Critics incorporated

1st March 1996 at 00:00
Elaine Williams meets young reviewers who bring authors to book. I almost felt sorry for Bernard Ashley. The author of Running Scared and countless other novels for young people was having his work dissected by a group of teenagers from Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

Why, they asked, were his central characters often from broken and impoverished homes? Why was much of his subject matter deeply depressing?Why did much of the action of his novels happen near the end?

Sophie Webster read aloud her review of Ashley's recent novel, Johnnie's Blitz. Fascinated by the story, about a boy who escapes from a young offenders' home during the Second World War, 15-year-old Sophie held forth in great detail. Her piece attracted criticism in its turn Fiona Johnston, also 15, thought it suffered from too much plot and not enough analysis. Sophie took the comments on the chin and the group of about 30 teenagers made plans to interview Ashley for a future issue.

The team publish reviews of literature for their age group in In brief. . . magazine (three issues a year, funded by the Arts Council and Waterstones and distributed nationally through the bookstore chain). They devour new novels of astonishing variety and produce sharply informative interviews with leading authors: Anne Fine, William Mayne (they visited him at home in the North Yorkshire dales), Sylvia Waugh, Benjamin Zephaniah, Annie Dalton and Robert Westall among others. The interviewers, with their informed curiosity and often passionate opinions, come to their subjects well prepared and the results are professional and entertaining.

The group has been meeting at the Waterstones branch in Newcastle's city centre most Friday nights for the past six years. It consists of young people from schools across Newcastle, from the independent Royal Grammar School to a range of comprehensives.

Sideline activities include shadowing the Carnegie Medal judges and debating the merits of the Point Horror series with Scholastic, the series publishers.

In brief. . . was launched by Elizabeth Hammill, a charming New Yorker with a passion for reading who runs the Waterstones children's books department. A bookseller for 15 years, she is also a noted critic and has been a judge for the Smarties Book Prize and the Independent Scholastic Story of the Year Award. She initiated the Northern Children's Book Festival and lectures trainee teachers on children's literature.

Author visits and book events have always been a regular feature of life in the Newcastle Waterstones basement, but until six years ago Elizabeth hadn't "figured out how to reach the 13-plus age group . . . the age when we are supposed to lose readers." She sent a survey to Year 9 pupils asking what they had read as children, whether they used a library or whether there had been any book which changed their lives.

It soon became clear that they turned to their peers, not adults, for advice about what to read. So Elizabeth invited three pupils from each secondary school to set up a review magazine. The In brief . . . group has been up and running ever since. The initial print run of 200 has increased to 6,000 and many schools subscribe.

Members choose books to review and the pieces are read aloud at the Friday evening meetings, edited and sometimes pulverised. "They have to learn that criticism doesn't have to be devastating," Elizabeth said, "that it can lead to a more interesting piece in the end. They also learn that there is more than one reading of a book and sometimes we print conflicting reviews."

Mo Mansoori, aged 17, a physics, maths and chemistry A-level student from the Royal Grammar School, is one of the team's longest-standing members. He said: "I used to read books for the sake of reading, three or four books a week, mostly fantasy and sci-fi. Since coming here I have broadened my horizons. "

Fifteen-year-old Clare Tavernor from Sacred Heart comprehensive is one of the liveliest reviewers. She said: "I read much more critically now. Subconsciously I am analysing as I read."

Oliver Wood, 14, a newcomer from the RGS, has found the irreverent and open approach refreshing. "At school you cannot say you don't like a book and you are made to spend so long on each page, it takes the pleasure out of it. I don't think that's criticism, I think that's worship, it's paying homage. "

In brief . . . is available free from Waterstones shops and by subscription (Pounds 6 for three issues) from In brief . . . subscriptions , Waterstones, Capital Court, Interchange Way, Brentford TW8 OEX. Cheques to Waterstones Booksellers

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