Children’s Book Blog: The Edinburgh International Book Festival 2013

Rebecca Davies
Malorie Blackman 300x198 Childrens Book Blog: The Edinburgh International Book Festival 2013

Malorie Blackman who is the new Children’s Laureate

I’ve just got back from a wonderful three days event hopping at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Now in its 30th year, the festival is almost (but not quite!) as old as me. But despite its agedness, it still knows how to keep its younger visitors entertained, with a jam-packed timetable of enticing things for children and teenagers to see and do. Held as usual in the leafy – and normally private – Charlotte Square Gardens, this year’s festival ran for over two weeks, from 10 to 26 August. Here are a few of the best children’s events I sampled during my fleeting visit.

Judith Kerr

It’s hard to believe that Judith Kerr turned 90 this year. Still as sharp and smiley as ever, the author of unparalleled children’s classics such as The Tiger Who Came to Tea, Mog the Forgetful Cat and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit joined a rapt festival audience to tell the moving tale of her marriage to the pioneering screenwriter Thomas Kneale.

‘What can you say about two people sitting for 40-odd years in adjoining rooms making marks on bits of paper?’ she began. Well, rather a lot, as it turned out – and it was enthralling. There was the day they first met, introduced by a mutual friend at the BBC whose name Judith has long since forgotten. There was the time when Judith helped Tom create a model of Westminster Abbey being overrun by alien plants for The Quatermass Experiment, TV’s first smash-hit drama. And then there were all those years when Tom’s support and advice helped Judith perfect some of the most beloved literary creations of all time.

When Tom died seven years ago, ‘we still hadn’t run out of things to say to each other,’ Judith remembered, fondly. She ended the talk with a reading of My Henry, her picture book about an old lady who embarks on daily imaginary adventures with her deceased husband. By the time she turned the last page, there was barely a dry eye in the house.

Malorie Blackman

The new Children’s Laureate showed everyone exactly why she’s the perfect person for the job with an effervescent and hugely inspiring talk about her career. After receiving no less than 82 rejection letters as a struggling writer, she went on to become one of the world’s most celebrated young adult authors with her Noughts and Crosses series. Set in a world where black people (‘Crosses’) are the privileged upper class while white people (‘Noughts’) are the downtrodden underclass, the books tackled issues of race in a thought-provoking new way.

Malorie revealed that many of the racial inequalities experienced by the first book’s Nought protagonist, Callum, had in fact happened to her in real life, including being accused of stealing a first class train ticket because ‘black people don’t travel first class’ and being told by a teacher that the school syllabus didn’t cover famous black scientists and inventors because ‘there weren’t any’. ‘It was a very painful book to write, because it was so personal,’ Malorie explained. ‘But it was very satisfying too.’

Neil Gaiman

Everyone’s favourite pedlar of fantastical tales (well, mine, anyway) returned to the festival to read an extract from his new children’s book, Fortunately, the Milk, illustrated by Chris Riddell. He wrote it, he explained, to make up for his earlier picture book, The Day I Swapped my Dad for Two Goldfish, which made dads look ‘a bit boring’. The dad in the new book (who bears a striking resemblance to the author himself) accidentally becomes a time-travelling explorer when an an innocuous shopping trip to buy some milk for his children’s breakfast catapults him into an adventure involving gloopy aliens, a pirate queen, a hot air ballooning Stegosaurus and an angry volcano god called Splod.

While his latest story is more surreal than scary, some of his earlier children’s books dabble in dark themes which some say are too terrifying for young readers. Mr. Gaiman’s reaction: ‘I think it’s really healthy to scare children. Scary stories allow us to experience danger in a safe environment. Bad, scary things do happen to children and stories can give them the armour and weapons they need to cope with these things.’

Francesca Simon

One of the most attentive audiences at the festival was also one of the youngest, at the talk given by Horrid Henry creator Francesca Simon. After revealing that her most famous – and horrid – character was mostly based on herself as a child, Francesca went on to read one of the most recently published stories in her 22 book series, Horrid Henry’s Nightmare. Kids and grown-ups laughed themselves silly as she put on a different funny voice for each of the characters, with a few shrieks and groans added in for good measure. She also gave away the title of the book she’s currently working on, Horrid Henry’s Ketchup, which is set to feature a new character called Norwegian Norris.

Comic Consequences

Ever played the game consequences, where one person writes the first line of a story before passing it on to another, then another to continue? It was always a particular favourite of mine, especially when the stories got increasingly surreal and/or rude. The Edinburgh team decided to make the game even more fun by roping in three talented comic book artists – Garen Ewing, Nick Sharratt and Dave Sutton – to tell a series of stories in pictures instead of words, based on suggestions from the young audience. Thus we were treated to the illustrated adventures of a robot penguin, a cake-stealing hyena (very difficult to draw!) and a frog with superpowers. The event was part of this year’s fascinating Stripped comic book and graphic novel strand, which ran across two days at the end of the festival.

Other fun things for kids…

- The on-site children’s book shop, where you can browse books for all ages and get them signed by your favourite authors, even if you didn’t manage to get tickets for their talk.

- The Story Box, a cute little tent in a tucked-away corner of the festival, where young children can listen to stories, get creative with crayons and discover how to tell their own tales via the medium of crafts. The perfect antidote to a mid-morning tantrum and, best of all, it’s free!

- The Di Rollo ice-cream stall, also a handy threatening tool for parents, as in: ‘If you don’t stop hitting your sister with that signed Jacqueline Wilson novel, you won’t get any ice-cream’.

My final favourite thing about the festival? Seeing so many young people getting really, genuinely excited about books and storytelling in all its forms. All those people who moan that ‘kids don’t read anymore’ (and I may, at times, have been one of them) should pay a visit to Charlotte Square Gardens next August.

Rebecca Davies is a journalist and children’s author and completed her middle-grade novel, Shirley Smart and the Nix’s Curse earlier this year. You can read more of her children’s book blogs here

Follow Rebecca on Twitter @TheStoryMonster

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