Category Archives: Education

A perfectly ordinary Monday

Or was it?

As the rest of the literary world gathered in London for the announcement of this year’s Carnegie and Kate Greenaway medalists, I made my way to Edinburgh for lunch with a literary lady. It’s always nice to get out and see new places and new people and to pretend to be a proper grown-up. So over 35 years after eating at Brown’s in Oxford, I’ve now tried the more local-to-me branch north of the border.

On the way I passed Charlotte Square. It looks so small when you see it without a book festival on top. Just grass, and trees, with a fence round it. Soon, though.

For anyone who missed it, Geraldine McCaughrean is our latest Carnegie winner – second time round, I believe – for Where the World Ends, and Sydney Smith won the Kate Greenaway medal with the book Town is By the Sea. Thank goodness it was someone as senior as Geraldine who won, because who else would have the nerve to tell publishers off for dumbing down the language in children’s books?

By the time the lunch was over and my literary lady and I made our way to two different shoe shops; one for her, one for me, Son had begun his PhD viva ordeal at the nearby university. I’d have been there if they let people in to watch, but they don’t. I will simply have to assume the boy was brilliantly clever and dazzled everyone in the room, including the not one, not two, but three supervisors. And, erm, the specially flown in expert. From Norway, I believe.

I gather Son is now Dr Son.

On the train home I continued reading one of the books one of his supervisors – Peter Graves – has translated. But more about that some other day.

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Losing it

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, ever since the Resident IT Consultant sent me the link to an article about losing your first language.

It’s nothing new. I’ve slowly lost it for decades. But the other day I began writing a letter to a Swedish newspaper, and it stands to reason that I wanted it to be really good. The subject has to be good, and I believe it is. But you need to say what you want to say in a competent way.

So I kept thinking about how I’d write it in English. It would have been faster and wittier, and generally much better. As it is, the document is still resting on my desktop for me to return to and stare at and edit a little, every now and then.

The article is mostly about professional needs for an original language; less about being able to talk to cousins or old neighbours. I suppose they have to ‘love’ me anyway. But my need is primarily for private chats, rather than job related stuff, simply because I’m not looking at being professional in Sweden.

Maybe I should be.

I recall my question to a friend all those years ago, where I explained that we had a new sort of material for clothes here, called fleece. What might that be in Swedish? Fleece, apparently.

Only, was it? I suppose there could have been a change since, or maybe I encountered someone who for whatever reason misspelled it. Flis, is what I found some weeks ago.

It makes sense. A lot of borrowed English words are pronounced the same way, but acquire Swedish spelling and sometimes suffixes or other -fixes. I object to this. Except, I don’t object to those I knew and used before coming to live in Britain. So tajt is fine, if your jeans are a little tight. But sajt is so wrong, if you’re talking about a website.

Oh, never mind! Hand me that flis blanket, Your Magnificence! I need to hide the fact my jeans are too tajt.

We’ve lost that community feeling

I had honestly forgotten about it. Totally, I mean, and not just the finer details. A while ago a freak pingback on a nine-year-old post on here made me have a look to see what it was. To begin with I didn’t even recall it as I read, but slowly it came back to me.

It, and the 27 comments, from nine authors, including the then children’s laureate Michael Rosen. Usually I remember my more successful posts, even in the past. But not this one.

The funny thing is, it started as nothing more than a disappointed review of a television programme on school libraries. A programme about Michael Rosen visiting a school. I wanted a good moan, and then I was fine.

But people commented like there was no tomorrow, and then, as I said, Michael himself pitched in with a couple of very long comments. I don’t even know how he found the post. (Until that day a few weeks ago, I’d been proud that he’d joined in a discussion on a blog I’d written for the Guardian…)

By now, it’s not just the comments on blogs that we’ve lost; it’s the school libraries too. So from that point of view, the programme is obsolete, even if our opinions are still valid.

Much as I enjoy the bantering on Facebook, it is what killed blog communities. I miss those comments and the way people returned to see what had been said and then offered up more thoughts. I get the hits, and if I hadn’t disabled the like button, people would like my posts.

But most of any chatting about anything I write on here now happens on Facebook. That’s not bad, but it happens away from the actual article we’re discussing, and it’s limited to my friends, or friends of friends, if someone shares. But you can’t do what I did that day recently, which is revisit the post, and then read all the comments from the past.

I called it a freak pingback. It really was, because it wasn’t new, it was a repeat from nine years ago, and presumably happened for some technical reason in cyberspace. But revisiting the whole thing was interesting.

A Scottish Jamboree for books and reading

It’s not every birthday a couple of former children’s laureates come my way. In fact, I’d have to say yesterday was a first. To celebrate twenty years of the Scottish Friendly Children’s Book Tours, they and Scottish Book Trust gathered a few of the many authors and illustrators they have carted round Scotland for two decades, entertaining school children and making a difference.

Chris Riddell, Cressida Cowell, Jacqueline Wilson, Pamela Butchart, Lorenzo and Robin Etherington

2000 children descended on the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow for a couple of hours of fun with some of the best. As they began to arrive, the invited authors came out onto the front steps, in the famous Scottish sunshine, to pose for the gathered photographers, and where would you be without the fun and crazy Etherington Brothers?

The former laureates were Jacqueline Wilson and Chris Riddell, and they were joined by dragon trainer Cressida Cowell and Scottish star Pamela Butchart. In front, complaining they’d never get up from their semi-kneeling positions, were Scottish Friendly’s Calum Bennie and Scottish Book Trust’s Marc Lambert.

Scottish Friendly bag

I was pleased to see two of my favourite publicists, Naomi and Rebecca, and a brief conversation about exams took place. Time goes so fast! I was also trying to pass a message on a piece of paper to Pamela Butchart, without her thinking I was a crazy, random Witch. Luckily she had a handbag-holder person with her.

Now, it takes time to seat 2000 children, even when they are so well behaved and the operation going really smoothly. To keep them happy once they’d got in Chris Riddell sat on stage doodling away, using his instant machine thing that displays the drawings on a large screen. There was applause whenever they approved of Chris’s work, and none more so than when he went a little political towards the end, with the 45th President seemingly having problems with gas while playing golf, and our PM and her shoes stuffed upside down in a dustbin.

Chris Riddell

After an introduction from host Sian Bevan, Chris told the children not to draw on the walls at home – like he did, aged three – and how his mother cut his discarded pieces of paper into ever smaller pieces. ‘Get a sketchbook! he told us. He suggested his new book Doodle-a-Day, explained how his hairy daughter turned into the Ottoline books, and read a beautiful piece by Katherine Rundell on libraries.

When it was Jacqueline Wilson’s turn she told us about being small and lonely in Dundee many years ago, and how her years ‘in the linen cupboard’ were some of the best. There were midnight feasts, apparently. Tracy Beaker narrowly avoided being Tracy Facecloth, which is just as well, now that there will be a new Tracy Beaker book. Jacqueline’s historical writing got a mention, as did the ‘new’ Tay Rail Bridge, and her recent book about WWII evacuees.

Jacqueline Wilson

At this point I discovered I was hungry. I’d been so interested in what was being said that I’d forgotten to eat. And speaking of needs, I thought the stealthy trailing out to the toilets and back in again was well orchestrated. As done by the children, I mean.

Cressida Cowell seems to have come up with her dragons from the shape of the hill on the Scottish desert island her father always took his family to every summer. Besides, they had no television. She wanted the children to understand that the ability to write books does not come from how good your handwriting is, but it’s your ideas that matter. So despite having bad handwriting, Cressida’s books are turning into ever more films.

Cressida Cowell

Dundee teacher-turned-author Pamela Butchart makes up everything. She briefly showed us all her books, which are mostly about schools. She even got the headteachers who were present to bark like dogs. Pamela introduced us to a ‘real alien’ who turned out to be a normal human baby. Hers. Apparently she ‘sometimes speaks too much’ and she finished by inviting a member of the audience up on stage to investigate making fiction with the help of magic crisps. Salt and vinegar.

Pamela Butchart

To finish we had the Etherington Brothers, Lorenzo and Robin. They caused much loudness to happen. It’s all about stuff. Something is. Having the ‘wrong prop’ is important, whether it’s ‘never take a tomato to the beach,’ or having a sock parachute. It’s about having choice, and choosing the wrong thing. And then they turned round, posing for the camera, with the whole audience behind them, waving to the children who were watching this online at school.

Lorenzo and Robin Etherington

All six special guests returned to the stage to wave, before – presumably – being revived with food and drink prior to facing 2000 signatures. Again, this was very well organised, and everyone took turns and it was never too crowded. Or at least I think it wasn’t, since I left while they were peacefully signing away.

I hope they are not still there now.

Who needs librarians?

We all do.

There is a new CILIP Great Libraries Campaign, launching on June 6th, to ensure that every child in England has access to a great school library. This sounds so sensible and so basic that really, there should not be a need for something like it. But of course, we know that there is every need to shout about this. And it’s not just England; every child needs a library.

I have a Facebook friend I’ve never met, but who does a lot of work for libraries and children’s reading. Her name is Dawn Finch, she’s a past president of CILIP, and last week she put the following on her Fb page:

‘Waiting at the bus stop this morning and a handsome young man out running smiled at me and stopped.
“Hello,” says he, “you don’t remember me do you?”
“No,” says I, frantically trawling my memory for sons of friends.
“I remember you,” says he, “you taught me how to read. You sat with me with an atlas and said it didn’t all have to be about stories.”
“Wow,” says I, “I still love an atlas. So what do you do now?”
Him, “I’m a pilot.”
Awesome.’

It is awesome, isn’t it? It shouldn’t make me want to cry, but it does. I realise all librarians won’t have time to sit down with every child, but it shows what a tremendous difference they can make. In this case to a young man’s life, and perhaps also to the rest of us who might fly on his plane.

And I feel slightly stupid, because it would never have occurred to me that you could learn reading from an atlas. It just goes to show that our needs are not necessarily the same as those of the person next to us. But we can [nearly] all learn to read.

I wish this library campaign will make it possible for many more Dawns to ‘get out their atlases’ and change lives.

She ‘hearts books’

Yvonne Manning

‘Have you spoken to Yvonne Manning?’ (I have, as matter of fact.) It’s Yvonne who runs Falkirk’s RED book awards, and it is she who ‘hearts books’ to such an extent that she wore a hearty sort of hat yesterday. Red, obviously, along with the other red accessories we had all unearthed in our wardrobes. Although the students from a Falkirk school had gone one better and got themselves red hair for the day, even if it was in the form of red wigs.

RED 2018

For the 2017 RED awards, their 12th one, they had shortlisted Alwyn Hamilton, Elizabeth Laird, Tanya Landman and Dan Smith. I thought this was a very decent list of people, and I was very happy to be conveyed to Falkirk to see them, even if they were one Elizabeth Laird short. She was very sorry. So were we.

RED book awards 2018

Over a custard cream (it would have been rude not to) I chatted to Anne Ngabia from Grangemouth High, about her latest batch of books waiting to travel to Kenya. And she introduced me to her handsome assistant Sandy.

I said hello to Tanya Landman, who had braved the Monday Bank Holiday traffic to travel from Devon, and who was pleased to have been to see the Kelpies. Dan Smith remembered me from the Manchester Chicken House breakfast, and was a little confused as to how I follow him around the country, living in different towns.

And I was introduced to Alwyn Hamilton, and finally got a little chat. We covered topics such as lipstick (I had no idea they were that expensive!) and Star Wars, and travelling abroad to see movies in the right language in the cinema.

As the coaches ferried Falkirk’s young readers to fth (Falkirk Town Hall), the authors took turns being interviewed by some of the students, and Dan turned out to be a sharpie-carrying man, always prepared. (I must copy him.) His school visit to Denny the day before, prompted the conversation to move on to Kirkland Ciccone, as conversations sometimes do. (Are your ears burning, Kirkie?)

Tanya Landman, Dan Smith and Alwyn Hamilton

When it was time for the proceedings to start, Yvonne donned her red fairy lights as well as something looking suspiciously like heart shaped sunglasses. Red. Or possibly pink. Schools were introduced, the authors were introduced, their books were introduced, and tidiness was mentioned as something that could be rewarded.

The programme was slightly changed from earlier years. Instead of dramatising the books on stage, the schools had filmed short clips on how they imagined their allotted shortlisted books.

Cake queue

Cake

In the break there was coffee and cake for the adults, which made me feel quite grown-up and had me running for the carrot cake, with a tiny carrot on top. Had time for a little gossip with the authors before they went off to judge the students’ alternate book cover art, and signing books, and all kinds of other items.

Signing queue

Dan Smith

Alwyn Hamilton

Tanya Landman

Yvonne Manning and dancers

Anne Ngabia began the second half with a greeting in Swahili, showing us a video clip from a school in Kenya, and another of some dancing, to mirror the dancing going on at fth. She showed us one of her libraries from ten years ago; shelves full of books. And then we saw the same library today, with empty shelves, because the books have been read to shreds. They need new ones!

Then there were prizes for best reviews, best covers, best red accessories. If you could have a prize for something, it was bound to be awarded. In the end, there was even a prize for the author of the winning book. Not yet, though.

Yvonne manning

First the authors got to sit on the blue velvet sofas and answer questions from the audience. One was about playing the game Fortnite, another why one would want to become an author (because you get to read and go on holiday and call it research). Advice for future authors is to turn off all your devices and daydream.

Yvonne Manning, Dan Smith, Tanya Landman and Alwyn Hamilton

Dan has wanted to be Bear Gryll, or possibly a rock star. Alwyn wanted to go into advertising, while Tanya’s earlier ambitions were astronaut, ballerina, or at least to be a monkey. Writer’s block is not a block, merely a wrong turn. Taking the dogs for a walk is good, and you should just keep writing.

All Dan’s books are ‘awesome,’ Tanya feels you must love all your books, and Alwyn actually has a favourite; her second book. Asked if they’d like to stop to write something funny, the answer was a resounding ‘no!’

Someone wanted to know if Tanya had ever been eaten by a zoo animal, but the closest she’d come was being badly scratched by a really cute tiger cub. Favourite genres are ‘good books’ for Dan, YA for Alwyn and ‘not supernatural’ for Tanya. After a last game question for Dan, it was time for the RED book award.

Instead of the Provost of former years, I’d been sitting next to a glamorous looking lady, whose job it turned out to be to hand over the awards (I have completely managed to forget her name, though…). And the winner was, Elizabeth Laird for Welcome to Nowhere! As she wasn’t present, she doesn’t yet know what an absolutely fantastic prize is coming her way. Anne Ngabia has made yet another tapestry, featuring [past winning] books on a shelf.

RED book awards 2017

Alwyn, Tanya and Dan were given runner-up prizes, which looked too large to be carried home with any ease (I have now seen the inside of Tanya’s suitcase). Photographs were taken, and Dan will be practising how to smile and flick his hair (that one will be hard) to look as great in photos as Alwyn.

Tanya Landman, Dan Smith and Alwyn Hamilton

There was lunch for the grown-ups, and train timetables were studied, as bags were squished and repacked. I discovered Falkirk Grahamston station was twice as far away as it used to be.

Oh well, these things happen.

Apero in the woods

Did you miss me?

Space thingy

I’ve been away, stabbing tomatoes in the woods. Or more precisely, that was Daughter. I was standing by. Her friend, Rosetta Girl, had a PhD to defend. It’s what they call it in Switzerland. And Daughter said she’d help with the food for the apero, which is what they call all that drinking of wine afterwards, and I said I’d help her help.

So there we were, in the woods in Switzerland, a stone’s throw from the French border, stabbing tomatoes with toothpicks. I had my passport with me, in case I strayed. I’m so impressed by the language skills of these people. Rosetta Girl is a native Spanish speaker, but did her PhD-ing in English and French. Just imagine being clever in two foreign languages in a subject like astrophysics.

Kitchen sign

I was allowed into the kitchens, where it appeared Daughter’s French had improved to such an extent that she didn’t understand the instructions on how to use the dishwasher much better than I didn’t understand them. While the defending was going on in the Aula, Daughter and I watched empanadas cook in the oven, eyed the Chilean sweets, and carried lots of food and drink into the Observatory café.

Sweets

We made it into the Aula for the verdict, which even if it was in French, I understood to be ‘very good.’ Daughter then showered Rosetta Girl with gifts, before the professors and assembled postdocs ran for the wine and nibbles.

Apero

(This served as a good dress rehearsal, for when we will have our own apero.)

Apero

After the last professor had been forced to finish the last wine by some careful wielding of damp cloths for wiping everything down, and the furniture was rearranged back to normal, and my performance had been so impressive that another friend wanted to book my services for her defense later this year, we did end up almost going to France, if only to avoid too long a wait at the bus stop.