Author Archives: bookwitch

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

I was filled with a nice warm glow reading the new Harry Potter stage play, enjoying myself a lot and just letting myself feel good about returning to a place I used to love.

And I think that’s OK. Others can have other views, and we’d all be right, in our own way. I believe we had been told there’d be no more Harry, but I see no reason why a person can’t change their mind. Also, this is not the same as another novel; it is merely revisiting people and places we know from before.

I am generally a sucker for finding out ‘what happened after’ and this is a good example. Not everything in the lives of Harry and his friends is perfect, but we see what they’re up to now, and how relationships have continued and developed, and we meet the next generation.

J K Rowling, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Young Albus Severus Potter is a complicated boy, but he is his own person. He’s not a copy of his dad. And he shows us that you can find friends in the most unexpected quarters.

It’d be interesting to see how this works out on the stage, but I have no idea if I’ll be up to sitting for so many hours, should I get hold of tickets at some point in the far future. I might hold out for the film.

And I’m guessing we can’t have more after this. That really would be taking it too far. Or would it?

(And another thing; this teaches millions of fans that you can read drama. That there are other kinds of texts apart from novels.)

Missing

For those of you who have said you wish you were there/here/in Edinburgh, you are no longer alone. Neither am I.

I ran out of time for necessary ‘chores’ on Tuesday, and very – and I mean very very – reluctantly had to decide there was no way I could travel to hear Meg Rosoff talk about Jonathan and the dogs on Tuesday evening. Finding seven spare hours can be tricky at the best of times.

Meg Rosoff - EIBF

Missing any attractive event is hard, and to decide not to see your favourite author is not to be taken lightly. On the other hand, hysterically trying to finish what needs finishing is not fun either.

But, looking on the bright side, Meg will now not have to receive a second-hand kiss from Tony McGowan.

She loves YA

At last night’s Great YA Debate, chaired by Daniel Hahn, the discussion was kicked off by the children’s books world’s enfant terrible, Anthony McGowan, who was of the opinion that you shouldn’t

to be continued...

read YA. If, you are older than twenty, or so. Especially if you are white and female. And middle class.

Yes, that’s – approximately – what he said, but then Tony had been hired to be the naughty one, to get the conversation going. But he did mean it. I think. Mostly. Tony described his part as the hippo poo, spread all over the place, and Elizabeth Wein was there to clean up after him (and if that’s not an example of all kinds of -isms, I don’t know what is).

Christopher Edge, Philip Womack, Annabel Pitcher, Jenny Downham, Patrice Lawrence, Elizabeth Wein and Anthony McGowan

This year’s YA debate was different from last year’s. We had Daniel Hahn on stage with Tony and Elizabeth, and then they had a stash of other authors on the front row; Annabel Pitcher, Christopher Edge, Jenny Downham, Patrice Lawrence and Philip Womack. They all had an opportunity to disagree later on, as did the audience.

But first it was Tony who described going to YALC and finding it so mono-cultural as to be distasteful. White, female writers, 30+ who write brilliant, terrible dross for people in their twenties and thirties. Elizabeth argued with him, and Daniel pointed out that should anyone tweet that YA is crap, the internet would catch fire.

Tony wants adults to move on. YA is for teens. You should read what makes you unhappy, what you hate, or you won’t be stretched enough. Here Daniel admitted to not only being a reader of YA, but having had an Asterix day not long ago.

I decided it was a good thing Daughter had not come along to this. She’d have exploded on the spot.

No one should read John Green.

Elizabeth pointed out that contrary to what we believe in Britain, YA is fairly old as a concept, and existed in the 1950s in America. You would borrow books from the library or from friends, have them as presents, and you ‘read up,’ so even younger children would read about teenagers in books. She talked about Sue Barton and the Hardy Boys, and how Nancy Drew wasn’t considered highbrow enough…

Back to Tony who called readers of YA immature. Then he went on to talk about Meg Rosoff and Mal Peet as supposedly YA writers, but who write adult books, really, mentioning Life: An Exploded Diagram, which is a proper novel. (I think we are allowed to read it.)

Christopher Edge, Philip Womack, Annabel Pitcher, Jenny Downham and Patrice Lawrence

The authors on the front row came to life here, and Christopher Edge mentioned how he as a teenager went between Alan Garner and Jack Kerouac, depending on how he felt and it had less to do with age. Annabel Pitcher said she doesn’t agree that YA is twee or cosy, and looking at her own books you can see her point.

So Tony said the problem with YA is that it always takes you home. There will always be some sort of resolution and happy ending. It has to be miserable to be worthy. (You have to hand it to him. He really found irritating things to say.)

Philip Womack talked about Mary Shelley, who was a teen author (her age), although Daniel reckoned that writing Frankenstein was never a normal thing.

Back to Tony, who spoke about his experience of working with children in First Story, saying children themselves don’t write YA, unlike the white women or his students at Holloway [writing class]. The difference between [Edinburgh] events where audiences can be self selecting, or they come as part of school groups, is an important one.

Jenny Downham remembered being asked by a young working class girl at a school event whether people like her could write stories. And Jenny mused over the weirdness of finding her own Before I Die on two different shelves in bookshops, both as a children’s book and an adult book.

Annabel Pitcher, Jenny Downham, Patrice Lawrence, Elizabeth Wein and Anthony McGowan

Elizabeth said as a teenager she read lots of categories of books, but as an adult she doesn’t. Tony chipped in and was disparaging about YA book bloggers, and claimed we are not his friends (I will have to think about this). Patrice Lawrence pointed out that at 49 she has lived more than half her life and she has no intention of ruining the rest with Dostoyevsky. Her own Orangeboy is not a book for 28-year-old book bloggers.

And on that note Daniel opened up the discussion to the audience ‘in the unlikely event anyone has any views.’ They did.

The talk was about marketing and whether editors have views on what should be written. The difference between rainbow colours for children and black teen books in shops. A 16-year-old wanted beautiful books [the writing] and Tony came back with saying children’s books are often funny, and teen books not.

Elizabeth feels independent bookshops have more advice to give on what to buy, and it’s important as young people rarely buy, but have books bought for them.

Elizabeth Wein and Anthony McGowan

Daniel suggested that the remaining time should be for readers under twenty (so that shut me up!) and there were many of them, with interesting thoughts on books and reading. The odd one even agreed with Tony. The girl behind me said she finds War and Peace intimidating. Someone else said there are many exciting YA novels out there, but you have to dig deep to miss the crap.

Our time was up and Daniel suggested continuing the chat over signing in the bookshop. The adult bookshop (the children’s bookshop was closed)…

There were many readers queueing up and many discussions. Elizabeth Wein won the popularity contest (if there was one) with by far the longest queue, which, naturally, I had to join. But I did have some books for Tony – yes – to sign, too. He asked if I offered them out of pity.

Before running for my train, I had time to chat to publicist Nina, ‘Mr Wein,’ and the lovely Philip Womack, who actually is a Bookwitch reader and who didn’t even twitch when I admitted to not having reciprocated. And finally I made myself known to Barrington Stokes’ Mairi Kidd, who thanked me for loving them, and wondered whether I could love even Tony. We decided I could.

Daniel Hahn, Philip Womack and Jenny Downham

Across the Barricades

As I said, I could barely wait to read Joan Lingard’s Across the Barricades after The Twelfth Day of July. It has the pleasure of re-connecting with old friends, but it has stopped feeling even a little bit cosy. Three years on, Kevin is 17 and Sadie is 16 – which back then seems to have almost counted as being adult – when they unexpectedly meet up again.

Joan Lingard, Across the Barricades

Things are much worse in Belfast; barbed wire everywhere and disturbances and violence have become daily occurences and seemingly normal, even to peaceful and ‘normal’ people. Childhood friendships are falling apart, when people find themselves on opposite sides, and I don’t mean religious ones, but whether or not they want to live peacefully or if they prefer to go on the attack against people who’ve not done anything to them.

As we can see today too, prejudice is rife and you hate on principle. This makes it harder for our young couple, who find that they very much want to keep seeing each other, while also realising that the other one will be much safer if they can stay away.

What a choice!

Just as it is upsetting to see how blinkered some people were (are), it is reassuring to find the odd ones who can see both sides of the coin and who are normal and decent human beings.

Even as their situation darkens, you want to read on and on. And knowing that this is anchored in recent history, you know that not everything can be fine, just like that. People will die, and they will be injured. Others will be upset, because separation of some sort is unavoidable.

I just want more.

Drawing on the Imagination

We need more ‘deprived’ picture books. That was one suggestion coming from the audience with Debi Gliori and Faye Hanson at Thursday lunch time. Theirs was the kind of event I find perfect;  for adults, by children’s books authors and illustrators. We should have more of these. Lots more.

Debi Gliori

Very nicely chaired by Kathryn Ross, we learned new things about Faye and Debi and how they work. And by ‘we’ I mean a whole theatre full of adults eager to hear about illustrating picture books. And when I say new things about Faye, I need to disclose that I knew nothing at all about her, and of course, that is one of the charms of this kind of thing. Go and hear someone speak about their work and suddenly you feel as if you are old friends.

Faye Hanson

Faye has only done two picture books so far, having had an earlier career in fashion with Alexander McQueen. She read a bit from Wonder, so I can’t totally claim not to have read her books. And the pictures are rather nice.

Debi ‘has lost count’ of the number of books she is responsible for. And it feels wrong with applause – as happened here – before she’s even spoken. She sat on the floor, the better to see her pictures from Hebridean Alphabet (which I’ve not had a chance to read…). The island in her book is a mix of several real ones, including Iona. She had to place her story in the past to get away with having two young children alone all day, out on the island, having fun, the way we used to.

There even had to be a pretend kayak, as you can’t have children playing on boats. Debi said she regretted giving the girl a beautiful Fair Isle cardigan, as it was a lot of hard work drawing, over and over. And as for the very patterned wallpaper, well…

The two illustrators had had a good discussion in the yurt before the event, and they agreed that what they draw comes from their own lives. And you need to put something more adult into a picture book, to keep the interest of the grown-ups who have to read these books to their children.

Kathryn suggested that children no longer have time to get bored, and Debi reckons ‘boredom is pretty creative.’ Every book begins with a picture in her mind, although – and here she was afraid of being hideously indiscreet – she once took an idea from an editor, because there was a mortgage to pay. With the US in mind, there must be no hedgehogs, no badgers and no red squirrels. In fact, Mr Bear was originally Mr Badger.

Faye feels it’s much easier to draw than to write, but hopes it might get easier with time. ‘Hell, no,’ Debi replied.

Debi Gliori

Someone asked if there is an age limit for reading picture books (if there is, I haven’t reached it yet), as her 10-year-old son needs to relax with a picture book when things feel hard. Debi said picture books make for great comfort reading, and of course we now also have graphic novels, aimed at older readers.

Another question referred back to what you can’t put in children’s books, because we now have different rules as to what children are allowed to do. Debi once had to remove a fridge, because of the potential danger to children getting locked in, and she was grateful to have had that pointed out to her. Faye had had to move a table lamp away from the edge of a table so it wouldn’t fall off. Whereas the problem with mice nestling in an electric blanket, the answer is that mice don’t read!

They were asked about their thoughts on the suitability of Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton today, with a view to safety and political correctness.

Faye Hanson

And then we arrived at the request for more picture books about deprived inner city areas and children in poorer districts. Somehow there are disproportionately many books set in the Highlands and Islands, with their beautiful scenery and seemingly idyllic lifestyles. Debi feels she’d quite like to, but wasn’t sure she had the right credentials, while Faye said that she comes from a poor background and definitely wants more of this in picture books, as she has done already.

The Makar and the First Minister

In the end it was just me and Shappi Khorsandi’s handbag. Fantastic handbag, actually, and I felt sort of honour bound to guard it while it was sitting there all alone. Now, if you knew me, you’d realise how odd this was. It was mere minutes after I had spectacularly missed taking photographs of Shappi. Twice. Because I didn’t recognise her well enough. And now I know what her handbag looks like.

Jackie Kay and Nicola Sturgeon

This was probably due to the excitement ‘backstage’ after the photo session with Nicola Sturgeon and Jackie Kay. We’d waited, the way you do. And then it happened so fast, the way it tends to with people who have security staff and lots of commitments, but not so many that a First Minister can’t interview a poet at a book festival. They were nicely colour coordinated, the two of them. And it’s a sign of popularity for a politician when she is addressed by her first name.

So I missed Shappi’s photo call, coming immediately after this. Then I missed my unobtrusive photos of Shappi as she was being given the Chris Close treatment. And then everyone left, except for the handbag.

Prior to this I had skipped a book signing with Simon Callow. I decided I already had enough pictures of him, so went and sat in the yurt reading and eating my lunch. Only minutes later he joined me on that bench. Admittedly with an interviewer, but still. You can’t escape the great and the good. Luckily for Simon I hadn’t helped myself to the grapes in the fruit bowl as had been my intention, so he was able to polish them off as he talked.

Zaffar Kunial

Previously out on the grass, I had come across poet Zaffar Kunial seemingly doing an impromptu session with a large group of people. Maybe these things just happen as fans encounter someone they admire…

Holly Sterling

Carol Ann Duffy

Gillian Clarke

Then it was back and forth for me, catching children’s illustrators in the children’s bookshop and the more grown-up poets in the signing tent. Holly Sterling had a line of eager children after her event, and staying with the Christmas theme, so did Carol Ann Duffy across the square, along with her fellow Welsh poet Gillian Clarke. After them Jackie Kay signed, without Nicola Sturgeon. And I finally caught up with Shappi!

Jackie Kay

Shappi Khorsandi

Fiona Bird

Found Fiona Bird signing her nature book mid-afternoon, and she has such an appropriate name for the kind of books she writes! I went hunting for Kathryn Evans and Michael Grant, who had both been hung along the boardwalks by Chris Close. Had to try Kathryn several times, to see if the light would improve.

Kathryn Evans by Chris Close

Michael Grant by Chris Close

And there were no photos, but I glimpsed Kate Leiper, and spoke to both Lindsey Fraser and Kathryn Ross.

Tried to use my afternoon sensibly, so checked out various books in the bookshops. That didn’t mean I actually did sensible thinking, looking up ‘un-known’ names or anything. If I had I wouldn’t have been so surprised later.

Dark & Dangerous Worlds

It was beginning to look like another embarrassing admission from me, that I knew nothing about one of the authors at last night’s event in Charlotte Square. I’d never heard of this M A Griffin* who was appearing with Theresa Breslin, talking about their dark new novels with Daniel Hahn. But I assumed she’d turn out to be absolutely fine. Being heard of by me is no guarantee of anything.

Theresa Breslin

Following a fruitful and pleasant chat with Mr B[reslin] outside the theatre, we went in and sat down, and after a while I looked at the stage and discovered that M A was actually a man. Another 30 seconds and I realised I knew him. It’s just that three years ago he went under the name of Fletcher Moss, like the park in Didsbury. And I vaguely recall that I managed to force his real name out of him at the time, but had half forgotten it again.

So that was nice; knowing all three people on stage quite well. Not that I’d read the books, though. That will be my next task, once I’ve unearthed some copies.

Both Martin’s Lifers and Theresa’s Caged sound terrific. Their covers matched too, as Daniel pointed out in his introduction of ‘two very very nice people.’ Gritty, contemporary page turners is what they are.

Martin Griffin

The background inspiration for Martin came when he was failing to teach a class some beautiful poetry, and one of his students happened to mention how she’d like to camp on the grass outside the classroom when she runs away from home. As you do. He also acquired the word ‘screb’ from a pupil. (What Martin will do for supplies in future, now that he’s left teaching, is another question.)

Theresa’s book began with seeing young people sleeping rough in London, and then she mixed that with cage fighting, which she came across elsewhere. While talking inspiration, Theresa mentioned another of her books, Name Games, which she wrote on a train journey after overhearing two girls complaining about their names. Again, as you do.

Apparently Martin has three middles of his book; one in the book and two at home which didn’t make it. His editor is great, and will ask things like ‘is this where you want to go?’ (I suspect the answer to that is always meant to be ‘now that you mention it, probably not.’)

They both read short excerpts from their books, which made them sound even more grittily intriguing. Martin has discovered that unlike in films where a fight scene can take forever, you can’t have eight chapters of fighting in a book. And Theresa asks young readers of the target age to read what she writes, because they won’t hesitate to say they ‘could have written it better’ themselves.

Decisions play an important part in really good stories. Fighting a dragon is not such a big deal, whereas having to chose between something dreadful happening to your best friend or to your girlfriend is quite chilling stuff. Theresa mentioned hearing about homeless people who steal wheelie bins to sleep in, because they are dry and possibly safer than just sleeping outside.

Afterwards it was the usual signing in the bookshop, and I managed to chat some more with the former Mr Moss, and discovered that the young lady at his side was the once much younger Miss Moss whose pushchair played a part in our first meeting. And this time Martin had practised his signature before he needed to use it…

Martin Griffin and Theresa Breslin

It’s nice when you find out you’re not as ignorant as you thought, and it’s great to meet people again. I tried suggesting that Scotland is a good place to move to, especially if you are no longer using your local park as your nom de plume. However, it seems I might have a long wait for the sequel to The Poison Boy.

*I suppose I could always try this thing called research…