Authors read for young audiences

Heather Neill

Heather Neill reports on the Edinburgh Children's Book Festival. The Edinburgh Book Festival in Charlotte Square Gardens is both part of the helter-skelter of the main festival and its frenetic fringe and a welcome respite from it. Every day, from 10 or 11 am until well into the evening literary folk read from and discuss their writing with hordes of eager fans. And children's books and their authors are right at the heart of things. There is an activity tent where young book worms can experiment with face paints, listen to stories or simply read.

Shirley Hughes entertained several hundred children, aged from one to 12, with drawings of Dogger and Alfie, with limericks and readings from Poems for Annie Rose. Christopher Awdry could be spotted standing next to an inflatable Thomas the Tank Engine and Tony Ross' session (like many of the children's events) acquired an early "Sold Out" sign.

The TES Scotland sponsored discussion on August 17 was booked up well in advance. Two acclaimed authors for young people, Jill Paton Walsh and Joan Lingard (who lives in Edinburgh) took the stand with journalist and broadcaster Jan Fairley in the chair. Both authors have also published adult books and each read a short extract from their latest titles. Jill Paton Walsh's Knowledge of Angels (Colt Books), a novel of ideas about an experiment using a feral child to prove God's existence, was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1994. Joan Lingard's Dreams of Love and Modest Glory (Sinclair-Stevenson), based on the experience of her husband's family on their return to Latvia after 40 years' exile, was launched at the Festival last week.

Their children's book readings spanned the age range: Lingard's Lizzie's Leaving (Hamish Hamilton, also launched at the Festival) is about a 15-year-old's experiment in living with the father she has never previously known. Paton Walsh chose a picture book, When Grandma Came (Viking), celebrating a grandmother's delight in a baby. The audience's chuckling reaction prompted her to remark: "Children's books do not exclude adults; it's not the other way round as is usually thought."

Both writers have tackled "difficult" themes when writing for young readers. Lingard's Tug of War, for instance, draws on the same ideas and experiences as her new adult book - the effects of war on ordinary people, especially refugees. Paton Walsh said, however (and Lingard agreed) that "a dark book for children must have a gleam of hope" as the readers had not yet acquired sufficient experience to provide their own counterbalance to tragedy and horror.

Asked how they began writing for children, both authors referred to their own childhoods. Paton Walsh described the disruptive effect of being sent to different family members during the war. This gave her material, but also determination. Lingard said she was so "besotted with books" that one Christmas she had been given eight and had read them all by bed time. Her mother suggested that she should write her own story and, at the age of 11, she filled her fountain pen with green ink and did just that.

The session ended appropriately with a newly-qualified teacher in the audience, Antonia Honeywell, paying tribute to the work of both authors. She had found The Twelfth Day of July and Across the Barricades by Joan Lingard and Jill Paton Walsh's Fireweed and The Dolphin Crossing especially stimulating reading for Years 7 to 9 during her teaching practice and planned to return to them next year.

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