Tag Archives: Alex Wheatle

Farewell to EIBF 2019

Tom Palmer and Alex Wheatle

This may surprise you, but I occasionally wonder if I’m doing the right thing. In this case the ‘thing’ is children’s books and their authors. But the event honouring Judith Kerr this week, proved to me I was in the right place, and not even crime – the fictional kind – can hope to reach such heights, pleasant though it it.

George Street

There was such a perfect feeling of how good it can be, and I suspect that this is hard to achieve away from children’s books.

And chatting to Chris Close about Judith, I was pleased to find that he too had special memories of her. I was also a little surprised to discover that while he couldn’t instantly recall Daniel Hahn’s name when he walked past, he knows perfectly well what t-shirt Daniel wore in 2010. As you do.

What I was really wanting was to talk to Chris about his photo of Sheila Kanani [in Space], and I like the way he remembers virtually all the people he has shot in his spot in Yurt Gardens. Apparently most of Space this time was made up of St Abb’s Head, which I suppose is the photographer’s ‘bottle of washing up liquid’ in using whatever comes to hand.

Sheila Kanani by Chris Close

When it doesn’t rain, the new style Yurt Gardens is a good place to hang, as proven by the gang of crime writers just round the corner from my sandwich spot. There’s ducks, Chris, and the passing through of many people, who either are very famous, or carrying trays of food. All are important. (Though no ‘Kevin Costner’ this year…)

Ian Rankin and Phill Jupitus

What’s always good in the festival’s second week are all the school children. They have come for the same thing as I have, and often getting the most exciting events combos. I even spied a few teens wearing the authorial blue lanyards the other day. Made me green with envy, that did.

It’s not only old age and feebleness that determines when I attend. Trains have a lot to do with it. They were better this year; partly to do with the new electric rolling stock (pardon me for getting nerdy), and partly because I tried to avoid the worst hours of the day. But when the doors refused to open as we got to Haymarket one day, I learned from the guard that it’s all down to computers now. I wish I didn’t know that!

Elizabeth Acevedo and Dean Atta

We mentioned teeth in connection with Mog’s nightmares. I haven’t been able to ignore the fact that so many authors also have teeth. Well, I suppose most people do, but I am always struck by the wide smiles, full of perfect teeth. And not just the Americans, either. I’ll be spending this winter practising smiling in front of the mirror, but am not hopeful.

Here’s to EIBF 2020, when we will see more clearly?

Jim Al-Khalili

(Most photos by Helen Giles)

Cracking the Reading Code

You can’t hear enough about getting children – or even old people – to read, especially if they have extra obstacles to deal with. Well, I can’t, anyway. And I’d already heard the background stories of Tom Palmer, Sally Gardner and Alex Wheatle, but they can do with being repeated. Often. Until everyone who wants to can read.

Sally Gardner, Tom Palmer and Alex Wheatle

The three guests were ably interviewed by Mairi Kidd in Tuesday’s event hosted by Barrington Stoke, where she used to work. She knows about this business of dyslexia friendly books. And so do the three; with Tom probably having written the most books for Barrington Stoke, Sally being the most dyslexic while still writing the the most wonderful stories, and Alex for knowing what his readers know.

Tom Palmer

I do like the sound of Tom’s mother, getting him to read by giving him books and articles on football. And then he went to night school where he was supposed to read Shakespeare and Chaucer! It wasn’t until a tutor introduced him to poetry about Leeds United (!), and took students out to the actual ‘Wuthering Heights’ that Tom felt he could get on with this reading.

Sally Gardner

Not sure I like the sound of Sally’s school for maladjusted children (whose fault is it if children are maladjusted?), but at 14 when she tried reading Wuthering Heights for the second time and she suddenly was ‘in the f***ing book,’ things changed for her. As Sally said, you can be good at something and it needn’t be only academic for it to matter. We need ‘diversity in the brain.’

And Alex, who did read a bit as a child, from Huckleberry Finn and Ivanhoe to sports books, finally discovered books in jail at the age of 18. His cellmate, and mentor, gave him The Black Jacobins to read, as he ‘wouldn’t have anything better to do in there.’

Alex Wheatle

Asked to read to us, Alex again chose the bit from Kerb Stain Boys about being in detention, and this time it was Sally who asked if he reads his own audio books. And after Sally had treated us to a dyslexic pirate in Mr Tiger, Betsy and the Sea Dragon, Alex returned the compliment. Sally does have a great voice. Last but not least, Tom read from Armistice Runner, which is close to his heart, featuring both running and fells, and it still makes me cry.

Mairi asked the three about graphic novels; if they make reading easier. Sally mentioned Shaun Tan, and the ‘most genius book ever,’ which has no words at all. Both Alex and Tom were fans of Shoot Magazine, but understandably Sally’s not. Talking about Tom’s novel Scrum, and the revelation it brought a young boy at a school; ‘Miss, I can read this!’

Sally gets angry when people say to those who have listened to an unabridged novel as an audio book, that they ‘haven’t really read it.’ This is snobbery. She suggested to someone in the audience that if they can get a certificate from their GP that their child is dyslexic, then they have the right to access audio books for the blind and partially sighted.

The last question of the evening was not a question but a thank you, from a teacher who uses these books in her school. And it seems that Scotland might be better in this instance, not having reading rules, which means that teachers can let the children read anything, even if it’s not from the right part of a reading scheme. (This brings back dreadful memories of Son being forced to read ‘backwards’ so as not to rock the boat of equality.)

We then gathered in the bookshop where people were so keen to continue talking about this important subject, that poor Tom was unable to sit down at the signing table for quite some time.

This is what we like.

Tough Teens

As Daniel Hahn and I agreed afterwards, we had forgotten the event a couple of Augusts ago, which he had chaired and where Anthony McGowan turned himself into the bad voice re YA. But we remembered the night fondly, because last night’s event with Tony and Alex Wheatle was also a really good one.

Tough Teens, it was called. Chaired by Mairi Kidd – who had ‘mothered’ Tony’s fictional boys into being – this was a great conversation. In fact, it’s one of very few where the authors involved got so caught up that they talked to each other, in earnest, about writing, [almost] forgetting the chair and the audience.

Yes, the audience. It wasn’t the biggest I’ve known, but it was Monday night when the schools had just gone back. But it was the right audience. It was nearly all teenagers, mostly boys, with a few token adults like me and Daniel, and Kwame Alexander. This is how it should be.

Alex Wheatle and Anthony McGowan

So, the talk was right, and the audience was right. The questions were great, and far better for me staying out of things (someone had wanted me to ask the first question…).

And jail, well, it can turn a man into a reader, and then into an author. The young Alex met his ‘mentor’ in a jail cell; someone who told him he’d nothing better to do in there so he might as well read. And now with his personal experience of living in care, Alex has written a book about a girl in care. He had to force his own daughter to tell him what girls talk about, to get it right. He was a bit shocked at what he discovered.

Tony, on the other hand, returned to Sherburn in Elmet outside Leeds, where he grew up, to write about two brothers in the four-book Brock trilogy. It’s a place for boredom, and with a bacon factory. Not as exciting as London.

Alex’s fictional Crongton can be London, but it could also be almost anywhere else. He knows about detentions, and remembering how he wanted to impress a girl he met there, it all went into Kerb Stain Boys. His reading from the book revealed a lot about his made up slang and accents.

When it was Tony’s turn to read, I thought he was trying to get out of it, but a member of the audience lent him her reading glasses, so all was fine. He needs to pace around when he reads, and we all enjoyed the story about swimming across the ‘bacon pond’ in the nude.

Winning awards is nice, and it opens doors. But, they feel shortchanged by the media. Asked if they get fan mail, it seems that teens are too cool to write; it’s mostly younger ones who do. Mental health is a big thing in their books, as is life for young carers.

They recognise their own teen years when they do school visits, but reckon mobile phones have changed how pressured children are today. Tony remembers everything from his teens, but not what he did last week. Alex is the hopeful guy who wants to date the beautiful girl, who already has a more exciting boyfriend.

Anthony McGowan

And on that happy note we all congregated in the bookshop. Well, Tony got there a little late, but he got there. Kwame chatted to Alex and got a book signed. Even I remembered after a bit that I had books that wanted signing. (I’m the one without an ‘e’ at the end, btw.) Tony discussed tonality with a fan, and did his best to sign in Chinese.

Alex Wheatle and Kwame Alexander

As I said earlier, it’s great when authors simply get on with it and talk about writing. It’s also great when their peers come to the event, along with the appropriate age readers.

We want more of this.

A somewhat abridged day in Charlotte Square

The decorator was coming to Bookwitch Towers. So I cancelled my first Monday events. The decorator did not come. My rather shortened day in Edinburgh ended up being just the one event, with Alex Wheatle and Anthony McGowan. Plus a photocall with the First Minister and Arundhati Roy.

Waiting

You can [almost] see the excitement amongst the assembled photographers as they wait. And wait. And wait a bit more. I’d been about to get out my cheese sandwich when I woke up to the fact that they all seemed to be waiting and I thought Nicola Sturgeon and Arundhati might be early. After ten years I ought to know that there was plenty of time for Brie and bread, as well as trips to the Ladies’. But it’s all good.

Nicola Sturgeon and Arundhati Roy

Although I did cause a major jinx in the process, and I really must learn not to use my powers in this way.

Alex Wheatle

Finally met Alex Wheatle after discovering him in the middle of ‘Yurt Gardens.’ Had already shaken hands with and been air-kissed [twice] by his events partner Tony McGowan. Chatted to Sarah Broadley as her charges were given the Chris Close treatment.

And hopefully Candy Gourlay and Michelle Paver experienced good events even without me in the audience. I’m sure it must be possible.

Towards the end of my event, I could hear loud applause and other happy noises, which I assume came from the Main Theatre where the First Minister and Arundhati would have come to the end of their conversation..

Kerb Stain Boys

If this wasn’t so real, it would be a lot more funny.

In Alex Wheatle’s new book for Barrington Stoke, we’re back in Crongton – his fictional part of London, where black young boys are not necessarily going towards a fantastic future.

Alex Wheatle, Kerb Stain Boys

Briggy and Terror come up with this really terrific idea to impress a girl, and to get some cash. They are going to rob a post office. Except, it’s not a great idea at all, and it was Terror’s plan and Briggy is worried about pulling out.

While learning what their lives at home and at school are like, and realising their dreams are pretty normal, you still know that robbing any post office, let alone one close to where you live, is not going to end well.

Boys will be boys, so ditching the plan isn’t likely. Besides, if the author stopped them from doing this silly thing, there would be no story. But if they do rob the post office, the boys don’t have much of a future.

I didn’t see the end coming. Can’t say more than that. Let’s hope the readers can work out they should not copy Terror and Briggy; not for any girl in the world. Especially a world in which a black boy carrying even a plastic toy weapon is a potentially lethal situation. This is something we tend to forget, if we have a different colour skin.

The 2016 best

Yes, there were good books, even in a year like 2016. Let’s not lose [all] hope, shall we? In fact, after careful consideration, there were more serious contenders than I could allow through to the final round. Sorry about that.

During 2016 I seem to have read and reviewed 154 books. Before you gasp with admiration, I should mention that 40 of those were picture books.

2016 books

And here, without me even peeping at other best of lists, are my favourites, in alphabetical order:

Beck, by Mal Peet and Meg Rosoff

Broken Sky + Darkness Follows, by L A Weatherly

Crongton Knights, by Alex Wheatle

Five Hundred Miles, by Kevin Brooks

Front Lines, by Michael Grant

Knights of the Borrowed Dark, by Dave Rudden

More of Me, by Kathryn Evans

The White Fox, by Jackie Morris

I believe it’s a good list, and I’m glad that two of the books are dyslexia friendly; one at either end of the age spectrum.

And, you are human after all, so you want to know who just missed this list. I’m human enough to want to mention them. They were Hilary McKay, J K Rowling, Malcolm McNeill, G R Gemin, Jonathan Stroud, Kate DiCamillo and Philip Caveney.

Two dozen more on my longlist, and we mustn’t forget; if a book has been reviewed on Bookwitch at all, it has passed quite a few quality tests. So there. You’re all winners. But some are more winners than others.

I love you.

Crongton Knights

Gritty always scares me, and I’m never a fan of diving in to read the second book about a group of characters, and in the case of Alex Wheatle, whose award winning novel Crongton Knights is the subject of this review, I’d never heard of him until this summer. I felt left out.

But a Bookwitch can face all of the above if necessary, and I am so glad I did. Crongton Knights is a masterpiece. I’m not in the slightest surprised Alex won the Guardian Children’s Fiction prize for this book. And it may be the second book set in South Crongton, but it’s easy to jump right in and you will get it. You don’t actually need to know about Liccle Bit from the book by the same name, as this one is about Bit’s friend McKay, and Bit plays only a, well, Bit part…

And what a great pleasure to find a slightly chubby hero who likes to cook. A black chubby hero, living on a council estate, in a book featuring gangs and riots, which nevertheless ends with a few recipes for some of the food McKay enjoys.

Alex Wheatle, Crongton Knights

Bit is in love with V, and she needs help. Bit gets McKay and Jonah to assist him, and Saira, the girl they both fancy, comes along as does someone who is the odd one out, the boy no one wants for a friend. They are only fourteen years old, so are bound to get things wrong, and they do. But what matters is friendship and carrying through your promises.

This is a funny story, and a sad one. They have known grief in their short lives and there is plenty of violence on an everyday basis. Money is short. Parents are unemployed. Outsiders are viewed with deep suspicion. McKay’s brother is up to something, but McKay is always kept in the dark.

I loved this!

Treasure your library

It’s not new, this idea of saving libraries. People are working hard to prevent closures, or this idea of ‘merely’ giving the school librarian the sack, leaving the books to look after themselves. Lots of authors, and others, were out marching a couple of weeks ago in London. I wish I could have been there.

And then there was this open letter during the week from Chris Riddell and Malorie Blackman and all the other former laureates, to save our libraries. I don’t feel that this should even have to be on the to-do list for children’s laureates, past or present. The threat should not be there.

Yesterday I mentioned the effect of libraries on a couple of authors, one of whom won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize this week. Alex Wheatle’s obvious joy on winning, and his totally unrehearsed speech on how the library [in Brixton] made him who he is, was very moving.

Whether we blame national government who really could shift spending money from weapons to libraries, or the local councils who are financially squeezed everywhere and ‘must’ save, is a matter of opinion.

Halmstad Library

Melvin Burgess BH library

But it shouldn’t be like in my former home town in Sweden, which has a lovely, newly built library, where clearly no expense was spared, which now has problems with vandalism. Mindless teen gangs come in – maybe because they are bored – and they are rowdy and they break things [toilets, for instance] and generally disturb the users of the library, forcing staff to call in security.

It seems they are now trying ‘youth leaders’ and they will hopefully have a positive effect. Or, they could try putting books by Melvin Burgess [see yesterday’s post] in their hands and making them read.

Let’s hope it’s not too late. I don’t have much hope, but let’s hope anyway.

The effect of jail, and stealing a book

Or how good comes from bad.

Very pleased for Alex Wheatle who won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize last night, with his book Crongton Knights. Congratulations!

I know very little about Alex, who’s not been on my horizon long. But I like the sound of him. The one fact that seems to stand out when people write about him, is that Alex discovered books and reading while in jail over thirty years ago. So something good resulted from a fairly negative event; both the starting to read, and eventually writing books himself. And I believe there’s an MBE in Alex’s past as well.

Another vaguely criminal background story was given some attention this week when Chris Riddell illustrated a story by Jenn Ashworth about how she discovered YA books in her library as a child. In her case it was finding Melvin Burgess’s Baby and Fly Pie and reading it in one morning in the library, before stealing it.

Chris Riddell and Jenn Ashworth 1

Chris Riddell and Jenn Ashworth 2

Chris Riddell and Jenn Ashworth 3

Yes, that’s not to be recommended, but to find yourself in a book to such an extent, and to be guided by this new reading experience into becoming an author feels right.

Sometimes bad leads to good.

(And I seem to have done my normal thing and borrowed very freely from Chris. And I can’t claim never to have taken something that wasn’t mine.)

Life-changing longlists

Immediately on reading through the Guardian’s longlist for its children’s fiction prize, I felt grumpy.

Yes, as people said on social media, it’s a really good list. They would say that, of course, and you noticed that I did too. That’s with only having read two of the longlisted novels; Malorie Blackman’s and Tanya Landman’s. And they are award material.

But I liked the description of most of the other books. And I did come across one of them at Yay!YA+ in April, where I heard Martin Stewart read the first chapter of Riverkeep about three or four times. It wasn’t out yet, at that time, and whereas it was available to buy early that day, you know me; I don’t buy books. And Penguin haven’t offered it to me. If I was Martin I’d want my first book to be mentioned to people.

Perhaps some of the other books are also only just out in the shops. That was certainly the case with my life-changing book, How I Live Now, in 2004. I read about it on the longlist, and then found I couldn’t buy it just yet, so had to wait. That turned out quite well for both me and Meg Rosoff.

Brian Selznick seems to have another book out, which is promising. Then there are two authors – Alex Wheatle and Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock – whom I have only heard of because they are in the Edinburgh programme this summer. The remaining two are completely unknown to me, and one of them has a book with a cover so tempting it’s all I can do to stay calm. That’s G R Gemin with Sweet Pizza, along with Zana Fraillon who’s written about refugees, which I also like the look of.

G R Gemin, Sweet Pizza

Hopefully one or two of these will find their way to me, and hopefully they will inspire me, and lead to great things for the authors. Just like in 2004. And hopefully I’m grumping now because no one has done publicity yet, and it’s all to come…