‘Yes, but my book’s really for girls.’ Best to get the embarrassing comments out of the way early. This was Kathryn Evans, who once said that to a school librarian. Hopefully accidentally. She has since recognised that lots of boys buy and read her More of Me. And surely it can’t be because of Kathryn’s ‘sneaky thing’ where she advises boys that they can learn a lot about girls by reading her book?
There should be more events like the Great Gender Debate on Friday night at the book festival. Not just because it was interesting, but because it sold out, and it did so to a surprising number of teenagers. I often wonder what it takes to get young readers come to events, when they are too old to be taken by a parent, but possibly too young to choose to come a long way for a literary thing.
It was an interesting line-up of authors, too; with Kathryn flanked by Jonathan Stroud and David Levithan. Three quite different – from each other – writers, gently guided by chairs Sarah Broadley and Anita Gallo from SCBWI. Asked to tell us about an achievement which made them proud, David said being given the Albert Einstein award at camp, Jonathan was pleased when he found the voice of Bartimaeus, and Kathryn was so excited to be published after writing for 15 years. They were also asked to admit to some embarrassing past event, of which I will only mention that a young Jonathan got himself locked into a bookshop in Hay.
This was a longer than normal event at 90 minutes, but it wasn’t long enough to cover what the audience wanted to discuss. And there is always Enid Blyton. A mother wanted to know what she ought to say or do about the sexism in Blyton, whose books her six-year-old son loves. Jonathan thought the boy could be left to enjoy them, whereas both Kathryn and David felt some educating on the sexes was wanted, and David mentioned that there are other books. Kathy also had a little go at Jonathan, about his character Holly, who bakes, and to be perfectly honest, that thought had occurred to me as well.
But as someone pointed out, what matters most is what it’s like at home, and then it doesn’t matter if Blyton is OTT.
Asked for recommendations on who to look out for next, David said he’d enjoyed a book about a young trans boy. Kathryn praised Penny Joelson, and Jonathan really likes Jo Cotterill. As for books that changed their lives, David didn’t have one, Jonathan loved Treasure Island, while Kathryn was a bit of a non-reader (too many words) until she discovered Watership Down.
One – female – member of the audience wanted ideas on how to make the audience more balanced, seeing as there were far more females than males. David reckons YA engages girls more than boys, and girls read more, too. But ‘books don’t have gender.’ Jonathan mentioned that his books are read by 14-year-olds as well as by those over sixty (I’ll say…)
According to David social progress will get on no matter who is President or Prime Minister. Teenagers are more open. Kathryn has had discussions with both the older and younger generation, arguing with her daughter and discovering she is very privileged, while her own father now accepts that her lesbian friend is ‘allowed in the house.’
A youth worker said that hardly any of his young people read. And those who do, have read Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey. He wanted to know what he could do about this. Jonathan felt it was good that there is something – even if it’s this – that gets them reading. He had not read either himself, and both Kathryn and David had struggled with Fifty Shades, with David managing ‘one shade’ before putting it down. Kathy liked Twilight.
How to understand that not only girls can be feminists is another problem. On screen more females tend to die, but Jonathan kills his characters regardless of their sex. David said ‘people tend not to die in my books.’ As for lesbians, they have a much higher than average death rate on television. And whatever you do, don’t kill the dog!