Category Archives: War

Now, before and much earlier

At the same time as I read Tanya Landman’s Buffalo Soldier, which briefly featured the men who built the railways across America, I was facebook stalking Son and Dodo on their travels across America on possibly the very same rails. Or maybe newer versions of what was being built 150 years ago. It felt like one of those odd coincidences.

Amtrak

Besides, modern people don’t usually cross that vast continent down at ground level, taking days travelling at speeds of 40 mph.

Crossing America

After Reading Buffalo Soldier, the one unread book which I suddenly felt I must read was Laurie Halse Anderson’s Forge. It was the ‘black soldier in American history’ theme, although I had actually forgotten that Laurie’s characters lived a hundred years before Tanya’s.

They too were slaves, and the war is America versus England, instead of North versus South. I did find the war in Buffalo Soldier very harsh, but it is nothing compared with the war to free ‘the country of the free’ from European rule. The conditions were atrocious.

The place names have only ever been names to me. Yes, maybe someone fought a battle there, but it’s history. Now I can put so much misery to the small gains made with such great sacrifice by all the soldiers involved, whether English or American, free or slave.

Son and Dodo are back home, and they turned up yesterday, telling us all about the trip and giving us a picture show on two laptops simultaneously. And they’d visited Concord, one of those places where much blood flowed and people suffered. Because it’s what you do as a tourist.

Without Forge, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought.

Boston

It’s strange how the realities between the three centuries have changed. Freedom fight in the 18th century. Civil war in the 19th. Leisurely travel, accompanied by digital cameras, laptops and facebook in the early 21st century. I wonder what Tanya’s and Laurie’s characters would have thought if they’d had an inkling of what was to come?

Buffalo Soldier

What a book! Buffalo Soldier is my first by Tanya Landman, and I don’t know why I waited so long. A few weeks ago the internet was awash with praise for this book, and I was the only one who didn’t even have a copy… Luckily, hints work well and it didn’t take long for one to arrive.

It’s a sad book. Well, no, it isn’t sad so much as the reason all the really awful things that happen, is sad. That’s history for you. Set in the years before, during and after the American civil war, it shows us a very different America from the one we might know now.

Tanya Landman, Buffalo Soldier

Charley is a slave girl from the south. She doesn’t know her parents, and her master isn’t particularly fair, and his new wife is worse. The overseer’s son persecutes her daily. But then the Yankees arrive, and the black slaves are ‘freed.’ Only, life appears to get worse, and Charley sees so much that is bad, that she steals the clothes off a dead man and disguises herself as a boy and joins the army.

That’s when she discovers how truly bad and unfair and insane the world can be. She works hard, as a new kind of slave, and no matter how much she tries to get herself killed, she survives when her friends don’t.

Tanya covers the history of black slaves and Indians, and the ruling ‘whiteys’ as well as the emerging US by showing us what the world looks like from Charley’s point of view. Her life is so bleak and so difficult, that neither she nor the reader can quite trust the slight ray of hope when it finally appears.

But to have a story book happy ending to what could very well have been a true tale of a young black slave and soldier during the second half of the 19th century, doesn’t seem quite right.

What makes this book so special is that even someone who craves happy endings can love it. The good parts are so very good that they carry the overwhelmingly bad parts. That’s a difficult thing to do, and that will be why everyone was talking about Buffalo Soldier.

‘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.)

My Name is Parvana

Parvana is another displaced young girl. You might have met her in Deborah Ellis’s first two books from Afghanistan, The Breadwinner and Parvana’s Journey. If you have, you will know that this is no ordinary girl, except she is of course a normal girl to whom horrendous things have happened, and she has risen to the challenges thrown at her.

Deborah Ellis, My Name is Parvana

After having to dress up as a boy to become her family’s breadwinner, and after her long trek to find her family again, she lives with her mother and two sisters and the two boys she found on her journey in a refugee camp. Her mother starts a school for girls, and in My Name is Parvana we see the birth of the school, and running parallel with that, we see the end of it as well, with Parvana captured by American troops and treated as a suspected terrorist.

As with so many novels set in WWII, for instance, this book contains a lot of very horrible acts, but like the children in those other books, Parvana almost treats their abominable lives as the norm. She’s not into politics. She simply thinks about actions on her own level.

She tries to keep calm by wondering if the US soldiers are actually taught how to torture prisoners, how to endure their screams, and she wonders for what she herself might behave like they do. She reckons the key to the library might tempt her. (Her mother punishes her with periods of no reading.) And she finds she doesn’t much care for Donny Osmond.

So there are small bits of humour nestling in the tale of her captivity, as well as the rise and fall of her mother’s school for girls.

It had been so long since I read the first two books about Parvana I had almost forgotten quite how marvellous they are. But I remember now. And I will need to catch up by reading Mud City, which is about Parvana’s best friend, who dreams of going to Paris, by way of the purple lavender fields of France.

I usually say that we need the WWI and WWII novels to learn what happened. We need the books about what happens today even more. It is still going on. Too many people are getting away with too much.

From my correspondent in Crimea

Some of you will recognise the name of Lily Hyde, because she reads this blog and comments occasionally. What you might not know, is that she is an author and a journalist. Lily emailed me last week, telling me she’s in Crimea, ‘reporting for the media, and for Amnesty International, on the referendum’ and how horrified she is by the ‘misinformation being spread both here and abroad about the situation in general and about the Crimean Tatars – their history, their claim to Crimea, their role in the second world war… it’s really provoking a lot of hatred and prejudice and potential violence.’

Naturally, I asked if she’d tell me – and you – a bit more, because it’s not every day you have someone in the middle of such a conflict, able to tell you about something which I am ashamed to admit I know virtually nothing about. Over to Lily:

‘I sat with Ayder Aga in Bakhchisaray, Crimea, three days ago, looking at photos taken there last summer. They are for the Ukrainian translation of Dream Land, my novel about the Crimean Tatars.

Lily Hyde, Dream Land

The photos are black and white and shimmering; they show a town of peaceful sunlight and grapevines, coffee pots and roses and minarets. They show Ayder Aga at his workbench, strewn with curls of silver filigree which he makes into traditional Crimean Tatar jewellery.

They are like images from the memories of the grandfather character in Dream Land, who recalls a long-lost Bakhchisaray before 1944 when the entire Crimean Tatar population was rounded up and deported on Stalin’s orders.

My grandfather character was based quite a lot on Ayder Aga and his own memories of Crimea before 1944, and afterwards in exile in Central Asia before he and around three hundred thousand other Crimean Tatars finally returned home after 1991. I’d been looking forward to showing him the photos. I could never have dreamed we’d be looking at them in snatches, in-between staring at the TV like frightened rabbits for news of Russian troop movements, or Russian president Putin’s latest statement on annexing Crimea. Ayder’s daughter Elmira and granddaughter Evelina sat with us; Evelina hasn’t been attending her university for two weeks, ever since Russian troops (or ‘little green men’ as everyone calls them) appeared overnight in Crimea. There are some just up the road from Ayder’s house, heavily armed and in balaclavas. Evelina doesn’t know whether her degree is going to be finished in a Ukrainian or Russian university – or finished at all. Elmira is worried about water and electricity, both supplied to the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine. If Russia annexes Crimea, will the supply stop?

We’re all in a state of total shock and disbelief. “I keep thinking I’m going to wake up and find this is all a bad dream,” my friend Ayshe said to me earlier.

I feel like everyone in Crimea is in a kind of dream right now. The people who want to break away from Ukraine and join Russia are enjoying a dream of a perfectly happy future where salaries are high and they live in a great Empire and there will be ice-cream for tea every day. The ones who don’t want that, like the Crimean Tatars, are struggling to wake up from a nightmare; from their greatest collective nightmare; of losing their homes and their country all over again.

“Now you’ll be able to write a new book about the Crimean Tatars losing their homeland,” Lutfi, another friend in Bakhchisaray, said to me. “Only this time you get to witness it happening first-hand.”

I guess my dream is that this does not turn out to be true.’

Thank you, Lily. I sincerely hope Lutfi is wrong.

Mosque, Bakhchisaray, Commons Wikimedia

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.

Tilly’s Promise

Would that going to war as a soldier were as hard for someone with special needs as it is for them to read books about war. But we know from Private Peaceful that this was not the case, and here Linda Newbery gives us her version of WWI and those who should have been allowed not to be sent out at all.

Linda Newbery, Tilly's Promise

Linda has written this dyslexia friendly book for Barrington Stoke, the first one out this year of remembering 1914 and all that came after. Tilly’s Promise is very much a similar story to what Linda has already written about for able readers, and it’s good to see that this can now be made available for others as well.

Tilly and her sweetheart Harry promise to be true to each other as first he goes to war, and then she joins as a nurse. But what it is mainly about is Harry’s enforced promise to look out for Tilly’s ‘simple’ brother Georgie, once he is made to join up as well.

The inspiration for Georgie came from a Siegfred Sassoon poem, and like Linda’s other WWI novels, it’s losely based on Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth.

This is of necessity a short book, but all the suffering and the real history of war is in here. I don’t like the need for these remembrance books, but it’s there if you want to find out more. One of the things Tilly learned was that the Germans were the same as the British. No monsters.

(Beautifully embroidered cover by Stewart Easton.)

A reasonable copy of Under Milk Wood

Mrs G taught me a lot. I marvel at how little I actually knew before coming to lodge with the Gs for one academic year. I was a reader and surrounded by likeminded readers at home. But I never thought of books per se. Didn’t buy all that many, either.

So to find my ‘landlady’ showing me her collection of first edition H E Bates novels was a novel (pardon) concept. I understood the words, but not so much the sentiment. She also told me that Mr G collected books on WWI. So there were their bookshelves, groaning under the weight of attractive looking volumes. It was nice when they were added to, but the collecting wasn’t frantic.

A year later I was back in England, and had an essay to write on Under Milk Wood. Feeling she’d be interested, I must have told Mrs G about it, because when I arrived at the house for a visit, she packed me into the car to go and ‘look at a book.’

While I already had a paperback of the Dylan Thomas drama for radio, she felt that was to work with. A girl would also need a nice copy. And in her regular trawls through the East Sussex secondhand bookshops, she’d found a reasonable copy for me. I mean, I didn’t know I needed a second copy, but as I said, I knew very little.

Dylan Thomas, Under Milk Wood

It wasn’t a first edition (I suspect that would have been expensive), but it was old enough and the original edition. I have absolutely no idea where we went. It was a drive down some of the countless narrow lanes in Sussex, to a quaint little cottage selling books.

I seem to recall it cost about three times as much as the cheap new paperback, but obviously I bought it. And – equally obviously – it is the copy I’m hanging on to, now that the essay is a mere memory. Because it is a nice copy. And because of how I came by it.

Isn’t it astounding what someone will do for an ignorant ex-lodger? I believe that the H E Bates and WWI collections on their own would not have done it for me, nor would the reasonable Under Milk Wood. But together they started me off on a totally different life.

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…

Suitcase

After a while I became afraid I’d lose ‘my group’ as we walked round Piccadilly station in Manchester yesterday. Despite the fact I know the station well, I could begin to understand the anxiety the children of the Kindertransport must have felt on arriving in Britain.

Suitcase - Hanni

It began with me feeling anxious I wouldn’t be allowed on ‘the journey’ because I’d booked too late and every place was already spoken for. And all I wanted was to watch a drama; not to save my life.

I became aware of the production of Suitcase only a couple of weeks ago, as it was about to premiere at Glasgow Central. A crowd-funded drama about the Kindertransport, it was free and it was coming to a railway station near me. Or you. I felt despondent when I realised my only opportunity of seeing it was on my way to Scotland, as I passed through Piccadilly. And then I couldn’t get a ticket!

A very kind person suggested I call at the ‘box office’ (a suitcase, actually) for returns, and I did, and then I was shunted aside and had to wait and that’s when my anxiety levels rose. Just like a refugee. But then the suitcase lady handed me my own numbered label and gave me permission to join the blue group.

Only an idiot like me would go to a promenade theatre performance wheeling a suitcase round with them. But that’s what I did. It seemed almost appropriate, although the superior – and nasty – English lady having tea frowned at it for being red. (And before you are up in arms over my rudeness; this woman was an actor, showing us how some British people didn’t want the refugees.)

Suitcase - English lady

We started under the escalators, where we witnessed the children’s tearful goodbyes, as well as their arrival here, being serenaded with cheery songs. At times the noise and bustle of normal station activities almost drowned out what the actors were saying, but that too fitted in with what it must have been like back then.

Suitcase - Railway porter

As we shuffled between various corners of the station for more intimate sketches with one or two people, refugees, host families, fundraisers and volunteers, it felt as if the real passengers at Piccadilly didn’t really notice us. Rather like it might have been for the original children.

Suitcase - Czech boy and host's daughter

There was the Czech boy who begged us to find work for his clever mother. The railway porter who collected money for the refugees. We met a sister and brother, arguing like siblings do, before they were separated forever. The boy was desperate for the toilet, but they were in a new and strange place.

Suitcase - Kurt

My suitcase lady who objected to the workshy foreigners coming here and ruining things for the English. The couple who ‘knew’ they were getting a young boy, but ended up with a much older girl. Who didn’t even speak English!

Suitcase - volunteer

The volunteer organiser, trying to keep track of everyone, and wondering what to do with the leftover children no one wanted. And at the end, the children writing home, and reading letters from their parents, exhorting them to behave. When the letters stopped coming.

Here one lady had to be led away on a friendly arm. It could easily be too much for anyone. I felt like crying, and my country wasn’t even in the war.

Most of the children assimilated eventually. But Kurt, the one who needed the toilet, never got over the loss of his sister, of having to be grateful all the time, and being passed round lots of families. Heartbreaking.

Suitcase - red

There was music, and there was dancing. They even offered round baskets of doughnuts at the end. And I picked up my suitcase and went to find a train, still wearing my label. I’m so grateful I was allowed to join in.