Thursday, 14 December 2017

Eight Glorious Gs by Lynne Benton

Luckily for this blog, there are several glorious authors whose names begin with G.

ELIZABETH GOUDGE was a prolific writer of books for adults as well as for children.  Born in Wells, Somerset, in 1900, her trilogy of historical novels for children, “City of Bells”, “The Dean’s Watch”, and “Towers in the Mist” are small masterpieces, but probably her best-known book for children is “The Little White Horse”, for which she won the Carnegie medal in 1946.  The television series “Moonacre” was based on this book, and one of her adult novels, “Green Dolphin Country”, was made into a film which won an academy award in 1948 under its American title “Green Dolphin Street”.  She died in 1984.

ALAN GARNER was born in Cheshire in 1934 and has written several wonderful books, mostly for children and all set in and around the Cheshire countryside.  Most of his books are fantasy, based on local folklore.  His first, “The Weirdstone of Brisingamen”, published in 1960, was soon followed by its sequel, “The Moon of Gomrath”, and then by “Elidor”, “The Owl Service” (for which he won the Carnegie medal) and “Red Shift”.  After several more books, some for adults, he finally published the long-awaited conclusion to his Weirdstone trilogy, “Boneland”, in 2012.

PAUL GALLICO wrote many stories for children as well as for adults.  Some of his best-known books for children are about animals, especially cats, most notably “Jennie” and “Thomasina, the Cat who Thought she was God” (filmed by Disney as “The Three Lives of Thomasina”, a donkey in “The Small Miracle”, and a ceramic mouse who comes to life by magic in “Manxmouse”.  He also wrote “Snowflake”, described as “a beautiful allegory about the meaning of life.”  Born in America, he died in 1976.

MORRIS GLEITZMAN is an Australian author who has written many books for children.  Born in 1953, he has written some very funny books for younger children, most notably his Toad series.  However, his recent award-winning series for older children about a Jewish boy during the Holocaust, are darker and more haunting.  These are, in order, “Once”, “Then”, “Now”, “After”, “Soon”, and “Maybe”.

And now to two brothers whose names will never be forgotten: JACOB and WILHELM GRIMM.  During the 19th century they collected and published folklore, and popularised so many of the stories everyone knows today: Cinderella, The Frog Prince, Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltzkin, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and many others.  Their first collection of folktales was published in 1812, and although many of their original versions were full of cruelty and violence, in later version the Grimm Brothers sanitised them.  Nowadays most of them have been filmed, by Disney among others, so there can be few people who have never come across them.

KENNETH GRAHAME is another writer of whom few people will be ignorant.  Born in 1859, he worked in a bank for most of his adult life but wrote one of the most iconic children’s books of all time, “The Wind in the Willows”, published in 1908 with illustrations by E H Shepard.  He wrote other books as well, and some short stories, but his story of Mole, Ratty, Badger and Toad is his best-loved.  A. A. Milne wrote the play “Toad of Toad Hall”, based on the character of Toad, in 1929.  Grahame died in 1932.

JAMILA GAVIN was born in India, but moved to England when she was twelve.  She has written many books for children and teenagers reflecting her Indian background, several of which have been broadcast or dramatized for television or the stage.  Her book, “Coram Boy”, set in 18th century England, was published in 2000 and won the Whitbread Children’s Book award.  It has also been adapted for the stage.  Jamila lives in Gloucestershire.

DEBI GLIORI is an award-winning Scottish writer and illustrator of children’s books, many of which are reassuring story books for young children, ideal for bedtime reading.  Her latest is “Goodnight World”.  She lives near Edinburgh with her five children.

I am really enjoying rediscovering authors I have loved, as well as those I am discovering for the first time.  (I also keep finding myself wanting to reread old favourites, long since returned to the library, so my pile of books continues to grow...) I do hope some of you are enjoying them too – and doubtless adding others of your own!

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Our Revels Now Are Ended... by Sheena Wilkinson

But I thought the bookish readers might like to hear about them. And maybe be inspired to do something similar.

 I love Shakespeare’s plays. Watching, reading, thinking about, and in my former career teaching*. I love his wealth of characters, his wildly inventive stories – not all original of course, his deep insights into the human psyche, and his language.

In 2017 some likeminded friends and I got together to share this love. We’d been in a Shakespeare reading group before, doing every single play over four years, and we missed it. Well, not  all of it. If I don’t read Troilus and Cressida again, that’s fine by me. 

So we set out to spend a year reading Shakespeare. We called it Twelve Plays In Twelve Months. There were eleven of us; perhaps twelve would have been neater. We met once a month in the home of our hosts, to eat and read. You don’t have to have dinner as well, but it does make it more festive, and the food usually tied in with the play – venison for As You Like It, haggis for Macbeth, etc., and we had great fun being inventive with puddings -- a strawberry pavlova to replicate the strawberry-spotted handkerchief in Othello; heart-shaped shortcake for Romeo And Juliet. 

We read the plays aloud, in full, as dramatized readings. Some of us were a little shy in January, but by March we were all giving it everything we had, safe in the knowledge that we were with friends who didn’t think it was weird, or pretentious, or boring, to want to read aloud some of the greatest literature ever written. 

How did we narrow it down to only twelve plays? Well, we chose personal favourites, and tried to have a representative sample of each type of play. We didn’t read Hamlet, because it takes too long, and of course we didn’t manage to include everyone’s favourite. We tried to fit the play to the month – Twelfth Night in January; Julius Caesar near the ‘ides of March’;  Macbeth close to Halloween, etc. Sometimes our reasoning was more pragmatic – we read King Lear in May because of the long and pleasant evenings; it might have been too depressing to read it in on a dark winter's night. We encouraged everyone to have the same text – we used the RSC Complete Works.

We were men and women – more women, inevitably at such gatherings. Some of us were, or had been, English teachers, but there was no real analysis of the plays – the reading was the thing. A couple of us were actors; others from different walks of life. Most of us were no more than acquaintances  at the start, except to one or two others, but there’s nothing like reading Juliet to a stranger’s Romeo to break down barriers.

It was great fun. It was a reminder to us all of how much we loved Shakespeare. In a crazy, difficult year, it was a little pinpoint of light every month, a getting together to do something beautiful, and traditional and enjoyable.So shines a good deed in a naughty world.  It was not very 2017. It took time. Even the shortest play takes several hours to read. You can’t rush Othello – and why would you want to? 

When we finished last week with The Tempest, we all felt a little sad, but joyful to have shared so many great plays. It’s so easy to organise: I’d encourage anyone who likes reading aloud to have a go. 

 Thank you, Mr Shakespeare!

* Not always an unalloyed joy, to be honest

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Writing Exercises I Have Loved: Part 1 – by Ruth Hatfield

I’ve just had a 3 month break from blogging (many thanks again to Rachel Mcintyre, Claire Fayers and Jenny Alexander who stepped in with brilliant guest posts). In those three months I did no writing AT ALL. I really missed it, and the break made me stop dwelling on the things I find hard about writing and remember the things I absolutely love. I began to think about some of the writing exercises I’ve done in workshops over the past few years, and how they’ve helped me get to the heart of the things I want to write about. I’ll share a few here over the next few posts, for anyone who’s looking for a bit of creative stimulus.

The first exercise I can remember was one on a Children’s fiction course run by Julia Green and Lucy Christopher at Ty Newydd, the Writers’ Centre for Wales. I can’t remember which one of them did this exercise (they’re both brilliant at running workshops), but it took me back to a place I purposefully don’t try to remember or write about – the age slap bang in the middle of my teens. I can’t replicate the exact original exercise here because I can’t remember all the questions that were asked, but I’ve suggested a few of my own, and you can add more as you think of them.

It starts with a pair of shoes. We were asked to imagine a pair of shoes that we’d had as a child. Then we were asked a series of question about the shoes, to get a fuller description of them. What colour were they? What were they made of? What shape were they? Open or closed? What did they feel like under your fingertips?

Once we had a full description of the shoes, we were asked to widen the view a little. What clothes did you wear with them? Were those clothes for a specific purpose? What colour were they?

After the rest of the body was clothed, the emphasis moved to placing it in space and time. How old were you when you wore the shoes? Where did you wear them? What did you do when you wore them? What did you see around you when you wore them? What did you hear? What did you smell?

And the last stage of description brought the remembered person alive: What did you feel about the shoes? What emotions did you feel when you wore them? Were you warm or cold? What did you say when you wore them?

The exercises ended with a short time to remember an instance when you wore the shoes, and write your thoughts as the person inside those shoes, at that time.

For me, this exercise was very effective at delving into a bit of memory that I’d grown used to describing from the outside but preferred not to explore – I’d be surprised if that many fourteen-year-olds are really sunny people inside, but the angry whining and railing against the unfairness of the world that came back to me as I spoke from the heart of my fourteen-year-old self was a gentle reminder that I can’t always remember as well as I think I can what it was actually like to be a child, sometimes because I’ve purposefully hidden it away. This exercise was a brilliant way to excavating some of those hidden thoughts and feelings! I’ve tried it with various characters of mine, and it seems to work well with invented characters too (and is sometimes just as surprising).

A note about this one, if you want to try it – when you’re answering the questions, in order to get into the heart of whichever person you’re trying to dig up, you need to answer quickly and not give yourself time to think too much. I usually just write them out very clearly in a list, but recording yourself reading them out would probably work better.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Putting on the Blitz - Catherine Butler

Carrie's War, first edition jacket

I recently had the pleasure of teaching Nina Bawden's 1973 novel, Carrie's War, the story of a girl who is evacuated to a south-Welsh village during the Second World War (as Bawden was herself). Carrie’s time in Wales is reasonably eventful: she is billeted with the strict Mr Evans and his kindly but downtrodden sister, and often visits the house of their relative, the wealthy Mrs Gotobed, with whom Mr Evans has a feud. There, Carrie learns of a family legend concerning a cursed skull, which becomes a plot point later in the story.

I won’t stray further into spoiler territory, but instead let me tell you what isn’t in the book. There are no air-raids, no mention of Hitler or Churchill, no news from the front, no prisoners-of-war. The blackout and rationing are both in force, but barely feature. A couple of soldiers appear as minor characters, off-duty, with no talk of combat past or future.

Why then is it called Carrie’s War, you may wonder? Is the war a metaphor for some almighty struggle of another kind that Carrie faces? Perhaps – but I prefer to think that it’s simply Bawden’s way of saying, “Many people spent the war in this undramatic way, and their experience was as real as any other.” The jacket of the first edition of Carrie’s War (above) reflects the quiet nature of the story, and shows Carrie and her younger brother Nick on the platform of the station in Wales where they have just been decanted for the duration.

I was surprised, however, on looking at my own more recent copy, to find quite a different scene.

At one point in Carrie’s War Carrie sees a house on fire from a train window – the result of a domestic accident. The cover of my edition appears to show this conflagration, and a girl - Carrie, presumably – looking back at it. But she's not looking from a train window. She's running from the scene, hurried away by an adult couple for whom the reader will search the book in vain. And, hang on – what’s that in the sky? A bat-signal? No, for some reason this rural, air-raid-free part of Wales is being raked by searchlights! Could it be that they're trying to make it look like an air raid? To make it look, in fact, like the Blitz?

Of course. I forgot. The only thing that happened in Britain during the Second World War was the Blitz. When children “do” the war in school, the Blitz looms large; so everything, even rural Welsh valleys, must be Blitzed up. From 1939-45, houses never burned down for any other reason than aerial bombardment.

Naturally I began to look at some of the book's other jackets, and discovered that the same thing had happened before. Here, for example, is a jacket showing Carrie and Nick, with evacuee-style address labels, next to the Hogwarts Express a steam train:

So far, so un-Blitzy; but steam isn’t very exciting, and other editions show that same beret-wearing Carrie moved to another inferno, this time with added bombers to emphasise the Blitziness.

On a third jacket she has fled (still clutching her suitcase) to the safety of a deserted hillside. Alas, the Luftwaffe has apparently decided that she is a prime military target, and is even now streaming across the sky in pursuit!

The good news for Carrie is that Goering’s planes then apparently lost interest, and went off to strafe Mr Tom instead.

There are of course other covers of Carrie’s War. Several portray her looking meditatively at the skull, à la Hamlet; but my favourites are probably the ones in which she is staring from the canonical train window at the blazing house. In the story she is horrified at the sight, but somehow the book jackets manage to give her the look of a telekinetic arsonist reflecting with malicious satisfaction on a job well done.

Carrie’s War was published in 1973. A mere year later, Stephen King got his big break with Carrie.

It was probably a coincidence, but I’m just saying.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

What are your favourite books of the year? by Jess Butterworth

I recently received the most wonderful letter from a reader and it inspired me to celebrate my own favourite middle-grade ‘books of the year!’

Please share your own favourite books of 2017 too and I’ll put them to the top of my to-be-read pile. I adore getting cosy over Christmas and reading as many books as I can!

The Tale of Angelino Brown by David Almond (Author),‎ Alex T. Smith (Illustrator)

Bert and Betty Brown have got themselves a little angel. Bert found him in his top pocket when he was driving his bus. Bert and Betty’s friends think he’s lovely. So do Nancy and Jack and Alice from Class 5K. What a wonder! But Acting Head Teacher Mrs Mole is not so sure. Nor is Professor Smellie. Or the mysterious bloke in black who claims to be a School Inspector. Then there’s Basher Malone – big, lumbering Basher Malone. He REALLY doesn’t like Angelino. And it looks like he’s out to get him...

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill  

An epic fantasy about a young girl raised by a witch, a swamp monster, and a Perfectly Tiny Dragon who must unlock the powerful magic buried deep inside her.

Tender Earth by Sita Brahmachari.  

Laila Levenson has always been the baby of the family, but now with her older siblings, Mira and Krish, leaving home just as she starts secondary school, everything feels like it's changing... can the reappearance of Nana Josie's Protest Book and the spirit it releases in Laila, her friends and her local community, help her find her own voice and discover what she truly believes in.
Letters from the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll
February, 1941. After months of bombing raids in London, twelve-year-old Olive Bradshaw and her little brother Cliff are evacuated to the Devon coast. The only person with two spare beds is Mr Ephraim, the local lighthouse keeper. But he’s not used to company and he certainly doesn’t want any evacuees. Desperate to be helpful, Olive becomes his post-girl, carrying secret messages (as she likes to think of the letters) to the villagers. But Olive has a secret of her own. Her older sister Sukie went missing in an air raid, and she’s desperate to discover what happened to her. And then she finds a strange coded note which seems to link Sukie to Devon, and to something dark and impossibly dangerous.
The Huntress: Sea by Sarah Driver
Ever since Ma died, Mouse has looked after her little brother, Sparrow, dreaming of her destiny as captain of the Huntress. But now Da’s missing, Sparrow is in danger, and a deathly cold is creeping across Trianukka . . 

The Jamie Drake Equation by Christopher Edge

How amazing would it be to have a dad who’s an astronaut?
Rocket launches, zero gravity, and flying through space like a superhero! Jamie Drake’s dad is orbiting the Earth in the International Space Station and Jamie ought to think it’s cool but he just really misses him…Hanging out at his local observatory, Jamie picks up a strange signal on his phone. It looks like alien life is getting closer to home. But space is a dangerous place and when his dad’s mission goes wrong, can Jamie prove that he’s a hero too?
The Ones That Disappeared by Zana Fraillon

Around the world, millions of people - including many children - are victims of human trafficking. These modern-day slaves often go unseen even in our own cities and towns, their voices silent and their stories untold. In this incredible book, Zana Fraillon imagines the story of three such children, Esra, Miran and Isa. The result is powerful, heartbreaking and unforgettable.

The Island at the End of Everything by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Amihan lives on Culion Island, where some of the inhabitants including her mother have leprosy. Ami loves her home with its blue seas and lush forests, Culion is all she has ever known. But the arrival of malicious government official Mr Zamora changes her world forever: islanders untouched by sickness are forced to leave. Banished across the sea, she's desperate to return, and finds a strange and fragile hope in a colony of butterflies. Can they lead her home before it's too late?

Fly Me Home by Polly Ho-Yen
Feeling lost and alone in a strange new city, Leelu wishes she could fly away back home – her real home where her dad is, thousands of miles away. London is cold and grey and the neighbours are noisy and there’s concrete everywhere. But Leelu is not alone; someone is leaving her gifts outside her house – wonders which give her curious magical powers. Powers which might help her find her way home . . .
The Explorer by Katherine Rundell   

 From his seat in the tiny aeroplane, Fred watches as the mysteries of the Amazon jungle pass by below him. He has always dreamed of becoming an explorer, of making history and of reading his name amongst the lists of great discoveries. If only he could land and look about him.

As the plane crashes into the canopy, Fred is suddenly left without a choice. He and the three other children may be alive, but the jungle is a vast, untamed place. With no hope of rescue, the chance of getting home feels impossibly small.
Except, it seems, someone has been there before them …

Coyote Summer by Mimi Thebo

Jules is an expelled, exiled, failure. Sent away by her mother from a life of luxury in London to live on her aunt's farm halfway across the world, she feels like everyone has given up on her. Until, under the baking Kansas sun, a wild coyote helps her begin to find out who she really is.

A Girl Called Owl by Amy Wilson
It's bad enough having a mum dippy enough to name you Owl, but when you've got a dad you've never met, a best friend who needs you more than ever, and a new boy at school giving you weird looks, there's not a lot of room for much else. So when Owl starts seeing strange frost patterns on her skin, she's tempted to just burrow down under the duvet and forget all about it. Could her strange new powers be linked to her mysterious father? And what will happen when she enters the magical world of winter for the first time?

Happy Reading!

Jess Butterworth
Author of Running on the Roof of the World and When the Mountains Roared