Author and illustrator Debi Gliori was the lead artist on The Crocodiamond, a Booked! project with Sandaig Primary School, Glasgow, in collaboration with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.
Here’s what Debi had to say about the experience:
“In the heat of the Edinburgh International Book Festival (bodies rubbing together, not actual meteorological heat, alas) I was handed a copy of the score for a piece of music written by the composer John Dove in response to (or was it vice-versa or even a simultaneous creation?) a short story by the writer Anthony Horowitz.
My job? To assist/ enthuse/ inspire/ facilitate a group of P6 children in their endeavours to illustrate the music with only the briefest of encounters with the story. Their response to the music was key to this project.
The name of the project? THE CROCODIAMOND.
I was invited to select a few musicians from a chamber ensemble to assist in delivering this project with the proviso that they would only be present for the first two sessions. I looked at the score and tried to choose instruments which had a fairly major part to play in the whole piece. We settled on a flute, a violin and a French horn. I was also told that I’d be working with someone called an ‘animateur’. Caroline (the animateur) and I batted a few ideas around about questions we could ask the children and small tasks we could set them by way of introduction on our first session. Caroline then transcribed Anthony’s text from the score and abbreviated it. Then we set a date with the school and in we went.
The first introductory session, we divided the 44 children into two classes of 22 and worked with them separately over the course of a morning, with only a shared trio of rice cakes for sustenance at the morning interval. The sessions consisted of Caroline reading half of the text out loud with the musicians adding in short themes from the main orchestral work. She stopped on a cliff-hanger and handed over to me.
I passed out charcoal and huge sheets of paper and asked the children to make wiggly lines or shapes or whatever they wanted to show what sound each instrument made. We went through each instrument in turn. The children were embarrassed at first. Unsurprisingly.
I demonstrated some of the effects you could make with charcoal. The children were understandably unimpressed. A few of the children were sitting out with a teacher in close attendance. A few were simply not engaged in the slightest. Several of the children didn’t like getting their hands dirty and demanded to go to the bathroom to wash. I’d brought hand wipes to forestall this.
Caroline asked the children to write down lots of what she called ‘describing words’ to paint a word picture of some of the villains in the Crocodiamond story. Several of the children wrote that the characters ‘had a bad childhood’. Fat was also an issue. All the villains were ‘fat’ and ‘ugly’. Even the one who, according to the story, was beautiful.
We were, at this point, dying of heatstroke in a tiny, airless room with 22 children who hadn’t the foggiest idea what we were doing there. Nobody had told them anything about the project. It wasn’t until the end of working with the second group of 22 children that morning when I said, ‘Right, NEXT week you’re going to have to work your little socks off because your drawings are going up on a big screen at a HUGE concert in the middle of Glasgow,’ that the children suddenly found out what they had been doing shut in a hot room with a bunch of well-intentioned adults. And I quote –
‘Are we gonna be famous?’
‘No. Well, a wee bit. ’
‘Are we gonnae get paid for doing this?’
Fair question! The second session, two weeks later to avoid Hallowe’en (and the full moon), involved Caroline in reading the second half of the text out loud with the musicians again playing themes then handing over to me entirely for the remainder. Into the deep end. We were no longer in the wee airless room. I’d requested that we joined both classes together, making 44 children. To accommodate this number, we were in the school hall, an echoing space with no desks, and no surfaces to work on, save the floor. No art materials either. We were discouraged from using paint or ink; the school had just been recarpeted throughout as part of a massive refurb. In my naiveté, I’d brought with me some compressed charcoal (very black) and some paper plates. No glue, just staples. Today we were going to make Wolf masks.
Well…we did. We made amazing Wolf masks. Unfortunately, the children rubbed their faces with blackened fingers, then they noticed how easily the compressed charcoal transferred from fingers to face and within seconds, I was facing 44 little coalminers.
From then on in, I was without musicians. I also had to find a way to make this project work without incurring the wrath of the children’s parents who would have had to launder their school uniforms post-charcoal. What could we use? Paper. Pritt-stick. Chalk. Scissors. Could they use scissors? Were they even allowed scissors?
At this point, I realised that serious preparation on my part was the only way we were going to make this work for everyone concerned. Can I just mention here how much respect I have for the teaching profession? How on earth….?
There were so many high points in the following four weeks, but my two favourites were
- Watching a little boy who had been totally uninterested in anything I had to offer until we did a cityscape made from newspaper and this lad handed me an architectural gem. With a decided GET ME: I ROCK grin on his face.
- To listen one of the themes from the Crocodiamond music, we had hoped to use the school’s p.a. to broadcast it. In the event, the p.a. never worked. Not once. In desperation, I explained to the children that they were going to have to be very, very, very quiet (this to a shrieking, over-excited, indoor-playtime-wound-up group of 44 children in an echoing hall) and LISTEN children to the music coming out of my i-pod. And bless them. They sat like inwardly-contemplating mini-Buddhas. They listened. I thought that was the miracle at Sandaig Primary.
But in the following four weeks, we made an entire cityscape out of patchwork copies of broadsheets… a whole corps de ballet with cut-out dollies and cupcake cases… a gallery of criminals from black and white reverse cut-outs… and finally ; on our last week – a flotilla of huge crocodiles, coloured in with tissue paper and beautifully decorated.
A project that even the children’s best advocate, their class teacher, had privately imagined would be beyond their capabilities. Being a rank amateur, I had no idea what their capabilities were. I assumed they’d be able to do it, and they did. I think my blind faith carried us some distance, but it was the enthusiasm and energy of the children that made the day. Well done P6: it was a privilege to work alongside you.
Debi has created an excellent learning resource for us which guides you through how to make your very own newspaper cityscape. You can find it here: https://learning.edbookfest.co.uk/resources/the-crocodiamond-by-debi-gliori/
Booked! is the Edinburgh International Book Festival on the road around Scotland, throughout the year. A celebration of words and ideas, Booked! blends the very best from groups and organisations across the country with the energy and excitement of the August Book Festival. Produced in collaboration with a variety of partners, this wide-ranging programme of events and activities brings authors, artists and audiences together to inspire each other and to be inspired, to share stories and experiences, and bring books to life for people of all ages in their own communities.