Author Archives: bookwitch

The Book of the Howlat

I’m not much of a bird person, but The Book of the Howlat is gorgeously birdie. Illustrated by Kate Leiper, you could simply sit and marvel at the pictures of the many birds.

James Robertson and Kate Leiper, The Book of the Howlat

James Robertson is responsible for this re-telling of ‘one of Scotland’s oldest poetic gems’ and I must admit I’d never heard of it. The story is about an owl who thinks he’s dreadfully ugly and who wishes to look like the peacock. As sometimes happens in fiction, his wish comes true, but after this he’s not only peacock-like but quite unbearable.

Something has to be done.

It’s really that old tale about how you should learn to appreciate what you have, or in this case, what you are.

Hopefully the moral will go down well with young readers. And then there are all those beautiful bird illustrations!

Nerd care

The Resident IT Consultant went out one day. Actually, he goes out most days, and how I look forward to ‘doing what I like’ for 30 minutes, or a few hours.

One day he came home and had found this:

For the book nerd

I suppose I ought to send him along often, and they might look after him. A bit like when I took Offspring to the church playgroup; we got out of the house, I got to sit and ‘do nothing’ and they had a jolly run around with masses of other children. And learned English children’s songs.

I wonder if this place would do singing?

For My Sins

There are countless books about Mary Queen of Scots. I’ve glanced at a couple in the last week, because Alex Nye’s For My Sins got me asking questions, and the Resident IT Consultant did what he does best and put more books into my hands. So at least I now know that Moray [Murray] and Lord James Stuart [Stewart] are one and the same half brother to Mary. I spent a hundred pages permitting her to have two annoying half brothers…

In the past I have also had problems with all the Marys of the world and could never quite sort out who was who, but I’m getting much better with this Mary now. After all, I met her in the flesh, just the other day.

Mary Queen of Scots

So, with quite a few books out there already, what possesses an author to write another one? And if you’re into Mary, what will you be looking for in a new book? Unlike Theresa Breslin’s Spy for the Queen of Scots some years ago, where the main character is a fictional companion of Mary’s, here we go inside Mary’s head.

And that’s quite interesting. We meet her in her prison shortly before her execution, and from there Mary takes the reader on a journey through her early years, the years in France, and her return to Scotland in the company of her half-brother James. They’re a quarrelsome lot! No one agrees with anyone else, and they change allegiance all the time. And back again.

Darnley doesn’t come across well, whereas Bothwell seems nice at first. As did James, almost. John Knox is a piece of work. But the funny thing reading this book now, is that the intrigue and politics and backstabbings remind me of the lamentable situation we have today, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Alex Nye, For My Sins

Knowing that Alex began writing this book in 1989, I was uncertain if it would have travelled well over all these years. But I have to say that it works, and I can’t see any 28-year gaps in style or content. I wondered, too, what makes For My Sins an adult novel. It could easily be read by a teenager. Some of the concepts are perhaps a bit old, but the story and the style is very readable.

Tulips

March isn’t over just yet, but I feel confident enough to state that two authors made it through the Bookwitch Towers doors (and safely out again) during this month. Both got the Lent bun treatment.

As you know, I try to operate a ‘come empty-handed’ policy, but people find this hard to do. Both my visitors brought tulips, which is probably the nicest thing anyone can do, and get away with it.

Tulips

Debi Gliori had talked about my tulips before she even came. It all sounded rather confusing to me, because she wanted to compare hers to Mother-of-witch’s tulips, that she’d noticed the last time she came. We have a large sketch of a vase of tulips on one wall. And it turned out Debi had sketched very nearly the exact same vase of tulips. She brought three of them for me to see, and then she said I could keep them!

One can never have too many tulips.

Which is lucky, as Helen Grant turned up with a bunch of tulips [real ones], looked at them doubtfully and said she thought they were tulips…

Good thing I’m an expert.

Tulips

And you know, I’d sort of overlooked the fact that the new room – still not quite finished, but in use – needed tulips. Any flower would have looked nice, obviously, but those tulips really made the room. And my week.

Yesterday was Waffle Day, so if any of you wanted to come over for waffles, you’re too late. We had one guest round for these lovely things, and then we sort of happened to eat the leftovers ourselves. (Although, if tulips were involved, I might rethink the waffle situation.)

Melling and Murray

I know. They sound like solicitors, don’t they?  But they’re not. At least, I don’t believe they are. Unusual combination; picture book illustrator/author and solicitor.

For some time now I’ve been casting my eyes on David Melling’s D is for Duck! which is just as loveable an ABC picture book that you’d expect from Hugless Douglas’s Dad.

David Melling, D is for Duck

Duck is a magician and he magics lots of little animal friends out of his hat for his ABC, with himself as D. All goes well until he happens to magic up a Lion. A Lion that might want to eat his A to I. (J is Jungle and K is King.) Duck quickly needs to think of something, so he does…

In my Bookbug conference bag I found Alison Murray’s Apple Pie ABC, which I enjoyed a lot. I’m less used to ABCs that use short phrases to get round the problem of what you choose as your your letters, while also managing to tell a story, because there is more to work with.

Alison Murray, Apple Pie ABC

Here we have a dog who is plotting to eat the Apple Pie, which is being Baked and Cooled and Dished Out, and so on. The dog is both clever and surprisingly obedient until, well, until something happens to the pie.

Both books have gorgeous pictures and both have rather charming, if not perfectly behaved, main animal characters. We’re yet again in the situation when I need someone to read aloud to.

The Power of Picture Books: Building Communities, Families and Futures – 2017 Bookbug Conference

Arriving slightly late to the 2017 Bookbug Conference in Edinburgh on Wednesday morning, I was shown to a chair. Unfortunately it was the Chair’s chair, so I went to sit on the side, which suits me best, and Chair Jenny Niven kept her chair.

My arrival coincided nicely with the start of Dr Vivienne Smith’s talk on Reading as a Playful Act, which was one of the best talks! Ever. The slides might have ‘gone bananas’ as Vivienne put it, but her research on young children’s reading was so interesting. I chanced upon super-librarian Yvonne Manning in the break and we both agreed on how great it had been.

Vivienne Smith

Basically, reading should be like playing, and none of this sounding out words letter by letter, which will not give the young reader the right experience. In one experiment, even the keen readers from bookish families chose the Lego and the dinosaurs before the book. But from another group, a couple of young children were so taken by the toy version of book character Beegu that one of them invited him to her birthday party, and the other wrote him a letter, two years later.

There is little emotion in the reading that happens at school. Reading can help your well-being, like disappearing into Pride & Prejudice every time you move house. You learn empathy from reading, and more so if you read ‘worthier’ books, where you are forced to think more. They make you likelier to vote, to volunteer, to recycle for the good of the environment, and so on.

You learn that life can be changed, made better. As Flaubert said, ‘read in order to live.’ For the well-being of society we need children who read!

I could have listened to Vivienne all day, but we had to take a break and drink tea and eat banoffee tarts and chat to people. Which was nice too.

A panel on The Power of Picture Books followed, with Vivienne again, and illustrator Alison Murray, Dr Evelyn Arizpe from University of Glasgow, Rowena Seabrook from Amnesty International and Nicholas Dowdall of the Mikhulu Trust (South Africa), chaired by Jenny Niven.

Picture books panel

They started by choosing a picture book each, one that meant something special to them. Nicholas showed us a short video of a tiny boy in South Africa reading with an adult, and his surprised and delighted reactions to what happened in the book. Evelyn mentioned a Mexican, version of Red Riding Hood, which led Vivienne to say that for this to work well, you first need to know the basic version, which is ‘cultural capital.’

Alison likes a balance between the sexes of her characters, and Vivienne said how we are ‘all so flipping middle class’ making assumptions and taking things for granted. Rowena mentioned a description of a book with an ungendered character, which still contrived to gender the character (male). Nicholas pointed out that in the townships they need books which are not about things that readers won’t know. To make picture books work well, you must read them out and read them well.

Replying to a question Vivienne said that it’s fine to be disturbed by the content of a book. It makes you think. And you have to remember that children can only take on what they understand, so a lot would simply go over their heads.

This panel discussion could also have gone on for much longer, but there was lunch to be eaten.

Mark McDonald, minister for Childcare & Early Years started the afternoon session. He didn’t have long, as his work in Parliament was ‘pressing’ this week, but he mentioned the First Minister’s reading challenge, and how reading takes you to magical places. 80% of a child’s development comes from what they do outside of school.

Mark McDonald

He talked about his children and their reading. The daughter likes Fairy Ponies, and next time Mark needs to vent about their quality he has learned not to do it to the publisher in question. Oops. His son, who is on the autistic spectrum, finally became interested in books via Nick Sharratt’s illustrations, so he is their god. (I know that feeling!)

Mark appreciates what we (that will be the teachers, librarians and other community workers) do, and ‘his door is always open’ if we want to speak to him. A yellow party bag saw Mark back off to Parliament.

Sabine Bonewitz

The next session was a talk by Sabine Bonewitz from Stiftung Lesen, the German Reading Foundation. She talked about encouraging parents to read with their children, spreading the joy of reading. Sabine had statistics to show us, she talked about their bookbags which feature a kangaroo (big steps) and finished by astounding everyone with German McDonald’s collaboration for reading, offering books with their Happy Meals.

Following this Happy idea, we all went our separate ways to different workshops. I had chosen to hear Alison Murray talk about Navigating the Story Arc. Important facts about reading picture books is that you do it in company, and that the paper can be tactile, and you might even want to sniff it. Boardbooks you can ‘eat.’

Alison Murray

Alison showed us a sketch of John Dewey’s shape of stories, showing how it fits almost every book; reading us her own Hare and Tortoise. Before finishing she read us her new picture book, Dino Duckling, a kinder version of The Ugly Duckling. It was lovely.

All in all, delegates will have gone home with much to think about, and lots to try on their own small ‘customers.’ As for me, I went in search of eldest Offspring, who was once much smaller than he is now.

‘I am Mary Queen of Scots’

Or so Alex Nye claimed, when she launched For My Sins at Blackwells last night. (She laughed when she said it. So she’s perhaps not entirely serious about it.) It’s her first adult novel, and it’s about Mary, Queen of Scots.

Mary Queen of Scots

The real Mary was there too, and she was looking good for her age. Actually, on such a dark and stormy night when the rest of us were pretty drenched, I have to point out that Mary looked both dry and beautiful.

As I ran in, Tesco prawn sandwich in hand, Alex and her publisher Clare were already there, and Mary turned up soon after. She posed for photos like Royals tend to do, and I believe she even showed off what was under her skirt. Honestly. I ate my sandwich, turned down the offer of wine and was rescued from dying of thirst by the lovely Ann Landmann of Blackwells.

Roy Gill, Kirkland Ciccone and Mary Queen of Scots

We admired the book, which has unusually nice looking pages. I know this sounds strange, but it does. Several other authors turned up to celebrate, among them Kirkland Ciccone wearing a rather loud outfit, Roy Gill who looked suitably handsome, Gill Arbuthnott, Philip Caveney (or was it Danny Weston? They look so alike…) with Lady Caveney, and then Kate Leiper came and sat next to me again.

Alex talked about her love of Scottish history, and for Mary, about her research, and walking round Edinburgh for two years (that must have been tiring) to see the places Mary went, and visiting all her castles. And 28 years on, the book is finally here.

Alex Nye and Mary Queen of Scots

Luckily Alex has managed to get hold of Mary’s diary from her time ‘in jail,’ which must be considered a bit of a royal scoop.

Kate Leiper, Gill Arbuthnott, Kirkland Ciccone and Roy Gill

There was a signing afterwards, and much literary gossip. It was almost a shame some of us had to go home, but I couldn’t leave my chauffeur in the Park&Ride all night.

Alex Nye

I’m just over halfway through the book so far, and I have a dreadful feeling this isn’t going to end well.