Category Archives: Siobhan Dowd

Stories for empathy and a better world

I had been looking forward to the event with Miriam Halahmy and Bali Rai on Saturday. I’d never met Miriam before, but she was everything I had expected, and Bali was Bali as usual. Empathy is important and it promised to be an interesting discussion.

Bali Rai and Miriam Halahmy

We were all asked for examples of empathic children’s books that had made a difference to us. I can see the point of asking the audience, but it split my attention a bit too much. Miriam is a big fan of Morris Gleitzman and talked about his Blabbermouth, and Bali suggested Zana Fraillon’s The Bone Sparrow. President Obama’s talk about the ’empathy deficit’ was mentioned.

Miriam read from The Emergency Zoo, and explained how she loses herself in the book when she writes. She is her characters.

Bali then read from The Harder They Fall, apologising for some ‘rude’ words. When he started writing about a female character, it took him some time to understand that girls are ‘just’ people. He talked about how many poor teenagers never even consider going to university. Sometimes because they are the main carer for someone in their family, and they can’t contemplate getting into debt.

On getting started Miriam reckoned the most important thing she did as a child was to read. After that it was being a teacher, doing a writing course, and reading and meeting people like Morris Gleitzman and Jacqueline Wilson. The best thing about writing is losing yourself in the writing.

Roald Dahl was a hero of Bali’s, and he liked reading about Vikings and volcanoes. Later on Sue Townsend played a big part influencing him. Bali described his hard-working colleague Alan Gibbons, who travels and writes and campaigns tirelessly for good causes. The best thing about being a writer seems to be ‘vomiting [words] on a page.’

Can you understand the world if you read escapism? Miriam believes in a real place and a real boy or girl. Bali feels that in The Lord of the Rings the whole world is escapism, and he listed Andy Stanton for sheer bounciness, had nothing [positive] to say about David Walliams, and it seems the archetypal white man comedian comes from Stockport. He praised the way Jacqueline Wilson writes about hard work and ordinary children. And there’s Siobhan Dowd and Patrick Ness.

Someone in the audience had problems seeing how fantasy could be empathic, but discovered Miriam and Bali disagreed. To make children understand empathy we don’t need it on the curriculum, and there is no right age. According to Miriam you can’t suddenly ‘do empathy today,’ but you need to embed it more deeply. For Bali it’s economical politics in this dog eat dog world. And you should be allowed to have fun at school, because how else do you get to write about fish zombies?

As with letting school-children have enough time for fun, I’d have liked more time for the two authors at Saturday’s event.

Miranda McKearney, Anna Bassi, Miriam Halahmy and Bali Rai

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Starting young

If I’d stopped to think about it, I suppose I’d half expect the child of an author [whose work] I like to turn into a competent writer as well.

One day. Just not yet.

I may have mentioned this before. One of my very first contacts among fellow blog people was Declan Burke. This author and compiler of Irish crime – on his blog Crime Always Pays – has introduced me to countless lovely people, writers and non-writers. (Thank you, Siobhan Dowd!)

Back in 2007 I believe he’d just got married. I mention this because the next year he became a father. So that’s nine years ago.

Last year Declan’s daughter Lily wrote me an email to thank me for the Christmas e-cards I have sent them over the years (she’s been keeping count…), which was lovely of her.

And this year she has written something else, which I recommend you read. I won’t borrow, so you have to pop over to her dad’s blog to read it. It seems Lily is a Jacqueline Wilson fan. Well, who isn’t? And it seems there’s been a competition to write a historical letter, where the winner would appear in Jacqueline’s next book. So Lily obviously wrote a letter.

No, she didn’t win. I imagine there will have been ‘a few’ entries to such a competition. But ever the proud father, Declan put her letter on Crime Always Pays, and that’s where you can read it.

I’m having two thoughts here; 1) Jacqueline Wilson really inspires her fans, 2) we have to stop thinking that young children are too young. I would never have expected a nine-year-old to write quite what Lily wrote. But if she can think such grown-up thoughts, then surely there are more girls like her?

In fact, the really great thing about Jacqueline’s books is that even the ‘older’ stories are quite simply written, which means that her younger fans can access the teen books, and they like them, and understand them. And they go forth and write their own.

Lily gives me hope.

Siobhan – ten years on

Siobhan Dowd and Helen Graves

In the midst of the madness that is the Edinburgh book festival, I remember Siobhan Dowd, who died this day ten years ago.

Without her there might well not have been a Bookwitch such as you know today. I might not have a book festival to be grumpy about, because it makes me tired, even when it’s such fun.

I have said this before, but must say it again; Siobhan introduced me to so many marvellous people in the book world, and the rings on the water keep spreading.

Still.

We never met. At the time I expected we would, even when I learned that she had cancer. She looked so well in photographs. She ‘sounded’ chirpy in emails. There would surely be time.

Thank you, Siobhan, for the books, and for the many friendships you caused.

Helen Graves and Siobhan Dowd

(Photos by Geoff Morgan, Siobhan’s husband, of her and her very good friend Helen Graves.)

The Pavee and the Buffer Girl

You can’t read and review a truly divine story too many times. Siobhan Dowd’s short story The Pavee and the Buffer Girl has just been published as a book in its own right, by Barrington Stoke, illustrated by Emma Shoard, and you want to buy it purely for those pictures! They are stunning, and the whole book is so beautiful.

Siobhan Dowd and Emma Shoard, The Pavee and the Buffer Girl

(Here is the link to when I first reviewed it, many years ago. I can’t believe time has passed so quickly.)

It’s a story about Irish travellers, and if I didn’t know that Siobhan could turn her hand to anything, I’d ask how she could know what it’s like for people like Jim and his extended family. It’s as though she had been there. Maybe she was.

More poignant than ever, this brief tale about outsiders unwanted by a community is very touching. Jim and his cousins have to go to school when they stop to live in a new town. They are not welcomed, and Jim’s younger cousin is severely bullied, and eventually the group of travellers decide they will be better off somewhere else and they leave.

Before that, Jim has made friends with a girl in his class at school, another outsider who doesn’t quite fit in, and whose home life is dreary.

In the current climate where reading and libraries are so threatened, it’s humbling to learn that none of the travellers know how to read, but would love to be able to. Jim’s mum is so hopeful when she asks if he will teach her, if he learns anything. It makes you want to cry.

Siobhan Dowd and Emma Shoard, The Pavee and the Buffer Girl

A Monster Calls – the film

This was the film we tried to go and see all week. We should be grateful it made it to the local cinema, because who would want to be deprived of a good long cry? As it was, Kleenex were required, and there was a bucket too.

A Monster Calls

I can no longer recall the exact details of the book* by Patrick Ness, and by that I mean the minor characters and any minor plots. I think there were some. They are not in the film, which is good, as you don’t want anything to detract from the main story about Conor, his dying mum and his angry grandma. And the school bullies, because to be beaten up every day as your mother is dying is obviously [not] what a 13-year-old boy needs.

A Monster Calls

The film let us concentrate on Conor’s nightmares and the subsequent meetings with a tree monster who comes to the house (voiced by Liam Neeson) to tell him stories.

Then there is grandma, played by Sigourney Weaver, doing a good British accent, while going around being at least as angry as her grandson. And who can blame her; she is losing her child, and gaining a grandchild who hates her.

A Monster Calls

At first the film went so slowly I was afraid it would ruin things but, almost imperceptibly, it sped up and before we knew it we were hooked, by Conor’s dismal daily life, and his mum’s sufferings, and you could literally see her getting worse.

Beautifully filmed in the Northwest, it looked like home to us (not quite as I’d imagined it from the book or from Jim Kay’s illustrations).

And it was only on the way out I remembered I had tissues in my bag, after casting around in my mind what we could possibly use to mop those tears with.


*Based on an idea by Siobhan Dowd

On doing the impossible

The good thing about the Edinburgh International Book Festival is how impossible it is. The many famous and wonderful authors it will be impossible to see there, simply because they have so many such people coming.

The 2016 programme was unveiled yesterday and I have scanned it for the best and most interesting events. Of which there are a lot. So to begin with I will plan not to see quite a few tremendously big names in the book business, since even at a distance I can tell I can’t possibly get them on to my wishlist. Then comes that list, and then comes the more realistic list, and finally comes the actual list I will actually be able to do.

Maybe.

Best of all would be to have no opinion, but to go along one day, or two, and pick something off that day’s menu, where tickets are still available. That would be excellent.

I can’t do that.

There is a follow-on from last year’s YA debate with Daniel Hahn, and Anthony McGowan and Elizabeth Wein among others. Chris Riddell will deliver the Siobhan Dowd Trust Memorial Lecture, making it unmissable, and Michael Grant is back in town with his WWII alternate history.

Meg Rosoff will be talking about Jonathan Unleashed, and Francesca Simon is ‘doing away with’ Horrid Henry! Cornelia Funke and Vivian French have things to say about dyslexia, Nick Sharratt will talk nonsense (poetry), and Theresa Breslin and Debi Gliori and Lari Don and all those other lovely Scottish authors are coming.

Debut writer Kathy Evans is talking to Jo Cotterill, and Lucy Coats has some more Myths up her sleeve. And so does Kate Leiper, I believe.

Jackie Kay is doing stuff, and many of our finest crime writers are coming along to kill and thrill, and there are Swedes and other Nordic authors; some expected, others more unexpected. Quite a number of children’s authors are doing adult events, which I think is a good idea. Politicians will be there, talking about all sorts of things.

I know I’ve already mentioned Daniel Hahn, but as usual he will be doing so much that he should try and get a rest in now. Just in case. Hadley Freeman is coming, which makes me quite excited. Lemn Sissay.

Who have I forgotten? You see, it’s impossible. There are so many!

In my taxi

You hear taxi drivers boasting about who’s been in their taxi.

And in my former post office job a long time ago I would ponder if I’d had any famous people in my queue. I did, a couple. A major Swedish actor and singer and celebrity in general, who none of you will have heard of. Also a local singer songwriter who none of you will have heard of. One of them knew exactly what he was doing, while the other one hadn’t got a clue and shouldn’t have been there at all.

But in my taxi, I mean, in my queue on Bookwitch; who have I had?

Who haven’t I had? So many lovely and more or less famous people in the book trade have popped in, either once, or regularly. I imagine even the Queen reads Bookwitch, but she never leaves comments, so this is hard to prove.

Two lovely ladies who are no longer with us, are Siobhan Dowd and Dina Rabinovitch. I’m very pleased they made it on here.

I was surprised to find Sharon Creech on the premises, as it were, but then again, why not? Edwina Currie. I definitely didn’t see her coming.

In a way it wasn’t surprising that Jacqueline Wilson popped by to comment. It’s just that you need to have an email address to do it, and she didn’t (then) do email, which means a bit more effort had to go into the commenting. It was kind of her.

I feel that you are in very good company when you visit Bookwitch. You just don’t know who you might have a conversation with.