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In search of dribblers

What makes teenagers want to read? Author Melvin Burgess (pictured) has been finding out on his latest book tour. Here's a diary of his week on the road

There are two possible aims in any talk. One is to set the audience fizzing with questions about books and writing - not so common with the older age group I'll be meeting on this tour. At 14-upwards, in a strange place and out of their set groups, no one wants to do anything that might look naff. Besides, school students are a captive audience - why should they be interested?

The other aim is simply to mesmerise them. During a reading, the audience should be so entranced that they forget everything. When I stop talking, I'd like to see them emerge from the story like sea creatures coming to the surface. I have a secret ambition to make someone so unconscious of themselves that they actually start to dribble as I speak. Call me mad maybe, but one day...

Day 1: Newcastle

Two sessions here. I launch off. My talk on Bloodtide, my last novel for this age group, is still evolving, but the sessions go very well. The students are keen, nearly all have read some of my work. All I have to do is tell them what they want to know. This isn't my doing - I spot a familiar face in the audience - one of the local school librarians. After a visit to her school, you come away skinned, boned, filleted, fried and laid out to dry. The students are so interested, it's impossible to refuse them anything. It demonstrates the huge difference a good librarian can make to a school.

Marvellous day. Both schools' pupils were extremely well prepared. Genuine curiosity. I have to think. It doesn't absolutely have to be like this - if they haven't read a thing of mine, then it's my job to make them want to.

Day 2: Hammicks, Lancaster

A poor turn-out. Two sessions crunched into one. The 15 Year 11 girls who turn up at 12.30 have to be back in 40 minutes or the headteacher will throw a tantrum. The old story - admin before education. But the whole thing's great. Faces lean towards me, mouths hang open as I tell my story. At the end, a brief spurt of intelligent questions. Well, they've chosen to be here - even eating their lunches on foot as they walked to the bookshop.

Education can survive school, with the help of good teachers. I threaten to make them late and get them into trouble, until someone points out the only one who'll suffer is the teacher who made it happen.

Day 3: Waterstone's, Leeds

A huge shop. Beautifully laid out seating. Little tables with publicity papers spread out on each one. Big displays, including a dumpbin. As always, really keen staff.

The students are 17-year-old six-footers. They were told to make their own way here, so I naturally expect to end up on my own. But in they come, 20 or so, mainly boys - men, I mean - and scatter themselves among the sofas, looking at me expectantly.

This bunch are hard work. They sit in silence. Embarrassed by being here? Self conscious, or just bored? Even the silence during the reading is hard to interpret. But at the end, during signing, they troop up with their copies in twos and threes and start talking - about how much Junk (my 1996 novel about heroin users) meant to them, what sort of material they want to read. It's often like this with older groups. They like to stand and chat. A space given to mingle at the end can open up all sorts of things.

Day 4: Stratford School, east London

This turns out, quite by chance, to be my brother-in-law's school - he moved here from some hell-hole riven by gang warfare last summer. It's Year 9. I'd like to shine, but the first session goes badly. Why? There are a lot of adults here: the nice photographer from The TES, Helen from Puffin author-caring me, members of staff. I'm ill at ease.

There group has a lot of challenging kids. But the librarian is excellent, the book week superbly organised. There's no one to blame. I'll have to have a re-think. You never can tell with Year 9s. They can be grown-up men and women or little boys and girls. This lot are definitely on the young side of 10, with only a thin scattering of hormones among them.

There's more than a few short attention spans, so I have to talk over the chatterers. In both talking books and writing them, the only fatal sin is to be boring, and chatterers make me feel just that. I race through, babbling and gibbering. At the end, not one question - it's like getting blood out of a stone. Neil, the photographer, tells me I look terrified. I am.

Next session. A couple of black girls in the front tell me how great Junk was. I do that instead of Bloodtide. Much better. In the final session, I try a new tack, leading in with Junk, then on to point out how few books are written for 14-up, as opposed to 14-down, and compare that with what there is in films, music and other media. The recognition that almost nothing is written specifically for their age group is immediate. By the time I get to the reading, I've got 'em hooked.

Another new trick - a free signed copy of Bloodtide for anyone who can work out how Cherry saves Siggy from the Pig with a pot of honey. It's great.

Everyone starts talking to me. Curiosity, followed by fascination, followed by questions - perfect.

Day 5: Reading and Oxford

It's another school today, courtesy of Waterstone's, and I'm really on to it now - the difficult group yesterday has done me good. I stick to yesterday's formula, going through Junk and on to Bloodtide. They listen to the readings with all the satisfying signs of fascination, leaning forward on their seats, mouths slowly hanging open. Then, the competition for the book and on to questions, and they're off. Nice school - the head turns up to listen. Most of them pretend they're too busy.

Day 6: Bristol

First thing, a radio interview about Billy Elliot, the film I'm doing a novelisation of. Too early to be urbane and interesting, but it goes well enough. On to my session at the Cathedral School - the second oldest in Britain. All boys here. I'm speaking to the sixth form. Heads and teachers rarely let them loose for anything extra-curricular. They need educating with great severity, evidently.

Huge enthusiasm for books, from the boys right up to the head. A lot of discussion on the role of film imagery in Bloodtide.

Once again, as soon as they realise I'm trying to write for them, about things they're entertained by, teens of this age rapidly disabuse anyone of the notion that they're not interested in books. The trouble is, there are none for them.

If you're a toddler, you get potty books, if you're 80 you get end-game and grandparenting books. All teenagers ever wanted was to have their own stuff, same as everyone else.

Day 7: Swansea

Not many authors make it out to Swansea, I'm told. A lovely bookshop. Great space to talk in, students comfortably seated. This was a last-minute date, but the staff are delighted to have me and eager to make it work.

It's a young Year 10 group. No one has read a word of my work - last-minute change at the school. Some people hate this, but I feel that if you insist on people who know your stuff, you never reach those who don't. My talk is now up and running full pelt. Interested kids, lots of questions, good feedback. A good day.

The tour is over. I'm exhausted. Once again, the enthusiasm of the publisher's reps, booksellers, teachers and librarians is remarkable. For many, getting good books across to the kids is a mission.

I'm very pleased with the students' response to Bloodtide - it's a big canvas, and both boys and girls get sucked into the story. Most gratifying of all is the feeling that I'm on the right lines, doing strong stuff for 14 to 18-plus. At that age, you can unofficially see or read almost anything - R18 movies and computer games, TV, you name it - so long as it's not for you. You can listen in, but just don't speak. It's all leftovers from childhood and tasters from adulthood, when all you really want is the main course.

Bloodtide is published by Penguin, pound;5.99. Billy Elliot, a novelisation from a screenplay by Lee Hall, is published by The Chicken House, pound;4.99


Numbers - Liaise with the author about students per session and number of sessions. Some authors will do the whole school in a day, others prefer smaller groups. If you want workshops, it will usually mean smaller groups taking up more time. Some authors will do one-hour quickies, but most will want at least one-and-a-half hours and fewer than 20 students.

Preparation - Authors appreciate students who have been familiarised with their work - some will be put out if they are not. Time in class with the book as a class reader is ideal. If not, some reading to the students will help.

Questions - Students often find it difficult to begin questioning. It's a good idea to get them to prepare a few questions in class beforehand - just a few, you don't want to stifle natural curiosity, but enough to get things rolling.

Venue - Ensure there will be no interruptions. Having people wander in and out to use the computers or fix the windows is distracting for everyone.

Informal settings - Time to chat after a session, perhaps during signing, often produces better questions and comments than formal settings - do try to leave time, particularly with Years 10, 11 and up.

Bookseller - Try to establish a relationship with a local bookseller. They will often be prepared to bring books in on the day and sell them for you, sale or return.


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