Wednesday, 18 April 2012

The fascination of fish

Later this week I'm taking a creative writing workshop at Katherine Mansfield House, so I've been planning what I'm going to do with two groups of thirteen and fourteen year olds. The first thing to do is to get them to introduce themselves, and as an ice breaker (and a way of finding out a bit more about them) to mention one thing they've enjoyed doing these holidays.

The "enjoyable thing" I'm going to describe to them involved taking my six year old nephew to look at the fish in the lily pond in the Begonia House, while we were on a family expedition to the Botanic Gardens.

The lily pond was swarming with fish. We circled it very slowly, stopping every metre or so to examine each new section. Most of the fish were tiny. Some had long tails that whisked along behind them, others flicked their iridescent blue, gold or silver fins and sent sparkles of colour through the murky water.

My nephew was fascinated. He kept exclaiming about the minute size of the fish, and trying to decide which one was the very smallest.

There were so many fish that it was slightly creepy. Every so often a large fish - there weren't many of them - swam into view and disappeared again. Once I was sure I saw a massive black fin lurking below the surface. What I was wondering was: how could so many baby fish survive in a not-very-big pool? How many of them grew to adulthood? What happened to the rest? Did they eat each other? They were lapping with open mouths at the surface but didn't seem to be finding anything. What did they eat?

But my nephew was happily enjoying himself and I'm sure none of these gloomy thoughts crossed his mind. We talked for a little while about whether they were all part of the same family, and how many cousins each fish must have, and how you could play with all of your cousins at once.

It reminded me of how totally absorbed in the moment children can be. They can find such fascination in things that we have seen so often as to take them for granted, and one of the challenges of writing for children is to recapture that child's eye view in an authentic and non-condescending way.


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