This week I had the great privilege of being invited to do a session at Story Club, an after-school club for year 3 and 4s (7-9 year olds) at St Michael’s Primary School in Marston, Oxford. The gig is that you combine a story with an activity for the children, so I thought I would try to get them writing an index. By a stroke of luck, the book I wanted to read, Roald Dahl’s The Enormous Crocodile, had an illustrated empty page at the back – almost as if it was expressly intended for an on-the-fly index.
As soon as I started asking to the kids about indexes – a gentle, patronising ‘Does anybody know what an index is?’ – I realized that I might have pitched it all wrong. ‘I was using one the other day, but I think it was more of a table of contents’; ‘I use scene selection when I watch a DVD – is that the same as an index?’; ‘Does an index have to be alphabetical?’. It was going to be a tougher crowd than I’d expected.
Nevertheless, they knew and liked The Enormous Crocodile and were happy to help me index it. Before the class, I’d written a set of headwords – crocodile, monkey, playground, etc. – each on its own index card, and enough for one per child. We shared these out, then as I read out the story, if I said the word on their card, they would put their hand up and ask me for the page number, which they’d then jot down on the card. I wish I’d got them to say ‘Bingo!’ each time they raised their hands, but you always think of these things too late…When we got to the end of the story, the children had to assemble themselves into a single-file line in alphabetical order of the words on their cards. As they took it in turns to hand me back their cards, I’d jot the headword and the page references into the back of my book and, voilà, an index to The Enormous Crocodile!
Story Club was hilarious and inspiring, and I’m enormously grateful to Abby Williams for inviting me. Sometimes when I talk to grown ups about making an index they groan and declare that it sounds like the most boring task a person could do – ‘the Drudgery of compiling an Index,’ as an anonymous eighteenth-century writer snobbishly puts it. But I don’t think children at St Michael’s felt like drudges; I certainly didn’t. Between us, we had a whale of a time and we did a great job performing a valuable service: for future readers who need to know what page the coconuts are on, it’s p. 29.