Writing Rhythm

It’s odd. First, I don’t read that much poetry, or go to poetry events. And then in quick succession I found myself in the Spark theatre for poetry, two events running. Also, out of five poets, three are American. But they explained that poetry is big in the US, in a way it’s not in the UK.

Jason Reynolds and Amy McKay

Chaired by Amy McKay, whose flamingo skirt I couldn’t help noticing at the first event (about flamingos), she’d moved on to an equally stunning daisy skirt. And as she said in her introduction of Sarah Crossan, Kwame Alexander and Jason Reynolds; ‘we are really spoiling you this afternoon.’ They really were. She also knew not to waste time on listing all the great stuff the three have done.

Kwame Alexander

For some reason I’d not realised Kwame wasn’t British, but he’d just moved to London six days earlier, so I was almost right. Brixton has changed in 28 years, apparently. He read his new ‘picture book’ The Undefeated to us, showing the audience the illustrations while he recited his own poems by heart.

This impressed Sarah Crossan, the current Irish Laureate na nÓg, because she can’t remember hers. Maybe it depends on which side of the Atlantic you’re from. She chose to read about Marla and Toffee, the young and the old, and no one listens to either.

Sarah Crossan

And I finally got to ‘meet’ Jason Reynolds, whom I’d not heard of two years ago when I met someone who enthused about him a great deal. At first he gave a fair impression of a sullen teenager while the other two spoke, but once it was his turn,  he sprang to life and you could see why people admire him so much. He mentioned the weather [in the tent], before moving on to gun violence, and talking about how we ‘strap monikers to children so we won’t have to call them children.’

Jason Reynolds

So, anyway, poems are cool in America. Sarah was in luck, writing her first novel while living in the US. According to Kwame poetry is big, but he reckons the publishers don’t know much. He mentioned the impact of Walter Dean Myers, the hero in Love That Dog. Verse novels is quite a new thing, but ‘the kids were already there.’

Sarah is ‘impressed by myself’ and keeps anything she’s written, but edited out, in case she can slot poems in where they are needed. Kwame had many nice poems, but they didn’t go together, so he rewrote.

Jason said ‘it’s my job to keep the rhythm,’ and according to Kwame ‘when it works, the reader forgets it is poetry.’ And he told Sarah that she needs to learn to ‘own her own work.’ She felt that sounded like therapy, and very American.

Sarah Crossan

Kwame went on to mention the American ‘call and response’ to poetry, which is clearly what Elizabeth Acevedo was busy doing a couple of days before, when Dean Atta read from his book. Sarah doesn’t want to manipulate the readers, but Kwame is ‘totally into manipulating’ them… You need to make the world better, and it’s his responsibility to make you feel something. Jason said he’s somewhere between the other two, and manipulation is a dangerous word. ‘I just wanna bear witness.’

Someone in the audience mentioned that with verse novels you don’t have to write the boring bits, which made Kwame quote a secondary school pupil who had described it as ‘the right words in the right order.’

Jason Reynolds

Jason pointed out that writing poetry is like painting with only half a palette, which is harder; ‘really difficult.’ Sarah feels that writing is very democratic, and you only need pen and paper. And it helps if you don’t go to the cinema, don’t have any friends and if you work hard.

Kwame, ‘I steal a lot. Mature writers steal.’

And that was it. The main problem with the event was that it was too short. We could have done with at least another hour. Maybe two. It’s all that poetry, with so few words.

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Cracking the Reading Code

You can’t hear enough about getting children – or even old people – to read, especially if they have extra obstacles to deal with. Well, I can’t, anyway. And I’d already heard the background stories of Tom Palmer, Sally Gardner and Alex Wheatle, but they can do with being repeated. Often. Until everyone who wants to can read.

Sally Gardner, Tom Palmer and Alex Wheatle

The three guests were ably interviewed by Mairi Kidd in Tuesday’s event hosted by Barrington Stoke, where she used to work. She knows about this business of dyslexia friendly books. And so do the three; with Tom probably having written the most books for Barrington Stoke, Sally being the most dyslexic while still writing the the most wonderful stories, and Alex for knowing what his readers know.

Tom Palmer

I do like the sound of Tom’s mother, getting him to read by giving him books and articles on football. And then he went to night school where he was supposed to read Shakespeare and Chaucer! It wasn’t until a tutor introduced him to poetry about Leeds United (!), and took students out to the actual ‘Wuthering Heights’ that Tom felt he could get on with this reading.

Sally Gardner

Not sure I like the sound of Sally’s school for maladjusted children (whose fault is it if children are maladjusted?), but at 14 when she tried reading Wuthering Heights for the second time and she suddenly was ‘in the f***ing book,’ things changed for her. As Sally said, you can be good at something and it needn’t be only academic for it to matter. We need ‘diversity in the brain.’

And Alex, who did read a bit as a child, from Huckleberry Finn and Ivanhoe to sports books, finally discovered books in jail at the age of 18. His cellmate, and mentor, gave him The Black Jacobins to read, as he ‘wouldn’t have anything better to do in there.’

Alex Wheatle

Asked to read to us, Alex again chose the bit from Kerb Stain Boys about being in detention, and this time it was Sally who asked if he reads his own audio books. And after Sally had treated us to a dyslexic pirate in Mr Tiger, Betsy and the Sea Dragon, Alex returned the compliment. Sally does have a great voice. Last but not least, Tom read from Armistice Runner, which is close to his heart, featuring both running and fells, and it still makes me cry.

Mairi asked the three about graphic novels; if they make reading easier. Sally mentioned Shaun Tan, and the ‘most genius book ever,’ which has no words at all. Both Alex and Tom were fans of Shoot Magazine, but understandably Sally’s not. Talking about Tom’s novel Scrum, and the revelation it brought a young boy at a school; ‘Miss, I can read this!’

Sally gets angry when people say to those who have listened to an unabridged novel as an audio book, that they ‘haven’t really read it.’ This is snobbery. She suggested to someone in the audience that if the can get a certificate from their GP that their child is dyslexic, then they have the right to access audio books for the blind and partially sighted.

The last question of the evening was not a question but a thank you, from a teacher who uses these books in her school. And it seems that Scotland might be better in this instance, not having reading rules, which means that teachers can let the children read anything, even if it’s not from the right part of a reading scheme. (This brings back dreadful memories of Son being forced to read ‘backwards’ so as not to rock the boat of equality.)

We then gathered in the bookshop where people were so keen to continue talking about this important subject, that poor Tom was unable to sit down at the signing table for quite some time.

This is what we like.

Remembering Judith Kerr

Now that we don’t have Judith Kerr to come and do events, we can have events about her. Because we need them.

Judith might have looked like a little old lady, but in Tuesday’s panel we learned that this was a woman who could out-party those much younger than her. I think Daniel Hahn rather envied her her stamina in that department. And Lindsey Fraser remembered a time when Judith’s train had been late and she needed a whisky, a bit early in the day, but someone sourced the requested tipple.

Her arrivals in the yurt always caused a certain kind of murmur among those present, those who were more famous than Judith, richer, younger; even more important. Everyone had some kind of relationship to her. Catherine Rayner said it felt like meeting the Queen. And like meeting the Queen, it was impossible to talk to her. She tried, but could never get the words out.

Catherine’s friends would ask ‘is she any good?’ as though Judith’s simple picture book drawings meant she couldn’t do proper art. She showed us some of Judith’s sketches, and they were certainly proper art. As was Mog’s scared face in the book about Mog’s nightmares. And those pictures of birds with teeth!

The first book, The Tiger Who Came to Tea, often caused people to read hidden meanings into what the tiger symbolised. According to Daniel, Judith said it’s a book about a tiger who came to tea. As for Mog and the translation into German there was a discussion with the translator that Judith lost. Mog would be a boy in German. And then she gave Mog kittens.

Judith Kerr 2

After Judith was widowed she kept drawing, sitting at the same table she’d worked at for fifty years, saying ‘if I didn’t draw, I’d probably have taken to religion.’ Her husband was the one who suggested the plot for her first Mog book by saying ‘couldn’t she catch a burglar, or something?’

Tom Morgan-Jones talked about Judith’s last book, Mummy Time, and brought out so much more meaning from it than I’d seen. It even had those horrible teeth in it, again. He read most of the book, showing how it works on two levels; for the child, and for the adult reader.

Like Tom, Eilidh Muldoon never met Judith. And as everyone seemed to say, she also found the Tiger really scary. When Goodbye Mog was published, she was too old for picture books, but has since discovered how good it is to read them as an adult. The pictures in this last Mog are dreamier than the early Mog illustrations, and this could in part have been due to the same ink not being available.

Goodbye Mog

It’s not only Mog’s death that has helped readers deal with bereavement. Kate Leiper has experience from working in care homes for people with dementia, where she used to show them My Henry, which is about an old lady in a home, who dreams about her dead husband coming back for her. This was written after Judith’s husband died.

As Daniel said, you can have quite dark stuff in picture books. It’s all about condensing, according to Catherine. You put a lot in and then take more and more out. Judith would never use words about that which you could see from the pictures. And in Mog in the Dark – the nightmare book – she only used 50 [different] words.

This was a wonderful panel event; one which made us love Judith Kerr even more. As someone said, she had faith in human nature. And she considered herself British from the start of WWII. That’s worth remembering now, when we remember Judith. The piece from When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, read by Lindsey, about the family fleeing Germany, approaching the Swiss border by train, and being so very nervous. It’s all coming back.

Tough Teens

As Daniel Hahn and I agreed afterwards, we had forgotten the event a couple of Augusts ago, which he had chaired and where Anthony McGowan turned himself into the bad voice re YA. But we remembered the night fondly, because last night’s event with Tony and Alex Wheatle was also a really good one.

Tough Teens, it was called. Chaired by Mairi Kidd – who had ‘mothered’ Tony’s fictional boys into being – this was a great conversation. In fact, it’s one of very few where the authors involved got so caught up that they talked to each other, in earnest, about writing, [almost] forgetting the chair and the audience.

Yes, the audience. It wasn’t the biggest I’ve known, but it was Monday night when the schools had just gone back. But it was the right audience. It was nearly all teenagers, mostly boys, with a few token adults like me and Daniel, and Kwame Alexander. This is how it should be.

Alex Wheatle and Anthony McGowan

So, the talk was right, and the audience was right. The questions were great, and far better for me staying out of things (someone had wanted me to ask the first question…).

And jail, well, it can turn a man into a reader, and then into an author. The young Alex met his ‘mentor’ in a jail cell; someone who told him he’d nothing better to do in there so he might as well read. And now with his personal experience of living in care, Alex has written a book about a girl in care. He had to force his own daughter to tell him what girls talk about, to get it right. He was a bit shocked at what he discovered.

Tony, on the other hand, returned to Sherburn in Elmet outside Leeds, where he grew up, to write about two brothers in the four-book Brock trilogy. It’s a place for boredom, and with a bacon factory. Not as exciting as London.

Alex’s fictional Crongton can be London, but it could also be almost anywhere else. He knows about detentions, and remembering how he wanted to impress a girl he met there, it all went into Kerb Stain Boys. His reading from the book revealed a lot about his made up slang and accents.

When it was Tony’s turn to read, I thought he was trying to get out of it, but a member of the audience lent him her reading glasses, so all was fine. He needs to pace around when he reads, and we all enjoyed the story about swimming across the ‘bacon pond’ in the nude.

Winning awards is nice, and it opens doors. But, they feel shortchanged by the media. Asked if they get fan mail, it seems that teens are too cool to write; it’s mostly younger ones who do. Mental health is a big thing in their books, as is life for young carers.

They recognise their own teen years when they do school visits, but reckon mobile phones have changed how pressured children are today. Tony remembers everything from his teens, but not what he did last week. Alex is the hopeful guy who wants to date the beautiful girl, who already has a more exciting boyfriend.

Anthony McGowan

And on that happy note we all congregated in the bookshop. Well, Tony got there a little late, but he got there. Kwame chatted to Alex and got a book signed. Even I remembered after a bit that I had books that wanted signing. (I’m the one without an ‘e’ at the end, btw.) Tony discussed tonality with a fan, and did his best to sign in Chinese.

Alex Wheatle and Kwame Alexander

As I said earlier, it’s great when authors simply get on with it and talk about writing. It’s also great when their peers come to the event, along with the appropriate age readers.

We want more of this.

A somewhat abridged day in Charlotte Square

The decorator was coming to Bookwitch Towers. So I cancelled my first Monday events. The decorator did not come. My rather shortened day in Edinburgh ended up being just the one event, with Alex Wheatle and Anthony McGowan. Plus a photocall with the First Minister and Arundhati Roy.

Waiting

You can [almost] see the excitement amongst the assembled photographers as they wait. And wait. And wait a bit more. I’d been about to get out my cheese sandwich when I woke up to the fact that they all seemed to be waiting and I thought Nicola Sturgeon and Arundhati might be early. After ten years I ought to know that there was plenty of time for Brie and bread, as well as trips to the Ladies’. But it’s all good.

Nicola Sturgeon and Arundhati Roy

Although I did cause a major jinx in the process, and I really must learn not to use my powers in this way.

Alex Wheatle

Finally met Alex Wheatle after discovering him in the middle of ‘Yurt Gardens.’ Had already shaken hands with and been air-kissed [twice] by his events partner Tony McGowan. Chatted to Sarah Broadley as her charges were given the Chris Close treatment.

And hopefully Candy Gourlay and Michelle Paver experienced good events even without me in the audience. I’m sure it must be possible.

Towards the end of my event, I could hear loud applause and other happy noises, which I assume came from the Main Theatre where the First Minister and Arundhati would have come to the end of their conversation..

Feminist Treasure Troves

For a brief moment on Sunday morning I forgot what Mairi Kidd and Siobhán Parkinson were going to talk about, but as their chair Heather Parry reminded me, it was women. Mairi has written about 49 Scottish women in history in Warriors and Witches and Damn Rebel Bitches, while Siobhán’s slightly earlier book, Rocking the System, is about 20 Irish women.

Mairi Kidd and Siobhán Parkinson

Reading from their books, Mairi told the story about the doctor who turned out to have been a woman, while Siobhán chose her favourite of the twenty, a blood-guzzling woman who was first widowed at 15 before falling in love with a handsome man on a horse.

Siobhán – who published her book through the publishing company she started – couldn’t afford more than twenty women, as she wanted the book to be illustrated as well, and that’s as far as the money would go. Mairi seems to have struggled to keep it down to 49.

Mairi Kidd

The chosen women didn’t have to be dead, but needed to be at least so old that what they had done was already in the past. Mairi pointed out that in Edinburgh there are more dog statues than statues of women. And also that before 1700 women’s voices appeared in writing much more than later, because of all the witch trials.

One question was who the two would choose from people living now, for a future version of their books. And who had they left out? In many cases some women had done similar things, in which case the most obvious one was picked. Asked who Mairi’s 50th would be, she reckons her grandmother. But she had put a long list at the back of her book, listing everyone she’d thought of but not been able to add.

Siobhán Parkinson

Siobhán mentioned Bernadette Devlin, who had been in the news quite recently, and when Mairi said she can’t remember the 1970s, Siobhán can. She talked about an Ireland where contraceptives and divorces were illegal. She doesn’t believe things will go backwards now, but the state of things is not good.

We need to live the life we have, rather than the one we might wish for. We need to be a witness to what is going on.

Yurt Sweet Yurt

Having rather carelessly planned a day where I had several events in quick succession, with the minimal 15 minutes between them, I started Sunday by gobbling an early egg sandwich to fortify myself. That’s how I noticed the country’s First Minister arrive, seemingly for a private visit, judging by her clothes. We know Nicola Sturgeon likes reading and so it’s nice to see her wanting to go to a book festival like the rest of us.

Mairi Kidd and Siobhán Parkinson

It was a grand day. (That actually came out as more unintentionally Irish than I’d been expecting. Sorry.) I saw two Irish Laureates na nÓg in one morning. First Siobhán Parkinson and later Sarah Crossan. (A bit like the two Poet Laureates the other day. They come in twos.)

Sarah Crossan, Kwame Alexander and Jason Reynolds

I took a turn round the square to begin the day, seeing as it was nicely quiet so early. Well, quiet and quiet; I could hear Andy Stanton being noisy in the Main Theatre. But that’s only to be expected.

During the day I came across super-librarian Yvonne Manning, and also Jake Hope, whom I’ve not seen for ages. Caught a glimpse of Dan Smith after his signing. Went to stake out Mark Haddon’s signing, and discovered someone I’ve seen many times before. We’re not acquainted, but she’s a lady who knows how to be first in the signing queue.

Mark Haddon

Went to two events, and was only foiled from staying for my third intended event – with Debi Gliori – by arriving so late there was no Bookwitch-shaped seat left. I decided Debi was in good hands with plenty of little readers, and waited until I saw her in the bookshop after, where she did her slowest book signing in the world, again. But that’s as it should be.

Debi Gliori

Once I had this extra time on my hands I decided to treat myself to tea and cake. However I was spared the date and walnut cake by me turning invisible. I know I am both short and insignificant, but the place was completely empty, and no one noticed me. So I moved sideways a little, in case I was standing in the wrong spot. Asked them this, and they were surprised I wanted to order something. Unfortunately, none of the four staff who were busy doing nothing seemed to want to serve me, and after a longer embarrassing wait I left them to it.

I mean, who wants cake, anyway?

The lovely Rosie in the press yurt organised tea for me, and I drank it outside, watching the current Laureate na nÓg being well attended by three publicists. Even I was impressed. And there was a man wearing pink leggings and a mini-kilt.

EIBF ducks

After several photo opportunities where I had to do all the work myself, as the Photographer has gone off to Iceland, I realised I’m not terribly good at this. Unless it’s my camera that’s not so good at it?

Then I went back to Waverley for the train home, encountering Jenny Colgan coming the other way.