Category Archives: Poetry

Booked – Elizabeth Laird and Daniel Hahn


As Janet Smyth – who organises the children’s books programme for the Edinburgh International Book Festival – said yesterday, away from August and Charlotte Square it can be a lot of fun to revisit events and ideas in greater detail. So that’s what they are doing, with a programme under the [extremely clever] title Booked. What’s more, we are no longer suffering from bookfest fatigue.

The Bookwitch seat

I arrived at Assembly Roxy with plenty of time, and as the first one there (I know…) I was not only given the choice of best seat, but was more or less led to the most comfortable seat in the place, which happened to be a high-backed leather armchair [with just the right support for an ouchy back] which I sat down in and then simply never left. (Feel free to copy this idea at other venues.)

My back and I had come for Elizabeth Laird in conversation with Daniel Hahn, on the occasion of her nomination as the UK representative for the 2016 Hans Christian Andersen award. This IBBY book award is a global one, which looks at an author’s whole body of work. Liz has written around 30 novels, translated into about 15 languages, and she has lived in several countries, including Malaysia, Palestine and Ethiopia.

Asked how she feels about her nomination, Liz said it’s ‘absolutely stunning!’ She spoke of having a couple of her books translated into Arabic, which led her and Daniel to talk about the way so many children’s books in English are translated into other languages, as witnessed by them at a big book festival in Tehran. And Daniel compared this to the relatively few foreign books that are translated into English.

Janet asked if you have to be dead to make it into translation, and he said yes, or you are Cornelia Funke. From his own childhood he knows that children don’t care (possibly don’t know) that books are foreign. He grew up with Moomin and Asterix, and feels that publishers worry too much about what you can put into a book, in case it doesn’t translate well, and this goes for the illustrations too. As for the difficulty of translating rhyming verse, he says that doesn’t seem to stop Julia Donaldson’s books from selling abroad.

Liz said we don’t want child characters who do what their parents say, and Daniel pointed out that’s why we have so many orphans in books. As an example he mentioned James and the Giant Peach, where the parents are killed by a rhinoceros on page one; presumably because Roald Dahl felt he had to get it over with.

Children will engage in a story, and offer hope, endurance, forgiveness and love. Liz likes happy endings, and said that she wants to write hopeful, if not happy, endings. Children’s books should be something to remember as an adult. These days we have emasculated stories, making Grimm and Noah into tame versions of the original stories, in order not to upset.

Daniel Hahn and Elizabeth Laird

When it came to the Q&A, no one knew what Hans Christian Andersen did when he visited Edinburgh. (Did any of you see him?) Daniel reckons this keen but neurotic traveller probably worried about losing his passport, and that he would have had a rope in his luggage, just in case. And he’d quite like to be able to read HCA in Danish.

Asked for a racy story, Liz told us her favourite about the beautiful girl and her silly husband, equally silly father, and hopelessly silly neighbour.

They talked about Liz’s book A Little Piece of Ground, which is about football in Palestine, and she finished by saying she’s not ‘holding her breath’ as regards winning the award.

I think she could. Should.

Elizabeth Laird

There was a signing afterwards, but not before Liz had rushed to put her warm coat on, as she must have been freezing up there on stage. I finally cornered Daniel with my copy of his Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature, ‘this lethal weapon, a nightmare,’ and it has been duly signed.

Daniel Hahn

Stirling Literary Society

The Resident IT Consultant had been a couple of times, but I needed something special to tempt me out on a wet and dark Monday night, so it was my first time. Stirling Literary Society meet at The Smith [local museum] once a month, and the thing that got me out of the house was Scottish Children’s Literature. Dr Maureen Farrell from the University of Glasgow drove through floods to tell us about it.

When she realised that her degree didn’t cover any Scottish books Maureen decided to do her PhD on Scottish children’s literature, but was dissuaded because it was thought there wasn’t enough material for a doctorate… (I was unsure in the end if she went ahead with it anyway, or not. But whichever way, Maureen knows a few things about those non-existent children’s books.)

In the ‘beginning’ there were books, and some children read them. And there were chapbooks, sold by travelling chapmen. In the 18th century James Janeway published A Token for Children. Often books were written by puritans who wanted to educate, and needed to use language accessible to children. As early as 1744 there were ‘magazine giveaways’ with balls for boys and hoops for girls.

Then we had Sir Walter Scott. Naturally. He wrote a book for his grandson, but as a ‘very wordy writer’ it probably wasn’t all that easy to read. But he enjoyed it so much he wanted to give up writing adult books. The first proper children’s book in Scotland seems to have been Catherine Sinclair’s Holiday House, where children played and were naughty.

Maureen Farrell’s criteria for what counts as Scottish literature are books by someone Scottish, set in Scotland or about Scottish people. If not, we couldn’t lay claim to J K Rowling or Julia Donaldson.

There wasn’t really time enough to talk even quite briefly about most Scottish authors. Maureen galloped past Treasure Island, The Light Princess, Peter Pan, and on to Theresa Breslin and Eric Linklater, explaining what the Carnegie Medal is (very elderly audience, but maybe not necessary?), Molly Hunter, Joan Lingard, and she showed us covers of lots of books, including The Wee Free Men.

She described the beginning chapter of Nicola Morgan’s Fleshmarket, and I decided I could possibly avoid fainting if I was lucky. Jackie Kay cropped up with both fiction and poetry, local author Rennie McOwan got some attention, as did Mairi Hedderwick and Debi Gliori.

And then there were the books in Scots, of which she had many to show us. I particularly liked Roald Dahl’s The Twits, which became The Eejits.

I reckon you can deduce that there’s enough for a PhD there, somewhere. We could have gone on for hours and only skimmed the surface. There was a lot I knew about, obviously, but there was also quite a bit I didn’t, because I was never a small Scottish child, unlike others in the audience who had strong and fond memories of many of the books mentioned.

The memorial service

They didn’t go in for children’s books so much in the 1930s and 40s. That will be why the Grandmother, when she learned to read all those years ago, read Dickens and Scott for fun by the age of eight. And that’s why Daughter did a reading of the end of The Lady of the Lake by Sir Walter Scott at her Grandmother’s memorial service on Wednesday.

It was quite a nice service, if I do say so myself. We persuaded Son to be our MC, and he introduced the Resident IT Consultant’s eulogy, which was fairly amusing in places. The Grandmother had once been too young to sign the Official Secrets Act (while having cause to do so). And she used a cardboard box for the Resident IT Consultant to sleep in.

Odd sleeping habits must have run in the family, as her sister reminisced about the three or four years the two of them slept in the understairs cupboard, like some early Harry Potters.

At the crematorium before the memorial Son had the pleasure of hearing ‘Paul Temple’ reading William Penn, and this piece was repeated by Daughter in the next session.

We’re not exactly in the habit of organising this kind of thing, but we knew what we wanted. It was the knowing where to get hold of the right people that was hard. (Many thanks to the Scottish children’s author who didn’t object to questions about suitable musicians.)

In the end we were lucky, as Paul Temple introduced us to a 16-year-old local girl who played Schubert and Stradella on the cello, before charming everyone by singing Mononoke Hime – in Japanese – a cappella. Even an old witch can shed a tear over such perfection.

Initially we’d asked a local church if we could use it as our venue, but we were found too God-less, which meant that we actually ended up somewhere quite perfect in its place. Cowane’s Hospital was just right; the right size, nice and old, beautiful acoustics, situated next to the castle, and generally feeling like our kind of place.

Stirling Highland Hotel

Afterwards we wandered downhill a little – literally – for afternoon tea at the Stirling Highland Hotel, where I normally go to hear about gruesome murders during Bloody Scotland. It couldn’t have been nicer. And no funeral tea is complete without a quick trip upstairs to the Old High School Telescope. The Resident IT Consultant helped paint it, decades ago.

Manchester Children’s Book Festival 2015

Oh, how I miss them! That’s Draper and Tew, of the Manchester Children’s Book Festival. They – and their festival – could almost have made me not move away. And as soon as I moved, they decided they could just drink lots more coffee and they’d be able to put up a festival every year.

Kaye Tew

Hmph! It’s too late to move back. However, I will make it there before this year’s festival is over. I will, I will.

Unfortunately, I will also have to miss a lot of good stuff before I get there. Like Liz Kessler launching her Read Me Like a Book, again. This time in the company of none other than Carol Ann Duffy. That could actually be quite good.

Did I mention it starts on Friday this week, on the 26th? Before that they have some trailblazers during the next few days. On Saturday 27th it’s the Family Fun Day, with Steve Hartley, Ruth Fitzgerald and Matt Brown.

More bookish events on the Sunday, before the Monday 29th Liz Kessler event. During the week there will be lots to do, including Alex Wheatle, Alex Scarrow and Sam & Mark, who I don’t know at all, but understand I should know…

Then we have the poetry weekend 4th and 5th July, when Mandy Coe will simultaneously be at two local bookshops (as if I believe that!). Meanwhile at the library and at Waterstones more poetry will be flowing, and James Dawson, the reigning Queen of Teen, will appear on Saturday afternoon.

James Draper

I have probably missed something off, but that’s because I’m missing Kaye and James. And you won’t mind me posting ‘library’ photos of them from last year, because it’s all I have, and anyway, they will be needing that coffee. I think I might label the last photo James and the Giant Coffee. That’s literary enough.

Forget about the red carpet; and just put a reserved sign on the chair at the back, please.

We’re all bookbugs

They invited me along to the Bookbug annual conference yesterday, at the George Hotel in Edinburgh. It was really quite nice and very enlightening in many ways. They are Scottish Book Trust, and the Bookbugs are the youngest readers. You might recall that in Scotland all babies are given a bag of books to encourage reading and help them interact with their parents.

Karyn McCluskey started off by being cheerful. They are quite cheerful here, I’ve noticed. There was the sunshine to make you smile, and and the fact that reading prevents murders (if that’s not too gruesome a thing to mention). Karyn introduced the acting Minister for Children and Young People, Fiona McLeod, who is only ‘acting’ because the ‘real’ minister has been packed off on maternity leave. It’s better to start reading early, rather than putting more people in prison later on.

Next up was Dr Kate McKay, senior medical officer, child health. She herself is a product of how going to the library as a child has led to professional success in adult life. She reckons that the use of digital books will change the pathways of the human brain. Kate is also a fan of the five Rs; reading, rhyming, routines, rewards and relationships. Chaos leads to stress, and early adversity in life causes bad health in adults.

It’s important for a baby to interact with its mother, and this is something which can’t happen if the mother is drunk or drugged. By supporting girls, they become good mothers, and this in turn is good for society. And laughing is healthy. Children laugh more with their parents, and laughing a lot makes for a longer life.

The morning session ended with Margaret Clark, senior health promotion officer in Lanarkshire. She talked about the book bags, and how if you start early you stay active for life. And if the Nordic countries can do it, so can Scotland.

Then the whole roomful of – mostly – bookish ladies fought for lunch, and plates of very sweet cakes, and I believe even the water dispenser ran dry. After which we quickly returned to the conference, because Nick Sharratt was there to talk to us about his books. Dressed in one of his signature stripey shirts [red and white], Nick charmed the socks off everyone. He claimed to be nervous because it was such a large room…

Nick Sharratt

He pointed out he doesn’t have children of his own, and that he’s never become an adult himself. There was a photo of a very young Nick on a swing, drawing. He still draws, just not on a swing. Showing us lots of illustrations from his hundreds of books, he then read a few to us. And he wore his purple wig and sunglasses, which was so 1970s.

One of the books was What’s in the Witch’s Kitchen, and that’s something I’ve often wondered myself. Nick feels we should learn to relax with picture books. They are not purely for the very young. When he started writing his own books, he began by rhyming and using very few words. Food is important in his books, as long as it’s not butterbeans.

Split page books allow for plenty of interaction between adult and child, as well as offering many combinations of crazy things. Nick showed us similar books made by child fans, and they are truly inspirational. At the end of his hour long session we had a coffee break and people queued up to have their books signed. I couldn’t help wondering which would prove to be the longest; the coffee break or the queue.

The queue won and was eventually shown the door so we could get on with the panel discussion on digital books. Chaired by Tam Baillie, the speakers were Tom Bonnick from Nosy Crow, Lydia Plowman and Andrew Manches from the University of Edinburgh, and Jim McCormick.

On the whole the panel were in favour of digital even for the very young, and according to Lydia a surprising percentage of pre-schoolers have tablets; often an older hand-me-down. She reckons not to worry about it, though, and to remember that the adult is still boss, and that the adult is a role model, so cut down on the continual staring at your own phone or other screen.

Other thoughts include how easy it is to share digital material, in a positive sense. The quality of teachers is important and so is the relationship between school and home.

I had somehow expected to hear that digital would make it easier to access reading, but the debate seemed to go in a different direction. We had a Q&A session, and for the first time during the whole day we could hear a few small squeaks from the conference’s youngest participant, a – very – young man [I’m guessing from the pale blue] who mostly enjoyed being breastfed and playing with finger puppets. Lovely baby!

Tam Baillie let us finish with a song; Three Craws. The Scots are as crazy as the Nordics they admire so much…

A Birlinn rendezvous

There is a certain freedom – not to mention a sense of adventure – in standing at a railway station as a train comes in, and you’ve got a trainload of alighting passengers to choose from. Who to go and ‘have coffee’ with. Well, to be truthful, I had already googled Sally from Birlinn, so I had an idea of who to look out for, and she knew to find a short, fat witch. And she did.

Sally was coming all the way to me, to talk about the many good children’s books Birlinn – who are an Edinburgh based publisher – are about to let loose on the world this year. I walked her to the Burgh Coffee House, as she confessed to earlier youthful trips to the Rainbow Slides in Stirling. What’s more, she came here from Linlithgow, and the less said about this lovely place and me, the better. (Actually, Sally has more or less sold me on the town, now. It has a good bookshop just by the station, apparently, so as long as I manage to get off the train in the first place…)

Joan Lennon, Silver Skin and Joe Friedman, The Secret Dog

So, Birlinn. Sally brought me books by Joan Lennon and Joe Friedman, which both look promising. She talked me through their whole 2015 catalogue, and plans include a Peter Pan graphic novel, books by Alexander McCall Smith about the young Precious Ramotswe, history by Allan Burnett, the Polish bear Wojtek, Lynne Rickards and the ever orange Tobermory Cat by Debi Gliori. There will be poetry and there will be naughty young lambs.

The books all have some connection to Scotland, be it setting or author or anything else. I knew it already, really, but it’s worth saying again, that Scotland has books all its own. It’s not just an appendix to England. If Norway can have a publishing industry, then so can Scotland.

There was a bit of gossip, too, and a secret that can’t be mentioned. And after that Sally ran for her train back to the big city, hoping that someone else would have done all the work by the time she got back to the office.

Bookwitch goes to a conference

Some people didn’t look anything like I’d imagined them. But then why should they? I went to a conference at the University of Edinburgh yesterday. Along with some similarly minded colleagues, Son has spent some time organising the Nordic Research Network conference, and the embarrassment factor of having your mother there was one I didn’t want to deprive him of. Both parents, actually, as the Resident IT Consultant had been roped in to chauffeur the sandwiches for lunch.

Ian Giles

And I did feel that this was my kind of thing; language, literature, translation. As I said, I’d been in contact with or heard of some of the people before, and you have a mental image of them, but they were generally less blonde than I had expected. Being realistic, I decided not to go to everything (it’s on today as well), but swanned in towards the end of the day when Son chaired the Translation session.

Charlotte Berry

Charlotte Berry talked about Chatto & Windus and their British Translations of Maria Gripe. It was based on notes the publisher had kept on how they discussed and decided what to translate, and that was really quite interesting. Basically, it was all down to networking, with an editor chatting to the right person somewhere else, trying to interest them in their book. And after that it was a case of organising the translating. One translator had been judged likely to be all right, because she was a mother herself… Charlotte said it was a hard topic to write about, since she didn’t want to offend anyone.

Agnes Broomé

Agnes Broomé talked on the subject of In the Wake of the Crime Wave – How to Publish Scandinavian Fiction in Translation in the New Millennium. Swedish books account for something like just over 1% of translated fiction in the English speaking world of books. Of 2000 fiction titles a year, 600-800 are translated, which is pretty good. The Nobel prize and the Astrid Lindgren award raise Sweden’s profile. (Astrid has been translated into 98 languages, coming after Shakespeare and Agatha Christie, but before Dickens and Plato.) In the past Swedish books went abroad via Danish or German, but now it is all through English. In the 1970s most translations were of children’s books, while in the last decade it’s been mostly crime. The risks with crime possibly becoming less popular are that because people have concentrated so heavily on crime fiction, other genres have suffered and are less active.

Nichola Smalley

Finally, Nichola Smalley told us about Contemporary Urban Vernaculars in Swedish Literature, and what translators do to make it work. The ways to do it are Compensation, Replacement, Representation, Adaptation or Standardisation. And the advice is not to translate dialect, though of course some do, as it’s integral to the plot in certain cases. Nichola’s conclusion was that translators work hard to avoid standardising texts, and that the finished work is often down to more than the named translator, who has probably discussed solutions with many people. She gave examples from a couple of recent Swedish novels.

There was a Q&A afterwards, with questions of the kind you’d expect from a more expert kind of audience than I usually encounter.

After coffee the first day ended with a keynote speech by Mads Bunch from Copenhagen, on the subject of North Atlantic Literature in a Scottish Context – Iceland, Faroe Islands and Orkney. (Privately I wondered what dear old Shetland had done to be excluded, and as though he’s a mind reader, Mads began by explaining why not.)

Mads Bunch

I was surprised that he mentioned fairies, until I worked out that they sound much the same as the Faroes. The Faroese are descended from seasick Vikings; those who felt so bad on the way to Iceland that they asked to be allowed to stay on the Faroe Islands.

According to Mads the peripheries (I think that’s the above islands) don’t tend to influence each other in literature, as they are sufficiently similar, and have less to give. The good stories come from the contrasts between modern westerners and the isolated islands. Mads told the story of Edwin Muir from Orkney, who travelled 150 years in the two days it took him to leave Orkney and arrive in Glasgow in 1901.

These days there are plenty of new things in Icelandic and Faroese literature, whereas Mads reckons there is little change in Orkney. They continue with their sagas, while the Icelanders write about the economic collapse, and the Faroe Islands have a thing about Buzz Aldrin…

In the Q&A session, an Icelandic reader pointed out how tired she is of hearing only Laxness mentioned all the time, and talked at length about her own favourite author (whose name I didn’t catch) who is quite excellent. And apparently they have a lot of bookshops in Iceland.

After suitable thanks, Son sent us upstairs to an evening reception with music and Lidl rye bread and cheese and olives, washed down with wine and IrnBru. Thinking of today, I made my excuses and hobbled in the direction of my train home (the sandwiches need chauffeuring one more day), instead of joining the others for dinner somwhere.