“The number of times I’ve sat on a train reading a book meant for six-year-olds … I do wonder if people notice and what they think, but then I also think, does it really matter?”
I’m meeting Grady in a restaurant on George Street: she’s just walked past the Charlotte Square site that will be home the Edinburgh International Book Festival from next week and she’s buzzing with excitement. Grady began working for the book festival in January 2007, so this year’s event is the first she has put together from start to finish. Every author, every workshop, every reading: it’s her baby and as she’s at the tender age of 26, it’s no mean feat. She is only a year older than the book festival itself.
Over five days, as many as 45,000 children and their parents will enter the gates of Charlotte Square for some of the 300 events Grady has planned. And readings are only the start. Kids, as Grady refers to them, can become flower fairies or learn how to do magic, or make something in the free craft tent. If they’re a bit older and cooler, there’s everything from graphic novels to acting workshops to discussions about the environment.
Grady is a fresh-faced bundle of enthusiasm. “Really exciting!” is the phrase she uses most often and when she’s getting really excited she speaks ever faster. She’s genuinely enthralled by her job. And it’s probably just as well, because during the festival she’ll be working from 8am to 10pm, seven days a week. How she landed her dream job is a story in itself. Having studied engineering at the University of Michigan, she quickly realised that “sitting at a desk drawing cars” wasn’t for her and changed her degree to production engineering, which included theatre, websites, sound engineering and lighting. She ended up in Edinburgh when she came over in 2001 to put on a Fringe show.
“I loved this city, I loved the culture and the excitement of festival season,” she says. “I still remember calling my parents from the phonebox outside Waverley Station – I could see Princes Street Gardens and the castle above and all of the people – and I said, ‘I don’t want to come home.’”
Persuaded by her mother to finish her degree, she did in fact go home, but not for long. A couple of years later she was back to do a Masters at Edinburgh University and it was then she started working in the children’s section of a bookshop, where she organised events. The rest, as they say…
If Grady is nervous about her programme for this year, she’s not letting on. The idea of being in control and hundreds of excitable children seems an odd combination, but it’s one that clearly suits her. The two changes she highlights are the inclusion of a more international dimension that puts the emphasis on storytelling, and a strand of non-fiction.
“The book festival is inherently about books, but not books because you’re supposed to read them because they’re good for you, but because they mean access and they can be anything that you want them to be,” she says.
Literacy, crossover fiction, age banding – there are plenty of debates going on around reading material for children and young people. Age banding – where the age-range at which a book is aimed will be flagged up on the cover – has been the latest spat to bring out big-hitters, such as JK Rowling and Philip Pullman, who oppose the idea. Grady is diplomatic in that she believes all parties – publishers, writers and parents – are well-meaning, even if the scheme would be problematic in practical terms.
“We all need to keep our eye on who we’re doing this for,” she says. “It’s managing all those expectations.There are a lot of exceptions – what would you do with Harry Potter 5? It’s really dark, people die, but can you put an age band of two years older than the first one? How would that work?
“Fiction for kids is like dress-up – it lets them try on a new life. And they can use it for scary things. What would it be like if I was an orphan? What would it be like if I moved to a new country and no one spoke my language? What would it be like if I got lost in New York City? There are things that in everyday life would be terrifying to deal with, but in a story you can take on the mantle of that character without the risk.”
According to Grady, children “self-censor” more than adults give them credit for. Whereas adults persist with books because they feel they should, children feel less obliged to stick with a book that’s not for them. “I think we should be braver sometimes about what kids read,” she says. “Obviously there’s context to that, you don’t want any seven-year-old with a high reading level picking up any old crime novel. But if they have access to lots of books, they’ll see how they come in different kinds.”
For Grady, some of the anxiety that adults feel about what children read is because we assume that children are picking up on the same messages and the same themes as we are. But they’re not.
“There’s an old adage of my mum’s: ‘The world hands you the lessons you’re ready for’. It’s perhaps not appropriate in every context, but for me as a reader it works. You get out of a book what you’re ready to put into it. There are books that I read at 14 that I read again at 24 and it was a completely different experience. You remember some of it, and you remember the things that were important to you at the time, but often when you read it again they seem really marginal.”
So what are Grady’s hopes for this festival? “Sun,” she says with an impish smile and, perhaps more realistically, “feedback”.
“If my philosophy is making sure that each individual kid gets what they need from this, I better make sure I’m there to see that it happens. And also, there’s something lovely about seeing all the little flower fairies coming trooping out. It lightens the spirit on a dull day.”
Edinburgh International Book Festival starts August 9. RBS Schools Event starts August 20.
SARA GRADY'S RECOMMENDATIONS
TERRY PRATCHETT – in this 25th anniversary year of Discworld, Pratchett will talk about his legendary creation. 16 August, 1:30pm; ages 8+
THE BLACK BOOK OF COLOURS – What does red taste like? How does purple smell? If you were unable to see, what would colours mean to you? Author Jennifer Clement explores the senses by playing games about colour, vision and understanding. 18 August, 3pm, ages 5-8
PHILIP REEVE – the creator of the Mortal Engines quartet and the highly regarded Here Lies Arthur, a new slant on the story of King Arthur, Reeve is master of young adult fiction. 18 August, 5pm, age 10+
EOIN COLFER – possibly the only author ever to win an award for performance at the Fringe will talk about his new Artemis Fowl book. 9 August, 11:30am, ages 10-14
ANTHONY BROWNE – Come see the endearing, delightful master of picture books who brought us Willy the Wimp and Gorilla and The Shape Game unveil his new work, Little Beauty. 21 August, 5pm, 5+
MARCUS CHOWN – a cosmologist and space expert turns his hand to storytelling with a thrilling, silly escapade among the stars. 24 August, 10am, ages 7-10
WANT TO DRAW COMICS? – prolific and fascinating, Gary Erskine has drawn everything from 2000AD to his new twist on Dan Dare. Learn how it's done from a master. 15 August, 4:30pm, teens & adults