Emma Reeves

The children’s writer for stage and screen says life's no fairy tale, so she's adapted the Ugly Ducking accordingly

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I’ve been writing theatre and TV for children and family audiences for nearly 15 years now. It wasn’t a career that I expected or even imagined. For a start, I don’t have children myself. That does seem an obvious disadvantage but perhaps there are compensations. As a non-parent, I rarely must take on the role of the authority figure, and never have to pretend, even to myself, that I have all the answers. So when I’m writing young protagonists, I don’t have to dig through very many accrued layers of adulthood to find my inner child – in fact, I find it more difficult to locate my inner (or outer) grown-up.

But perhaps none of this is significant. Some children’s writers have their own kids, some don’t. Writing for young people is just writing; you’re always drawing on the same three sources; experience, observation and imagination. You write about what’s happened to you, what you’ve seen happen to other people, what you wish would happen and what you’re afraid might happen. You hope desperately that enough people will find all this as interesting as you do. And if you don’t want to alienate your audience, you assume that they are at least as clever as you are.

Your audience will follow on the most extraordinary and surprising journeys if you don’t talk down to them

When writing for children, I try to follow two simple rules: respect your audience and leave them with hope. Of course, when you’re working in theatre and TV there are many more complex rules about what’s deemed appropriate for your audience, but most of them have little to do with what the audience wants or needs, but instead insist upon what somebody else has decided is good for them. How long should the story be? How funny, how scary, how complex, how sad, how educational, how many fart jokes? Different children have different tastes; there’s room for a multitude of styles and voices. Your audience will follow on the most extraordinary and surprising journeys if you don’t talk down to them and don’t deny the possibility of positive change.

And the stories don’t need to be educational or to preach good citizenship to be worthwhile. The very act of putting young people at the centre of the action is empowering. I’ve been privileged to work on The Story of Tracy Beaker, Tracy Beaker Returns, The Dumping Ground and Hetty Feather, all TV shows based on Jacqueline Wilson’s irrepressible creations. The original Story of Tracy Beaker and Hetty Feather books are written in the first person; both heroines are victims of adult neglect and oppression who refuse to be helpless, and seize control of their own stories. As writers, we had to create new stories for these vibrant characters, providing new adventures without betraying Jacqueline’s vision – or her army of fans. It’s undoubtedly true that these shows make living in a care home or a Victorian foundling hospital seem much more fun than the reality – but this aspect has received positive feedback from care leavers and children in care as the characters are portrayed as complex, fascinating individuals who inspire admiration, even emulation, rather than pity or scorn.

In The Dumping Ground, nobody, no matter how young, is undamaged – but nobody, no matter how damaged or frankly evil, is beyond saving. Despite the old-fashioned stereotype of children’s stories as being morally simplistic, these days you don’t get to label somebody a baddie and negate their humanity. Neither do we present flawless, innocent heroes. In that sense, we don’t really do fairy tales any more.

But the old stories retain their power. I’ve recently adapted Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling for Tutti Frutti, a Leeds-based company which specialises in work for three to seven year olds. The structure is the classic Cinderella pattern: the scorned hero is triumphantly vindicated as he fulfils his potential and destiny. Even for very young audiences, however, you must think about how the subject matter will relate to their own experience. Andersen tells us that being born and raised in a duck’s nest is irrelevant if you happen to have been hatched from a swan’s egg. But having spent many years writing about looked-after children, I didn’t want to play down the importance of foster and adoptive parents. Our production of Ugly Duckling stresses the importance of nurture as well as nature. And when he finally gets his swan wings, rather than rejecting his duck family, our Ugly looks backwards as well as forwards, making peace with his past as well as embracing his future.

Danny Childs plays Ugly, and I love the maturity he brings to the last scene of the play as the awkward outsider finally becomes comfortable in his own skin. Never forget who you were – it helps you make sense of who you are.

Ugly Ducking is at York Theatre Royal, 28 Sept-14 Oct, then touring. In the north it visits: Ilkley Literature Festival, 15 Oct; The Montgomery, Sheffield, 21 Oct; The Civic, Barnsley, 22 Oct; The Carriageworks, Leeds, 23-24 Oct; Rheged Centre, Penrith, 27 Oct; Junction, Goole, 18 Nov; and Otley Courthouse, 20 Nov

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