Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Bath Festival of Children's Literature Day 2

The fun continues... (see my last post about the Bath Kids Lit Fest here)

Last Monday, I volunteered for the Festival first for the Queens of Teen talk, with Cathy Cassidy, Joanna Nadin, Samantha Mackintosh, and Karen McCombie. Unfortunately, I haven't read any of their books, but the talk was hysterical, with the women sharing their favorite scenes, embarrassing moments from childhood, how much of their characters are really them. I could easily tell why their books have been so successful: they were a riot!

I was surprised that so many of them based their characters on themselves almost completely. Many of them also used real situations from their lives, and real people as friends and enemies. Perhaps that comes with writing contemporary humor. Maybe their lives are funnier than mine? Or at least, they can make them out to be funnier?

Next was the talk by David Almond, Melvin Burgess, and Meg Rosoff. There's so much to say, I don't really know where to begin. Perhaps that's one of the problems with inviting three amazing authors for one talk. There was almost too much going on, and I didn't feel I got to hear enough from any of the authors.

One of the best bits was just seeing each author walk into the Green Room beforehand. Why yes, I was screaming in my head, OMG, THAT'S MEG ROSOFF! *jumping up and down* Thankfully it all stayed inside my head. And then watching them all greet each other, chat with each other... Meg and Melvin know each other best, but they all seemed to be friends, colleagues at their job. Throughout much of the talk they joked with each other, complimented each other.

My favorite line was when the moderator asked David Almond what he thought of Melvin Burgess' new book, Kill All Enemies (yes, the moderator really did ask those sorts of pointless questions. *sigh*). Anyway, Melvin patted David on the back, beamed at the audience, and said, "David Almond loves my book. He told me so." I cracked up.

The authors talked a bit about unsympathetic narrators, which I thought was fascinating. Meg Rosoff's newest book, There Is No Dog, imagines the universe if God were an obnoxious 19-year-old guy named Bob. Bob isn't supposed to be very sympathetic. That's the point, Meg exploring why, if there is a god, all sorts of strange and terrible things happen. But Meg explained how she tried to keep the reader engaged with Bob by giving him "flashes of brilliance" like when he makes whales float in the sky.

She also talked about how one of the main characters in Melvin's book (again, stupid moderator question, "Meg, what did you think of Melvin's book?" Grrr!) started out unsympathetic, but the more you learned about him, and the more layers were revealed, the more you grew to care about him. That's how people work in real life, too.

That brought up one of Melvin Burgess' personal rules for his writing: never be judgmental. I thought that was a great rule, and so true of his books. After all, if we as adults start judging the characters we're writing about, how can we ever get into their skin, let alone tell the truth?

The authors also talked about the unconscious. Meg Rosoff described how authors, through years of work, have developed a worn path between their conscious and subconscious minds, so they can travel there more quickly and unintentionally (sometimes in the middle of conversations). Melvin Burgess spoke of getting his best ideas in the bath.

Someone in the audience asked about choosing to write YA books. None of the authors believed they chose to write YA, but rather that their subjects and characters were innate in them, and YA was the category that best described their stories (actually, Rosoff's books are sold as adult novels in the US). Meg Rosoff had an interesting point about how much of great literature is a coming of age story, and could be classified as YA: Pride and Prejudice, Henry IV, Dickens, Wuthering Heights.

I haven't mentioned much about David Almond. He wasn't as talkative as Meg and Melvin. But I totally lucked out, because Tuesday night he spoke in Bristol at a local library. I almost didn't go, because, stupid me, I thought I had just heard David Almond the night before. Thankfully, I DID go because it was an absolutely magical evening.

David Almond is a storyteller, and while he talked for an hour in the library, I felt as if I was in an old stone pub, sitting by the fireplace, drinking something lovely, and listening to stories. I could've sat there all night.

He made a point of saying how grateful he was that people of all ages were there. He did a great job of pitching his talk to both children and adults. But the kids were always first, and most important, and of course that's how it should be. He said that people always ask him when he started writing, and he says he's always been writing. Because kids write, for school, but also for themselves. It's adults that stop. He talked about his childhood, the storytellers who inspired him (a gossipy relative, a poet uncle). He talked about visiting his local library and dreaming that someday one of his books would be on the shelf. He said it wasn't until he learned to tell his own stories, about his childhood, about the people he knew, that his writing took off. As he said, he learned to take the ordinary and make it extraordinary.

I was really grateful that he talked about how hard writing (and publication) is, and how long it took him to become published. He said for all the prizes he's won, he's grateful to be published, that that was the big victory.

He also took the time to answer every question, running slightly over his allotted time (but I certainly didn't mind!). There were several writers in the audience, so he ended up talking about plotting (he's a total pantser), finding stories, how growing up Catholic inspired much of the magic in his stories.

He had a lovely story about writing Skellig. When he first started, he knew there was someone in the garage, but he didn't know who it was. It wasn't until the main character, Michael, puts his arm around Skellig and feels something in his back, skin flaps and bone, that David Almond realized it was a wing. He discovered he was writing about an angel at the same moment as Michael.

David Almond also talked about how, even as a kid, books amazed him. They were so orderly, with their straight black lines. But when he first tried writing, he was distraught at how messy it all was. He couldn't figure out how to make his lines (and his stories) work the same way. Then he showed us his notebook, filled with scribbles and boxes and writing in all different directions. He admitted that he has an untidy mind. But he told us that all writers have untidy minds; the trick of writing is to work hard enough to take everything inside and make it into accessible straight lines.

I was mesmerized. Thanks, David Almond, for a truly memorable talk.

And thanks to the Bath Kids Lit Fest (and Bristol Libraries) for two amazing days. I'll do one final post about my Festival experiences on Thursday.

Oh, I almost forgot! Remember how I got to dress up as Horrid Henry last Saturday? Well, there ARE pictures (follow the link for a much bigger picture). And I got a shout-out in the Telegraph: "Hats off, also, to the writer Anne M Leone who wore the Horrid Henry suit. She had to learn, walking round the Green Room, how to walk steadily while wearing a giant suit, with an enormous costume head, and wearing massive comedy-sized shoes." Pretty cool, huh? Almost famous.

I should say, Martin Chilton with the Telegraph has been doing a wonderful (and much more timely!) job capturing the highs of the Festival. You can see all of his articles here.


  1. Can highly recommend Cathy Cassidy's books!

  2. Oh, Anne, how lucky to listen to David Almond speak at the local library! I would have loved to have been there, to listen to him. Thank you so much for taking us along!

  3. Keren: That's good to hear, the event definitely tempted me to check them out!

    Andrea: Oh, so happy to share, Andrea. And I could have written so many more pages, it really was amazing!

  4. Anne, you've covered so many wonderful topics. My mind is brimming with questions. Do you mind? (Is there a polite out for that? I have no idea. I'll push forward though. lol.)

    How can we not judge our characters? Isn't that part of the creation process that we are saying this "value" is good or bad? I'm fascinated by the ideas that this suggestion. . .

    The quote about "untidy minds" made me sigh in relief. He described exactly my mind and my frustration that my writing is not tidy nor neat. Thanks for sharing that story.

    Finally, when I wrote a post about Sense & Sensibility a few weeks back I realized that if book was published in 2011 it would be a YA. The characters are all in their teens (even Margaret who is 13) and the characters deal with YA topics (first love, relationship, community values vs individual values). I do believe the best writing is going on in the MG/YA markets.

    Great post!

  5. **I'm fascinated by the ideas that this suggests. . .****

    little too fast on the click

  6. Bridgette: Hah, you are too funny! So glad my post got you thinking. That's what I'm here for, right? ;) Besides, you certainly got me pondering stuff before falling off to sleep last night.

    I'm so glad you liked the "untidy minds" thing. That really resonated with me, too, and it was such a relief to hear a big name author say his mind is untidy.

    I'm such a children's book disciple to everyone I talk to: my hairdresser, my orchestra, etc. Totally agree that amazing stuff is happening YA/MG right now.

    As for judging your characters... What I decided last night is that I think it depends how you define judging. I think of myself as more of an encouraging teacher. I know my character's weaknesses, and I gently prod them to do better. But I don't try to make them into anything they're not. And I totally understand why they're the way they are. So I guess you could argue I'm still judging my characters by identifying and confronting their weaknesses. But I don't think I'm criticizing them for who they are and how they got there. I'm just walking in their shoes and wanting the best for them (of course, as I've defined best). Does that make sense? Answer your question? Do you think about it differently?


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