Category Archives: Books

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.

Writing as Activism

Today Barbara Henderson is here to say a little more about the background to her book Scottish by Inclination. I am biased, but I don’t feel you can say enough about this. Consider this activism from me too.

“As I write, I have come out of an emotional week: the fifth anniversary of the Brexit referendum and the deadline for Settled Status applications, but also the publication of Scottish by Inclination. The book is my reflection on Scotland, EU immigration and belonging – my own story with Scotland, interspersed with 30 profiles of others like me who have made their home here. People who have shaped Scotland. You’d be forgiven for asking: ‘You’re a children’s writer, Barbara. Why write this kind of book at all?’

I would never argue that I am a conscious activist – I am definitely a writer first! But naturally, as a writer, words are my way of wrestling with the world. When I wrote my Highland Clearances children’s novel, Fir for Luck, I deliberately placed a strong and feisty female character at the centre of the action. It was no conscious act of feminism on my part, but The Desperate Journey, so far the staple school text on the period, felt a little outdated and relied too much on gender stereotyping for my liking. The same applied to my medieval novel, The Siege of Caerlaverock. Can you think of a historical novel for kids which is not primarily about a boy? I couldn’t – so I wrote one. A whiff of outrage is enough to tip the balance of choice one way or the other. It was subtle.

Not so with Scottish by Inclination. There was nothing subtle about my motivation to write this one! After 30 years in Scotland, I had all but forgotten that I was a foreigner. I was blithely naïve about the prospect of a Brexit referendum. Most of my friends thought that the result would be a foregone conclusion: we’d remain in the EU. It was a no-brainer.

Suffice to say that my memories of the last week of June 2016 are not good ones. Shock first, then bewilderment and finally a form of grief. By then I had lived in Scotland for more than a quarter of a century and my feeling was that I belonged. Had it all been an illusion? What was this fresh hell? I attended a protest and was struck by the talent and variety of my fellow activists. The phrase ‘Scottish by Inclination’ had popped up in public and political discourse again and again and eventually, my brain connected the two.

I was a writer, for goodness’ sake! Could I somehow make the case for the value of EU immigration, despite the fact that the Brexit train was already merrily chugging along towards the 31st December 2020? Could I amplify the EU-Scottish voices which hadn’t been heard?

I pitched the idea to publishers in a tweet: Scottish by Inclination. Activists, academics, artists, radiologists and removal men. A chapter-by-chapter collection of interesting stories of EU nationals who have made their homes here and are helping to shape what Scotland is today.

I received publisher interest, refined the vision to include a biographical thread, applied for funding and set to work. Five months flew by. To my surprise, I didn’t struggle much – adult non-fiction wasn’t quite the hostile territory I had anticipated it would be. In fact, I found that I loved the process. Every new person I spoke with was another reason to write it. Their story needed to be written, these voices needed to be heard and as a writer, I was in a position to make it happen.

I don’t know if Scottish by Inclination will make a difference. Brexit lies behind us, after all, and opinions seem so entrenched that I have little faith for it to change many minds. But make the EU immigrant voice heard a little louder? Remind people of the richness and the colour and the warmth and spread and joy of a society threaded through with shades from other shores?

This I can do. This I will do.

And yes, in that sense, I am an activist.”

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.

Down #6 Memory Lane

I was going to go with a male author this time, having gone down Memory Lane with mostly girls so far. But as it said in the Guardian at the weekend, men don’t read books by women to the same extent women do books by male authors. Although, as you will see below, there is a male reader involved here.

Having met Sara Paretsky quite a few times by now, I was recently reminded of the second time, and how surprised I was by the attitude of the bookshop owners, who provided the venue for our meeting, and subsequent interview.

Offspring and I talked to Sara in Gothenburg in 2006, when Son was able to ask his standing question (which we seem to have lost by now), which was her opinion of Philip Pullman. We took for granted that she’d be a fan, and Sara did not disappoint. She was very graceful, saying good things about another author, in what was her own signing queue.

And then came the second time. I’d seen she was coming to Manchester, so spruced up my interview hat and asked for an interview. All properly done through her publicist. I suggested we meet in the local bookshop, believing it’d be great for all of us, including the bookshop who’d get a major crime writer come to them.

I was so naïve.

They didn’t say no, but neither did they in any noticeable way advertise her coming. I don’t think it was that they disliked her. I reckon they just had no idea what a big name Sara was. And, yes, I had invited her. So clearly she was no one special.

The day arrived. Sara arrived, chauffeur-driven, in the company of her publicist Kerry. I was beginning to worry that no one would turn up. Luckily, some people did, and it being a small shop, the small crowd looked bigger than it was. What pleased me the most, apart from getting my interview, was that the bookshop’s customers knew what a great deal it was, even if the owners didn’t. And one man, whose favourite author Sara was, had just come for his Saturday coffee, not knowing she was there, right then. This lovely surprise for one fan, outweighed the rest, as far as I was concerned.

From then on we have met in more sympathetic bookshops and at book festivals. Always with the assistance of Kerry. Some publicists are very special. Our next meeting in Nottingham, on a snowy Sunday is one of my best memories, complete with my half-eaten sandwich and discovering how ‘all’ involved were fans of NCIS.

Skulduggery Pleasant – Dead or Alive

Huh, so this wasn’t the end, either. I’m beginning to suspect that Derek Landy can go on and on, and will go on and on. Which is fine by me. I enjoyed Dead or Alive as much as I liked the other umpteen Skulduggery Pleasant novels. They’re fun. A bit violent, yes. Unlikely. But fun.

And most of the characters are either dead or alive, sometimes both, either simultaneously or one after the other, and possibly back again.

I do like Omen Darkly. That boy has grown up to be a real asset, even if he does make mistakes a lot of the time. And like Omen, I like Valkyrie Cain and Detective Pleasant. Their relationship might have been a bit questionable to begin with, as is pointed out in Dead or Alive, but we didn’t notice it back then. Now it’s mostly old and comfortable.

And many of the characters from the older books are back, sometimes on the right side, but not necessarily. It’s just nice to see them.

I might have mentioned this before, but it’s also quite good to find that current politics can find a way into Irish magic fantasy. A turncoat is always a turncoat.

No, I have no idea what I meant there.

Next time I must remember to buy the ebook. The 600 pages always threaten to take my arm off. A little like poor Detective Pleasant.