It's not just about authors and books

24th July 2009 at 01:00
Not everyone in education is winding down. In our continuing series, we meet Sara Grady, children and education director at the Edinburgh International Book Festival

It's the evening before the world's biggest gathering of children's writers, but that doesn't mean Sara Grady is hobnobbing with the Philip Pullmans and JK Rowlings of this world. Instead, she's dashing around making sure there are enough recycling bins on site.

It's a typically hands-on task for Ms Grady, who is responsible for children's and schools events at the Edinburgh book festival. The second half of August is the frantic culmination of a year's work - there's no question of sitting back and enjoying the fruits of her labours once the festival starts. A job from 9am-6pm for much of the year, it requires 12- hour days, seven days a week, during festival season.

"It takes pretty much all year to organise," says Ms Grady. September provides a brief lull following the "hurricane" of the previous festival, the ideal time for an extended holiday and ensuring successive festivals do not "bleed into each other". There is a "sense of completion" that not every job can offer, but the workload soon cranks up again. Invitations are sent out to authors in November. By the Christmas holiday last year, 175 had confirmed their participation to her.

March and April are "crazy busy". The education programme has to appear in time for schools to make bookings before the summer, particularly since Ms Grady wants the festival to attract more and more young people from far beyond Edinburgh, such as parties which have booked from Mull and the Highlands.

Another landmark arrives with the June press launch, when Ms Grady can finally reveal the details she's been bursting to tell people about. With the programme in place and tickets on sale, the summer brings a period of relative calm which allows time to deal with the "nitty gritty".

Ms Grady might be devising word searches and treasure hunts, making sure there are enough staff to take tickets - the number of festival staff swells from 15 to 130 as August approaches - and dealing with the occasional late request for an author to take part. She is already thinking about potential 2010 events, tie-ins with the 2012 London Olympics and the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games.

On the day of her interview with The TESS, she was assigning the last few chairpersons - every event needs to be chaired - and judging entries for a children's competition whose winner will introduce former Children's Laureate Michael Morpurgo to an audience of 600 and see behind the scenes at the festival.

The most exciting part of the lead-up is seeing an array of tents going up two or three weeks before the festival, which signals the transformation of Charlotte Square Gardens from its usual role of sleepy picnic spot for New Town professionals on their lunch breaks.

"It's all a bit cerebral before that point," says Ms Grady. "It's lovely that I get to spend all year reading books and meeting authors, but the reason I do my job is for the readers."

Ms Grady, 27, is originally from Michigan, in the United States, but completed a Masters in cultural studies at Edinburgh University several years ago, and has never left. Her studies delved into shared experiences of various forms of stories, including cult TV series such as Star Trek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Research included visits to fan conventions, with which she draws a parallel to the passion for books she sees among children at the festival. "It's interesting to see how stories can matter so much, how the books you read when you're young influence how you see the world," she says.

The festival (August 15-31) will be her third. One of her proudest achievements has been increasing the event's green credentials, hence the recycling bins last year. She has also been building an outreach programme, establishing links with Glow (the Scottish schools intranet) and addressing an issue familiar to teachers across the country - transition. Events suitable for young people are now identified in the adult programme, to provide a bridge from the children's line-up.

Securing big authors is satisfying - she cites Neil Gaiman of the Sandman graphic novel series, as a highlight - but Edinburgh also has room for exciting unknowns such as Lluis Farre, author of The Grey Boy, the first Catalan picture book to be published in the UK. "No other festival compares with what Edinburgh does in size and scope," says Ms Grady.

The biggest thrill of her job, she says, is seeing children respond to books. She recalls a letter from a book-phobic boy aged nine or 10 who had been dragged along by his school last year to hear Joan Lingard, and subsequently enthused that "maybe he was more of a book person than he thought he was".

But the best feedback is "thousands and thousands of kids running out of the grounds every day with smiles on their faces and ideas in their heads".

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