Sally Gardner: Maggot Moon, with Anna Mackenzie

I have attended all of Sally Gardner’s sessions. She rapped at the opening Gala event, she was part of the Kids are All Right panel, and I was very excited to see her in conversation with Anna Mackenzie. And Mackenzie was a really good choice of chair – in fact, I haven’t hit a bad one all weekend, I don’t think! This session started with a discussion about her Carnegie Award-winning book, Maggot Moon.

maggot moonGardner wrote Maggot Moon in a frenzy, while on a diet of “astronaut food.” Standish Treadwell, the hero of the story, is very much based on herself as a child. She is dyslexic, and she wanted to write a book where the dyslexic hero wasn’t simply hat-tipped by the way he spelled. Instead, she set out to tell it in the way he viewed the world, and the way he thought. This puts itself across through some incredible image-based metaphors, with malapropisms galore.

Listening to Gardner speak, as well as reading Maggot Moon, gave me more insight than I had ever had previously into the world of a dyslexic person. She related gleefully that the Blind Foundation in the UK now makes their recorded books available to dyslexics. She also pointed out that they had recently had a change in culture, leading to the organisation going from having 80% sighted people employed, down to more like 5%.

Maggot Moon has add-ons in some formats to help readers to understand people who are dyslexic. “They see the page turns black, and the minute we show them to teachers and parents, they say ‘oh, my word.’” Gardner mentioned in The Kids are All Right that she wishes that she could make the educational system realise that what they are creating by their ways of teaching is a row of conifers. “We should celebrate the differences in the way we learn. It would help everybody.”

sally_gardnerThe importance of “love, loyalty, and the importance of a moral core” was raised by Mackenzie as being central to Gardner’s work. Gardner agrees, saying, “The selfie sums up this generation. It’s all about “me, me, me” – which contrasts sharply with earlier generations, particularly the war-going ones.” Standish Treadwell’s power is that he has an ability to put himself aside out of love for his friend.

Gardner has written quite a lot of historical fiction mixed with magic. She says, “With a lot of dystopia I get bored by the worlds they create, there’s not enough gravitas.” Gardner uses our history because it is the map of our past, showing us how we got to this future. She is concerned that in the UK, the schools don’t teach history. It shouldn’t be up to novelists.

“I worry about our leaders, they have no knowledge of history, and I worry about them. I really do. If you don’t understand the 30-year war in Germany, then you will not understand what Napoleon got up to when he nibbled the borders of Germany, you won’t understand WW1, or then WW2. Then you will never get to the point where you will understand the Holocaust.”

Gardner says she has always been a storyteller, but for a long time she was terrified of putting her words down. But then something happened. She became an illustrator, and she started to write her junior readers. Then her husband went to New York and forgot to return. And something magical happened – outside her house one day the Wolf appeared, in the form of a bailiff.

“I realised that he could blow my house down. So I rang my agent.” Her agent told her to bring her all the writing she had hidden in her drawers, that she was afraid to show. So she did, but she says, “I cut a hole in the bag I took to Soho, thinking it was up to fate whether she ended up not being able to publish. The pages were about to fall out as I got there, but a woman chased her down the street with some, saying ‘I know what you are doing, you think you won’t have to be published if you don’t have any pages left when you get there. You must.’“

i corianderHer first longer book was I, Coriander. The opening came to her as an image of a little girl, in a white shift, on a wooden staircase. “She went into a room, to find a stranger, with a box that was glowing. She asked the man “Is that my mother’s fairy shadow?” I, Coriander melds history with the fairy realm. Coriander was her first “big writing” so she was still working on her style. She had to learn how to paint with words, and she thinks of her plots as a rhythm, especially when considering a synopsis of a story.

Gardner only began reading aged 14. “One I found I could read, I was all over everything. My favourite at that age was a book called Forever Amber. I now write for the person who never got any books as a kid.” She talked a little about the YA audience yesterday, you can find this here. To this she added, “We are not exploiters. We do things with consciousness. Some of the most philosophical notions and cleverness in books can be found in YA.”

The fifth book in her Wings & Co series will come out in June. She came up this idea because she hates pink fairies. “So I came up with this idea of a very distinguished 6ft tall cat, who was once a builder, until a spell was cast on him.” Wings & Co is a shop where the wings of all fairies are kept in drawers, until the 17 keys decide to go ahead and unlock a door, creating another fairy – sometimes rather inconveniently.

Then it was over to the Q & A, the first question of which dealt with what the favourite book she had written was. She was about to give the standard “the last one I wrote”, but decided to be more honest this time, and said I, Coriander because it won her prizes; an excellent reason. A wee girl asked her whether writing was like homework. “Oh no, I would never do it then.”

One of the most beautiful images came towards the end, when she was asked who her favourite author was as a child. “I lived in London as a child, in the inner city, and it was very foggy then. I thought that the fog was made up of all the people from the past.” Her favourite author was Charles Dickens, because he used to work in the building she lived in. Once she realised he was dead (her parents read her his stories) she thought “Well, when I go out in the fog, and I put my hand out so it disappears into the fog, I will touch him.” She adored him.

As I spoke to a few of my friends as we exited, we all agreed that we had been present for something special. It was a writer’s week session that I will remember. Thank you for bringing this author to my attention, Kathryn Carmody!

Attended and reviewed by Sarah Forster
11am, Sunday, 13 March at The Embassy
NZ Festival Writer’s Week

Operation Bunny
by Sally Gardner, illustrated by Daid Roberts
Published by Orion Books
ISBN 9781444003727

I, Coriander
by Sally Gardner
Published by Orion Books

ISBN 9780803730991

The Kids are All Right: Cornelia Funke, Sally Gardner, Ted Dawe, Mandy Hager

Mandy Hager was the best chair I have seen in action this Writer’s Week. She introduced Cornelia Funke, Ted Dawe, Sally Gardner as award-winning writers that “write the sort of books that you put down and think about for hours afterwards.” I could not agree more.

The first pitched question was about the very concept of writing for children and YA. Each of the authors came from uniquely intelligent perspectives, they all allowed each other to hold opinions and were respectful of these.

Funke doesn’t agree with the concept of YA – she loves to write for children, the stories will be heard where they may. Ted Dawe has been put into a YA box because of the type of novels he writes, and he is at peace with this. Meanwhile, Sally Gardner said it best: “The Y is Why? And the A is the attempted answer. Many adult novels only answer. And I’d rather read books with the Y? Wouldn’t you?”

As this panel included Ted Dawe, there was a discussion about the banning of Into the River. Though I am familiar with the stoush, I was interested in Ted’s perspective:

“There were two interesting things that came out: One was the role of librarians as guardian angels, the second was how staunchly the judging panel believed in their decision. They were told by the sponsor, to go back and rethink their decision. They said ‘this was the book that deserved the prize.’” But it was Auckland libraries that led the call for review, which despite seeing the book banned temporarily, was ultimately successful in getting the restriction removed.

The other writers hadn’t had their books banned, but they agreed that publishers have a tendency to require a certain amount of censorship. Gardner had to place Maggot Moon with a different publisher because her usual one told her to bury it. It has a teacher brutality scene that ends in the death of a student, and a boys-kissing scene. She did allow the kissing to be removed for the United Arab Emirates, reluctantly. Maggot Moon won both the Carnegie Medal and the Costa. But Gardner’s favourite prize was the French prize for imagination.

Funke moved the conversation on to publishers and how things can change once you are a bestselling author. “If you are a best-selling author, you are put in the box marked ‘money.’” While a reader may draw the conclusion that that would lead to more freedom, but actually at that point you are assumed to only write things that sell, in trends. Sally Gardner agreed, calling it the “Versace effect”. The minute you write to a trend though, she says, you stop following your heart. Publishers also, added Funke, seem to dream that you are always writing for a movie deal. “They try to put books in tidy boxes.”

The discussion turned then to morality in books, with Ted Dawe asserting “I didn’t realise it to start with, but I am a social awareness writer.” He sees Into the River as being about the consequences of bad decision-making, not morality per se. Gardner finds it horrendous that parents will jump on books that have the F-word in them, yet not realise what their TV being on is doing to their children. She said of novelists, “We are the guardians.” Funke pointed out that perhaps the reason that people have picked up the theme of bullying because they are themselves guilty of this behaviour – not something Dawe had considered.

The discussion turned on to the power of books, with Mandy saying “The fantastic thing about the book ban was that nobody argued that books weren’t these powerful things.” Gardner added, “The power of words is just fantastic. The power words have to get you to dream and define your situation.” Dawe added that this was why he started writing for boys and why he became an evangelist for boys reading novels, “Otherwise they are trapped like birds in a cage.”

I will be honest, I was blown away by the things these authors were saying, the power behind their words. I have always read fantasy, as escapism – not guiltily, but with an awareness that perhaps it wasn’t the best way to enrich my mind. Funke gave me the perfect reason, as did Hager: “Sometimes you see better through the other side of the mirror.”

Hager moved on to concerns about children today. The biggest concern for Gardner is social media bullying. “I am alarmed that young children are allowed these tools. The potential for torture is too real.” She says, “We live life looking into a machine. What happens when they go blank? What happens when all the pictures are gone?”

Funke doesn’t dislike social media, as it has connected her with fans in Japan, in Norway, in Argentina – and all of these fans start talking together. Note to readers of Funke – if you send her a tweet, she will respond to it. She only has book people following her, so she sees it as a “community of nerds.” Her biggest concern isn’t that children don’t read – she worries that they don’t live. Schoool eats up their whole lives. She would finish school at 1pm, and send the kids to work on the environment – a real concern. But, Funke says, “Society can’t get much worse, I’m optimistic about the future.”

I will relate one more story from this session, because I teared up. Cornelia Funke has a lot of fanmail – she has had some from abused children, from soldiers, from those that were dying. They say to her “You gave me shelter with your words.” Now this is true power. She added, “We can change things, even if we just give comfort. Sometimes we don’t have to do more.”

I will give the final word to Cornelia Funke: “How did I get to have this job? It’s fantastic!”

You will have a chance to see the tremendous Cornelia Funke at The Embassy for Cornelia Funke: Reckless, Fearless, Heartless tomorrow at 2pm. Sally Gardner is also at the Embassy at 11am for Sally Gardner: Maggot Moon.

Attended and reviewed by Sarah Forster

The Kids are All Right
The Embassy, 2pm, Saturday 12 March
NZ Festival Writers Week

Maggot Moon, by Sally Gardner
Hot Key Books
ISBN 9781471400445

Gala Opening: Fighting Talk, feat Mariko Tamaki, Etger Keret, Robert Dessaix, Sally Gardner

Paul Diamond opened Fighting Talk with a mihi, which spoke of the death of Ranginui Walker, then Chris Price set the scene with a brief introduction of the writers. The format was like a True stories told live’ format, but all of our writers had prepared speeches – in a couple of cases this meant the immediacy of the story-telling was lost, but all of the topics raised were fascinating.

tamakiThe stories began with one from Mariko Tamaki (right), a Canadian cartoonist who spoke about linguistics and the use of speech to refer to gender. Etger Keret, an Israeli short story writer, was up next, telling us a story about a terrifying taxi ride. Essayist Robert Dessaix had us just short of rolling in the aisles with his talk about how babies were made (and how gossip ruins family reputations). Children’s novelist Sally Gardner’s lexical ability had us all agape in awe, and Courtney Sina Meredith told a powerful story about race and identity to round it off.

What you want from an official opening event is to be set up mentally for what is to come, and this certainly delivered that. None of these authors were well-known to me, and each engaged a different part of my brain, making them well worth seeing.

Mariko Tamaki has her solo session on Sunday, and I am really looking forward to it. Tonight she reflected on how annoyed she was when an older man approached her after a keynote speech and criticised how she delivered it – and what she should have said. She is curious about why people think that things they find annoying – such as ‘verbal fry’ and ‘uptalk’ – should be banned. She briefly alluded to Debbie Cameron, a linguist, as a fantastic person to read, on the topic of speaking.

I agree that telling somebody how to talk “is telling them what to say” – and certainly we saw tonight that each speaker had a palette of speaking styles at their disposal. If I am ever policed on my verbal presence I will definitely use her take-away line,”I didn’t ask, so don’t tell me how to talk.”

pp_etgar_keretEtgar Keret’s son asked him to Google something one night recently. “What is that son?” “I want you to Google a place that nobody kills each other.” “I’m not going to do that son, because it doesn’t exist.” “But grandma says it might be New Zealand.” He is concerned about fighting, as living in Israel, his son will be conscripted to the Israeli Army when he reaches his 18th Birthday. Keret read a piece out about a taxi ride, where the driver was erratic and angry, and yelled at Keret’s then 3-year-old son for “breaking” the taxi. The driver had been spoiling for a fight, but it took the wisdom of a 3-year-old to help ease tensions.

dessaixRobert Dessaix (right) was hilarious, telling a story about how as a 5-year-old, he told his 6-year-old female neighbour where children came from. She pressed him on it, saying it was ‘disgusting’, then asking him where all other living things came from, until she got to Jesus. Dessaix said, “He came from an egg; an Easter Egg, everyone knows that.” As news tends to do in small neighbourhoods, his neighbour told her friend, who told hers, who told her piano teacher, who happened to be a nun. The Dessaix family were ostracised for weeks, until the aunty of his neighbour brought them a pop-up toaster in apology.

Dessaix will be speaking tonight about the Famous Five, and between his engaging voice and conspiratorial air, and the fact he will be talking about my childhood favourite series, I cannot wait .

sally_gardnerSally Gardner (left) is dyslexic, and is a spokesperson for dyslexia in the UK. She told us about her trip around the South Island prior to coming to the festival, which led into a wonderful talk about the failure of the education system, particularly in the UK. She said, “The Educational system seems to want rows of conifer trees – when the world needs these different thinkers. There is no nation without imagination – many of our modern geniuses – Bill Gates, Steve Jobs – were dyslexic. The time has come to celebrate the diversity of our children. It doesn’t matter how we spell words, it matters what we say.”

Sally is doing her solo event tomorrow at the Embassy, which I have deemed unmissable. She writes for kids of all ages, from picture books up to junior fiction, and YA.

courtney sina meredithCourtney Sina Meredith jumped through several instances in her life where she has been made rudely aware of her race. She realised at school, as an 8-year-old, while giving a speech in front of the assembly, that she was one of five brown faces at the school. “I started to notice who gets to speak and who doesn’t,” she said. As a 12-year-old, she called out an intermediate school teacher for being racist regarding Australian Aboriginals. And as a 21-year old, in her third year of a law degree, her friends created a petition to keep “weirdos and minorities” out of law school. She left soon after, to complete a BA and work in the arts. She says, “I have no idea how to keep my soul inside of my skin.”

The gala opening presented many moments to remember, and plenty of moments to delve further into; you can see our review of Etgar Keret’s session here, and we will soon have a report about Mariko’s first panel session. While I am posting this at the halfway mark, I am by no means writered out. There is still so much to see and learn from to come.

A last remark, courtesy of Courtney Sina Meredith, who will appear tomorrow at Debating New Zealand:
“People will break themselves against you and it’s your life’s work to keep going, regardless.”

Attended and reviewed by Sarah Forster and Elizabeth Heritage

Gala Opening: Fighting Talk
with Mariko Tamaki, Etger Keret, Robert Dessaix, Sally Gardner and Courtney Sina Meredith
Thursday 10 March, NZ Festival Writer’s Week