Tag Archives: SCBWI

Freedom to Read, Freedom to Write

Some events simply want to go on for longer. Or, failing that, to come back and continue. The SCBWI discussion on freedom to read and to write, with Lari Don, Candy Gourlay and Elizabeth Wein, was one such event. There was so much to talk about, and with three women with lots to say, an hour was not enough.

But that’s my only complaint! Very ably chaired by Elizabeth Frattaroli and Justin Davies, we all enjoyed it from beginning to end.

Despite feeling I know these three authors well, I had not stopped to consider what very different reading backgrounds they have, growing up in three countries well apart from each other.

Candy Gourlay

Candy grew up in Manila where she did have access to a school library, but there were no public libraries at all in the Philippines. She began alphabetically, but got stuck on B for Blyton, fascinated by the different world discovered in those books. But she never found any brown children in them, and deduced that maybe Filipinos weren’t allowed in books. There was one, The Five Chinese Brothers, which as an adult she has discovered to be very racist.

Elizabeth Wein

American Elizabeth spent her childhood in Jamaica, and therefore did have access to books about children of all colours. Her father recommended what to read, and she felt she had a good selection of books. Her favourite is A Little Princess, and her dream was to live in a cold climate. (I would say that Scotland is a dream come true.)

Lari Don

Lari was ‘not exotic’ at all, she said, growing up in Dufftown. And while her family and relatives lived in houses full of books, there were no Scottish books. She read Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, Narnia. Her favourite was Power of Three by Diana Wynne Jones. There weren’t YA books in those days, and most of the books Lari read were about boys. Not about girls, and not set in Scotland.

Candy described coming to Britain, with all its wonderful libraries. And now they are being closed!! There were no publishers in the Philippines back then, but today there is a vibrant publishing scene. And there are some libraries. Her own problem is with rights, as US publishing rights include the Philippines, which makes the books too expensive. She has to negotiate a deal to make her own books affordable in her own country.

Reading from her new book, Bone Talk, Candy did so on her mobile phone. (She apologised.) After listening to her read the wild boar incident, I want to listen to Candy reading the whole book. It became something completely different when she read it.

Lari likes mixing different cultural ideas in her writing, but she’s now wary of cultural appropriation, and no longer feels sure she’s allowed to write about culture belonging to others, and definitely feels you can’t touch Maori or Aboriginal stories. You have to be sensitive.

Elizabeth spoke about the freedom she felt writing for Barrington Stoke. It’s not harder. You just write short, like a novella, and then there is the editing, which helps make these dyslexia friendly books easy to read. So for instance, in Firebird, they chose another spelling of Tsar – Czar – because the first one is easily confused with star. And even if you’re not dyslexic, short is always good.

For freedom to read, Lari suggested letting children choose what to read, or even not to read. It’s interesting to see how all three authors had so many thoughts and ideas on all this that they – almost – fought to speak.

When it was Elizabeth’s turn to read she chose three, very short pieces. First there was freedom in Code Name Verity, then some lines from her favourite Ursula le Guin, and finally the freedom on what to do with your hair and make-up in Firebird.

As for their own freedom, now that they are successful authors, there is a lot less of it. Elizabeth believes in discipline, being interested in what you write and to start small. Candy uses a forest app on her phone, where during 20 minutes a tree grows, and she is unable to access the phone for anything else. So she writes. And she doesn’t do homework for fans who write to her.

Lari loses herself in her own world. She then read to us the first bit from her Spellcheckers series, where Molly becomes a rabbit. Lari feels the best thing about being an author is to meet her characters. Elizabeth enjoys meeting readers and other writers, while Candy finds no one has heard of her…

There was barely time for questions from the audience, but they were all able to ask lots of questions during the book signing afterwards. It took time, but everyone left satisfied, and before the next event was ready to move in.

The bookfest should ask these authors back to continue where they left off.

Elizabeth Wein, Candy Gourlay and Lari Don

(Photos Helen Giles)

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The Great Gender Debate

‘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.

David Levithan

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.

Kathryn Evans

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.’

Jonathan Stroud and Kathryn Evans

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.

Kathryn Evans

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!

The new kids

When I first joined Facebook – and I must point out I only did it for literary reasons! – I was quickly introduced to lots more authors than those I already knew and corresponded with. It’s that automatic suggestion system thing they have, and before long I was awash in new – to me – authors of children’s books.

Some of them I’d barely heard of, and I had not read anything by them. But then I discovered a new category of people. I don’t want to call them wannabes, as that sounds childish, and as though you could become a published author if you only wish for it enough.

Hopefuls, maybe. Those fully intending to be out there with published books very soon. I was amazed at how they all seemed to know each other, too. I was under the impression that garrets were there for a reason, and when you weren’t even published, how could you know others who were also not published?

Seems there are groups for everything under the sun. They knew each other because they attended writing groups, or critiquing groups, or any other kind of authorial group. They supported each other. They were friends.

But I was always afraid that when they did get published, I ‘would have to read’ the books and that I wouldn’t like them.

Well, that was almost as silly as my other ignorant thoughts, because the books have all been great. Many of the ‘hopefuls’ were published around the same time, like Keren David and Candy Gourlay and Jon Mayhew. Teri Terry wasn’t far behind. But so far Kathryn Evans hasn’t joined them. Until now.

It’s almost more exciting, after such a long wait. Not everyone writes at the same speed, and of course, I never knew where in the process people might be when I first encountered them. And Kathryn has strawberries to grow, and bellydancing to do.

Kathryn Evans

Here she is, at the recent SCBWI conference, wearing purple hair and the covers of books being published by her SCBWI friends this year. (In other words, perfectly normal…) Kathryn’s own book – More of Me – will be published in February. I’m really looking forward to it.