Monthly Archives: August 2012

The Importance of Reading to Children and to Society

I didn’t exactly remember what I’d come for. I am so forgetful, and when the lady in the Scottish Parliament asked what I was there for, I mumbled something about books and reading. I mean, I didn’t know how specific she wanted me to be. It was enough. It separated us from the normal tourists, and she sent us to wait over by the letter D.

Theresa Breslin had suggested we come to hear her on a panel organised by the Carnegie Trust. Other participants were Annie Mauger for the Carnegie Kate Greenaway awards, Miranda McKearney from the Reading Agency and Marc Lambert from the Scottish Book Trust.

I was surprised to find the parliamentary chairs so tightly packed. You need to be friendly with whoever sits next to you. And I’d have liked an elevator to get up there. Daughter was disappointed that she couldn’t vote without a card. Not that there was a vote, but still.

The discussion was chaired by former Biggles fan, Deputy Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament, John Scott MSP. He gave the four guests ten minutes each to speak, and Theresa went first, starting with a most impressive Scots poem(?), waving her tartan scarf around to signify who was saying what. It seems she was brought up on this kind of thing, so it’s hardly surprising she went on to become a librarian and an author, despite having to be interviewed by the dragon librarian before she was allowed to borrow books as a child.

She told us about the two books that were the most important to the young Theresa, and went on to describe how she wrote Alligator with the help of some school children. Only a numptie would buy an alligator, apparently.

Miranda spoke about how shocking it is with disadvantaged children who don’t read. She wants reading to have a wider role in children’s lives, and mentioned how well it deals with stress. There is bibliotherapy for mental illnesses, and she seemed to advocate doctors who would prescribe reading.

The Reading Agency has a Story Lab, and it offers the Summer Reading Challenge. She had a lot of quotes from successful cases, and I especially liked the child who said that reading is like going on holiday, but without having to pack.

Next Marc talked about the costs of illiteracy. One billion pounds every year, which sort of makes you wonder why no one does anything about it. Prisons are full of people who can’t read, and too many children’s bedrooms have televisions in them. Few Scottish teenagers read for pleasure.

He compared things here with how it is in Finland, pointing out that teachers there have less teaching time per week, so have more time to arrange their work. It is a prestigious job to have, and the children don’t start reading until they are seven. All this helps.

Annie – who is not a dragon – works with the Carnegie Trust. She had been to a conference in Helsinki (Finland, again), where she had talked to delegates from Nepal. There people put small change into piggybanks, with the money eventually being used to build simple libraries. And South Korea is building 180 libraries. (Did you hear that? 180 libraries!)

‘A literate society’ helps you move forward. (Now, what does that make me think about this country?) It’s important to find the right book for the right child. The shadowing programme for the Carnegie/Greenaway prizes involves a lot of schools, and provides an online discussion forum where silent children can take part, chatting about books.

The Biggles fan remarked that as a new grandfather he sees his daughter reading to her six-month-old baby. But for those who aren’t that lucky, one participant mentioned how you can teach parents to read to their children, including how to hold the book and how to turn the pages.

One important question is how to make reading cool. Theresa favours inviting authors into schools. Someone suggested free online reading for first chapters, and then, once people are hooked, you charge. When money has to be saved, the choice is often between books and sports. Usually sports wins.

Several people in the audience spoke passionately on the subject of reading, and one politician who was present ended up answering questions. We could have gone on and on. But we didn’t, because there were more places to go and more things to do for all of us.

And back in Charlotte Square, I couldn’t help noticing that the children there are the complete opposite to the disadvantaged non-readers we’d just heard about. It makes you think.

Library Cuts doodle

Someone next to me found inspiration for this doodle during the debate… Wonder who she had in mind?


Goodbye Nina Bawden

You know it has to happen, but you wish it won’t. I was sad to hear of the death of Nina Bawden yesterday. She was a real, old-fashioned children’s author. There are still a few of them left, but now I find myself worrying about the great writers born in the 1920s.

They lived through WWII, and their books about that period have a different feel to them than those built on research. Carrie’s War makes me think of the Grandmother’s time as an evacuee, because there were similarities. Probably also many differences.

Despite writing lots of excellent children’s books over many years, for me her masterpiece will remain the sad, but wonderful Dear Austen, written after her husband’s death in the Potters Bar train crash.

I don’t suppose I expected to meet Nina, but there is something so final when you hear that someone you admire has died.

Thank you for the books.

Guardian obituary

‘Just an average writer’

Those are his own words, because I would never say that about Michael Grant. What he meant was he’s not a literary type. What I meant is he’s not average at all. But I suspect we mean roughly the same when it comes down to it.

Michael Grant

Since Michael’s Edinburgh debut in 2010 he has clearly grown in importance. Accompanied by the lovely Vicki from Egmont, he now had a larger venue and a very long signing queue. Although he was quick to point out all that he is not; teacher, inspirational speaker or role model. He is a writer. Writer. Writer.

I might repeat myself here, and I suspect he did too, because there is only so much variation in background information you can mention. But for all I know, you are reading about Michael here for the first time. He was introduced by the marvellously named Andy Peppiette, who astutely knew we weren’t there to hear him, so he shut up after the intro.

There was a trailer for Bzrk and so much gross stuff about what you see in microscopes that I expected Daughter to walk out. It was the minuscule spiders in our eyelashes I worried about. But all the young men in the audience will have useful memories about what’s on people’s tongues, for when they are making out…

We were a grim audience, with most of us preferring death to insanity, Bzrk style. Michael admitted to freaking himself out with Bzrk, so not much hope for others. Another trailer, for Fear, passively advocating birth control to avoid the ‘worst teen pregnancy you’ve ever seen.’

Michael repeated the experiment from two years ago, to see if children in the audience would kill for a Mars bar. (Might have been a different kind of chocolate last time.) This time they would kill. We have evolved. I blame the sweet looking girl with Drake’s arm. What was wrong with her?

It’s all the parents’ fault. (Michael even showed us a picture of the cute cat, last meal of one of the volunteers.) Bzrk and Fear are both the kind of books that you read all night long, leaving you too tired for school, resulting in bad exam results, making you unemployable and cause you to sleep rough.

He likes work, does Michael. That’s why he reckons he’s most like Quinn in the books, with Brianna being his daughter and Computer Jack his son. But Diana is the most fun to write about. He does very profound, scientific research on Google, and found Perdido Beach by following the California coast until he located somewhere that was right. He even has a photo of ‘the damned mineshaft.’

There might be a film of Bzrk, but probably not of Gone, due to a lack of roles for Will Smith to play. He thinks there is more likelihood of it becoming a television series. Hollywood does not like his talking coyotes, however.

Michael’s favourite book might be Fear, as his editor felt he had ‘gone too far’ with it. But Hunger was very hard work, so also has a place in his heart for having had to be so extensively rewritten. His inspiration is Walt Disney for being so quick to murder parents, but feels he went one better in getting rid of all the old people on page one.

Michael Grant

Questioned on the religious aspects in his books, he replied that people in America are religious, so any book featuring real Americans will have to incorporate different religions. That’s why Astrid is deeply religious.

He makes things up every day. He has no idea what will happen, and does not believe J K Rowling did either. You write your last line, maybe, but then you make everything up as you go.

Michael is 250 pages into Light, and I hope he can continue making stuff up, so we can read the explanations to everything, reasonably soon!

Was there a World War I?

I know. It’s hard to even imagine asking that question. You might not know a lot about any particular period in history, but you sort of feel (well, I do) that everybody knows it happened. And if you are a student of History at a reputable university like Uppsala, it seems a very unlikely question to ask.

But it’s one Peter Englund had to answer as a History lecturer, and it’s what made him write The Beauty and the Sorrow, which takes a look at WWI from the points of view of twenty randomly chosen people.

I have not read it, but I understand it’s a rather special book. Hardly surprising when the author is the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy. Partly because of this, I persuaded myself to attend his event in Charlotte Square on Sunday, and partly because the English translation was done by Peter Graves, who has become a bit of a household name in the Bookwitch family.

Peter Englund

Peter didn’t disappoint. What he had to say was interesting, and he said it in excellent English. Not surprising for an academic, but still much appreciated.

The book is an experiment in historical writing, and an experiment which seems to have worked well. Peter was looking for multiplicity, wanting to get in as much of the war as he could. He had a matrix which he filled as he went along. He didn’t look to see what X did on a certain day; but who could fill the hole for that particular date.

The people chosen didn’t know what was going to happen, because they lived the war. You lived in a bubble of ignorance. From his own experience in the military Peter knows how easy it is to forget why there is a war. Momentum keeps it going. He found that the daily observations of the women were generally more interesting and more detailed than those of the men.

The book turned out better than Peter had expected. Which is nice.

Angels – the bad guys

OK, it was the long way round, this getting Daughter to take an interest in Lee Weatherly’s Angel books. (It’s a Blurbs & Covers problem. She had been totally put off by both.) For someone who was a great Lee Weatherly fan some years ago, I was surprised, but luckily a book festival event with Lee herself dealt with the doubts and hesitations.

Mission accomplished.

Lee began by showing us a trailer for Angel, and by surprising Daughter by being American. And then it was straight for pictures of gorgeous guys, so we know precisely who Lee had in mind for Alex, and for Seb in book two. I do have to disagree with Willow, however. She is definitely no Amanda Seyfried for me.

The Angel books have been a long time coming (so to make things quite clear, Lee was not jumping on any Twilight bandwagons at all), having begun life fifteen years ago as something totally different. It didn’t work, and gradually Lee worked out what she needed to do, and after all this thinking she ended up with vicious, bad angels.

Lee very kindly put up with some research trips for our sake, driving from New York to New Mexico via the mesmerising Texas panhandle. She and Mr W searched New Mexico for suitable deserts and canyons, which apparently was harder than you’d think. But for the most part Lee works in her pyjamas in her home office. 2000 words per day is the norm (or perhaps the target).

Lee Weatherly

She has long known about the angel stuff, but had to find out more about guns and cars, and when Alex suddenly began speaking Spanish she had to work out if he was allowed to. He was. And Lee and Mr W ‘had’ to go to Mexico.

With one exception (we have been sworn to secrecy) Lee doesn’t put real people in her books, although a lot of her can be found in many of the characters. She loves the bad guy, and has put herself in him, and enjoys writing his scenes.

There might be more half angels. All will be revealed in book three, next year. After that, she can see another trilogy coming, but only after a standalone book.

In answer to ‘why young adult books?’ Lee said that it’s what she has always liked, and it’s what she wants to write. It’s what we want her to write, too.

Rain and fizz

Steve Cole

Were you scared? Could you work out that Spiderman was really – only – Steve Cole? See, nothing to worry about.

Steve Cole

Steve came out of his lunchtime event fizzing. So did his Pepsi. All over the signing table. Hence the ‘handy-with-a-cloth’ Spiderman you can see here.

Steve Cole

Most unusual sight. Make the most of it.

We’d heard about the suit. Seeing it was almost better than the anticipation. Didn’t see much of the squirrels, though. Those that weren’t appropriated by the audience had already been stashed into a bag. (And they looked like teddies!)

Let’s see how long we can spin out our last weekend in Charlotte Square. There will be more detailed reporting on events, but the general goings-on come first.

We began by getting the first train out of Stirling, in order to go to Michael Grant’s morning event. It was worth it. Once you’re actually out of bed and dressed and all that, it’s not too bad.

Michael Grant

He had a very long signing queue, but after more than an hour we were permitted to drag Michael behind the tent to the dustbin area for a private photocall.

We hung on for Steve Cole’s signing, having found two well positioned chairs to watch from. I couldn’t help but admire the ‘Cole Mothers’ who were still smiling after over an hour waiting with their children.

Julia Donaldson

Julia Donaldson sat on her chair for a considerable time, and her ‘Gruffalo parents’ were very patient indeed. Her event was on first, and she was still there, signing away, hours later. Julia’s trusty musician entertained the crowds, and the Gruffalo did his bit.

The Gruffalo

A lovely message came via facebook, with the news that Jenny Colgan – who doesn’t know us at all – had managed to find Daughter a ticket for her Doctor Who talk that evening. It made our day.

Steve Cole

We trailed after Steve back to the yurt, where everyone jumped at the chance of seeing him jump. He jumped for a solid ten minutes for Chris Close while director Barley watched, along with Ian Rankin, Denise Mina, Patrick Ness, Melvin Burgess and many more, who happened to be passing.

Found Holly Webb in the children’s bookshop after her early morning event. Very long queue.

Holly Webb

Once things quietened down, we sat out in the yurt ‘garden’ again, until I spied Theresa Breslin and Nicola Morgan and we ran over for a signature in Theresa’s new book, Spy For the Queen of Scots. I made the mistake of telling the Guardian’s Michelle Pauli it wouldn’t rain. Hah.

Peter Englund

Back to photocall with Peter Englund of the Swedish Academy. He was bemused to be getting instructions in his own language on how to turn. In typical Swedish fashion he shook my hand. I suspect that is as close as I’ll ever get to a Nobel Prize. Oh, well.

As we ran to get to his event, we spied Philip Ardagh, so stopped to chat briefly. That’s when he decided to lean on me. Someone will have to tell him it’s not good manners. Besides, the cool red shoes of 2011 are no more. He’s back to black brogues.

Mrs, Baby and Mr Wigtown and Philip Ardagh

Philip introduced us to Mr and Mrs and Baby Wigtown, which was nice of him. Apparently they have nine star hotels in Wigtown. (Like I believe that!)

Mr Wigtown and Philip Ardagh

Then we ran on, and after Peter’s event the heavens opened. It’s a most effective way to make people take cover. If they have a cover to take, that is. We really, really needed to go and eat lunch, seeing as it was coming on for five pm, so covered all our techie stuff in polythene, looked at the one umbrella between us, and panicked. All was not lost. In the entrance we found people covered in some delightful white bin liners with the words The Guardian on the front. We bought an Observer and got ourselves two ‘free’ bin bags to wear, and the afternoon was a little drier. So were we.

On second thoughts, we could have sheltered under Ardagh’s beard. Should have.

Post lunch we returned for Daughter’s eight o’clock Doctor Who talk, which she very much enjoyed. A quick chat with Jenny Colgan over signing, followed by a dash for a train.

We are now officially back at Bookwitch Towers.

Silly Sunday

Spiderman called in at Charlotte Square on Sunday. (Sunday. What a joke. First we were lured into believing the weather would remain dry and bright. And then it rained… Have you any idea quite how soggy a blue carpet can become?)


Anyway, Spiderman’s Scottish cousin Mac turned up. (I consider it cheating to wear a kilt over such a nicely clingy pyjamas.)

Philip Ardagh and victim

What can I say? I never should have allowed it. I knew Philip Ardagh to be cruel, but I never imagined it would go this far.