‘The Lost Happy Endings’ by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy – Ideas and Resources

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I taught in Reception yesterday – writing a four-word sentence, one idea, all words decodable using satpni, repetition using a writing frame…. And at the other end of the spectrum is this – writing in a literary style, using adverbials to add nuance.  I can’t say that I have a preference for teaching writing in a particular phase, but I enjoy the sense that the one approach (in Reception) is building to the other.  It seems distant when working with Reception children, but from the beginning, even when writing short, repetitive sentences with a controlled vocabulary, we can give them a sense of what a sentence is, the conventions for showing how they start and finish, and how they, the writer, can control them.

Writing in this distinctly literary register is of course not the only outcome we are looking for.  (And by ‘we’ I mean professionals who want to teach children how to write well, not some ever-changing end of primary-age outcome).  We want children to be confident in all registers.  The narrative prose of, say, Malorie Blackman, as well as the different kinds of non-fiction writing.  But I do think there is a particular value in exposure to and writing of literary texts.  And I believe, having seen proof of it over years of intervention with struggling pupils, that every child can write them.

Texts written in this style provide access to a world that only exists when words are put together according to its rules.  It’s unfortunate that the current iteration of the curriculum insists on the teaching of ‘fronted adverbials’ and in doing so has created mockery and resistance within the profession to something that is useful and important.

For this resource, I’ve selected four sentences from the text that include adverbials starting with an adjective (or adjectives, or modified adjectives).  I’ve structured it so that the position of the adverbial can be either fronted, embedded or after the main idea – children can see it in all three positions and decide which works best.

The resource continues with a selection of sentences with adverbials starting with adjectives, again in the three different positions.  They are all taken from texts written in a more or less literary style.  As ever, the resource is fully-editable so that you can pick and change as you wish.

I’ve drawn on texts some of which are out of print.  But if you are lucky enough to work in an institution that will let you get hold of them, or you want to buy them for yourself, I would urge you to do so – they have endless uses as well as being works of art.

The Power of Reading unit for this text has a (very) long list of perhaps nebulously connected books that they suggest you draw upon.  One of them is another book by Carol Ann Duffy, ‘The Tear Thief’.  It reminds me of ‘Jinnie Ghost’ by Jane Ray (illustrator of ‘The Lost Happy Endings’) as well as ‘The Lost Happy Endings’ itself.  They all have mysterious, magical interventions at children’s bedtime.  Jub and the Tear Thief carry sacks with almost-numinous contents.  The Tear Thief and Jinnie Ghost are not human, and they travel in and out of houses along an urban street visiting different children.  The moon plays a central part in ‘The Tear Thief’ and is integral to the appearance of ‘The Lost Happy Endings’ and ‘Jinnie Ghost’.

However, ‘The Tear Thief’ lacks the narrative and stylistic cohesion of ‘The Lost Happy Endings’ and ‘Jinnie Ghost’.  The writing style is not consistent.  I think Carol Ann Duffy was aiming for more of a story-teller register, sounding closer to speech, but she frequently lapses into a literary style along the way.  The way the story is structured is also problematic: somehow we don’t know if the Tear Thief has good or bad intentions at the beginning; and when the mother says to her son, ‘Stop crying or the Tear Thief will hear you’, we don’t know if the thief is some kind of bogeyman or not.  We don’t find out soon enough why she is collecting the children’s tears.  In ‘Jinnie Ghost’, in contrast, we discover very soon that the ghost is easing the difficulties that children encounter in their dreams, and this is continued consistently until the end in a lyrical but still relatively-sparse style.

Then we have a very weak problem – a little girl has lost her dog – when none was really needed.  It would have worked better if the focus had been on the way that the Tear Thief uses the children’s tears to create the moon’s beauty.  On the last page there is an attempt to pull these elements together – the moonlight, the found dog, a baby crying – all in a full-blown literary style.  The beautiful writing does not compensate for the stylistic and narrative problems.  I wonder if a Year 6 class could notice this?

Picture book author recommendation – Kathy Henderson 2 of 3 – Lugalbanda, with resources

I’m glad I’ve never been asked to write a children’s version of a five-thousand-year-old story – the oldest written (in cuneiform) story in the world, in fact.  Being based on archaeological fragments, which amount to a story that comes to an end without a sense of completion, it must have been a great challenge for Kathy Henderson to impose a narrative sense without distorting the original.

What she has achieved is monumental.  I would go so far as to call it a service to humanity, particularly in relation to the hammering that Iraq has taken in the last 30 years.  As far as I know, Kathy Henderson does school visits and it would be fascinating to here how she wrote this retelling, not least the research.

You couldn’t map this as a story with a classic narrative structure, in the sense of the one that we teach to children – beginning, build-up etc.  It would be ridiculous.  What Kathy Henderson allows to come through, and which she illuminates, is the strange, at times numinous quality of the story.  The climax of this is the encounter between the hero, Lugalbanda, and the mythic Anzu bird (shown in the illustration above).

Jung would have loved it.  You can plot the journey of the psyche, as represented by Lugalbanda, from beginning to end: innocence and weakness, falling into sickness, the emergence from a cave apparently helpless but in fact with new power, a crucial period of self-reliance, the alliance through respect and cunning with the apparently-fearsome Anzu bird, the culmination as hero,

Who needs narrative structure when you’ve got that?  And of course children get it.  They always like the bit with the Anzu bird the best – the bit where we realise that we do not have to be afraid of the strength and power in ourselves as human beings.  The context of the story is war – Lugalbanda’s father has launched an unprovoked attack on a neighbour – but it ends with a message of restraint.  The newly-realised hero is sent for assistance in bringing the war to a close to a goddess, who advises him how to achieve victory and, as important, to preserve the people and culture of the vanquished city.  So, we have the (male) hero and the (female) deity bringing resolution through conflict, followed by peace.

Children like hearing about things explained in this way: they may not understand it consciously but it resonates with (thank you, Jung) their unconscious, where this story makes most sense.  That wouldn’t be possible without the quality of Kathy Henderson’s writing and Jane Ray’s art.  So, this text is a doubly-beneficial one, meeting children’s need to understand themselves as human beings, through the adventure of the child protagonist, and their need for great words and pictures.

The text is certainly demanding.  It mixes the speech-related sentence types of the oral story-teller – ‘And he began to prepare for war.’ –  or – ‘His brothers carried him to a warm cave and tried to make him comfortable.’ – with those of a much more literary type, e.g. ‘They stormed through the fields of barley that surrounded the city and away across the plains like a herd of wild bulls.’ or ‘Now at last they came in sight of the city of Aratta, famous for its stone and its metals, for its craftsmen and its beautiful things, and there they pitched their camp at the city boundary, expecting to conquer it in a matter of days.’

I tend to approach the introduction of the text, therefore, with a light touch, reading most of it aloud myself.  What I mean is, that I don’t examine the sentences in the same analytical way as I do with many texts.

One thing that does bare detailed examination, however, is Kathy Henderson’s use of similes.  There are many!  You could deconstruct some of the sentences containing them and try moving them into different positions, seeing if they work as fronted adverbials or if embedded, like this.  I’ve included all of them so that you can choose the ones you like, if working with them in a whole class context (you might want to select the ones that have a matching picture from the book – not all of them do).  Or, for an activity, you could enlarge and distribute so that different groups are examining different examples.  If the children can cut up the sentences into their main idea/subordinate idea parts and move around, all the better.

This kind of analysis can help children to develop an ear for literary language.  They’ll be more responsive next time they encounter it and may start to echo it in their own writing.

I have to mention of course that Jane Ray’s illustrations are as stunning as ever.  In lessons introducing the book I’ve used the picture showing Lugalbanda’s home city, Uruk, by photocopying half of it and asking children to draw the other half, as the suggestion of symmetry in it is so satisfying.  It also draws their close attention to the story’s context and setting.