Children’s writers Lari Don, Candy Gourlay and Elizabeth Wein are set to take to the Edinburgh International Book Festival stage for a panel event titled Freedom to Read, Freedom to Write this weekend.
The Wee Review caught up with them as they prepare for their sparky dialogue about the state of children’s fiction, in association with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).
Is this your first time at Edinburgh International Book Festival? What is your connection with the city? Any entertaining memories?
Lari: This is my 10th year of appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and I still get excited by it! Long before I became a published author, I was a regular festival-goer in Charlotte Square. I went to lots of writing workshops and author events every year, hoping to hear wise words about being a writer, and particularly being a published writer. One year, I found a slim book from Publishing Scotland on a low shelf in the book tent, and in that book, I found the name of a new literary agency in Edinburgh specialising in children’s writers, and I thought, that’s got to be worth a go! I got in touch, and a couple of manuscripts and one meeting later, I had an agent. That agent’s wise advice and gentle guidance has led to 31 books published in the last 10 years, so it all started on a shelf at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
Elizabeth: I think this is my seventh year in a row at the festival – including some independent appearances but also at least three on behalf of the SCBWI.
Candy: It is indeed my first time to appear in the Edinburgh International Book Festival, though I once attended as a punter and managed to sneak into the yurt with some naughty SCBWI friends to drink some free wine!
You all write for young people and will be appearing together on a panel entitled ‘Freedom to read, freedom to write’. How would you describe your latest book in a single sentence?
Elizabeth: Nastia is a young fighter pilot trying to free the Soviet Union from Nazi oppression in a combat unit composed entirely of women! It’s called Firebird.
Candy: Bone Talk: A boy who wants to become a warrior, a girl who wants the same – and the world as they know it coming to an end.
Lari: The final book in the Spellchasers trilogy – The Witch’s Guide to Magical Combat – is about shapeshifters, curses, betrayals, battles, and a birthday party.
What does ‘Freedom’ mean to you in terms of reading, and writing?
Candy: I grew up in quite a conservative Catholic environment. We were on the verge of being poor all the time and I used to think that I would never be able to travel anywhere. But when I discovered books, I realised I could go anywhere, do anything I dreamed of. Books opened the window to all possibilities, even if only in my imagination. Between the pages of a book I could go anywhere, be anyone I wanted. As for writing, it has been a pathway to freedom too, but not in the same way as books. Writing allows me to ask questions out loud, following rabbit holes of wonder as far as they could go.
Lari: Freedom, in terms of both writing and reading, means choice. It means having the right to choose what to read and what to write, but also the opportunity to discover and explore lots of different books and stories, in order to make an informed choice about what to read and what to create. So allowing everyone, especially children, access to libraries – local, well stocked, staffed by qualified librarians – is fundamental to giving us all the opportunity to read widely, which feeds the imagination and allows us to find our own unique voices and stories. Freedom also means giving kids the confidence that their voices will be heard and their stories are valuable.
Elizabeth: I am incredibly lucky to live in a society that allows me to express my political views and to examine those of others as I wish – to be able to come to my own conclusions and take responsibility for my own actions. But increasingly I am aware that my personal freedom to read and write is constricted not by politics but by time. I am limited in my reading by many requirements – research, endorsements, keeping up with publications in my field. I am limited in my writing by publication deadlines and marketing commitments. I hope that the work I produce is of good quality, but I never feel that I am able to devote the time I would like to either reading and writing.
So for me, personally, freedom to read and write is associated with time.
The panel is chaired by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Can you tell us a little bit about what links you to this organisation, and what our readers should know about it?
Lari: I’m not a member of SCBWI, so I’m not an expert, but I know a lot of wonderful generous creative writers – both published and unpublished – who are members and who are involved in putting on fascinating events. If you’re starting out as a writer, or looking for support as you’re developing your career, it’s a fantastic organisation.
Elizabeth: I helped to establish the SCBWI in the British Isles back in 1996. I founded and produced the region’s newsletter, “Words & Pictures”, for five years. I’ve organised meetings, kept track of the membership and the funds for the region, and run workshops. And two of my books have been shortlisted for the SCBWI’s Golden Kite award!
I think the SCBWI is a fantastic way to break into the industry, and once you’ve broken in, it’s a fantastic way to meet your colleagues and keep in touch with all aspects of the world of children’s literature – around the globe. I’ve been a member of the SCBWI since 1991 and I’m an unashamed cheerleader for the organisation. Whenever anyone asks me how to become a published children’s author or illustrator, I always tell them to join the SCBWI. Every single one of my breaks in the industry, including getting my first editor and my current agent, happened through SCBWI connections and because I was volunteering for them.
Candy: I don’t think I would be published today without the SCBWI. I became a member in 2001, back when I had no idea what it took to plot a novel. All I knew was that I wanted to tell stories and I desperately needed to find out how. SCBWI put me on the right path but also, unexpectedly, introduced me to extraordinary, talented and supportive friends that I will cherish all my life long.
Who would be the ideal reader of your book(s): Describe them!
Elizabeth: I’ve got two ideal readers. The first is very like the 16-year-old E. Wein: dreamy, book-loving, quirky, ambitious, nostalgic, eager for escape. The second is her opposite: rebellious, angry, aimless, without goals, street-wise, self-destructive. Ideally, I’d like to help change the lives of both these readers.
Candy: When you read bookselling sites, they describe my books as middle grade – for young people ten years old up. But in reality, I’ve discovered my readers are all ages – anybody who loves stories. My publisher, David Fickling, likes to say, “Candy, your books are ALL READS because everyone should read them”. The truth is the magic of any story comes from the reader herself. And the best stories can conjure a different abracadabra for different readers.
Lari: I don’t have one ideal size or shape of reader, because I write for so many different age groups, but I hope I write for anyone who loves stories, magic, danger, and finding out what happens next – anyone like me, really, but often a wee bit younger!
What is your most entertaining or embarrassing memory of appearing as an author at an event?
Lari: I once made a teenage girl cry when I told a sad story about a wolf and a dog. It was meant to be an emotional and dramatic moment, and I hoped it would get a reaction. But I hadn’t expected it to be quite so effective! However, once we’d found hankies for her, it led to an interesting discussion about what stories and storytellers and authors are trying to do to audiences and readers, what reactions we’re trying to provoke.
Elizabeth: Probably the most embarrassing moment happened many years ago, when I had an agent and an editor who didn’t get along with each other. I was doing a reading on a panel event. My agent and editor sat down across the aisle from each other and the editor turned to the agent and said loudly, “What do you want NOW?” And I had to tell them not to argue while the event was going on.
Candy: I was nominated for the Guardian Children’s Book Prize and when they called me up on stage, I tripped and fell flat on my face! When I got back on my feet, everyone in the audience was politely looking every which way but at me, and we continued as if nothing had happened.
What are you most looking forward to in Edinburgh this August?
Lari: Sitting at the back of lots of tents, just like I always do, hoping to discover new books, new authors and new ideas.
Elizabeth: The wonderful camaraderie of meeting and talking to other people who work in children’s literature.
Candy: I am looking forward to hanging out with the SCBWI gang – hopefully scoffing free wine in the yurt.
Who would enjoy your Edinburgh International Book Festival event and why?
Candy: Anybody who has ever asked a question would be fascinated by our event.
Elizabeth: I hope those ideal readers I mentioned would enjoy it. The first would come in hopefully, expecting to hear words of wisdom from a favourite author. The second would slope in at the last minute, and be inspired by new ideas about the empowerment that reading brings. More realistically, perhaps, I think that anyone who engages with children’s literature will find something of interest to take away from this broad panel.
Lari: Young readers and writers. Anyone who wants a bit of insight into how Elizabeth, Candy, and I think about our stories and our writing processes. So, if you like our books, please come along and find out how we write them. And if you’re interested in writing, come along and pick up a few tips. Also, this particular topic should prompt discussion about what books and writing are for and what creative freedom means, so anyone who is interested in the importance of stories and books in a changing society should come along and ask us challenging questions.
What has been the best book you have read this year?
Elizabeth: The Many Days, which is selected poetry by Scottish poet Norman MacCaig – and an appropriate answer in relation to the Edinburgh International Book Festival, as Edinburgh is a recurring feature in his gritty, lyrical landscapes.
Candy: I have so many brilliant writer friends, so I’ve read a fine, fine crop of books this year – and this question is UNFAIR. BUT if I had to name one that totally swept me off my feet recently it would be The Survival Game by Nicky Singer. I hope it wins all the awards.
Lari: Just one? From a whole year? That’s tough…
Here are a few of my favourites from this month: I Am A Cat by Galia Bernstein, The Magisterium series by Cassandra Clare and Holly Black, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab, and Outline by Rachel Cusk.
Freedom to Read, Freedom to Write is on Saturday 18 Aug at 12:15 – 13:15 in Spark Theatre on George Street.