Category Archives: History

Here I Stand

Here is a book you should all read. Here I Stand is an anthology for Amnesty International, where a number of our greatest authors and poets and illustrators have come together and written short pieces about the injustices in life as they see them.

Here I Stand

John Boyne writes about child abuse and Liz Kessler deals with same sex love. Both stories are hard to read, but at the same time they are uplifting and they make you think.

And it is repeated in every single contribution to this volume, whether by Jackie Kay or Jack Gantos, Sarah Crossan or Frances Hardinge. Bali Rai, Neil Gaiman and Elizabeth Laird are others who have important things to say about why life is far from right for many people in the world.

People who can be jailed or executed for the most normal behavior, or those who are simply too poor or too unfortunate in various ways. People for whom we need to continue fighting.

There is much in this book to think about. Please think about it.

Across the Barricades

As I said, I could barely wait to read Joan Lingard’s Across the Barricades after The Twelfth Day of July. It has the pleasure of re-connecting with old friends, but it has stopped feeling even a little bit cosy. Three years on, Kevin is 17 and Sadie is 16 – which back then seems to have almost counted as being adult – when they unexpectedly meet up again.

Joan Lingard, Across the Barricades

Things are much worse in Belfast; barbed wire everywhere and disturbances and violence have become daily occurences and seemingly normal, even to peaceful and ‘normal’ people. Childhood friendships are falling apart, when people find themselves on opposite sides, and I don’t mean religious ones, but whether or not they want to live peacefully or if they prefer to go on the attack against people who’ve not done anything to them.

As we can see today too, prejudice is rife and you hate on principle. This makes it harder for our young couple, who find that they very much want to keep seeing each other, while also realising that the other one will be much safer if they can stay away.

What a choice!

Just as it is upsetting to see how blinkered some people were (are), it is reassuring to find the odd ones who can see both sides of the coin and who are normal and decent human beings.

Even as their situation darkens, you want to read on and on. And knowing that this is anchored in recent history, you know that not everything can be fine, just like that. People will die, and they will be injured. Others will be upset, because separation of some sort is unavoidable.

I just want more.

Beck

Beck is a beautiful story, with a sad but beautiful background. Written mostly by Mal Peet, but finished by his dear friend Meg Rosoff after Mal’s far too early death in 2015, it is a collaboration between two of the best writers for Young Adults. I’ve heard of other writers who agree with a colleague and friend that if the worst should happen, the friend will finish their book for them. We don’t want this to happen, but if it does, it’s far better for a ‘chosen one’ to take over.

Set primarily in the 1920s, Beck is the result of a brief encounter between a poor Liverpool woman and a black sailor. Mal kills off his whole family in a sentence or two, and then our orphan is truly on his own, before he is shipped off to Canada at 14. Received there by the Catholic Brothers, the modern reader can’t help wondering if they will be good Brothers or wicked ones.

Mal Peet, and Meg Rosoff, Beck

Eventually most of the orphans are sent on to work on farms, and it’s not exactly Green Gables. Beck ends up in one place after another; not all bad, but he definitely doesn’t have an easy life.

I was wondering if I’d be able to tell where the join is, but reading part four you can tell a woman has taken over the story. It’s not necessarily easier for Beck, but it’s hard in a different way. A softer hard, so to speak.

This is a wonderful story about a young man battling adversity, and it offers a window on a Canada of almost a hundred years ago. It’s not the Depression, as it says in the blurb, but you can’t help thinking about what will happen to the people you have come to love, when the Depression does arrive.

It’s not easy deciding whether an interrupted book should be continued by another writer, but I often think of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, and how I wondered what was meant to happen, and whether I should make up my own [happy] ending, or not. And if I’d get it right.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to read all of Beck.

On the Front Line with Michael Grant

We were given permission to call him whatever we wanted. This man who recently lay down under a tank in the Ardennes, in case he would need to know what it looks like from down there. Michael Grant was back in Edinburgh on Saturday afternoon, converting a tentful of teenagers, some younger ones and a whole lot of older people who were unable to resist. (Although I have a few words to offer the adult who told her child companion to put Gone back on the shelf in the shop. That he wanted it was testament to Michael’s ability to make children want to read [his books].)

Michael Grant

Michael threatened horrible pictures (I hope he didn’t have me in mind) and suggested some of us might want to leave there and then. It wasn’t so bad. Barbara Cartland was very pink, and I suspect Michael will never look like that, despite his past in romantic formula novels. Luckily he gave them up before he had to hang himself in the shower.

This is the man who left school after 10th grade because he arrived for school lunch through the exit door and was told to go out and come back in the right way. The one who surreptitiously gave the finger in an old family photo. Someone who has a past as a burglar of cheap diners. They got him in to inspire us, and he said he’d see what he could do.

Genghis Khan was worse than Hitler, and I almost believe him after hearing what happened in Kiev. And then there was the Chichijima incident, which gave us George Bush for President.

Anyway, Michael was here to talk about WWII and his latest book, Front Lines. He sought inspiration in books, and particularly praised Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity, which he told everyone to read. He had done the Private Ryan Package at a rifle range, just so he could try lots of rifles out, despite hating guns.

He wasn’t sure how open he could be, either in the book, or with the audience, but feels that children can cope with the truth. And he only writes something if he thinks he will have fun with it.

Michael Grant, Front Lines

There were two things Michael changed in his book. One was giving women the draft, as he wanted to have them in the story. He also made black soldiers more integrated, earlier than in real life. The war had a good effect for black soldiers, because after fighting Hitler, they returned home less afraid than they’d been before.

This workaholic told us how he met his wife, Katherine Applegate, and how they eventually began writing books in order to quit their cleaning jobs. How they made a fortune with Animorphs (‘we’re going to need some aliens’) and then lived it all up, meaning they had to start again.

Michael Grant

That’s when Michael had the idea for Gone, told his wife about it, and she told him to drop everything and write it. Being a well trained husband he always does what his wife tells him to do.

After Michael had worn out one microphone and moved on to the next, it was time for us to skip over to the bookshop to have our books signed. I must have lost my touch, because I was nowhere near the front of the queue. I blame the photographer who required the buying of her own copy of Front Lines (that’s how inspiring Michael was). And then I tried to convert the young boy who wanted to read Gone and wasn’t allowed…

Michael Grant

I have received complaints for messing up the last photo my photographer was going to take of a very happy looking Michael. I retorted that he doesn’t do happy, but actually, I see that he does. Even with other women readers. So here’s to a smiley Michael. It wouldn’t be Edinburgh without him.

Frida Kahlo and the Bravest Girl in the World

Rather like Mariana, the young girl in Laurence Anholt’s new book about Frida Kahlo, I have been a little scared of Frida. She seems so different, and intimidating. She’s not, of course, and now both I and Mariana know this.

As in Laurence’s other books about famous artists, Mariana is a real child from Frida’s real life. Her father was a wealthy art collector, and Frida painted portraits of everyone in his family, and Mariana was the last to sit for Frida.

Laurence Anholt, Frida Kahlo and the Bravest Girl in the World

During the time it took for her portrait to be painted, Mariana learned about Frida’s life, including the accident that almost killed her, and why Frida always wore long skirts, and about her husband Diego Rivera. By the end of the painting the two were firm friends. Not even the skeleton above Frida’s bed scared her any more.

I love these artist’s life books! I actually have a whole pile here at the moment, because I’ve been hoarding them. Frida Kahlo is new, but the ones about Matisse, Degas and Cézanne have recently been reissued and they are so enjoyable.

Laurence Anholt, Matisse: King of Colour

Matisse might have been my favourite. Except I really loved Degas. And Cézanne was touching. So I don’t know. Either all these artists were really special and lovely people, or Laurence knows how to make them appear so. I especially admire the way he uses children and young people close to the artists to show what they were like as human beings, and not just the way we view these famous painters now. Life wasn’t always a bed of roses back when the painting was happening.

I do like Matisse’s chapel!

The Twelfth Day of July

Oh, what a pleasure it is to read one of those books you know you should have read years ago, but somehow never got to!

Joan Lingard, The Twelfth Day of July

My latest such delight is Joan Lingard’s The Twelfth Day of July, set in Belfast in the very late 1960s. It is easy to succumb to nostalgia for a place and a period you never experienced, and it’s easy to make light of exactly how (un)charming it might have been to live in Belfast and having to avoid contact with the other half of your home city.

Kevin and Sadie come from opposing sides, and both have been taught well by their families and religious leaders how right they are and how bad and wrong the other side is. It’s actually heartening to see how much 14 or 15-year-olds heed their elders. Being the same age as them, I can see both the similarities and the vast differences between our lives.

Sadie and her brother Tommy are looking forward to the 12th of July, like it’s Christmas and their birthdays rolled into one (which is something I was unaware of; having had no clue quite how big this day is/was). And Kevin and his friends and his book-reading sister Brede want to avoid the day altogether.

What’s fascinating is how similar their lives are, mere streets apart, without them knowing. Both communities are close-knit, and people know everything about each other. Which is why it almost seems impossible how it’s not immediately obvious when the two sides accidentally get to know each other a bit.

Yes, they hate each other, and think up one thing worse than the other to do to their enemies. But you can tell they are also discovering more kinship than they could have imagined.

And the twelfth? Will two of them march against the others?

Nearly fifty years on, and a peace treaty or two later, it’s easy to have forgotten what we read in the papers back then. But it’s very interesting to see how the other half lived. For me it was the North Sea dividing us, while for them it was just one road.

It goes without saying that I now desperately require the other four books about Sadie and Kevin. The first two are about to be reissued by Puffin.

Billy Button, Telegram Boy

Billy Button is a Little Gem in more ways than one. Sally Nicholls has written the loveliest little tale about young Billy who yearns to be a telegram boy. Except he’s too young, and a bit on the small side.

But he’s got a big heart and quite a lot of initiative, and when Billy does something, it turns out well in the end. And that’s what we want.

Sally Nicholls and Sheena Dempsey, Billy Button - Telegram Boy

Set in the past when we had village shops with post offices as well as telegrams and telegram boys, this is a sweet and slow story about the Button family and angry old Mr Grundle.

Luckily – for both Billy and Mr Grundle – the regular telegram boy falls out of a tree, so Billy has to step in and take his place. And where would Mr Grundle be if that hadn’t happened?

As everyone would agree, some rules are there to be broken. Whether you are old enough to be telegram boy, or whether you are allowed to, well, read other people’s telegrams…

It’s a bit Miss Marple-ish, minus the murder.

(Sweet little illustrations by Sheena Dempsey.)