No bars to some riveting reads

2nd August 2013 at 01:00
Death row and dark secrets will be up for debate in Amnesty International's event at the Edinburgh Book Festival, Emma Seith writes

Fifteen-year-old Zoe has a terrible secret - so dark and ominous that she cannot confess it to anyone she knows. But then she hears of a criminal, Stuart Harris, who is locked up on death row in Texas, and becomes convinced that she has found the perfect confidante.

Armed only with a pen, Zoe reveals her story of love and betrayal in letters to the condemned man in prison in America.

Zoe is fictional - the main character in author Annabel Pitcher's latest teen novel Ketchup Clouds. But if her story is a moving tale about teenage hopes and fears, it also raises the lid on the difficult issues surrounding the death penalty.

The book is at the heart of this year's Amnesty International event at the Edinburgh Book Festival - a panel discussion organised by the human rights charity on 22 August to explore how literature, and Ketchup Clouds in particular, can be used in secondary school to spark debate about the emotive subject.

"Ketchup Clouds was chosen because it explores issues of guilt and innocence but also because it is a real page turner and very accessible to teenagers," says Harriet Garland of Amnesty International.

Annabel Pitcher will be joined on the panel by Claire Dancer, an English teacher at Edinburgh's Wester Hailes Education Centre, with the debate chaired by The Guardian's children's books editor Julia Eccleshare. Children's author Michael Morpurgo has long been a great supporter of Amnesty's work, saying: "It is through literature, not simply literacy, that we learn to understand and empathise."

Ms Pitcher became interested in the death penalty as a teenager after getting involved in a penpal scheme through Amnesty International - in which, like her young heroine, she wrote to a prisoner on death row in the US. It was this experience that inspired her to make a death row inmate Zoe's confessor in Ketchup Clouds.

The event follows the success of Amnesty's sell-out session last year on fiction and human rights, when children's author Sara Grant and picture book authorillustrator Debi Gliori, along with Isobel Reid, head of the English faculty at Bo'ness Academy in Falkirk, and educational consultant Carol Wood, a former senior manager in Scottish schools, discussed how the power of literature could be effectively harnessed to help teachers to introduce difficult subjects and personalise abstract issues.

"Teachers know that in order to grab our students' attention we need good stories and gripping characters," Ms Reid said. "Amnesty does a really great job of making a subject accessible in the classroom. It can be hard to close down the discussion once students get going on a moral issue.

"It's rare to get the opportunity to really discuss how we provoke empathy in our students, let alone how fiction can be such an invaluable tool in prompting a surprisingly impressive level of critical thinking around human rights and the death penalty."

The Ketchup Clouds online resources for teachers - available from the day of the event - will sit alongside other resources based on novels which have been chosen by Amnesty International to open up new worlds to students and inspire empathy. These include A Birthday for Ben by Kate Gaynor, The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce; and Chalkline by Jane Mitchell.

Amnesty International's panel discussion is just one event in this year's Baillie Gifford Schools Programme at the book festival.

As well as continuing professional development events for teachers, the programme, which runs from 19 to 27 August, gives pupils from across Scotland the chance to meet their favourite authors and explore books and reading.

For younger pupils, the emphasis is on engaging events with opportunities to join in activities based around storytelling. Authors involved in the programme include Peter Bently, Jim Field and Emma Dodd, who will offer art, craft and drama activities. There will also be storytelling and drawing with Pippa Goodhart, and Julia Donaldson is back with new books, stories and songs.

For older students, the programme offers a plethora of grittier subjects with William Sutcliffe's The Wall, a story of life in an occupied territory, and James Robertson's exploration of belief in his thought-provoking work The Testament of Gideon Mack.


- Maryland became the 18th US state to ban the death penalty when Governor Martin O'Malley signed a bill repealing the law last May. The US Supreme Court approved new laws on capital punishment in 1976.

- Amnesty International has been campaigning against the death penalty for almost 40 years, arguing that there is no convincing evidence that it deters crime.

- There is a global trend towards abolition of the death penalty, but in 2012 there was a resumption of executions in some countries, according to Amnesty International's Death Sentences and Executions 2012 report.

- The total number of confirmed executions was 682, two more than in 2011. Executions were recorded in 21 countries, the same number as 2011.

- The number of countries where death sentences were imposed fell from 63 to 58.


- The Amnesty International event at this year's Edinburgh Book Festival will take place at the Baillie Gifford Corner Theatre on Thursday 22 August, 5-6 pm. Tickets are #163;7 (#163;5 concessions) and are available from bit.ly1bZxd1M

- For Amnesty International teaching resources, available from 22 August, visit

- For details of events at the Baillie Gifford Schools Programme, visit bit.lyZqIKUU.

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