Category Archives: Education

Lowering the tone

I was struck by how civil everyone was. At the weekend there was a social media discussion about a celebrity who writes children’s books. There wasn’t much said that was positive, but people were discussing the topic like the adults they are.

The only reason I was a little surprised was because a week earlier I had taken part in another online chat about a fairly new, and therefore pretty unknown, YA author. In fact, I only contributed my bit on the grounds that I felt someone had to behave. The author had a couple of friends who spoke up on her behalf, and a couple of strangers who also seemed quite level headed, but apart from them it became pretty vile. And these were also adults, and I found it hard to believe so many would say so much that was so unpleasant. But they were mostly not my friends.

You may be aware I’m a long standing fan of NCIS. So far this year I have been dreadfully disappointed with the way the show is going, and the episode two weeks ago reached an all time low. For that reason I was glad to find last week’s episode pretty decent, and I even went to the Facebook page to see if people agreed with me. Unfortunately the consensus appeared to be that if they were going to be muslim friendly, then they would stop watching.

I’m sure people have always had opinions such as these, but have not been so quick to voice them publicly. Just as the YA author discussion went beyond what would have seemed decent until fairly recently.

On the morning of November 9th, I turned to Facebook as I turned off my mobile phone alarm clock, hoping for the best but knowing I’d not find it. Two friends had posted; one a relative who was now very worried about her recent – prestigious – job offer in California. The other, a friend from school, and a brand new US citizen, who was ecstatic over the result of the election.

I’m sure you can guess who overstepped the mark? Yes, the latter. She was so buoyed up by success that she started posting so many offensive comments on Facebook, insulting everyone from people like me to President Obama, that I did that modern thing and unfriended her. I was pleased for her that she was pleased, but didn’t feel it gave her the right to say what she said.

The relative? I understand she’ll head off for her new job, and I hope both she and the job will be safe. There was one thing I’d not considered before that morning. I’ve known her since she was one year old, but I’d never noticed her skin colour before.

As for the celebrity, I will leave him alone. And the YA author is someone whose acquaintance I hope to make soon. At first I thought it might have happened by now, as she took part in Book Week Scotland, at a venue within reach of Bookwitch Towers. But we decided to wait for a less frantic time.

And all this is why I enjoyed the discussion at the weekend. It showed me I know lots of people who are witty and intelligent, and they can be somewhat rude, while still spelling all the words they use correctly.

To Sir With Love

I freely admit to having a Reader’s Digest past. Somehow some sales person must have managed to bypass Mother-of-witch and her frugal approach to most unnecessary things in life, and persuaded her to subscribe to those books. I have no idea how many of the abridged novels she read, but I got through a lot of them. I was at the age when there simply weren’t enough books around to read, and I searched the bookcase daily for more entertainment, and discovered that quite a lot of those odd looking titles were not that bad. Nice, easy reads, and quick, due the their abridged nature.

To Sir With Love by E R Braithwaite was one of them. It was probably also one of my best loved books on the RD shelf. That will be why I introduced Offspring to the film starring Sidney Poitier, when the opportunity arose, years ago. When Daughter was last home, we watched it again. It made us talk, and think about things.

Do you remember my Canterville Ghost Favourite Teacher? I thought of him then. Not long before I had read a letter to the editor in a Swedish magazine, and I’d wondered if the writer might have been him. Right name, and I believe, right town. And what he said seemed to fit as well.

So I Googled a bit, as you do, and came to the conclusion it very likely was Favourite Teacher. On Swedish sites you get some odd information, like date of birth, and thanks to Mother-of-witch who was also a teacher, I knew how old he’d be. And then I hit on the idea of Google images, and found a photo that could very well be him, ‘a few years on.’

At my age you can’t take for granted your teachers will still be alive.

Apart from being such a great teacher, and managing the difficult balance between fun and friendly, versus knowledge and discipline in the classroom, he was also the politest teacher I’ve ever had. We were between the ages of 13 and 16 and he addressed the boys by surname and the girls were Miss and surname.

Just like Sidney Poitier, in fact. That was one of the details I’d forgotten, but which came back when I watched the film again.

There were two Misses C in my form. I was Miss C at the front, while the other Miss C sat at the back. ‘Mats hört immer zu’ is a phrase I still remember, helping me know what to do about the German verb zuhören, while chuckling about Mats who never did any kind of zuhören whatsoever. And as all you English native speakers must know, ‘skulle heter would, skulle heter would, skulle heter would.’ As opposed to should, which is what we might have guessed and what Favourite Teacher was there to prevent.

And there were many more where those came from.

Two languages, for all three years of secondary school. I was very lucky.

He wasn’t easily taken in, either. When one girl asked to copy my homework, I wasn’t worried. She came back and said he’d given her [her first ever] full marks, while adding he thought she had ‘cooperated with Miss C.’

The last year we gave him a – collective – gift when we left school, because he had been our form teacher that year. He wrote each of us a thank you card, posted to our home address. That’s what I call class.

Treasure your library

It’s not new, this idea of saving libraries. People are working hard to prevent closures, or this idea of ‘merely’ giving the school librarian the sack, leaving the books to look after themselves. Lots of authors, and others, were out marching a couple of weeks ago in London. I wish I could have been there.

And then there was this open letter during the week from Chris Riddell and Malorie Blackman and all the other former laureates, to save our libraries. I don’t feel that this should even have to be on the to-do list for children’s laureates, past or present. The threat should not be there.

Yesterday I mentioned the effect of libraries on a couple of authors, one of whom won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize this week. Alex Wheatle’s obvious joy on winning, and his totally unrehearsed speech on how the library [in Brixton] made him who he is, was very moving.

Whether we blame national government who really could shift spending money from weapons to libraries, or the local councils who are financially squeezed everywhere and ‘must’ save, is a matter of opinion.

Halmstad Library

Melvin Burgess BH library

But it shouldn’t be like in my former home town in Sweden, which has a lovely, newly built library, where clearly no expense was spared, which now has problems with vandalism. Mindless teen gangs come in – maybe because they are bored – and they are rowdy and they break things [toilets, for instance] and generally disturb the users of the library, forcing staff to call in security.

It seems they are now trying ‘youth leaders’ and they will hopefully have a positive effect. Or, they could try putting books by Melvin Burgess [see yesterday’s post] in their hands and making them read.

Let’s hope it’s not too late. I don’t have much hope, but let’s hope anyway.

The Wonderful Adventures of Nils

If you are looking for a classic Christmas present for a child, look no further. This retelling of Selma Lagerlöf’s Nils Holgersson is rather nice, and with the illustrations by Olivier Latyk, including some intricate card cut-outs, you won’t find anything more beautiful. (Make sure the child isn’t of the destructive kind, though.)

Kochka and Olivier Latyk, The Wonderful Adventures of Nils

Kochka, who has adapted Selma’s old classic, probably knows the story in French. I say probably, as there is no translator credited, nor is there one for the translation from French into English. (I’m on a translation track here, and would have liked the people who made it all possible to be present.) But apart from that, and a few of the expected misspellings of Swedish place names, it is very nice.

Snowy, even if it doesn’t all happen in snow, but it adds to the Christmassy feel. As a Swede I am also aware of the dangers to geese around this time of year. Watch out, or you are dinner.

Nils is a naughty little boy, but one who is surprisingly fast at recognising what he has to do, once an elf has shrunk him to miniature size. He needs to improve his behaviour and be kinder to all, especially animals, and he needs to help where help is wanted.

To be truthful, I no longer recall how much geography there was in the original, and how much adventure and improvement of Nils. But as Selma wrote the story to assist in teaching children about their country, I’d say the adaptation has mainly lost this part, and probably for the better. Not many small foreign children will want to hear about ancient Swedish landscapes. They will want the adventures, and – perhaps – the story of how one little boy learned a lesson.

My lesson will have to be that I had no idea the geese were given names from the Finnish one to six. But it’s sort of fun to discover now.

This is beautiful fantasy, i.e. perfectly normal stuff for today’s readers. And there is a happy ending for the dinner.

The Canterville Ghost

Soon after I’d started at my new secondary school, the school hall burned down. This was unfortunate, but certainly nothing to do with me. In fact, we were quite lucky, since it happened on sports day, when nearly everyone was out, and only [I think] the choir was there to practise. And the head teacher, who might have attempted to put the fire out.

The hall was almost brand new, so it was a shame, but the replacement hall was – probably – even better. I can barely remember what the unfortunate first hall was like.

Nor can I remember for how long we had to go without a hall while it was being rebuilt. We had assembly first thing every morning, which meant the school had to come up with alternatives. In effect this meant that the teacher who taught the first period got to ‘entertain’ the class for fifteen minutes before starting on the real stuff.

My Favourite Teacher ended up doing most of my assemblies, as I had him for two subjects, which managed to cover several mornings of the week. He very sensibly read to us, and his first choice was The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde.

Despite having him for English, our teacher read the story in Swedish. Perhaps it was just as well, since this way everyone in the class could enjoy it. And I believe learning to enjoy a good story rather than making it be too educational is the best way.

We had a lot of fun with the ghost and the Otis family. In actual fact, I still consider the name Otis to be a fun name, so I guess it’s just this happy memory.

After Canterville we had other books/stories to listen to and they were all excellent. But I can’t remember what they were. I was sad to return to the new assembly hall when the time came. Those assemblies were generally also fairly good, but not quite up to Canterville standards.

Oscar Wilde, The Canterville Ghost and other stories

(There’s a new Canterville Ghost out now, along with other Oscar Wilde stories. Enjoy some fresh blood stains for Halloween!)

Losing it

You repeat something so often that you come to know it as a fact, whereas it could of course turn out merely to be a myth.

My old professor Alvar Ellegård reputedly lost his PhD thesis (on the uses of the word do) down the ‘sopnedkast’ and had to re-write the whole thing.

I’m not sure whether us students were told this as an amusing fact, or if it was intended as a warning never to tidy our flats. And maybe he never did throw his thesis away. But it’s what I remember him by. That, and a textbook I actually hung on to for a surprisingly long time.

Sopnedkast is a rubbish chute. It’s what we had in the semi-olden days for getting rid of rubbish. And PhD theses, obviously. Keys were also pretty good to chuck down this hole-in-the-wall, as not infrequently you’d need the aforementioned keys both to re-enter your flat, or to gain access to the rubbish room with the bins, where the keys had ended up. (I never did this.)

What with recycling and sorting your rubbish properly, the chutes are long gone. Well, not gone gone; just firmly shut. People simply have to carry their well-separated items down all those stairs.

These days there is always the delete button. (For theses. Not so much for milk cartons and newspapers.)

Saga’s saga

Never underestimate the entertainment value of history, and especially not the history all around you, where you live. I hinted earlier at having read the manuscript of a children’s book, written by a friend. That sort of thing can be quite awkward, as they could turn out to have written something really appalling. But I felt safe with Ingrid (Magnusson Rading) because not only is she both interesting and intelligent, but she had already written a gorgeous coffee table book about our shared summer paradise. So I knew she could write.

And unlike the young witch who used to imagine herself writing a Famous Five type book set in Haverdal, because there were so many intriguing settings all over the place, where villains could roam and all that, Ingrid not only stopped dreaming and set to work, but she chose a much superior format; a quiet fantasy adventure set in today’s Haverdal with time travelling to the past, using much of the research she did for her other book.

Jättastuans hemlighet – as it is currently called – is about a girl called Saga, who just might be Ingrid’s as yet unborn granddaughter. Saga’s gran bears a suspicious resemblance to someone I know, as does her grandfather and the cottage where she’s come to stay for a week. Jättastuan is a sort of cave near the beach, and Saga’s gran shares a secret with her on that first day.

Haverdal

And before you know it, Saga has been transported to the 17th century, where life was pretty hard. Instead of your normal time travel, Saga actually becomes Ellika, a girl who lived back then, and we see the family’s struggle to survive bad winters and failing crops. Learning about history like this brings it to life and makes it relevant in a way that pure facts never do.

There is time travel in the opposite direction too, with some hilarious descriptions of life today, as observed by someone from five hundred years ago. And when the reader has loved, and suffered with, Ellika’s family, we meet some much more recent historical characters from about a hundred years ago, set in and around the quarry that covers much of the area. So that’s more people to love and identify with, and more facts that come alive.

I think any middle grade reader would love this book. I’d have liked it when I was ten. I certainly enjoyed it now. And I wouldn’t mind more of the same (I believe Ingrid has ideas for another period or two from the past). If children still learn about their local area for history at school, Jättastuans hemlighet [The Secret of Jättastuan] would be a fantastic resource for teachers. And what could be better, education and fun all in one go?

Very local children would also enjoy knowing exactly where Saga goes, as I did. It’s an added bonus, but not essential. But as has been said recently, we like to find ourselves in books, and this will firmly place Haverdal children in literature.