By Ursula Estrada
Roxanna Erdmann, the founder of the School for Children Writers in Mexico City, advertises it as “A school for children who love words”. They certainly do. Once they start talking about their collections of books, their future reading plans, and their ongoing writing projects, they look so excited as if they could continue for hours. “I have about 600 books to read,” declared Erin, thirteen years old, who also delights in sharing a diagram of her bookshelf, very meticulously arranged in different sections. How to Train Your Dragon, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Geronimo Stilton’s series, The Neverending Story, and The Curious case of Benjamin Button are some of the favorite books of the children, who attend the ENE, the school’s acronym for its Spanish name, Escuela de Niños Escritores.
Young writer at the ENE
They also love creating new stories. Esteban, eight, has several ideas for novels. One of them is a “circular story”, a technique he learned at the ENE and has now incorporated into his own writing. Esteban is not the only one who is working on different short stories and novels at the same time. Almost all the children, who attend the workshops, do so. Patricio, eight, says he actually began going to the ENE because he wants to write a novel, and Erin, because she wants to become a writer.
Some of them have also begun gaining experience in literary life. Emilio, another young writer at the ENE, presented The travels of Jose Juan, together with author, Alicia Madrazo. The book introduces Mexican writer, Jose Juan Tablada, who, inspired by Japanese literature, created his own version of haiku and calligrams. Emilio became familiar with these during a workshop at the ENE, and was guided by Roxanna to talk about the book and share a fragment of it with the public.
Roxanna Erdmann is author of several children’s books and has worked in numerous periodical publications for youngsters. For twelve years, she was the editor of a Saturday supplement dedicated to children’s literature. Now she teaches at the Mexican School for Writers, and leads the ENE project. She explains that the pedagogy of the ENE helps children express thought through language, something that is essential when most human communication is built upon the relationship between them.
Parts of a dragon exercise
Another important objective is to help children reflect on their own condition as writers, becoming aware that through their work they can have an impact on others. “People used to say that one should reach a certain age to be able to become a writer, because one had to have a number of life experiences. Children may not have experience but they are able to write really remarkable pieces because they are able to make up for that lack through imagination,” says Roxanna.
She adds, “What is most difficult for a child writer is to put themselves in somebody else’s shoes, so we also work a lot on that.” In one of the exercises she often employs to achieve this goal, children create a character that loves eating something which they “wouldn’t eat even if they gave them a hundred dollars.” Roxanna explains that this kind of exercises can help children develop a better disposition to accept difference: “The fact that they reflect on their own situations, their own circumstances, their own pulsations is also related to understanding that others might be completely different.”
Children writers at the ENE
Lula Contreras also guides one of the workshops. She works as a librarian at El Roble School, where she leads a project to promote reading among the students. She and Roxanna met while they studied Hispanic Literature at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Lula states that reading and writing give children essential tools, such as the knowledge and ability to communicate through written language, as well as a growing confidence in those communication skills, which can be used not only in literary contexts but in many others in which written and spoken language is needed.
Roxanna works with the group for children between six and ten years old, and Lula with another one between eleven and thirteen. Each one of them has a personality of their own: the younger children are vibrant, filled with kinetic energy and a fierce imagination; the older ones are full of introspection, and a humorous, thoughtful creativity.
Each class begins with an activity that helps awaken children’s neurons, even if some of them protest: “But mine are already awake!” These can be word puzzles, brain games or other strategies of a more imaginary nature, such as the “fortunately/ unfortunately” game. In this, children collectively create a story using those two words to connect different situations. For instance: “Unfortunately, there is a tiger at the bookstore entrance; fortunately, there is a policeman that is bigger than the tiger; unfortunately, the tiger was very hungry and ate him up…” In these games, thinking joyfully intertwines with humor and fantasy, and children learn how to provoke laughter through language.
Once all those neurons are finally attentive, listening begins. A short story, a fragment of a novel or a comic is read out loud, introducing the session’s writing game. Two stories from Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad series are used to understand the difference between a real and a fantastic solution to a literary conflict. During the exercise, young writers think how to solve the challenge: they imagine different possibilities for characters, for the conflict they’ll face and for the plausible solution they’ll find. Then they begin translating those ideas into written language. Once they are ready, they share their stories with the rest of the group.
Short story written by a young ENE writer
The games that enable children to learn new writing tools are sometimes carried out with the help of props. Puppet theaters have been used to collectively create a play through a performance. At other times, a little plastic mouse has triggered a game in which children create their own version of Mouse City: they first draw a map of it and write a set of directions to find a hidden treasure, which other students will later follow, moving the mouse through the map. These games help children learn different uses of language, both literary and practical, and also incorporate other artistic disciplines into writing, such as acting or drawing.
During interviews, parents mentioned that their children gained several benefits from attending the ENE. The continuous practice of written language has helped them learn how to express their thoughts and ideas clearly, increasing their vocabulary and also improving their performance at school. Erin’s mother thinks, “When someone learns to read and write properly, and enjoys it, any kind of information they get will be very easy to understand, because they are used to processing it: to organize it in their minds, to associate it with other knowledge and to interpret it. In Erin’s case, she finds studying is easy for her, because she is used to doing that process”.
Some of them also mentioned that the structure of the workshops has helped their children learn how to respond to challenges, developing their ability to analyze and find creative solutions to problems.
Parents also said that attending the ENE has given their children tools to fully develop their imagination and creative potential. Through the problem-solving games, they have learned new techniques and have diversified their possibilities for creation. Some parents pointed out that writers might acquire these through experience later in life, but the ENE gives their children the chance to learn them at a very young age. These young writers themselves think that an enhanced creativity is one of the outcomes of attending the ENE, which has enabled them to think of new stories more easily, and to write them more fluently and effectively.
Child writer reading his story
Another benefit that is strongly emphasized is the potential of reading to help develop family integration. Most of the children who attend the ENE come from families who have in one way or another fostered reading among their children. Ivan and Paula, Patricio’s parents, explain how for them reading has become “a recreational activity that all three of us can share at home, or that can also be enjoyed individually. We have always tried to make reading a joyful experience. We read, we laugh, we look at [the books], we make different voices… That is something that has an influence in reading becoming a kind of game, something that you really enjoy. I think that is where Patricio’s pleasure in writing comes from.” Erin and her mother have also developed a closer relationship by individually reading the same books and talking about them together. These testimonies show how reading as a pleasant experience has played a key role in these young writers’ interest in creating stories.
In Leticia’s opinion, the kind of experiences and learning that the ENE provide could be shared with a wider public, regardless of whether families foster or not a love for reading among their children. Roxanna explains that most children begin to discover the power of language from a very young age, starting with the first time they call out their parents and get a favorable reaction, to when they begin to discover that they can also communicate through writing and have an effect on others. This initial discovery can evolve into something more complex, like a short story. She added that oftentimes this capacity is lost because of a lack of guidance. The ENE offers a space that nurtures the pleasure children find in imagining stories and cultivating their capacity to create through written language. The experience at the ENE also teaches us that thinking, imagination, humor, and joy don’t have to be disassociated.
Teenagers can also find a place for creative writing at the ENE, where they are known as “The Prefictionaires”, but that is another story, and shall be told another time (taken from Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story).
Photo: Ursula Estrada
Ursula T. Estrada was born in Mexico City, where she currently lives. She has developed and participated in several art education and art museum programs in Mexico and in Canada, some of which have received funding awards from relevant cultural institutions. She graduated from the University of British Columbia (UBC), earning an MA in Art Education, and is currently studying for a PhD in Art History at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).
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