Lions and Lizes

Were I not totally unworthy, I’d love to be best friends with Lizes Laird and Wein. They are so brave and adventurous and so funny. No wonder they write fantastic books. Write about what you know. Well, these two ladies know a lot.

Elizabeth Wein spent the summer strapped to the top of a small plane (which then takes off and flies). The strapping part seemed to be due to health and safety rules. Quite. Otherwise it’d be fun to just stand there, on top of a plane up in the air. Her next book, Black Dove White Raven is about circus flying, which is why Elizabeth needed to have a go. Because she loves flying, anyway, and this was fun.

She showed us photos from Ethiopia – which was the topic for the day – and when Elizabeth Laird looked more closely at a range of mountains, it turned out she had walked across them. When she was young (which apparently made it nice and easy and nothing to write home about!). EL had also once stayed with EW’s aunt and uncle in Ethiopia, many years ago.

Because EL spent a few years in Ethiopia in the 1960s, teaching – as you do. That’s when she witnessed the homecoming of Olympic champion Abebe Bikila at the airport, where she just happened to be. The Emperor met the plane, complete with favourite lion, to honour the country’s hero. It’s the done thing.

Now everyone in Ethiopia runs. Partly to get to school, when that happens to be six miles away from home and you have no car, and partly in the hopes of making it to the Olympics. Elizabeth’s new book, The Fastest Boy in the World, is about a runner. Obviously.

Elizabeth Wein

Elizabeth Wein’s book, which is due out next year, features female pilots; one white and one black. They are part of a group of pilots trained at Tuskegee, who came to Ethiopia in 1935 to set up the Ethiopian Air Force during the second Abyssinian war. The Emperor wanted to have planes and black pilots from the US.

Both Elizabeths have written other books set in Ethiopia; EW’s A Coalition of Lions is set in the sixth century, and EL’s Prince Who Walks With Lions is about a young prince during Victoria’s reign. Liz managed to forget the title of her book momentarily, and made a joke out of it. In fact, both of them are really very amusing and they should make something of this.

They said they will now need to agree in advance who gets to write about what, so no doubt they will divide up Ethiopia between them. EW admired EL’s fictional grandparents, and EL proceeded to unwrap her real grandfather’s real WWI medals. And she didn’t just show us them, but trusted us enough to allow the medals to circulate round the room.

Elizabeth Laird

Asked about writing, EL told the audience to write from the heart. Only you will know your story. Read, write and live/do stuff (which includes being strapped to the outside of planes). EW thinks people should write about what they are passionate about, and she is sure she will have to fight EL for Haile Selassie’s lion.

The best things about Ethiopia according to EL is the weather, how beautiful the country is and the people. EW agrees about the wonderful people and told us about the clever children she met in the middle of nowhere, who were able to write in three different languages.

Books they would recommend were Holes, Journey to the River Sea, Goodnight Mister Tom, Code Name Verity (EL), Noughts & Crosses and Coram Boy. EW added the books by Hilary McKay. (No cause to disagree there.)

Elizabeth Laird writes in her study, which has got a woodstove, while Elizabeth Wein is the wandering type who writes everywhere, liking the noise in cafés and on trains. She thinks it’s important to ‘get out there’ to get the right feeling for what to write. And we were unable to end the event without a very brief description of the time EL was forced to leave Ethiopia, accused of murder…

Boring these ladies are not.

Of birds and bears

So maybe Gill Lewis is the next big thing? She had a long queue outside her venue yesterday morning, and the EIBF director came to listen (I imagine it’s like having the head teacher sit in on a lesson) and everything was great. Long queue in the bookshop afterwards, which meant I didn’t get to say hello until much much later.

They handed out clipboards to the audience, and even the adults were allowed to have one. Gill began by showing us some rock art (as in ‘caves,’ not music) in Zimbabwe (along with her husband holding a plastic carrier bag) – which apparently is like Dartmoor, but different.

Gill is not quite sure why she writes, but rock art has something to do with it. So she asked us to draw an animal and to try and get into that animal’s mind, see what its life might be like. She herself begins a book by drawing animals and people and seeing where it takes her. She’s also very good at it, in the kind of way that makes you jealous because someone seems to be far too talented at too many things.

Having talked to young carers, Gill found that what most of them fear is their family being broken up, so they use a lot of time and effort to pretend everything is fine. She used this in Scarlet Ibis, her latest book.

Gill Lewis

Thinking back to her own childhood, when she certainly wouldn’t have been able to do all the chores that Scarlet does, she told us about a dare in her group of friends. They went to the garden belonging to Mr White, who they just knew was a vampire, and they went to look inside the wooden box where… No, I can’t tell you. It would ruin the excitement for you if you ever hear Gill talk. She then read the dare scene where Scarlet goes to the house where an old woman is known to boil children and eat them.

Not content with being a vet, and a writer, Gill is keen on nature in general, and wants to help re-wild the urban landscape. It’s easy; you might have a birdbox, or leave a tree stump to rot, or grow nettles. Ever the expert, she then tested us on some easy, and some pretty difficult, pictures of wild animals, before asking people to make up a riddle about their drawn animal from earlier.

Very interesting.

And I’m glad I have two of Gill’s books still to read.

Superpowered

Sunday morning’s first event was Liz Kessler being all low tech (it seems last year she went more high tech than she liked) with a bunch of fervent fans, and a couple of children’s authors, and ‘oh, hello’ a witch at the back. Liz wanted us to keep talking, ‘no, seriously, keep talking,’ while she rustled with paper bags and got herself sorted out with her low tech goods. When we were too well behaved to obey, she asked for someone to tap dance, but no one came forward for that either.

Starting off by interviewing her audience, because she likes knowing who is there, she was pleased to find a fan who treats books on fairies as non-fiction. Liz herself writes about mermaids, fairies, time travel and superpowers.

Then it was time to pick items out of her little box, and the first was a pair of sunglasses; her friend Fred, the Invisible Man (if covered in bandages and wearing sunglasses it had to be him, but we know it’s really Steve Cole). This led to Liz’s brand new book, Has Anyone Seen Jessica Jenkins? and she read the bit where the recently made invisible Jessica goes into a department store where she ‘misbehaves’ in an amusing sort of way. (Jessica became invisible during a boring geography lesson, but I suspect Liz remembered the event where there was a geography teacher in the audience, and she had to do some hasty backtracking regarding the merits of geography… Oops.)

Her tiniest book is a German edition of Emily Windsnap (which made Liz read some Emily to us) and then it was story cube time (which is where you throw dice with pictures on, to get the creative juices flowing, or in this case, Liz threw them at her audience). I mean how can you fail to write some epic work with props like torch, bee, beetle, arrow and fire? Especially with lightbulb thrown in as a valuable extra.

She is very funny, actually, this ‘work-shy tearaway’ from Liz’s old school reports. Her box holds a bouncy ball because it looks nice. Her notebook (this is where I dropped mine) means she loves stationery, and she showed us some old paper napkins and a restaurant menu on which she had in the past written really important things to incorporate into a book.

Liz Kessler

Her best book is one she hasn’t written yet. There will be no more Jessica Jenkins books, but Emily Windsnap 6 is on the way, and so is her YA novel Read Me Like a Book, which will be out next year.

Having stolen Cathy Cassidy’s idea of throwing sweets at her audience, Liz finished by off-loading her remaining sweets. Her own I hope, and not Cathy’s.

And if I’d not lost my touch – or my mind – I’d have been first in that signing queue afterwards. Not all Liz’s fans outgrow her books.

Lizday

At 9.59 there was considerable panic among Horrid Henry fans. Parents were seen running with their children across Charlotte Square, and then back again a minute or so later. It’s also known as ‘I didn’t need the toilet before but now I do.’ The event started at 10.

Liz Kessler

Francesca Simon

My first – literary – port of call was with Liz Kessler. I then had half an hour in which to take pictures of her signing, run across the square to see if I could catch Francesca Simon still at it, and then get myself to my second event with Gill Lewis. That’s when I remembered I had a book I wanted Liz to sign, and being a popular sort lady she still had a long queue and I wasn’t anywhere near the front of it. So I thrust the book at her publisher Fiona Kennedy and asked her to see to it that Daughter got an autograph. Surprisingly, Fiona seemed to know who I was.

Gill Lewis

Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell

After Gill’s event I had slightly longer, so had time to take pictures of her, and to dash across the square for Chris Riddell and Paul Stewart in the other signing tent. Had to remember to go back to base and get my hopefully signed book back. Then I went to meet Caroline Lawrence, whose Saturday event I had been forced to miss, but who very kindly sacrificed some of her time on me today.

Norse monster

Norse monster

Norse monster

Kate O'Hearn

We decided there was time for an ice cream – because we both carried spare food in our rucksacks, so didn’t need lunch – and we exchanged news and discussed what’s hot and what she’s working on now, and then she ran on to hear Kate O’Hearn, whose rather fantastic team of Norse monsters were a sight to behold. I caught up with them in the bookshop an hour later, where they chatted to babies (who will never forget this early literary experience) and posed and were generally rather unsusual.

Michael Rosen

Meanwhile I had found Michael Rosen signing across the square, talking to his young fans with his normal charm and performing facial acrobatics. He too had caused a late rush on the toilets, so that seems to be a hazard with young fans.

Simon Armitage

‘Backstage’ I found Carol Ann Duffy and I saw Peter Guttridge at a safe distance from sleeve-tugging. Again. While I waited for Simon Armitage to come to his photocall, Kate O’Hearn and her monsters returned, and thanks to Chris Close I got another opportunity to snap these fantastic creatures.

Kate O'Hearn

Elizabeth Wein

Elizabeth Laird

Chris Riddell

My final event this book festival was another couple of Elizabeths; Laird and Wein. I even had a few minutes during which to take photos of Liz and Liz, as well as of Chris Riddell who was still signing away an hour after his Goth Girl talk, before I ran off to find a tram to the airport. It was high time to collect Daughter from her Californian adventure.

Ghost Soldier

This week’s war events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival have got me started on the war books again. I read and enjoyed Theresa Breslin’s Ghost Soldier, which is aimed at younger readers. That in itself is an indication that some good things need to happen before the end, but it is still about WWI and things are bad as well.

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Set in a small village in Scotland, Rob’s and Millie’s father has been away for some time and his letters have stopped coming, when there is a telegram to say he is missing in action. Their mother falls to pieces and it’s up to Rob to look after things.

He gets the idea to search for his father, and while this sounds an improbable action to take, considering the war is abroad and he is in Scotland, it works much better than you’d think. His little sister Millie turns out to be just as determined, and she’s a real asset in their fight against adults who don’t understand.

Witnessing friends and neighbours finding out about their lost ones brings home the horrors and realities of war. Someone somewhere is always finding out that their soldier is dead. At the same time normal life goes on.

If a WWI story can be lovely, this is it. It’s not just a re-hashing of the same old facts, and the Scottish rural setting brings something to the children’s efforts to find their dad. Lots of brave acts from lots of people, and much kindness.

But people still die, or are wounded.

A family affair

I was going to go with Mothers and Daughters, but then I didn’t have mine with me and Wendy Meddour was rather more than mother and daughter with Mina May. The whole clan was there, and where would we have been without the running commentary from youngest son? He was lovely. So was the older one telling his brother to be quiet. And the one in between who liked Steve Cole.

Wendy Meddour

As were all of them. Admittedly, Wendy’s mother didn’t let her have pierced ears (she does now, though, and she wears beautifully dangly ear rings) or pointy shoes when she was young(er). Nor does it seem that the parents were in on Wendy’s invisible dog. She had it for a year and a half when she was a little girl. (I didn’t take proper notes, but I think it was a golden retriever.)

Wendy’s own little girl towers over her mother, as daughters do. Not only has Mina May done the illustrations for all three Wendy Quill books, but she showed us how to draw. I have never drawn such a great rat or spooky ghost as I did yesterday afternoon. In fact, I’d say we were all pretty artistically enabled. We did so well. Although the adults never got any sweeties.

Possibly for the best. Our teeth would fall out.

Mina May

As I was saying, Mina teaches like an adult. (And I know it’s irrelevant, but that was one fantastic pale green lace dress she wore!) She is just about an adult at 13, seeing how she sent her first portfolio of pictures to a publisher at the age of eight. By the time Wendy Quill came to be, the publisher felt Mina’s illustrations were better than her mum’s.

The audience was asked what parts they had played in the school play, and we had two angels, a Mary, a scorpion and a cow. And then there was Wendy’s crocodile’s bottom.

Wendy read from the crocodile book, and we had the scene where Kevin, the school rat, jumps out of the teacher’s handbag, and later on we jumped on our bed to make our big sister’s diary fall off the out-of-reach shelf.

Wendy Meddour and Mina May signing

All in all, a fun afternoon. And I do like a woman who not only comes out about her invisible dog, but takes her children to work.

The mummies have it

To go or not to go? Well, first I needed the ‘rest.’ Then I found I needed rest from the resting. So I went. I wanted to, really, because Wendy Meddour and Mina May were debuting in Charlotte Square and I didn’t want to miss it.

Wendy Meddour and Mina May

As I arrived I first noticed Wendy’s eldest son, and only then did I see that I was walking behind the whole family. How I can recognise children of people I’ve never met, is another thing.

Secret Agent Mummy

I was early, so sat in the yurt for a bit, when at the corner of my eye I seemed to see a man covered in bandages walk past. And I mean totally covered in them. It had to be Steve Cole. No one else is quite that crazy. Worked out that I could waylay him – if it was him – close to his event. There was a photocall for Michael Morpurgo, but a bandaged Steve trumps MM. (I suppose he must have slipped in the shower this morning, or something.)

My plan was successful and the mummy said hello and gave me hug (so whoever it was, seemed to know me) and said he’d maybe forgive me later for going to someone else’s event and not his.

Michael Morpurgo

Michael Morpurgo was still there when I went to look, so I didn’t even have to go without. He had come to lend a hand for someone by the name of Barroux, about whom I know nothing. MM didn’t wear his customary hat, as apparently he hates it. Now we know.

Linda Strachan and Emma Barnes

Went to Wendy’s event, with her illustrator daughter Mina May. Encountered Linda Strachan and Emma Barnes outside, so we chatted. I knew Emma’s name from somewhere, but not her face. We concluded I had reviewed her (very enjoyable) book, but we hadn’t met before. Told Linda I was sorry to have missed her Hamish event on Wednesday, as I love Hamish and it was about the very topical Bannockburn.

Steve Cole

I had asked Steve (or whoever) to sign slowly, so that he’d still be there when Wendy and Mina got to the bookshop. He did and he was, and it seems as if it really must have been him all the time. (Who else would be idiot enough to wander around looking like that? He’d even crossed the road wearing his outfit, and not got arrested. I suppose August in Edinburgh makes anything look normal.)

Steve Cole, Wendy Meddour and Mina May

As there was only one of him, the Secret Agent Mummy agreed to let mummy Wendy have one of his chairs to sit on. Later, when one of Wendy’s sons wanted to buy a copy of Steve’s book she asked if he was sure he wanted to spend his money on this. He was. Sensible boy. They were all nice, actually. Funny, too. The mummies, I mean.

Secret Agent Mummy and victim

Lots of weird photos later I went home. A light workload is quite a good thing on occasion. And I like my authors funny.