When it comes to promoting their books, children’s authors need a different set of skills to their adult author counterparts, and nowhere was this more apparent than at the opening weekend of Adelaide Writers’ Week 2020.
Children’s authors, long shut out of core writers’ festival business, have increasingly been infiltrating Adelaide Writers’ Week. 2012 saw the first annual ‘Kids’ Day’ program at AWW, held in a dedicated space alongside creative activities for children. It expanded to a full weekend in 2014, when big name authors Mem Fox and Andy Griffiths were also invited onto the main stages for discussions about literacy. Last year saw the program hold its first dedicated day of middle grade and YA authors, including a poetry slam afternoon, a format continued in 2020. But the opening sessions of this year’s program also saw Andy Griffiths and Julia Donaldson as main stage acts, not for panels or adult-oriented interviews this time, but as an extension of the kids’ program. Was this in deference to the size of the crowds these authors are able to pull, much too big for the diminutive Torrens Tent where the rest of the kids’ sessions take place? Or a sign of a growing acceptance of children’s writing as core literary activity? Either way, what it highlighted was that, when on the promotional trail, children’s authors need to be able to do more than sit and answer curated questions about their books to a politely interested audience.
What is striking is how generous authors need to be when presenting to children, who demand interactivity, story and ideally at least a bit of humour. Much as when they write for a younger audience, authors need to think hard about what that particular age group needs and enjoys – usually some kind of spectacle – and then they have to deliver it, often on their own.
Andy Griffiths is a seasoned professional, having toured for years on the back of his smash hit Treehouse series and other books with illustrator Terry Denton. His presentation – just Griffiths on stage with a headset microphone and a bag of brussels sprouts – is a kind of stand-up routine only loosely connected to his books. He encourages his audience to participate in his rivalry-with-Terry schtick: ‘Hands up if your favourite character in the Treehouse books is me? Very good. Hands up if your favourite character is Terry? Okay, you lot can all leave right now.’ He doesn’t forget jokes for the adults, getting the kids to pledge allegiance (hands on hearts, repeat after me) to wiping out all vegetables from the face of the earth by eating every single one. Griffiths’ brand is funny and silly, and that’s because he himself is funny and silly. His work has a wide appeal across kids in most years of primary school and he plays directly to those readers and their grown-ups.
In contrast, Julia Donaldson appeals to a younger audience with different fascinations and an even shorter attention span. Along with her guitar-playing husband, Malcolm, and a small troupe of accomplices, she sings interactive songs and acts out her picture books in costumes as endearingly DIY as the ones you might rustle up for the Book Week parade at school. The joy for the younger audience is partly in guessing which story is next and reciting their favourite lines. In this way, Donaldson’s presentation is focused entirely on the stories as a form of entertainment, in need of no additional commentary. It’s a tangible reminder of the what brings us to reading in the first place – the power of story, and the storyteller, to transfix.
Over at the Torrens Tent, it appears that by the time we get to our teenage years, we can sit through more complex and abstract conversations about literature and the ideas in them, and no longer need Griffiths’ invitation to step up on stage and burp into a plastic container. But authors for this age group are still being asked to go it alone. Like Griffiths, Wai Chim, author of YA novel The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling, has a headset microphone and forty-five minutes to hold our attention. She also knows that the audience still needs stories, and opens with a raft of anecdotes about her Chinese mother’s misadventures in western cooking. It’s no coincidence that so many adult readers turn to YA fiction for its promise of unabashed storytelling and feels.
We all respond to that, no matter how old we get. The opening day of AWW 2020 was one where pre-schoolers rolled in waves down the irresistible grassy slopes behind the main stages, and Jessica Townsend’s middle grade fantasy Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow took out the Premier’s gong at the Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature as well as the award for children’s literature. Writers’ Week has long been the domain of older people (who have the time and money to buy and read books and attend the festival, especially during the week), but it’s beginning to reflect the fact that reading is a lifetime pursuit, and has turned into an event from which writers can learn a lot about audiences, no matter who they write for.