Griffiths’ Treehouse series and several graphic novels, but one book that completely captured his imagination was the first from A. L. Tait’s MapmakerChronicles.

Earlier on this year I had discussed the possibility of speaking to Noah’s class about writing with his teacher and she suggested we talk about characterisation. Since Noah had enjoyed Race To the End of the World and the main character, Quinn, was a similar age to the class, I thought he was the perfect character for us to discuss.

To get them into the mood for our characterisation chat we discussed the front cover of the book and I read the Prologue from Race To the End of the World to the class. I spoke about the ways an author develops a character, including writing about their appearance, how they are feeling, what they are thinking and the words they use when speaking. Next, I gave the class a page filled with quotes from that passage (see below) and we discussed what we could tell about Quinn’s character from the actions and words.

“After that it hadn’t taken them long to realise that Quinn remembered everything.” p. xii
“He could describe in detail the contents of each peddler’s cart that regularly visited the farm…” p. xii
“…they were careful to keep the secret of Quinn’s memory from the rest of the village.” p. xii
“Quinn had run as fast as he could to get to his own mother…” p. xiii
“Your mother says you can read, and write.” p. xiii
“I don’t want to go.” p. xiii
“The fact is that it takes a special person to create maps.” p. xiii

The class consensus was that Quinn is smart and clever, has a good memory, is hiding a secret, gets scared and nervous and has a special skill that not many others share. After talking about Quinn’s traits I asked the class to draw a picture of our leading character, which resulted in some intriguing interpretations (one Quinn was a vampire), and was a fun way to wind the session down at the end of the day.

When Noah and I walked home from school that day he told me his friends were excited about the characters they could create in their own narrative storytelling and they wanted to read the Mapmaker Chronicles too. Anything that inspires children to read and write stories is a great thing in my book.

Johanna is a freelance journalist and author of the book Business & Baby on Board.

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