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Large helpings of fun, please

Tedious dissection of set texts is banned at the Edinburgh International Book Festival's events for schools, as Henry Hepburn discovers

Tedious dissection of set texts is banned at the Edinburgh International Book Festival's events for schools, as Henry Hepburn discovers

There is no other place quite like Edinburgh's Charlotte Square Gardens in August. Where else can you meet aliens, gangsters and dragons, uncover secrets about Doctor Who - and be reminded just what A Curriculum for Excellence was about in the first place?

The week-long schools programme at the city's annual book festival, which starts on Wednesday, has attracted a host of the best writers for children and young people.

Children's Laureate Michael Rosen (P3-7, August 25) is one of the biggest draws. The programme promises that he will dish out "large helpings of fun" as he introduces some of his favourite poets. "Mike can make you excited and want to read poetry - and it's not often you say that about seven-year-olds," says programme director Sara Grady.

She also recommends David Almond (P6-S2, August 21) who "writes beautifully" about his native north-east England. He will use his notebooks, drafts and proofs to show how his books are created.

Keith Gray, the Scottish Book Trust's first virtual writer in residence, will read from Ostrich Boys, his first book in three years (S1-4, August 21). He will recommend his favourite reads, reveal what makes a good story, and promises that everyone will leave "brimming with ideas and enthusiasm".

Ms Grady is equally excited about Jimmy Docherty (P7-S2, August 25), whose Glasgow-based The Ice Cream Con shows how children can make a difference to their lives, no matter how grim their surroundings. It tells of a young boy, Jake, who creates a fictional gangland boss to turn the tables on the neighbourhood bullies and mobsters. The author will talk on how his childhood provided inspiration.

Justin Richards (P6-7) will give tips on how to get stories off to an exciting start, and discuss his role as a creative consultant on the Doctor Who books.

"How to write a dragon" is the intriguing teaser for the visit of Lene Kaaberbl, billed as the "JK Rowling of Denmark" (P6-S2, August 22). She will lead a creative session designed to show how fantastical creatures can be made to seem believable. Mark Robson is similarly preoccupied: he will show how his experience as a Royal Air Force pilot prepared him to write stories about giant fire-breathing lizards (P6-7, August 26).

There are events for all ages: Simon Bartram, whose Man on the Moon won the Blue Peter Book of the Year Award, will show off his talent for illustration by inventing new aliens in front of his audience (P1-3, August 26); Scottish PEN, a branch of an international campaign on behalf of persecuted writers, will show how oppressive states manage to deny freedom of expression (S4-6, August 25).

This year's line-up includes four early-evening sessions aimed at teachers. Sessions covering curricular reform, storytelling and the inner workings of the brain have taken place. Martyn Rouse, director of Aberdeen University's Inclusive Practice Project, will take the final event today at 5pm. Ms Grady said organisers wanted to grow this side of the festival after a healthy response to similar events last year.

Organisers also bring some of their star attractions to events outwith the Central Belt. This year's visits have already been arranged, but schools are encouraged to get in touch if they would like to be involved in 2009.

Surprisingly, when Ms Grady tries to identify a common theme in the eclectic programme, she speaks passionately about a dry-sounding tome drafted by civil servants. She is a big fan of A Curriculum for Excellence, because it is "opening doors for us" by finding the connections between different subjects.

Scottish education's move away from prescriptive courses and success defined purely by exam results, she believes, is having a knock-on effect on the festival by widening the idea of what constitutes an event for schools. She wants the programme to inspire a love of words and avoid the didactic.

"It's something I'm passionate about, that this shouldn't be just about good readers reading great literature," she says. "It's so much more about having fun and exploring things than having to discuss set texts, because that's what you're doing for Standard grade. It's about learning language, and that's a beautiful thing."


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