I posted a while ago about finding Crongton Knights to read when I was trying to second-guess the Carnegie shortlist. It was a brilliant find, and I have since recommended it to my own children, and to some students I teach. Predictably, my own kids completely ignored me, but some of my students have now read, and enjoyed both Liccle Bit and Crongton Knights.
The other week in the library, I was handed a programme for the Derby Book Festival. I think it's now in its third year, but I was slightly too caught-up in baby and toddler-ness to organise myself to go to anything before this year. I was thrilled to discover that Alex Wheatle was coming to the festival, and book tickets, not only for me, but for A and C too, knowing that they would enjoy it, even if they didn't.
We arrived early. I'm not quite sure what I expected from a provincial book festival. My only experience of a book festival are the sessions I've attended at the Imagine Children's Festival at the South Bank centre. Everything has been utterly packed and, although all the sessions we've been to have had some value and merit, they were not what could be described as intimate. In sharp contrast, today we were shown through to a small room at the independent cinema in Derby, with comfy sofas, and there were few enough people that there were only three rows. We were right at the front. This, and the big bag of Minstrels I bought beforehand, were enough to persuade A and C that this was somewhere they wanted to be.
What an absolute inspiration Alex Wheatle is. Having talked about the creation of his imaginary South London town of Crongton, and read an extract from his newly published Straight Outta Crongton (I would like to point out for posterity that I anticipated that one of the books in this series would have this name), Alex told a little about his life. Brought up in care, Alex was in trouble with the police, and even had a spell in prison. He told how writing had been a way of releasing all of the negativity and the poisonous feelings, and had turned into something that he wanted to do as a career.
His story really is incredibly impressive, and he told it in the same warm, funny, self-deprecating voice that comes across so clearly in his novels. He answered questions honestly, and with feeling, and A and C both left the talk feeling buoyed-up to use what he had said to help them with their own writing. Needless to say, they are both now going to read all of the books, including the signed copy which we left clutching.
"Honestly though", said C as we left, "you didn't have to insult him!" What? How could what I said possibly be taken as an insult? Alex was asked by a young man if he thought he wrote well from a female perspective, and basically answered that he does his best. I told him as he signed our book that when I read Liccle Bit and Crongton Knights I assumed he was a woman in his twenties. "That wasn't the insult Mum! The insult was when you then added "so when I booked tickets I wondered who the picture of the middle-aged man was!" You can't go round pointing out that people are middle-aged!" So, apologies for that indiscretion Alex, I think you are utterly brilliant, and I am very much looking forward to reading the next installment.