One of the great things about being invited to talk to thousands of kids each year at school visits and festivals, is that you get a front-row view of how children interact with each other. You get to know their likes and dislikes and the way they think, talk, and connect in a fast-paced, ever-changing world.
I’ve been lucky to have been able to share my stories and books with children of all ages for close to twenty years now, and there’s one thing I’ve noticed that hasn’t changed among kids:
Play. That’s right, play.
From where I’m standing, I’m happy to report that play and imagination are still driving forces for our kids, especially for the little ones aged 4 to 7. The need and desire to move, dance, wiggle, make silly noises, laugh, pretend, sing to themselves – it’s all still there. What a relief, right?
I say relief, because we all know that at the core of what makes us human, of what makes us connect, love, laugh, and learn, is this very precious gift we call play. But as we age into doom-and-gloom-and-bills-to-pay-bah-humbug adults, we end up burying and suppressing that gift.
I’ve actually been told by some close teacher friends that many schools nowadays actually hasten this transition. School curriculums are so driven by outcome-based results and teachers are drowning in so much paperwork and red tape that play is often ‘straight-jacketed’ or at least limited – yes, even for the junior classes.
But why then is it that Finnish schools rank so highly in the world? The Finns revere play, embrace play, and consciously use play as an element in their education system. Delving into the reasons for this might perhaps best be left for another post or article, but it does make you wonder.
So… when I was thinking of writing my new beginner series The Besties, I knew I wanted play and imagination to dominate my stories. How about two best friends – besties – who share in everyday adventures at home, in their backyards, and at school?
And what if I make sure that the stories are not over-complicated and weighed down in heavy narrative, or bound by over-the-top plots and jeopardy?
And I want the dialogue and action to be entertaining and visually engaging?
Yes! Yes! Yes!
Okay, so my vision and intentions were set, and my publishers were onboard.
The Besties were born.
But… (yes, there’s a but!)
I also wanted something that would enhance the reading experience and communicate this sense of playfulness in a tangible way. I wanted it to jump off the pages and into the young readers lives – and at the same time include something that would allow teachers and parents to follow-up with creative learning activities.
Cue music and art – play’s partners in crime.
A lot of my own childhood playing embodied my love of art and music, and that carried on well into my twenties as a young musical-theatre performer in London’s West End – so combining drawing and singing with play seemed like a natural fit.
The character of Oliver loves to draw, especially comics. He records his daily adventures in his own comic series, which comes up in each Besties adventure and is featured as “Ollie’s Comics” at the back of the books. (Ollie’s Comics were created by award-winning illustrator Tom Jellett. Tom also brilliantly illustrates the series!)
As for the character of Ruby, she loves to play her ukulele and make up songs, which are also included at the end of the stories. While I was writing the lyrics for Ruby, I sent them off to my super-talented musical mates in the UK to see what they thought.
Within days they came back to me with melodies and rough recordings, and before we all knew it, we were going back-and-forth on WhatsApp with ideas for other songs.
And soon after that I was headed off to Scotland to record an album in Edinburgh with my besties. Yep, there we were, three middle-aged men bringing play back into their lives.
Fast-forward to January 2020 and the first two adventures in The Besties series were sent out into the world. Another two are scheduled for release in May. I hope these books, and the accompanying album, will not only stir your child’s imagination but will also help kick-start a lifelong love of reading and music and art, and of course… play.
Felice Arena is one of Australia’s best-loved children’s writers. He is the author and creator of many popular and award-winning children’s books for all ages, including the acclaimed historical adventures The Boy and the Spy, Fearless Frederic and The Great Escape, the bestselling Specky Magee books and the popular Andy Roid and Sporty Kids series. Felice lives in Melbourne.