How to Capture an Audience (Kiwi-style)

In April, Ruth Paul and Juliette MacIver took their Kiwi author-illustrator talents over to the United Arab Emirates – more specifically, to the Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival. Ruth kindly shed some light on the experience for our readers.

I couldn’t decide whether I should call this piece ‘Deity for a Day’ or ‘Three Caldecotts and Me.’ But nothing could top my lasting vision of Juliette MacIver with arms outstretched blocking the exit to our session crying ‘Stop! It’s not over!’ We Kiwis really know how to hold an audience.

It was partly thanks to the irrepressible Juliette MacIver that I ended up at the Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival (SCRF) in the first place. Where? Sharjah. Try and say it without looking like a Thunderbird. It’s the dry emirate of the UAE. Enticed by business class seats, all-you-can-eat-and-sleep accommodation at the Hilton and a full and varied cultural programme, we were in.

And – oh – the pleasures of business class! We ate! (Many courses). We drank! (Did I mention it’s a dry emirate?) We stretched full-length and gazed at the starry A380 ceiling! We were both terribly excited about the free bag of goodies with toothbrush and multiple perfumed goods, all of which the inexplicable Juliette MacIver applied to herself at once, creating a no-go zone of Bulgari over her Business Class pod.

Juliette and Ruth enjoying the perks of business class en route to Sharjah.

Disembarking, we were fragrantly whisked through airport and customs by a black-suited minion, shepherded by shiny black car to the Hilton and welcomed like actual paying guests. We immediately availed ourselves of the outdoor pool overlooking the lagoon and contemplated with some dismay our workload in the coming days. Extraordinary by anyone’s definition, the toll for this life of luxury and excess was approximately one hours work. Being Kiwis and known for our work ethic, we managed to stretch this out to two hours over our six night stay.

‘With bookshops not being a common thing in Sharjah, this public festival is one of a few opportunities for individuals to purchase books each year…’

A good PR manager would say that we filled the room three times over during our official presentation. But the truth was that we somewhat shamefully emptied it three times. To explain: the SCRF is held in a venue maybe four times the size of the TSB Arena, packed full with interactive activities, exhibitions, performances and books. No cent is spared. (As an aside, the international illustration competition/exhibition is of an eye-wateringly, heart-achingly high standard). With bookshops not being a common thing in Sharjah, this public festival is one of a few opportunities for individuals to purchase books each year and is jam packed with local school groups and buyers.

Presenting to a room of local schoolgirls.

Our exciting presentation was in an artfully designed ‘open house’ space within this giant hall, so a flow of kids in and out was possibly to be expected. But of course we didn’t expect it, and had to do some hurried unpacking of our presentation into quick 10 minute bites. We must have been terrible, but like a phoenix from the ashes, we ended up on page 3 of the Gulf News – so who’s complaining?

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Juliette MacIver and Ruth Paul featured in Sharjah’s Gulf News while visiting the emirate.

My second hour of work was a school visit – always a terrifying delight, especially when you think you are visiting with 70 nine-year-old girls, and find out it is 200 fourteen-year old boys. With outrageous hospitality, the school gave me sweet treats, sat me in a chair on the stage, gave me a plaque and flowers, and made many speeches of welcome, after which anything (i.e. me) had to have been a let-down. But charging through to question time, a polite young man asked ‘Most honoured writer, apart from being an author, what else would you liked to have been?’ I responded that although I had been no good at science at school, I loved science now, and maybe, possibly I would have liked to have been a doctor. For this I received something of a standing ovation. Clearly, every boy in the room wanted to become a doctor. ‘But making books is cool …’ I muttered as the thunderous clapping continued.

‘But making books is cool …’ I muttered as the thunderous clapping continued.

We met other kids-lit gypsies and hired a car with Nikki Sheehan, stellar novelist of Brighton, to drive across to Oman. Together we watched giant birds of prey fly above us in a landscape plucked from the illustrations in my childhood version of the Arabian Nights. We gesticulated with Francesca Dafne Vignaga from Italy and loved her for doing 11 days of 3-hour illustration workshops ‒ clearly all the REAL work that Juliette and I weren’t doing. We shared near death experiences in a 4-wheeler in the desert with Americans Brendan Wenzel and Carole Boston Weatherford, Caldecott winners both. And while our screams still no-doubt resonate in their ears, the wild words of poet Jeffery Weatherford as we drove home in the dark still echo in mine.

Juliette MacIver and fellow kids literary luminaries in the desert.

Did I mention that I ate gold leaf? That the indefatigable Juliette MacIver unfolds and expands like a slinky when exposed to a desert moon? That in such circumstances, even sand under your contact lenses is only a minor irritant? I’m not sure that I understand the finer points of book festivals, but I do understand more about Sharjah. And yet … less. I am in awe of cities built on sand and rock, with water spun from the sea or seeded clouds. I’m humbled by the hospitality of the festival organisers. I’m struck by the fact that 80% of the workforce aren’t citizens. I am grateful for the genuine kindness of hosts and strangers. I’m grateful for Anna Guement of Midas PR and her lovely smile that covered many a ‘WTF?’ moment. And I’m grateful I went with the irrepressible, indefatigable, and inexplicably bendy Juliette MacIver.

Addendum: while Juliette and Ruth were first approached by their respective publishers, it is possible to go to the SCRF website and register yourself as interested in attending.

Ruth Paul
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Ruth Paul is an award-winning writer and illustrator of more than 20 children’s picture books, including Stomp!, Bad Dog Flash and the Little Hector series. Many of her books have received Storylines Notable Book awards and been shortlisted for the NZCYA Book Awards, and I Am Jellyfish won Best Picture Book at the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults in 2018. In August 2019 Ruth received the Mallinson Rendell Arts Foundation of NZ Laureate Award for book illustration. Her latest book Cookie Boo, published by Harper Collins in the USA, recently received a starred Kirkus review. Ruth lives off-grid in a straw-bale house on a farm near Wellington, New Zealand, with her family and her adorable dog, Teddy.