City books a big place in young hearts

ONCE upon a time there was a cat called Maisie, a friendly Highland cow, and a cuddly brown grizzly called Mr Bear, who all lived together in a magical place.

Their home was a bustling capital city which was stunningly picturesque but could also be creepy sometimes, rich in literary history and brimming with talent.

The only trouble was that not that many people knew it. Not, at least, until a boy wizard by the name of Harry waved his wand and, in the blink of Dumbledore’s eye, put Edinburgh on the children’s literary map.

Soon, thanks in part to the "Harry" effect, children and grown-ups the length and breadth of the nation will discover that Edinburgh has much more to offer the world of children’s literature than just Harry Potter.

Last month, Harry’s creator, JK Rowling, handed over a 20,000 slice of her personal fortune to help towards creating the Scottish Centre for the Children’s Book, a new agency which aims to raise the profile of Scotland’s talented authors and illustrators.

It will be officially launched in late spring, marking the beginning of a new era in Edinburgh’s children’s literature, which can be traced back to 1885 when Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses gave wide-eyed youngsters their first taste of the world of books.

Nestling in a peaceful corner just behind the Royal Mile, the centre will also be another piece in a jigsaw which is rapidly turning the area into Edinburgh’s modern literary quarter. Based in Sandeman House, the new centre can boast the Scottish Book Trust and the Scottish Storytelling Centre’s sparkling new base, due to open later this year, as its neighbours.

Add to that the fact the Scottish Poetry Library is just around the corner, publisher Canongate is nearby and the National Library and the Writers’ Museum just a short stroll away, and Edinburgh’s Old Town lives up to its billing as the first world City of Literature.

Soon, the Scottish Centre for the Children’s Book will become the starting point for a host of initiatives aimed at raising the profile of the nation’s children’s authors, encouraging youngsters to read them and teachers to teach them.

And, Robert Louis Stevenson aside, there is no shortage of modern, locally-based talent whose children’s books and illustrations are helping spawn a new generation of avid readers.

Joan Lingard’s books about life in the shadow of the Belfast troubles have become classics, Debi Gliori’s bestselling Mr Bear bedtime stories have delighted infants, as have Aileen Paterson’s Maisie the Morningside Cat tales, while Keith Gray’s dark thrillers are must-reads for any self- respecting teenager.

The city is home to Marghanita Hughes, creator of Toffee the Highland Cow; Vivien French, who has penned more than 200 children’s books; and the award-winning Elizabeth Laird, creator of a host of teenage novels which deal with the toughest of social issues.

So lively is the children’s book scene that it was a group of authors themselves who first gathered to suggest the idea for an Edinburgh centre which would celebrate the culture of the children’s book.

Led by Joan Lingard, they developed a vision for a lively base which would provide young readers with a wealth of information about books, exhibitions, perhaps a shop and a cafe.

She also lobbied the Scottish Arts Council chairman, James Boyle, and wrote to about 20 leading Scottish children’s writers, and persuaded them to give some of their work to the centre’s archive.

"The vision from the outset was an archive, a library and a bookshop featuring Scottish children’s books at the centre of it," she said recently. "But there will also be a meeting room and somewhere to hold talks and exhibitions.

"This will be a hub for literature . . . an open and accessible place where the public will always be welcome, although it will obviously be first and foremost for children; somewhere they’ll enjoy coming to, somewhere they’ll be able to see that books are an integral part of life."

THAT vision may have changed somewhat, but Marc Lambert, chief executive of the Scottish Book Trust which is developing the centre, believes it will eventually provide a massive boost to children’s literature in Scotland.

"It started out with the idea that this would be a ‘building-based’ centre that people could come to," explains Marc Lambert, chief executive of the Scottish Book Trust which is developing the centre.

"But we have now turned that on its head. It’s not about a building, but it’s about the readership and support for children’s authors and illustrators in Scotland.

"It’s about driving children’s reading and engaging with children in a variety of ways: whether through schools, bookshops or special kinds of promotions and tours."

The centre, which will cost up to 1 million to set up has already been funded to the tune of 100,000 from the Scottish Arts Council.

"This is about an agency acting on a national scale to really stimulate children’s reading, to get the habit engrained to make them readers now and in the future," adds Marc. "And locating this agency within the Scottish Book Trust means it will have access to all the networks we have, all the way through Scotland, from Shetland to Dumfries.

"It’s about driving readership nationally and engaging with the educational sector."

The hope is that more Scottish schools will adopt into the curriculum children’s books which have been written and illustrated on their own doorstep - perhaps inspiring the next generation of children’s authors. Aileen Paterson, whose Maisie books have sold around the world, is excited at the prospect, even though the centre is not what she and her fellow authors originally envisaged.

"I’m very pleased as a Scottish author to be promoted, but, to be honest, I’ve never really had that problem.

"The idea for this first came from Joan Lingard. We discussed what we would like and what good it would be. In Newcastle, there is a children’s book centre which attracts young readers from all over the area. We thought that, along with the Poetry Library, the story-telling centre at the Netherbow and the National Library, this would be quite good.

"And Edinburgh being the great printing and publishing city that it is, with a long history of literature, we felt that somewhere that people could go in and sit and read and take things off shelves would be worthwhile."

However the centre turns out, Fife-born Aileen is proud to count herself among Edinburgh’s band of children’s writers. So why does the Capital attract so much talent?

"It is a printing and publishing city, there are lots of second-hand bookshops to fuel the interest in books and, of course, there is the National Library," she explains.

"There is all that, plus the fact that Edinburgh is not too large, it’s a city where I can bury myself in the heart of Abbeyhill and lead the kind of life I need to in order to write books.

"And besides, I write about a cat from Morningside - and I couldn’t very well do that if I lived in Glasgow, could I?"