Category Archives: Travel

The Power of Picture Books: Building Communities, Families and Futures – 2017 Bookbug Conference

Arriving slightly late to the 2017 Bookbug Conference in Edinburgh on Wednesday morning, I was shown to a chair. Unfortunately it was the Chair’s chair, so I went to sit on the side, which suits me best, and Chair Jenny Niven kept her chair.

My arrival coincided nicely with the start of Dr Vivienne Smith’s talk on Reading as a Playful Act, which was one of the best talks! Ever. The slides might have ‘gone bananas’ as Vivienne put it, but her research on young children’s reading was so interesting. I chanced upon super-librarian Yvonne Manning in the break and we both agreed on how great it had been.

Vivienne Smith

Basically, reading should be like playing, and none of this sounding out words letter by letter, which will not give the young reader the right experience. In one experiment, even the keen readers from bookish families chose the Lego and the dinosaurs before the book. But from another group, a couple of young children were so taken by the toy version of book character Beegu that one of them invited him to her birthday party, and the other wrote him a letter, two years later.

There is little emotion in the reading that happens at school. Reading can help your well-being, like disappearing into Pride & Prejudice every time you move house. You learn empathy from reading, and more so if you read ‘worthier’ books, where you are forced to think more. They make you likelier to vote, to volunteer, to recycle for the good of the environment, and so on.

You learn that life can be changed, made better. As Flaubert said, ‘read in order to live.’ For the well-being of society we need children who read!

I could have listened to Vivienne all day, but we had to take a break and drink tea and eat banoffee tarts and chat to people. Which was nice too.

A panel on The Power of Picture Books followed, with Vivienne again, and illustrator Alison Murray, Dr Evelyn Arizpe from University of Glasgow, Rowena Seabrook from Amnesty International and Nicholas Dowdall of the Mikhulu Trust (South Africa), chaired by Jenny Niven.

Picture books panel

They started by choosing a picture book each, one that meant something special to them. Nicholas showed us a short video of a tiny boy in South Africa reading with an adult, and his surprised and delighted reactions to what happened in the book. Evelyn mentioned a Mexican, version of Red Riding Hood, which led Vivienne to say that for this to work well, you first need to know the basic version, which is ‘cultural capital.’

Alison likes a balance between the sexes of her characters, and Vivienne said how we are ‘all so flipping middle class’ making assumptions and taking things for granted. Rowena mentioned a description of a book with an ungendered character, which still contrived to gender the character (male). Nicholas pointed out that in the townships they need books which are not about things that readers won’t know. To make picture books work well, you must read them out and read them well.

Replying to a question Vivienne said that it’s fine to be disturbed by the content of a book. It makes you think. And you have to remember that children can only take on what they understand, so a lot would simply go over their heads.

This panel discussion could also have gone on for much longer, but there was lunch to be eaten.

Mark McDonald, minister for Childcare & Early Years started the afternoon session. He didn’t have long, as his work in Parliament was ‘pressing’ this week, but he mentioned the First Minister’s reading challenge, and how reading takes you to magical places. 80% of a child’s development comes from what they do outside of school.

Mark McDonald

He talked about his children and their reading. The daughter likes Fairy Ponies, and next time Mark needs to vent about their quality he has learned not to do it to the publisher in question. Oops. His son, who is on the autistic spectrum, finally became interested in books via Nick Sharratt’s illustrations, so he is their god. (I know that feeling!)

Mark appreciates what we (that will be the teachers, librarians and other community workers) do, and ‘his door is always open’ if we want to speak to him. A yellow party bag saw Mark back off to Parliament.

Sabine Bonewitz

The next session was a talk by Sabine Bonewitz from Stiftung Lesen, the German Reading Foundation. She talked about encouraging parents to read with their children, spreading the joy of reading. Sabine had statistics to show us, she talked about their bookbags which feature a kangaroo (big steps) and finished by astounding everyone with German McDonald’s collaboration for reading, offering books with their Happy Meals.

Following this Happy idea, we all went our separate ways to different workshops. I had chosen to hear Alison Murray talk about Navigating the Story Arc. Important facts about reading picture books is that you do it in company, and that the paper can be tactile, and you might even want to sniff it. Boardbooks you can ‘eat.’

Alison Murray

Alison showed us a sketch of John Dewey’s shape of stories, showing how it fits almost every book; reading us her own Hare and Tortoise. Before finishing she read us her new picture book, Dino Duckling, a kinder version of The Ugly Duckling. It was lovely.

All in all, delegates will have gone home with much to think about, and lots to try on their own small ‘customers.’ As for me, I went in search of eldest Offspring, who was once much smaller than he is now.

‘I am Mary Queen of Scots’

Or so Alex Nye claimed, when she launched For My Sins at Blackwells last night. (She laughed when she said it. So she’s perhaps not entirely serious about it.) It’s her first adult novel, and it’s about Mary, Queen of Scots.

Mary Queen of Scots

The real Mary was there too, and she was looking good for her age. Actually, on such a dark and stormy night when the rest of us were pretty drenched, I have to point out that Mary looked both dry and beautiful.

As I ran in, Tesco prawn sandwich in hand, Alex and her publisher Clare were already there, and Mary turned up soon after. She posed for photos like Royals tend to do, and I believe she even showed off what was under her skirt. Honestly. I ate my sandwich, turned down the offer of wine and was rescued from dying of thirst by the lovely Ann Landmann of Blackwells.

Roy Gill, Kirkland Ciccone and Mary Queen of Scots

We admired the book, which has unusually nice looking pages. I know this sounds strange, but it does. Several other authors turned up to celebrate, among them Kirkland Ciccone wearing a rather loud outfit, Roy Gill who looked suitably handsome, Gill Arbuthnott, Philip Caveney (or was it Danny Weston? They look so alike…) with Lady Caveney, and then Kate Leiper came and sat next to me again.

Alex talked about her love of Scottish history, and for Mary, about her research, and walking round Edinburgh for two years (that must have been tiring) to see the places Mary went, and visiting all her castles. And 28 years on, the book is finally here.

Alex Nye and Mary Queen of Scots

Luckily Alex has managed to get hold of Mary’s diary from her time ‘in jail,’ which must be considered a bit of a royal scoop.

Kate Leiper, Gill Arbuthnott, Kirkland Ciccone and Roy Gill

There was a signing afterwards, and much literary gossip. It was almost a shame some of us had to go home, but I couldn’t leave my chauffeur in the Park&Ride all night.

Alex Nye

I’m just over halfway through the book so far, and I have a dreadful feeling this isn’t going to end well.

Bookwitch bites #140

The London Book Fair was last week. There was plenty to tempt, but very little time and energy on my part, so I’ll hold out until some other year. The family was represented by Son, who sleepered south one night and sleepered back north the next night. In between all that ‘sleeping’ I imagine he did book-related work. So many people were there, and I have actually not asked him who he saw, but I do know he met up with/ran into Daniel Hahn.

Daniel did lots of things at LBF, most of which I’ve no idea what they were. (If you feel this is looking like me telling you very little, then you are right. I am.) I understand there was an event with Son’s colleague, fellow translator Guy Puzey. I’d hazard a guess they talked about translations.

Daniel Hahn radio

While on the subject of Mr Hahn, there was a piece on the radio the other week, where he talked about Good Books.

The Carnegie shortlist has been announced, and that has good books too. Mal Peet is on there, with Meg Rosoff, as are Glenda Millard, Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock, Zana Fraillon and Frank Cottrell Boyce.

Carnegie shortlist 2017

Damien Love who self-published his exciting book Like Clockwork a few years ago, now has a fantastic book deal in the US where it will be published some time in 2018 as Monstrous Devices.

Damien US deal

And finally, Debi Gliori tells the world about my marvellous baking skills in a recent blog post on her new blog. It’s very sweet of her. If I didn’t know what a great baker she herself is, I’d say she’s too easily impressed. In fact, I think I’ll say that anyway. Too easily impressed.

But you know, it’s not every culinary attempt of mine that ends up having a professional portrait made of itself.

Semla by Debi Gliori

Funny on Facebook

It was easier than the time I carried a Christmas tree round St Andrews, eventually taking refuge in a bar while I waited for Daughter to come and take the tree off my hands. This time I merely carried her forgotten boots, but nevertheless I took refuge in the same bar as I waited for her to come and take the boots off my hands. One has to have traditions.

Those of you who are awake right now might recall that Daughter has left St Andrews. But there are conferences and things, and this was one such thing, for which the boots were required. And what are parents for, but to carry, deliver and generally help? Today, as you read this, we are in Edinburgh, collecting the same boots, because their usefulness is over. Until next time.

Uncharacteristically for the young, she invited me to come and hear her talk, which meant that after the boot-handover we trudged to the university department where she spent four years and that I occasionally visited. There were a lot of men! St Andrews is odd in that the ratio of female to male students at the Physics department is unusually equal. Hence my reaction to seeing so many men. But that’s conferences for you.

I had mock-threatened to ‘speak to her teacher’ but had no intention of being that embarrassing. In the end it was the teacher (one of them) who spoke to me because she recognised me. Did I visit too often?

I was also introduced to one of the conference organisers, who is a ‘fan of mine on facebook.’ Seems I’m funny. Well, we knew that. Besides, having a parent at a conference is cute… Apparently.

The talk was good. I almost understood it. But then, star spots are ‘easier’ than the white dwarfs which preceded them. We had the pleasure of hearing the professor exclaim ‘what was the question?’ and I discovered that the chap in front of me has a bank balance of just over £2000.

Gifts, and offering support

As well as returning ‘home’ Daughter was kind enough to bring gifts. We really didn’t need anything, but there you are.

Dictionary with grape

She gave me a book, apologising for the fact that it’s not the sort of thing I’m in desperate need of. But it’s so reasonably sized I forgive her.

Carrier bag

The Resident IT Consultant seemed surprisingly happy with his plastic carrier bag, with the names of the countries of Latin America adorning it.

Stone

She felt a little guilty over the lack of a proper present for her father, so before leaving again (she had a conference to attend) Daughter offered him a small stone as well.

So it’s all good.

Spending these weeks on the top of a mountain in a country where she doesn’t speak the language (the girl can’t even pronunce the name Jorge!) brought home to her that she has now picked up a bit of French in her daily life, after all.

Whereas with my past Spanish experience I can not only say Jorge properly, but helped with the odd other thing. We had to come up with a note for the cleaner to explain that she rather wanted them to remove the towel with the dead spider inside. And preferably replace it with a clean towel. (They did.)

Speaking of clean, they do the laundry for the visiting scientists, where you complete a list of what you hand over, with quaint descriptions like ‘under drawers’ and the like. However, it might have been International Day of Women and Girls in Science last month, but up on that mountain they haven’t allowed for a commonly worn female support garment on their laundry list. We had to Google it, as I must admit to not having any memory of learning about corpiños at school.

Off the mountain

La Silla in the distance

The last thing I expected back in 1973, after the first 11th of September, was that one day one of my children would travel to Chile, to be bussed up a mountain in order to sit every night for two weeks operating a telescope. Or that to get to her telescope – one of several – she’d have to drive a car in the dark (and I do mean in the dark, as otherwise the night sky would be lit up), avoiding hitting donkeys or falling off the side.

La Silla

As someone on facebook remarked, it looked very sci-fi up there. It really did.

There were tremors and – possibly – deadly spiders. Donkeys, as I said, and some rabbity/squirrelly creatures. Humidity was a problem (if it’s too high you have to close the dome and put a little hat on the telescope, in the dark). And powercuts weren’t helpful either.

La Silla

So, that was my last few weeks, that was. (I’d say the killing of the – possibly – deadly spider with a handtowel was the highlight, as experienced from my end.)

Whereas 43 years ago I went on marches and attended support concerts, all in the company of the Chilean refugees who came to Sweden, along with our ambassador who made himself persona non grata. Those were the days. But as I said, I could not see Daughter doing the driving in the dark, or the donkeys. Well, who could?

She’s back ‘home’ now, after a three hour bus journey, 16 hours on three planes and a night’s rest in Santiago, where it’s hot. That’s summer for you.

La Silla

Invisible

‘I don’t know what you mean,’ said Swiss Lady, sounding confused. So I tried again, describing the – occasional – advantages of invisibility. Not so much when you are trying to order at the bar, but the ability to walk down the street and not be noticed, is useful. Unless a car runs you over.

I tried spelling it out, saying that when you reach that old, grey, uninteresting and unimportant stage, this can be a blessing. Pushing a toddler in a pushchair was my last encounter with ‘not really being there’ and it was all right. If necessary you can always accidentally shove the pushchair into people’s shins.

But no, Swiss Lady had never come across this phenomenon. She is older than I am, but better looking and so vivacious that invisibility has obviously not set in.

It’s not just me, though. A well known crime writer described her recent wine buying experience, where the young shop assistant stopped halfway through checking her bottles out to chat to someone equally young, but not spending money. When our author inquired if he’d prefer for her to come back later, he managed to return to the task at hand. Before leaving she told him what happened in ‘the episode in Frankie and Grace where Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda get so annoyed at being invisible in the liquor store that they steal what they want — and even then the clerk doesn’t notice them.’

Ignore us at your peril.