Thursday 26 March 2015

Pushing Boundaries, Flying Higher


It’s a sunny but crisp March morning. I notice the barrier is down on the car park.  I’m not all that surprised. Why would they leave it open now if we don’t finish until 5.45? I must remember to ask though. Vicky from the conference office, the caretaker and our IT technician are already there. Yes, they know. The barrier is down, but it will be opened later.
I check out the main room. Perfect. The tables and chairs are set out cabaret style. The Old Fire Station is fabulous that way. Any number of people can be accommodated well. 

People begin to arrive. Coffee is served at 10.00. The delegates are SCBWI members, some of our students and members of the public, all aspiring writers.  I’m able to chat with people as they arrive. I join Nikki Heath, a school librarian, and the IT technician. Yes, the Apple Mac hooks up to our system okay.
Through the big windows that used to be the entrance for the fire engines I can still see people arriving. I worry a little as I’ve not yet seen our first key note speaker. I needn’t have worried. When I return to the coffee lounge he’s busily chatting to couple of the delegates.


Melvin Burgess –  YA Growing Up 

 A very relaxed Melvin sits casually at the front of the room and relates some of his experiences of being a writer of young adult fiction. I’m pleased that he reiterates something I’ve mentioned the day before in my class on Writing Novels for Young People: it crosses many genres and themes – what reunites them all is that they are novels for young people.
Melvin talks for about an hour and then answers questions. There are plenty of questions, all of them focussed and interesting.



Building fantastical worlds

I lead this session, drawing on my experience of writing science fiction. I spent months sitting in cafes building the world for my Peace Child trilogy.
Then as I started writing, I found I had to build more. You need this sort of work for fantasy, science fiction and for historical fiction. Apparently we also need it for everyday settings some of the delegates inform me. We look at the physical world, communications and media, society, spirituality and challenges. Each group creates a setting for a novel or even for a computer game.



Nicola Morgan - Brains, books and stresses - what's so special about teenagers?  

Again I am pleased. Nicola reiterates something else I’ve mentioned in class the day before: that these teens like to decide for themselves what is really going on.
Nicola has a lot of knowledge about the teen brain. She and the science agree with Shakespeare that the full extent of young adulthood lasts form the age of 10 to 23. Some of the younger members of the audience look a little uncomfortable at this. Not for long, though. Later she explains why they find it easier to think about alternative worlds today than they did about a more familiar topic earlier in the week. It’s because we’re in the Old Fire Station and not a low-ceilinged modern classroom.  The more air above the head the better. Outside, of course, is ideal. This probably explains why we get our best ideas when we’re walking the dog.
She issues a caution about the research that says we are learning empathy as we read.  Only sixteen people were involved in that study. Nevertheless we all feel that this is probably correct. We do get into other people’s heads when we meet them in books.  


Nikki Heath – School Librarian (and one-time school librarian of the year) -Reading Rocks! Encouraging reading for pleasure at Werneth School

Nikki gives us a lively presentation about the work she does at Werneth School. She aims to demystify the library for her students, many of whom come from homes not so familiar with books. She gets youngsters into the library and she gets them reading. She also gets writers in and helps them to connect with the students. I know this very well – I’ve been there.
She shows us several videos of how she motivates students. My favourite is where they write a paragraph about their favourite book and insert into a red helium balloon. These are released into the world.
We debate what ‘reading for pleasure’ actually means. We know we want young people to value reading as much as we do.
Several people comment that they wish they’d had a librarian like Nikki at school or that the librarian at their children’s school was like her.


The Panel

This is our last activity. Marie Basting, networks coordinator for SCBWI BI and Laurence Patterson, ceo of Crooked Cat Publishing join Melvin, Nikki and Nicola. All five panellists answer the following questions superbly:
What are young people reading today?      

How can we keep them reading?

What are the challenges facing those who wish to write for young adults?

What are the challenges facing publishers?  

How can those wishing to write for young adults get some support?

What is emerging now in literature for young adults?

Do you have any tips for those wishing to write for young adults?

And for those wishing to work with young adults?
Then we have a few questions from the audience.


We finish on time. Everything has gone smoothly. We didn’t need the IT technician much at all, but if we hadn’t have booked one we would have. The catering worked. The venue worked. The speakers were superb and so were the delegates. Even the taxi to take Laurence and Nicola to their hotel arrives on time. And the barrier is up on the car park. A good day’s work.


Laurence, Marie, Melvin, Nikki, Nicola and I meet up again at a restaurant on the Salford Quays. The debates continue. Our Portuguese waiter serves us well. As always, the casual conversations over meals and refreshments are as important as the formal sessions. The lunch-time conversations did not disappoint either.
I arrive home exhausted but pleased with events – and already planning the next one.  

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