A taste of the Bologna Book Fair for those of us stuck in chilly England.
I hadn’t previously been to the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education aka CLPE, which is surprising given my background in both education and books. How heartening that such an organisation has managed to buck the trend of closed services and inservice training centres – not only to survive but to flourish.
If the quality of the day conference I attended yesterday is typical of events and training days CLPE organises, I am not a bit surprised that schools are, at least for now, willing to spare cash from their strapped budgets to allow teachers out for the day and benefit from such programmes.
The cost of peak rail fares probably limits attendance to those working in schools in the London area, which is a shame, because, especially with the diminished role of local authorities in organising training courses and the closure of all but a small number of teacher centres, an event such as the one organised today would have so much to offer teachers further afield.
Shifting the start and end times of the day forward by one hour might help attract those who are able to reach London for 10:30/11:00 on off-peak fares.
Yesterday’s event was billed as Reflecting Realities: British Values in Children’s Literature
CLPE’s own Learning Programme Leader, Farrah Sarroukh, argued in her opening address that, in the context of both Brexit and the Trump presidency, the emphasis in teaching literacy needs to be somewhat more positive than merely encouraging ‘tolerance’ – much more important is empathy, and an understanding acceptance of difference (throughout the day there was a commendable effort to refrain from jargon and the use of too-frequently-tripped-out terminology – as in the avoidance, where possible, of the overused word ‘diversity’).
Cue the first keynote speaker, Miranda McKearney OBE, founder of both the Reading Agency and the Summer Reading Challenge. McKearney retired from the Agency when she turned 60 but, after a brief spell trekking in foreign parts, found herself compulsively researching recent studies into the effect of reading on the brain. This led to her setting up EmpathyLab, the subject of her talk.
The second keynote speaker was author Elizabeth Laird who used personal anecdote, family snaps and photographs from her travels to give the audience an insight into the way authors collect bits from their past and use brief encounters on overseas research trips to put the elements of a novel together. She did this with particular reference to her latest book Welcome To Nowhere.
Floella Benjamin spoke (and sang) with powerful passion about her experience of moving to England from the Caribbean. Her father, a jazz musician, was the first to make the trip, later joined by their mother. Losing the loving presence of her mother had a shattering effect on Floella, who had to spend fifteen months separated from her siblings and living with a cruel and authoritarian ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle’. Finally arriving in England, the reunited family lived in a single room in Chiswick. Floella sufffered frequent racist abuse, but gave as good as she got, often responding physically. Indeed, the way the 67 year old squared up to her audience in boxing mode, fists ready to fly, gave a pretty clear indication of how intimidating her angry responses to those who dared slur her must have been. She is still getting her own back. When the family moved out of their single room and were able to buy a house in Beckenham the racist abuse continued. Her mother stayed on in that house for 40 years undaunted by the antipathy of some. Now Floella is proud of her full title, Baroness Benjamin of Beckenham, the sweet irony of which she is pleased to enjoy on her mother’s behalf.
She called the assembled teachers ‘chosen ones’ who must not let a single one of the children in their care feel unloved.
After a really excellent buffet lunch (five-star conference fare) the delegates split into four workshops, each of which allowing for greater activity and participation than in the morning sessions.
- Candy Gourlay, in a session titled ‘Rosy Cheeks and White Picket Fences” (because that’s how the world was depicted in the British and American children’s books that she read when growing up) talked about her childhood and young adulthood in the Philippines and working as a journalist and illustrator before moving to England and becoming an author
- Catherine Johnson used some of her recent historical fiction to help provoke discussion in her session titled ‘Black History is All Our History, Finding Ourselves in Stories from the Past’
- Artinuke in ‘Drawing on our own Stories to Create New Narratives’ retold a traditional tale in a manner that generated lots of contributions from those attending the workshop, commenting on their experiences of how children respond to ‘told’ as opposed to ‘read’ stories
- Poet Anthony Anaxagorou (artistic director at London’s coolest spoken word and music event Out-Spoken) led a session called ‘Helping Children Find Their Voice’ in which teachers became pupils for a while, encouraged to find poetic pairings of adjectives and nouns
The day ended with a question and answer session featuring two directors of Letterbox Library (booksellers for the conference) and Verna Wilkins (original founder and publisher at Tamarind Press, and now of Firetree Books).
The whole day was wrapped up by CLPE’s Chief Executive Louise Johns-Shepherd.
Keep an eye on future courses and conferences organised by CLPE – https://www.clpe.org.uk/professionaldevelopment/conferences
Some of the best-known figures of the literary world will gather this weekend at Smock Alley Theatre, in Dublin, for DeptCon1, a conference that celebrates and interrogates young adult (YA) fiction.
YA fiction is the largest-growing genre in contemporary fiction, accounting for almost 30 per cent of the children’s book market, according to Eason, which is organising DeptCon1. However, despite the variety of novels directed at their age group, it can be difficult to get teenagers to turn off their smartphones and pick up a book.
Elaina Ryan, director of Children’s Books Ireland, says the biggest challenge facing parents, teachers and librarians trying to encourage teenagers to read is “competition for time. When [young readers] are making the transition from primary to secondary school, all of a sudden they have much greater access to sports and clubs, the internet and screen time, and this means there are a lot more activities for them to choose from in their leisure time.
It’s always good to see photos of people in the children’s books world – both the authors and other individauls involved in the busines – and The Bookseller has published a selection of pictures from its Children’s Conference:
Rosemary Goring previews an upcoming Scottish conference on forgotten children’s books opf the pastL
Eager to resurrect as many lost texts as possible, Bold and Dunnigan are also keen to see if they can trace a distinctive Scottish character in children’s writing from these centuries. Dunnigan, who began her career as a Scottish medievalist, is particularly interested in the fairytale tradition. “I began to wonder when children’s literature in Scotland began,” she says, over a coffee in Edinburgh. “The idea of the hidden history and the hidden voices of Scotland’s past.”
The project was too big for her to tackle herself, and she spoke to Bold, with whom she had discovered a shared interest in children’s literature. The outcome is a unique two-day conference in Dumfries, next weekend, to discuss various aspects of children’s literature. The Scottish Children’s Literature Symposium is open to the public, and promises not only to be fascinating, but to act as an impetus for the academic fraternity to discover more about the “missing link” in children’s literature.
As Bold says, “I don’t think J K Rowling comes out of nowhere, and there’s a genealogy that needs to be more specifically identified… We need to get to the source of where this burgeoning of fantastic writers, like Jacqueline Wilson, comes from. Even if they’re not aware of it.” For Dunnigan, quite simply “It’s about recovering Scotland’s lost heritage of children’s storytelling, which is a vital part of our culture.”
Although most of us have heard of the giants of 19th-century Scottish children’s fiction – George Macdonald, Robert Louis Stevenson and J M Barrie – other writers of books for younger readers, such as the Victorian poet Violet Jacob and Shetland folklorist Jessie Saxby, are either largely forgotten or ignored. Jacob gathered and retold fairy stories after the death of her eight-year-old son, while Saxby was unusual for drawing on Viking history for her adventure stories for boys, and for setting her stories on the “cultural margins”, on remote islands. A further question, about the nature of the north in children’s literature, is raised by Saxby’s work, among others, suggesting fruitful fields of inquiry for decades to come.
Since many of the writers and illustrators of children’s books were women, the problem of neglect appears to have been compounded. Dunnigan believes there is a deep gulf of lost material between these writers and those of today. “Peter Pan,” she says, “is the one text that’s the lynchpin, that holds it together… Even so, Barrie himself tended to be seen as an isolated figure.”
How appropriate, then, that the first day of the conference will take place at Moat Brae, in Dumfries. A beautiful Georgian town house, it has been dubbed “the birthplace of Peter Pan”, because this was where J M Barrie played with his school friends Stewart and Hal Gordon. As the playwright later wrote, “these escapades in a certain Dumfries garden, which is enchanted land to me, were certainly the genesis of that nefarious work – Peter Pan.” The house’s restoration will not be complete for another two years, but it is still accessible for limited use before its official opening in the summer of 2017 as a National Centre for Children’s Literature and Storytelling.
The second day will be held at the Crichton campus, and topics discussed will range from Maureen Farrell on The Beginnings Of Scottish Children’s Literature and Linden Bicket discussing “Seals, witches, truants [and] sailors”: George Mackay Brown’s Orcadian Tales For Children, to Rob Dunbar on Scottish Gaelic Children’s Literature Of The 19th Century and Rhona Brown on Educating The Female Child: Debates From The Scottish Periodical Press, 1750-1800. Not to mention Bold on children’s chapbook literature and Dunnigan on fairy tales and women writers.
Scottish Children’s Literature: Forgotten Histories, New Perspectives and J M Barrie, Friday June 26 and Saturday June 27 in Dumfries. For details contact on email@example.com or 01387 345 371
Booktrust has announced 13 new authors appearing at this year’s Young Adult Literature Convention (YALC). They include Darren Shan, Sally Green, Kevin Brooks, James Dawson, Samantha Shannon and Amy Alward.
The convention will, as last year, run in tandem with the London Film and Comic Con, from 17-19 July at Olympia, London.
I know many of you could not make the Children’s Books Ireland Conference today in the Lexicon Library in Dun Laoghaire, here are some notes and thoughts on the day…
Canadian author (of The Shadow’s Curse) and HarperCollins commissioning editor, Amy McCulloch on here experience at YALC:
Since this was the first one ever, I was really interested to see how it was going to pan out. Turns out: this is one of the best book events I’ve ever attended. More buzzy than most other conventions, with a real sense of excitement and interest in the panels. I think the YALC organisers did an amazing job in curating the panel discussions, and there really was something for everyone.
There’s something big happening in the world of YA this weekend and it involves a whole crowd of our favourite authors gathering together to talk books, books and more books at the first ever UK YA Lit Con at London’s Film and Comic Con.
Being the brainchild of Children’s Laureate and author extraordinaire Malorie Blackman, it seemed only right to grill her on all the details we need to know about what to expect from YALC, plus her thoughts on tackling gritty issues in YA and who she’d most like to spend a night in a bookshop with.
Do you ever worry that things can go too far in YA in terms of addressing gritty issues or do you think it’s important? Do you think there’s a specific way you should approach things when writing for teens?
If it can be experienced by a teen then it’s a legitimate subject to write about. It all depends on how it is done. As long as it’s not done for purely gratuitous reasons, then fair enough. And when reading for pleasure, teens can select the books they feel will interest them and speak to them. I think it’s patronising to think teens can’t handle gritty issues. When I was a teen I used to hate it when anyone said that to me. I do feel however that it’s important to be honest when tackling ‘gritty issues’ in books for teenagers. That honesty makes some adults nervous. Most teens I’ve met have the attitude ‘bring it on!’. That’s why I love writing for young adults.