Before COVID-19 came along, most book launches I used to go to were single-author events. Sometimes a couple of writers might have collaborated on a project, and there were times when we'd gather dutifully round the canapés and Chardonnay to welcome anthologies and short story collections into the world. But in all my 15 years as a newspaper's books editor, I never went to a book launch for 519 debut authors.
Why? Because it had never happened before in Scotland. At the end of the month, though, it will.
Admittedly, none of those first-time writers is ever going to displace Hilary Mantel, Anne Tyler, or Kate Atkinson on my bookshelves. Or at least not right now, because all 519 of them are in P7, S1 and S2 at schools in Edinburgh, and as a rule I prefer fiction written by people with rather more experience of the world. But if Scottish literacy levels are ever to improve and the attainment gap between rich and poor schools to be narrowed, the dozen books that are soon going to be launched are the tip of the spear.
You're probably imagining that this is some sort of glorified school essay competition. Maybe you're thinking back to your own school days, to bits of writing stuck on classroom walls with huge ticks in red ink and an encouraging word or two at the end.
This is an altogether more revolutionary project. These stories have been brought to life with the help of adult volunteers (usually between three and ten per classroom, all to them vetted beforehand). The books are properly published, professionally edited, with artists commissioned to design their covers. The writing in them is to be found not on classroom walls but on the shelves of the National Library, not with marks out of 10 but with ISBN numbers and a recommended retail price.
All of this started in Leith. To be more accurate, it began with a literacy charity founded by American novelist Dave Eggers in 2002. In 2017, Edinburgh designer and charity founder Maxine Sloss had the vision to bring over its charismatic CEO, Gerald Richards, to set up something similar over here. They called it the Super Power Agency, and that year its volunteers – usually wearing capes in primary colours – started work on creative writing projects with 34 pupils at Leith Academy.
Leith Academy is still at the heart of the Super Power Agency's work. It's here that it produced its first two books, here where its first – The Leithers' Guide to Leith
– went into a second edition. Literacy statistics at the school are now heading markedly upwards. As far as you can measure it, so are pupils' feelings of self-esteem and confidence.
Word of the charity's effectiveness has spread throughout Edinburgh. In less than three years, the Super Power Agency is now working with 1,200 pupils and a dozen of the capital's schools. It has produced books of letters written between pupils and pensioners (who then met), run after-school comedy writing workshops, produced guides for incoming S1 pupils, personal essays, and chapbooks of poetry and microfiction. All these are among the 12 titles with stories by 519 writers being launched at the end of the month.
I'm not going to pretend that all of those 519 writers have produced stories that are going to hold your attention throughout. There’s a lot of splatter and slime in there, too many fights between robots and dinosaurs for my own taste, and narrative tension isn't always what it could be. You're not always going to find nuance or irony and many of the stories tell rather than show. Yet I have worked on a couple of those books as a volunteer, and I can honestly say that I've rarely done anything as fulfilling.
Before the virus came, I regularly saw these projects take root in a class's collective imagination. Starting in January, we were working in three primary schools (Trinity, Wardie and Victoria) on an eight-week project to write short stories which would ideally involve creatures from another galaxy having to learn to make the transition to life on Earth. The pupils were all in P7 and about to make the similarly enormous leap to senior school. (As if it instinctively knew about the latest education research on the importance of bridging the primary/secondary divide, the Super Power Agency also picks up creative writing projects in S1 classes too.)
In each of those P7 classes, Gerald Richards got the ball rolling by asking the pupils what kind of planet they wanted to imagine living on, what they would call it, who ran it ('No, please, not Donald Trump'), what kind of laws it had, and what its inhabitants would look like. He drew out their good ideas. The currency? Those would be 'skymonds', and they would be called that because they had come from the sky like rain, but be like diamonds too. All houses would permanently hover and many be constructed from marzipan. All animals were to be friends, not pets. Sometimes the rules became surprisingly specific. All cats, for example, had to wear futuristic sunglasses. One forgets just how imaginative children can be.
At first, the children were slightly shy about asking for help. Most don't, after all, talk to any grown-ups other than their relatives, and lack the confidence to do so. Somehow, though, they worked out that we weren't being paid, so that meant we were actually interested in what they had to say. The volunteers, they realised, could also help fix some of the wobblier things in their minds, like how to use a comma or an apostrophe. They started looking forward to our visits.
In the three years Richards has been in Scotland, he has been surprised to discover just how withdrawn and lacking in self-confidence Scottish children are. 'They don't want to stand out, so if you ask them what makes them different or interesting, they'd just shrug. It's a confidence thing. You know that phrase "tall poppy syndrome"? I'd never heard of that till I came over here.'
Almost every Super Power Agency volunteer can tell a story of a teacher being amazed of pupils who were hitherto reluctant pupils concentrating on their writing (sometimes for the first time). But the pay-off in terms of confidence is often just as great.
'Next time you're sitting next to one of the kids,' says Richards, 'have a look at their face when you tell them that they've done good work. I don't think they hear that much. Most kids just don't get the opportunity to write to express themselves, and when you tell them people are actually interested in what they have to say, they can hardly believe it. I remember talking to this one boy in the corridor at Leith Academy. He was very Scottish, quite shy. And I told him that the first edition of his book had sold out, because people liked it so much. And you could see the emotion in on his face, something he just wasn't prepared for... Maybe it's just American optimism in me, but I think this is the kind of thing that really can transform a whole generation of young people. And as we compete in the global economy, we're going to need levels of self-confidence and creativity that we just don't have right now'.
I think he's right. I try to imagine how I would feel if, aged 12, I already had stories in two properly published books. If I could have bounced ideas off grown-ups who weren't teachers while I was still at primary. If I'd had people like the Super Power Agency volunteers offering one-on-one help, what would it have done to boost my levels of self-confidence? Maybe I'd be like those pupils in the three P7 classes I volunteered with earlier this year. After eight weeks, they couldn't wait to tell me about the books they had read, about how they had taken their stories home to work on, and would I mind taking a look at what they had written to see if I liked it? Would I? I can't imagine anything else I'd rather read.
Details of all 12 books published by the Super Power Agency – along with how to donate to the charity – can be found on its website: www.superpoweragency.com. For the virtual book launch later this month, celebrities such as John Byrne and Alexander McCall Smith will read a selection of stories from the books which are on sale for £4 per available chapbook/magazine or £7 per book.