Chapter and verse on all sorts of books

5th September 2003 at 01:00
Julie Morrice reports on how writers, poets and others opened up the wonders of books to children at the Edinburgh book festival

Book covers are like doors, says Anthony Horowitz, author of the Alex Rider series of spy thrillers. "If it is a good book you can go through that door and leave your problems behind you."

Escape from the misery of prep school was what made a storyteller of the young Horowitz. "It was a horrible place," he told a tent full of enthralled fans at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

"The teachers were monsters of the first order. The French teacher was the worst. He was my bete noire. To this day I cannot eat French bread without crying. I cannot walk through a French window without trembling. He was also a bad teacher, so I can't actually tell you what bete noire means."

Motor-mouthed and delighting in childish wit, Horowitz gave his audience (predominantly pre-pubescent boys) everything they wanted except the plot of his next novel. He made no secret that his inspiration for Alex Rider is early James Bond films, nor that his desire is to provide young readers with the sort of escapism and adventure that adults find in Stephen King's or Willard Price's writing.

The boys lapped up his gleeful admission that he thinks up at least three ways of killing somebody every day. The latest had come to him only that morning in the spa bath. Suffice to say it involved acid.

The audience was keen to know if their hero would make it to the silver screen or games console, but Horowitz prefers the printed word. "I'm glad there's not going to be a film of Alex Rider. My writing technique is to make a film inside your head. I want it to stay in your imagination."

Perhaps one of the secrets of his tremendous success is that he doesn't think of his novels as children's books.

"I like danger, horror, violence," he says. "That's why I don't write for children's television." (He is a prolific scriptwriter for adult series such as Midsomer Murders). "Children's TV is too jolly and fun."

Goriness and lavatorial humour seem to be the way to young readers'


Among the audience waiting to hear Caroline Lawrence, the author of six mysteries set in the first century, were three Primary 5 girls from Pitcoudie Primary in Glenrothes, primed with information about Ancient Rome. "We know they all got into the bath together," said one. "And we know what they wiped their bottoms with after going to the toilet," added another with relish. Did they know what Romans wore? "Toe-rags, or something," came the swift response.

In a dressing-up box approximation to Roman garb, Lawrence enthralled her forum with tales of derring-do.

"I try not to make anything up," she explained. "I try to make the books really educational so that your teachers won't mind you reading them."

Some of her ideas come from artefacts: a signet ring, a wax tablet. She described creeping around her London flat with a flickering clay lamp filled with olive oil to find out something of what it was like to live in Roman times. Her inescapable enthusiasm for historical discovery helps to make fact more exciting than fiction.

Lawrence used to be a Latin teacher. "Teaching is the hardest job in the world," she announced to murmurs of assent from the back row of the tent, "whereas a writer can sit around all day in her pyjamas, drinking hot chocolate, making up stories and getting paid for it.

"In winter I can fly to Italy or Greece and call it research."

Another writer who has been a teacher is Jamaican poet and novelist Valerie Bloom. She opened her colourful, lyrical world to a crowd of Primary 4-7 pupils. After a crash course in the broad vowels and truncated consonants of Jamaican patois (yai-watter means tears, doormout means doorway, pooss means cat), she led her audience through a rousing workout of rap, songs and body language.

"Your bodies are a bit stiff. Jiggle a bit," demanded Bloom and soon the children were swaying and singing "Pinda, Pinda cake" as though born and bred in Kingston.

The exuberance of the West Indies permeates Bloom's poetry. Language is something to play with, to throw and bounce and squeeze into different shapes.

"In Jamaica," she says, "we have a song for everything," and on one August morning so did a tentful of Scots.

After two weeks of glorious weather, the book festival's schools gala day (which is sponsored by TES Scotland) dawned grey and drizzly but there was no dampening the spirits of the children. Everyone was intent on something, whether it be grabbing the last copy of The Pirates of Pompeii, filling in a quiz sheet or folding a sheet of paper into a 16-page volume.

Rachel Hazell creates books of all sizes. There is one of hers in the Glasgow Science Centre which is two metres tall and is being filled with the thoughts of anyone who wants to go and write in it. On gala day, she was working on a small scale with a Primary 3 class from Towerbank Primary in Portobello, Edinburgh.

Forty minutes probably is not enough time to explore fully the delights of making your own book but the children loved all the folding and cutting. At the end, they carried off their tiny volumes to be filled with their own thoughts and stories.

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