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WITH RELUCTANT READERS, TRY HORROR

Australian Society of Authors Ltd ©

This article about children's responses to Ghost Dog was first published in 'Practically Primary' Magazine, June 1999.

Teachers of withdrawal groups of reluctant readers say that they try to find stories that will shake students out of their lethargy and negativity. I have received letters saying that students respond with shock - even anger - to my short horror novel, Ghost Dog. The teachers harness this emotional involvement strategically to involve them in many different ways. Sometimes the students write to me, asking questions and seeking explanations.

The novel's ending evokes disbelief. Students can't believe that the story is finished; there must be more! Their letters say, 'Please send us Part 2.' They don't realise that I have inserted clues throughout the story, and they know the ending - it is there, in their imaginations. Teachers ask what they think has happened, and the students guess. Many don't like the conclusion that flows logically from the story, so they create new endings.

Years 6/7
Mrs Dawn Ainsworth, support teacher at Nulsen Primary School (Esperance, Western Australia), shared her experience of introducing Ghost Dog to years 6/7 students with literacy learning difficulties, and sent samples of the children's work.

She introduced the big book and eight little books (covers only), launching them with school champagne (lemonade) and minties. She read the story in three parts over three days, asking the students to predict what happens next.

'In this way they were stimulated and eager to see what happened,' Mrs Ainsworth wrote. 'At the conclusion, the children were stunned. They insisted that I show them the rest of the book by actually turning over the last few pages. They were sure that there must have been more to read.
One of the boys called out, "Where's Part 2?"'

She commented: 'Wanting Part 2 reflects the number of videos and films that these children watch. Modern technology provides complete stories with graphic and realistic action, leaving little to the imagination, so the story ending generated a great deal of discussion and argument. These children come from backgrounds where little good literature is available, but they often talk about the videos they have seen.'

Mrs Ainsworth suggested that they write to the author and ask about the ending and a sequel. She interviewed each child on audio tape, and the children wrote letters, reviews, predictions, newspaper articles, story maps and plot profiles and illustrated some of these.

Years 4/5
Soon after the release of Ghost Dog in England, I received letters from children in a Year 4/5 language withdrawal group and their teacher. They had responded similarly to the Nulsen Year 6/7s: 'The story isn't finished'.

As they didn't like the horrifying ending which they deduced from my clues, they shared ideas and wrote their own endings. Chapter 7 was a further episode describing the next day's events. Next they made it into a picture-story book. Meanwhile, their teacher took them through many of the suggested activities in the Teacher Resource Book.
(www.era-publications.com)

Finally, they dramatised the whole novel as a school assembly item and shared their picture-story in each class. Both of these activities were highly successful and, as the withdrawal class had not been highly regarded by most children in the school, the venture was wonderful for their self-esteem.

Replies
In my letters to children I explain that the story is finished, so I cannot write Part 2 for them.

Horror stories should have horror clues throughout and end in horror.'The author shouldn't tell too much. If I had told you exactly what happened, it wouldn't have been horror. The horror comes when you say, "Oh no, what if. . .?" and your imaginations zoom around thinking of possibilities.

Ghost Dog had to be a scary story because it's such a monstrous dog, and it comes out only at midnight. (Midnight is a magical time: it's not today and not tomorrow; it's the moment in between when anything can happen.) 'When the cyclist sneered at the 'old story' about the ghost dog, I knew he had to come to a sticky end for his lack of respect for Aboriginal culture, so I set up a sequence of scary events.

Concluding Remarks
I wrote Ghost Dog for fluent readers at senior primary level (definitely not for literacy students - some of the vocabulary is quite difficult) so it is interesting to see how it is being used. The Teacher Resource Book suggests ways of introducing it, and many language activities to follow.

When I wrote the story, few (if any) horror stories were available for children in primary schools. Many teachers and librarians said that horror was not appropriate for this level. Now there are many, most in series, and they are very popular.

Probably children react strongly to Ghost Dog because it is open-ended - very different from most of the horror series that they read. Children have to reason from the clues. If they don't like the conclusion, they try to explain it and suggest something different.

When an author writes a story she has no idea where it will go and what people will do with it. Sometimes she is lucky enough to discover creative publishers, librarians and teachers who bring it to life for children at appropriate times.