Category Archives: Education

Firsts?

We both had the same idea, the bookshop owner and I. At a not terribly well attended event at his bookshop many years ago, the visiting author waved a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone about. It was a hardback, and the visitor was – how shall I describe him? – a bit old-fashioned and naïve. I suspect he didn’t truly grasp how big J K Rowling was. To him, she and her book were merely part of his somewhat unusual topic, which was the many British authors who had been teachers at some point in their lives.

That will be why two of us suddenly thought ‘what if that’s a first edition Harry Potter he’s got?’ We maneuvered ourselves into position to check, as discreetly as possible.

But no, it wasn’t. Phew. Probably.

J K Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

One night recently when I wasn’t sleeping as soundly as I would have liked, I spent some time thinking about Harry Potter first editions. As you do. I have already mentioned that I know an author who appeared at the Edinburgh Book Festival alongside J K Rowling, and how the two new authors exchanged copies of their books with each other.

It struck me that there must be other categories of people who’d have [had] a first in their possession. Other than the lucky book buyers who actually did what one is supposed to do with books, which is find them and buy them and read them.

I’m guessing J K’s editor has one. Whether a publicist would hang on to a copy of a book they work on is less certain. And did she even have an agent? I think maybe not.

Thomas Taylor, the illustrator of the cover design, probably?

Then there are the reviewers. I wonder how many copies were sent out to them, back in 1997?

Libraries. Did they buy copies, and when Harry Potter went crazy, did they do anything with those books? They could have been worn out by then, of course.

Friends and family of the author?

How many of the above first editions ended up at Oxfam?

Then I must have fallen asleep again.


Our first two Harry Potter books were paperbacks, and I let them become Son’s (Daughter was too young at the time), but by book three I realised I’d need copies of my own, so quickly set about getting the first three books for me. I have just looked up Harry Potter first editions, and discovered that my catch-up edition is somewhat more respectable than I knew.

Takes a witch, I suppose.

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The Story of Paintings

There is so much beautiful art in this book on History of Art for Children, that at first I didn’t see Mick Manning or Brita Granström in there, and they are the ones who made the book.

I ought to be used to their style of educating children with the help of art and carefully researched facts, but still I saw only the classic art. And that’s perhaps as it should be.

From cave paintings to Jean-Michel Basquiat, it’s all there. The adult reader will not be surprised to see all the classic paintings, and this is a fine way for children to learn.

Mick Manning and Brita Granström, The Story of Paintings

Each page has a work of art alongside information about the artist and then some of Brita’s drawings to show how the artist might have looked as he/she worked, and with individual comments that make each painting special.

There is a glossary at the end, explaining the bare minimum of arty words. Enough, but not so it gets boring.

Fantastic book and so beautiful to look at!

Emergency grade two

For August, we’ve had a lot of snow.

OK, the weather in Sweden wasn’t as great as I wanted it to be, but there wasn’t snow. It was still summer.

But I read snowy books; several in a row, with no planning or anything. As with most coincidences it was, erm, coincidental.

There was Michelle Paver’s Thin Air. Very cold, lots of snow.

Piers Torday’s There May be a Castle is very snowy indeed, and also rather chilly.

Theresa Breslin had a variety of weather in The Rasputin Dagger, and some of it was snow, and plenty of it was cold.

The latter made me think about Calling a Dead Man by Gillian Cross. Again. There’s something about snow and Siberia which often reminds me of that exciting story.

And then Daughter went to Chile again. Whereas it is winter there, snow is rare, even at 2500 metres. After all, precipitation is not what they built the telescopes for. They want clear skies and dry air so they can get on with the ‘star gazing.’

La Silla Observatory

But yeah, snow is what they got. Daughter’s colleague saw a little snow there in May which, as I said, was rare. Never let it be said we can’t go to extremes, though. Three days (by which I mean nights) in, they had snow. Lots of it. Luckily they also have snowploughs up in the Andes.

No observing for three long nights, while all those poor astronomers sat around playing games, in order to keep their night-time rythm, and being driven by staff in fourwheel drive vehicles to tend to their telescopes, because it was an ’emergency grade two’ situation. (I was quite relieved there was no driving allowed, as I didn’t fancy any of them sliding off a hillside in the dark.)

La Silla

To cheer himself up, the Resident IT Consultant googled an article from the same place thirty years ago, when one of the scientists wrote about his exciting and snowbound weekend. Shows how rare it is.

Anyway, Daughter’s telescope was fine. It had its winter hat on and was ‘fed’ liquid nitrogen by her every evening. And then it was business as usual.

It was also summer time, as the clocks changed while they were snowed in.

Talking about a revolution

I’ve said it before, the school events at the book festival are often the best. And I was grateful to masquerade as a secondary school pupil on Wednesday morning. As I said, I even had my tie. Although, not all the students wore uniform; some did, some didn’t.

Theresa Breslin was there to talk about revolutions, and mostly the Russian revolution one hundred years ago. Lindsey Fraser introduced her by saying that she has known Theresa a long time, and she has always been interested in many different things. This is obvious from all the books she has written, on a variety of subjects, and always good.

To begin with Theresa read from chapter one of The Rasputin Dagger, about the massacre in St Petersburg in 1905. It’s something I recall from my school history books, but it was never like when described by Theresa. She really does bring history to life.

Theresa Breslin

The character Stefan was twelve years old when he took part in this peaceful march because people were starving. And then his mother and many others were massacred. He was radicalised by this, and it made what happened in 1917 the only way forward for Stefan and countless others.

The dagger in the story was one Theresa found in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul many years ago, and just knew she had to use in a story. And some years ago when the Edinburgh Book Festival sent fifty writers to different places in the world, they sent Theresa to Siberia. It was somewhere she’d never have gone otherwise and it was a fantastic experience. She loved the light in Siberia. Less so the idea of encountering wolves and bears in the wild.

She talked about Rasputin and his background, and about the haemophilia the Tsar’s only son suffered from. She showed photos of the Summer Palace and the Winter Palace, where the Royal family lived, seemingly oblivious to the suffering of the people.

When writing this book Theresa had a deadline, since it was about what happened in October 1917. And as it was about real people, she couldn’t change what actually happened. She looked into the rumours that Anastasia survived the murder of the Tsar’s family.

Theresa Breslin

When she was in Siberia she collected names for characters, and made lists of things like street names. Sometimes she needs to get to know her characters before she can tell what their names might be. And to, well, maybe confuse herself, Theresa would hold her notebook up to a mirror to try and read mirror image, seeing if she could decode the ‘Russian style’ words.

Talking about Charlottesville today and how there is a split between the sexes on how people perceive what’s going on, Theresa reminded the pupils that whereas women had few rights in Russia, in 1917 more women there had the right to vote than did British women.

Asked which of her characters she might be, she felt she is Frances in Remembrance. And she recalled the librarian of her childhood, a ‘dragon librarian’ who forced children to pass a reading test before they could borrow books. Theresa mused on the fact that she went on to become a librarian herself…

Theresa Breslin

She also remembered a very bad review in one of the Sunday papers once. Mr B brought her tea in bed, which made her realise it was bad news. But her son-in-law later barbecued the review.

Day 6

Thanks to me wanting a scone (although it turned out not to taste terribly nice) I found Moira Mcpartlin downing an espresso at the station café, which was very nice indeed. We were both going to Edinburgh, so suddenly I had company, which was both welcome, and positively useful, as Moira kept me awake. And there was all that delicious book and author gossip to engage in.

Moira Mcpartlin

In Charlotte Square the first thing Moira needed to do was photograph her own book (Wants of the Silent) in the bookshops. Which is a perfectly normal thing to do. Then we went over to admire [the photo of] Kathryn Evans in her swirly dress, and as we stood there a black clad figure wearing an enormous witch’s hat walked past and into the Corner theatre.

Kirkland Ciccone

An hour or two later I discovered this had been Kirkland Ciccone. It being a really warm and humid day, he said he’d been too hot, except when you’re as cool as he is, you can’t be too hot. So that’s fine.

The first thing for me was to find Amanda Craig who was signing after a morning event in the Spiegeltent with Gwendoline Riley. Amanda told me it had been a good event, and how much she enjoys the book festival.

Amanda Craig and Gwendoline Riley

I rested in the yurt for a bit, and was able to hear all the shouting going on in the tent next door where Lari Don was entertaining a large horde of schoolchildren. Caught her just before her signing, when she was having a one minute rest.

Lari Don

Theresa Breslin

My main reason for day 6 was to join Theresa Breslin’s school event (they said I could), so Frances kindly walked me over there and told them it was all right for me to sit in. When Theresa arrived, she handed me a school tie from Mr B, to make me blend in a bit. It made all the difference. And the event was much better than the one in my dream in the early hours (the reason for me feeling so sleepy).

Theresa Breslin

Afterwards Theresa signed for a good hour, which meant I also managed to see Nicola Morgan who was half an hour behind in the signing tent. That’s what I like about these weekday school event days; my authors all over the place. So then I slipped across the square to the children’s bookshop, where I saw Judy Paterson, and Jenny Colgan with Kathryn Ross who had chaired her event.

Nicola Morgan

Judy Paterson

Jenny Colgan and Kathryn Ross

On my way back to the yurt I encountered Cathy MacPhail en route to the Main theatre and there was time for a little hug. Saw Elizabeth Laird arrive, and then went to sit outside the yurt while waiting for a last photocall. Press boss Frances went off to buy green ice creams for her crew, which they licked in the rising heat, after first taking pictures of her posing with the five cones.

James Oswald

At last it was time for Norwegian crime writer Thomas Enger and James Oswald to face the paparazzi, and me. I think they were both taken aback by the onslaught of so many cameras all at once. Chatted to James while Thomas was being ‘done’ and it sounds as if it’s not something he’s used to encountering. And when it was James’s turn, I mentioned to Thomas that we’d met in Manchester a few years ago. Luckily he remembered who he’d been with, as my memory was fading a bit.

Thomas Enger

I picked up my school tie and half-eaten scone and walked to Waverley in the heat, ‘enjoying’ the piper on the corner, and narrowly missing my train. But there was another one soon enough, and it was both cold and empty, which is the beauty of travelling mid-afternoon and mid-week.

School tie

How to fit a school in

I was nine years old, and I was standing by the front door of the school where Mother-of-witch taught. I’d got it into my head to walk there and meet her after school. I remember watching the traffic on the bridge for quite some time (maybe I’d mis-timed her classes?), and all the students pass me as they left for the day. I knew a lot of them.

The school was for post-16s and taught commerce and office skills and that sort of thing. Many of the students, including all four of our landlord’s children, lived near us. Later on, we’d find them in banks and offices, because in those days people got jobs.

But the memory of that long-ago day has surfaced to help me find the school. I know, it was right there. But where there? I saw the bridge clearly. And the small hotel in front. In recent years I have tried to place the school building – which was demolished in the late 1960s – somewhere in the Town Hall car park. But I could never manage to squeeze it in.

So I tried Google images for help, and came up with exactly one. The one below. And it tells me my problem was that I couldn’t visualise the school in the middle of the road. Because that’s where it was. Where traffic swerved to the side and round the school, it now goes in a straight line from the bridge towards the ‘highrise’ in the back right corner.

Old Halmstad

Funny how you don’t remember. But we didn’t drive in those days. It was perfectly normal for this nine-year-old to have walked the 20-25 minute walk from home, on her own, and with no prior arrangement to meet.

And the school had wooden staircases, with the wood worn into rounded dips on each tread. I remember that. And where the headmaster’s office was. The rest is a blank.

Dumbing down?

In the pre-Google maps days it was harder to find [some] places. I well remember how Mother-of-witch and I searched for Henley. Yes, that Henley. The one with the regatta. A teacher at Mother-of-witch’s school (where she worked; not the school she attended) had told her to take me to Henley on holiday. So she booked the trip, without knowing much more than that Henley was a nice, small town and very child-friendly.

But where was it? We pored over the England page in the atlas. Oh, how we pored. And finally, one day I found a place called HenleyEton. Turned out it was only very tightly spaced print, so Henley was just to the left of Eton, making it look like the one placename.

So that was fine. Now we knew where we were going. We weren’t the only ignoramuses, though. Once actually in Henley we ran into the sister of a friend, and she had absolutely no idea where she was, straight off her coach for a brief break.

But the poring. I did that a lot, with atlases, even without any holidays planned. I loved maps and could spend hours staring at the pages of the new atlas Mother-of-witch had invested in, to replace her school atlas from the 1930s.

The more I pored, the more I learned* in a passive sort of way. That’s how I knew where Nicosia was. These days I expect a child would know it from a holiday, and not a map. Although, Daughter’s friend at school only knew her family’s holiday destination began with the letter T and was on the Mediterranean.

I’m not sure whether we ever found out if it was Tunisia or Turkey. It’s a shame, really. Unless it mattered so little to the adults that the child knew where they went that it became meaningless.

I’ve reviewed a number of children’s atlases. Most of them good in a picture book kind of way. But one that I received some time ago tipped me over the edge. They are skimpy, with bare outlines of whole continents and a few strategically placed polar bears or culturally appropriated native peoples and their traditional dress and well-known items that ‘belong’ somewhere.

It suddenly struck me that if the young Witch was capable of looking at and enjoying a real map, then so are today’s children. But their parents probably don’t think of giving them a grown-up atlas, and the publishers offer us endless polar bears. I mind less what the children don’t learn, and object more to what they do learn if they pay attention to these books. Because I could see in this recent one that my part of the world was inaccurately depicted.

And it is hard to unlearn accidental knowledge.

Here’s to more HenleyEtons!

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*When the Resident IT Consultant went to Samara for work, I was so ashamed! I didn’t know it. What was wrong with me? (No need to tell me.) It was only as I did some detecting that I discovered it was good old Kuybyshev. Which I ‘knew’ very well. Not sure why they have to keep renaming places so much. Well, I do, but…