Tag Archives: Mairi Kidd

Kidd for kids

Seven Stories in Newcastle, that wonderful place for children’s books and reading, has a new boss. Mairi Kidd is their new CEO, and I can’t think of anyone better suited to the post.

To quote The Bookseller:  ‘Chris Pywell, chair of the Board of Trustees at Seven Stories, said: “In Mairi we have appointed the very best person to lead Seven Stories through a period of exciting sustainable growth. The wealth of her experience is vast and covers all of the main areas of our interest.”‘

I know Mairi mostly from when she was managing director of Barrington Stoke, being responsible for getting so many great authors write a whole lot of fantastic, dyslexia friendly books. And from there Mairi went to Creative Scotland, which meant I still came across her in Edinburgh at most literary events. It’s not everyone I recognise from the back, walking very fast away from me (which is quite understandable).

I hope we’ll still see her around, but if not, Edinburgh’s loss is Newcastle’s gain. Unless we’re all working from home for decades…

A Fantastical Escape

This was a great event to end the book festival with! Eoin Colfer is always fun, and he was complemented by Cressida Cowell and Kiran Millwood Hargrave, and kept in some sort of order by Mairi Kidd. There were many laughs and if you hadn’t read all the books yet, you’d want to by the end. Mairi was hoping there were some in the audience who still had this to discover.

Despite ‘promises’ there was no dog, sleeping or otherwise, nor a rear end of cat. But we had a past – Irish – laureate, and the current children’s laureate, and maybe a future one? Cressida was in her kitchen, Kiran in her Oxford office and Eoin was delighted to be anywhere, even in Dublin.

He was feeling smug, having written a picture book and a drama during lockdown. There was ‘nothing he could teach his sons that they’d want to know’ so he mostly ‘read books’ [on Netflix]. So did Kiran, but as she’s married to her illustrator she needed to get some work finished. And Cressida had read her books on YouTube, loving her own jokes, long forgotten.

People with a high IQ are more easily disturbed by noisy chewing. This is a fact. Apparently. Eoin wore his glasses to improve his high IQ look, and to seem more trustworthy as he talked about his fraternal, con-joined twins…

Kiran, who at a young age was traumatised by the tunnel in Eoin’s The Wish List, always has strong ideas of what her characters look like, but can’t draw them. Cressida might be an artist, but has bad visual memory, citing a pear with the stalk at the wrong end.

Eoin regrets the fact that children grow too old to dare write fiction, believing they must do it in a certain way. Kiran used to write as a child, but had forgotten this, until her mother reminded her of it, and reckons that’s 15 lost years where she’s not been ‘using it’ to make it stronger.

At this point Eoin disappeared. Broadband issues? (When he popped up again he blamed Brexit. Something about a hard border.) He’s scared by public speaking. Who’d have thought? After 25 years he’s less worried. His worst experience was doing a parachute jump. Not his choice. It was a gift from his wife… And the cords tangled.

Kiran likes the adrenaline pumping, and bungee jumps are her thing. Caving, not so much, But she got out eventually, that time, and she didn’t drown the time she wasn’t waving at her dad, either.

‘Not usually an issues guy’, Eoin is most pleased with his book Illegal. Although in Ireland you are not supposed to be proud of your own work, but as this is a collaboration, it might be OK. Cressida always likes her latest book best, and she’s always proud. With barely a minute to go, Kiran said her book titles are so long she didn’t have time to list one. Maybe the most recent book.

Cracking the Reading Code

You can’t hear enough about getting children – or even old people – to read, especially if they have extra obstacles to deal with. Well, I can’t, anyway. And I’d already heard the background stories of Tom Palmer, Sally Gardner and Alex Wheatle, but they can do with being repeated. Often. Until everyone who wants to can read.

Sally Gardner, Tom Palmer and Alex Wheatle

The three guests were ably interviewed by Mairi Kidd in Tuesday’s event hosted by Barrington Stoke, where she used to work. She knows about this business of dyslexia friendly books. And so do the three; with Tom probably having written the most books for Barrington Stoke, Sally being the most dyslexic while still writing the the most wonderful stories, and Alex for knowing what his readers know.

Tom Palmer

I do like the sound of Tom’s mother, getting him to read by giving him books and articles on football. And then he went to night school where he was supposed to read Shakespeare and Chaucer! It wasn’t until a tutor introduced him to poetry about Leeds United (!), and took students out to the actual ‘Wuthering Heights’ that Tom felt he could get on with this reading.

Sally Gardner

Not sure I like the sound of Sally’s school for maladjusted children (whose fault is it if children are maladjusted?), but at 14 when she tried reading Wuthering Heights for the second time and she suddenly was ‘in the f***ing book,’ things changed for her. As Sally said, you can be good at something and it needn’t be only academic for it to matter. We need ‘diversity in the brain.’

And Alex, who did read a bit as a child, from Huckleberry Finn and Ivanhoe to sports books, finally discovered books in jail at the age of 18. His cellmate, and mentor, gave him The Black Jacobins to read, as he ‘wouldn’t have anything better to do in there.’

Alex Wheatle

Asked to read to us, Alex again chose the bit from Kerb Stain Boys about being in detention, and this time it was Sally who asked if he reads his own audio books. And after Sally had treated us to a dyslexic pirate in Mr Tiger, Betsy and the Sea Dragon, Alex returned the compliment. Sally does have a great voice. Last but not least, Tom read from Armistice Runner, which is close to his heart, featuring both running and fells, and it still makes me cry.

Mairi asked the three about graphic novels; if they make reading easier. Sally mentioned Shaun Tan, and the ‘most genius book ever,’ which has no words at all. Both Alex and Tom were fans of Shoot Magazine, but understandably Sally’s not. Talking about Tom’s novel Scrum, and the revelation it brought a young boy at a school; ‘Miss, I can read this!’

Sally gets angry when people say to those who have listened to an unabridged novel as an audio book, that they ‘haven’t really read it.’ This is snobbery. She suggested to someone in the audience that if they can get a certificate from their GP that their child is dyslexic, then they have the right to access audio books for the blind and partially sighted.

The last question of the evening was not a question but a thank you, from a teacher who uses these books in her school. And it seems that Scotland might be better in this instance, not having reading rules, which means that teachers can let the children read anything, even if it’s not from the right part of a reading scheme. (This brings back dreadful memories of Son being forced to read ‘backwards’ so as not to rock the boat of equality.)

We then gathered in the bookshop where people were so keen to continue talking about this important subject, that poor Tom was unable to sit down at the signing table for quite some time.

This is what we like.

Tough Teens

As Daniel Hahn and I agreed afterwards, we had forgotten the event a couple of Augusts ago, which he had chaired and where Anthony McGowan turned himself into the bad voice re YA. But we remembered the night fondly, because last night’s event with Tony and Alex Wheatle was also a really good one.

Tough Teens, it was called. Chaired by Mairi Kidd – who had ‘mothered’ Tony’s fictional boys into being – this was a great conversation. In fact, it’s one of very few where the authors involved got so caught up that they talked to each other, in earnest, about writing, [almost] forgetting the chair and the audience.

Yes, the audience. It wasn’t the biggest I’ve known, but it was Monday night when the schools had just gone back. But it was the right audience. It was nearly all teenagers, mostly boys, with a few token adults like me and Daniel, and Kwame Alexander. This is how it should be.

Alex Wheatle and Anthony McGowan

So, the talk was right, and the audience was right. The questions were great, and far better for me staying out of things (someone had wanted me to ask the first question…).

And jail, well, it can turn a man into a reader, and then into an author. The young Alex met his ‘mentor’ in a jail cell; someone who told him he’d nothing better to do in there so he might as well read. And now with his personal experience of living in care, Alex has written a book about a girl in care. He had to force his own daughter to tell him what girls talk about, to get it right. He was a bit shocked at what he discovered.

Tony, on the other hand, returned to Sherburn in Elmet outside Leeds, where he grew up, to write about two brothers in the four-book Brock trilogy. It’s a place for boredom, and with a bacon factory. Not as exciting as London.

Alex’s fictional Crongton can be London, but it could also be almost anywhere else. He knows about detentions, and remembering how he wanted to impress a girl he met there, it all went into Kerb Stain Boys. His reading from the book revealed a lot about his made up slang and accents.

When it was Tony’s turn to read, I thought he was trying to get out of it, but a member of the audience lent him her reading glasses, so all was fine. He needs to pace around when he reads, and we all enjoyed the story about swimming across the ‘bacon pond’ in the nude.

Winning awards is nice, and it opens doors. But, they feel shortchanged by the media. Asked if they get fan mail, it seems that teens are too cool to write; it’s mostly younger ones who do. Mental health is a big thing in their books, as is life for young carers.

They recognise their own teen years when they do school visits, but reckon mobile phones have changed how pressured children are today. Tony remembers everything from his teens, but not what he did last week. Alex is the hopeful guy who wants to date the beautiful girl, who already has a more exciting boyfriend.

Anthony McGowan

And on that happy note we all congregated in the bookshop. Well, Tony got there a little late, but he got there. Kwame chatted to Alex and got a book signed. Even I remembered after a bit that I had books that wanted signing. (I’m the one without an ‘e’ at the end, btw.) Tony discussed tonality with a fan, and did his best to sign in Chinese.

Alex Wheatle and Kwame Alexander

As I said earlier, it’s great when authors simply get on with it and talk about writing. It’s also great when their peers come to the event, along with the appropriate age readers.

We want more of this.

Feminist Treasure Troves

For a brief moment on Sunday morning I forgot what Mairi Kidd and Siobhán Parkinson were going to talk about, but as their chair Heather Parry reminded me, it was women. Mairi has written about 49 Scottish women in history in Warriors and Witches and Damn Rebel Bitches, while Siobhán’s slightly earlier book, Rocking the System, is about 20 Irish women.

Mairi Kidd and Siobhán Parkinson

Reading from their books, Mairi told the story about the doctor who turned out to have been a woman, while Siobhán chose her favourite of the twenty, a blood-guzzling woman who was first widowed at 15 before falling in love with a handsome man on a horse.

Siobhán – who published her book through the publishing company she started – couldn’t afford more than twenty women, as she wanted the book to be illustrated as well, and that’s as far as the money would go. Mairi seems to have struggled to keep it down to 49.

Mairi Kidd

The chosen women didn’t have to be dead, but needed to be at least so old that what they had done was already in the past. Mairi pointed out that in Edinburgh there are more dog statues than statues of women. And also that before 1700 women’s voices appeared in writing much more than later, because of all the witch trials.

One question was who the two would choose from people living now, for a future version of their books. And who had they left out? In many cases some women had done similar things, in which case the most obvious one was picked. Asked who Mairi’s 50th would be, she reckons her grandmother. But she had put a long list at the back of her book, listing everyone she’d thought of but not been able to add.

Siobhán Parkinson

Siobhán mentioned Bernadette Devlin, who had been in the news quite recently, and when Mairi said she can’t remember the 1970s, Siobhán can. She talked about an Ireland where contraceptives and divorces were illegal. She doesn’t believe things will go backwards now, but the state of things is not good.

We need to live the life we have, rather than the one we might wish for. We need to be a witness to what is going on.

Bookwitch bites #141

I was sad to learn that Barrington Stoke’s MD Mairi Kidd has been made redundant. Apart from the effect on Mairi’s personal life, this news makes me want to ask questions. Are times that bad? Is it fair to ask other staff to share her tasks between them? Is the work MDs do so easy to ignore? What will happen to Barrington Stoke now? There has been a lot more noise on social media about this than after your average publishing news, which shows the standing Mairi has enjoyed at the helm of an inspiring company.

Kiran Millwood Hargrave has won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize for her debut book The Girl of Ink & Stars, and writer and illustrator Lizzy Stewart won the Illustrated Books category with There’s a Tiger in the Garden, and Patrice Lawrence’s Orangeboy won the Older Fiction category.

Miaow. Gothenburg library is to get its own resident cat. Astrid. Or not. Seems it was merely an April fool thing, which is just as well, as I and many others could foresee problems with this lovely idea. I know it is meant to be good for people and it will lower your blood pressure and you’ll be much happier and all that. But I have often wondered what it’s like for those who are not too keen on pets. While some people are busy feeling better for the presence of the new cat/dog/ferret, it’s not only those who are allergic who might suffer. It could be that after enough time anyone would get so used to the pet that all our blood pressures become just perfect. Or maybe the pressure rises as your level of fear shoots up?

And while we are on the subject of Astrid, this year’s winner of the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award is Wolf Erlbruch, ‘a German illustrator and picturebook author. He is best known for his illustrations of The Story of the Little Mole Who Knew It Was None of His Business, which became a great success around the world. Wolf Erlbruch has written some ten books of his own and illustrated nearly fifty titles by other authors.’

Congratulations to Wolf!

A wee week

It’s enough to make me wish I still travelled to St Andrews regularly. I know I can still go, but the other end of Fife is just that wee bit too far, even for me. At least when I feel all travelled out and all that.

Wee Book Fest

Toppings, the bookshop that opened a branch in St Andrews a couple of years ago, have taken up the book festival baton, after the closing of the theatre. And that is very nice of them, and good for the town. There are a few children in St Andrews. It’s not all Royal Princes and students.

So, this week is their Wee Book Fest, which I believe means it’s for the wee ones, not that it’s all that wee. They have a programme for the whole week, which is ambitious for a smallish town. And most of the programme looks good, and some of it so tempting that I almost got the train time table out to see if maybe perhaps I could go after all.

Wee Book Fest

But then I told myself not be silly and that I can see most of these authors somewhere closer and more convenient some other time. Probably.

It does look good, though, doesn’t it?

And then it was the end

I began Saturday with an alarm clock related issue. No, not what you’re thinking. One that immobilised me to such an extent that I had to miss my first Bloody Scotland events, only limping in towards the end of the day to collect my press pass.

The press pass

And to hear Erwin James talk to Martina Cole; an event I’d looked forward to considerably.

As I was waiting to get in, I spied one of my favourite publicists, Kerry, and very nearly jumped up (well, not jump, but you know what I mean) to say hello. She was with the equally lovely Peter Robinson. But I decided I needed the armchair I’d found to sit in, and it would undoubtedly be ‘taken from’ me if I got up. So I didn’t.

Instead I was chatted up by the very pleasant woman sitting across from me, so the time wasn’t wasted in any sense. We discussed dyslexia, and she’d been to the event in Edinburgh last month that I never made it to. She had many nice things to say about Barrington Stokes’ Mairi Kidd.

She told me she reads a fair number of YA books and is tired of having to justify this to people. I know the feeling. She asked if I know Nicola Morgan, and I had to admit I do. She likes her. I suggested reading Sally Gardner. And then she asked what I read for pleasure, so I had to point out this is pleasure.

And that my fairy blogmother Meg Rosoff is also my favourite author. She didn’t even ask ‘who?’ but knew, and turned out to be a big fan of How I Live Now, having given countless copies of the book to people to read. I know the feeling.

At that point it was time to go in for Erwin James, so I said goodbye.

Within minutes it was more goodbye than that, as I was bluntly informed that the press pass that would give access to anything, was no good for sold out events such as this. (I had wondered, but on asking, was reassured that it would get me anywhere.) Probably didn’t help that they changed the venue around, meaning this was in the smaller room, making sold out happen much sooner.

So, well, I limped home again.

At least the weather was nice.

And today I have the day off, as no way am I limping anywhere else on the off-chance that Sunday’s events have seats left.

Breaking down barriers to books and reading

You can’t help but feel dreadfully inspired by talks on how to help more people to read! In this case it was dyslexia and – primarily – Barrington Stoke who told a packed theatre on Tuesday about what goes wrong and what can be done to make reading better. I know it’s stupid, but you sort of come away from an event like that wishing you were dyslexic.

I’m not and I’m very grateful that I’m not, but it’s the sheer inspiration you get and the feeling of hope that you can make reading easier.

Mairi Kidd from Barrington Stoke talked about how you read. There are two ways; recognising the whole word, and working your way through a word letter by letter. It’s important the letters don’t look too similar, so they go out of their way to make b and p and q look different from each other in as many ways as they can.

She teased us with English words and names that just don’t do what you expect, like victual, epitome and Milngavie. Serifs are good and so is line spacing of 1.5, tinted background, and thicker than normal paper.

Many boys have not seen men read. That’s a dreadful statement, but probably more true than we can imagine. Good role models are important. Many books are too long (how I agree!). And then there are the must reads, like Harry Potter. Also too long.

Lucy Juckes founded Barrington Stoke 16 years ago with her mother-in-law. Lucy’s husband is dyslexic, as well as one of their four children. Now that their son is 16, his father is no longer allowed to cheat at Scrabble. She told us how they tried to help with reading, and how they have resorted to bribes when necessary.

Removing the pressure to read and using common sense are other obvious tips. And picture books! They end far too soon. There should be no reason why every age can’t have picture books. It’s like you are punished for learning to read books with only words in them. Barrington Stoke will have an app out in October, which should be another useful aid to reading.

Among the suggestions during the Q&A session were to invite authors to school libraries, to make potential readers more interested. Asking an author to become patron of reading at your school is another way. Vivian French who chaired the event said she had successfully introduced scribes who write down stories that young people come up with, in effect making them authors’ peers, which gives them new status.

Someone complained that there aren’t enough girls’ books in the Barrington Stoke range. Mairi agreed that more effort had been used on getting boys to read, but that they are now looking to publish more books for girls.

After the event they offered a workshop in the adjacent theatre for those who wanted to discuss this some more. For the rest of us there was a guided talk in the bookshop, showing us all the latest books. (It was a little crowded – which is good – and I returned later that evening for a second look. Lots of excellent books. You don’t need to find reading hard to want to try them.)