Category Archives: Languages

The Amnesty readings

If you feel up to the gruesome nature of what some people do to other people, you should go along to one or more of the Amnesty International readings in Charlotte Square. They are free, and they are good, but they could make you cry, as happened to one of the authors reading the other night. But then, if the people who need Amnesty’s help can put up with what’s being done to them, I reckon we can.

I’ve been to two readings this week. The first one had Dreams of Freedom as its theme, and it is also the title of a book published in association with Amnesty. It has short quotes from well known people who have been wrongly imprisoned, and it has been illustrated by famous artists, including Oliver Jeffers and Chris Riddell.

Dreams of Freedom

On Wednesday the authors who read to us were Dub Leffler, Debi Gliori, Michel Faber and D D Everest. They are all different people, but they all read very well, and talked about their pieces in a way to make me want to read more. To do more.

Wednesday’s writers were Nelson Mandela, Malala Yousafzai, Aung San Suu Kyi and Tenzin Gyatso (Dalai Lama). It’s easy to think we know it all, but we don’t. We need to hear more of what’s being done to people.

On Thursday the authors were Paul Magrs, Teri Terry, Priya Parmar and Cecilia Ekbäck. The pieces they read were all excedingly short, but no less powerful. The writers were Alicia Partnoy, Liao Yiwu, Enoh Meyomesse and Stephanie Ndoungo, and what strikes you again and again is how normal their behaviour has been, and still they end up incarcerated.

Amnesty in Edinburgh are asking people to sign a petition to free Atena Farghadani, who is an Iranian artist, punished for posting a cartoon on Facebook, and sentenced to 14 years. When she shook the hand of her male lawyer, they were both accused of indecent conduct. To sign you can text ATENA and your own FIRST and LAST name to 70505.

Dreams of Freedom

‘Freedom to feel safe.’

Celebrating Young Adult Fiction

Daniel Hahn

There were so many authors for Daniel Hahn’s event on YA literature that we got 15 minutes extra to sort out the seating arrangements, (a rather nice booth at the edge of the Spiegeltent for me) or so he claimed. We should – could – have had much longer. Not so much for the chairs as for the sheer marvel of what everyone had to say, whether or not YA exists. (Some of them reckon it doesn’t.)

Them, were Elizabeth Laird, David Almond, James Dawson and Tanya Landman, plus Agnes Guyon, chair for this year’s Carnegie. That’s four award winners, and one awarder. Daniel said, two of them were suspicious, but he changed that to having suspicions [about YA] when we laughed. The introductions had to be kept short or there would have been no time for the event. Elizabeth has written 150 books, and she claimed ‘most of them rubbish.’ David Almond has won everything, including the Hans Christian Andersen prize. New kid on the block, and reigning Queen of Teen, James Dawson, hasn’t won so much yet, except for the rather spiky QoT crown he keeps in a cupboard. And then there was this year’s Carnegie medalist, Tanya Landman.

With the exception of young James, who did grow up on  Nancy Drew, Melvin Burgess and Judy Blume (yes, that book), before moving on to Stephen King, none of the others had had access to any YA books back in the olden days. Elizabeth read Kipling, Geoffrey Trease and moved straight from Wind in the Willows to Agatha Christie and Jane Eyre. Oh, and she read her great aunt’s books…

David liked John Wyndham and Hemingway, as well as Blyton. Tanya was also a Wyndham fan, she read Leon Garfield, and then she has forgotten the rest. Agnes Guyon went straight from the Famous Five to Zola. As you do. Daniel felt this was a terribly French answer, and one he will use in future.

On being asked how they became YA writers, James said he decided after reading Noughts & Crosses. He reckons we’re all here because of J K Rowling, and what Stephenie Meyer did to follow. David didn’t even know he’d written YA when asked about it in America. Tanya reckons a book is a book is a book, and she doesn’t like categories.

James Dawson

James believes Philip Pullman only got away with what he wrote because the books were aimed at young readers. Elizabeth’s reading is mixed, and she reads what she needs for the moment. When ill she can consume many Agatha Christies in a short time.

Tanya read from her Buffalo Soldier, and had to stick to the first chapter, as she wrote the book with a southern American accent in mind, but she can’t actually read aloud like that.

Talking about diversity, James said there are many books, but none are bestsellers, unlike the leading David Walliams, John Green and the Hunger Games. Elizabeth feels that it’s the 3 for 2 offers in shops that make the bestsellers, in a fake sort of way. That’s why we need libraries, with librarians in them.

According to David, children’s publishers are more adventurous, and more confident in what they publish, than adult ones, and mentioned Shaun Tan. Elizabeth has experience of being recycled. If you can stay in print for 25 years, you find that your readers have become parents and will be drawn back to your books, until 25 years later when it’s the grandchildren’s turn.

Elizabeth Laird

Daniel’s bugbear is translations. There are not enough of them. Pushkin and Little Island are two publishers who do look for fiction to translate. Elizabeth read from her book A Little Piece of Ground, which was very moving.

Adults are people who ought to know better; they should read proper books. Or that’s what people think. Tanya reckons To Kill a Mockingbird has become what it is because it’s accessible. She knew someone who was embarrassed to be seen reading The Book Thief, because it’s not a ‘proper’ book. James even defended Twilight, being someone who’s ‘heading into his mid twenties.’

Tanya said what I’ve long failed to put into words, which is that in YA books things get better within the book (except for Kevin Brooks), while in adult books you start level, and then things spiral into something worse, with divorce, unemployment and worse. Elizabeth had some insight there and then which she shared with us; YA wants to tell a good story, straight and simple, with no ‘tricksy writing’ unlike so many adult books.

Agnes said that what the Carnegie judges look for is plot, style and characterisation, well told. And as someone retorted, ‘how hard can it be?’

James read from his new, almost not published, book, about a bisexual relationship. I think we were all impressed by how daring this seemed, but when asked if he’s ever encountered resistance, he said his whole next book got scrapped (grindr culture for gay men, starting with hardcore gay sex), and as a World Book Day author next year this wasn’t seen as being quite right. Elizabeth laughed so heartily at this, that I suspect the publishers are wrong.

We finished with David reading from Ella Grey, about Orfeus and rather grown-up sleepovers.

One question from the audience was on how children seem to get older younger these days, and James treated us to his memories of reading about demonic sex at the age of eleven.

Someone else told us that YA books save her in her job as a teacher, because the books suit the children. Elizabeth wonders if we are all teenagers, really, and Daniel added that it could be we are just optimists.

Perhaps there wasn’t any wolf whistling from the audience, but almost. This was one happy group of book lovers and we could easily have stayed there much longer. As it was, we trooped over to the adult (the irony of it!) bookshop for signings. It was good to finally speak to Tanya Landman, who was excited enough to give me an extra ‘e’ but that’s all right between Carnegie winner and witch.

James Dawson, Elizabeth Laird, Tanya Landman and David Almond

(This photo borrowed from Lindsay Fraser, because it’s so much better than mine.)

Bookwitch bites #130

At times this summer it has felt as though everyone has died. I know that’s not true, but over a few weeks, many people left us. One such person whom I’ve not mentioned earlier, was Helena Forsås-Scott. She was Honorary Professor of Scandinavian Studies at the University of Edinburgh.

I only met her a couple of times, but we had enough in common that it was nice to speak to her. She was a filosofie magister from Gothenburg, and so am I. She also had a PhD from the University of Aberdeen, which I don’t. But you know, the similarities were there. Helena attended the Nordic conference in February, and she was most friendly and supportive of Son in his work at the department.

Moving slightly south of the Scottish border, Newcastle’s Seven Stories has just re-opened. When I was there a few years ago, I felt everything was perfect, but it seems you can improve on perfection, which is what they have achieved with their recent overhaul. Some of the things they have to offer are Painting with Rainbows – A Michael Foreman Exhibition, Rhyme Around the World, A Bear Called Paddington, and a new Harry Potter installation in the Attic. Sounds good, doesn’t it?

Who knew spoons were so important? I didn’t, and I speak as one who uses them every day. Explorer and education advocate Justin Miles travelled in Kenya, and he found that if school children could use a spoon to eat their food, instead of their fingers, it’s possible to stay healthier, save on days lost from school, and hopefully prevent spreading disease further.

QED Publishing have just agreed to donate at least one spoon to ‘Educate The World’ for every copy of Justin’s Ultimate Explorer Guide for Kids sold. You can support the cause by donating or raising awareness for the #SpoonAppeal.

In our rich western world we worry about other things, like how untidy our children’s rooms are. Here is a clip of Nicola Morgan talking about the way teenagers function, and showing photos of one teenager’s very messy bedroom. There might even be a spoon or two lying about in there. Nothing to do with me though… Or very little.

Summer books, and the ‘ants’

‘Where are all those books going?’ asked the Resident IT Consultant. Seems he meant the ones in the large IKEA paper carrier bag in the hall.

‘To the *Ants,’ I replied. ‘And they’re not all books, btw.’ Being me I had put the unwanted china underneath the books… And for a soft landing, the odd unwanted t-shirt under all that. But we’ve been to the Ants already (and this year they have So Many Things I Want [but don’t need] that I could barely contain myself in the shop), so chances are the bag will have to wait until next year. But at least we have tidied up a bit.

I have this – possibly misguided – idea that holiday houses should house lots of iffy books, and there is less need to keep pruning than at home. My memories of Aunt Motta’s summer cottage is that it was full of old magazines and paperbacks. A veritable treasure trove.

So that is what I aim for. All the books I rescued from Offspring’s school library are here. So are various other books acquired from all over the place. And the ones I brought to read and either don’t feel I need in the UK or that I didn’t like, or ones I have more than one copy of, are all here.

But as Daughter tidied away a few of the books from her shelf, I thought that perhaps I ought to be more critical of what I keep my thick layers of dust on. (Even one of this summer’s new books came out dusty when I offered it to the Resident IT Consultant. Presumably because the shelf had a certain excess of dust.) Hence the bag waiting to go to the Ants.

The thing is, you could easily arrive with nothing to read. Even I can find perfectly acceptable unread books if I look. But it’s hard not to pack lots of books anyway.

*Ants=Myrorna= Salvation Army secondhand shop.

Nine Open Arms

Nine Open Arms is a rather nice story, set in the Netherlands immediately before WWII. It’s the kind of story we don’t see so much of, and certainly not as much as we ought to, as not enough translated children’s fiction makes it across the language barriers.

I don’t know Benny Lindelauf who wrote Nine Open Arms, which was published in the original over ten years ago, and has finally arrived in the English speaking world in a translation by John Nieuwenhuizen, whose work I have come across before.

Benny Lindelauf, Nine Open Arms

Told by 11-year-old Fing, it’s the story about a family who move around a lot. It seems to have something to do with The Dad’s inability to keep down a job, rather than follow his next dream, taking his seven children and his mother-in-law along. In 1937 they are just arriving in Sjlammbams Sahara, discovering the house they are about to move into is pretty unusual as houses go. But at least it’s bigger than they’ve been used to, and Fing and her sisters Jess and Muulke have their own room.

We never learn  much about their four older brothers, but do see a lot of their grandmother Oma Mei. She tells stories.

Strange house, with strange things happening in and near it. And there is the mystery of their dead mother, and the reputation of their dead Opa Pei. The Dad’s new venture is cigar making, and I think you can guess how well that goes.

Then there is the cemetery next door and the gravestone and the tales from the past about Charley Bottletop and Nienevee from Outside the Walls. It’s all slightly strange, but it makes sense in the end, and it’s really quite a sweet tale, once you know ‘everything.’ It shows you how resilient children are, and how they take the oddest things in their stride.

And we really ought to read more books from the outside.

Flying royally

All roads lead to Holiday Bookwitch Towers. Maybe. I told you a couple of months ago about our unusual flight route here, but a witch can always come up with more different ways.

This week I went another unexpected way, and I did it alone. The Resident IT Consultant and I were flying to Copenhagen, yet again (but we are clearly doomed), this time via Heathrow. But with our first flight delayed, we’d miss our second. We have no idea what was going on in Denmark, but judging by the lack of seats on any plane, with any airline, the whole world was heading there.

Meanwhile, poor Daughter who hadn’t had a seat on our planes at all, went ahead with her separate travel plans, also to Copenhagen, but with another airline. She was due to arrive last, joining us driving across The Bridge. Obviously, she arrived first. Also obviously, she ended up catching a train out of Denmark.

Wanting to be around to help her kill any uninvited spiders, I eventually suggested I fly to Gothenburg. They found this a strange idea, but put me on that plane instead, where I ended up sharing the last row with a cello and its player.

The flight crew hesitated each time they made an announcement, but each time – just – remembered we were bound for Gothenburg. Except when we arrived, when they believed we were in Bergen. I heard them giggling behind me, as the two names ‘are so similar.’ They are not. They are not even in the same country.

Unable to drive over any bridges, I also caught a train, which I shared with eight airline pilots (see, even the pilots had no planes!), who – one by one – went off to the toilet to shed their uniforms. Thankfully they had jeans and stuff in those natty little black carry-on cases.

By this point the Resident IT Consultant actually had arrived in Copenhagen, because there was the small issue of a hired car to pick up to drive across The Bridge. And once the witch had been removed from the equation, there was one last seat out that day.

By bedtime we were all here, separate flights notwithstanding. The rather lovely cellist had asked if I’d change seats with her boyfriend, but having been given my favourite seat, I really didn’t want to give it up. I explained to her that I had sent my Resident IT Consultant not only on a different plane, but to a different country, and she conceded that when you’re older you might do that.

Older, hah!

Is it all because of Ladybird books?

Would I even be here if it weren’t for Ladybird books?

Years ago I blogged (rather peculiarly, it strikes me now) about Ladybird books, and how they were not part of my past, and how I almost resented this. But now it seems to me as though that one book I bought at the age of ten and could barely read, might have set me up for life. Where would I be if I hadn’t?

I have always ‘blamed’ my fascination for the UK on Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie, and while it is still true that they inspired me, I now feel I must add my sensible Ladybird book. People here think back to those days, when both they and Britain were different. I actively went in search of this charming country where children walked around in those T-bar shoes and boys wore shorts and had haircuts like they did in old films.

And there was cake.

I so wanted to go and see the Ladybird exhibition in Bexhill; not just for the books, but for the De La Warr Pavilion as well. But it was all too much at the other end of the country to be realistic. The exhibition is in London now. Can I make it to London? I don’t know.

The article in the Guardian a few weeks ago made me feel many things. It was fascinating to read that someone’s real birthday party actually ended up in the book. I mean, surely that’s the complete opposite of today’s fantasy books; finding your own reality in a book. I knew I wanted to be part of it, except you can’t wish your own past away.

Perhaps I can take up collecting Ladybird books? Not terribly original as ideas go, but maybe I can fake a new past? I never did wear shoes like that. The one time I got close to it, the woman in the shoeshop pointed out I was an adult and couldn’t have them.