Spellbound by magical words

Denyse Presley reports on children's events at the Edinburgh book festival

More than 9,000 children were entertained during this year's children's and schools programmes at the Edinburgh International Book Festival with author events, printmaking, storytelling and sound workshops, an illustrators' exhibition and a treasure hunt.

Philip Pullman, the 2001 Whitbread Prize winner, enchanted the audience at The Roald Dahl Children's Laureate Debate when he talked about the magic of words. He recalled how, as a very young boy, his teacher had delighted his class with a reading of Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky, although he couldn't understand it all. Much like the world, we gradually begin to work it out for ourselves.

"It's so grown-up and glamorous just to feel the words in your mouth," said Mr Pullman. "I still don't know what some of those words mean." But to dispel any edginess among the adults, he encouraged children to use a dictionary so that they will discover other words with other meanings.

The subject of the debate was how books influence the adult reader we become and Children's Laureate Anne Fine chose The Wind on the Moon by Eric Linklater as a formative book. With an ironic edge she admitted to never having read the Orkney author's novel but each night as a child she meant to, reciting the title to herself before sleeping.

Quizzed by one young reader about page to screen versions of books, she said that Hollywood tended to make characters one-dimensional, citing Mrs Doubtfire as an example. The parents in her book, Madame Doubtfire, are so much darker than their film counterparts, she said.

She was also dismissive of actor narrators of audio books who think they must act throughout, ruining the rhythm of the prose.

Guardian children's books editor Julia Eccleshare agreed that the reader is important but rescued audio books when she said there was something special about a family gathered around a car radio on a journey.

Francis Spufford, author of The Child That Books Built, might have been the sixth child in Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, serving as a warning to the child who reads too many books.

"I was very deaf to the world when I was reading and my parents never made me put a book down," he said. But while books had order and resolution, Mr Spufford became disappointed when life wasn't the same.

"All the time I'd been reading I'd failed to spot the real life patterns. They're fainter and you need different skills. To be a reader," he said, "you must be a listener."

Around 3,500 children filled Charlotte Square on Schools Gala Day, an extra day at the festival and the culmination of the schools programme sponsored by TES Scotland. Thirty-six schools from across Scotland were able to attend, thanks to a bus fund initiative sponsored by Lloyds TSB. One of these was Tiree High.

"Tiree has no bookshops or cinema, so books are an important part of island life, particularly on long, dark winter nights," said the school's librarian, Kate England, who brought 16 S1-S3 pupils. "The trip has taken two-and-a-half days because there's only one daily ferry. Mainly our visits are Glasgow centred, so it's good for the kids to get the festival experience."

A group of S2 pupils from Pitlochry High, in Perth and Kinross, came with P7 children from the school's four feeder primaries as part of their preparation for secondary school.

"A lot of our work is to promote reading," said librarian Mary Sherriffs. "The events today will also help us to plan material for Pitlochry Primary pupils who are doing some poetry and writing for local radio."

Ms Sherriffs and Ms England were disappointed that Frances Mary Hendry's event took a rather general "books are magic" theme rather than focusing on her recent work of historical fiction, The '45 Rising.

Meanwhile, Tiree High's headteacher, Colin Hunter, was enthusiastic about the Joan Lingard session he attended with his S1 pupils. "She gave an excellent insight into her craft," he said, "particularly explaining how her husband's exit from Latvia inspired the family saga Tug of War. Her talk about the research for Natasha's Will (about a family threatened with eviction because they cannot find their grandmother's will) was particularly appropriate for us," he said, "because it's set in Argyll."

www.edbookfest.co.ukwww.joanlingard.co.ukwww.braveheart.co.ukfmhendry

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