The Telegraph Bath Children’s Literature Festival 2015 is sadly over for another year. Have a look at all the Festival photos here Huge thanks to brilliant Artistic Directors John and Gill McLay. We’ve loved every minute of it and hope you have too. Date for your diaries Friday 30th September – Sunday 9th October 2016! Don’t forget to tell us about your Festival experience in our 5 minute online survey to WIN great prizes from the Festival and Thermae Bath Spa packages. We’ll see you next year!
It’s another great night at the The Telegraph Bath Children’s Literary Festivalthanks to the appearance of Andy Mulligan (author of Ribblestrop, Trash, and The Boy with Two Heads, amongst others) and John Boyne (whose novels for children include The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Noah Barleywater Runs Away and Stay Where You Are and Then Leave), brandishing books so hot-off-the-press they’re practically smoking.
Both Mulligan and Boyne had careers before they turned to writing full-time: Mulligan worked in the theatre for about a decade, “very unsuccessfully” before being made redundant “thank goodness!” while Boyne spent seven years at Waterstone’s in Dublin.
The aggressive boys’ grammar school in London that Mulligan attended when young – “a place of extraordinary cruelty” he muses ruefully – informs his fiction, if not consciously. He’s interested in psychological torment and friction between characters, but also the enduring power of deep friendships. Next week, for the first time, he’s going back to his old school. “You might come across the very toilet your head was thrust down,” offers John McLay, artistic co-director of the Festival, who’s in the red chair tonight.
Boyne also had a fairly miserable time of it at school and his experiences fuelled the writing of A History of Loneliness, an adult novel. He was an avid reader as a child, taking out three books a week from his local library. Like many writers, he’s a book fetishist, loving the paper, the typeface, the physical handling of a book in printed form. Put him in a stationery shop and he’s in heaven.
For Mulligan, the works of Enid Blyton were a childhood delight. “Mallory Towers was beautiful,” he says wistfully. But he still recalls the moment of realising that no member of the Famous Five ever got hurt when deep in adventure, and then he just sort of lost faith. “Their life was too sunny. I wanted menace.” It wasn’t until he read Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr (published in 1958) that he got what he’d been thirsting for.
Boyne has some good advice for aspiring writers: “Don’t abandon. Never go back. Write the same amount every day. Put down a sentence and see where it takes you.” Mulligan seconds that, adding that, ”Writing a book is a marathon. The best advice I was ever given is to just finish it. Even if it’s no good, you’ll have the experience of shaping something.”
And so to their latest novels: Mulligan’s Liquidator is a thriller that has an addictive energy drink, a clumsy 14-year-old doing some work experience, and Machiavellian corporate shenanigans at its heart. Boyne’s The Boy at the Top of the Mountain follows the orphaned Pierrot from Paris to Germany in 1935 and imminent war. The house where Pierrot ends up is no less than the Berghof, the home of Adolf Hitler.
Why write, asks McLay. “I really couldn’t do anything else,” answers Boyne. “It’s part of my psychology.” And for Mulligan? “The pleasure. It was my hobby. It remains my hobby.”
And what next? Boyne’s on the second draft of a book set in Ireland, spanning 70 years. And Mulligan is writing a book about a dog with an identity crisis who just wants to be a cat.
Need to know what to do in the event of a zombie apocalypse? Charlie Higson will tell you. Of course, as zombies don’t exist, it’s unlikely that there’ll ever be a zombie apocalypse. Then again, he has written an incredible series that makes it all seem so possible. So, he suggests: “Don’t split up. Don’t turn the lights off. Don’t do anything they do in horror films. Be sensible.”
In his Enemyseries, a sickness has swept through the population, affecting everyone aged over fourteen. Those adults that survive, “Sickos”, are hungry for children. “A lot of kids get eaten and lots of adults get their brains bashed out,” says Higson cheerfully.
It’s a bit like the medieval epics that he loved to read as a child: the power goes off, there are no adults to work anything, and so the children are plunged back into a world of books, swords and spears. Unfortunately there aren’t really any kids formed in the mould of the heroes of Greek mythology. But then again, “in the real world there aren’t heroes.” But still, the kids find themselves to be more than capable of all sorts of heroic acts.
Higson is joined on stage by the dark master of horror, Darren Shan, whose Zom-Bseries follows the fortunes of the teenager B Smith as she battles against racism, zombies, psychotic clowns and killer babies. “It’s never too early to tell children that we live in a dangerous world, but that we can overcome the danger,” Shan decides merrily. He’s spent a good eight years working on the series, and although it’s something of a relief to have reached the end (well nearly, a thirteenth volume will yet appear), he’s also a bit sad to step away from the all-consuming world of his terrifying series.
Both concur that horror is a fantastic genre to work in, best served in book form. Films and computer games have to meet multiple criteria set by classification boards before being released to the general public for consumption, books much less so. And books allow an author to deal with all sorts of issues – death, disease, fear and loss – in a fantasy (and therefore, essentially safe) way, continuing a long tradition of gruesome tales for children that historically bridged the gap between Roald Dahl and adult fiction.
Shan and Higson relish the freedoms of writing for kids. Adults are a bit boring, really, and don’t get as involved in what they’re reading as teenagers and children. Moreover, it’s fun. “You might be writing some of the first books that a child may read,” says Higson. Shan adds delightedly “you could get to really scare some kids, scar them for life!”
And then we go out into the dark night with Higson’s consoling words ringing in our ears: “If you think about it, zombies are a bit crap. An organised army could take them out easily. They’re already dead and pretty stupid. The zombie apocalypse would be over in about half an hour.”
Claudia Pugh-Thomas at Charlie Higson and Darren Shan The Telegraph Bath Children’s Literature Festival
The Forum is packed to capacity with hundreds of children and their parents eagerly awaiting Cressida Cowell, who has taught the world how to train dragons, introduced us to a whole new language, Dragonese, and turned Hiccup Horrendous the Third into an unlikely hero. Yet, although we are all delighted to be here, there’s a collective sorrow in the auditorium, a sense of mourning, because with the publication of the twelfth book in the series this is the end of the adventure.
A whole heap of experiences are behind Cowell’s books but the prompt for writing about Vikings and dragons was the birth of her first child. On being handed your newborn, Cowell says, not only do you realize suddenly that you don’t really know what you’re doing (“how am I going to train this small thing?”), but you also start looking back on your own childhood. And Cowell’s childhood was a blend of conventional life in London and extraordinary summers spent on a tiny, uninhabited island off the west of Scotland.
There was no electricity, no roads and no shops, but across the island was archeological evidence that the Vikings had invaded twelve hundred years ago. It was an “amazing childhood, a dangerous childhood”. On the screen behind her, up flashes an image of a gigantic conger eel that Cowell’s father caught one year. “Conger means ‘really massive’!” says Cowell. Up comes the next image: of a young Cowell eyeballing a super-spiny lobster-ish sort of a marine creature that she caught in a net.
Underwater creatures are great fodder for an illustrator and author. Take a basking shark, mix it with a manta ray and you have a giant bee-eating dragon. Or consider the hideous blobfish from the depths of the darkest oceans, which looks a bit like a grumpy old man. Or how about the Pacific barreleye? It’s a fish with a transparent head, nostrils that look like eyes and a very pretty little mouth (check it out on YouTube – it’s completely nuts). Such weird and wonderful creatures offer rich pickings for the creative mind.
“Writing is like telling a really big lie. The more you stretch it and base it on a tiny grain of truth, the better,” says Cowell. And then, once you are writing “it’s very important to treat your world as though it is real.” She takes the trouble to make her books look as though they’ve been clawed by dragons, splashed with salty seawater, bitten at the edges and splodged with ink.
“Why did you make Hiccup the hero?” one fan asks. “Well, you think the series is asking one kind of question, but actually that changes. He has to be the hero who stands up against the values of his whole world.” And although he and Camicazi (the antithesis of Anne, member of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and an all-round drip) are small, they never think that things are impossible, and they never give up.
A bit like the ardent fans, who queue patiently for hours after Cowell’s magical talk for her to sign their treasured copies of her books.
Claudia Pugh – Thomas was at Cressida Cowell The Telegraph Bath Children’s Literature Festival 2015
The queue around the block outside the Forum in Bath of children and parents waiting to listen to Cressida Cowell said it all. Here was a chance to listen to one of the UK’s most popular children’s authors telling us about the story behind her immensely successful series of How To Train Your Dragon books, and fortunately it was worth the wait.
Cressida immediately came across a thoroughly likeable person who still retained that almost childlike enthusiasm for life and storytelling. Early on in her talk she took the audience back to her wonderfully adventurous childhood, including her family holidays spent on a remote island complete with Viking relics that proved to be such an important influence on her most popular stories.
Throughout the hour she took every opportunity to encourage young would-be writers in the audience to take up the pen and use their imaginations to write their own stories. In between examples of her own early work, she described with great affection the stories and drawings sent to her by children depicting their own fantasy worlds and weird creatures. Using these as examples, she explained how a simply question, for example, ‘what would it be like if dragons really existed?’ can form the basis of a wonderful tale, adding in how research of the real world, notably some wonderfully weird undersea creatures, add to the texture of her tales.
Along the way Cressida read extracts from her books, answered questions for the audience and talked about her admiration for other story tellers, from JK Rowling to JRR Tolkien. Throughout there was a central strand of having a go and keeping at it – you might not be the finished article at nine-years-old, but you’ve started on what will hopefully be a hugely enjoyable journey. In fact, even as a 48 year old would-be story-writer, I too found her advice and experience encouraging – perhaps I should have another go at the story that I started writing eight year ago after all?
This hugely enjoyable hour has been just the latest is a wonderful celebration of children’s literature, all arranged thanks to the team at Bath Festivals. If you’re quick, there’s still tickets available for the final few events tomorrow (Sunday).
Ian Waller (Editor The Bath & Wiltshire Parent Magazine) was at The Telegraph Bath Children’s Literature Festival which continues until Sunday 4th October.. See the full programme here or call the Bath Box Office on 01225 463362
If you’re not sure what to read next it’s always good to go on someone else’s recommendation, and who better to suggest a great read than Gill McLay, artistic co-director of The Telegraph Bath Children’s Festival. Bath Picks, the initiative that she and John McLay, co-director (and husband) launched this year celebrates authors whose voices just have to be heard.
And so we have Sarah Crossan, Virginia Bergin and Sarah Benwell in conversation on stage at the Mission Theatre. We get a reading from the novels showcased, Crossan’s One, Bergin’s The Storm, the sequel to The Rain, and Benwell’s The Last Leaves Falling, and a lively discussion about the themes that emerge from these three compellingly original Young Adult books.
One is Crossan’s fifth novel. Like her prize-winning book The Weight of Water, it’s written in free verse. It’s the story of conjoined twins, Grace and Tippi, who have been taught at home for most of their lives. But that’s all about to change. The world intrudes when they go to school and have to come to terms with a whole host of issues – love, separation, identity and the usual stuff that teenagers go through.
Crossan wrote 30,000 words in prose before realizing that Grace’s voice came through so much stronger when written in verse. Hours of research in the British Library and lengthy conversations with the leading surgeon who operates on conjoined twins have resulted in a remarkable story that twists and turns, dancing the fine line between tragedy and comedy.
Bergin confesses that Ruby, the fifteen-year-old heroine of her sequel took over the whole story whether she wanted her to or not. “Ruby just rocked up,” she says. “I had no idea that she was there. But her voice started and then she would just not shut up!” Bergin’s inspiration for her two related novels came from New Scientist magazine (“a great place for ideas”). It’s a ‘what if…?’ scenario. The ‘what if’ being how would the world look after water becomes toxic and global apocalypse ensues. This brings a whole host of problems for Ruby, not least the prospect of having access to her favourite cosmetics seriously compromised.
Benwell’s debut novel is set in Japan, a country where the suicide rate for teenagers is at epidemic levels. Sora is suffering from ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease. He’s lost the use of his legs and he can’t go to school any more. Increasingly, his thoughts turn on whether in the spirit of the legendary Japanese samurai warriors the time has come to choose how, and when, to die. It’s a pretty bleak premise, but with Benwell’s careful handling and beautiful writing, Sora’s story has moments of great hope and testifies to the enduring power of friendship.
“Are we obliged to write good role models?” Bergin wonders. “The most important think is that your character should make you think” McLay offers. Grace, Ruby and Sora certainly do that, and more.
To be perfectly honest with you all, I feel like a bit of a fraud. I am a blogging virgin. I have never done this before (although I have attended the fabulous Lit Fest in previous years). Yeah, I’m crazy nervous and no, that’s not just because England is playing Wales tonight in the RWC. One thing that could ease my mind though and make this a breezy process? A brilliant author with just as brilliant book in tow that I can write a glowing report for…. didn’t I get lucky with Patrick Ness!
Now, I’m going have to let you all into a little secret. I haven’t read the new Patrick Ness book, in fact I really haven’t read that many of his books, but who knows, maybe all I need is a push in the right direction and I’ll get bitten by the bug that clearly has so many people worldwide on the Patrick Ness hook.
Lights down; music up; enter Mr Ness – master man of YA literature and stage presence; the reason that hundreds of fans have lugged carrier bags filled with books ripe for signing up the Guildhall steps.
He starts by opening up his new book ‘The Rest of us Just Live Here’ and just that little flavour of the book gives a taste for what is to follow, a story of love so full; laugh your butt off, insane crazy fantasy; anxiety; and just a little bit of normal …………basically add a whole lot of scary, and its being a teenager.
“…..and the scream from the crowd is so loud that it takes us a second to realise that a bomb has gone off” he finishes, closing the book with a satisfying smack that he clearly relishes.
The rest of the event that follows is entertaining, funny and totally captivating. A Q and A session conducted by Gill McLay and later the audience itself. It gives us a little insight into the mind of Patrick, as he discusses his latest book, writing in general and a teen’s world; asking and exploring the questions every teen feels – how much do my friends value me? What happens next? Am I needed? Who am I? He reveals how and why he writes, what he does in his down-time and all about his relationships with the characters. Imparting knowledge and making me question the way I think as a teenager and person.
With the last question he takes his seat and the applause from the crowd is indeed loud enough that perhaps no one would have noticed a bomb. I leave feeling excited and more than a little buzzy….. a feeling that I’ve started to associate with this festival. All that’s left to say is congrats, -congratulations Patrick Ness because I guess that in the minds of everyone present this officially makes him an author worth buzzing about, and you know what? He’s done it, he’s convinced me, and now all of you? Your job is to be convinced because maybe I can’t do that, but his books can…. I am converted, and I make sure that I pick up a copy of the book on my way out, eager to open the cover and discover what a world full of Ness has in store for me. After the rugby of course.
Written by Meg Allen (15)
Patrick Ness appeared at The Telegraph Bath Children’s Literature Festival on Saturday 26th September the Festival continues until Sunday 4 October 2015 see the full programme here
Animal Stories with Piers Torday and Erin Hunter (Victoria Holmes)
I first read Erin Hunter’s Into the Wild when I was about 9 years old. At that point, I had turned away from reading altogether, not being interested in anything that wasn’t my beloved Magic Tree House books (a very popular American series at the time). I had received the first Warriors book for Christmas that year and hadn’t looked at it since ripping off the wrapping paper. My mother persistently insisted that I give it a read, and eventually I gave in. The Warriors series follows Rusty, a house cat who wanders into the forest and joins one of the four clans of wild cats. The series now has 70 books with up to 490 characters. I’ve read at least 20 of them, and I thought that was a lot! Erin Hunter, the pen name of Victoria Holmes and her assisting writers, turns out more books in a year than many authors do in a life time. Her publishers came to her one day and asked if she could write about cats. Ironically, Victoria hated cats. So what she did instead was write about what she found interesting; death, religion, politics, and romance. She explained that using cats, or any animal for that matter, is a great way to talk about bigger issues without estranging the reader. Cats grow up much faster than humans do, and therefore experience life much faster as well. It gives the characters a dimensionality that is limited when writing through the eyes of a 12 year old. In my experience with her books, I’d have to say she’s 100% right. I not only appreciated reading about more adult themes, but it helped me grow up into a more aware person. Yes, a bunch of cats helped me understand the inner workings of politics and the importance of honor and loyalty.
Then there’s Piers Torday and his books The Last Wild. A former stage and television producer, his trilogy about a post-apocalyptic world with very few animals remaining originally was pitched to be a sitcom. As he sat and mulled the idea over more, he realized that what he really wanted to write about was animals no longer having a voice. Therefore, the main character Kester gives voice to these animals in his ability to understand them. Piers said that people have an endless fascination with animals, and therefore they make great vessels for new ways of telling a story. He writes his books in present tense first person, a risky choice to make. But he explained that it’s because the animals are experiencing everything presently, not in the past, therefore he had to write the way they thought. It creates an immediacy and immersion that he particularly enjoys.
Where the two contrast is in their methods. Piers writes whatever comes to him and follows it where ever it takes him. Victoria has everything planned out. She has to, particularly when she’s handing the reins to another writer. Where Victoria has written too many books to count, Piers has written only the three in his trilogy. But what they both agreed on was how the worlds they build eventually start to do the writing for them. The larger the world becomes, the more stories and characters pop up out the woodwork. And they both shared the same bit of advice: Read everything and Write everything. It doesn’t matter if it’s reading a phone book or writing an email. The more you do it, the better you’ll be at both. I have to say I agree. While I haven’t ready The Last Wild trilogy, I can say that reading Warriors has affected me and my family very deeply. It gave me the creative faculty to come up with stories of my own and pursue a degree in Creative Writing.
After reading either of these authors, the next time you almost step on a pigeon or see a cat dart across an alley you’ll stop and wonder what sort of world they’re truly living in.
Bath Festivals Intern
Piers Torday and Erin Hunter appeared at The Telegraph Bath Children’s Literature Festival on Sunday 27 September. The Festival continues until Sunday 4 October for the full programme click here.
Ever wondered, as the water drains down the plughole, what might live down there in the pipes? Want to know what it feels like to be the brother of a superhero? Ever imagined having a small talking pygmy marmoset as a sidekick? Ponder no more. For Bath Picks brings us a trio of new writers who will answer all these questions. Pick up Sibéal Pounder’sWitch Wars, delve into David Solomons’ My Brother is a Superhero, spend an afternoon with Martyn Ford’s The Imagination Boxand you will discover treasures galore.
What is an imagination box? Just what is says on the lid. It’s a small box that creates anything that you can imagine. And when Timothy Hart comes across it one day it opens up a whole world of adventure. Soon the box is no longer just a toy, but a tool for unravelling mysteries. Ford, a journalist for a regional paper, tried writing screenplays (“impossible”) but always had an idea for a book slowly burning away in the back of his mind. He wasn’t a particularly enthusiastic reader as a child, but picking up Nick Hornby’sHigh Fidelity in his late teens was the prompt he needed to get on with making that idea a reality.
For Solomons a desire to write about an eleven-year-old whose name “wasn’t on the scroll of destiny” was the starting point. And so we have the comic-loving Luke whose need for a pee comes at just the wrong time. How unkind that an alien should choose the exact moment while Luke is absent to visit the treehouse that he shares with his older brother Zach, endow Zach with superpowers and instruct him to save the universe.
Why write a children’s book and not publish an adult novel, Solomons is asked. “Have you seen the state of the adult fiction market?” Solomons quips. But seriously, when you write for children you have far greater freedoms of creativity.
Pounder seconds that: “Kids are better. If you can make a kid laugh it’s more of an achievement.” So, in her book we find silly spells, riddles, revolting “cheesewater”, fairies and witches, and a whole wonderful world that exists in the pipes snaking beneath the sink. “Carry a notebook wherever you go, observe what’s happening around you, make your characters have conversations with each other”, Pounder advises aspiring writers. Solomons suggests giving your main character a burning desire. Then, when it comes to writing the book, you have to decide whether you’re a planner or a “pantser”, that is, a writer who does it by the seat of their pants. Ford recommends drawing on the memories of your childhood self and taking it from there. Most of all, you need to let your imagination roam free.
Claudia Pugh-Thomas at Bath Picks: Ford, Solomons & Pounder Telegraph Bath Children’s Literature Festival Saturday 26th September
Telegraph Bath Children’s Literature Festival continues until Sunday 4 October. For the full programme click here
It doesn’t get much better than this. The opening night of the Children’s Literature Festival, in association with The Telegraph, sees the return of Gill and John McLay, after a two-year absence, to the helm of the festival they created in 2007. On stage, the guest speaker is Judith Kerr. Author, illustrator, master storyteller, she has given us hungry tigers, pink rabbits, recalcitrant cats and gangs of grannies, amongst many other unforgettable characters. Her latest creation is the tale of Mister Cleghorn’s seal.
The story behind this book is a marvellous one, rooted in Kerr’s memory of sitting astride a stuffed seal that her father kept in his study. The pup had been orphaned during a culling. To avoid its likely death, Kerr’s father took it in. Transporting the small seal from Normandy to Berlin by train he fed it a mixture of milk and cod-liver oil. When that ran out, and the train reached its destination, he caught a taxi to a restaurant to procure some more milk. For a while, the seal lived on the balcony of his apartment, pressing its mournful face against the window-pane. Now on the page it comes to life again in her distinctive line drawings.
Kerr’s own long and varied life provides much of the material that she has worked into more than thirty best-selling books. Drawing on her early childhood in Nazi Germany, married life and motherhood in England, the eccentricities of her father, and the studied observation of her household moggies (“There is no question about who is controlling whom”), she has written and illustrated books that defy classification, appealing to the nine-year-old and the ninety-year-old reader alike.
The delight of the audience is palpable. Laughter sweeps across the crowded room and people vie to ask questions. When her own children were growing up, Kerr says, there was little to ease the transition for the young reader from the shenanigans of Dr Zeuss to the complex machinations of Sherlock Holmes. This is the territory that she has made her own. It all started when she told tales to entertain her daughter. “Talk the tiger,” she was instructed nightly, and so her talent grew.
Her principal urge is to illustrate, and the story soon follows. Long walks allow rumination on plot and character. The best thing about writing the words to accompany your own illustrations, Kerr confides, is that it means you don’t have to draw things that you don’t want to. Her habit, she says, is to look about her, “thinking that the world is a good place”. And it is her consummate ability to translate such optimism and pleasure at life’s vagaries onto the page that continues to guarantee the enormous popularity of her books.