The Red Tree

Shaun Tan, The Red Tree

It has a rather Finnish, Tove Jansson kind of feel to it. The Red Tree by Shaun Tan is a book I’d not read before, and I was struck by how Finnish it seemed. Not surprising, but still.

Shaun Tan, The Red Tree

I can’t make my mind up whether it is sad or not. It deals with feeling sad. Days that start bad and get worse. Shaun’s pictures show pretty vividly how bad you can feel; lonely and dark, and unsure of who you are, even.

Reading this book and discovering you are not alone in feeling alone, ought to be a good thing. Finding you can share your thoughts and feelings with someone who has been there.

Shaun Tan, The Red Tree

And then there is the ending…

A very beautiful book.

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?

Perfect for…?

If you want to add to the description of a book, you could say it’s a bit like ‘XX.’ But only if it is a bit like XX. Sometimes when I’ve written along those lines, I lie awake at night, wondering if anyone else will see it the same way, or if I have been misleading.

Or you could say it would suit someone who also likes XX or YY, whether they are genres or authors or single book titles. Because it helps in the describing, and it might genuinely assist fans of whatever it is, to try this particular book or author.

But again, it needs to have some semblance of truth in it. If you mislead and thereby disappoint, you will have undone what you set out to do.

So I have to admit to hating it when press releases claim things like that. Or when publishers actually put it on the cover of the proof copy.

Meg Rosoff

A while ago I read an early proof, the cover of which claimed it was ‘perfect for fans of Meg Rosoff and Annabel Pitcher.’ (This could help identify it to the people involved, so I hasten to add that I don’t intend to disparage this particular book. It just wasn’t what the cover claimed, but then I didn’t believe the statement in the first place. To my mind it is virtually impossible to be like Meg Rosoff.)

But to reviewers or bookseller who might not know this, it could lead to them recommending the book on those grounds. Hopefully, the reader would like this book as well. We can all like lots of different types of books.

What the statement says to me, is that it will be perfect for readers of other YA novels. But then you sort of expect that. YA readers will like YA books. No need to point it out.

It’s different if the publishers were to ask Meg or Annabel to read the book and provide a quote. Then it is ‘Meg Rosoff: “This is a great read!”‘ and it’s a recommendation, not a comparison. I would need to know what kind of books Meg likes, though, if I intend to use the information to help me decide.

Now would be a good time to tell me about all such comparisons I’ve made, which disappointed you deeply. (Sorry, no refunds.)

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.

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.

Films from stories

Moving Stories

Don’t panic. If, like me, you haven’t yet got to the new exhibition on film at Seven Stories, you’ve got a whole year to to it. Which means we will probably all meet there some time just before April 2015, after eleven beautiful months of procrastination. At least that’s how I function; give me loads of time, and what do I do with it?

Exhibition opening 5

Moving_Stories_Damien_Wootten 68

Moving Stories, Children’s Books from Page to Screen, opened last week in Newcastle. It’s been co-curated with the National Media Museum in Bradford.

Moving_Stories_Damien_Wootten 31

Seven Stories is collecting reader’s favourite film adaptations and would like to hear from you. What would your choice be?

Exhibition opening 2

I will need to think about mine.

(Email hannah.lambert@sevenstories.org.uk and be entered into a prize draw to win a family ticket to visit Moving Stories, Children’s Books from Page to Screen.)