Finding treasure island

A key goal of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature is to foster a passion for reading among youngsters. Ahead of the 2015 edition, Vision spoke to the organisers about this important ambition, and asked some of the authors who will be speaking at the event to share their own favourite childhood books 

Now in its seventh year, the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature has become a revered fixture in an increasingly busy global literary calendar. Along with the stellar list of authors who attend every year, its extensive children’s programme, which is packed with authors’ talks, work-shops and competitions, has become one of its main draws. Its aim: to breed a new generation of book lovers.

“One of the most important parts that underpins the whole festival is to convert readers from non-readers,” says Isobel Abulhoul, the festival’s Director since its inception in 2009, “attracting as many people as possible via whichever method we can and turning them into readers through a celebration of books. We’re looking at funny and interesting events to give any child an opportunity to say: ‘Yes, I’m going to pick up that book and enjoy it.’”

Primarily, it is the children’s authors, which this year include the great Michael Morpurgo, author of the 1982 children’s classic War Horse, the British writer Julia Donaldson, creator of The Gruffalo, and writer and comedian David Walliams, who will draw young crowds of budding readers. “The authors are key,” says Abulhoul. “If you meet an author, they can fire you up. They can tell you about their childhood, what books they read and what made them become a writer.

“That is something that right from day one has been a really important part of the festival. What differentiates the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature from other literature festivals is the children’s strand. By that I mean from babies up to teenagers – we have writers for each age group. It’s a key focus for us.”

This year’s programme, which runs over five days, offers something for even the most reading-averse child. Top of that list are the two War Horse puppets, created by the Handspring Puppet Company for the universally acclaimed stage version of Morpurgo’s novel, set during the First World War. Each manned by three people – two to operate the legs and one for the head and neck – they will be attending a reading with Morpurgo himself, accompanied by live music.

Magical events such as these, as well as workshops covering everything from art and mime to comedy performing, help make the festival’s children’s strand something uniquely engaging. “It is important to have things that appeal to non-readers, too,” says Yvette Judge, the festival’s Assistant Director, whose remit is the children’s programme. “With creative workshops and things that appeal to their sense of humour – say, Rachel Hamilton’s The Case of the Exploding Loo – they draw a different group of children in.”

Then there is the regular programme of competitions – short stories, poetry recitals and the readers’ cup – as well as a 406-strong children’s choir who sing the festival’s central anthem. “Right from the very start, children feature heavily,” says Abulhoul. “It allows them to shine in different ways. So you may be good at writing a short story, you may be a good poet or you may not be great at either of those things, but be a great actor and so the poetry recital is something that you can really excel at.”

Engaging younger children through events such as the Time Out Story Corner, which sees local volunteers and authors narrate stories throughout the festival, is key, says Abulhoul. “It’s easier to have success with younger children because they are receptive, and they haven’t yet been switched off by years of textbooks,” she reflects. “Nothing can give the festival team greater pleasure than seeing all these beanbags with kids plonked on them and their noses in a book, oblivious to the world around them.”

Lauren Oliver
Lauren Oliver said that her favourite book as a child was The Wind in the Willows, "It's depiction of animals with human social organisations, traits, habits of dressing and behaviour... the idea seemed so magical to me"

Equally, meeting an author or an illustrator can be the turning point for an older child. “If you can find the trigger that fires their imagination,” says Abulhoul, “then once they have got to grips with that they will hopefully go on to be a lifelong reader.”

There is, however, no trigger more powerful than being read to regularly at home. “One of the most valuable gifts that parents can give children is a love of books,” says Abulhoul. “You can do that by making bedtime stories a daily habit for your children. Curl up together with a pile of favourite books and read. Make sure to switch off mobile phones and any other distractions.

“Children can gain huge advantages in their pre-school years if they are read to on a daily basis. They increase their vocabulary, their experiences of the world, the creative thought process, and the love that their parents instil in them via the medium of books.”