Hosted by Festivaletteratura in the beautiful Italian city of Mantova, The Identikit of the Teenage Reader was a weekend of training for professionals and part of the READ ON project.

READ ON, Reading for Enjoyment, Achievement and Development of yOuNg people, is a four year project, begun in June 2017, which aims to support and spread a passion for reading among young Europeans aged between 12 and 19 through their active involvement in redesigning the ways of experiencing, sharing and creating literature.

READ ON is made up of seven international partners, one of which is Writing West Midlands based in Birmingham, UK.

As one of their lead writers for their Spark Young Writers creative writing groups and an author of young adult fiction I was asked by Writing West Midlands to represent them at this training event.

Of course I said yes.

Friday the 20th April rolled around pretty fast and before I knew it I was on a train to Birmingham International to catch a flight to Frankfurt and then a second flight on to Bologna. At Birmingham I met up with Farzana Ahmed, principal of English at Ark Boulton Academy and the other delegate to represent Writing West Midlands. Farzana and I had never met before, but any worries I might have had about what my travelling companion might be like were dispelled immediately. Farzana is lovely and a joy to travel with and we got on great.

We were met at Bologna airport by our driver and taken to our hotel in Mantova.

No time for resting from our journey though. After a quick freshen up we were driven to the conference centre for introductions and our first session, The Statistical Brain and Reading.

Presented by Davide Crepaldi, a neuroscientist researching language, semantics and reading, this first session was not a promising start to a weekend of seminars and lectures. The subject matter was way beyond my understanding (and that of the interpreters who struggled at times to put the lecture into plain English) and I’m afraid that the consequences of getting up at 5am and travelling for several hours by train, aeroplane and car finally caught up with me and I dozed off.

Oh dear.

After a buffet dinner and a chance to meet delegates from the other European partners we were back down to the lecture hall for our second session, Writing Fiction for the Young: Honest, Honesty, Honesty!

Presented by Danish author Janne Teller this was much better. Her young adult novel Nothing was rejected by her publisher several times on the grounds that it was too bleak until the publishing director’s fifteen year old daughter read the manuscript and demanded that he publish it.

Nothing went on to win several literary awards, is published in twenty-five countries and won much critical acclaim.

A win for the teenage reader there, I think.

Nothing is a novel which asks the existential questions of life: Why are we here? What’s the point?

Janne pointed out that young adult authors should not be afraid to approach these issues. In her opinion entertainment has its place, but good literature can go beyond entertainment and should do. Her approach to writing also chimed with my own, in that when she sits down to write a novel she doesn’t decide to categorise it into young adult or adult. She simply writes the book that she feels needs to be written.

You start with story not with the audience.

She finished by saying something in which I firmly believe: Art is nourishment. Art takes different forms, literature, art and music.

We just happen to be working with words.

That was the final session of the day and I should really have gone back to my hotel and collapsed in bed, but I was eager to sample the Mantovan nightlife. The city centre was buzzing with people, young and old, and cafes and bars were glowing with light and life. I ordered a beer and sat and people watched in one of the town squares.

And then it was bed!

On Saturday morning we had five seminars to choose from. I went for Reading Through: Cross-Mediality and New Media.

Well, if you know me at all I’m sure it will come as no surprise to find out that I was in seventh heaven. With talk of apps, gaming and fan-fiction my head was soon buzzing with ideas and I was scribbling notes. Looking at those notes now I can see at one point I wrote, ‘I feel like I know a lot of this!!’

That wasn’t me feeling clever and boasting though. And certainly there was a lot talked about in this seminar that I didn’t know. That sentence was more of a reflection of how at home I felt there.

Of particular interest to me was information on the Pubcoder app, a piece of software I have never heard of before. The Pubcoder app is essentially a publishing software but with bells and whistles on. A large part of its appeal is the potential for interactivity on the part of the reader, a useful tool particularly in education.

Couple that with the other panelists who talked about fan fiction and computer gaming and I was busy in my head bringing together all three elements for creative writing workshop purposes and book publishing.

What particularly struck me was the way in which Paulo, the developer behind Pubcoder, talked about using technology for positive benefits, including helping children with disabilities, with autism and those who do not speak the native language of their host country.

Having just a couple of days previously led a creative writing workshop with a group of adults with learning difficulties and realising that there was quite possibly some great potential with this app, I had to stop myself from jumping up and down in my seat with excitement.

After a buffet lunch we then heard from the chairs of the seminars who reported back on the panel discussions. Again this was rather dry and there were some technical difficulties with the interpretations which did not help.

Finally, Carola Gaede presented her talk, Come on Boys and Girls!, on the work that is done at the International Youth Library in Munich.

Once more I had to restrain myself from leaping up and down.

It’s a library in a castle.

Two of my most very favourite things. Libraries and Castles.

At the International Youth Library they hold creative writing workshops, festivals, fellowships and education programmes. And it holds a collection of 600,000 books in over 130 languages.

I’m having to stop myself from jumping up and down again.

A visit to Blutenberg Castle and the International Youth Library is an absolute must for me. After the lecture I introduced my self to Carola. We made promises to keep in touch but, as there were other people waiting to talk with her, I felt I couldn’t hog her time and cut short our conversation. Fortunately I was able to meet her at breakfast on Sunday morning in our hotel and we had a much longer chat and connected with our shared experiences of literature (and raising teenage sons!).

Back to Saturday evening and Farzana and I met up with Kristin Green, author and representative of the Irish partner, West Cork Music, and we ate pizza in the town square and talked literature.

I had brought my running gear with me and was determined that I should get a quick run in before I left. I managed this on Sunday morning before breakfast. Then it was a brief visit to Mantova Cathedral for me before our driver arrived to collect Farzana and myself and take us back to Bologna airport.

So, what did I get of value from this visit apart from beer and pizza?

Well, although not all of the conference’s sessions were for me, the weekend was still a most valuable experience. Janne Teller’s talk of what young adult fiction could be resonated with and inspired me in my own work. The seminar on cross-mediality and new media was a combination of revelation and reinforcement of some of my established views leaving me with new avenues to explore in my own writing work and my creative writing workshops. Finally the discovery of the International Youth Library and the connection I made with Carola has the potential to lead into new areas of work.

And of course the chance to meet with other writers and literary professionals who are dedicated to promoting reading and creative writing amongst the young was an absolute joy.

Something else I discovered this weekend: Working on a novel on my laptop whilst flying between countries is a great conversation starter, beginning with ‘Excuse me, but are you a writer?’ In this way I met an Italian IT technician who flies around the world delivering IT solutions and a German neuroscientist living in the UK. As writing is essentially a very boring activity to describe (I sit at a desk and type) I was soon able to turn the conversation around and find out all sorts of things about my flying companions.

Thank you Writing West Midlands for sending me on this amazing trip.


Ken Preston

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