Over the last few weeks some incredible, madcap and moving stories have been emanating from a most unexpected place. A football triumph, a chocolate eating monster, a lost passport, a superhero, a princess, a journey to Lapland, a magic wand– these are some of the stories drawn, written and rhymed by a group of dads inside a notorious Victorian prison.

Since July last year the charity Give a Book, with reading consultant David Kendall,  has been running a project called Making it Up with prisoners in HMP Wormwood Scrubs. Making it Up gets dads to make up a story for their children which they then present to them at a special family visit day.

At the first workshop we look at children’s books, re-acquainting dads with different types of stories and thinking what would best fit their own children–getting to know them again while they’re away. Most remember stories from their own childhood.

And quickly figure what story fits which child and what a particular child would like. That’s the easy part.

At the next workshop they have to make up their own. Each participant (the Give a Book team included) is given a blank note book, with special cut out flaps on each page–these are a brilliant device for containing and coercing thought.

You have to work out how to use the cut out, whether something is concealed behind it, half seen, or part of a larger picture. You have limited space (6 pages only) so have to decide what to put in and what to leave out and how to get your story across–it’s all about communicating, about telling the story. It doesn’t matter if you can’t draw, stick people are fine, you just have to get it across.

One thing about prison is that there’s noise all the time– people shout across big distances, doors clang shut, there’s machinery, dogs, it’s never quiet. But in these workshops grown men tuck their feet round their chair legs,  hunch over little drawing books and concentrate. In perfect silence.

The workshops conclude with the Making it Up Family Visit day.  We invite an artist to join us. Recently, the award-winning Emma Shoard inspired us all by showing how a page is really a stage set, how to use edges, and that if we have a main character who meets someone else then something always happens.

Families cluster together at low tables and the dads present their own stories to their children–whom they might not have seen for some time. As the children drew their pictures Emma went round each family giving them drawing tips.

And then the children cuddled up to their dads while they read to them the story they’d made themselves.

There’s something about these events– it’s so easy for them to be difficult, haunted, hollow, and sad, but what is it this time– is it the structure?   Is it the families making it up and sharing a story?   Is it the story bringing everyone together?   Everyone leaves smiling – in the unlikeliest places there’s a kind of magic.

Victoria Gray
Executive Director
Give a Book

Victoria Gray

David Kendall

Emma Shoard