Category Archives: Blogs

Why she’s still reading, fifteen years later…

Remember my appalling reading habits when I was young? Well, here is a glowing example of what the perfect parent should do – according to Bookwitch. Author Helen Grant makes me green with envy. I’m hoping that now that I will be living closer to her, some of her excellence might rub off.

Who am I fooling? Over to Helen:

‘I read to my teenager. I didn’t think there was anything particularly noteworthy in that, until the Bookwitch wrote and asked me whether I would be prepared to do a guest blog about it for her: what I read, how I find the time, and also something about the fact that the teenager in question is prepared to listen to me reading.

Helen Grant

I started to think about the topic a bit and it is perfectly true that when you think “bedtime story” you don’t think “mum and teen.” You think of sweet little shock-headed toddlers who have to be read to, because they can’t read themselves yet, or primary school kids who like a reassuring half-hour with mum before bed. Hey, look at the music video for Ylvis’ What does the fox say? – how old is the kid sitting on his grandpa’s lap, do you think? Four, maybe five years old, tops.

What you don’t imagine is gramps reading to 170cm of gum-chewing teenager in a hoodie.

So how come I’m doing it? It’s a long story.

My daughter made her appearance in the world almost three weeks late, and I have often wondered whether it was missing that three weeks of thrilling outside world experience that made her so darn sleepless as a baby. I know all mums think their darling is special, but I really am convinced that I had the wakefullest baby ever. She resisted sleep at all costs, maintaining instead a kind of squirelly perma-attention that would continue until she was screeching with tiredness. Car drives and being carried around in someone’s arms would make her drop off (eventually) but it can be difficult to prepare meals whilst driving a car or carrying a baby. Another solution had to be found.

By trial and error, we discovered that reading aloud would make her go to sleep. I suppose it was the reassurance of a familiar voice without too much interaction: no coochy-coo, who’s a nice baby then? – more, I read, you listen. As she was too tiny to know or care what the reading matter was, we chose our own. My husband read her Heinrich Harrer’s mountaineering classic The White Spider; I read her Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (another of those cultural experiences she was too young to remember later, like visiting every single Antoni Gaudi building in Barcelona). A few terrifying crevasses or paragraphs of war-torn love and she would be fast asleep.

Helen Grant's reading pile

Over the years that followed I often read to her and her little brother. Greater love hath no mother than this, that she readeth every single volume of Beast Quest, believe me. I discovered that the classics are still the best. Beatrix Potter’s language is so flowing and elegant that it can be read accurately even when the person reading is three-quarters dead with exhaustion.

Eventually, of course, both kids learnt to read themselves, and were able to pursue the time-honoured custom of covert under-the-bedclothes reading after lights out, whilst I put my feet up – or more probably, emptied the dishwasher.

Reading aloud was relegated to one of those things we did during particularly long car journeys or intolerably wet days on holiday.

Over the last couple of years, however, we’ve started it again. My daughter is a voracious reader, so she doesn’t really need any encouragement to get through books, but she did need some help with sleeping. The dawn of the teenage years seemed to have restored her to factory settings, so to speak: all of a sudden she was having problems sleeping again, resulting in exhaustion in the mornings. Sitting up late at night in front of a bright screen – whether tv, computer or hand held console – is not a good recipe for sound sleep. Science says all that artificial light close to the face fools the body into thinking it is still daytime, and delays the production of the hormone melatonin, which helps us fall asleep. Trouble is, if you are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at 11pm it is difficult to lie patiently in a darkened room waiting for the elusive sleep to arrive.

Alan Grant at bedtime

I suggested reading to her again. And that is what we have done. We started off with The Hound of the Baskervilles; since then we have also done King Solomon’s Mines, The Lost World, Dracula, The Chrysalids, The Werewolf, Carmilla, my own novel The Glass Demon, and various short stories including those of Arthur Conan Doyle, Saki, M.R.James and L.T.C.Rolt. We choose the books between us. I think this is pretty key to the teen-being-prepared-to-listen bit. It helps that we share a taste for thrilling and creepy stories. If she wanted me to read her endless romances I would still read them, but I’d be reading between clenched teeth. We’ve also tended to go for stuff she might not tackle on her own: Dracula, for example, is easier if you have someone ancient on hand to explain what telegraphy, collar studs and hansom cabs are (not, I hasten to add, that I actually remember those things!!).

Yes, it does take up a bit of time in the evening – but on the other hand, the time is more pleasantly spent than if I were passing her door every ten minutes saying “Haven’t you turned that light out yet?” Nobody gets nagged, she gets entertainment as she slides into sleep, and I get to rediscover books I loved in the past.’

St George and me

And we’re off. Not this very minute, if you’re an early reader. But barring horrific delays and mishaps and calamities, this is the day.

Does it seem like an un-English thing to move out of the country on St George’s day? ‘snot intentional.

It’s World Book Day. The real WBD, I mean. So I suppose it makes sense that a Bookwitch moves around in the world, a little.

Shakespeare kicked the bucket on this date, and when I looked it up, lots more people as well. Not Cervantes, for some obscure reason. I had laboured under the impression that he and William died on the same day, but Don Quijote’s creator has shifted to a day earlier. Oh, well.

Some were even born on April 23rd. Ngaio Marsh. Halldór Laxness.

Oh look, there’s the dragon..!!!

A last read

We’ve done a lot of lasts recently. It feels very final when you suddenly think ‘I will not be doing that in this house again.’

The Resident IT Consultant

Here is the Resident IT Consultant, reading on the deck. (It probably looks nicer than it is. Personally I prefer to read away from the sun, but he rediscovered the deckchairs and had to have a go.)

The chairs will come with us. So will the book(s). And the Resident IT Consultant.

Easter lilies

Daffodils

I know. They aren’t Easter lilies. I imagine there is no such thing. It’s a literal translation of the Swedish påsklilja. And there you might also find they flower round Easter. In England they are usually long gone by then.

Besides, my green fingers have never really stretched to daffodils. I plant them, and one or two feeble ones turn up one year, never to be seen again.

 

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.)

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.

It’s missing a bedroom upstairs

Did I tell you about our tiny kitchen? We thought it was all right – apart from the cobwebs, the dust and the food stains – in its own modest way. However, all our prospective buyers looked at it and wanted it to be bigger. But you just don’t get farmhouse kitchens where the children can do their homework and get in your way, as you swig wine while making dinner, in Mancunian suburbia. For that price. Besides, if you did, the estate agent would have mentioned it.

As for ourselves, we obviously make perfect house viewers. We have read the description of what we are about to see, and if the kitchen looks a bit small, we are too polite to ask why it isn’t bigger. A person can adapt, can’t they?

One agent said about the house he showed us that other viewers complained that it’s ‘missing a bedroom’ upstairs. As if a bedroom could just up and leave. Again, if the description mentions two bedrooms upstairs, I’d say you’d be unlikely to find three.

Besides, after reading about houses online, I rebuild. So far I have rebuilt, extended or otherwise changed half  the properties for sale in Stirling. In my mind. It’s very easy and it’s fun. There’s not even all that much dust once you’re done.

Cough. Ouch. Didn’t see that lintel there.

We are now halfway along in the famous Bookwitch relocation saga. We used the services of Snape, Defense Against the Dark Estate Agents…

Marcus Sedgwick on horror and sheds

The Marcus Sedgwick interview is ready for your entertainment today. I wish you could hear Marcus, as well as just read. He laughs a lot and he talks ‘just right’ by which I mean that he is interesting on whatever stupid question someone like me might ask, and he spends time on them, but not too long.

Lagom, as we say in Sweden.

He is someone who has been on my interview radar for years, and it’s mainly coincidence that it was his new adult novel, A Love Like Blood, that caused us to meet and talk (I ‘blame’ the very helpful Kerry at Hodder), which is why I used up some of our ‘adult’ time on talking about his – slightly – younger books as well.

Marcus Sedgwick

And his shed. (It’s not necessary to buy a house that has a good shed. You can actually build a nice shed once you’ve found the house of your dreams.)

Marcus claims not to be obsessed by horror, but he is a man who scares me a lot, through his books. They are the kind of books you read hiding behind the sofa.

The 2014 programme – Manchester Children’s Book Festival

James Draper

Would you trust this man to run your book festival? Well, you should. James Draper – with his dodgy taste in socks – and Kaye Tew are responsible (yes, really) for the Manchester Children’s Book Festival, and there is no other festival I love in quite the same way. It is professional, while also managing to be friendly, fun and very crazy.

(While they now have their own teams working for them, and they claim there’s less need and opportunity to see each other all the time, I believed James when he said ‘I see more of that woman than I do the inside of my own eyelids!’)

James Draper and Kaye Tew

The extremely hot off the presses 2014 programme is proof that Kaye and James know what they are doing and are growing with the task (no, not in that way), but I hope they never grow away from the childish pleasure they seem to take in working together. Carol Ann Duffy was wise to give them the job in 2010. She might still have to be mother and stop anything too OTT, but other than that you can definitely hand your festival over to these two.

I’d been told the new programme would be ready by the end of Monday. And I suppose it was. James worked through the night until 9 a.m. on the Tuesday, but that really counts as end of Monday in my book. Then he slept for an hour to make it Tuesday, when he and Kaye had invited me round for an early peek at what they have to offer this summer.

James Draper and Kaye Tew

While James – understandably – got some coffee, Kaye started talking me through the programme. It went well, although if I’d brought reading glasses I’d have been able to see more. There is a lot there, and they have old favourites coming back and new discoveries joining us for the first time.

This year they start their reading relay before the festival with an event in early June with Curtis Jobling, who is launching the whole thing, before spending a month going into schools passing the baton on. I reckon if anyone can do that, it’s Curtis. The month, not passing the baton. That’s easy.

Multi-cultural Manchester launches on the 26th of June with Sufiya Ahmed returning to talk about human rights issues with teenagers.

Olive tree MMU

On the Family Fun Day (28th June) Sarah McIntyre and Philip Reeve will judge a seawig parade (no, I don’t know what that is, either), they expect you to make sea monkeys (instructions on Sarah’s website), and there will be countless other fun things to do. It’s an all day thing, intended to tire you out.

Sunday 29th offers entertainment at various venues belonging to the festival sponsors; Royal Exchange Theatre, National Football Museum, Waterstones and Ordsall Hall.

On the Monday Guy Bass is back, and newbie Kate Pankhurst is bringing her detective Mariella Mystery. (I think I was told that Kate is getting married before her event and then going off on honeymoon immediately after. That’s dedication, that is.)

Justin Somper will buckle some swash on Tuesday 1st July, and the Poet Laureate is handing out poetry competition prizes, while on the Wednesday Andrew Cope (whom I missed last time) will talk about being brilliant, as well as doing an event featuring his Spy Dogs and Spy Pups. And as if that’s not enough cause for celebration, that Steve Cole is back again. It will be all about me, as he is going to talk about stinking aliens and a secret agent mummy.

Farmyard Footie and Toddler Tales on Thursday 3rd July, ending with a great evening offering both Liz Kessler and Ali Sparkes. (How to choose? Or how to get really fast between two venues?) David Almond will make his mcbf debut on Friday night, which is cause for considerable excitement.

And on the Saturday, oh the Saturday, there is lots. Various things early on, followed by vintage afternoon tea (whatever that means) at the Midland Hotel in the company of Cathy Cassidy! After which you will have to run like crazy back to MMU where they will have made the atrium into a theatre for a performance of Private Peaceful: The Concert, with Michael Morpurgo, who is mcbf patron, and acappella trio Cope, Boyes & Simpson.

If you thought that was it, then I have to break it to you that Darren Shan will be doing zombie stuff in the basement on the Saturday evening. Darkness and a high body-count has been guaranteed.

Willy Wonka – the real one – is on at Cornerhouse on Sunday, followed by a brussel sprout ice cream workshop, or some such thing. Meanwhile, Tom Palmer will be in two places at the same time (I was promised this until they decided he’d be in two places one after the other), talking about the famous football match in WWI. There will also be a Twitter football final.

What I’m most looking forward to, however, is the Carol Ann Duffy and John Sampson festival finale, with afternoon tea and a quiz at the MacDonald Townhouse Hotel. (And it had better be at least as chaotic as the one in 2010 where James’s mother was disqualified, and I probably should have been.)

You should be able to book tickets from today, and doing it today might be a good idea. Just in case it sells out. Which would be good (for them), but also a shame (for you).

For some obscure, but very kind, reason they have put my name on the last page. 14 rows beneath Carol Ann Duffy, but only two away from Michael Morpurgo. And I didn’t even give them any money.

MMU

All I want now is a complimentary hotel room for the duration. And a sofa from the atrium area to take home.