Friday, August 26, 2011
Every August, the city of Edinburgh comes to life and the streets fill with music, laughs and colourfully costumed actors trying to tempt prospective viewers to see their show over the thousands of others that occur during the Fringe Festival. It’s a chance to discover something new and unique in the creative world and I love it so much that I don’t even care about the mass of tourists blocking the pavements. There’s a special festival event for everything – comedy, music, cabaret, theatre, children, even politics, so it makes a lot of sense that there’d be a book festival. This extremely lucky blogger was fortunate enough to receive a press pass to the book festival to report on behalf of The Book Lantern and while many of the YA specific events weren’t open to the press (yes, I am a wee bit smug at getting to call myself a member of the press), I decided to just take in as many events as possible, regardless of content. Enjoy!
Alexander McCall Smith.
The work of the extremely prolific McCall Smith, including the Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency, the Isabel Dalhousie novels and 44 Scotland Street (the latest of which, “Bertie Sings the Blues”, was recently released in UK), is known for its warmth and often quaintness, so it made sense for his event to open with an acapella choir singing renditions of “Over the Rainbow” and “Bonnie Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond”. This is a staple of McCall Smith’s book events, something he says was inspired from his early book signings where only family members would turn up and he wished to provide entertainment for them. Much like his books, which I consider to be the literary equivalent of hot chocolate with whipped cream, McCall Smith is warm, witty and a wonderful storyteller. Engaged in conversation with friend and journalist James “I put the C in Jeremy Hunt” Naughtie, with whom he had a comfortable rep, McCall Smith discussed his work, mostly concentrating of the 44 Scotland Street series, which is set in Edinburgh and proved popular with the sold out crowd. The author’s own favourite character Bertie, the extremely precocious 6 year old who is desperate to grow up, featured prominently, with McCall Smith talking about him as if he were a real person. Indeed, the author seemed to have a rather cordial relationship with his fictional creations, admitting to conversing with them from time to time and being very amused by their antics. He laughed frequently when reading the extracts from his latest book, as did the audience. McCall Smith and Naughtie’s casual chat followed no set path or purpose and meandered from one fascinating topic to another, even making time for an Alex Salmond joke (which received a mixed reception.) Much to my delight, McCall Smith is a great believer in the joy and power of reading, admitting to being a veracious reader as a child, with his first favourite book being the rather strange choice of “The Boy’s Book of British Merchant Shipping.” As for advice to writers, he simply said to persist and go straight from one manuscript to the next without time to dwell and worry, a tip he seems to have taken to heart given his prolific output. The event ended with the return of the acapella choir, singing a choice made by McCall Smith – Teddybear’s Picnic!
Sarah (and Gordon) Brown.
(Warning: This segment will not be in any way balanced or unbiased, due to my own political inclinations as well as my decidedly unprofessional fangirling of the former Prime Minister and his wife. If you follow me on twitter, you’ll be aware of how passionately political I can get. Feel free to skip over this segment.)
The hints had been all around the festival as well as twitter but I still grinned with shock and excitement when Gordon Brown sat in the front row of his wife Sarah’s sold out event (to promote her book on life “Behind the Black Door”) and maybe did a little woo-hoo as well. After a brief introduction, Ms Brown gave a small speech on her reasons for writing the book and what she learned during her time as WPN – wife of the Prime Minister. As a professional spouse with all the responsibility and none of the power, Brown’s intention was to juggle the numerous jobs her role entailed while keeping a strong sense of self and guarding her private life (something which has recently received much press attention after it was revealed News International hacked into the medical records of their youngest son). Brown’s main passions, both whilst in Number 10 and after Brown’s resignation, charity work, featured prominently in her speech, with her desire to truly make a difference shining through.
The next woo-hoo I elicited (I regret nothing!) came when Sarah announced that her event would in fact be a joint event with her husband, who then took to the stage in a round of applause before beginning his own speech. I believe the exact notes I wrote in my pad were “JOINT EVENT! SQUEE!” For a man whom the press frequently portrayed as a sullen, anti-social and borderline evil troll, Brown was surprisingly relaxed and jokey with the crowd, poking fun at himself and telling frequent anecdotes and referencing poetry. The main crux of Brown’s speech came from the belief that “one or two people with a vision can make a difference”, although he also emphasised the need for global action to be taken to resolve global events. The Q&A segment of the evening featured a range of topics, from the frivolous (the first time they met – whilst Sarah was doing PR for Labour Party) to the effects the phone hacking revelations had on them (this lead to a very interesting part where Gordon talked about the increasing politicisation of the press and their deliberate destruction of character in order to further an agenda. In the interests of balance, it’s worth nothing that before News International became rabid David Cameron supporters, they were close to Brown and Tony Blair.) Brown stressed the importance of the free press as well as the belief that the general public are wiser than the press. Brown is also a firm believer that, unless there is a drastic change to the current world financial system, threats of future financial collapse are inevitable (something he also discussed in his book “Beyond the Crash”, although he joked that 99% of the recent Brown book sales have been Sarah’s), citing the need to invest heavily in solving youth unemployment before anything else can be done. After watching the pair leave together to sign books following a rapturous applause, I can only imagine how hardened a right-winger one must be to not think them a wonderful couple.
Considering the differences in their subject matter, Doctorow’s talk had many things in common with the Browns’. While Doctorow’s talk, filled with a younger audience tapping furiously at their blackberries, iPads and kindles, was supposed to be on science-fiction’s role in predicting the future, he spent more time discussing the sci-fi writer’s perspective on the changing world and its socio-economic climate. Doctorow firmly believed that sci-fi writers were in fact “absolute rubbish” at predicting the future, and were more accurately providing narratives to which future events were inspired by rather than following predictions, as well as providing a creative insight into their own anxieties. Science-fiction has become so ingrained in our society that we often forget about it, such as our immediate desire to incite Orwell when discussing totalitarianism. It were these beliefs that stuck with Doctorow as he wrote his latest book “Makers”, featuring a world where autonomy is king and the world works in the same way programmers do. Doctorow is an extremely intelligent man who held the audience in the palm of his hand, even when discussing many things that went over their heads, or I should say my head, to be more precise. His vast knowledge was on show during the Q&A segment, which I believe will soon be available in podcast form. His view of the world is unlike anything I’ve ever seen or read before and it’s definitely one I recommend. I wish I could say I was extremely witty and intelligent when I met him during the signing segment, where he autographed my copy of “Little Brother”, but instead I grinned like a loon and we chatted about the numerous ways to spell my name for 20 seconds. This press person is clearly doing a bang-up job!
Stay tuned for more Book Festival coverage, soon to feature Liz Lochhead, Eoin Colfer, Ben Mezrich, Mark Kermode and David Almond!
Tuesday, August 2, 2011
The Benefits of Harry Potter
by Tamara Felsinger
Haters to the left, fangurls to the right, and everyone meet in the middle.
I enjoyed the Harry Potter books, but I’m no stranger to their flaws. However, I’m not here to stand on a pedestal and tell you whether the books are the BEST BOOKS EVAARRR or whether they should be burned in a pile of flaming paper. I’m here to tell you the benefits of their existence.
The story arc
Chosen hero goes on a quest to battle the ultimate villain. Has it been done before? Duh. Who hasn’t read a million books or watched a million movies with that story arc?
But let me ask you something: Who hasn’t read a million books or watched a million movies with that story arc? Think about it.
And they need to learn somewhere.
Teachers are required to teach narratives. Part of their job is to explain the idea of the hero’s journey. What better way to do so than to introduce (or re-introduce) the story of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to the students? I haven’t yet come across a book that children are so eager to read. It isn’t easy to have a child do required reading, but with the Harry Potter books, the task is less stressful. And, as an added bonus for both the children and the teacher, there’s a movie to watch at the end of the unit. It’s not only enjoyable, but it allows for a comparison of modes of texts as well as a study on intertexuality.
Harry Potter doesn’t just encourage students to read. In many cases, it encourages them to write.
Suddenly the kids who had done nothing but a few sentences during free writing time are telling stories of far off places and magic and trolls. Yes, the students are pretty much retelling the Harry Potter books. But this is how children learn – imitation and scaffolding. Plus, at the same time they’re developing their grammar, punctuation, and spelling.
The people who appreciate this blog are sure to appreciate literacy skills, so we all know how important it is to develop these skills as early as possible. What the students need is practice, and practice requires inspiration. The Harry Potter books are providing more than enough to get a lot of those kids picking up their pencils. Sighs of relief can still be heard by teachers all over the world.
Every girl under the age of twelve I’ve asked about a favourite character has said Hermione. It’s common for a young girl to attach herself to the main female character in a story with a male protagonist. But Hermione’s not a bad role model, wouldn’t you say?
Hermione is the kind of character that respects teachers, reads a lot, and sticks by what she believes, even if people ridicule her. Even if her friends ridicule her.
If a girl was ever given a choice to do what was right or what she thought her friends wanted her to do, she may ask herself which decision Hermione Granger, her favourite character, would go with. Which one do you think she’d choose?
And let’s not forget that Hermione is the brightest student in her year, not just from talent, but from extraordinarily hard work. Heck, even I’ve read a portion of Harry Potter with Hermione studying and had the urge to do some work of my own. Imagine how an impressionable mind would interpret Hermione’s studiousness.
The real world
With children as young as eight, possibly younger, reading the books, wouldn’t you agree this is an amazingly early age to be learning about the potential flaws in the media and political systems? Through the Harry Potter books, children (and some adults, mind you) are introduced to the idea that authorities aren’t always right. That they shouldn’t believe everything they read in both newspapers and in magazines. Sure, it’s doubtful students will go out writing letters to world leaders at this point in time, but the idea of questioning authority has now been planted in their heads, and that’s a start.
As well as all this, J.K. Rowling’s extraordinarily detailed world-building has been put up against almost vicious scrutiny. It’s certainly teaching writers a thing or two about how much thought they have to put into their own world-building. Want to write about the full moon in January? Check what year you’re setting your story in, and make sure the date coincides with the one in your plot, or you may find you get someone else pointing out the mistake.
When I was a teen in day care, I had the task of looking after most of the other kids. There was a girl who just wouldn’t talk to me, no matter how I approached her. On one of the last days of school break, a few boys were teasing her, and after shooing them away I happened to overhear the girl mutter, “Darn muggles.”
Well. I finally found my in. I asked her if she liked Harry Potter, which books she’d read, who her favourite character was (Hermione, of course), and suddenly she was keen to talk to me.
The great thing was, this could have happened anywhere – Europe, America, the UK, Asia. They all have the books. They all have the fans. They all have the discussions/arguments/debates – in fact, this post right here will surely spark comments from people in different parts of the world, because you as readers know who Harry Potter is.
What a connection, don’t you think?
Can you think of other benefits for the existence of the Harry Potter books? Do you disagree with any of the points I’ve raised?
Tamara Felsinger is a teacher and writer. You can follow her on twitter @tamarafelsinger or you can find her on her blog, Notebooks and Neverlands.