Authors galore and a plot of fun

4th May 2001 at 01:00
You'll find writers, storytellers, exhibitions, workshops and all the fun of the book fair in Edinburgh this summer. Gillian Macdonald gives a synopsis of the forthcoming action

Thinking of taking a class to the Edinburgh Book Festival but are put off by the prospect of a long bus ride with 30 kids, a one-hour session with an author and then straight back on the bus? Well, this year's festival promises to be different; a new approach from a new director.

Catherine Lockerbie, former literary editor of the Scotsman, took over the organisation of what claims to be the largest book festival in the world last autumn, and this August sees the results of her labour. For the first time schools are being offered a package which enables them to attend three elements out of a choice of a workshop, an author session, storytelling and an exhibition.

Children's author Vivian French will act as a writer-in-residence, running workshops every day of the festival, with the emphasis on participation. "The children provide the ideas, I write them down and we end up with a story," she says, "or, at the very least, a sufficiently detailed plan of the beginning, middle and end of a story so that the children can go away feeling confident that they can finish it at school or at home.

"The most important thing as far as I am concerned is making sure that the children thoroughly enjoy the experience and feel enthused to do more. Writing shouldn't be a bore, but fun."

Groups which go to storytelling sessions can hear tales of fairies, giants, seal people and Celtic epics of Scotland and Ireland with leading Scottish storytellers such as Ewan McVicar, Claire Mulholland or David Campbell.

If visitors leave Charlotte Square Gardens, with its festive atmosphere of tents and picnickers on the grass, and cross the road to 28 Charlotte Square, the National Trust for Scotland will be exhibiting works by famous children's illustrators, including Shirley Hughes, Debi Gliori and Mairi Hedderwick.

The heart of the schools' programme, on August 20-27, remains the immensely popular author sessions: 56 events with 37 authors are planned. Last year 73 schools turned up; this year more are expected, so they should consider booking early.

Harry Potter fans will be disappointed that JK Rowling is not starring this year, but a lot of the favourites will be there, including Anne Fine, Julie Bertagna, Gillian Cross and Philip Ardagh. There will be novelists, poets, even maths and science writers; some of them fun, some seriously moving.

Watch out for Jack Gantos from Boston, whose Joey Pigza books on the life of a boy with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder treat the subject with humour and are about "hopeful choices and optimism in a difficult situation".

Also look for big star Eoin Colfer, author of Artemis Fowl, a "high octane adventure comedy" for eight to 13-year-old. He knew that he wanted to write a series, so had to create attention-holding characters. "In order to do this I decided to turn convention on its head," he says. "The hero would be a villain, a child criminal mastermind, and fairies would not be the impish creatures of well loved folklore, they would be high tech, well armed creatures with all the failings and foibles of their human counterparts."

Melvyn Burgess, author of Junk, returns to talk about his latest novel for teenagers, Bloodtide, which is based on a pagan story, the Icelandic Volsunga saga. "I started thinking about the kinds of things teenagers like in other media," he says, "and I realised that there is an age range of something like 14 to 20-plus that is catered for a great deal in films, computer games and so on, but which is largely left alone in books I Why is that sort of imagery so absent in books for young adults?" Another visitor is Stephen Law, author of The Philosophy Files for 12 to 16-year-olds, which he describes as "an adventure in thinking and an introduction to philosophy: a bit like Jostein Gaarder's Sophie's World, only without the history and with much more of the really important, fun stuff - the arguments".

Then there is Pie Corbett, a former primary school headteacher and English schools inspector who was involved in writing parts of the English national literacy strategy. He has written more than 50 books and now works as a freelance poet, storyteller and writer. He is renowned for his lively, humorous poetry performances and will hold a day-time session for children and a special evening event for teachers on improving standards in writing for seven to 11-year-olds.

Kay Umansky returns after many years to talk to seven to 11-year-olds about her most recent novel, Wilma's Wicked Revenge. Wilma, she explains, is "a rather grouchy 12-year-old who is in the unenviable position of having a grandma, a mother and two older sisters who are all fully fledged wicked queens. Tired of being bossed, bullied and patronised, Wilma digs out her magic books and sets about getting revenge."

So, there is philosophy, psychology, witches and lots more from the likes of Diana Hendrie, Keith Gray, Keith Robson, Ross Collins, Rachel Anderson and many others to entertain readers of all ages.

For teachers who can't make it to the festival, there is an outreach programme taking a dozen writers on the Scottish Book Trust van to Falkirk, Fife, Glasgow and the central belt. Also, the Schools' Guide, a classroom resource with tips for teachers from writers who will be at the festival, should have arrived in all schools. As a bonus, teachers can order books at a 25 per cent discount (minimum five books) using an order form at the back or see the festival website.

More about the schools programme, sponsored by TES Scotland, from Marc Lambert, tel 0131 228

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