Category Archives: History

Sven Wernström

Sven Wernström died last week, a few days before the Swedish elections, and on the day the Swedish Academy finally got together again to try and make things better.

I knew I’d blogged about Sven before, but had to do a search to see when and what about. On here I wrote about losing hope. That was a couple of days after the referendum which plunged us into more despair than I could imagine on that day. And we still had the US presidential election to come. Little did we know.

Checking Swedish Bookwitch I found more posts; interestingly both posted on the same date, a few years apart. One was an almost regular thing on some of Sven’s books. The other was about discovering his blog, where he sought solace after his wife of almost seventy years had died.

He lived another five years, making it to 93, which is good going. Checking his blog just now, I found Sven had not written for a while, and all his last posts were about death. So maybe he’d been diagnosed with something and had been ill since. Or he was ‘just’ feeling low.

Sven was a dedicated communist, and wrote books for children and teens in what can be said to be fairly red terms. That’s why the Retired Children’s Librarian didn’t care for most of his writing. When I read about his death, there were others who felt the same way, but also some who praised his books for what they’d meant to them. So, as with the elections last Sunday, we are all divided and all different. Which is how it should be.

I’m guessing that those of us who loved his books, might have done so because at a young age you are less into literary merit, or the lack of. I’m also going to assume that those who still dislike his books, are of a different political persuasion. As for me, I don’t reckon I will reread the books I still own. I’m not sure I would be able to see which of the opinions is more right than the other, and I don’t want to lose my memories of what once seemed great.

And perhaps by today it is good that Sven has been reunited with his Inga. I hope so.

Sven Wernström in screencap from Dagens Nyheter

(Dagens Nyheter articles are behind a paywall…)

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On being right

Mustn’t beat about the bush. I am very worried about the Swedish parliamentary elections on Sunday. The Resident IT Consultant suggested I ought to vote this time, so I have. It sounds dreadful, admitting to not having done so for some time, but the truth is, it felt wrong voting in a country where I no longer knew quite what was going on, or who believed in what.

I’ll tell you about the last time, which was in 1991.

I went to the honorary consulate, and reckoned it’d be good to have a day out, so suggested to Esperanto Girl that she and her son should come along. We could have tea after…

So we stuffed our respective toddlers into their pushchairs and off we went. While the consul’s assistant took me into a side room to vote, Esperanto Girl waited in the posh foyer area of the solicitors’ firm where we were. She watched with some interest as I and the consul’s assistant to-ed and fro-ed a bit, looking more and more bothered.

She knew me to be trouble, giggling as she asked what had been going on.

In my own actual work, not long before, I had been trained to receive votes, so I wasn’t happy when I was told that the assistant would just take my envelope up to the room where they kept the box, and put it in. Later.

I told her I needed to see it go in. Now.

Tightlipped, but forced to do as I said, she took me upstairs and the box and the envelope were duly united in front of me. ‘Satisfied?’

On returning downstairs she asked, as politely as she could manage, while being absolutely furious with me, what she had done wrong.

So I told her, without detailing the three possible bad outcomes of doing it her way. (Since you ask, she could have looked to see how I voted. She could have changed my vote. Or she could have omitted to put my vote in.)

Esperanto Girl giggled some more, I fumed, and then we presumably went for tea at Kendals’.

And I concluded I had no wish to repeat this ever again.

It’s easier now. You send your vote in the post, and all you need are two authors who are willing to witness the deed. Or, I suppose, any two people you happen to have to hand.

A Chase in Time

I say! I loved this new book by Sally Nicholls from the moment I started to read it. By the time I got to the end, I loved it even more. (Even if that end came a little quicker than it absolutely needed to. You know.)

It’s time travel through a mirror, which might, or might not, have a witchy past. I’d like to think it does.

Sally Nicholls, A Chase in Time

Alex and Ruby Pilgrim fall through this bewitched mirror into 1912, right into the middle of a romantic wedding between two Pilgrim ancestors, and a mystery in the shape of a lost valuable antique. It’s a little bit Albert Campion for children, if that’s not being too bold.

Golly.

Between the beginning and the end we meet a ghastly valet by the name of Giles. He is quite dreadful, and not a little sneaky. As Ruby says, he might escape off to Sweden if you take your eyes off him.

(Gosh. I’m exceedingly pleased with Giles.)

Filled with humour and so exciting that you just don’t want the book to end. But I do like the words on the back that promises more books in this ‘fast-paced time-slip adventure series.’

The illustrations by Brett Helquist are just right, adding to the sense of perfection.

More handsome sitting down

Those were Michael Morpurgo’s words, but we would have loved him whatever he did. He decided he was most comfortable sitting down. His [event]chair, Alex Nye, grew so comfortable that she re-titled Michael’s book which he’d come to talk about, making it In the Mouth of the Lion, until Michael mildly said ‘I thought it was the Wolf..?’

You don’t get much past Michael Morpurgo. He must be a dream to ‘chair’ because he knows quite well what he’s going to be doing and he will go ahead and do it, no matter what. Never mind that he ‘mocked’ his illustrator for his Frenchness; you could tell there was much respect between the two of them, and he told us we must buy Barroux’s In the Line of Fire.

Michael Morpurgo, Alex Nye and Barroux

He began by reading to us, sitting down and being handsome, the first two chapters from In the Mouth of the Wolf. ‘They’re quite short. Don’t worry, it won’t be too boring.’ It wasn’t. And even those early chapters were enough to make us want to cry.

While Michael read, Barroux illustrated, showing us the views from [Michael’s uncle] Francis’s bedroom windows, saying he’s not a good illustrator. He prefers a bad drawing with a lot of emotion in it. Barroux also showed us his three different cover ideas for the book, explaining that it’s the publisher’s choice; not his.

When it was time for questions, the first was about Kensuke’s Kingdom. Michael was a little startled by this, but gave a long, considered answer, and then asked for the remaining questions to be about his new book. Because what authors need is to sell books, so they can have new socks, and J K Rowling has many many cupboards full of socks.

Barroux ‘hates fairies and unicorns’ because he can’t draw them, and he’s only recently learned to do dolphins. As Michael answered a question on freedom for his characters – who, of course, are not characters, but were real people – Barroux stealthily began to draw a dolphin. When discovered in the act, he was told that the whole entente cordiale was just then in danger.

Michael pointed out to his audience that in WWII, and for centuries before that, Britain was never occupied, while Europe was. In fact, not since William the Conqueror a thousand years ago… And we know where he came from.

Barroux

Asked about his passion for books, Michael said he’s more passionate about the reading of books. You should catch fire when reading, to reach those who never read. Currently he is working on several things; translating Le Petit Prince, putting words to The Snowman, and writing a new version of Gulliver’s Travels with Michael Foreman illustrating. He’s portraying Gulliver as a recent refugee, washing up somewhere new.

By then we’d overrun by at least five minutes, but Michael said he was going to sing for Barroux. There is a film being made of Waiting for Anya, and in it there is a song Michael likes very much. He sings it in the bath.

And ignoring his suggestion that we think of him in the bath – or not – or that he pretended the theatre’s doors would have to be locked to prevent us escaping, Michael stood up, still handsome, and he sang to us, and to Barroux.

It was a beautiful ending to a beautiful event, and to our book festival.

In the Mouth of the Wolf

Michael Morpurgo’s latest book, In the Mouth of the Wolf, is beautiful in every way. Based on the lives of his two uncles, we learn what it was like for them in WWII, as well as their lives leading up to that dreadful time. Illustrated by Barroux, this is a gorgeous volume, and I would advise you to be equipped with tissues so you don’t ruin the book when you cry. Because there will be tears.

Michael Morpurgo and Barroux, In the Mouth of the Wolf

Francis was a pacifist who worked on a farm, while his younger brother Pieter enlisted and joined the Air Force. Instead of merely being told this as a fact, we get to know them as they grow up, and that helps our understanding of why they acted as they did. And also why Francis ended up joining the fighting after all.

Seen through his eyes as an old man, we learn much about his family and about the war. While nothing is truly surprising, we still see things in a new light, and it leaves you humbled to learn what others went through, so that we can live the way we do now.

(And I’m not going to say more about that.)

I obviously thought this book would be good. I just underestimated quite how wonderful it would turn out to be. Michael can still make me cry, and Barroux’s pictures are very special.

Coping with change

I found I rather liked ‘The Polar Bear,’ aka Steven Camden, at Wednesday evening’s bookfest event. I knew nothing about him, but would quite like to read his book, Nobody Real. I imagine most people were there for Melvin Burgess, and he certainly didn’t disappoint. With them was late addition L J MacWhirter, and they were all kept in reasonable order by Agnes Guyon. (I do like the French way of pronouncing Agnes…)

Steven Camden

Not that Melvin was ever out of my good books, but I appreciated the way he said ‘I love witches.’ His new book is The Lost Witch, and the subject of witches was suggested to him by his editor. I think. And that led to him thinking through what a book about witches would be.

Before this L J volunteered to go first, so she read chapter 11 about the stairs…

Steven didn’t have room for imaginary friends, and this made Thor Baker – an imaginary friend – angry. He read the A-level scene from Nobody Real. Talking about change – the topic for the evening – he said that what’s good is what you add to a situation.

Melvin feels that for teenagers change is obvious, and that’s why YA is interesting.

Agnes wanted to know whether the panel considered themselves to be feminists, and after rambling for a bit, Steven checked himself and replied ‘yes.’ Melvin said you have to be careful, because we all carry our prejudices around. He starts with a male character and then does a sex change halfway through. (Not sure if this is feminist behaviour.) For his next book he’s got a black character, and a friend had explained what he could and couldn’t do. L J loved writing Silas in her book. He’s a bit of a Poldark, apparently.

L J MacWhirter and Melvin Burgess

There were a couple of big names from the children’s book world in the audience; Julia Eccleshare and Ferelith Hordon. It was Ferelith who asked about morality in books. Melvin ‘objects to that’ and fears it might make you sound too pompous. Ethics, on the other hand, are interesting.

L J spoke of disadvantaged teenagers she had met, who wanted to do work that might not be an obvious choice for someone of their background.

Steven doesn’t know about morals. He’s ‘not a great believer in answers’ and prefers to trust his gut. Reading The Bunker Diary ‘messed me up for a week.’ (And then he asked the audience if we’d eaten. He was starving..!)

I’m not sure how we moved on to favourite books, but Melvin is very fond of Not Now Bernard, and Steven loves I Want My Hat Back.

For some reason this made L J mention dark books, which you want or things could get really boring. But after the dark, there should be hope. This might be from Geraldine McCaughrean, or it might not.

Can there be dark middle grade books? Ferelith told Melvin that his books are dark, and he said they aren’t MG, but she replied they are now, The Cry of the Wolf, Baby and Fly Pie (ending with a dead baby). He agreed this was a dark end with no hope.

Melvin doesn’t feel education has a place in novels. You go to school for that. You read about things [to find out about them] and that makes it private. He played around with the word ‘resilient.’ Teenagers can be too resilient = resilient to change. He sent us on our way, wishing us ‘good luck with the resilience.’

Freedom to Read, Freedom to Write

Some events simply want to go on for longer. Or, failing that, to come back and continue. The SCBWI discussion on freedom to read and to write, with Lari Don, Candy Gourlay and Elizabeth Wein, was one such event. There was so much to talk about, and with three women with lots to say, an hour was not enough.

But that’s my only complaint! Very ably chaired by Elizabeth Frattaroli and Justin Davies, we all enjoyed it from beginning to end.

Despite feeling I know these three authors well, I had not stopped to consider what very different reading backgrounds they have, growing up in three countries well apart from each other.

Candy Gourlay

Candy grew up in Manila where she did have access to a school library, but there were no public libraries at all in the Philippines. She began alphabetically, but got stuck on B for Blyton, fascinated by the different world discovered in those books. But she never found any brown children in them, and deduced that maybe Filipinos weren’t allowed in books. There was one, The Five Chinese Brothers, which as an adult she has discovered to be very racist.

Elizabeth Wein

American Elizabeth spent her childhood in Jamaica, and therefore did have access to books about children of all colours. Her father recommended what to read, and she felt she had a good selection of books. Her favourite is A Little Princess, and her dream was to live in a cold climate. (I would say that Scotland is a dream come true.)

Lari Don

Lari was ‘not exotic’ at all, she said, growing up in Dufftown. And while her family and relatives lived in houses full of books, there were no Scottish books. She read Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, Narnia. Her favourite was Power of Three by Diana Wynne Jones. There weren’t YA books in those days, and most of the books Lari read were about boys. Not about girls, and not set in Scotland.

Candy described coming to Britain, with all its wonderful libraries. And now they are being closed!! There were no publishers in the Philippines back then, but today there is a vibrant publishing scene. And there are some libraries. Her own problem is with rights, as US publishing rights include the Philippines, which makes the books too expensive. She has to negotiate a deal to make her own books affordable in her own country.

Reading from her new book, Bone Talk, Candy did so on her mobile phone. (She apologised.) After listening to her read the wild boar incident, I want to listen to Candy reading the whole book. It became something completely different when she read it.

Lari likes mixing different cultural ideas in her writing, but she’s now wary of cultural appropriation, and no longer feels sure she’s allowed to write about culture belonging to others, and definitely feels you can’t touch Maori or Aboriginal stories. You have to be sensitive.

Elizabeth spoke about the freedom she felt writing for Barrington Stoke. It’s not harder. You just write short, like a novella, and then there is the editing, which helps make these dyslexia friendly books easy to read. So for instance, in Firebird, they chose another spelling of Tsar – Czar – because the first one is easily confused with star. And even if you’re not dyslexic, short is always good.

For freedom to read, Lari suggested letting children choose what to read, or even not to read. It’s interesting to see how all three authors had so many thoughts and ideas on all this that they – almost – fought to speak.

When it was Elizabeth’s turn to read she chose three, very short pieces. First there was freedom in Code Name Verity, then some lines from her favourite Ursula le Guin, and finally the freedom on what to do with your hair and make-up in Firebird.

As for their own freedom, now that they are successful authors, there is a lot less of it. Elizabeth believes in discipline, being interested in what you write and to start small. Candy uses a forest app on her phone, where during 20 minutes a tree grows, and she is unable to access the phone for anything else. So she writes. And she doesn’t do homework for fans who write to her.

Lari loses herself in her own world. She then read to us the first bit from her Spellcheckers series, where Molly becomes a rabbit. Lari feels the best thing about being an author is to meet her characters. Elizabeth enjoys meeting readers and other writers, while Candy finds no one has heard of her…

There was barely time for questions from the audience, but they were all able to ask lots of questions during the book signing afterwards. It took time, but everyone left satisfied, and before the next event was ready to move in.

The bookfest should ask these authors back to continue where they left off.

Elizabeth Wein, Candy Gourlay and Lari Don

(Photos Helen Giles)