Janet Smyth

29th July 2011 at 01:00
The new children and education programme director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival (August 13-29) landed the job after running schools specialist shop Blast-Off Books. She talks about the rise of e- readers, working with the author of The Gruffalo and shaking audiences out of their comfort zone. Photography by Colin Hattersley

What is your favourite children's book?

A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes had a massive impact on me when I was nine. There is a brilliant bit when the main character, Emily, realises who she is physically and emotionally. She looks at her hand and thinks, "Why is this my hand?". That was a revelation to me, one of those moments when suddenly you take a big intellectual step as a child.

How did you plan the schools programme to ensure it interested teachers and pupils, and tied in to Curriculum for Excellence?

I was quite up to speed because I previously ran a children's bookshop and did a lot of sessions in schools talking to youngsters and teachers about how books can be incorporated into the curriculum. The starting point was ensuring that on every date there are events for all age groups, and a mixture of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. There is science and maths too, but at the very core of it, it is about literacy.

How much did you want to put your own stamp on the programme?

You have a responsibility to ensure what you do is in keeping with what your predecessors have achieved. But (director) Nick Barley asked me to appoint a guest selector, which has never happened before, so immediately it is a gift. Asking Julia Donaldson to do it was quite straightforward and in the lead-up to the unveiling of our programme it was announced she was the new Children's Laureate.

What balance are you trying to strike between educational experiences that can be enjoyed `on site' and ones that can be used in classrooms?

If I were in a position to bring a class to the Festival I would use it as a jumping-off point for that term's topic, because you are immediately able to enthuse your pupils - you start on a real high by meeting the author. We have tried to give as many ideas to allow teachers to really run with it. But bringing kids to an hour-long event with an author and just relaxing and enjoying it is equally important.

What do you think has the biggest impact on children's literacy?

The research says it stems from the very early stages of a child's life, so money is going into Bookbug (Scottish Book Trust's programme for babies and early years) and I completely support that. And yet, anecdotally, you hear of people who were quite late coming to books, but it didn't stop them at all. The author Keith Gray didn't read a book until he was 11 or 12; it was just the right book at the right time.

What do you think about the rise of e-books and the effect it is having on the way children read?

I place enormous value on sitting down with a physical book. But thinking of older kids at secondary age, there was a boy on Radio Scotland recently who had been given an e-reader for Christmas. It came pre-loaded with classics and he was reading Dickens and Austen and loving them, but he was only doing that because he couldn't afford to buy any new books - he would never have read them in print.

How do you ensure that the children's programme is open to as many schools as possible?

We have an RBS-sponsored bus fund, so schools can get the cost of their travel covered, and we work hard to keep the ticket price per head as low as is feasible. We also have a free outreach programme which takes our authors off site to other areas in the city where, usually for economic reasons, youngsters can't make it.

There is an interactive event with Nick Sharratt and James Mackenzie, from the CBBC programme Raven. If it is successful, do you think it could be a good model for future events for schoolchildren?

Yes; it is about being able to take children out of the usual dynamics of the classroom and mix it up. That is why I went for James - it is in a big venue and I think he will really get the kids to engage and be brave enough to contribute.

Overall, what would you like the children's programme to achieve?

To get teachers and pupils excited, and hopefully allow them to see or hear or discover something they have never experienced before. That might be really small, like having their book signed by an author, or something really big, like going to see Christiane Dorion talking about the ecosystem.

Did you enjoy school?

Primary was fantastic because the head was a chap called William Fyfe Hendrie, who was very much in favour of having writers in the school: Lavinia Derwent, Molly Hunter, Joan Lingard. Then Carl MacDougall and Liz Lochhead did an intensive poetry week with the P7s. I can remember all that so clearly. Secondary school was less focused.

Is there a particular author you have seen talk and been inspired by?

A few years ago Louis de Bernieres was at the book festival, talking about Captain Corelli's Mandolin. Someone asked him why he had chosen the Second World War Greek island setting for the book, and he said he was fed up reading about the middle class in their living rooms. It was a great reminder that the joy of books is that they take you out of your comfort zone and expose you to new places and new ideas. That is really what it is about.


Born: Glasgow, 1969

Education: Linlithgow Primary; Linlithgow Academy; Napier University (BA publishing); Strathclyde University (postgraduate diploma in business management)

Career: Readiscovery Campaign, Scottish Book Trust; director, Pushkin Prizes; owner, Blast-Off Books specialist children's bookshop and school supply business; children's and education director, Edinburgh International Book Festival.

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