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Kids' Lit 2006 Report

(Includes a couple of pointers for giving talks at schools)


the event started with a cocktail party on Tuesday night, where I chatted to David Caddy, Katy Watson-Kell, Diane Wolfer, Liliana Stafford and several of the organisers, including Marie Bennett and Maree Miller (dubbed M&M by their many fans.) Ironically, Maree Miller?s husband David bought the family business off my parents just six weeks ago. It?s a small world...


The festival ran from Wednesday to Friday. I only had sessions on the last two days, but decided to attend on Wednesday to scope out the competition. I had to know what other authors were saying to their audiences to make the act of writing actually sound interesting. As it turned out, I only caught a couple of minutes of Shane McCarthy's talk where he was describing a time he accidentally walked into the ladies bathroom. Out went all the ideas I had of discussing the publishing industry, agents and writing books, and instead I decided to dredge up some hair-raising anecdotes from my childhood in Spain.

I spent Wednesday afternoon trying to come up with three or four pages of notes. I certainly didn?t want to read a prepared speech, but neither did I want to run out of material 20 minutes before the end of the session. Kids can smell blood a mile away, and if you look desperate when you ask them if there are any questions, they will say no just so they can see the colour of your insides.

I soon realised that asking myself questions was the way to go. When I?ve done talks before now I?ve listed questions on a page and followed each with a few notes on how to answer it. Having these answers is like writing down your own name so you don?t forget it - completely unnecessary. So this time I decided to write down the questions and leave the answers blank, allowing me to ad lib as needed.

In the end I designed 50 or 60 pocket-sized cards. Each session was supposed to last 45 minutes, so all I had to do was spend 60 seconds on each answer, and stop when the organiser at the back of the room started gesturing frantically at the clock. In practice I only used 30 questions for each session, because now and then a particular card would lead to an anecdote, or the kids would have questions, or I would read a couple of pages from my book.


Picture a room in the Bastille. Madam guillotine is thumping away outside, and a gathering of nobles is sweating and fidgiting nervously. Now and then the group thins as a name is called. Picture the roaring crowd, the blood, the little old lady knitting in the front row. Yes, that was my name - we're on.

Now for the intro ... as luck would have it Channel 10 aired a new show on Wednesday night: Thank God you?re here. In it, unsuspecting actors are hurled into the middle of a situation and told to ad lib furiously. I told the kids that I?d laughed along with the first half, until it dawned on me that being thrown into the middle of a situation I wasn?t prepared for was exactly what was about to happen to me when I was invited to speak in front of an audience. In other words, thank God I?m here. (My first two sessions were in the chapel, standing at the pulpit with an enormous cross behind me. Unreal.)

Backtracking slightly, I should point out that each author was led to their sessions by an All Saints? student. Authors gathered in the Green room (the school boardroom - aka, the Bastille) where we were waited on hand and foot - coffee, tea, biscuits - and students would appear outside 15 minutes before each session to guide us to the right venue. The first student I saw was a familiar face - Iain was at school with my daughter last year and also attended the launches of both of my books.

So, the first session. (Year 7-9 students) They didn?t fall asleep, they asked questions, and they seemed to be paying attention. There was a mix of school uniforms with several rows of All Saints? students at the front. I got through my anecdotes, talked about computer games and generally gave the impression that authors sit on their butts all day doing much less than their editors think they do. I finished with a reading from Hal Spacejock - just two pages ending on a cliffhanger -- and was pleased to hear several ?awws? and ?ohs? when I stopped.

Second session. (Year 9-11 students) When I realised Iain was going to have to sit through my talk all over again, I decided to mix it up a bit for his benefit. After all the seats filled I looked down and did a double take: it was the same front row of All Saints? students looking up at me. The rest of the audience was different, so either the school was punishing miscreants or these kids had decided anything was better than maths or chemistry or whatever. Or perhaps they just wanted to know what happened next in the book.

I?d only used half of my speech cards during the first session, so I moved them to the back and launched into a fresh set. I repeated one anecdote but came up with another, and this time I read the second half of the chapter, following on from the cliffhanger ... and ending with a new one.

Two sessions down, one to go for the day. The first two had almost 200 kids in each, whereas the third was only going to have 16. I returned to the Green room where a huge lunch had been laid out, and there were more authors than I?ve ever seen in one place (except for the cocktail night on Tuesday). Unfortunately I was rostered for a book signing in the Wooldridges Festival bookstore so I grabbed a slice of cucumber and lit out of there. (No problem - I don't usually bother with lunch until 2pm or later, and it was only noon.)

Wooldridges had at least a hundred copies of each of my books, more than I?ve ever seen in one place. I chatted to the staff, who told me their reps would be pushing my books to WA schools. Well with that many in stock they?d have to. Just outside there was a signing table, where I sat with Scott Monk. He was busy signing books while I sorted my speech cards. (I freely admit that I?m completely unknown in schools, and so don?t expect crowds of kids clamouring for my signature. This was borne out when a young girl spotted the cover of my book and declared that her dad absolutely loved it.) Then Paul Stafford and Deborah Abela (Max Remy books) turned up with a crowd, showing me what popular kids authors should be like.

I did sign couple of books, then headed straight off for my third session. (Year 11-13 students) My guide was a polite girl who was a keen fantasy reader. I told her about Karen Miller?s Kingmaker/Kingbreaker duology (Innocent Mage, Innocence Lost), a pair of books I?d enjoyed, and she told me she was reading the first of the two from the school library. Unfortunately they didn?t have the second.

Into the session, where instead of 16 kids there were 30 or 40. According to Marie, kids were requesting tickets for my sessions - the daredevils.

I had a bit of trouble with the microphones. There was a podium with a microphone attached to the top left and top right corners, angled in to point towards each other. I wave my hands a lot when I speak, and kept banging the microphones. Yes, it got the kids attention, but in the end I bent them aside, which meant I had to shout to make myself heard above the air-conditioner. (This session was in a huge marquee on the playing fields. Warm day, portable swamp cooler.)

After the session one of the teachers came up and snapped a photo of me with three of his students, then told me he was a member of the brass band my wife plays for. Told you it was a small world.

Returned to the Green room where lunch was still laid out. I was just filling my plate when I realised I was supposed to be at the bookstore for another signing session. So, I emptied the plate ASAP and hurried off. In fact, I needn?t have worried. Unlike the first session, which was held during lunch, this time there was nobody around. Kids were in class or at sessions, authors were elsewhere, so I spoke with the bookshop staff for a while and then went home.


After Thursday, this one looked a lot easier. One session in the morning followed by a book signing, then lunch, then two afternoon sessions. The first session was back in the marquee with year 9-11 students, and my guide was an older girl who sailed confidently through the intro. I?d spent ten minutes messing with the microphones before the session, angling them away from my hand-waving zone and then bending the stalks back so they pointed at me. Worked really well, and I was able to talk normally. Quite a positive session, although I don?t remember much about it. I know I took the mickey out of myself a few times, but that usually goes down well.

Signing session: The girl from Thursday came back with copies of Hal 1 and 2 for me to sign for her dad. Her copy of Hal 2 still had a Dymocks sticker on the back ;-) I signed them, happily, then spent half an hour signing unsold copies for Wooldridges. Melainda Faranda and Anthony Eaton were both there, once again showing me how it was supposed to be.

Off to lunch, a fabulous spread of cold meats, chicken and salads, then off to my last two sessions. Both were in the PA centre, which was in fact the school gym. Both sessions would have about 60 kids, and my guide was another girl who was going to have to sit through two of my speeches back to back. I said she was lucky it wasn?t three, and that?s when she confessed she?d been in the audience for my first session the day before. Ouch.

After four sessions I was getting bored with talking about myself, and got the feeling the audience for my fifth session didn?t really want to be there. (Year 11-13 students) I didn?t do that well (which is probably WHY they didn?t want to be there), skimming through answers and not really getting into it. I think I finished 5 mins early, too. After they?d gone I revved myself up, telling myself it was the last session. I went through the cards and pulled out the most interesting questions, and when the kids were taking their seats (Year 7-9 students) I went and handed out a couple of dozen question cards to the front rows. Then I gave them 100 bookmarks to share out.

I launched into an anecdote, ignoring my previous efforts and the cards, and I think the session went better than any of the others. I got a lot more audience questions (the one about ?how much do you earn? had a teacher wincing - but it was my question card...) and the time seemed to fly. At the end of the session I signed my reading copy of Hal and gave it to the girl who?d had to endure three sessions - although I wouldn?t be surprised if she?s heard enough about Hal Spacejock and Simon Haynes for a while.

I went back to the Green room, where I found a table groaning with nibblies and wine. All the authors were there, and we had a couple of speeches and thank-yous to recognise the hard work by volunteers and staff alike. After half an hour spent demolishing a plate of cheese and biscuits I said my goodbyes and thanks, then left. Some of those authors are travelling back to NSW and QLD by plane - 5 or 7 hour flights, transfers, etc. I had a 5km drive home, and not for the first time I felt like an imposter.

In all, a great time. I would like to redo the fifth session, and it would be interesting to compare impressions from kids who attended my others. Some would declare me boring, others might say I was disorganised, but I don?t think any would say I lectured to them or talked down to them.

If less than half thought I was boring it was a job well done, and if one or two take up writing in the future I?ll be more than happy.

I?d certainly attend a similar event again.