Category Archives: Authors

A Different Sort of Normal

As I discovered 14 years ago, it can be hard to know who wants to read books about autism. Those who have it, or those who don’t but want to learn? Children, or adults?

Abigail Balfe’s A Different Sort of Normal, about her own life up until her current age of 35, is for everyone, I’d say. But I feel Abigail is mostly talking to young, possibly not yet diagnosed, people.

Anyway, there is lots of advice here, and the most important is that you’re all right. The way you are. Abigail only got her diagnosis two years ago, so has spent many years simply being weird. Haven’t we all?

And let me just say this now, I can’t stand Punch and Judy. But until I read about poor Abigail’s poor mother booking a Punch and Judy show for her fourth birthday party, in order to seem normal, I hadn’t really considered why I don’t like them. Just been puzzled that others do.

Abigail is also an artist, and has illustrated every single page, so the reader can see what she was like as she grew up, and share the funny, silly little things that happened, the way they have happened to many others. There’s a lot about toilets, but it appears she and I don’t see eye to eye on the subject; just that it’s important.

This is a fun book about autism, albeit a little on the large side to hold. I’m slightly concerned that it won’t get to younger readers with autism. I don’t know who decides that someone is ‘autistic enough’ to need a book like this, or how they would find out about its existence. But if and when they do, I expect it will help a great deal.

Summer

The last of Ali Smith’s four seasons. I read somewhere it’s the longest of the four books. For me, it could have been longer still. It turns mostly full circle, letting us spend more time with the characters from Autumn. And Winter. Less so from Spring.

I actually sat down and tried to draw a kind of family tree for the books. It’s quite satisfying meeting and re-meeting people like this. It feels real, rather than them being merely fictional characters. My favourite one from Autumn came back, which made me happy. She gave even more depth to this family tree.

And I’m not sure, but I imagine the reader knows more than the characters do. About how they tie in with each other, I mean. A typical book of fiction would explain who’s who in some way. But what you discover here is that it doesn’t matter. If receiving a small violin in the post makes a person happy, then it does. No matter how it all ties up.

There is much goodness in here, contrasting with all the bad stuff we are living through. Ali obviously intended for Brexit to feature, but she couldn’t know about Covid for Summer. It works, though.

If someone could enlighten me as to which Charlotte it is we are seeing in Summer, I’d be grateful. But perhaps this, too, does not really matter. Also, English speakers have a real problem with Elisabeth without a z, don’t they? Might also not matter.

I feel revived and slightly more cultured than I was at the beginning.

There is hope. If that’s enough, I don’t know. But one can hope.

Cold paint

Discovered to my horror that we’re closer to next Christmas than to the last one. Though why that should be a bad thing I don’t know; presents and seasonal food before ‘too long’.

Have been meaning to mention Daughter’s Christmas present to the Resident IT Consultant. You may recall, but it’s fairly unlikely, that she and I discovered books being sold in the nearby antiques centre. Which is all well and good, had the books not been boxed and intended for ‘decorating with’.

This made us want to liberate a few of them, so we went back after the second lockdown and she bought a box.

The Resident IT Consultant diligently, and pretty immediately, read all seven books by John Creasey. Whom I had never heard of, but when looking him up it seems he not only wrote a lot of books, but he ‘founded the Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) in the UK. The CWA New Blood Dagger is awarded in his memory, for first books by previously unpublished writers; sponsored by BBC Audiobooks, it includes a prize of £1000. This award was known previously as the John Creasey Memorial Dagger’.

Seems the man also had more pseudonyms than you can shake a stick at, so I won’t even try to list them. Basically, he was not completely unheard of, apart from by me.

When asked what they were like, the Resident IT Consultant mentioned that the first one he read featured both the N-word but also a good understanding of how to use buses in London.

Personally I got confused every time I looked at the book on top of the pile, reading the title as Death in Cold Paint. Which I daresay could be quite unpleasant.

Should I read these? Keep them for any ‘unlikely and unexpected’ long periods stuck in the house with too few books? Or take them to Oxfam?

Making aunties

I remembered that I had quoted from Astrid the Unstoppable, by Maria Parr, and that it was because it was such a beautiful passage from a rather lovely children’s book. But I somehow didn’t believe it would feel as nice today as it did three years ago.

It does, though, and I’m sure you need some nice words today. One doesn’t always get them.

So here is Astrid, and God, translated by Guy Puzey:

‘Astrid thought that God must have been having a good day when he made her aunties.

“Today I’m going to come up with a surprise,” said God, and then he started putting together an auntie.

He made her skinny and freckly, and decided that she would crumple up like a concertina when she laughed. Then he stuffed her full of noise. He’d never put so much noise in an aunt before, Astrid thought. God decided that she would like everything that was funny, everything that made loud bangs, and everything that moved fast. When he’d finished, he took a step back and looked at that aunt. He’d never seen anything like her. He was so pleased with her that he decided to make another, so by the end of the day, God had made two aunts who looked exactly the same. To put the icing on the cake, he took an extra fistful of freckles from his freckle bowl and sprinkled them all over both of them, especially on their knees.

“Knee freckles are my favourite thing,” said God.’

Tea?

This morning I woke up to an offer of afternoon tea with Jamila Gavin and S F Said. I immediately assumed I was not worthy, because I’ve seen these ‘afternoon tea withs’ advertised before, for members of the Society of Authors. But I pressed the buttons and some hours later, there I was, not actually having actual tea, but watching S F drinking something from a large glass while chatting to Jamila.

Jamila Gavin is royalty to us in Bookwitch Towers. And I started wondering how come I’ve not ever seen her in an event. I’m assuming she very sensibly stays at home and writes and stays sane, and anyway, you don’t expect royalty to come wandering into your neck of the woods. But there we were.

This was a well run event, from the technical to the discussion. No hitches. S F knew precisely what the rest of us would want him to ask Jamila. Starting with Wheel of Surya, named one of the 100 best children’s books by Booktrust, it seems SF is as big a fan as I am.

He asked Jamila to read to us, and she chose the bit with the bullock carts, and the sound they made, which was something she’d got from her mother, who was still alive when the book was written and who could share her own, adult, memories of people having to leave their homes.

Before that S F wanted to know how Jamila came to start writing. This wasn’t anything she’d imagined herself doing, wanting to be a musician, but via Paris and Berlin and the BBC, and after getting married and having children, she discovered that non-white children drew themselves as white, because they didn’t see children like themselves in books. So that’s how The Magic Orange Tree came to be. Jamila spoke warmly of her publisher, Methuen, who told her that other books which sold more copies, were there to support smaller books.

She was with a friend in the North when she first heard of the ‘Coram man’ and about child abuse from a long time ago. She went home and looked for all the Corams in the phone book and spoke to all of them, until she came across the Coram Foundation and discovered what had happened. It seems that while there was no specific Coram man, many child traffickers made use of the name. When Jamila met someone in Hebden Bridge during an Arvon course, she learned about the children buried in the woods, and with the slave trade added to this, she had what she needed for her book. Not sure it was even going to be a book for children at first, it’s what it became, because if children lived and died like that, then children could read about it.

Of Jamila’s more recent books she spoke about Blackberry Blue, a short story called In Her Element, and what went before it, a 1990s book called Wormholers. From there we were told about her work in progress, a WWII novel titled Never Shall I Ever Forget You, which will be published in January next year. None of us felt we wanted to wait that long.

In the Q&A someone wanted to know why Grandpa Chatterji is no longer available, and she wishes it was too. As a recommendation for adult mixed race reading Jamila mentioned Bhowani Junction by John Masters, made famous by the film starring Ava Gardner.

Mentioning children’s books with issues, be it Philip Pullman, David Almond or Jacqueline Wilson, Jamila said that one should try to ‘end with hope’.

Asked whether she feels that you are allowed to write about something you’ve not experienced, Jamila said that cultural appropriation are her ‘most dreaded words’. She feels everyone has the right to write about things. ‘It’s our job to find the truth of your stories’, and publishers must be prepared to publish them.

Her motivation to ‘write well’ is to read a lot, although she admitted to not reading as much as she’d want to. Also, she doesn’t like the way we now talk about ‘reading for pleasure’ which feels like an indictment on education. Reading should be spontaneous, not a timetabled event.

So that was a really excellent chat between two authors, and the questions from the audience were well above average, and Jamila’s responses to them very interesting. I will happily attend more events with Jamila, and it’s so odd that after all these years, this was my first time.

‘Something stinky’

My two favourite translators being boys notwithstanding, I am all in favour of girls. Yesterday five of them got together in an online event for the British Centre for Literary Translation’s Summer School Event – Translating Children’s Books. It was Very Interesting.

Extremely well chaired by none other than Sarah Ardizzone, we met two pairs of small publishers and their translators, from Arabic and from Swedish, learning how the journey from original book to its English version had gone. And you need to keep in mind that US publishers might not appreciate the word poo. Regarding any other censoring in translating, Arabic is already very sanitised, so nothing to remove, according to Sawad Hussain.

Sawad had discovered an interesting sounding YA book on Twitter and eventually found her way to the author, before making contact with Neem Tree Press publisher Archna Sharma. Archna finds that not even being able to email her author, but having to go via her translator whenever she needs to make contact, makes for a different experience. As did applying for a PEN Translates grant, with Sawad’s help, and which she’d now happily do again.

Greet Pauwelijn, from Belgium, who runs her one woman publishing company Book Island, had come across a Swedish book by Sara Lundberg and gone looking for a translator from Swedish, eventually being introduced to B J Epstein. B J was ill and pregnant at the time, but immediately felt she needed to be involved with this book, The Bird Within Me, which has the most gorgeous illustrations. And you can translate with your baby in a sling.

One should not adapt down to children, either language or topic. And children can be most useful to test words on to see if you’ve got it right. Do they get bored, or do they want to read the book again? It could even be useful to pay a teenager to check that you’ve got the style right for how young people talk. Arabic can be quite stilted in books, so needs to be ‘rewritten’, but you also need to get the language of today right.

The cover for the Arabic novel had to have a new cover to work, preferably one dripping with blood. Greet, on the other hand, would never change an illustration as she feels pictures and words go together.

They chatted about how they work, how to change a crocodile into an alligator (apparently it worked better), swapping ideas for how to do things, and wondering what it will be like when the time for publicity comes, visas, travelling, even language for authors who are not confident in English. There was also a mention of readers ‘prejudging translatedness’ if brought to their attention. B J always mentions it to her children, whereas Sarah Ardizzone said something about ‘lowering the othering’ in case translations are seen as a possible deterrent.

The last question of the afternoon – and it could have gone on for a long time – was on bad language, sex and death. You can see how that would be really rather interesting. B J can get annoyed, and is a reluctant gatekeeper, but as already mentioned, there is generally nothing for Sawad to remove from an Arabic original.

With the big ones

For one reason or another, I was tempted to visit the press page for the Edinburgh International Book Festival this morning. (Keen to procrastinate, I’m afraid.)

And there was a photo of the press photographers in full flow, so to speak. They are photographing someone important, judging by where they are crouching. Perhaps the First Minister?

Not sure which year, but would guess two years ago, maybe three. Tried to tie it down by looking carefully at the plastic ducks outside the yurt (because I take their picture every year), but didn’t reach a definite conclusion.

If you look carefully among all those big guns, I mean camera lens thingies, you’ll eventually locate a fat old witch, who is making up for lack of camera lens with an extra chin or two. But she’s there. With the big guys.

Lena, the Sea and Me

As soon as I began reading Maria Parr’s Lena, the Sea and Me, I remembered what a pain in the xxx Lena was. Because I’d read about her before, in Maria’s book Waffle Hearts. But I did love that book, so perhaps she wasn’t as bad as all that? Deep down?

And as with Maria’s other book, I soon fell in love again, even with Lena. She’s a loud and opinionated 12-year-old, but with a heart of gold. And I suspect she feels a lot more uncertain about herself than her behaviour leads you to believe. She’s also a very good friend to Trille, the 12-year-old narrator of this somewhat crazy book about the people in a small village in northern Norway.

They are growing up, and they are both discovering how awkward it can be with other, new, friends, not to mention family. What’s happening with Grandpa? And Trille’s mother? And why can’t Lena have a baby brother?

There’s so much love in this book. A bit of hate, too. But it seems not everyone dislikes the same person Trille does. And what do you eat if you don’t eat your own dead animals, lovingly killed at home? It’s hard to understand.

With a long dead Grandma, adventures on/in the sea and football, not to mention romance and bravery, there is much to learn.

I’d even be willing to meet up with Lena again.

(Translated by Guy Puzey)

Small in the City

He is so small. Well, I suppose the title gives that away; Small in the City, the Kate Greenaway Medal-winning picture book by Sydney Smith.

The illustrations are gorgeous, snowy, cold, mysterious. We see a small person travelling through the city, in the snow, but we’re not quite sure why. The words are encouraging someone, maybe the boy himself, maybe someone else. Someone he’s looking for, telling them not to be scared.

It’s – probably – a North American city, and the snow definitely feels like something you ‘only’ get on the other side of the Atlantic. And the boy is dressed up warmly against the cold. You can barely see him. He looks so small.

This would be good to read with a child. You could discuss what or who the boy is looking for, and why. There is a lot going on in the pictures, although it quietens down towards the end.

The Royal Rebel

Quite often when authors write about real historical people, they are people I have at least heard of. Not so with Bali Rai’s The Royal Rebel for Barrington Stoke. He is well placed to tell us about the Sikh Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, goddaughter of Queen Victoria and a suffragette.

Sophia was proof that some of us don’t really belong anywhere. She was born in Britain in 1876, and grew up here, but obviously looked like a Sikh woman. Not quite British, Sophia felt an outsider when she first visited India as well.

Hit by relative poverty when her father’s money ran out and he abandoned his family, she eventually found her place in the suffragette movement. Sophia led an interesting and varied life, but grew increasingly lonely.

Through this book you see yet another side to the fight to win votes for women.