Category Archives: History

Fir for Luck

I decided to start reading Barbara Henderson’s Fir for Luck just before setting off travelling last week. I was going to see what it was like, and if it seemed promising, I’d continue reading it on my return, because I wasn’t going to add another book to my travel pile.

Well, you can guess what happened, of course. It was really quite promising, and I came to the conclusion that there was ‘plenty of room’ in my handluggage for Barbara’s book, so I could read it on the plane. Before the other planned books.

Barbara Henderson, Fir for Luck

Barbara has based her debut novel on real events from the Highland Clearances, and it is both exciting and terrifying and upsetting. Even when you know roughly what happened then, it still becomes more serious and real when you meet people and see exactly what was done to them. As with most things, you feel more when it’s someone you know.

The main character is 12-year-old Janet, who accidentally ends up the heroine of her village as it’s about to be demolished and everyone in it sent packing, with hardly any notice. What makes it more powerful is the fact that Janet’s grandmother has already had this happen to her once before, when Janet’s father was a little boy.

In the midst of the dreadful threats to Janet’s village, we learn what life there is like, and what sort of people live in it, and what they do for a living. There are grades of importance within the little community, and having a better house doesn’t necessarily save you when the day comes.

You know there can’t be a happily ever after solution, but you wish that some good will come of the fight to stay, which Janet starts.

It’s fascinating, and really so very exciting that you simply can’t go on a trip mid-book and leave it behind.

Wave

Set on the 1st of July in 1916, and also in 2016, the adult reader can work out what happens. At first I regretted not having read it on the day, so to speak, but am glad I didn’t. It’s such a loaded kind of date.

Paul Dowswell, Wave

Paul Dowswell has come up with two pairs of brothers – Eddie and Charlie Taylor. One pair for each century. Today’s boys are the great grandsons of one of the soldiers in 1916. Their grandmother is Rose, as was the girlfriend of one of the young men in 1916. The modern Rose is the daughter of the older Rose.

Clearing out their great grandparents’ house in Hastings, they find a photo of the older two, taken at the Somme on that fateful morning, as they waited to be part of the First Wave. Today’s Eddie wants to join up, unlike the older Eddie who only went to war in order to do the same as his big brother Charlie.

This short and sad story shows us the same day, one hundred years apart, and how the two sets of brothers handle the war, and the memories of it.

Very powerful, and it is yet more proof of the horrors of war, and how easily persuaded young men can be.

Maya Angelou

I knew nothing about Maya Angelou when I first read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, back in my teens. Rather mistakenly I assumed it’d be boring. But it wasn’t, and I went on to read the other two books about Maya’s life. I was mostly surprised that it could seem so modern and ‘with it’ for being set as long ago [then] as over thirty years before.

As an adult I kept track of what became of the marvellous Maya, until the day she read her poetry in public, next to the new President, thus proving how much a black girl from the American South can do.

Lisbeth Kaiser and Leire Salaberria, Maya Angelou

There is a new picture book about Maya, by Lisbeth Kaiser, with illustrations by Leire Salaberria.

To be truthful I do feel it is a little bit sugary sweet, but probably aimed at really quite young children, so I suppose it has to be. They have to skirt over what really was done to Maya by men, and by society.

But it’s important that young children can read success stories like hers, as well as finding a small black girl in a book like this. Whether that’s more important if you are black, or white, I can’t say. We all have our needs, and we must be educated.

Hopefully this book will inspire young children to learn more about Maya, once they are a little older. She was truly a great role model.

Is it safe out there?

Do we need our adults dead, and was everything safer in the past?

When I was reading Kate DiCamillo’s Raymie Nightingale earlier this year, what I was thinking was how nice it is when the adults can remain alive. The children can go about their adventures anyway, because the adults will let them. Or won’t think to worry.

Just like in the past. Perhaps. Debi Gliori was saying in Edinburgh last month that her publisher required her to put her alphabet book in more historical times, just so the two children could go out on their own and have alphabet adventures all over the place.

So is it a modern problem?

In books contemporary with me, characters in boooks did what I did; they went out as and when they felt like it. More or less. In books set in much older times, characters have even more freedom, unless they are enslaved by the need to work for a living.

The question I have is how do today’s readers know? Do they think ‘hey, I could do that’ just because it’s a new book set in the here and now, or do they automatically think that they won’t, because the book is old and they can tell the difference? If I’m ten, do I know that a book is old? Do I look at dates for different editions, and change my behaviour accordingly? Or do I simply decide that climbing down a well seems like a really fun thing to do?

In Debi’s book they were not allowed to go kayaking, even if we pretended it was in the olden days. It had to be a pretend kayak on dry land. (The mind boggles were you to apply this to the Famous Five.)

I’m just back from Sweden, where children are a little freer than British children. I read a manuscript while there, featuring a girl, aged about ten, who goes out on her own when visiting her grandparents (OK, so the parents have been partially removed), and she ends up in the 1600s. She returns safely, but still. Had granny come along she probably would have stayed put in the 21st century.

And there would have been no story.

What year is the cut-off point for unaccompanied children, and is it a moving point? Is it realistic to have a year before which normal children were out alone, and after which they are accompanied at all times?

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.