Category Archives: Education

Do they even know?

Recently I had a brief discussion with an author about a small factual mistake in their book. I had sort of noticed it when I read the book, but was too busy actually reading and enjoying, so thought no more of it. It took the Resident IT Consultant to bring it up, and I decided I might as well mention it to the author, in case they’d rather know, perhaps with a view to correcting it in a reprint later on.

The author sighed, along the lines of how ‘the editor, copyeditor and proof reader could all have picked it up too, but didn’t.’ I’m not surprised. Not because I think these people are no good, but this wasn’t a grammatical error, or bad spelling, or anything that simply needed some pruning to look better.

We all make mistakes, even when we know the right answer. So the author is entitled to get things wrong, and the various people at the publisher’s are – sort of – allowed to miss it as well. The author could have asked someone, but to do that you need to know that you need to know. And you don’t always know that. Nor did these editors know that the author might not have known.

It’s rather like Masklin in Terry Pratchett’s Truckers says about learning to think: ‘some things we can’t think because we don’t know the words.’ And later on, about the nomes in the Store: ‘They don’t know, and they don’t even know they don’t know. What is it that we don’t know?’

In the last few years there are absolutely masses of words and ideas that I have realised I don’t know, when I had thought I did know. I’d been told these things by people I assumed knew. Maybe they did, or maybe they didn’t, and either way they didn’t know that either.

Life’s not easy, is it?

We’re all bookbugs

They invited me along to the Bookbug annual conference yesterday, at the George Hotel in Edinburgh. It was really quite nice and very enlightening in many ways. They are Scottish Book Trust, and the Bookbugs are the youngest readers. You might recall that in Scotland all babies are given a bag of books to encourage reading and help them interact with their parents.

Karyn McCluskey started off by being cheerful. They are quite cheerful here, I’ve noticed. There was the sunshine to make you smile, and and the fact that reading prevents murders (if that’s not too gruesome a thing to mention). Karyn introduced the acting Minister for Children and Young People, Fiona McLeod, who is only ‘acting’ because the ‘real’ minister has been packed off on maternity leave. It’s better to start reading early, rather than putting more people in prison later on.

Next up was Dr Kate McKay, senior medical officer, child health. She herself is a product of how going to the library as a child has led to professional success in adult life. She reckons that the use of digital books will change the pathways of the human brain. Kate is also a fan of the five Rs; reading, rhyming, routines, rewards and relationships. Chaos leads to stress, and early adversity in life causes bad health in adults.

It’s important for a baby to interact with its mother, and this is something which can’t happen if the mother is drunk or drugged. By supporting girls, they become good mothers, and this in turn is good for society. And laughing is healthy. Children laugh more with their parents, and laughing a lot makes for a longer life.

The morning session ended with Margaret Clark, senior health promotion officer in Lanarkshire. She talked about the book bags, and how if you start early you stay active for life. And if the Nordic countries can do it, so can Scotland.

Then the whole roomful of – mostly – bookish ladies fought for lunch, and plates of very sweet cakes, and I believe even the water dispenser ran dry. After which we quickly returned to the conference, because Nick Sharratt was there to talk to us about his books. Dressed in one of his signature stripey shirts [red and white], Nick charmed the socks off everyone. He claimed to be nervous because it was such a large room…

Nick Sharratt

He pointed out he doesn’t have children of his own, and that he’s never become an adult himself. There was a photo of a very young Nick on a swing, drawing. He still draws, just not on a swing. Showing us lots of illustrations from his hundreds of books, he then read a few to us. And he wore his purple wig and sunglasses, which was so 1970s.

One of the books was What’s in the Witch’s Kitchen, and that’s something I’ve often wondered myself. Nick feels we should learn to relax with picture books. They are not purely for the very young. When he started writing his own books, he began by rhyming and using very few words. Food is important in his books, as long as it’s not butterbeans.

Split page books allow for plenty of interaction between adult and child, as well as offering many combinations of crazy things. Nick showed us similar books made by child fans, and they are truly inspirational. At the end of his hour long session we had a coffee break and people queued up to have their books signed. I couldn’t help wondering which would prove to be the longest; the coffee break or the queue.

The queue won and was eventually shown the door so we could get on with the panel discussion on digital books. Chaired by Tam Baillie, the speakers were Tom Bonnick from Nosy Crow, Lydia Plowman and Andrew Manches from the University of Edinburgh, and Jim McCormick.

On the whole the panel were in favour of digital even for the very young, and according to Lydia a surprising percentage of pre-schoolers have tablets; often an older hand-me-down. She reckons not to worry about it, though, and to remember that the adult is still boss, and that the adult is a role model, so cut down on the continual staring at your own phone or other screen.

Other thoughts include how easy it is to share digital material, in a positive sense. The quality of teachers is important and so is the relationship between school and home.

I had somehow expected to hear that digital would make it easier to access reading, but the debate seemed to go in a different direction. We had a Q&A session, and for the first time during the whole day we could hear a few small squeaks from the conference’s youngest participant, a – very – young man [I’m guessing from the pale blue] who mostly enjoyed being breastfed and playing with finger puppets. Lovely baby!

Tam Baillie let us finish with a song; Three Craws. The Scots are as crazy as the Nordics they admire so much…

Seeing the sewing

I managed to mislay a week so I nearly missed it. First I forgot to make a note of the start date for The Great Tapestry of Scotland in my diary, so I missed the beginning. And then I went and believed I had another week. But everything is fine, I discovered my error, and we went off to admire the tapestry yesterday, with all of two days left to run [at Stirling Castle].

So if you’re here, you can go today, or tomorrow. If not, you can go to Ayr in April and May. Or Kirkcaldy in the summer.

The Great Tapestry of Scotland at Stirling Castle

It was good. It was impressive. All those stitches to show the history of Scotland. I just wanted to reach out and stroke it, but you weren’t allowed.

There were quite a few books in there, and authors. Lots of other things, and people, including Elvis. The landscapes were breathtaking, and I found I quite liked the Cumbernauld panel, motorway junction and everything. Charles Rennie Macintosh and his roses. Scientists and other clever Scots. Sean Connery.

Suffragettes and witches and Vikings, kings and queens and murderers (not all at the same time). Education and golf, mines and car factories. I reckon it’s all there.

Ideally you should see it many, many times. Preferably without lots of other people to fight over the space with. But it’s good. We had two hours before closing. After an hour I noticed that the Resident IT Consultant had only managed to wheel the Grandmother round one third of the panels, so I told him to speed up, or we’d be thrown out before they got to the end.

So he did. And then we bumped the Grandmother along the steep cobbles outside back to the car, teeth rattling.

Best Scottish

Oh, how I wish I could have been there! Now that I’m finally here, I mean. But I gather that the 2015 Scottish Children’s Book Awards managed without a witch (this one, anyway) and celebrated the three winners in style on Wednesday, at the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh.

With three categories, there were three celebrations, and three shortlisted authors for each (except Alexander McCall Smith who’d gone off to Dubai).

Ross Collins and Sean Taylor

The Bookbug Readers were lucky, in that picture books being relatively short, all three books could be read out on stage. There was also live drawing on stage, and singing. Very jolly. And the winner was Ross Collins, for his illustrations of Robot Rumpus, written by Sean Taylor.

Alex McCall

Robots are clearly the thing, as the winner of Younger Readers category, first time novelist Alex McCall won with Attack of the Giant Robot Chickens. He’s only 21, and looks, well, younger still… There was a book quiz to entertain an audience (and I’m sure I’d have won that. If I’d been there) of visiting school children from all over Scotland.

Cathy MacPhail

The winner of the Older Readers category was Cathy MacPhail with Mosi’s War, which didn’t surprise me at all. Cathy wins a lot, and for a good reason. Her audience were also treated to a book quiz, which I’m sure was great fun for all those involved.

I might as well say this again; I feel Scotland is very lucky to have the Scottish Book Trust.

Second nature

‘You know that medium sized bird, all black, with an orange beak. What’s it called again?’ I asked Mr School Friend last summer. The reason I asked was I’d noticed we had several in our new garden, and I realised I’d forgotten the name, and Mr SF is the man to go to. Not a linguist, he will still be able to tell you bird names in Swedish, English and Latin. So he told me, and it was obvious. I knew that. I just forgot.

Thinking back to my childhood, I knew quite a few birds, and flowers, and other nature things. I like to think it’s because my brain was less choc-a-bloc with the rubbish I’ve since put in there, and perhaps that being shorter, a child is sort of closer to nature, and will notice it more.

Swedes seem to be particularly nature-minded, considering most of us are town dwellers. Like most children, I went to Mulleskolan. That was a kind of ‘evening class’ for primary school children, which took place in some woods, after school, probably once a week. A leader went round with us and taught us nature stuff, and each week we had a surprise visit from a creature called Skogsmulle, who would tell us more. (These days the most shocking aspect of it is that the seven-year-old me crossed town on my own, to get to the woods. We all did.)

OK, so Mulleskolan taught me about nature. But I probably knew some birds and flowers before then. Must have got the names from an adult. Maybe mother-of-witch, or the landlord’s children or an aunt? Whatever, I knew them. And when I learned to read and write I could read and write them. I could probably look them up in a junior dictionary.

That’s why I was so struck at the weekend, when reading Robert Macfarlane’s Guardian article about bluebells giving way to broadband in children’s dictionaries. The whole article is interesting, but it deals primarily with regional words for very specific things. But going back to the children who can no longer look up bluebells, I was thinking that you can only look up the spelling of this word, if you know the concept in the first place.

I wonder how much parents teach their children these days? Looking at myself, I’m painfully aware of having done far too little of this kind of thing. Bilingualism didn’t make it any easier, but still. I’d obviously forgotten black birds with orange beaks, and I no longer looked so much at nature in any detail. So, it stands to reason I didn’t teach Offspring a lot. And now, I don’t actually know what they know.

(I do know that age three, Son had very little idea of what a pussy was – as used by the staff at the local hospital when testing his eyesight – because I had always said cat or katt.)

The Great Big Green Book I reviewed yesterday shows us that we need to look after nature, if we want to survive. That means we need to know about the things we encounter, and it will be very hard to talk about keeping alive or saving some species we don’t even have a word or name for. We probably need to be more specific than saying tree or flower.

Who will teach today’s children? Do their parents have the knowledge, or do they leave it to teachers? Do they even know? Maybe they don’t, unless their parents made a point of telling them about nature.

(It was koltrast. Common blackbird. Turdus merula. And I need to point out it was the Swedish I’d forgotten… Which makes sense, because I am no longer surrounded by Swedish speakers, and when I do see people, I tend not to talk about birds so much. Unless needing Mr SF’s help.)

I can do bluebells. I recognise a British one. I also know that the Swedish for bluebell is blåklocka, which I also recognise. Because it is a different flower from the bluebell. It is a harebell. Which, having consulted my dear old friend Wikipedia, seems to be called bluebell in Scotland. I have come full circle. (Engelsk klockhyacint is what Swedes call the bluebell when it is not a blåklocka, or harebell.)

End of lesson.

Murder Most Unladylike

Who doesn’t like a good murder set in a girls’ boarding school in the 1930s? I mean, it ticks a lot of my boxes. What about you?

Robin Stevens, Murder Most Unladylike

13-year-old students Daisy and Hazel set up detective agency Wells&Wong at Deepdean school, and it’s not long before ‘luck’ strikes, when their science teacher Miss Bell is found dead. Only for a while though, as the body disappears pretty swiftly and no one knows Miss Bell is a bit more dead than the head teacher makes out she is.

Daisy is rather bossy, not to mention fearless, while Hazel, who comes from Hong Kong, is more conventional and careful. A good detective agency needs both to succeed.

And you know, it’s rather hard to check people’s alibis when you are not the police and when there is no body or even a public acknowledgement that the corpse is indeed a corpse. But Daisy ferrets out where everyone was, and they work out what the motive might have been. Would you kill for the post of deputy head?

The detecting isn’t made any easier when you are a relatively innocent young girl, who doesn’t quite understand the undercurrents between the adults. Wells&Wong do work out who did it, and it puts them in more danger than expected.

As for me, I kept thinking it was turning out a little Midsomerish. When you deduct the number of dead people and the murderer, you’re not left with a whole lot of characters for a sequel. And I hope author Robin Stevens won’t kill more teachers and students in every book. Even a fairly dim parent would surely take their child out of a school like that?

Translating the Peripheries

Remember Maria Parr? I read her Waffle Hearts a couple of weeks ago, and here she was, at the NRN conference, along with fellow Norwegian (well, half, anyway, and a quarter Dane and a quarter Swede, unless I misunderstood the maths) author Harald Rosenløw Eeg and Danish Merete Pryds Helle. They had come to talk about their writing, as well as take part in the discussion on reading translated children’s fiction.

Maria Parr

Maria read from Waffle Hearts (with her translator Guy Puzey right there in the room) in English, and then in Norwegian. I didn’t understand a word of the latter (well maybe a little, since I had actually read the book) as Maria’s accent is very hard to understand.

Harald Rosenløw Eeg

Nordic mix Harald came next, saying how Jostein Gaarder paved the way with Sophie’s Choice twenty years ago, showing that you can do anything you want. He didn’t feel he wrote YA, but simply wrote to please himself, in a Catcher in the Rye way. He’s grateful for the Norwegian state support to writers, which in effect means they get a sort of minimum wage. Harald read from his untranslated Leave of Absence, a novel inspired by a forgotten rucksack on the Oslo underground, which he’d finished just before the 22nd July 2011. His book felt too close to reality, so he changed a few things after the Oslo bombs. He said he speaks Nynorsk (New Norwegian) but writes in ‘Ordinary Norwegian.’

Merete went from ordinary adult fiction to what she calls digital fiction for children. She has tried a variety of techniques or media, and has settled on apps for iPads. She showed us one ‘book’ featuring children from all the Nordic countries, where the reader would start by choosing their language, and then the characters would meet and talk to each other, and you could learn to recognise different languages.

Merete Pryds Helle

By asking an IT friend what you can do with iOS 8, Merete then wrote stories to fit the technical frames, which could mean (does mean) that the reader might need to shake their iPad violently in order to make the pine cones fall off the tree. Or you could light up the forest by showing your iPad something yellow. Very effective. She had a more traditional looking picture book, where the child can see themselves, and get to choose what happens next (like meeting pandas in China, or ending up on a pirate ship).

If you’d asked me beforehand, I’d have said this didn’t sound like anything that I’d be interested in. If you ask me now, I’d have to say it looked brilliant.

The discussion moved to films, and Maria said she was lucky with the Waffle Hearts film. Harald reckons you have to let others do their work, and that once there is a film, you will never get your characters back. Merete does choose the illustrators for her digital books, but not the voices. And her multiple choice advent calendar has four endings, but also two set days when the choices end up the same, to restore order.

As for language and dialects, that’s a big deal in Norway, while Merete reckons there are barely any regional accents in Danish. People use social accents more, and switch to mainstream Danish when it’s required. Maria is always asked if Nynorsk is important to her writing, which she thinks is strange, because it is simply what’s natural and normal. Harald’s children are better at English than the ‘other Norwegian.’

Guy Puzey

After a break for air – and more cake – we continued with the translation side of things, where the authors and Guy were joined by translator Kari Dickson, who volunteered that she has done ‘a lot of crime.’

Kari Dickson

Too few books in the UK are translations. 2% here as opposed to maybe 30% in Europe. And as Daniel Hahn discovered when he counted books in a bookshop recently, children’s books fare even worse. Kari feels it’s important to read foreign books to help a better understanding of other people and countries.

We were asked about the first translated books that we were aware of reading as children. Astrid Lindgren came first for many, and both Harald and Maria loved Saltkråkan. Roald Dahl is big in Norway. Merete didn’t read Lindgren, but Laura Ingalls Wilder and Agatha Christie (at age 7-8), and Dickens, and she feels Danish children’s fiction is too harsh and doesn’t like it. Guy enjoyed Babar, and discovered Pippi Longstocking at university.

Others mentioned more Lindgren, Paddington, Jules Verne and Alexandre Dumas. There was the young Swede whose mother made her her read books about Africa and Vietnam, with not a single Donald Duck anywhere…

And then the peripheries where we live re-appeared in the debate, except for Merete who pointed out that Denmark is the centre of the world, and how her characters dig all the way to China.

Translating picture books is like writing the book from scratch a second time, because the translator has to work out how to make the original shift into another language. Harald’s opinion was that the translator might as well write their own stuff, as he won’t be able to read it anyway.

Squeaking wet snow is a problem. A lot of Nordic fiction describes things that the receiving language and country might not have. London is well known to most, but what the hamlet in Waffle Hearts looked like will be almost unknown, even to people in Oslo.

The session ended with the Norwegian authors saying we need real books to relax with on long journeys, and Merete disagreeing and saying how she would have loved an iPad as a child.

So, we’re all different, but we would benefit from reading each other’s fiction, travelling in our minds, making us feel calmer.