Category Archives: Bookshops

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

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…

Monday, Mounties, Metaphrog and the Makar

On my walk from Haymarket to Charlotte Square on Monday I was overtaken by a Mountie. This doesn’t happen often, and as this one was a fake, it might not even count. But still. That’s Edinburgh in August. Thank you kindly.

Just before the entrance to the book festival, I came across our new Makar, Jackie Kay, being photographed by a fan. On my way to a reception in the Party Pavilion, I first stopped by the signing tent to see who I could find. I had missed Philippa Gregory, but caught Dominic Hinde with his last fan. He’s written a book about Sweden, which I’ve not read, but is why I sort of knew he’d be there.

Dominic Hinde

Got to the party just as it was beginning, finding Debi Gliori in the queue by the door and had the nerve to ask her why she’d been invited… (For a good reason, I may add.) She was debating the impossibilty of removing more garments in the somewhat unexpected heat. It’s hard when you are down to your last cover.

Janet Smyth

We were there to eat scones and dainty sandwiches, and to hear about the book festival’s new-ish venture outside Charlotte Square and August, Book-ed. Janet Smyth introduced the speakers, who told us what had been happening, or was about to happen, in their home areas, primarily half a dozen new towns, including Irvine, Glenrothes and Cumbernauld. It seems that having the EIBF behind you means any venture stands a much better chance of success, so I believe we can look forward to many more little festivals here and there.

A wealthy Bookwitch would have offered to sponsor something on the spot, but in this case she merely had another piece of rather nice cake. Met a crime colleague, who was able to tell me what I did last August, which is something I increasingly need help with. To make the most of my invited status, I sat outside on the decking for a while, enjoying the sunshine.

Charlotte Square

It was going to be an afternoon of bookshop signing photos, and I hurried over to catch Nicola Davies and Petr Horáček (for a while I lost Petr’s lovely accents, which was worrying, but they have now been found again), who had so many young fans I didn’t stop to talk.

Nicola Davies

Petr Horacek

The really great thing about Charlotte Square is that someone built it near a good shoeshop, making it possible to pop out for new shoes whenever a gap presents itself. I found such a gap on Monday.

Richard Byrne

Back for Richard Byrne, who seems to be a very nice man, with a whole lot of lovely little fans. And then I crossed the square for Jackie Kay and Zaffar Kunial, checked out the sandwich situation, and went and had a chat with Sarah from Walker Books.

Zaffar Kunial

Jackie Kay

Refreshed from my brief rest, I braved the world of Harry Potter. Jim Kay, who is illustrating the books about the famous wizard, had a sold out event, which then filled the children’s bookshop. Although I couldn’t help noticing that those first in line were really quite old. I chatted to Jim’s chair, Daniel Hahn, who is so relaxed about travelling that he’d only just got off the train.

Jim Kay

After a little sit-down in the reading corner I was ready for Ross MacKenzie and Robin Jarvis. The latter had brought a skull. And with all three signings happening side by side, there was quite a crush. On the left side of the queue I encountered Ann Landmann, who told me she was feeling stupid. When she’d told me why, I also felt stupid, so it must have been an Ann thing. (We should have brought our copies of A Monster Calls. And we didn’t.)

Ross MacKenzie

Skull

My sandwich required eating, and I repaired to the yurt, before going zombie-hunting. Darren Shan was signing his Zom-B Goddess (and I can’t tell you how relieved I am I haven’t really started on his – undoubtedly excellent – books). His hair was extremely neatly combed. I liked the way Darren allowed time for chatting with his fans, initiating a discussion if they seemed shy. I can’t see how he’d have time to do it with all of them, but maybe he feels that those who’d waited to be first in line deserved a bit of extra attention.

Darren Shan

Over in the children’s bookshop I found Metaphrog still signing, and was pleased to see they look nice and normal. The name has always worried me a little…

Metaphrog

And then all I had left to do was get ready for Jo Cotterill and Kathryn Evans, which you’ve already read about. Listening to others in the queue, I got the impression, as with Michael Grant on Saturday, that many people buy tickets on the day for an event that sounds reasonably suitable, but might be with an author they’d not heard of before. I like that. It’s good to know you can discover a new favourite out of the blue.

Unusual and Unexpected

It helps to have authors who are former actors, or just plain crazy. Last night’s brilliant performance – that is the only word for it – by Jo Cotterill and Kathryn Evans was really something. The bright spark who put them together is either quite cunning or someone simply got lucky. Jo and Kathryn felt they were mismatched, what with not writing for the same age group, and I’d had the same thought, but they are friends and they worked out what to do. Or so they claimed.

Jo Cotterill

It was fun! We could have had much more of this electric stuff. Literally.

Debut author Kathryn Evans (who is up for the First Book Award at the festival, so vote for her!) started off, and now that I’ve seen her childhood photographs and learned more about aphids, I completely see where she was coming from when writing about her set of girls in More of Me.

Kathryn Evans

Who knew you could get ideas for fiction when farming strawberries? I mean, from the actual farming, rather than just idly thinking as you farm. Creatures eating creatures eating plants. I think. Inside every aphid is another aphid. Apparently. And being given sets of Russian dolls by your Eastern European workers will also set the ball rolling.

Books by Jo Cotterill and Kathryn Evans

After both of them had agreed that being an embarrassing mother is essential, Jo Cotterill used the audience to build atoms, to explain how her Electrigirl came to be. There is audience participation and then there’s audience participation. First Jo built one atom and then a second atom, using every available electron in the tent, with Kathryn as the battery, channelling her enthusiastic PE teacher persona to the limit. (As we were in one of the smaller theatres, most of the audience got used up for this.)

Jo Cotterill

They had questions for each other, and we learned that Kathryn was surprised we all came, and Jo has been surprised to find fans believe characters are real. (They are!?) Jo once poured a pot of tea over herself (ouch!) and Kathryn wasn’t totally truthful with her agent about progress on book two. Oops, sorry. I think that was a secret meant to stay in the tent. And the book features a frozen heroine.

Then it was the turn of the audience to ask questions, and they were far better than average. Kathryn once wanted to work in a sweetshop, because she fancied a boy there. Jo was an actress and a teacher, before becoming a writer. She reckons she could let her heroine explode in book three… That might also have been a secret.

When the time came to be first in the signing queue, I witnessed some proper running. The girls were dead keen, and those who had come only knowing one of these fun – but crazy – authors were completely charmed by the other one as well. And let’s face it; how could you resist a sexy strawberry farmer with pink hair, wearing a silver grey fifties dress and uncomfortable shoes, or the ex-actress in lime green leggings and a skirt straight out of a comic, with specially painted Converse to match her book cover?

Kathryn Evans

I joined the queue, wearing both my fan girl hat and my photographer hat. Kathryn had a blue, retro Polaroid camera, and after sort of kissing me across the signing table she made me pose with her. I never do this. Never. She had a library date stamp to play with as well. In fact, I suspect neither Jo nor Kathryn were treating this very seriously…

Kathryn Evans and Jo Cotterill

After sensibly declining drinks, I got out my old person’s bus pass for the two stops to Waverley station, making sure I voted for Kathryn’s book before leaving Charlotte Square.

Princes Street was surprisingly pleasant for a Saturday night, I thought, until I remembered it was Monday.

On the Front Line with Michael Grant

We were given permission to call him whatever we wanted. This man who recently lay down under a tank in the Ardennes, in case he would need to know what it looks like from down there. Michael Grant was back in Edinburgh on Saturday afternoon, converting a tentful of teenagers, some younger ones and a whole lot of older people who were unable to resist. (Although I have a few words to offer the adult who told her child companion to put Gone back on the shelf in the shop. That he wanted it was testament to Michael’s ability to make children want to read [his books].)

Michael Grant

Michael threatened horrible pictures (I hope he didn’t have me in mind) and suggested some of us might want to leave there and then. It wasn’t so bad. Barbara Cartland was very pink, and I suspect Michael will never look like that, despite his past in romantic formula novels. Luckily he gave them up before he had to hang himself in the shower.

This is the man who left school after 10th grade because he arrived for school lunch through the exit door and was told to go out and come back in the right way. The one who surreptitiously gave the finger in an old family photo. Someone who has a past as a burglar of cheap diners. They got him in to inspire us, and he said he’d see what he could do.

Genghis Khan was worse than Hitler, and I almost believe him after hearing what happened in Kiev. And then there was the Chichijima incident, which gave us George Bush for President.

Anyway, Michael was here to talk about WWII and his latest book, Front Lines. He sought inspiration in books, and particularly praised Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity, which he told everyone to read. He had done the Private Ryan Package at a rifle range, just so he could try lots of rifles out, despite hating guns.

He wasn’t sure how open he could be, either in the book, or with the audience, but feels that children can cope with the truth. And he only writes something if he thinks he will have fun with it.

Michael Grant, Front Lines

There were two things Michael changed in his book. One was giving women the draft, as he wanted to have them in the story. He also made black soldiers more integrated, earlier than in real life. The war had a good effect for black soldiers, because after fighting Hitler, they returned home less afraid than they’d been before.

This workaholic told us how he met his wife, Katherine Applegate, and how they eventually began writing books in order to quit their cleaning jobs. How they made a fortune with Animorphs (‘we’re going to need some aliens’) and then lived it all up, meaning they had to start again.

Michael Grant

That’s when Michael had the idea for Gone, told his wife about it, and she told him to drop everything and write it. Being a well trained husband he always does what his wife tells him to do.

After Michael had worn out one microphone and moved on to the next, it was time for us to skip over to the bookshop to have our books signed. I must have lost my touch, because I was nowhere near the front of the queue. I blame the photographer who required the buying of her own copy of Front Lines (that’s how inspiring Michael was). And then I tried to convert the young boy who wanted to read Gone and wasn’t allowed…

Michael Grant

I have received complaints for messing up the last photo my photographer was going to take of a very happy looking Michael. I retorted that he doesn’t do happy, but actually, I see that he does. Even with other women readers. So here’s to a smiley Michael. It wouldn’t be Edinburgh without him.