Writers Festival: Thinking outside the book

By Danielle Wright

Danielle Wright talks to the talented folk behind the brand new Family Day at the Auckland Writers Festival.

Betty Gilderdale never tires of reading The Little Yellow Digger to fans. Photo / Richard Robinson
Betty Gilderdale never tires of reading The Little Yellow Digger to fans. Photo / Richard Robinson

In Lane Smith's picture book It's a Book, one character is perplexed by what a book does, asking the other: "But, can you scroll down? Does it need a password? Can it wi-fi?"' Each question is met by the droll reply: "No... it's a book."

There are no added extra bonus scenes, a book is the same each time you return to its pages. While that's the beauty of it, there are ways to "book stretch". We talked to festival favourites about how their books have been used to bring them to life for kids.

Picture perfect

Picture book author Kyle Mewburn grew up in "the cultural wastelands of suburban Brisbane", with parents who didn't value books. As a sports-mad boy, he was never even read a bedtime story.

"Still, somehow I discovered the magic of books early on and became a voracious reader," says Kyle, who never imagined he'd become a children's writer.

On his author visits, he says the schools with book-loving teachers are the ones with the most receptive students and he thinks a Book Week is a wonderful way to get kids thinking about books.

"One of the most interesting Book Week ideas is happening in Wellington, where schools are invited to create huge sculptural works based around my stories," says Kyle. "It'll be fascinating to see what they create. I think any project combining stories with hands-on crafts and activities is bound to be a winner."

Other ideas based on his books include one library using his Hill and Hole book to underpin an excursion to the top of the tallest local hill followed by having the kids build "holes" in the library.

Another school held a cupcake party and built 3D mazes out of old maps and sewing patterns inspired by his book Daisy's Maze.

"I don't think technology will ever truly replace the physical book because there's a sense of magic sparked by the simple act of opening a book," says Kyle. "It's like opening a door into an unknown world where anything can happen. It's returning to the cave campfire; an intimate shrinking of the world to a single voice - without the distractions of technological bells and whistles."

kylemewburn.com

Taking care of teens

School principal John Marsden was so fed up with his teenage students' apathy towards reading that he wrote his own books for them. They were hugely successful and he is now Australia's most celebrated author for young people.

"Back then there weren't any television shows, books or movies made specifically for teens," remembers John. "Now it's a huge industry."

His advice for English teachers is to make the events and circumstances in the books as real and meaningful to teens as possible, so they can connect them to their own lives, even in an artificial way.

"When I was teaching year 10 students To Kill A Mockingbird, I got them to paint their faces green in the first class of the day and keep them green all day - and not to explain to others why, just to say 'I'm green today'."

It became a powerful social experiment that grew in ways John hadn't anticipated and caused chaos with the more conservative teachers. One teacher slapped a boy in the face because he wouldn't wipe it off .

"It did give them a powerful and meaningful experience to be different to everybody else, which is difficult."

His advice for parents is to be seen reading books by your kids and to talk about the books you do and don't like, to develop a family reading culture.

Literary icons

The book that literary historian Betty Gilderdale is most "pleased" about is The Seven Lives Of Lady Barker, which took her "seven, possibly 10, years to write".

As I sit in her living room in the middle of a storm that has caused the phone and the lights to stop working, I feel unkind brushing over this masterpiece to ask about our perennial favourite picture book, The Little Yellow Digger.

Thankfully, Betty doesn't seem to mind and says she never gets tired of reading it to children. She even shows me a heavy German-made toy digger that looks just like the one in the book.

"I hope that's the test of a good book, that you don't actually get sick of reading it because you enjoy the language and the children's reaction to it," says Betty, who had the idea for book while babysitting her grandsons.

"It was a dreadful day and there was a digger working next door and it got stuck in the mud. They got another one and that got stuck too," she recalls. "One of the boys woke up from his afternoon sleep and I heard myself tell him, 'They brought a bigger digger but the bigger digger stuck' and then I had my line."

There are now five stories in the series and all books started from a true episode. Ways to extend the picture book is through drawing, visiting a building site to see the real thing (from a safe distance) or recreating the story in a sandpit with the help of some toy diggers.

Her tips for parents with reluctant readers is simply to keep reading to them, and for older children, to read a book aloud to them during the holidays.

Tim Bray productions will be adapting The Little Yellow Digger (with songs by Christine White) for a September school holiday musical. School sessions start September 22, holiday shows from September 27-October 11.

timbrayproductions.org.nz

The drawing board

Mrs Mo's Monster is Paul Beavis' picture book debut and he is currently doing drawing sessions with kids around the country. Next stop, Auckland.

Childrens book writer Paul Beavis.
Childrens book writer Paul Beavis.

"The great thing about young kids is they're not self-conscious about drawing," says Paul. "Four-year-olds haven't learnt that vulnerability. There's no self-criticism in their head and there's no right or wrong way to draw."

Paul says he was always drawing as a kid and his dad would bring him home lots of office supplies. He advises parents to keep giving their kids paper, which they'll always fill up. "Drawing is a way to see the possibilities in life," he says. "Everyone talks about iPads but with a piece of paper and a pencil, you can go anywhere in your mind. It's very relaxing and you end up with something you've made. No one can say it's anyone else's but yours."

Blog playingbythebook.net has used Mrs Mo's Monster as a springboard to baking a cake in the letter 'O', doing science experiments about viscosity and finding other monsters in books and songs. You can download teachers' notes from randomhouse.co.nz for more curriculum-based book stretching ideas.

Download a "how to draw a monster" sheet at mrsmosmonster.com

Poetry in motion

Paula Green, who is known as a children's poetry champion, started her blog NZ Poetry Box to encourage children up to Year 8 to have access to poetry.

"You don't have to always obey poetry rules, so it opens up a glorious world of words for even the most reluctant child," says Paula. "In my experience, children enter with delicious freedom."

She says some schools have performed her poems, jammed with them, changed them, added props, dance and music.

"Children's poetry is to be read aloud," says Paula. "Try recording it and posting it somewhere, or write your favourite poems on the footpath in chalk or in your school playground, then send me a photo."

She also suggests finding cool places to read poems, trying her blog's "poetry gymnasium", buying a fridge poetry magnet set, swapping a week-day chore for learning a poem off by heart, putting a new poem on the bathroom wall each week and getting your child to make birthday-poem cards.

For older children, she says, "All teens love music and music is a gateway to poetry. Children's poetry should be fun - we learn so much through play and poetry is no exception."

nzpoetrybox.wordpress.com

Brothers in comedy

The Etherington Brothers are Robin (writer) and Lorenzo (illustrator). They are the duo behind a 320-page comedy adventure Malcolm Magic, as well as Monkey Nuts, Baggage and Long Gone Don.

The Etherington Brothers, Robin and Lorenzo.
The Etherington Brothers, Robin and Lorenzo.

The festival workshops will be their first time in New Zealand and, says Robin, "It's incredible how far you can travel on the back of a cartoon monkey and robot!"

One of the more unusual requests on a school visit was for the brothers to do a live reading while lying in a bed in a library, which Robin says was "madness, but great fun and pretty inspiring to behold".

"We've also had class groups physically build scenes from our comics (including snow globes), as well as creating brand new strips featuring their favourite hero or villain from our books," says Robin. "We've also seen children dress up as our characters and classes have held comic character art competitions and comic story competitions.

"Another brilliant way to bring comics to life is to act them out. This can be an extremely amusing activity for the whole family because there are lots of characters and you can decide how they sound."

To encourage your children to illustrate, Robin advises never telling them they're "good" or "bad" at drawing and to keep them in lots of supplies of paper, pens and comic books.

For budding comic creators, he also suggests writing or drawing about something they care about.

theetheringtonbrothers.blogspot.com

Gather around

All events (with the exception of John Marsden's) are tomorrow 10am-2.30pm at the Herald Theatre Foyer, Aotea Centre. Free, but you need to book tickets. For session times see writersfestival.co.nz.

John Marsden joins a debate about Australia, The Lucky Country? (Lower NZI room, today, 2.30pm) and has a conversation with Paula Morris about his writing (tomorrow, 10am). Adults $25, students $12.50.

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- NZ Herald

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