Category Archives: Education

An Austen-free upbringing

After wondering why I didn’t read the books by Jane Austen or the Brontës in my early teens, I suddenly realised why, and who I could blame for this regrettable shortcoming. (Always important, because it certainly wasn’t my fault.)

My Swedish teacher when I was 15, is who. The last year of secondary school we had free reading once a week. I am – with my mature adult hindsight – guessing it was a way to get the non-readers to read. Anything. At. All.

We were allowed to read whatever we wanted, and could bring our own books or use the school library. I generally sat down with an Alistair MacLean, or similar. Generally in English (which is odd for a Swedish lesson, but never mind). Naturally the teacher would have preferred me not to.

So she suggested books I might try. The only one I remember is Pella. I am sure the Pella books were fantastic, and the teacher had most likely loved them when she was young. But I was 15, and I was reading MacLean. Pella would – possibly – have been right for me about three years earlier.

All these years I’ve remembered the teacher’s badly chosen suggested books and I have understood what she was hoping for. I just haven’t thought of what she ought to have pointed me in the direction of instead, because she was quite right in wanting me to better myself with something other than MacLean.

I already loved all manner of romances; the kind where a young governess meets her new employer who is a brooding and somewhat strange man, and where they eventually fall in love and live happily ever after. The Jane Eyre copycats. Reader, I had no idea there existed the real thing and that it would have been much more satisfying. (Not better than MacLean, obviously, but as good…)

We knew of Pride and Prejudice because it had been on television. At that point I was of an age where understanding there’d be a book as well was too much to expect. We knew about Vanity Fair, because that too had been on television. Also, Heathcliff ran around the moors on television, and I knew there was a book, but it didn’t tempt me at all.

I knew about Dickens because we had children’s abridged versions. And yes, he’d been on television.

Mother-of-witch was many things, and for someone of her background she had an astounding number of proper books and books in English. But she had not been brought up on the classic governesses, and so she could not point me in their direction. Which is fine.

But my well educated mother tongue teacher could have. And should have.

Mrs G’s book

I promise. I will not keep going on about the G family and how they influenced me. Not for all that much longer, anyway. But an influence is an influence and cannot be ignored.

It’ll get sadder now. Many years after my year of lodging with them, I was shocked to to be told that Mrs G was terminally ill. And that she’d not been wanting to tell me, because it was precisely the same illness that Mother-of-witch died of five years before. And she knew that, and I bet she knew that she was at least as much of a mother figure as she was friend. To lose two mothers to the same illness could be seen as carelessness.

Towards the end you go a bit crazy. I know I did. Mrs G clearly sensed it, and knew what to do.

A couple of days later a parcel arrived for me. It was a book. One of hers. Not one that I particularly wanted, but one of hers and so very well chosen. It was old and worn. It was Swedish Embroidery, by Eivor Fisher.

Eivor Fisher, Swedish Embroidery

I had been surrounded by embroidery for most of my life, and with it being mainly mid-20th century in style, it was precisely what I’d been surrounded by. Mother-of-witch and all her friends embroidered such things. In short, a little boring. For me.

But to Mrs G it was obviously fresh and exciting, being part of a much earlier craze for things Scandi (same as Sarah Lund’s jumpers) that young people well versed in arty ways liked back then.

What really made her gift special, however, was the card that accompanied the book, explaining why and what. Before they were married, Mr G had to attend classes in the evening for his architect course, which he didn’t care for. I suppose he’d rather have gone out with his girlfriend.

His girlfriend was so nice (well, we already knew) that she enrolled in embroidery classes at the same Art College, so that they could go for drinks afterwards. I find that very romantic.

So, there was the reason for the book. She wanted to leave a little bit of herself for me to keep. It’s amazing how knowing the background to something can change how you look at it.

This was precisely the book I needed. I won’t be embroidering anything from it, the way Mrs G hoped. But I don’t need to.

Scam on the Cam

Cambridge, Cambridge… what’s going on? More crime. Another young detective. Another college theologian. I’m beginning to feel Cambridge might not be as safe as the romantic view of this place of learning would have you believe.

Clémentine Beauvais, Scam on the Cam

Clémentine Beauvais sends her Sesame Seade out into seedy Cambridge for a third adventure, Scam on the Cam. As the title suggests, it’s water based and it’s about the famous boat race. The poor young men who row for Cambridge are dropping like flies. Who is poisoning them and why?

Or are they falling ill for some other reason? There are frogs, and a handsome young boy from one of the other schools in town. There are ze zieves. (thieves, you know) It’s enough to make Sesame shplutter.

I love the humour and the use of language (and she is French! Young, too…) and there is nothing about this rather innocent crime series and its 11-year-old detective that makes it unsuitable for old people. Quite the contrary. I hope the quality of the writing isn’t wasted on the young (like so much else).

(Illustrated by Sarah Horne.)

The curtsey

‘And you just disappeared,’ said Mother-of-witch as we were out walking one day. I was probably about eight. I didn’t disappear. I curtseyed. Because we’d just walked past my headmaster in town, and you had to curtsey to people like him. Or so I’d been told. I was very obedient.

So I bobbed down, which was what she meant.

I blogged about an earlier curtsey a while ago, and felt like a dinosaur. (Do dinosaurs curtsey?) Back then, Swedish girls were brought up to bend their knees on all sorts of occasions. With adults. Teachers and other school staff. The King, if you happened to meet him. Maybe you didn’t have to for school staff outside school. I don’t know. To me a rule was a rule. You just did. And Mother-of-witch apparently didn’t recognise my headmaster.

(He probably didn’t even notice me.)

These days I doubt anyone curtsies. I wonder when they stopped instructing girls to do it? Boys had to bow, so it wasn’t just the one sex who had to be polite. They also had to take their hats/caps off.

The trouble is knowing when to stop, and by that I mean, when are you old enough not to be required to dip down? It becomes instinct, thus is hard to stop doing. I stopped very early. Partly because I felt like an idiot, and partly because Mother-of-witch told me not to do it when we visited England ‘because English girls don’t curtsey.’

When I arrived at the G’s house, at the age of 21, I was simply the latest in a long row of Swedish students they’d had living with them. Mrs G sounded amused and a little embarrassed when she told me that the other girls had curtsied to her on arrival. She must have felt rather Queen-like, I imagine.

That in itself made me pleased I’d given it up, because I could see that I too, would have ‘disappeared’ downwards. Purely from habit.

Dead Silent

Have I said this before? There isn’t enough crime in YA fiction. I don’t know why. Crime is so popular with us ‘slightly’ older ones, that I can’t see why there isn’t more straightforward murders offered to YA readers. Sharon Jones’s Dead Silent is like a breath of fresh air, as long as you like your corpses coming thick and fast.

Very briefly, I worried that my promised murders were going to disappear in a haze of teen sex, but it didn’t. Not having read the first Poppy Sinclair book (Dead Jealous) I didn’t know what to expect.

Sharon Jones, Dead Silent

Poppy is in Cambridge with her boyfriend Michael, who has an interview for King’s. She has sex on her mind, and whereas he wouldn’t mind, the murders rather change the pace of romance. Poppy’s dad is chaplain at Trinity, and it’s in his chapel that the trail of bodies begins. After that they are all over Trinity.

Did dad do it? That’s the question. And why are the bright young third years behaving so strangely? Can Poppy really speak to the dead? Are the angels real?

This is very nicely – if atypically, I trust - Cambridge. Snow. Students. Professors, policemen, a Dean and even a Master. Lots of surprisingly helpful and friendly porters at all the colleges.

Great fun and quite exciting by the time you have suspected almost everyone of being the murderer. Blood on snow looks so striking, don’t you think?

The 2014 programme – Manchester Children’s Book Festival

James Draper

Would you trust this man to run your book festival? Well, you should. James Draper – with his dodgy taste in socks – and Kaye Tew are responsible (yes, really) for the Manchester Children’s Book Festival, and there is no other festival I love in quite the same way. It is professional, while also managing to be friendly, fun and very crazy.

(While they now have their own teams working for them, and they claim there’s less need and opportunity to see each other all the time, I believed James when he said ‘I see more of that woman than I do the inside of my own eyelids!’)

James Draper and Kaye Tew

The extremely hot off the presses 2014 programme is proof that Kaye and James know what they are doing and are growing with the task (no, not in that way), but I hope they never grow away from the childish pleasure they seem to take in working together. Carol Ann Duffy was wise to give them the job in 2010. She might still have to be mother and stop anything too OTT, but other than that you can definitely hand your festival over to these two.

I’d been told the new programme would be ready by the end of Monday. And I suppose it was. James worked through the night until 9 a.m. on the Tuesday, but that really counts as end of Monday in my book. Then he slept for an hour to make it Tuesday, when he and Kaye had invited me round for an early peek at what they have to offer this summer.

James Draper and Kaye Tew

While James – understandably – got some coffee, Kaye started talking me through the programme. It went well, although if I’d brought reading glasses I’d have been able to see more. There is a lot there, and they have old favourites coming back and new discoveries joining us for the first time.

This year they start their reading relay before the festival with an event in early June with Curtis Jobling, who is launching the whole thing, before spending a month going into schools passing the baton on. I reckon if anyone can do that, it’s Curtis. The month, not passing the baton. That’s easy.

Multi-cultural Manchester launches on the 26th of June with Sufiya Ahmed returning to talk about human rights issues with teenagers.

Olive tree MMU

On the Family Fun Day (28th June) Sarah McIntyre and Philip Reeve will judge a seawig parade (no, I don’t know what that is, either), they expect you to make sea monkeys (instructions on Sarah’s website), and there will be countless other fun things to do. It’s an all day thing, intended to tire you out.

Sunday 29th offers entertainment at various venues belonging to the festival sponsors; Royal Exchange Theatre, National Football Museum, Waterstones and Ordsall Hall.

On the Monday Guy Bass is back, and newbie Kate Pankhurst is bringing her detective Mariella Mystery. (I think I was told that Kate is getting married before her event and then going off on honeymoon immediately after. That’s dedication, that is.)

Justin Somper will buckle some swash on Tuesday 1st July, and the Poet Laureate is handing out poetry competition prizes, while on the Wednesday Andrew Cope (whom I missed last time) will talk about being brilliant, as well as doing an event featuring his Spy Dogs and Spy Pups. And as if that’s not enough cause for celebration, that Steve Cole is back again. It will be all about me, as he is going to talk about stinking aliens and a secret agent mummy.

Farmyard Footie and Toddler Tales on Thursday 3rd July, ending with a great evening offering both Liz Kessler and Ali Sparkes. (How to choose? Or how to get really fast between two venues?) David Almond will make his mcbf debut on Friday night, which is cause for considerable excitement.

And on the Saturday, oh the Saturday, there is lots. Various things early on, followed by vintage afternoon tea (whatever that means) at the Midland Hotel in the company of Cathy Cassidy! After which you will have to run like crazy back to MMU where they will have made the atrium into a theatre for a performance of Private Peaceful: The Concert, with Michael Morpurgo, who is mcbf patron, and acappella trio Cope, Boyes & Simpson.

If you thought that was it, then I have to break it to you that Darren Shan will be doing zombie stuff in the basement on the Saturday evening. Darkness and a high body-count has been guaranteed.

Willy Wonka – the real one – is on at Cornerhouse on Sunday, followed by a brussel sprout ice cream workshop, or some such thing. Meanwhile, Tom Palmer will be in two places at the same time (I was promised this until they decided he’d be in two places one after the other), talking about the famous football match in WWI. There will also be a Twitter football final.

What I’m most looking forward to, however, is the Carol Ann Duffy and John Sampson festival finale, with afternoon tea and a quiz at the MacDonald Townhouse Hotel. (And it had better be at least as chaotic as the one in 2010 where James’s mother was disqualified, and I probably should have been.)

You should be able to book tickets from today, and doing it today might be a good idea. Just in case it sells out. Which would be good (for them), but also a shame (for you).

For some obscure, but very kind, reason they have put my name on the last page. 14 rows beneath Carol Ann Duffy, but only two away from Michael Morpurgo. And I didn’t even give them any money.

MMU

All I want now is a complimentary hotel room for the duration. And a sofa from the atrium area to take home.

 

‘People respond to courage’

While I eyed up the new furniture at MMU (would anyone really notice if I walked off with one of those sofas?), the other people who had come to hear Deborah Ellis speak scoffed wine and canapés. Deborah is back in the UK for the first time for years, so I’m not surprised her fans wanted to see and hear her.

Deborah Ellis at MMU

Deborah’s interest in Afghanistan started in the late 1990s, when she visited refugee camps in Pakistan a couple of times. She based her idea for writing books about it on the fact that if you know who someone is, you have a relationship, and it’s much harder to hate them.

She heard about two girls who dressed up as boys and went out to work to support their families, and they became her character Parvana, and as she herself has an older sister, it wasn’t at all hard to write about family members who drive you crazy, because that happens wherever in the world you happen to live.

When asked about writing torture scenes, she described water-boarding, and discussed how you know what counts as torture, as well as saying she hopes her fellow Canadians have not taken part in it, but she’s not sure. Deborah reckons children understand complicated situations well, and always ask astute questions wherever she goes.

Deborah Ellis at MMU

Her wish was to show the Afghan people as warm and welcoming, and she pointed out that the Taliban are people too. Trying to explain why the parents and grandparents in My Name Is Parvana didn’t want their children to go to school, she said that if none of them had attended school, it’s hardly surprising they were nervous about it.

Asked about how to deal with writer’s block Deborah recommended doing something real, like the washing up or mowing the lawn. On how to become a writer she suggested reading a lot, as well as reading more advanced things than usual and also different stuff than what you normally read. Then you just sit down and write and 90% of it will be garbage, but you’re allowed to spend 20 minutes a day on writing bad stuff.

Deborah Ellis at MMU

The teachers in the audience use The Breadwinner in the classroom and find that it provides openings for all sorts of discussion and tasks among their students. Not bad for a book which Deborah only hoped would sell $3000 worth for the women in Afghanistan.

Before the book signing at the end, Deborah read a short piece from her new Kids of Kabul, which is based on interviews with children. The one she read was about ‘Frank Sinatra.’

This was a marvellous early start to the 2014 Manchester Children’s Book Festival. (The regular programme will be available very soon.)

Dream Land

You can never go back. Well, you can, but it won’t be the same. Sometimes you have to, or you want to, despite knowing the sad truth. And then you might find you want to return to the place you thought you wanted to leave, and that could also have changed.

Lily Hyde blogged here this week, about how things are for the Tatars in Crimea right now, and it’s not looking promising. In her novel Dream Land we move twenty years into the past, to the time when hundreds of thousands of the forcibly displaced Crimean Tatars returned ‘home.’

Lily Hyde, Dream Land

Based on real life stories, Lily writes about 12-year-old Safi, her older brother Lutfi and their parents, who were all born in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, as they return to Crimea with her grandfather who was 17 when he had to leave in 1944, and who has dreamed of home ever since. He has told the stories and Crimea lives in their hearts, to the extent that they happily sold their Samarkand home at a loss and gave up qualified jobs, to return home to where they’ve never been.

The old Crimea no longer exists. Not only have Russians moved into Tatar houses, but whole villages have been razed to the ground. The paradise they’d heard so much about was long gone. And the current inhabitants don’t want them. They are illegals, and as such they can’t buy or build new homes, they can’t work, or go to school. (Sound familiar?)

Nevertheless, they embark on building a rather sorry excuse for a house, and they quarrel as things don’t go well. Grandfather continues telling them the old stories. The police persecute them and the neighbours aren’t exactly friendly. (To be fair, they feel threatened by the Tatars who might take their homes and jobs.)

It’s a sad story about people’s determination to rebuild a dream country. Safi wants to go home to Samarkand. And she is shocked by her family’s reactions to the Russians; even the few friendly ones are rebuffed, because they want nothing to do with anyone related to those who stole their homes.

If it weren’t for recent events, I’d have finished Dream Land thinking that sooner or later things would work out all right for Safi’s family and the many thousands of others, but it doesn’t look like it will happen, soon, or ever.

People take a long time to learn.

(I’d had this book for a while, and for once I’m actually glad I delayed reading it. Everything felt so much more relevant now, with Crimea in the news, even if it’s for all the wrong reasons.)

 

A small country

Sweden is a very small country. You are always finding that you know someone who knows someone.

When I was 16 my History of Art teacher at school was a Mr H. I didn’t know much about him, and while his lessons were interesting, History of Art was a compulsory subject all students had to take for an hour every week.

Four years later I found myself with an English teacher at the Post Office. She was a Mrs H, and as a native English speaker the Post Office hired her to train new staff in postal English (if you can even imagine such a thing). It was only for five or ten hours, and most of that time she and I talked about London, as none of the others in my group were remotely interested in languages.

Just over 12 months later, I spent a year in Brighton, studying for the first year of a (Swedish) degree in English at the University of Sussex. One of my classmates was Miss H, daughter of these two teachers. Slightly younger than me, we had just missed each other at ‘Sixth Form’ school. We ended up belonging to the Mock Turtle group of students, who went to the venerable old Mock Turtle tea rooms to drown our sorrows with cream teas and plates of cake after each exam.

It was so enjoyable that we continued this tradition once we were all back in Gothenburg the following year.

I used to think this was proof enough that you will always accidentally stumble across people who know each other or who are related, in our small country. Large on the surface, but small population-wise.

You may have heard in the news this week about a Swedish journalist killed in Kabul. He was the only member of the H family I never met. He was younger still, so there was never a reason to. But I knew Nils Horner was vaguely famous, through his work.

This is the one kind of small country coincidences I don’t like.

Papa Chagall

I knew less about Marc Chagall than I wanted to admit. Sometimes the names of these big artists just blend together and you know they are great, but who painted what, exactly?

Now I know, because I have been properly introduced to Marc Chagall and his paintings and his life story, all in one fell swoop through the medium of a children’s picture book. They are often the best.

In Tell Us a Story, Papa Chagall, Laurence Anholt paints pictures of Chagall and of his paintings, with ‘real’ paintings used every now and then to illustrate parts of Chagall’s life. They are truly weird, but very appealing in a childish kind of way. What’s not to like about beautiful women and flying cows? In the same painting.

Laurence Anholt, Papa Chagall

His grandchildren come and see the great artist in his studio, and like children do, they insist on being told a story. And he tells them about his life, about his childhood in Russia, about how he met their grandmother and what happened in the war (WWII).

They are touching stories, and help you understand him and sympathise with how his life turned out. But no matter how hard it was, Papa Chagall has time for his grandchildren, and time for one more story.

Rather wonderful.