Authors 'speed date' with fans

17:00, Sep 25 2009
Gavin Bishop
Author Gavin Bishop with the class at Island Bay School.
Eli Moore's notes
Notes taken down by Makara Model School student Eli Moore.
Ruth Paul
Author Ruth Paul.
Author Ruth Paul.
Niki Menzies
Niki Menzies, 10, from Island Bay School listens intently during the 'Speed date an author' event.
Johnny Dessoulavy, 11, from Island Bay School.
Johnny Dessoulavy, 11, from Island Bay School.
Johnny Dessoulavy, 11, from Island Bay School.

Children can meet their favourite writers through the Speed Date an Author scheme.

Speed Date an Author - it's a concept that could only come from someone under 30. Although getting writers and young readers together is something the New Zealand Book Council has been doing successfully for decades, it was the organisation's 28-year-old education manager, Sarah Forster, who came up with the novel idea for the high-speed event, according to her boss, Book Council chief executive Noel Murphy.

"We've been doing Writers in Schools for 35 years now," says Murphy.

"We wanted a new way of doing the same thing, of thinking about it in different ways."

Piggybacked conveniently on to last weekend's Spinning Gold conference for children's writers and illustrators, Speed Date an Author was a successful pilot for the first of several new initiatives, Murphy says.

Half a dozen top authors and illustrators - more used to dealing with whole classes on schools visits, which reach 500,000 Kiwi kids annually - sat down with small groups of intermediate-age writers at Island Bay School last Friday.

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Fifty students from around the region, in groups of 10, had 15 minutes with each author. With barely a breather between sessions, it's intensive stuff; even during the morning tea break authors were besieged by kids. Bright sparks asking perceptive questions could bag a spot prize.

Authors Gavin Bishop, Tessa Duder, Maria Gill, Mandy Hager, Ruth Paul and Melinda Szymanik named the topics they wanted to cover, with the time limit in mind.

"Fifteen minutes is actually perfect," says Hager, Wellington-based author of several teen novels. "They're really focused the entire time."

Taking on the big-picture topic of structure, Hager - who has an MA in scriptwriting - says she was surprised at how much information she could actually fit in. Using the idea of heroic journeys, the theme of her new trilogy Blood of the Lamb, she used a whiteboard covered in diagrams for her audience to follow.

Author-illustrators Paul and Bishop had their own picture books as visual aids, catching kids' attention with early versions of their work.

Paul, who creates out of a straw bale studio at Makara, talked to her groups about words words that rhyme, multi-layered words, made-up words and showed how she often simply scribbles to get her drawings started.

Christchurch-based Bishop, who has illustrated many of his own texts and reinterpreted classic fairy stories and nursery rhymes, demonstrated how artists can add detail that isn't in the text - especially valuable when picture books have to stand hundreds of re-readings in a preschooler's lifetime.

Duder, creator of the unforgettable characters Tiggy Thompson and Alex - star of a quartet of books plus a film - is well qualified to offer techniques and tips about creating convincing and memorable characters.

She recommended kids get inside their characters' personalities to see how they react to different situations, before starting to write.

Szymanik, from Mt Eden, is author of this year's Children's Choice award Were-Nana. She took on the challenging topic of tone - how to build up emotional impact through such elements as the time of day, colour, weather and even characters' names. "Think of Harry Potter, the difference between Hermione and Voldemort, just by their names."

Gill, who writes non-fiction books with an environmental message from her Matakana home, showed kids how to get their ideas from the world around them from newspapers, pictures, other media.

After the "writing mayhem" promised by the promotional material, the group gathered to hear School Journal editor Susan Paris talk about how to make a story even better.

"Editing is the fun part," she says, "when all of the hard work has been done."

Later, Bishop commented that writers were working with "very sharp kids" who were with them every step of the way.

"They were all serious readers too and in some cases their knowledge of contemporary children's literature and young adult books in particular was impressive."

The Dominion Post