Tag Archives: Bali Rai

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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Lit there

Or ‘sit there!’

After a morning of walking round Oxford, waving to colleges everywhere, taking touristy photographs, refraining from buying stuff we don’t need, even when it looks so tempting – Dobby mask, anyone? – it was good to get to the litfest venue for a sit down.

At our first event with Miriam Halahmy and Bali Rai, I managed a polite negotiation on not sitting where they wanted me. When it came to the event with Sally Nicholls and Sheena Wilkinson, I ended up offering to leave. I somehow don’t feel that 20 of the best – in my opinion – seats should be reserved for latecomers.

If there is a next time, I will arrive late.

On our way ‘home’ Daughter was enticed into Blackwells where she spent lots of money on some heavy books. I know this, because I carried them, while she carried the pizzas. Safe hands, and all that.

Early check-out and changing of the clocks have ensured this brief blog post. There will be more on what people said later.

Worcester College

The easy read

Another thing I discovered at the library (see yesterday), was their section of beginners’ fiction in English.

Well, that’s what they called it. I noticed the thin books in English by, among others, Bali Rai and Kevin Brooks on the shelves on the end of one of the sections.

I didn’t recognise these books, so went closer, and realised that they were older Barrington Stoke titles. And yes, as such they are easier to read. Shorter and in a simpler language, and thereby ideal for the novice reader of English. We should have had books like that when I was at school! We got Somerset Maugham instead.

Have no idea how popular they will be, now that impatient young readers tackle Harry Potter in the original, because they can’t wait. And I get the impression that having started, many young teens go on to read a lot more in English, because they’ve realised it’s possible. That they can.

But for those who can’t, these dyslexia friendly books are just the thing.

The Harder They Fall

Bali Rai, The Harder They Fall

I’m with Bali Rai. It’s a disgrace the way people in our own country suffer hardship, with nowhere to live, or not enough food. Bali had some figures for the rise in food banks, and as he points out in the ‘about’ bit of his new book The Harder They Fall, you are not poor because you don’t work or because you are lazy. Poor people are also people, just like the rest of us.

Bali’s book for Barrington Stoke is about one such boy. Jacob and his mum need to use the local food bank, and this makes Jacob angry and he feels ashamed. This in turn means he’s unpleasant at school and often gets into trouble and is frequently expelled from the schools he has attended.

But now he meets Cal, who describes himself as a friendless geek. Someone who volunteers at the food bank, so witnesses Jacob’s shame. Along with Freya, the girl he fancies, Cal tries to befriend Jacob, but this is no easy task.

This book is about poverty, bullying, lack of trust, and about always being hungry. And it’s not your fault.

We could do with more books on how – badly – we treat our fellow human beings in this country.

Here I Stand

Here is a book you should all read. Here I Stand is an anthology for Amnesty International, where a number of our greatest authors and poets and illustrators have come together and written short pieces about the injustices in life as they see them.

Here I Stand

John Boyne writes about child abuse and Liz Kessler deals with same sex love. Both stories are hard to read, but at the same time they are uplifting and they make you think.

And it is repeated in every single contribution to this volume, whether by Jackie Kay or Jack Gantos, Sarah Crossan or Frances Hardinge. Bali Rai, Neil Gaiman and Elizabeth Laird are others who have important things to say about why life is far from right for many people in the world.

People who can be jailed or executed for the most normal behavior, or those who are simply too poor or too unfortunate in various ways. People for whom we need to continue fighting.

There is much in this book to think about. Please think about it.

UKYA Extravaganza comes to Nottingham

I couldn’t go, so I sent an author instead. Or more accurately, Helen Grant was going, and before she knew it, she had volunteered to write me a blog post about Nottingham. You know, the place famous for sheriffs, Bookwitches getting lost, and YA Extravaganzas.

Emma Pass

So, last weekend was ‘the second ever UKYA Extravaganza, held at Waterstones in Nottingham. The Sillitoe Room was packed with YA readers and bloggers who came to listen to nearly 30 authors speak about their work and the reasons they love UKYA.

Amongst the authors who took part (too many to list here!) were Sarah Benwell, Mike Revell, Lee Weatherly, Zoe Marriott, Bali Rai, Lucy Coats, Teri Terry and David Owen.

Lydia Syson and Sarah Benwell

Some had been inspired by issues dear to their hearts, some by places and events they had experienced, and in one case – Sue Ransom – by the desire to create a relatable book for her daughter. In one particularly startling moment, Rhian Ivory described how she discovered that the village she had chosen as the setting for her book The Boy Who Drew The Future turned out to be the last place in Britain to duck a witch!

Lucy Coats

The schedule was divided into seven panels, usually comprising four authors; each author had two minutes to introduce themselves and talk about their work, and then the floor was opened to questions for five minutes. The panels were interspersed with breaks to allow those attending to meet their favourite authors, buy books and choose items from the well-stocked swag table, which offered posters, postcards, bookmarks, badges and even magnets. Attendees were also sustained during the event by refreshments, including chocolate brownies and specially-made UKYA Extravaganza fairy cakes!

UKYA Extravaganza Nottingham

UKYA Extravaganza is a truly egalitarian initiative, with all participating authors given an equal voice. With so many of them taking part, an energetic chairperson was required, and this role was carried out by YA author Paula Rawsthorne, who kept things moving along with a light touch – and a very large hourglass!

The other great thing about UKYA Extravaganza is that it is regional, rather than always based in the same place. This means it genuinely brings a mix of YA authors to the readers, wherever they may be. And after all, these are YA books we are talking about, and some of those young readers may not be able to afford to travel long distances to attend events (NB, speaking for myself, some of the old ones can’t afford to, either). The first Extravaganza took place in Birmingham, and future events are planned for other UK locations ranging from north to south.

Teri Terry and Lee Weatherly

For those who are unable to attend at all, or who would like to relive the Extravaganza fun, Lisa Golding of City of YA Books filmed the authors introducing themselves and talking for a few minutes. She’ll be editing these mini interviews into a YouTube video, so that’s something to look out for!

The second UKYA Extravaganza is followed this weekend (17th October) by a UKMG Extravaganza at Nottingham Central Library. For details of this and future events, follow UKYA Extravaganza on Twitter at @UKYAX or find them on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ukyax.’

Helen and I are now holding out for more northerly Extravaganzas. I believe Newcastle has been mentioned, but I must point out there is nothing wrong with Central Scotland. Just bring it on!

(All photos by Helen Grant)

Soul Mates and an Old Dog

That’s not the title of a book, btw. I was simply thinking how great it is that I have two Barrington Stoke books here; one for girls and one for boys. I know, I shouldn’t be quite so categorical, but in this instance it does seem to me that Lee Weatherly’s Soul Mates is pretty satisfyingly girly, while Bali Rai has written an inspirational story for teenage boys in Old Dog New Tricks. What’s more, it covers the ‘immigrant’ angle too, even though Harvey is no immigrant. He just happens to look like one.

Bali Rai, Old Dog New Tricks

Harvey and his family are sikhs, and when they move into the house next door to old Mick, they soon find out how unpleasant their new neighbour can be. But they are friendly and persistent people, so try really hard to make contact with the lonely old man.

The story provides a good mix of ordinary life for people in Britain, whether sikh or white or black. As Harvey says, if Mick were to close his eyes, he wouldn’t be able to hear that Harvey is a foreigner. Because he isn’t.

I learned something new, too, that if I’m hungry or lonely, I can pop round to my nearest gurdwara for food and company. That sounds most civilised, and I hope Bali hasn’t set an avalanche rolling by introducing this sikh tradition in his book.

L A Weatherly, Soul Mates

Lee’s Soul Mates is about precisely that. Two teenagers who for years have dreamed about each other, despite never having met. They just know the other is their soul mate.

And when Iris and Nate do meet, they realise they have come face to face with their dream person. But not just their soul mate, unfortunately. Their dreams have also had a certain scary aspect to them, and they immediately feel this evil danger closing in on them.

They have to work out who or what it is, and whether they and their love can survive this threat. As I said, very nicely girly and romantic.

Barrington Stoke are on the right track, commissioning stories like these. Everybody deserves to read good stuff.