Author Archives: bookwitch

How to Fly with Broken Wings

‘Jump!’ Now, that’s a horrible thing to tell, or force, someone else to do. But we know it happens, and it happens a lot, in Jane Elson’s book How to Fly with Broken Wings. It’s worth considering why someone would say it, though. Things are never totally straightforward.

Jane Elson, How to Fly with Broken Wings

Friendship is a difficult concept. Not only can making friends be rather hard, but even to understand what a friend is, could be close to impossible. Twelve-year-old Willem Edward Smith has Asperger Syndrome. His maths teacher gives him homework, which is to make two new friends; real friends, rather than a relative or a friendly shopkeeper.

So poor Willem tries to make friends, and ends up with Sasha from school, who is the (girl)friend of Willem’s bully, Finn. And he befriends Finn. Maybe.

What with the friendship issues, and gang warfare on the estate where he lives with his gran, and rioting, things are never going to be easy for Willem. And this story is not a happy ever after story. There is a lot of bad stuff, mixed in with the good.

Sasha and Finn are not going to change completely. Willem will probably always display aspie traits and be easily led. Staff at his school seem to be particularly stupid.

But there is Archie, the elderly man who moves in, and whose mission it is to change the estate. There are the memories of Archie’s parents, especially his mother, who flew planes in the war. There is a Spitfire, a living, breathing Spitfire, so to speak.

If it doesn’t kill them, then maybe Archie and the dreams of flying can help this troubled estate. Expect to cry, though.

Best Scottish

Oh, how I wish I could have been there! Now that I’m finally here, I mean. But I gather that the 2015 Scottish Children’s Book Awards managed without a witch (this one, anyway) and celebrated the three winners in style on Wednesday, at the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh.

With three categories, there were three celebrations, and three shortlisted authors for each (except Alexander McCall Smith who’d gone off to Dubai).

Ross Collins and Sean Taylor

The Bookbug Readers were lucky, in that picture books being relatively short, all three books could be read out on stage. There was also live drawing on stage, and singing. Very jolly. And the winner was Ross Collins, for his illustrations of Robot Rumpus, written by Sean Taylor.

Alex McCall

Robots are clearly the thing, as the winner of Younger Readers category, first time novelist Alex McCall won with Attack of the Giant Robot Chickens. He’s only 21, and looks, well, younger still… There was a book quiz to entertain an audience (and I’m sure I’d have won that. If I’d been there) of visiting school children from all over Scotland.

Cathy MacPhail

The winner of the Older Readers category was Cathy MacPhail with Mosi’s War, which didn’t surprise me at all. Cathy wins a lot, and for a good reason. Her audience were also treated to a book quiz, which I’m sure was great fun for all those involved.

I might as well say this again; I feel Scotland is very lucky to have the Scottish Book Trust.

Farewell to Mal Peet

Football. Who’d have thought I’d like novels about football quite so much? The answer is that I obviously wouldn’t, had it not been Mal Peet who’d written them. And now Mal Peet has died, which is not only a dreadful loss for his family and friends (one of whom was thoughtful enough to let me know how things were, only a week before Mal died), but for his readers.

Mal Peet

Lots of people write very good books. Only a few manage what Mal Peet did, which is to write exceptional books. I remember the buzz on Facebook among his peers, last September when the proofs for The Murdstone Trilogy became available. I don’t think I’ve ever seen quite so much admiration, or read so many quotes, as I did then. And they were right. Murdstone is a marvellous take on fantasy literature, executed in a way only an expert could.

I felt then that it was really quite autobiographical in many ways, despite Mal -sort of – saying it wasn’t. And when I re-read the ending of the book just the other day, it felt even more as though he had put himself in there.

Mal Peet

Mal didn’t have hundreds of novels published. There wasn’t time for that. I don’t know if he wrote hundreds. That wouldn’t surprise me. I believe I’ve read all the published ones, and they belong to the category of books you just don’t get rid of. The Keepers. And now that I knew Murdstone was going to be Mal’s only adult novel, I simply had to go and move it from the adult section, to join its siblings on the YA shelves. It didn’t seem right to have poor Murdstone sitting there on his own, as it were.

I only met Mal a few times. First when he won the Guardian prize in 2009. And then at the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2010 and 2011. I introduced myself again, but it seems he remembered me. Mal even allowed himself to be taken out to ‘the tree’ for a photography session.

Mal Peet

Thank you for everything.

(I must add the link to Meg Rosoff’s tribute to her dear friend in today’s Guardian. I will be discreet and not ask who she’d like to see dead instead.)

Second nature

‘You know that medium sized bird, all black, with an orange beak. What’s it called again?’ I asked Mr School Friend last summer. The reason I asked was I’d noticed we had several in our new garden, and I realised I’d forgotten the name, and Mr SF is the man to go to. Not a linguist, he will still be able to tell you bird names in Swedish, English and Latin. So he told me, and it was obvious. I knew that. I just forgot.

Thinking back to my childhood, I knew quite a few birds, and flowers, and other nature things. I like to think it’s because my brain was less choc-a-bloc with the rubbish I’ve since put in there, and perhaps that being shorter, a child is sort of closer to nature, and will notice it more.

Swedes seem to be particularly nature-minded, considering most of us are town dwellers. Like most children, I went to Mulleskolan. That was a kind of ‘evening class’ for primary school children, which took place in some woods, after school, probably once a week. A leader went round with us and taught us nature stuff, and each week we had a surprise visit from a creature called Skogsmulle, who would tell us more. (These days the most shocking aspect of it is that the seven-year-old me crossed town on my own, to get to the woods. We all did.)

OK, so Mulleskolan taught me about nature. But I probably knew some birds and flowers before then. Must have got the names from an adult. Maybe mother-of-witch, or the landlord’s children or an aunt? Whatever, I knew them. And when I learned to read and write I could read and write them. I could probably look them up in a junior dictionary.

That’s why I was so struck at the weekend, when reading Robert Macfarlane’s Guardian article about bluebells giving way to broadband in children’s dictionaries. The whole article is interesting, but it deals primarily with regional words for very specific things. But going back to the children who can no longer look up bluebells, I was thinking that you can only look up the spelling of this word, if you know the concept in the first place.

I wonder how much parents teach their children these days? Looking at myself, I’m painfully aware of having done far too little of this kind of thing. Bilingualism didn’t make it any easier, but still. I’d obviously forgotten black birds with orange beaks, and I no longer looked so much at nature in any detail. So, it stands to reason I didn’t teach Offspring a lot. And now, I don’t actually know what they know.

(I do know that age three, Son had very little idea of what a pussy was – as used by the staff at the local hospital when testing his eyesight – because I had always said cat or katt.)

The Great Big Green Book I reviewed yesterday shows us that we need to look after nature, if we want to survive. That means we need to know about the things we encounter, and it will be very hard to talk about keeping alive or saving some species we don’t even have a word or name for. We probably need to be more specific than saying tree or flower.

Who will teach today’s children? Do their parents have the knowledge, or do they leave it to teachers? Do they even know? Maybe they don’t, unless their parents made a point of telling them about nature.

(It was koltrast. Common blackbird. Turdus merula. And I need to point out it was the Swedish I’d forgotten… Which makes sense, because I am no longer surrounded by Swedish speakers, and when I do see people, I tend not to talk about birds so much. Unless needing Mr SF’s help.)

I can do bluebells. I recognise a British one. I also know that the Swedish for bluebell is blåklocka, which I also recognise. Because it is a different flower from the bluebell. It is a harebell. Which, having consulted my dear old friend Wikipedia, seems to be called bluebell in Scotland. I have come full circle. (Engelsk klockhyacint is what Swedes call the bluebell when it is not a blåklocka, or harebell.)

End of lesson.

The Great Big Green Book

The world needs trees. And water. And children need this book, The Great Big Green Book by Mary Hoffman and Ros Asquith. I’d love to think that it can make a difference. The world needs people to do things that will make a difference. A positive one, obviously.

Mary Hoffman and Ros Asquith, The Great Big Green Book

Children are nearly always very open to new ideas, and are far more prepared than adults to change their lifestyles. They just need to be told what they can do.

Words can change a lot, but I wonder if pictures – especially ones like these by Ros – do even more. You just need to see those polar bears on their shrinking piece of ice to understand.

Children do need words, though. I was reading just the other day that a children’s dictionary had got rid of a number of nature words, in favour of more ‘in’ terminology; out with the blackberry and in with the Blackberry. It can be hard to save a world of things when you don’t have words for what needs saving.

Recycle, turn the lights off, compost, don’t flush the toilet every time and share a shower. Well, actually, I might skip that last idea. Re-use, don’t fly everywhere and put another blanket on the bed.

And remember the world almost stands and falls with the bees.

The well-travelled library bed

I spoke too soon. It could be that Son would quite like the hifi somewhere in that room. The – ahem – library-cum-guestroom-cum-firstborn’s bedroom. We’ll have to see.

The much-thrown-about bed has been slept in. It’s the one Son adopted from some people in the Wirral a few years ago, which – on arrival in Edinburgh – proved too large to go down into the tenement basement flat, and which instead was walked round half the block, taken into the tenement opposite, through and out into that ‘garden’ and chucked over the fence into Son’s garden and in.

Bed move 2

A year later it was similarly chucked uphill back over the fence when it was time to move elsewhere, but at least this had been planned and there were more chuckers.

Another year on and Son sent the bed to us to be his bed in the new bedroom. And because there was a lot of decorating and unpacking needing doing, the poor bed has been shoved back and forth, with no room to call home. Until now. For a while it thought it would always have to stand on its side in the livingroom. But then it was displaced by the Christmas tree and spent December in the hall.

To make up for all this, the witch went to Glasgow and bought it something new to wear.

Flying bed

And then, when the hifi had been pondered and the now stationary bed slept in, the Resident IT Consultant and Son crept into the Grandmother’s flat while she was out and stole her kitchen table. But not her one and only. She has a collection of them. We needed a temporary desk for the boy.

They also lifted a rather nice bookcase, which I’ve had my eye on for almost 25 years. Although that was with permission.

Almost there


And here they are, the ‘final’ shelves with actual books on them. Son is coming to inspect ‘his’ room, and the question is whether he will approve. Or will he notice there is no space for his hifi? I mean, who cares? Who in their right mind would use a large machine to listen to music?

We also need to get our three-book joiner to come and secure the whole shebang to the wall. Or else we could have a repeat of that time over twenty years ago when Son reckoned these shelves looked like ladder… The crash was very loud. Luckily both Son and the shelves and the books and the floor were pretty much as before, afterwards.

The eagle-eyed blog reader might feel like pointing out that there are some gaps still. That’s because I expect to have more books to put in there. Next week. And the week after. Also, there are double rows. Any book I want to find in future will be behind.