Friday 11 October 2019

Tips from the CBI conference and why we need to stop writing the ‘Rudolph Story’ - Kelly McCaughrain

This month I got to attend the Children’s Books Ireland annual conference. As well as doing a mind-melting amount of work to promote children’s reading, including setting up libraries in schools and organising book awards, CBI also put on this two-day event jammed with more fascinating speakers than you can shake a big stick at.

The theme of this year’s conference was ‘Belonging’, and every speaker had an interesting take on it. As usual, I had my notebook at the ready and wrote down all the inspiring soundbites I could. 

And here they are:

Kwame Alexander, who writes verse novels and gives standing-ovation-worthy talks, opened the show with a warm, funny and inspiring session about his experiences growing up and becoming a writer (“my mother was my first librarian”). He said he’s been asked more than once by librarians “what colour his characters are”, “so that they know who to read the books to”. 

His answer to that is that we need to stop segregating books. Books don’t segregate themselves, we do that. “All the books are for all the kids.” He told one librarian to read the books to the kids and if any of the kids asked about the colour of the characters to email him and he’d tell her the answer. She never did.

Picture book writer and illustrator, Daisy Hirst also had something to say about including diverse characters in her books even though she’s white. She concedes that she may not be the ideal writer of these characters but feels that it would be unrealistic to not include them and that, “To me being inclusive is too important to leave it to other people who might know better.”

Daisy Hirst on the classic picture books she grew up with
She was also asked what kept her writing and drawing as a child and said, “My parents behaved as if it was important.”

One of my fav YA writers, Brian Conaghan said, “The books given to kids in schools now don’t feature kids like them and we wonder why there’s this disconnect between them and the books they study.”

True, but Dean Atta, (whose verse novel about a mixed-race gay teen drag artist, Black Flamingo, is a truly beautiful object), said, “It’s important to have diverse characters but teenagers are capable of seeing themselves in a variety of characters.” 

It's beautiful inside too, lots of graphics
I’d agree with that. People sometimes say they were stunned as a child to read a book that featured someone like them (if you’re from NI it was the Kevin and Sadie books which were set in Belfast), but I don’t remember ever having that epiphany. I really believed I WAS every character I read, and none of them were from Belfast. Though to be fair, very few of them were non-white either.

Diversity wasn’t the only issue that came up in terms of belonging and exclusion. At a lunch break, someone told me about a child in their kid’s school who was reading Jaqueline Wilson and was told off by the teacher in front of the class because ‘at 14 she was far too old to be reading JW’. 

Both untrue and completely irrelevant. And when you think about the lengths we go to to get kids to pick up a book, any book, it makes you want to scream.  

Brian Conaghan also said, “It’s a misconception that kids hate poetry. They hate writing about poetry. Everyone does.” I actually didn’t as a kid, but I was a bit weird and I take his point. I’m a big believer that there should be time to read (and write) in school that isn’t assessed or graded or linked to learning outcomes in ANY way. Ironically, I think you learn more that way. 

The thing I love about the CBI conference is that it covers genres you never read or think about, which can be fascinating. At one of the (cake and wine filled) tea breaks, I had a chat with some picture book writers who were discussing the difficulty of giving feedback to new writers about their picture books. The problem seems to be that, because there are limited words to critique, you can’t really cushion the blow by listing lots of things you did like about it. And if the book doesn’t work, then it’s not a case of rewriting a paragraph or fleshing out a character, it’s probably a case of chucking it in the bin and starting again.

How do you tell someone that? The writers want to hear, ‘it’s great but this word doesn’t rhyme or that sentence is clunky’, but, as one of these writers said, “Picture books are all structure. Once you’ve got that right, you can start worrying about pretty words.”

As someone who gives a lot of feedback to fellow writers (and enjoys it actually), I’m always interested in ways of doing this without destroying your mates. I’ve always found picture books tough to critique and I’ve always assumed that was because they’re not my genre, but maybe it’s tough for everyone.

On the inevitable Planner/Pantser debate front, YA novelist, Frances Hardinge said she plans everything in advance because she inevitably falls out of love with the book at about the two thirds mark and the plan at least allows her to finish it. Which is a reason I hadn’t heard before but found hugely reassuring. Maybe there’s something to planning after all. Might give it a go.

Hardinge won the Costa and is the only Children’s writer apart from Pullman to ever do that. She also said that writers for adults are still a bit dismissive of writers for kids, though it’s better than it was, but that she’s always found Sci-Fi/Fantasy less discriminatory in this regard. As in, adult Sci-Fi/Fantasy is more accepting of Kids’ Lit, or ALL Sci-Fi/Fantasy gets equally dissed by everyone? I don’t know but would be interested to hear opinions of Sci-Fi/Fantasy writers.  

A proof of Hardinge's new book was also included in the conference goodie bag!
French/English MG writer, Clementine Beauvais gave a hugely insightful talk on the process of book translation. She criticised the popular view that ‘books in translation aren’t as good because things get lost in translation’ and reminded us that “books in translation are written not just once but twice.” When she’d explained the process of translation, how difficult it is and how carefully considered every word, twice seemed a conservative estimate.


How do you do iambic pentameter in French!

Apparently only 2-4% of kids’ books in the UK are in translation, compared to 60% in France. And we wonder how Brexit happened.

For me one of the most interesting talks was the last one of the weekend, by picture book writer and illustrator, Mary Murphy, who decried the ubiquitous ‘Rudolph story’ in picture books and talked about belonging vs fitting in. The Rudolph story goes like this:

  • Character is rejected by the group for being a (red-nosed) weirdo
  • Group has a (sleigh-navigation-GPS) problem
  • Character solves problem with their unique (sleigh-guiding) weirdness
  • Group accepts character (into reindeer games) because they’re useful.

But as Mary pointed out, you should be accepted anyway. There is nothing wrong with you the way you are, whether you’re useful or not. 

This may be quite common in picture books (I’m not a picture book reader but it does sound familiar). Do we do this in MG and YA too?

Mary drew us a picture book about a roaring bee to illustrate

There was lots more, including a ‘Coven of YA Witches’, Celia Rees, the always exciting New Voices slot, and beautiful poetry read by the teenagers setting up their own YA Lit festival! A really inspiring weekend!

Thanks to QUB for sending me and thanks to Elaina Ryan and her CBI team for putting on yet another great event!

We work. We play. We tell stories.

Kelly McCaughrain is the author of the Children's Books Ireland Book of the Year,

She is the Children's Writing Fellow for Northern Ireland #CWFNI



Sue Purkiss said...

Thanks for this roundup - really interesting, and lots to think about!

Susan Price said...

This other Sue enjoyed this blog too. Sounds like a great conference -- that found a great reporter.

My objection to the 'Rudolph' story is that the weirdo who saves the day won't be accepted by group anyway -- it's another of the lies told to children (except that a lot of weird children know it's a lie, from experience.) What will happen is the group will mutter together: 'Why is that weirdo being given credit for being weird? It isn't fair.' And the weird person will be excluded and punished by the group even more.

As for a 14 year old being 'too old' to read Jaqueline Wilson... Dear god, these are teachers? Y'know, I took my parents for granted when I was a child, but the older I get, the more I appreciate how great they were. 'So long as you read,' they said, 'we don't care what you read.' We read and enjoyed the Beano with my Dad (who took them to work when we'd finished with them, so he and his workmates could laugh over the Bash Street Kids during tea-breaks.) I read my younger siblings picture books, if I felt like it: I read my Dad's non-fiction books about travel and exploration, I read my mother's 'historicals' and I read 'children's books' as well -- but mostly things like Stevenson and Kipling when I was actually a child. I read Garner and Mayne in my twenties.

If you enjoy a book, it's the right age for you. C.S. Lewis said he hid his books of fairy-stories as a child but in his 60s read them openly and proudly.

Penny Dolan said...

Thanks for this glimpse of the CBI Conference, Kelly. Always interesting to hear what is being discussed and how.

Love your practical analysis of the Rudolph story and sequel,Sue Price.

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Thanks Sue and Penny! I read a lot of YA so I totally agree age doesn't matter, Susan!

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