Category Archives: Reading

Tea?

This morning I woke up to an offer of afternoon tea with Jamila Gavin and S F Said. I immediately assumed I was not worthy, because I’ve seen these ‘afternoon tea withs’ advertised before, for members of the Society of Authors. But I pressed the buttons and some hours later, there I was, not actually having actual tea, but watching S F drinking something from a large glass while chatting to Jamila.

Jamila Gavin is royalty to us in Bookwitch Towers. And I started wondering how come I’ve not ever seen her in an event. I’m assuming she very sensibly stays at home and writes and stays sane, and anyway, you don’t expect royalty to come wandering into your neck of the woods. But there we were.

This was a well run event, from the technical to the discussion. No hitches. S F knew precisely what the rest of us would want him to ask Jamila. Starting with Wheel of Surya, named one of the 100 best children’s books by Booktrust, it seems SF is as big a fan as I am.

He asked Jamila to read to us, and she chose the bit with the bullock carts, and the sound they made, which was something she’d got from her mother, who was still alive when the book was written and who could share her own, adult, memories of people having to leave their homes.

Before that S F wanted to know how Jamila came to start writing. This wasn’t anything she’d imagined herself doing, wanting to be a musician, but via Paris and Berlin and the BBC, and after getting married and having children, she discovered that non-white children drew themselves as white, because they didn’t see children like themselves in books. So that’s how The Magic Orange Tree came to be. Jamila spoke warmly of her publisher, Methuen, who told her that other books which sold more copies, were there to support smaller books.

She was with a friend in the North when she first heard of the ‘Coram man’ and about child abuse from a long time ago. She went home and looked for all the Corams in the phone book and spoke to all of them, until she came across the Coram Foundation and discovered what had happened. It seems that while there was no specific Coram man, many child traffickers made use of the name. When Jamila met someone in Hebden Bridge during an Arvon course, she learned about the children buried in the woods, and with the slave trade added to this, she had what she needed for her book. Not sure it was even going to be a book for children at first, it’s what it became, because if children lived and died like that, then children could read about it.

Of Jamila’s more recent books she spoke about Blackberry Blue, a short story called In Her Element, and what went before it, a 1990s book called Wormholers. From there we were told about her work in progress, a WWII novel titled Never Shall I Ever Forget You, which will be published in January next year. None of us felt we wanted to wait that long.

In the Q&A someone wanted to know why Grandpa Chatterji is no longer available, and she wishes it was too. As a recommendation for adult mixed race reading Jamila mentioned Bhowani Junction by John Masters, made famous by the film starring Ava Gardner.

Mentioning children’s books with issues, be it Philip Pullman, David Almond or Jacqueline Wilson, Jamila said that one should try to ‘end with hope’.

Asked whether she feels that you are allowed to write about something you’ve not experienced, Jamila said that cultural appropriation are her ‘most dreaded words’. She feels everyone has the right to write about things. ‘It’s our job to find the truth of your stories’, and publishers must be prepared to publish them.

Her motivation to ‘write well’ is to read a lot, although she admitted to not reading as much as she’d want to. Also, she doesn’t like the way we now talk about ‘reading for pleasure’ which feels like an indictment on education. Reading should be spontaneous, not a timetabled event.

So that was a really excellent chat between two authors, and the questions from the audience were well above average, and Jamila’s responses to them very interesting. I will happily attend more events with Jamila, and it’s so odd that after all these years, this was my first time.

‘Something stinky’

My two favourite translators being boys notwithstanding, I am all in favour of girls. Yesterday five of them got together in an online event for the British Centre for Literary Translation’s Summer School Event – Translating Children’s Books. It was Very Interesting.

Extremely well chaired by none other than Sarah Ardizzone, we met two pairs of small publishers and their translators, from Arabic and from Swedish, learning how the journey from original book to its English version had gone. And you need to keep in mind that US publishers might not appreciate the word poo. Regarding any other censoring in translating, Arabic is already very sanitised, so nothing to remove, according to Sawad Hussain.

Sawad had discovered an interesting sounding YA book on Twitter and eventually found her way to the author, before making contact with Neem Tree Press publisher Archna Sharma. Archna finds that not even being able to email her author, but having to go via her translator whenever she needs to make contact, makes for a different experience. As did applying for a PEN Translates grant, with Sawad’s help, and which she’d now happily do again.

Greet Pauwelijn, from Belgium, who runs her one woman publishing company Book Island, had come across a Swedish book by Sara Lundberg and gone looking for a translator from Swedish, eventually being introduced to B J Epstein. B J was ill and pregnant at the time, but immediately felt she needed to be involved with this book, The Bird Within Me, which has the most gorgeous illustrations. And you can translate with your baby in a sling.

One should not adapt down to children, either language or topic. And children can be most useful to test words on to see if you’ve got it right. Do they get bored, or do they want to read the book again? It could even be useful to pay a teenager to check that you’ve got the style right for how young people talk. Arabic can be quite stilted in books, so needs to be ‘rewritten’, but you also need to get the language of today right.

The cover for the Arabic novel had to have a new cover to work, preferably one dripping with blood. Greet, on the other hand, would never change an illustration as she feels pictures and words go together.

They chatted about how they work, how to change a crocodile into an alligator (apparently it worked better), swapping ideas for how to do things, and wondering what it will be like when the time for publicity comes, visas, travelling, even language for authors who are not confident in English. There was also a mention of readers ‘prejudging translatedness’ if brought to their attention. B J always mentions it to her children, whereas Sarah Ardizzone said something about ‘lowering the othering’ in case translations are seen as a possible deterrent.

The last question of the afternoon – and it could have gone on for a long time – was on bad language, sex and death. You can see how that would be really rather interesting. B J can get annoyed, and is a reluctant gatekeeper, but as already mentioned, there is generally nothing for Sawad to remove from an Arabic original.

Lena, the Sea and Me

As soon as I began reading Maria Parr’s Lena, the Sea and Me, I remembered what a pain in the xxx Lena was. Because I’d read about her before, in Maria’s book Waffle Hearts. But I did love that book, so perhaps she wasn’t as bad as all that? Deep down?

And as with Maria’s other book, I soon fell in love again, even with Lena. She’s a loud and opinionated 12-year-old, but with a heart of gold. And I suspect she feels a lot more uncertain about herself than her behaviour leads you to believe. She’s also a very good friend to Trille, the 12-year-old narrator of this somewhat crazy book about the people in a small village in northern Norway.

They are growing up, and they are both discovering how awkward it can be with other, new, friends, not to mention family. What’s happening with Grandpa? And Trille’s mother? And why can’t Lena have a baby brother?

There’s so much love in this book. A bit of hate, too. But it seems not everyone dislikes the same person Trille does. And what do you eat if you don’t eat your own dead animals, lovingly killed at home? It’s hard to understand.

With a long dead Grandma, adventures on/in the sea and football, not to mention romance and bravery, there is much to learn.

I’d even be willing to meet up with Lena again.

(Translated by Guy Puzey)

Small in the City

He is so small. Well, I suppose the title gives that away; Small in the City, the Kate Greenaway Medal-winning picture book by Sydney Smith.

The illustrations are gorgeous, snowy, cold, mysterious. We see a small person travelling through the city, in the snow, but we’re not quite sure why. The words are encouraging someone, maybe the boy himself, maybe someone else. Someone he’s looking for, telling them not to be scared.

It’s – probably – a North American city, and the snow definitely feels like something you ‘only’ get on the other side of the Atlantic. And the boy is dressed up warmly against the cold. You can barely see him. He looks so small.

This would be good to read with a child. You could discuss what or who the boy is looking for, and why. There is a lot going on in the pictures, although it quietens down towards the end.

The Royal Rebel

Quite often when authors write about real historical people, they are people I have at least heard of. Not so with Bali Rai’s The Royal Rebel for Barrington Stoke. He is well placed to tell us about the Sikh Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, goddaughter of Queen Victoria and a suffragette.

Sophia was proof that some of us don’t really belong anywhere. She was born in Britain in 1876, and grew up here, but obviously looked like a Sikh woman. Not quite British, Sophia felt an outsider when she first visited India as well.

Hit by relative poverty when her father’s money ran out and he abandoned his family, she eventually found her place in the suffragette movement. Sophia led an interesting and varied life, but grew increasingly lonely.

Through this book you see yet another side to the fight to win votes for women.

Skulduggery Pleasant – Dead or Alive

Huh, so this wasn’t the end, either. I’m beginning to suspect that Derek Landy can go on and on, and will go on and on. Which is fine by me. I enjoyed Dead or Alive as much as I liked the other umpteen Skulduggery Pleasant novels. They’re fun. A bit violent, yes. Unlikely. But fun.

And most of the characters are either dead or alive, sometimes both, either simultaneously or one after the other, and possibly back again.

I do like Omen Darkly. That boy has grown up to be a real asset, even if he does make mistakes a lot of the time. And like Omen, I like Valkyrie Cain and Detective Pleasant. Their relationship might have been a bit questionable to begin with, as is pointed out in Dead or Alive, but we didn’t notice it back then. Now it’s mostly old and comfortable.

And many of the characters from the older books are back, sometimes on the right side, but not necessarily. It’s just nice to see them.

I might have mentioned this before, but it’s also quite good to find that current politics can find a way into Irish magic fantasy. A turncoat is always a turncoat.

No, I have no idea what I meant there.

Next time I must remember to buy the ebook. The 600 pages always threaten to take my arm off. A little like poor Detective Pleasant.

Getting your priorities right

I found them on Facebook. Sometimes this crazy place has space for other stuff, including groups where everyone has the same thing in common. An early request on there for guidance before a move to Scotland from that place on the other side of the North Sea, led to me trying to be a little helpful. I usually stay away for fear of Facerage.

I believe I avoided saying that moving during a pandemic and the wrong side of Brexit was so crazy that they’d be better not doing it. How do you even buy a house to live in?

Anyway, some people really do need to move country and house and school and jobs. In which case some local advice is not necessarily a bad thing to provide.

A few months and two quarantine periods later, here they are. And the answer to the above is that you rent for a bit.

They are, probably temporarily, actually in the same town as myself. I have still not met them. I’m just good at dispensing advice, whether wanted or not.

But I was pleased to get a report from their first day of freedom. After an essential trip to a bank and lunch, they went to the town’s bookshop so the boy – neither old nor young – could buy a book.

I had to ask which one, because I wanted to form an opinion. I’d never heard of either the author or the title. It’s apparently fantasy. And adult. As in not children’s, not the other kind of adult. Like me at the same age, he reads in English. And for good measure his mother also photographed the pile of books he’d brought with him, in preference of more conventional packing. Toothbrushes are so overrated.

Let’s hope everything else goes well too. All you need is books. (Maybe a house. And a bank account.)

All the Money in the World

Most of us have more than we know, or think, or will acknowledge. This is definitely the case for Penny, who lives with her hardworking and always exhausted mum in a block of flats, converted from a grander house, walls covered in mould and a lack of privacy due to thin walls.

She has two best friends who also live there. The three of them smell, because of the mould, so are outcasts at school. They have very little money, and the lowest status in town. The old lady next door has a reputation for eating children, or at least trapping those who venture over the fence.

First by accident, and then because she wants to, Penny gradually befriends the old lady, and remains un-eaten. The friendship is good for both of them, until the day her old friend leaves on a mysterious journey, leaving Penny the keys to her house, as well as a considerable amount of money.

Now Penny can do what she wants, and she buys herself a new future, away from her old school and her flat and her friends. It doesn’t matter whether the new future is good or not. What matters is what she left behind. Where they things she didn’t need?

Very little in this new novel by Sarah Moore Fitzgerald goes the way you expect, apart from the gift of the money. You really do need to value what you have, where you come from. It’s usually not all bad, just as the new isn’t always as great as it seemed from the other side.

The lesson here is taught in a very nice way, and I liked it a lot (although I get very worried when people lie too much).

Scottish by Inclination

Barbara Henderson’s book Scottish by Inclination could be described as an essential read for all other types of Scottish people, not to mention English people, and those further afield who still don’t see, or believe, that Brexit had much effect. Especially not on me, or us, or anyone perceived to be an OK sort of foreigner. Unlike ‘those others’.

Once I began reading the book I couldn’t stop. It’s just so good and so interesting and feels so real. It’s back to what I keep going on about; if you write what’s close to you, it will always be far better than anything else. And Barbara knows how to be German in Scotland, until she ‘forgot she was a foreigner’.

This is the story of Barbara’s life in Scotland, starting a little before she decided to study in Edinburgh, continuing with her departure from all she knew and loved best and her arrival at Glasgow airport thirty years ago. Just the fact that it was Glasgow then, when now it is nearly always Edinburgh. Short chapters on what it was like to be a student, on getting married, training for a job and starting work. Having babies and ending up in Inverness, where she still lives.

Every short chapter ends with a brief interview with other foreigners, from all the corners of the EU, showing why they came and what they do now, and showing that even those from some of the countries people have been suspicious of, are nice people, working hard, belonging. They are worthy of being here.

Although why immigrants should have to be so much ‘better’ than the people born in a country is beyond me.

I’m certainly not better than anyone. Just thinking about all the things Barbara did, working so very hard, having so much energy, and smiling so much, and, I believe, learning to understand what people in Glasgow say. (Only joking. A little.)

One of the EU citizens Barbara interviewed was your own witch. She even makes me sound interesting.

It’s my belief that anyone would enjoy this book. As I said, I started and couldn’t put it down. Bunkered up with sandwiches for lunch so I could read straight through the afternoon. After dinner the Resident IT Consultant took over and if you knew him, you’d know that not going for that walk he was going on but just sitting there reading and smiling, well… As an Edinburgh alumnus, albeit older, he enjoyed seeing what Barbara’s crowd got up to.

We are all foreigners, and it was a relief to see that someone else had had the same or similar problems to mine. And I appreciated the quotes from old and famous people for each chapter. It’s amazing not only how much wisdom there can be in a selection of quotes, but how apt they were for what the chapters were about.

There are photos of nearly all the EU interviewees, and what strikes me is how they look like people I’ve always known. (I’m the only one who’s turning her back on the reader.)

Yeah, did I mention I think everyone ought to read Scottish by Inclination? I really do.

Thinking differently

The Incredibly Busy Mind of Bowen Bartholomew Crisp is the loveliest picture book by Paul Russell and Nicky Johnston. It sounded good before I had it here to read, but it’s miles better in every way now that I have read it.

Bowen doesn’t think like everyone else. Not as fast, nor about the same things. But he is intelligent, and not only does he think in his own way, but he realises that other people don’t see the same things he does, or in the same way.

What colour is the ocean? I mean really? And you can’t be expected to look at a great work of art and have an opinion in no time at all. Or not send your tortoise into space? (He didn’t, because Grandma intervened.)

But after all those experiences with teachers and other adults who don’t get him, there is one person who does. His mum. Either she’s a bit special too, or she has learned from experience how to think like Bowen. The two of them get on very well, but I’m afraid I still don’t know if dinner will make itself?

It’s a thought, though, isn’t it?