Category Archives: Education

Sharing the plot

On the cover of Catriona McPherson’s latest crime novel Ann Cleeves calls it ‘disturbing.’ Obviously in a complimentary way, but disturbing is disturbing. A facebook friend – I forget who – mentioned reading it and said what a great book it was, but perhaps not for bedtime.

I immediately decided I wouldn’t read it, and that lasted until Catriona said she’d send me a copy, and then there I was, reading it – because it looked so very good – alone in the house and bedtime was approaching. What to do?

Instantly devising a solution of reading Catriona’s book in the daytime, and moving on to Jenny Colgan’s new romantic novel for evenings, I felt quite satisfied.

And then I realised that the two plots have a lot in common. Both feature women going somewhere new, starting new jobs. Both new jobs are in some far flung dark corner of Scotland, in a small community, and there are rumours about the ‘man in the big house.’

Whose mother was it? And were there plans for coffee or something on Friday?

When I got this far I suddenly realised my own life had similarities, too. It was the week Daughter started a new job somewhere a longish way away. Hopefully there are no weird ‘lairds’ in big houses where she is. But perhaps the coffee on Friday was hers?

I just don’t know.

(And this is not a review, of anything. Those will come later, assuming I sleep at night, and the Friday coffee plans get sorted.)

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How To Be an Astronaut

‘and other space jobs,’ as it says in the title of Sheila Kanani’s book about becoming an astronaut. I never wanted to be the one to go into space, but this book reminded me that I did rather fancy a job in mission control. Yes.

As illustrated non-fiction books go, this is a great one. I don’t say this because it’s about space and astronauting, but because it has been intelligently written, with just the right amount of humour, and no talking down at the young reader.

Sheila Kanani and Sol Linero, How To Be an Astronaut

Sheila did tell us a lot of these facts in her event at the book festival, so it was mostly not new to me, but it still makes for fascinating reading. And I do like Sol Linero’s pictures, which are factual and beautiful, all at the same time.

(I would have preferred no white text on dark blue background, though, but I am old and perhaps wannabe astronauts are just fine with that. They probably have to be, now that I think of it.)

There are so many jobs you can do for space, and still stay on the ground. It means you don’t have to live off dried food or send your poo into space, or use special velcro to scratch your nose if it itches.

The book also tells us that there were women – a very long time ago – who discovered about eclipses and gravity (I would say long before that Newton chap), even if there was a risk of being thought of as a witch.

This is an excellent book to put into the hands of children. And you will enjoy it too.

Farewell to EIBF 2019

Tom Palmer and Alex Wheatle

This may surprise you, but I occasionally wonder if I’m doing the right thing. In this case the ‘thing’ is children’s books and their authors. But the event honouring Judith Kerr this week, proved to me I was in the right place, and not even crime – the fictional kind – can hope to reach such heights, pleasant though it it.

George Street

There was such a perfect feeling of how good it can be, and I suspect that this is hard to achieve away from children’s books.

And chatting to Chris Close about Judith, I was pleased to find that he too had special memories of her. I was also a little surprised to discover that while he couldn’t instantly recall Daniel Hahn’s name when he walked past, he knows perfectly well what t-shirt Daniel wore in 2010. As you do.

What I was really wanting was to talk to Chris about his photo of Sheila Kanani [in Space], and I like the way he remembers virtually all the people he has shot in his spot in Yurt Gardens. Apparently most of Space this time was made up of St Abb’s Head, which I suppose is the photographer’s ‘bottle of washing up liquid’ in using whatever comes to hand.

Sheila Kanani by Chris Close

When it doesn’t rain, the new style Yurt Gardens is a good place to hang, as proven by the gang of crime writers just round the corner from my sandwich spot. There’s ducks, Chris, and the passing through of many people, who either are very famous, or carrying trays of food. All are important. (Though no ‘Kevin Costner’ this year…)

Ian Rankin and Phill Jupitus

What’s always good in the festival’s second week are all the school children. They have come for the same thing as I have, and often getting the most exciting events combos. I even spied a few teens wearing the authorial blue lanyards the other day. Made me green with envy, that did.

It’s not only old age and feebleness that determines when I attend. Trains have a lot to do with it. They were better this year; partly to do with the new electric rolling stock (pardon me for getting nerdy), and partly because I tried to avoid the worst hours of the day. But when the doors refused to open as we got to Haymarket one day, I learned from the guard that it’s all down to computers now. I wish I didn’t know that!

Elizabeth Acevedo and Dean Atta

We mentioned teeth in connection with Mog’s nightmares. I haven’t been able to ignore the fact that so many authors also have teeth. Well, I suppose most people do, but I am always struck by the wide smiles, full of perfect teeth. And not just the Americans, either. I’ll be spending this winter practising smiling in front of the mirror, but am not hopeful.

Here’s to EIBF 2020, when we will see more clearly?

Jim Al-Khalili

(Most photos by Helen Giles)

Cracking the Reading Code

You can’t hear enough about getting children – or even old people – to read, especially if they have extra obstacles to deal with. Well, I can’t, anyway. And I’d already heard the background stories of Tom Palmer, Sally Gardner and Alex Wheatle, but they can do with being repeated. Often. Until everyone who wants to can read.

Sally Gardner, Tom Palmer and Alex Wheatle

The three guests were ably interviewed by Mairi Kidd in Tuesday’s event hosted by Barrington Stoke, where she used to work. She knows about this business of dyslexia friendly books. And so do the three; with Tom probably having written the most books for Barrington Stoke, Sally being the most dyslexic while still writing the the most wonderful stories, and Alex for knowing what his readers know.

Tom Palmer

I do like the sound of Tom’s mother, getting him to read by giving him books and articles on football. And then he went to night school where he was supposed to read Shakespeare and Chaucer! It wasn’t until a tutor introduced him to poetry about Leeds United (!), and took students out to the actual ‘Wuthering Heights’ that Tom felt he could get on with this reading.

Sally Gardner

Not sure I like the sound of Sally’s school for maladjusted children (whose fault is it if children are maladjusted?), but at 14 when she tried reading Wuthering Heights for the second time and she suddenly was ‘in the f***ing book,’ things changed for her. As Sally said, you can be good at something and it needn’t be only academic for it to matter. We need ‘diversity in the brain.’

And Alex, who did read a bit as a child, from Huckleberry Finn and Ivanhoe to sports books, finally discovered books in jail at the age of 18. His cellmate, and mentor, gave him The Black Jacobins to read, as he ‘wouldn’t have anything better to do in there.’

Alex Wheatle

Asked to read to us, Alex again chose the bit from Kerb Stain Boys about being in detention, and this time it was Sally who asked if he reads his own audio books. And after Sally had treated us to a dyslexic pirate in Mr Tiger, Betsy and the Sea Dragon, Alex returned the compliment. Sally does have a great voice. Last but not least, Tom read from Armistice Runner, which is close to his heart, featuring both running and fells, and it still makes me cry.

Mairi asked the three about graphic novels; if they make reading easier. Sally mentioned Shaun Tan, and the ‘most genius book ever,’ which has no words at all. Both Alex and Tom were fans of Shoot Magazine, but understandably Sally’s not. Talking about Tom’s novel Scrum, and the revelation it brought a young boy at a school; ‘Miss, I can read this!’

Sally gets angry when people say to those who have listened to an unabridged novel as an audio book, that they ‘haven’t really read it.’ This is snobbery. She suggested to someone in the audience that if the can get a certificate from their GP that their child is dyslexic, then they have the right to access audio books for the blind and partially sighted.

The last question of the evening was not a question but a thank you, from a teacher who uses these books in her school. And it seems that Scotland might be better in this instance, not having reading rules, which means that teachers can let the children read anything, even if it’s not from the right part of a reading scheme. (This brings back dreadful memories of Son being forced to read ‘backwards’ so as not to rock the boat of equality.)

We then gathered in the bookshop where people were so keen to continue talking about this important subject, that poor Tom was unable to sit down at the signing table for quite some time.

This is what we like.

Blast Off!

It’d be easy to believe an event like Sheila Kanani’s about how to become an astronaut, aimed at young children, wouldn’t be of interest to an adult. And that’s where you’d be wrong.

Sheila Kanani

I have no wish to change careers and travel to Mars, unlike some of the children in the audience, but just hearing about what it could be like and what you need to learn, was Very Interesting. I knew Sheila does a lot of outreach in her job for the Royal Astronomical Society, but I hadn’t paused to consider what it might entail. Or that she’d be so good at it.

Chaired by Sarah Broadley, the session offered tables for the children to play at astronaut training with oven gloves, long colourful strips of rubber, pink rulers, headphones, Russian codes. And scissors. There were not enough tables, so more had to be found. The balance between the sexes was good, and you could tell these were young human beings who’d thought about space and travelling to Mars.

In real life you have to be at least 27, speak Russian and have a good idea of what to do when your helicopter is crashing. And if you make it all the way, you have to go to the toilet using a tube contraption thing, and for those of you who have wished upon shooting stars, you might not want to know that it could have been astronaut poo entering the atmosphere.

Before the hands-on play, we’d turned a water melon into Jupiter, with poor little Mercury represented by a peppercorn. Earth is a cherry tomato.

Sheila Kanani

Sheila, whose favourite planet is Saturn, wants to make people more enthusiastic about space science. She asked if anyone felt that it was a waste of money to invest in space research. One or two did, and they were gently told maybe they were in the wrong tent…

So, for anyone who wants to be a space vet – for the animals in space – or any of the other jobs ‘up there’ you know what to do. Start with Sheila’s book How To Be An Astronaut, and then get to work on your dexterity while wearing oven gloves.

(Photos by Helen Giles)

The Dangerous Lives of the Jacobites

The Jacobites used to get a mention in stuff the young witch watched on television. She had no idea then – or until much more recently – who they really were. Good? Bad? Or depends on who you are?

The latter, I’d say. Now I’ve read the story by Linda Strachan, about a Jacobite family in 1745, I feel I know a lot more, even if my head is reeling a bit from all the information.

Linda Strachan and Darren Gate, The Dangerous Lives of the Jacobites

I like the story about Rob and Aggie, and about fighting for Bonnie Prince Charlie. It’s as I usually say; it helps to understand history when you meet and get to know and like some of the people who were involved at the time.

It’s also useful to have facts to help with that understanding. However, I felt there was too much. I got lost among the Kings and all the rest of them. There were also several risings, and most of the old battles I’ve heard of appear in this book. But I do feel I’ve got the gist of what some Jacobites were like.

Illustrated by Darren Gate, you can see what kind of clothes they wore and what sort of house people like Rob and Aggie lived in. There’s a menu, as an example of what they had to eat. I reckon this kind of book will work very well in a classroom, helping to explain history.

For instance, for all the mentions I’ve come across in my life of Bonnie Prince Charlie, I had no idea he was ‘Italian.’ And in a way it’s a bit sad with all these princes who wanted to lay claim to thrones and who fought and sometimes died, and all for what? On the other hand, unlike today’s leaders, it seems they actually experienced the cold and the mud and the dangers. Just like their followers did.

Getting to know them

My most recent book cull made me think. You can look at reading in different ways.

I’ve often envied those who came to Harry Potter once he was all here; with no need to wait for ten years before being able to finish the series of books. But then, we who did wait, had ample time to read and wait and think and do other things.

Back in 2003 – and how long ago that seems now! – Offspring’s secondary school library started its Author of the Term project. Our first one was Adèle Geras. Then came Tim Bowler and after him, Linda Newbery. After them it is a blur and I can no longer recall who came or when.

I had barely read anything by Adèle when she came. (I’d probably hurriedly read a short book to enlighten myself a little.) But afterwards, well, I read them ‘all.’ Because I wanted to and I could. I had the time to cover her backlist, as well as everything new that came my way. What a treat! And how lovely it was.

With Tim I had read a little more. After all, I was the one who suggested him and who ‘forced’ Tim to agree to come. But there was still room for improvement and I did have a few of his books to catch up on. And then, again, the new ones.

Finally, I am almost certain I’d not read any of Linda’s many books. But she spoke so well about her writing that no sooner had she left than I started working my way through ‘all’ her books. I especially liked her war books, of which there were quite a few. And before long I also tackled Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain, for the simple reason that if Linda had been inspired by it, it had to be good. Which it was.

I can no longer do this. Occasionally I have read someone’s books extra fast, before an interview, perhaps. But that was also some time ago. No more. Anyway, reading too fast is a waste of a good book, and if it isn’t all that good, then why bother?

It was a luxury, getting to know someone both as a person and reading what they’d written.

(And although I mostly bought copies of my own, I had the good luck to be helping out in the school library, with instant access to the books by Adèle, Tim and Linda. That’s why we need libraries.)