Category Archives: History


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.)

Wings: Spitfire

Neither Tom Palmer nor Barrington Stoke could have known how appropriate it would turn out to be to offer this series of three books about planes and past wars, set in a soccer summer school for young teens, right now. Spitfire is the second book, and as the title tells you, it’s about WWII.

Tom Palmer, Wings: Spitfire

In the first one, Flyboy, we met Jatinder who ended up in WWI, flying a plane, mysteriously taking over the part of a real WWI pilot who, like Jatinder, was a Sikh. In Spitfire we meet his fellow soccer fan Greg, full name Grzegorz Tomaszewski, whose parents are Polish. In the same strange way as Jatinder, one night Greg finds himself at the controls of a real Spitfire, somewhere off the coast of France.

Like Jatinder, he’s somehow turned into a real pilot, and he needs to grow up fast to deal with a dangerous situation.

Tom Palmer has clearly watched The Great Escape a few times, but there are worse films to inspire a bit of plot, and perhaps young readers today, whether dyslexic or not, won’t have seen the film.

This timetravelling into old wars appears to be connected with the boys’ soccer school host, Steve, whose house sits right next to an old airfield, and who enjoys talking to the visiting boys about what things used to be like. So here we have Britain’s pride, the two world wars, and these stories show us pilots from other backgrounds coming to help the British fight a common enemy.

It’s exciting and not a little emotional. The boys from today learn a lot from their visits to the past. And so should we, about all kinds of things.

(Naturally there is a Spitfire to build.)

Oh, Freedom!

This feels timely. In Oh, Freedom we get black American history courtesy of Italian author Francesco D’Adamo, translated into English by Siân Williams. It might feel like the long way round, but that’s rather like the walk to freedom the slaves in the book experience. Sometimes to get there means going an extra long way.

It’s a short novel set in 1850, about ten-year-old Tommy and his family, who through a stranger find out about the Underground Railroad, which is the name for an organised way of walking to freedom in Canada.

Francesco D'Adamo, Oh Freedom

Peg Leg Joe shows them the way, and also how to avoid getting caught by their owner’s foreman. This is fascinating reading, and I’m especially pleased to read about all the – mostly – anonymous help the fleeing slaves receive en route. Complete strangers leave food and clothes for them, help them find the way if necessary, and at some point share their home with them.

We need more of this kind of thing. We need it more than ever. The friendship towards people you don’t know and who are a little bit different from you. The books about this kind of behaviour. All of it.

(By sheer coincidence, there was an event with Francesco in London yesterday. We need more events, too.)