The renowned Edinburgh International Book Festival began in 1983 and every year the festival takes over beautiful and historic Charlotte Square Gardens, centrally located in Edinburgh’s world heritage listed Georgian New Town. Each year the gardens are transformed into a magical tented village, welcoming around 220,000 visitors.
The Edinburgh Book Festival 2016 featured some fantastic names including Children’s Laureate, Chris Riddell, Jonathan Safran Foer, Brix Smith Start and Chris Haughton. The Fountain interviewed Janet Smyth, the Children & Education Programme Director and Director Nick Barley after the festival wrapped on the challenges of organising the event, enriching programmes and what we are likely to see more of in coming years.
TF: After witnessing the programme come to fruition are there any changes you would have made, and can you elaborate on those?
JS: The biggest challenge with programming is the books and writers we would have loved to include but couldn’t find the space or the time or the books arrived on our desks too late. However, that’s the joy of beginning the programming immediately after the Festival – it’s all brilliantly fresh in our heads.
TF: The resounding but also contentious news to come from the children’s book festival is that 90% of YA is crap, which has been causing havoc amongst all children’s booksellers, publishers and writers. What are your thoughts on the crux of the argument? Do you think this is an important category in the book trade?
JS: To be fair, this is an out of context quote from a Guardian article. What did come from our Great YA Debate was a lively and valid discussion around what exactly constitutes young adult fiction – is it a new concept, who is reading it and who is writing it? Is it a genuine genre or simply a way for publishers and booksellers to market a certain type of fiction? There’s certainly money to be made from on-going series, big film contracts and merchandise.
The fact the debate is still raging through social media proves that these were timely questions to pose. However, this is one part of a much greater debate around books and reading and young people. I read a lot of books and there is no denying that derivative, poorly written fiction exists for all ages in an overcrowded market but conversely there’s also some of the most exciting, innovative and experimental writing to be found in children’s books. With wholesale funding cuts in both the public and school library sector, the next question to ask is how young people will access books; who will signpost them to excellent writing, how will they access new writing that reflects and explores their worlds, experiences, aspirations and hopes?
TF: I particularly (possibly with being a bookseller) enjoy the discussions on important issues, like the one this year with Vivian French, Pete White and Mairi Kidd on Dyslexia. How important a role do you reckon these types of events have at the festival?
JS: Events looking at specific educational or literacy issues hopefully highlight that having reading difficulties doesn’t preclude being able to enjoy books and stories. I’m dyslexic and I remember my terrible frustrations trying to decipher dancing words on a page and the awful challenge of learning to read using phonics. Around 1 in 5 of the school population have language based learning difficulties and this jumps to 1 in 3 of the prison population. Literacy directly affects our life chances and outcomes.
I was the daughter of teachers and given support and encouragement and despite knowing otherwise, there’s always the nagging undercurrent of belief that I’m stupid and it never goes away. I can only guess how I would have fared in school without that support and so I suppose there’s a bit of the evangelical within me wanting to highlight the challenges but also the help available. These events are probably my most personal programming and are fascinating to do as there’s so much innovation and new publishing emerging for specific reading difficulties – not least the wonderful Edinburgh based publisher Barrington Stoke.
TF: It has become apparent to me that many that even attend the book festival are still not entirely sure of the festival events within schools. Are you able to give an insight into these and how you view they are functioning?
JS: The Schools Programme at the Book Festival is, for many young people, the only opportunity they have to access author events and new fiction. I’m always amazed, too, by the dedication of teachers and librarians to organise visits to the Festival so close to the start of term and we have schools coming from the Isle of Mull, Inverness-shire and Dumfries & Galloway as well as across the central belt. We programme for P1 to S6 and on the final day of the Festival close the site to the public and have a primary school Gala Day when all the staff dress up as book characters and we lay on additional entertainments for the pupils. Our post festival evaluation always comes back with some of the most surprising and positive comments about events attended which is heartening and lets us build on experience.
TF: After an intense and successful programme firstly nice work. You are forever refreshing and innovating the festival, which is great to see. After witnessing the programme come to fruition are there any changes you would have made, and can you elaborate on those?
NB: We enjoyed an incredibly successful Book Festival this year, with all the diverse elements of our programming, of authors and of audiences coming together perfectly over 18 days in August. Of course, as the world’s leading public celebration of the written word, we are always looking to innovate and lead the way in presenting ideas for discussion, and we aim to provide something new and enriching for our audience each and every year.
TF: Was there anything newly introduced to the EIBF this year which enriched the programme that we might see more of?
NB: We are always exploring different ways of presenting stories, and this year our performance strand included a run of a theatrical interpretation of Alice Munro’s work, The View from Castle Rock, as well as one-off performances and rehearsed readings of Barroux’s Alpha, Philip Greig’s Europe, and Tam Dean Burn’s Wi The Haill Voice in Charlotte Square Gardens itself. This type of performance is something that we have started to develop over the last few years and they are being incredibly well received by our audiences, authors and performers alike.
TF: After 2016’s EIBF is there anything you felt was lacking, which has inspired changes for 2017?
NB: We are always looking to put on the best possible Festival, for both writers and participants, our audiences and our staff. After every Festival we sit down as a team and look at what we can do better or differently.
TF: I must admit that one of my own personal highlights is sitting in the Spiegeltent listening to music and spoken word from a juxtaposition of cultures. I enjoyed the Outer Hebrides/Lahore combination this year. Are you able to digress on what might be on the cards for next year?
NB: Unbound has been a great success in introducing new audiences to the Book Festival, and offering writers an alternative platform to present their work. It is always topical, always current and cutting edge, and as for next year, you’ll just have to wait and see.
TF: As has been mentioned it is Edinburgh’s 70th anniversary as a festival city next year. Have you anything up your sleeve to commemorate and celebrate that which you can share with us?
NB: The Edinburgh Festivals are an extraordinary group of organisations, and the collaboration and co-operation between them are unprecedented. We are working closely with our colleagues in the other Festivals, and with the City, to mark this significant anniversary.
As a great platform and haven to talk books and education, it certainly looks like the Edinburgh International Book Festival will be back next year with a visceral and innovatively stimulating programme, which we will just have to patiently anticipate. What we can determine is that YA authors will still feature, as will Unbound and wonderfully fresh approaches to presenting the stories that we hold dear will continue to be given a platform.