In Year Eight English, we had to write and create a book for a primary school child – a school trip brought us face to face with our assigned pupil, and we had to find out enough information to write a story just for them. Inspiration struck and I took that literally – I made the real Rebecca a named character, and went on to make the kind of book that I (and perhaps not the real Rebecca, after all) would’ve liked to be given. Rebecca’s Matchstick Men was, as my teacher wrote, a labour of love – but it was also a slap in the face too. Twice.
Relive it with me: there I am, 12 years old and not very good at drawing, having to actually MAKE a book to give to someone else. That you’re only as strong as your weakest link was a lesson long learned for me, so I turned my problem into the solution. Story-wise, I was sorted: I already knew that I was writing about Rebecca spying on one of her drawings coming to life and the adventure it would have...but to make it easier on myself, I decided to use matchstick men and a cartoon-ish cat, whose doodle I’d been perfecting for years, as characters. Simples!
So out came the posh plain paper, crisply folded, nestled inside clean white cardboard covers (no Blue Peter cereal boxes for me – this was a BOOK, don’cha know!). The ruler was wielded, faint pencil lines keeping my (slowly and neatly) handwritten text straight. Homework was never more conscientiously or lovingly done than this – I spent ages drawing each page, rubbing out and starting over again when the desk or the easel or the wastepaper basket the matchstick men fell into didn’t look quite right. I used bubble writing for the title on the cover (why were we so obsessed with bubble writing at school?!), and even wrote a blurb and a dedication.
Now, I don’t remember handing it in late but somehow I missed the boat anyway – my teacher fell over himself to tell me how good my book was...but he’d already given a story written by another student to his publisher friend.
I could’ve been, but wasn’t, published. Ouch.
Being published was all I had ever wanted (and still is), and no matter how good my book was, someone else achieved that validation instead. I don’t remember who this student was, whether they liked writing and longed to be published as much as me – so if I sound like a bad loser (which I probably am!), please accept my apologies, particularly if someone out there knows who this student was!
Now, mature and reasonable Adult Me knows that: a) the other book could have been just as good, or probably better than mine; b) it could all have just been a matter of timing (premature marking, Mr Teacher?!); c) that the ‘publisher’ may not have been one of credibility or envy (or might just have been!); and d) that not being published then didn’t mean that my writing wasn’t good enough – or that I will never, ever get published.
But the slap still smarts.
My cheek is warming up, so let’s have the second s-l-a-p:
The real Rebecca didn’t like it. Or at least, that was my perception. Interpretation, probably. And most likely an unfair one. I remember her being rather indifferent when I gave it to her, almost blasé and unimpressed – but then she did ask why didn’t her book have flaps in it like someone else’s (I don’t rip off Spot the dog), so it may just have not been to her taste. But to me, already tender and prickly, it was as if she didn’t appreciate my effort or love my story – and that feeling undermined my sense of self, which is a shame. And sad. Let’s be adult-fair, the real Rebecca may have thought it was ok but that it didn’t quite match her own (perhaps unbridled) expectations; and she may even have grown to like the story – it’d be lovely to think that she came to love and cherish it, but who knows? This the eternal dichotomy of the writer and the reader – and it was my first taste, so who can blame me if it stung?
I am painting an unfair picture of the reception of Rebecca’s Matchstick Men – my teacher loved it, raved about it in his comments and awarded me an Effort Award, upon which the headmaster added ‘Thank you for this outstanding piece of work.’ My dad was well proud of me too (though he always is, bless him) – and the older and wiser Me is gutted that I didn’t feel success, achievement and satisfaction...
...so I’d like to recreate the book. Just for myself, you understand – I don’t think it’d be a story that would sell (kids today can probably plug their brains into an app that draws for them, rather than paint at the kitchen table), and I’ve not read enough picture books/books for younger readers to know if it would even fit in the market. But Rebecca’s Matchstick Men is a watershed for me, a moment of triumph in my early writerly ambitions tempered by disappointment of a critical readership – and I’d like my own copy. Of course, it needs some work (12 year old Me had dealt with the set-up and exposition excellently, but woefully underplayed the points of tension and resolution), and I’ll have to refine my matchstick-sketching skills...but it’s worth it, just for my own bookshelf.
So, pass me the pencil, please. Now, matchstick men I can handle, but how did that cat-doodle go...?!