Friday, 19 August 2022

Schools author’s success story is a lesson for us all

Schools author’s success story is a lesson for us all

TICKETS for this year’s Henley Literary Festival went on public sale on Monday — but there are some events that not just anybody can attend.

As in previous years, the 2018 event — which runs from Saturday, September 29, to Sunday, October 7 — incorporates a children’s literary festival.

But beyond this, some exclusive events are effectively roped off from the wider public and reserved for VIPs — very important pupils.

Stars of the literary world who have taken part in the festival’s schools programme over the years include War Horse author Sir Michael Morpurgo — who is returning this year for a ticketed event at Christ Church.

Festival programming director Tom Ryan said: “We are delighted that Sir Michael is joining us on the first day of this year’s festival as his schools event in 2015 was our most popular event ever.”

Another author popular with both children and adults is novelist and screenwriter Antony Horowitz, who will be making his festival debut at the Kenton Theatre on Wednesday, October 3, at 6.30pm, when he will be discussing his official James Bond prequel Forever and a Day.

However, he will also be appearing at a schools event based around the latest instalment in his hugely popular Alex Rider series.

Tom added: “Another coup for the schools’s programme, where events often sell out quickly, is American writer Francesca Simon, creator of the multimedia Horrid Henry franchise, who will appear with her latest book Hack and Whack alongside illustrator Charlotte Cotterill.”

One of the first names on the team sheet for this year’s festival was the Reading-based poet and children’s author AF Harrold, who will be hosting a schools event at the Kenton Theatre at 10am on Monday, October 1.

Something of a rising star, his 2016 children’s novel The Song from Somewhere Else was shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway Medal and longlisted for the Carnegie Medal.

A prolific author, 2018 is proving a busy year for Harrold — first name Ashley — with May having seen the publication of his latest children’s novel Greta Zargo and the Amoeba Monsters from the Middle of the Earth, while Midnight Feasts, a poetry anthology that he has edited, is due out in November.

“I never planned to become a children’s author or a children’s writer,” says Harrold. “If you’d sat me down 20 years ago and said what are you going to be doing in 20 years’ time, I wouldn’t have predicted this.”

Twenty years ago, Harrold, who grew up in Horsham, West Sussex, had recently completed a philosophy degree at the University of Reading.

By day he was working as a bookseller at the King’s Road branch of Blackwell’s opposite Reading Central Library.

By night, however, he was starting to make a name for himself as a performance poet — honing his craft at a series of open mic nights at venues such as the 3Bs bar in Blagrave Street, the Global Café in London Street, and the South Street Arts Centre.

His hard work and persistence saw him graduate to running the Poets’ Café night at the Rising Sun Arts Centre in Silver Street while compèring singer-songwriter Rob Sowden’s long-running Bohemian Night at the 3Bs.

Both nights are still running, though they have since moved to South Street and the Global Café respectively.

Dreams of giving up the day job may have seemed remote, but in 2003 events took an unexpected turn when Blackwell’s decided to shut up shop.

“Because I’d been there for six or seven years, I had enough of a redundancy cheque that meant I didn’t have to get a job the next day,” recalls Harrold.

“You know, it wasn’t a huge cheque because booksellers aren’t paid very much, but it was enough that I didn’t have to go out the next day and find a job.

“So I thought, you know what, I’ll have a go at being a poet. I’ll see what I can do, see if I can make a go of this. And I went and did poetry slams and poetry gigs — various gigs. I ran Poets’ Café and Bohemian Night for a time. I tried to see what I could do.

“And one of the things you can do as a poet in order to actually earn — because most of these things do not pay a lot of money — is go and run poetry workshops. And one of the places to do that is in schools.

“Some of my other poetry friends were doing this and I went along with them and I did some of my own. I like doing school visits — primary schools, secondary schools, running poetry slams in schools, all these sorts of things.

“And because I had this sort of performance background, because I’m able to stand up and do a poem interestingly, I was doing a lot of performing other people’s poems — doing things like Macavity or On the Ning Nang Nong. The classic poems that we all know, but reading them better than maybe the teacher read them.

“But it got to the point where I thought this is a bit silly — I really ought to write some of my own material specifically for schools. I mean, a lot of the funny poems I was doing in poetry slams were perfectly suitable in schools because I’ve never been a very sort of sweary, sexy, drugs and rock and roll sort of poet — I’ve always been the more surreal, silly, nonsensey sort of poet.

“So I started writing kids’ poems to have things to perform in schools. And that all went well and I self-published a little book of those that I could sell in schools to help supplement the living. That was called I Eat Squirrels.

“Then some time after that, in about 2010, I decided for various reasons to have a go at writing a children’s story, writing a novel. I’d written sort of grown-up novels — quite silly things that nobody published and nobody was interested in, and I thought, well, maybe this would be something I could actually have a go at. And since I’m doing a lot of work in schools it makes some sort of sense.

“And so I wrote the first Fizzlebert Stump book, which was called Fizzlebert Stump: The Boy Who Ran Away From The Circus (And Joined The Library).

“I sent that to a few people and an editor at Bloomsbury liked it and wanted to take it, and she asked me to write another one. The first was accepted for publication in 2011. It came out in the summer of 2012 and since then I’ve mainly been doing work with kids — a lot of school visits, a lot of poetry still, but also with these novels or these storybooks along the way too.

“I never had a plan — I’ve fallen into this purely by the way the world has worked, and it’s a brilliant world to be in, children’s literature. School visits are always fun, always interesting. I specialise in primary schools now because those are the kids my books are aimed at.

“The kids I visit are at infant schools and primary schools, so they’re almost always happy, they’re almost always really excited to hear some poetry, they always want to join in and it’s such fun — and tremendously educational and, you know, all that stuff. But I tend to just go and have fun — and now we’re going to be doing that at Henley.

“What I do in a performance setting like that is essentially comedy for kids — with poems, a lot of interaction, a lot of questions.”

A lot of laughs too, by the sound of it, but Harrold’s broader aim is to demystify the creative process in a way that aspiring writers of any age could benefit from.

“All the way through primary school, all the way up to year six, children are inquisitive,” says Harrold. “They’re creative. They’re not embarrassed about joining in. They’re not embarrassed about asking a stupid question in the way that maybe once you become a teenager or once you’re in an environment with teenagers it becomes a lot more looking over your shoulder to see whether this is cool. Every school visit there’s at least one idea that’s completely blue sky. Like, ‘What? I’ve never encountered that before!’ But there’s also that thing of you saying something stupid or reading a poem that’s a bit bizarre and one of those kids that’s got a really literal brain going, ‘Um, hang on, but lions are carnivorous and so they wouldn’t actually eat the broccoli, you’ve got that wrong.’ And that is so much fun as well, and so enjoyable being corrected, you know, in that sort of way. So both the literal minds and the creative minds are both still active at that sort of age and both really interesting.

“And at the same time they’re learning to engage with language and learning about the playfulness of language. And, you know, we’re helping them write some poems, which is good. I just think that engaging with language and not being embarrassed about it and not having to worry about whether this is a fronted adverbial or whether this is, you know, a subjunctive whatever. Just saying the words and getting them out and going ‘Yeah, I like that!’ and seeing where your ideas can take you and showing that by just asking a few questions and answering a few questions we can create whole new characters and whole new stories.”

Can he give an example?

“I have a poem I read about some of the Tooth Fairy’s companions. We hear a lot about the Tooth Fairy but there are lots of other things that fall off of us that need collecting as well and we don’t hear about the Earwax Leprechaun or the Fingernail Pixie — these sorts of people.

“So I read this poem that ends up with the Belly Button Fluff Gargoyle and these sorts of characters. So then I can ask the kids, you know, who’s heard of something else and someone will go ‘Oh, for bogeys.’ Okay, so what is it that collects the bogeys? Oh, it’s a gremlin. Okay, so you’ve got the Bogey Gremlin. How does it get the bogeys out? Does it have really long fingers or does it take the dry crusty bits from under the chairs?

“And we can create — simply by asking some questions and answering them as if it were real, we discover a whole new character. It might be a story — it might be about superheroes. But by showing that all you have to do is ask the questions, now we’ve created this character and you could write that as, you know, a day in the life of the Bogey Gremlin, as a story or a poem — and they go ‘Whoa!’

“So it’s demystifying that creative process by showing that it’s not something — I mean, it is something special, because after three minutes of asking questions something now exists in this room that never existed before. This particular Bogey Gremlin or Saliva Goblin or whatever it is.

“Nobody has ever heard of this before and now we in this room, the 30 of us here, know loads about it. That’s amazing — we just made something. We just created something. How good is that? It’s great because this is what we do in our studios, You know, every day we try to make something new — whether it’s a song or a painting or a poem or a story. You know, we’re just trying to find new stuff!”

• Copies of the 2018 Henley Literary Festival programme are now available to pick up from venues around the town. For more information and to book, visit or call (01491) 575948. For more on AF Harrold, visit him online at either or

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