Category Archives: Education

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The other week I got so furious with everything to do with immigrants not being wanted, that I hunted out a book I’ve had lying around for about seven years and read it.

The book was Floella Benjamin’s Coming to England, which was first published twenty years ago, and tells the story of what it was like for her when she came to England in 1960 at the age of eleven.

Floella Benjamin, Coming to England

At first I was afraid it was going to turn out that Trinidad had been paradise and England was not, but their idyllic life in Trinidad turned sour when Floella’s parents had to leave four of their six children behind, as they didn’t have enough money for all at once. Life for those left behind quickly became hell, which presumably made the reality of England less bad, even if it was cold and grey and unwelcoming.

Through hard work and love they prospered and did well, and as we know, Floella has been very successful. But it wasn’t for England opening its arms and being friendly and giving things away freely, even then.

The facts of this book are more pertinent than ever. The style is rather wooden and boring, but that is outweighed by how important it is to read.


And then, I’d not had time to read the Guardian Weekend two weeks ago, so first picked it up a week late, to find Floella Benjamin the subject of their Q&A page. And the reason she was, was that the book has been republished again.

If that’s not witchy, I don’t know what is.

Bookwitch bites #138

If I was in Manchester this Saturday, I could celebrate Harry Potter turning twenty. But I’m not, so I can’t. It’s slightly premature, but that’s all right. If all his birthday parties happened at the same time, we couldn’t go to all of them. It’s the lovely people of Manchester Children’s Book Festival (oh, how I miss them) who are Pottering this weekend.

Strangely, I had been thinking of Andy McNab recently, and here he is popping up in the Guardian, no less. Andy has opinions on how children learn to read, or in his own case and that of many others, how they don’t learn. Yesterday saw the 2017 batch of Quick Reads launched, and as always the books look fabulous, and I’d like to pop out and get all of them. I hope many of them will reach a large number of readers who need books like these. We obviously ought to have many, many more Quick Reads, and not only once a year.

In times like these it almost feels as if we need to look for news that isn’t too bad, as opposed to actively good or wonderful. These are also times when far too many people turn out to have misplaced their spines at some point, now that we could do with a few more good strong backbones.

Malorie Blackman is doing the right thing in saying she won’t be visiting the US in the near future. Hopefully this is one of many actions that will be instrumental in changing what must be changed.

Barry Hutchison is someone who acts instead of talking. You will remember Tommy Donbavand who was diagnosed with cancer a year ago, and whose livelihood of writing books and making school visits was threatened by his illness. He was optimistic that he’d be able to write while getting treatment, but found he was far too unwell and exhausted to do much. So not only did his good friend Barry alert the rest of us that help was needed, occasionally writing Tommy’s cancer blog, but he actually stepped in and wrote Tommy’s books for him.

Tony Higginson, David Gatward, Barry Hutchison, Tommy Donbavand, Jon Mayhew, Philip Caveney and Joseph Delaney at Scarefest 3 - photo by Sean Steele

Deadlines have to be met, and while I’m sure Barry might have had the odd deadline of his own (there is a steady stream of books from Barry), he wanted to help Tommy, and knowing quite a lot about what Tommy had planned and what his books are like, he wrote a book and a half for his friend.

That’s friendship! If I ever need a friend to rummage in my sock drawer I suppose I shall have to ask someone else, because Barry is a very busy man.

Tilt

Mary Hoffman’s new book for Barrington Stoke is about the leaning tower of Pisa. You’d sort of guess that from the title, maybe.

Mary Hoffman, Tilt

I now know an awful lot more about the tower than I did before. In fact, I have never really known much, and I’ve not been to see it. But it is iconic, and you feel you own the image, knowing it so well from photographs.

While teaching the reader about the tower, Mary provides a truly inspiring story about a young girl in Pisa, who wants what was unthinkable back in the 13th century. Netta’s father is a sculptor and stone-carver and it is his task to work out what to do to stop the tower from leaning so much, and to prevent things from getting worse.

Netta finds this fascinating and wants nothing more than to follow in her father’s footsteps. But she’s a girl.

This is great stuff. The background to why the tower leans is really interesting, and Netta is the perfect role model for generations of girls to come. You can have it all. Not that girls should have to want to wash and cook, of course.

It’s made up, but I feel it could have happened exactly like this.

Read, Enjoy, Debate # 11

It was chilly. And there I was, in Falkirk, red clothes, rosy cheeks and everything, and the station footbridge was being repaired. Luckily I had my folding broom with me, so managed to cross the railway lines (my apologies for any subsequent unentangling required) and arrived at fth (Falkirk Town Hall; keep up!) with barely any delay, for a day of the 11th RED book award.

Greeted Cathy MacPhail who was shortlisted for the umpteenth time (they know a good author when they see one), still basking in the glow of her birthday the day before. She introduced me to Narinder Dhami (13 Hours), and we spent some happy minutes saying gossipy stuff about [some] people. Very satisfying. A few of the students were going round interviewing the four shortlisted authors, who also included Clare Furniss (The Year of the Rat) and Sarah Moore Fitzgerald (The Apple Tart of Hope). All beautifully decked out in red, and all looking very beautiful, too. And they were nice people…

Yvonne Manning

RED captain Yvonne Manning was wearing red fairy lights. Clothes, too, but those lights really caught the eye. She welcomed each school and they were as noisy as ever. She encouraged them, it has to be said. (That woman is not a normal librarian! Whatever happened to silence?)

The schools charged straight ahead with their dramatised presentations of the books, two schools for each book. Between every little show, the same slow stagehands cleared up. They really want to look into who they employ. At times they sat down and read the paper and took selfies. If we’re not careful they’ll get used to this kind of slacking, and the audience encouraging them.

Presentation of Devil You Know on behalf of Polmont Young Offenders

As well as the eight schools who took part, they were shadowed by boys from Polmont Young Offenders (who for obvious reasons were not present, although I suspect if this had been Sweden they would have been). One of them had written a script for Cathy MacPhail’s book, Devil You Know (very appropriate), and Yvonne got seven volunteers on stage to act it out, totally unrehearsed. They would have found it easier had there been more microphones and printing of words on one side of the paper only, I reckon. But well done to everyone; actors and script-writer!

There were prizes for best reviews, before Provost Reid went off to a council budget meeting on libraries, and as we broke for coffee Yvonne introduced ‘selfie corner.’ (It was really only a cardboard frame…)

Narinder Dhami

You could tell Cathy had been before, as she managed to get coffee long before anyone else. But eventually we all sat down and chatted, and I had a really good idea for a blog post from what we talked about. (It would have been even better if I could remember what it was.)

RED coffee

Once back, Yvonne had changed into an enthusiastic red wig, with fairy lights on top. She hoped it wasn’t too much. Well, I’m sure we were too polite to say. Before the last set of book presentations, the authors got their three minutes of saying whatever they wanted. Each. Narinder told us about her breakfast that morning (sort of, anyway), Sarah has a lovely Irish accent and Clare wore fabulous red high heeled boots, while Cathy said how pleased she was that the young offenders got her book.

The stagehands grew ever more inept as the day wore on.

Provost Reid was back by then, and he whispered to me that he could smell lunch. Clare was extremly fortunate with her school, who presented her with an iced cake at the end of their presentation. (I was worried it’d turn into a pie throwing event at first.)

RED lunch

Covers 13 Hours

At lunch we said how fantastic it was to have an all-women shortlist and we discussed agoraphobia. As you do. The authors were asked to go and cast their votes on alternative book covers, before the signings. I asked the Provost what happened to his retirement from politics plans from last year, and he seems to have sacrificed himself for the greater good.

Narinder Dhami and Sarah Moore Fitzgerald

Clare Furniss and Cathy MacPhail

RED award disco

Back in the hall there was disco dancing in one corner, with Yvonne and her fairy lights leading the way. Most of the students were singing at the top of their voices, and I couldn’t help wondering if they know how ancient that music is. Grease must have been at least forty years ago?

RED award disco

RED award

The authors got to sit on the sofas in readiness for question time, while more prizes were handed out; for best presentation, for best red accessories (I especially liked the feathers one girl wore in her hair), the stage hands, and for best book covers.

RED award

Questions were many and varied, on how long to write a book, is it hard to get published, inspiration, apple tarts, do they Google themselves, why read books, advice to themselves as teenagers, and favourite children’s books. Little Princess did well. Believe in yourself. Yes, some do Google. Time to write a book depends. Lots of good questions and the answers were all right too.

Librarian Anne Ngabia told us the latest news about her book collecting for libraries in Kenya (I have plenty more!), saying how good our children have it with free schools, even if it doesn’t feel like it. How in Kenya people might walk for three hours to the library, queueing up when it opens, and walking three hours back again. (I dare say this could happen here too, if libraries get scarcer.) And thanks to the army and the air force for sending the books out with the troops.

RED award

The boy with the lovely red hat got the job of opening the red envelope, to announce the RED winner. That envelope was made with very good glue. It had glued itself to the paper inside and only after a prolonged, manful struggle did red hat boy sort of manage to peer into the mangled remains of the inside and tell us that this year’s winner was Narinder Dhami!

Narinder Dhami

Narinder made a short speech, not even thanking her cat, cried a bit, and then she needed to sit down to stop her legs from shaking. But there were photographs to be taken of everyone, of her, the provost, envelope boy and the award (a photo of the famous Kelpies).

RED award, Yvonne Manning, Cathy MacPhail, Narinder Dhami, Sarah Moore Fitzgerald, Clare Furniss, Provost Reid

Then we went home. Me not forgetting I came with a coat, and Cathy hunting for hers. The Provost let the students try on his red ‘coat’. And Clare had a cake to carry. It was a good day.

Launching books

There are many ways to launch a book. Yesterday I had tea out with Baby Tollarp and his mother. He had one of those lovely little board books handed out by the Scottish government to all new babies in Scotland. BT launched his continuously. Mostly on to the floor. From where his mother picked it up and handed it back and then it was soon on the floor again. He had quite a sneaky look about his lovely young face when he had worked out how this was done. Slip book accidentally on purpose down the side of the highchair. Wait for it to be returned. Repeat.

Beyond Borealism: New Perspectives on the North

From there I went straight across Edinburgh’s George Square to another baby book launch. The Resident IT Consultant and I had been permitted to attend Son’s book launch. This was not a boardbook. Beyond Borealism: New Perspectives on the North is more of a collection of ex-conference papers, co-edited by five of the Scandinavian Studies department’s doctoral candidates (Ian Giles, Laura Chapot, Chris Cooijmans, Ryan Foster and Barbara Tesio).

Beyond Borealism: New Perspectives on the North - launch

There was admirably little talk. The department’s Alan Macniven introduced the editors. The editors said a few words, mostly along the lines of ‘let’s open the fizzy bottles.’ And then they did, and some of the corks made gratifyingly noisy journeys towards the ceiling.

Beyond Borealism: New Perspectives on the North - launch

There were cheeses and olives, crisps and sweets. Lots of mingling. Money changed hands whenever someone wanted to buy a copy of the book. This went on for a couple of hours.

Beyond Borealism: New Perspectives on the North - launch

Once the remaining bottles had been hidden under someone’s desk, Son and Dodo walked the wrinklies – as we are now called – towards a rather nice Indian restaurant where we were allowed to buy them a belated birthday dinner. After some quite agreeable dosas they deposited us on the bus back to Waverley, with our bus passes and senior railcards and everything.

Bookbug and the Bookwitch

You know it’s bad when you spy someone like Ross Collins across the room, and instead of scurrying over to say hello, you remain seated, because you’re so knackered that nothing will make you give up sitting, now that you have bagged a chair. (Not literally, I hasten to add. I have every reason to believe the chair is still at the National Library of Scotland.)

The Bookbug Picture Book Prize 2017

It was the very first Bookbug Picture Book Prize last night, and despite my home town throwing heavy-ish snow at me, I made it to Edinburgh, where they had no snow at all.

All three shortlisted authors were there, Alison Murray, Ross Collins and Nick Sharratt. There was mingling – or there was sitting on a chair, in my case – over wine/specially ordered tap water for me – and canapés. The nice men who were offering round the eats almost became my bffs through their sheer insistence that I have another one. And another one.

Bookbug mingling

Spoke to a very nice librarian who had come much farther than I had, and also through snow. We talked about how wonderful it is that all P1 children in Scotland have been given their own copies of all three shortlisted books. She asked which was my favourite (none of this bland ‘have you read any of them?’), and luckily we agreed on which one was best (out of three very good books).

Nick Sharratt, Alison Murray, Ross Collins and Bookbug

Then there were speeches, and after that the prizes were handed out, with Nick Sharratt being the overall winner with Shark in the Park on a Windy Day. Bookbug himself arrived and seemed really pleased to see us. Nick had to make a speech, which he claimed made him nervous. He did well.

Nick Sharratt, Ross Collins, Bookbug and Alison Murray

Vivian French was in the audience, and I made a special point of going over to introduce myself after all these years. She’s not so scary after all.

Balancing a small container of lettuce and prawns with tiny plastic spoon, I made my way over to Ross Collins, who I’ve emailed with but never met. He took my presence well, and he could chat while holding not only his own prawn thing but a glass of wine and his prize and an envelope which he hoped contained money…

As I did my last turn round the room I happened upon Scottish Booktrust’s strawberry milkshake Beth, so we chatted about her next book van passenger, who just happens to be Nick Sharratt, who will be driven to Liverpool. Where, he told me when I caught up with him, he’s never been. ‘My nice librarian’ got to him first, and had her photo taken with Nick, who was wearing an arty combination of three-piece tweed suit with orange tie.

Nick Sharratt and librarian

After this I Cinderella-ed myself away, since the trains still are doing inconvenient things like not running late enough. Walked past my cathedral which, even if I say so myself, looked splendid in the dark, with the moon hanging over its shoulder.

St Giles' Cathedral

And there was still far too much frozen snow when I got home.

Nick Sharratt and Aoife (3) read Shark in the Park on a Windy day

End of year miscellany

I did that sitting up in the middle of the night thing again. We’d finished watching the Agatha Christie two-parter Witness for the Prosecution on BBC, and I’d blogged about it on CultureWitch. I claimed I didn’t really know the story, and then – midsleep – I wondered why it all felt so familiar, and how come I knew what the plot twist was going to be?

Elementary, my dear Watsons. I’d seen it before. Quite some time ago, although not as far back as 1957, which is when the film was made. And then I remembered something else. The Retired Children’s Librarian had watched it and she mentioned she’d not come across the book, and I made it my mission to find the book for her. But could I find a single copy of Åklagarens Vittne anywhere? I could not. Some second hand bookshops even had waiting lists for it.

Apparently I gave up at that point, and then I forgot the whole thing.

Forgetting is not something St Hilda’s alumni do. I was incredibly pleased to watch Val McDermid and Adèle Geras succeed all the way in the Christmas University Challenge, winning by beating the lovely Leeds team. But Uzbekistan, Adèle? It was the middle of the Pacific!

Never mind. We got a women only team winning, even beating another women only team in the semifinals.

And then. Then Daughter let her ancient parents accompany her to see Rogue One in the cinema. Oh dear, the amount of eye-rolling that had to be done when it turned out we’d not understood any of it. The Resident IT Consultant was silly enough to ask. I was going to play it cool and say nothing if I could help it.

I saw the first Star Wars film back when it was new, when you didn’t have to keep track of all the numbers of sequels and prequels. I didn’t get it. It was nice enough, I suppose, but I could never work out why they did what they did, nor who was good and who was bad. That Darth Vader chap seemed nice.

But I quite liked getting out of the house, if only to sit in a tightly packed cinema, with a constant stream of little children squeezing past on their way back from the toilets.

I suspect we won’t be invited again, though.