Friday, 25 October 2013

Pop Up and Sit Down with a Book! (or, How Pop Up gets Young People Reading.)

by Edge Author
Dave Cousins
Why pick up a book? I mean, there are so many other things you could be doing: watching TV, hanging out with your mates, playing a game, tweeting, texting, sharing pictures on Instagram, surfing YouTube … Why switch off all that multicoloured, moving, bleeping, tweeting interactive fun and sit down quietly with a book? 

Tricky one that. It’s a question parents, teachers, librarians, book-sellers, writers and publishers have been wrestling with for years. 

One of the tenets of writing is “SHOW, don’t TELL” and that could also apply in this case. When I visit schools, I try to avoid telling young people that they SHOULD be reading. Sure, I’ll explain how important books have been to me, share my enthusiasm for some of my favourites, but then I read something—SHOW them what I mean—in the hope they’ll be inspired to give books another go themselves. 

The programme of literature festivals and events offered by London's Pop Up organisation takes this idea even further. Pop Up Director Dylan Calder explains: “The children read a book, meet the author of the book, then experience a workshop around that book to create creative responses.”

Earlier in the year, I took part in a number of Pop Up Booklinks events. When I arrived at the schools, the entire class had already read 15 Days Without a Head and produced work based on the story, including hot-seating, where students would take it in turns to interview each other as one of the characters. The teachers said the pupils’ enthusiasm for the project was evident in the way they had approached the tasks and the quality of work produced. The video below shows a small sample of film posters students produced having been tasked with casting and promoting a movie of the book.

The fact that pupils know they are going to be meeting the author creates an extra dimension to their reading experience and associated work. The opportunity to both question the author, and share their own responses, brings them closer to the book and makes reading a much more inclusive process. Working with the author on the students’ own creative project further breaks down barriers between reader and creator, and provides an important channel for self-expression. 

My overriding impression from the classrooms I visited was one of great enthusiasm. Dylan Calder sums it up perfectly: “Children should come away from Pop Up wanting to read more because they had such a great experience.” Maybe that answers our question.

If you’d like a Pop Up Education programme in your learning community email:

Below are links to a couple of short films showcasing recent Pop Up events in June 2013, run in partnership with London museums and galleries.

Waiting for Gonzo by Dave Cousins is out now in paperback, audiobook and kindle, published by Oxford University Press. A soundtrack of original music inspired by the book is also available. To find out more, please visit 

Friday, 18 October 2013

Is Job Satisfaction Enough? By Bryony Pearce

There has been some debate in the last couple of weeks about the way in which authors earn a living.  This was kicked off by the Cambridge Professor who objected to a famous author refusing to write an introduction to his academic book for free.  

All over the internet people are saying that they should be able to download books for free, because ‘art should be free to all’.

Another author friend took to Facebook to decry the fact that the English teacher at a school which was about to attend had sent him a ‘very snippy’ email deploring the fact that he was expecting to sell copies of his own books after his event.  

Still more authors have raised their voices about school visits where they have been refused the chance to sell books, have had invoices go unpaid (or unpaid for months at a time), have done two days of a three day event, only to be told on the morning of day three that the school wasn’t happy with their presentation as it did not fit in with the syllabus and that they would therefore not be paying them the full price,  or have simply encountered children who were not warned in advance that they would need to bring money on the day of the author visit (who hasn’t had that one?).

Are these authors being unreasonable?  Greedy?  Mercenary even?

Time for the Edge to weigh-in.

It is a well known fact that jobs which offer the highest ‘job satisfaction’ are also the lowest paid: teachers, nurses, social workers, firemen, policeman, jobs in publishing, in the creative arts, roles working for charities … the list goes on.  Jobs that feed the soul, that make you feel as if you are contributing to society, that make you happy to go to work, these are the jobs that offer the least in the way of material compensation, as if job satisfaction is enough for people to live on.  

The fact is that job satisfaction is valued and employers in these industries can offer low salaries, simply because if someone walks out, there will be a hundred more, desperate to take their place.  

And in the publishing industry it is the authors (excluding the A-list: King, Rowling etc.) who are the least well paid.  I earn much less per year than the person who empties the bins at my publishing house.  Yes, I love what I do.  Yes, I would do it regardless of whether or not I was published (and therefore paid), because the muse is a demanding mistress.  And yet … how many world-changing novels are not being written because frankly one cannot live on job satisfaction alone and aspiring authors must also have day jobs to put food on the table?

Shouldn’t we, as a culture value art enough to pay the artist?  All those people demanding their free downloads will be pretty hacked off when the quality deteriorates (because publishers can no longer pay for editors and authors no longer spend time doing rewrites).  When eventually the artists give up altogether and get jobs in the financial sector then they might come up with the revolutionary idea, of perhaps, paying artists to create art.

We’ve all heard of insanely high advances for book deals and yes, we all hope that our next book will go out at auction for a decent sum, in the same way that struggling actors hope to be cast as the lead in the next Hollywood blockbuster.  But the fact is most of us have four-figure advances, some even lower.  Royalties earn us literally pennies per book (and only once you pay off your advance – it is called an advance for a reason: we have to pay it back using our first royalty cheques).  

The fact is that most of us cannot earn a living from the money that our publisher pays us for our years of work.  So we subsidise this through events, school visits, creative writing workshops, festivals and so on.  Schools love to have authors in.  It is brilliant for the students to listen to someone talk enthusiastically about reading and writing.  Author visits are generally greatly valued.  The Society of Authors suggests that we should be asking for £250-£350 for a full day or £150 for a talk lasting no longer than an hour.  Plus expenses.

Yet many authors are reluctant to charge the full whack for school visits.  In the main we are a self-effacing breed.  The years of rejection before eventual publication is perhaps the reason that we are backwards about coming forwards.  We are surprised when we are told ‘well done’ and are therefore poor at valuing what we do properly.  

So many venues expect authors to work for free - for the publicity and the job satisfaction.  Hay pays in wine, many other festivals not at all, some even expect us to buy our own tickets.  Some schools object to us asking for money, or selling our books.  They don’t realise that the amount we earn from their school visit may be the only income we are getting in that whole month.  They don’t realise that only if we sell lots of books will our publisher commission another one from us and that each school visit contributes to the possibility of us getting another book deal.  But not if the students are not warned that they will be able to buy a book that day.   

What is the solution?  Perhaps some kind of communist contract that all authors should be paid the same advance, the same amount for school visits, festivals events and so on? 

It won’t happen, art is so subjective.  But can we at least agree that authors do a great job?  That authors have a talent that is unusual: vast imaginations combined with wordsmithery and the determination and perseverance to get all of our words onto paper.  We slave nights to meet deadlines, give up weekends with our families to deliver our story to the reader, give up our days to visit schools in order to inspire the young.  And that we are not therefore unreasonable, greedy or mercenary when we ask for the chance to sell our books.

Friday, 11 October 2013

A People's Palace in Every Town Savita Kalhan

The Edge are going to be running a great feature with those very important people who know more about children’s literature than probably anyone else – librarians! So in the spirit of celebrating libraries and the amazing people who run them, my blog today is about what libraries have meant to me.

I’m not sure whether I would have dared to pursue the dream of being a writer if I hadn’t spent most of my time in a library when I was growing up.

I came to live in England with my parents just before I was one, and I was brought up in a very traditional Indian environment, so my childhood was completely dominated by school and homework and books, the key to knowledge. Both my parents were in complete agreement about this. They shared a reverence for books, holding them in awe and respect. Books were cherished. They were the means to knowledge. A book was never allowed to be put on the floor or anywhere else it might get damaged.
 We couldn’t afford to buy any books. So we joined the library, which became my second home. Wycombe Library had an amazing children’s library, where my sisters and I used to max out our library cards. It was also very much a sanctuary and refuge during more troubled times. We devoured every book in the children’s library, and lost ourselves in a thousand different worlds. I found my voice there.

The Old Wycombe Library
Before I was old enough, the librarian at the adult library, worn down by my entreaties, allowed me to have a library card for it at twelve. Amongst other books, I really wanted to read more John Wyndham as The Kraken Wakes wasn’t in the children’s library. For a while she vetted what I took out, but after a while left me to my own devices. I wish I could remember her name, but I thank her from the bottom of my heart.

New Children's Section

High Wycombe has a brand new library building now. It's right in the middle of town and is part of the new Eden Shopping Centre.

It’s big but far from being one of the new ‘super-libraries’.

These new super-libraries are more like mega-complexes, housing thousands of books as well as having music rooms, exhibition galleries, theatres etc  Birmingham has one such super library, or in the words of the Dutch architect, ‘a people’s palace’.

Well, not everyone can get to the palace. There are people everywhere, most of whom live miles away from a super library. They would be happy enough with a smaller local library, and it is the local library that is under threat. We need a people's palace in every town, one that everyone can get to.
I firmly believe that libraries are precious and should be placed under a protection order. And as for the school library closures that have happened in many schools, well they need all the help they can get. An IT department obviously has a place in the modern world, but not at the cost of a library stocked with real books.

So hooray for librarians and long may they have a library to reign over!

Friday, 4 October 2013

Love at First Sight

EDGE Author Sara Grant Shares Insights From Undiscovered Voices

I’ve spent the last two months sorting through this year’s crop of Undiscovered Voices submissions. We’ve had an unprecedented number of submissions. And it’s not just the quantity that has increased. The quality of submissions has also improved. Each time Undiscovered Voices rolls around, I get an advance tutorial in crafting killer openings.

Undiscovered Voices is a project of the British Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Unagented and unpublished SCBWI members who live in Europe can submit the first 4,000 words of a completed novel. Twelve extracts will appear in an anthology that is then distributed to agents and editors. Undiscovered Voices endeavours to showcase the talent in SCBWI and help the selected authors find agents, editors and, ultimately, readers. From the past three anthologies 22 of the 36 writers have received book deals – including yours truly.

I know the fear and thrill of submitting your work. All the writers who submitted this year deserve congratulating -- it really is an unbelievable accomplishment to finish a novel and an even bigger leap of bravery to share it.
With Undiscovered Voices, I get a taste of what it’s like to be an agent or editor by reviewing what must be a cross-section of current slushpiles. I love reading through the submissions. I feel privileged to get the first glimpse of so many stories that I know will be published one day. I find something to admire in every submission. And for so many submissions this year -- it was love at first sight.
After my recent immersion in opening pages, I’m reminded that publishable fiction really is a perfect storm of forces – both inside and outside the control of the writer. After pouring through this year’s submissions, here’s what I think makes a submission stand out:

·         Originality – A few submissions excite me because I’ve never read anything like it before. But this also can be one of those forces outside the control of the author. Writers can’t know that theirs is the third book featuring a detective panda that the editor has read this week or that he/she will shortly be publishing a similar book with a gritty teen romance set in Yugoslavia in the 1960s.

·         Hook – Am I desperate to read on? It could be character, plot, setting or voice but there’s something about the story that draws me in and makes me eager to know what happens next.

·         Plot – Some plots amble, others rocket, but by the end of the extract, I should know what journey the writer is taking me on. Sometimes writers cram too much into their opening. Other times after 4,000 words I still don’t know if this is a romance or a thriller. And there’s a balance of revealing and withholding. Writers have to tell me enough so that I understand the world of the story but not so much that the opening is an info dump.

·         Character – I need to meet and be intrigued by the main character. They don’t have to be loveable, but they have to be interesting. What’s unique about them? I need you to show – not tell – me.

·         Confidence – Confidence must shine from the page. It lets me relax and enjoy the story because the author disappears and the tale seems to weave itself.

·         Magic – And sometimes I can’t explain it. There were will be an extract that’s not perfect, and yet I can see through its flaws and am mesmerized by what I can only call magic.

I’m always glad I don’t have to decide what submissions will ultimately be included in the anthology. I leave that to our incredible line-up of judges. I’m also relieved that we don’t pick one winner. Undiscovered Voices is meant to be a collection of some of the best work by SCBWI members in Europe. It’s a sample of the amazing work out there and reflects a variety of age ranges and genres. I only wish we could highlight more. This year I’m not sure how our judges will ever select from such a stellar group of stories.

About Sara Grant
Sara writes books for both children and teens. DARK PARTIES, her first young adult novel, won the SCBWI Crystal Kite Award for Europe. Her next novel for teens – HALF LIVES – is a story told in two voices from a pre- and post-apocalyptic time. She also writes a funny magical series for young readers – MAGIC TRIX. She and Sara O’Connor co-founded Undiscovered Voices. Sara and Sara are also part of a team of editors and writers – called Book Bound – who are offering a weekend writers retreat in 2014. Find out more about Sara at