Category Archives: Poetry

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.


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


A most loveable squirtel

That should read squirrel, except his spelling isn’t totally perfect. But at least he types, so you can find out what Ulysses (that’s his name) is thinking. Which is more than you can say for Mary Ann, Flora’s mother’s favourite lamp. Does it type? No, it does not. Obviously.

Kate DiCamillo and K G Campbell, Flora & Ulysses

Flora & Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo – with the most adorable illustrations by K G Campbell – is about love (which is like a giant doughnut, with sprinkles). Or something.

It is virtually impossible to describe. There’s the dreadful shepherdess lamp. There are the neighbours, whose accident with a new hoover is almost the end of poor little Ulysses, the squirrel. But he rises from the ashes, I mean the hoover, and he is mightier than ever before. He is a super-squirrel.

Kate DiCamillo and K G Campbell, Flora & Ulysses

Flora Belle is actually quite a lonely girl, which will be why she takes so to the almost dead squirrel. Her father’s been kicked out and her mother loves her lamp, and writes romances.

I was most impressed with Flora’s poetry reading neighbour Mrs Tickham, aka Tootie. I’m happy when the most unlikely people become allies, and Tootie beats many unlikelies.

In short, Flora’s mother doesn’t care for Ulysses and wants him dead and gone. Flora and Tootie and a few more memorable characters try to keep him safe and happy. There are the doughnuts, the fierce cat, the charming doctor and Tootie’s temporarily blind great-nephew.

Flora & Ulysses is the best kind of middle grade (as I think they call it over there) book. You can’t guess where it is going, but you know it’s somewhere you want to go. Especially if there are typing squirtels involved.

(I began reading Flora & Ulysses on Monday; the day Bookwitch featured Linda Newbery’s latest book. It was also the day Kate DiCamillo won her second Newbery medal, for this perfect little squirrel book. I like patterns.)

Brilliant Books, again

And again, probably. This is looking good. Oldham libraries have hit on a successful pattern for their Brilliant Books awards ceremony.

Brilliant Books 2013

Although Ruth Eastham and Caryl Hart might want to pull out soon if they keep winning and keep getting these fantastic mosaic prizes. They’ll need to move to bigger houses before long.

As for me, I will have to stick to setting out early for events, and not try brave new ideas like not getting the train before the one I actually got. But I got there. In time. ‘My’ table was taken, but I got a good one precisely where I like to sit. At the back. I discovered later that ‘my’ table had The Worshipful the Mayor of Oldham sitting at it, so I suppose that was an opportunity missed.

This year Brilliant Books invited all shortlisted authors, and twelve of them were able to come, which is brilliant! And none of the winners knew in advance. Or so they claimed. Ruth Eastham came up and chatted to me before proceedings began, and she seemed to have no inkling she was about to carry more mosaic back to Italy. Again.

Like last year, they had invited children from the schools involved, and they helped by reading out the nominations and announcing the winners. In between that, each book was briefly dramatised and acted out by Oldham Coliseum’s Young Rep Company. Really well done!

Oldham Coliseum's Young Rep Company

It seems I no longer need to be escorted by Librarian Snape as Oldham’s defense against the dark blogs. We agreed we missed each other…

Mayor of Oldham

Super organiser Andrea Ellison introduced Chris Hill who introduced the Mayor, who spoke of his pleasure at being asked for his autograph with no competition from Bob the Builder. The Mayor in turn handed over to the host, Dave Whalley, who never gets to sign anything but expenses claims.

Roving Richard (Hall) refused to rove if he didn’t get applause, so we gave him some. He roved throughout the evening, pestering authors and children alike, making them squirm. Great stuff!

Thomas Taylor

The Early Years category winner was Thomas Taylor (and his ‘cool cat’ friend, illustrator Adrian Reynolds), for The Pets You Get. Thomas thanked absolutely everyone for his prize.

Dave lost the plot quite early, and needed Roving Richard to chat to people while he found where he was meant to be. KS1, Dave! Caryl Hart and Sarah Warburton and their book The Princess and the Peas won, and they spoke about how they work together. Caryl admitted that sometimes reading can be boring (!) and Sarah told the audience to continue to ‘read and draw.’

Caroline Green and Ruth Eastham

By the time Ruth found out she had won KS2 for The Messenger Bird, Dave had worked out how to keep everything in order. Ruth said she’d been telling everyone about how brilliant it is in Oldham and that they must come.

Oldham Coliseum's Young Rep Company

We took a break from awarding mosaics and watched the Young Rep Company’s dramatised version of shortlisted book My Friend Nigel by Jo Hodgkinson.

Gina Blaxill

KS3 winner, Gina Blaxill, was 90% certain she wasn’t going to win, but Forget Me Never came out on top, which made Gina especially happy, since she had been worried about second book syndrome.

Richard roved over to table five where he asked Helen Stephens what it’s like to see your own book in bookshops. He had just noticed her How to Hide a Lion in Tesco, and since he’s not written a book himself, he wanted to know. (It’s exciting.) The young readers continued being hard to interview…

Someone Else’s Life by Katie Dale won KS4, and she brought her mother along, just like when she won in Stockport four weeks ago. She might be unstoppable. Katie mentioned the weird and wonderful characters she’s met, and I rather hope she didn’t mean me.

Brilliant Books 2013

Our host complimented the children on how quietly they had gone to the toilet, and then Andrea went and made them parade around the room very noisily, while someone called Justine sang a song and all the authors stood on stage, clutching mosaics, or not.

Brilliant Books 2013

Then it was signing time and the authors went and sat in line, while children and adults shopped, or simply brought their programmes to be autographed. I walked diligently up and down the line several times to make sure I caught all of them with my camera. Don’t they look fantastic?

Rachel Bright

Caroline Green

Helen Stephens

Katie Dale

Gill Lewis

Matt Dickinson

Caryl Hart

Sarah Warburton

Will Buckingham

Thomas Taylor

And then I went and called my nine 0′clock pumpkin. It’s fascinating how the drive home can be achieved in the same amount of time I spent walking from the tram stop to the Queen Elizabeth Hall…

War and football

Here are two books about WWI, both featuring ‘ordinary’ boys, and both with their own version of that Christmas Eve and the singing and the football.

It makes for heart-rending reading. Obviously, all war tales do, and some more than others. But rarely – probably never – have I come across the war at the lowest levels of the battlefields like this. Not even in Private Peaceful or War Horse, which both featured officers as well as brave Tommies.

In James Riordan’s When the Guns Fall Silent, and in Michaela Morgan’s Walter Tull’s Scrapbook we see only the modest lives their heroes led at home before the war, and then it’s straight to the trenches and the mud and death.

Both books are very brief, which makes the sheer volume of suffering all the more poignant. In one the main character dies, and in the other he lives. It’s almost as if it makes no difference. Better out of it, if you are dead? Or it’s no life, even when you survive?

Michaela Morgan, Walter Tull's Scrapbook

Walter Tull was a real person; the first black professional football player, and eventually the first black British officer. Michaela’s book is a pretend scrapbook of his life, with real documents and photos and facts. You read, and you like Walter so much, and you want him to live to go on to do more great things.

James’s story is about two boys from the same street and school in Portsmouth. Despite being only 17 they are ‘blackmailed’ into signing on. They, too, are great football players and had hoped to go on to play professionally, now that so many players, just like Walter Tull, sign on, leaving big gaps in their teams.

Before long they are in the trenches, and before much longer they are in a bad shape, and only one of them will eventually return home. But not before they have played in that Christmas soccer game.

James Riordan, When the Guns Fall Silent

When the Guns Fall Silent has a second part set in the 1960s, when Jack takes his grandson to visit the battlefields, hoping it will show him the true horrors of what went on, and how it wasn’t fun or exciting.

I’m just surprised that anyone survived this war. You hear about the numbers who died. I wonder how many went out and came back home again.

(Some of the best WWI poems by the great war poets in James’s book, and some surprisingly modern quality sports action photos of Walter.)

Jackie’s Royal Exchange gig

She does get oot and aboot, that Jackie Kay. Although someone tried to pull the wool over her eyes by making her think she was doing a gig in front of thirty children. It was more like 500, including me. I sat next to the screamers from Whalley Range. Those girls have got good lungs.

Thirty indeed! It was the Children’s Bookshow at the Royal Exchange, and it was full to bursting. Poetry isn’t dead yet.

This was another great gig (Jackie’s choice of word…) with a nice mix of poems and questions from the audience. She started with a poem based on her (12-year-old) brother’s tricks, went on to Dracula, in whom she believed when she was eleven and visited Romania. Jackie made the audience shout Mississippi for a sad poem about a slave who was forced to sell her child, and clap hands for ‘attention.’

Jackie Kay

When she asked if anyone knew what a Sassenach is I didn’t dare raise my hand unlike last time, but once we’d had some pretty imaginative suggestions, someone seemed to know it means a non-Scottish person. Audience participation in the Sassenach poem definitely dealt with any problems a person on too little sleep might have had. (I’m not saying there actually was such a person present.)

Miaowing along with The Nine Lives of the Cat Mandu, this not-so-posh audience gave vent to lots of noise. And to finish off we got the poem about Jackie’s imaginary friend, Brendan Gallagher. He seemed nice.

The questions were everything from fairly ordinary ones, to the more unusual. Jackie was born in Edinburgh and grew up in Glasgow. Her parents adopted her brother (the one with the tricks) first, and managed to get him as a baby by having no colour preference. Jackie was bullied in primary school, and one of her heroes is Martin Luther King. She likes music, reading and cooking.

Jackie Kay

Her favourite children’s book is Anne of Green Gables, she’s not as old as the audience seemed to think (not sure they quite got her plea for age flattery…), and when he was small her son thought Poetry was a place, because she often seemed to go there. Being a poet is both lonely, when you write, and social, when you do gigs. She is happy when writing, but the editing can take a lot of time.

What with the Exchange being a theatre in the round, it pleased me that Jackie kept turning round the whole time, so there was no front or back. Just hard work taking pictures of this whirlwind.

Jackie Kay

The copies of Red, Cherry Red seemed to sell like hot cakes and the signing queue was long. Jackie said she had never signed anything to a Bookwitch before, and I should jolly well think not!

Red, Cherry Red

When I was struggling with poetry (and that’s reading it, not writing) all those years ago and getting nowhere, I could have done with Jackie Kay. Because here is a woman who writes sensible – and beautiful – poetry that even dunces can enjoy.

I’ve just read Jackie’s Red, Cherry Red and it is marvellous. Hers are poems about ordinary stuff; knitters, sad grannies, trees and herring. Very ordinary, and very special.

Jackie Kay, Red, Cherry Red

If you don’t want to read the poems yourself, the book comes with a CD where Jackie reads them for you. And that is better still. No one reads like the poet.

(In fact, the Retired Children’s Librarian gave the teen witch an LP of Nils Ferlin reading his own poetry. He was also a normal, sensible poet, and the poems did make more sense simply because it was him doing the reading. I guess the RCL was hoping to save and educate me…)

I still find it hard to read very much poetry. In my ideal world Jackie would read me one poem a day. Could this be arranged?

Poetic cats

Richard Adams and Nicola Bayley, The Tyger Voyage

Nicola Bayley knows her cats. In these two picture books – one new and one reissued – it seems to be mainly the large stripey kind of cat we call a tiger, but they are still cats.

In The Tyger Voyage from 1976 we have a long poem by Richard Adams (and that’s something rare these days; real – and long – poetry) all about the neighbours, who are tygers. They go on holiday and are believed disappeared, when in actual fact they are merely having a real adventure, seeing most of the world.

Luckily they are found, and are able to return to lead ‘normal’ lives again.

Brian Patten and Nicola Bayley, Can I Come Too?

Can I Come Too? with words by Brian Patten, is about a small mouse with ambition. It wants to meet the biggest creature in the world, so – rather like the tygers – it sets off to find it. En route it encounters animals larger than itself, but there is no boasting here, because they all admit to not being the biggest, and all want to accompany the mouse so that they too can see this special creature.

Amazingly none eat the others. They are simply travellers on a journey for that special treat. The tiger breaks out of the zoo, promising not to eat anyone. At the end of their long walk, they do come across the largest creature, and all are very happy.

You can be tiny, but you can still have big ambitions.

Nicola’s pictures are as beautiful as you’d expect.

Changing Guard at Buckingham Palace

Grandparents will buy this book. Of that I am absolutely certain. I might have done too, had I not been provided with one, since even for a foreigner there is that tug at the heart strings when you come face-to-face with childhood nostalgia.

A A Milne and E H Shepard, Changing Guard at Buckingham Palace

It wasn’t so much my childhood, though. Mainly later. And I suspect that is the case for anyone young enough to be a parent of young children today. That’s why I know it’s the grandparents who will buy it as a gift.

Whether today’s children will enjoy A A Milne’s poems as much as older generations did, I have no idea. I’d like to think they will. But it is definitely the kind of book you read to and with the child.

I gather these poems are classic A A Milne poems, and I obviously recognise the illustrations by E H Shepard, coloured in by Mark Burgess. I definitely knew the James James Morrison Morrison poem, but perhaps not so many of the others.

It’s all very nice.

The Lost Boy

I was just about to reply to the email about Camilla Läckberg’s latest novel, The Lost Boy, saying that I don’t really read Swedish crime in translation, when the Resident IT Consultant said very pointedly that he would like to read her. So I reversed my plans and let him have the book. I have heard a lot about Camilla’s writing, but if truth be told, I read hardly any Swedish books these days.

Over to my guest reviewer:

“I hadn’t read any of Camilla Läckberg’s crime novels before, so I was interested to get the opportunity to read her latest book in her Patrik Hedström series set in Bohuslän, north of Gothenburg.

Mats Sverin, financial director on a regeneration project worth millions, is found murdered. As Tanum police investigate, the plot thickens and Mats’ universal popularity seems to hide a mysterious past which draws in all the characters.

I found it a little hard to get started. There’s a large cast of characters and I did not find it easy to remember who was who. Probably if I’d read the other novels in the series this wouldn’t matter. But the novel is twice the length of Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s first crime novel and I did wonder whether it could have been a little shorter.

Camilla Läckberg, The Lost Boy

I liked the picture it painted of the Swedish West Coast. The book is called The Lighthouse Keeper in Swedish and I found it reminded me of Wilfrid Wilson Gibson’s poem Flannan Isle. Otherwise the novel contains many of the features we’ve learnt to become familiar with in Swedish crime: drugs, domestic abuse, a motorcycle gang, a suicide and an archipelago. These are almost becoming a stereotype for Nordic crime.

As the plot developed I got more drawn in and I read the final two thirds of the book much faster than I had read the first third. Everything came to a satisfactory conclusion in the end.

Would I read another? Probably yes, and I assume more knowledge of the key characters would make a second novel an easier read.”

Yes, I always find it hard starting in the middle of a series. If the author explains what has gone before, I get bored. If they don’t, I get annoyed. No pleasing some…

Animal Magic

I feel for the little Polkadot Frog. I really do.

You know me. I’m not good with poetry, but I still wanted to read Liz Brownlee’s Animal Magic. It sounded all right. And it’s poems about endangered species, with one page of facts about the animal in question, and a poem about it on the next page.

Some of the poems, no actually, quite a few of them, are shaped like their animal, which makes for fun reading. The giraffe poem has a giraffe-shaped poem. That sort of thing.

Liz Brownlee, Sea Star (Animal Magic)

The poems come with illustrations of the animals as well, very nicely done by Rose Sanderson. She’s good with frogs. There are lots of frogs.

Except, soon there won’t be. The humans are misbehaving and far too many animal species will be gone forever.

That’s where poor Polkadot Frog comes in. He is not merely endangered, but he was only discovered recently because his habitat was chopped down to build a road. Just imagine, you’re only found when it’s already too late!

So it’s rather sad that we get to read these poems, and then the ‘main characters’ will disappear. Some already have.

(The fact pages have been checked by experts on each animal, and it looks to me as if there’s a lot of useful stuff there. At the back of the book you will also find a glossary and reference lists, as well as advice on who would like your money to try and stop this dreadful behaviour of ours.)

Animal Magic would do well in schools. If they have any sense.