Edinburgh Book Festival feeding young imaginations

Janet Smyth. Picture: Colin Hattersley
Janet Smyth. Picture: Colin Hattersley
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While kids’ books have always been at the heart of the Charlotte Square event, the offering has now grown from pre-school and primary age kids to teens and young adult writing, with 270 events just for youngsters

ONCE upon a time there was Enid.

Children enjoy some books in Charlotte Square. Picture: Greg Macvean

Children enjoy some books in Charlotte Square. Picture: Greg Macvean

Who needed anyone else when she was churning out adventure novels, secret spy stories, tales of lacrosse and midnight feasts at all-girls boarding schools, folklore of magic faraway trees, medleys of Mr Meddle’s merriness and of course, the doings of a little boy with a bell-adorned hat which rang every time he nodded?

Enid Blyton had the children’s book market covered from cradle to coffee shop, and her book sales still stand at over 500 million.

Of course there were others, AA Milne, Lewis Carroll, JM Barrie, Roald Dahl... but none quite like Enid. She was the blockbuster of kids’ authors.

Imagine the sales of tickets had the Edinburgh International Book Festival been around in her day? Blyton in Charlotte Square... they would have been queueing the length of George Street and back.

These days the children’s strand of the city’s renowned Book Festival doesn’t have to rely on just one big literary hit to pull in the youngsters – though it did enjoy its visits from JK Rowling back in the day, and former children’s laureate Julia Donaldson sells out almost immediately every time she appears.

No, in 2013 the festival’s youth side – sponsored by Baillie Gifford – is as diverse as its programme for adults. So much so that with more writers and illustrators providing talks, readings and workshops than ever, this year there are 270 different events taking place and ticket sales are expected to make up to 30 per cent of the overall total sales for the festival.

So successful are the children’s and family events – helped by the fact that the festival starts in the last few weeks of school holidays (it launches tomorrow) – that the woman tasked with putting the schedule together, Janet Smyth, is already in the process of booking authors for next year’s event.

“This is my third festival, but children’s books have been at the heart of it since it began in 1983,” she says. “Every year we look to develop what we’re offering, and over decades it’s grown from pre-school and primary age children to teens and into young adult writing. There are so many wonderful children’s authors out there, catering for every age group, that it’s a privilege to be able to have so many of them here.”

But then it’s not surprising that the children’s programme is growing. After all, children’s book sales are outperforming those of adults and now make up a quarter of all UK book sales.

Figures for 2011 show that pre-school age books and picture book sales were up six per cent, children’s general non-fiction also up six per cent and fiction up by eight per cent, while adult fiction was declining. It’s a trend which has slowed but is not stalling.

And in a world of Kindles and e-books – technology usually readily adopted by children – the figures are even more surprising. The switch from physical books to electronic ones in children’s titles is just three per cent compared to 26 per cent for grown-up books. The reason for that is easy – the illustrations are just as important as the words when it comes to children’s titles.

“It’s why our programme involves both sides of publishing in that respect,” says Janet. “The illustrators are extremely important to the enjoyment of children’s books. This year we’ve got French author and artist Barroux as our illustrator in residence and he’ll be drawing as well as talking about his own work, the graphic novel On Les Aura! as well as Manga artist Emma Vieceli, and Vivien French will be hosting Comic Consequences where the children suggest a story and then illustrators like Nick Sharratt, Dave Sutton and Garen Ewing have to move the story along in a drawing in the space of one minute.

“Children are as interested in talking to the writers, the creators of the stories, as they are in hearing where the illustrators get their inspiration from. It’s all good fun – and of course there are lots of workshops where they get to try their hand at writing and illustrating themselves. Then there are other things like Macmillan Children’s Books attempting to break a world record for the longest paper doll chain.”

The book festival is now one of the longest running in the world – and certainly one of the most prestigious – but Janet believes children’s authors are always delighted to attend Edinburgh because they are included across the whole programme of events – not just hived off into one kids-only tent.

“There are readings at 10am every morning and you don’t know who might be doing that – could be a famous British writer, an international writer, a children’s writer, a new author with their first book out – the children’s writers are tied into the whole festival. And then there are authors like Alexander McCall Smith or Neil Gaiman who write both children and adult fiction, so they do both types of events. The children’s authors do comment that they feel valued and respected here which is really important. There have been high profile writers who have made sneering comments about writing for young people which we refute absolutely.

“It’s incredibly important to get children interested in books and reading at a young age and then help them make the transition to other writing as teenagers – which is why we have a young adult strand too. Some festivals shy away from the teenage market because it can be seen as difficult, but we’ve always had it – Joan Lindgard has been coming every year since the festival started – and we’re expanding in that area.”

Of course if there’s an easy accusation to throw at the Charlotte Square festival, it’s that it caters solely for the middle-class, the book-buying public rather than the library book-borrowing one – especially affluent parents keen to get their children reading. But Janet is stout in her defence of what the festival does for children of every social strata.

“We have a schools programme and so brochures are sent out in April to schools everywhere so they book class trips to the festival. Our kids’ ticket prices are all subsided to try and make them as accessible to everyone as possible – same goes for the school tickets – and there are loads of free events.

“We also have a bus fund of about £12,500 which schools in deprived areas can apply for to cover their transport costs.

“We’ve also got an outreach programme which sees us take authors away from Charlotte Square to other libraries in the central belt and Fife if kids can’t come to us and we’ve got 40 of those events this year. Just last week we had Cerrie Burnell from CBeebies at Craigmillar Library doing a books for babies event. She’s here this year because she has her own book, Snowflakes, out.”

No doubt Cerrie’s appearances will sell out – she’s a face familiar to kids as well as being an author. Janet agrees it helps. “For young children especially it’s great if they can recognise their author – we’ve also got David and Carrie Grant from 
children’s television who have a new range of picture books about music – they can engage more easily. But older kids are more interested in speaking to the authors about their ideas.

“It’s fantastic how interested children are in books, but then they have the best imaginations.”

Even better than old Enid’s.

• The Edinburgh International Book Festival runs from August 10 to 26. For more information visit www.edbookfest.co.uk

Brimming with places of literary interest

EDINBURGH is, of course, UNESCO’s first City of Literature, and no wonder given its history of producing talented authors from Sir Walter Scott to JK Rowling, Robert Lewis Stevenson to Ian Rankin, Robert Burns to Irvine Welsh.

As a result there are plenty places of historic literary interest to visit – and now there’s an app for that too.

Purple Trails has launched the Edinburgh Book Trail app to guide visitors and locals alike to the places where great writers were born, lived, shopped or drew inspiration. But while most people know where JK Rowling penned the first Harry Potter novel or where to find the Scott Monument, there are other less known places to seek out.

For instance, from the Book Festival you could pay a quick visit to the Catherine Sinclair monument on St Colme Street. Feeling more adventurous? Then there’s always the Kidnapped statue at Western Corner, or heading east instead there’s the plaque to Tobias Smollett in St John Street, and not too far away Rankeillor Street is where David Nicholls set the opening scenes of his novel One Day.

Then there’s Drummond Place where both Compton Mackenzie and Sydney Goodsir Smith both once lived, and Lothian Street where Charles Darwin lived while studying at Edinburgh University.

And venturing even further out of the city, the former Craiglockhart war hospital – now part of Napier University – was where poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen convalesced after World War One.

Comedians, musicians and poets

In 1983, the first Edinburgh International Book Festival was only the third literary festival in the UK.

Around 30,000 visitors enjoyed events with 120 authors including John Updike, PD James and Melvyn Bragg.

Now the Book Festival is one of over 300 in the UK and is one of the most prestigious and highly respected in the world, attracting over 200,000 visitors to more than 700 events.

This year’s highlights include: Rupert Everett on his memoirs, Salman Rushdie looking back on his career, Andrew Marr making his first appearance since his stroke, newcomer Evie Wyld on her inclusion on the latest Granta list, comedians Rob Newman and Ruby Wax.

Meanwhile Margaret Atwood, Gavin Esler, Kate Mosse and Neil Gaiman have all selected and will chair a series of events on genre, the collapse of trust, women in the 21st century and the reshaping of modern fantasy respectively.

This year there’s also a new music strand which Peter Hook and John Taylor are headlining, while Ian Rankin interviews The Charlatan’s frontman Tim Burgess, and Tracey Thorn and Cerys Matthews are in conversation.

There is also emphasis on Scottish culture and politics involving Liz Lochhead, Philip Long, Tam Dalyell, and Alasdair Gray. Other political figures speaking include Jack Straw, Alan Johnson and Ann Widdecombe.