Tag Archives: Catherine Johnson

Race to the Frozen North

‘How does she know so much of what happened?’ I – almost – asked myself when reading Catherine Johnson’s book for Barrington Stoke about Polar explorer Matthew Henson, who was the first man to reach the North Pole in 1909.

The answer, of course, is that authors make things up, but apart from ‘knowing’ what the young Matthew might have said to his sister the night he ran away from home, the facts are facts. Catherine is telling the story of this black man who worked so hard to reach his goal, but whose success was mostly ignored for so long, because of his colour.

Catherine Johnson, Race to the Frozen North

Matthew was a good worker and clearly talented, learning several languages and acquiring many useful skills, despite his humble beginnings. It feels good to read about a man like him, and I hope that countless children will be inspired by what Matthew achieved, and will feel that they, too, can make something of themselves. Early background and colour should not stop you from trying anything.

The not surprising course of events after he reached the Pole, was that others of his expedition were rewarded, but not Matthew. Decades later, he gradually gained recognition for what he did.

This makes for very exciting reading, and the pride you feel, both when he learns new skills, and when he arrives at the North Pole, is considerable.

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Daughters of Time

I was in the middle of the story by Celia Rees in the anthology Daughters of Time, when the captain on my plane made an announcement. I looked up. ‘She’s a woman!’ I thought. I know. Stupid thought to have, but I did, and she wasn’t even my first female pilot. Then I looked at what I was reading, which was about Emily Wilding Davison, and I told myself off for my reaction. I’m ashamed of myself.

After that came Anne Rooney’s story about Amy Johnson, so there we had the second woman pilot of the afternoon. And of course, it felt completely normal, because I knew she was female, if you are able to follow my train of thought. I just hoped my plane and ‘my’ captain wasn’t going to crash as spectacularly as Amy Johnson did. Preferably not crash at all.

Daughters of Time

This collection of stories about women, and girls, from various times in the past, written by women and edited by Mary Hoffman, was published last year, so I’m rather late. I knew I’d love it, though, and I did.

Arranged in chronological order the book begins with Queen Boudica and ends with the Greenham Common women, with girls/women like Lady Jane Grey and Mary Seacole and many others in between. The list of authors reads like a who’s who in young fiction, and I’m now wanting to read more on some of these history heroines.

With my rather sketchy knowledge of some British history, I have also learned lots of new facts. I had never really grasped who Lady Jane Grey was, and now I have a much better idea.

This is the kind of collection you wish there would be regular additions to. Maybe not one every year, but I can see plenty of scope for more stories.

ABBA festival!

First they steal my idea, and then they put it into action on a day when I can’t even enjoy it. Pah.

It’s ABBA. No, not the pickled fish and not even those people who used to sing. I’m talking about the Awfully Big Blog Adventure and the festival they are running this weekend.

Yes, I know. It’s ridiculous. How can you possibly have an online book festival? Can I take pictures of my authors? Can I have my books signed? Are there even any tickets left to all these events, and how do they expect me to get around from one event to the next without a break in-between?

PhotobucketI’m busy today. Very busy. I can’t just sit there and commune with my beloved authors through a computer screen all day long. But I want to. I’ll have to make a timetable of sorts, to see if I can fit in my bestest people that way. Maybe eat with them? (Hey, do you object to crumbs and slurps?)

Just look at that programme!

ABBA festival Saturday

It sort of makes a witch want to skive off for the day. How are they going to pull it off, technically? (My idea was for a normal live kind of in person sort of festival…)

Oh well, see you tomorrow.

A post-Christmas bite

It seems as if Booktrust might be safe after all. Let’s hope so. We’ve had a lot of things being said about our wise government’s removal of the funding from Booktrust, including a piece in the Observer by Catherine Johnson. It was an unusually fast U-turn, and over Christmas, too. (Or Critmas as the Grauniad called it.)

If Booktrust are allowed to continue their good job, we just might end up with more young people like the two young ladies of Swedish blog Tonårsboken. I have mentioned them before, because they read so much and write so well about it, and when translations aren’t forthcoming, they read in English.

For their end-of-year posts they have listed favourites from 2010. A Little Love Song by Michelle Magorian was the best foreign language book.

Tonårsboken 1

And they are very impatient over the lack of translation of The Bride’s Farewell by Meg Rosoff. It appears that if Meg keeps on like this she is in danger of becoming one of their favourite authors.

Tonårsboken 2

And while I was busy taking screen caps of blogs I happened to find this

From Sara Paretsky's blog

which sort of made an old and wrinkly turnip witch blush a little. But compared to the Bag Lady and her newborn calf, I have nothing interesting to offer, so do go and have a peep at her seasonally confused calf.

Campaign for the Book (3)

Just imagine! There I was in a classroom sitting next to Linda Newbery, with Frank Cottrell Boyce and Beverley Naidoo rushing in late (and without a reservation, I believe), sitting down at what they soon named the ‘naughty table’. In fact, Frank continued looking slightly naughty throughout the session with our ‘teacher’ Bali Rai. Our workshop had the fancy name ‘The Importance of Identity and Race in Young People’s Fiction’, but Bali called it Diversity. I’d like to think that our room was so crowded, because it was the best of the workshops.

Bali Rai

I was somewhat dubiously placed, sitting right underneath a photo of the recently departed President Bush, but then Obama was there, too, and Yeltsin was nearby with Gorbachev. I’m full of admiration for Bali’s powers. When the session began it started raining fairly heavily. Before long we had a full-blown storm with thunder and lightning and rain cascading down from the gutters outside the window. Very dramatic. It ended when the workshop was over.

As so many people on Saturday said, Bali reckons he wouldn’t be where he is now without the library. Books were a precious thing for someone growing up in a one-parent family with little money. If he’d asked for pocket money he would have had to go without food instead.

Bali feels that to get ‘minorities’ to read you have to start by putting them in the books. When he talks about minorities he doesn’t just mean poor immigrants; it covers anyone who is different in some way. One of his most favourite books recently was The Curious Incident, so he and I are clearly on the same Aspie wavelength.

His local library in Oadby, Leicester, is ‘brilliant’, and seems to do all that Bali wants from a library. He tells of the father who comes in to use the computer, and whose daughter learns to look at books while her dad goes on the internet. So in effect the girl becomes a reader simply because they don’t have a computer at home. The reverse can also be the case; with library staff putting adult books near parents who bring their children in for various child sessions. It’s a case of catching people where you find them.

Libraries need to shout ‘we are here!’, so prospective users can find them.

Another thing Bali has noticed is that as soon as you have a book about a single parent, they are immediately labelled ‘issue novels’. He himself  has a book on a recommended reads list for schools, which he is pleased about, but also annoyed, as it comes under ‘reading about other cultures’, when Bali has written about life in Britain. So if it’s about people with another skin colour it automatically turns into ‘other cultures’.

He also mentions schools which shadow the Carnegie, where books on the shortlist can be too inaccessible for keen but less able readers. There needs to be alternate lists of books.

Bali’s most recent novel is a mirror image story, about a white boy who is in minority, and is bullied by a group of coloured boys. His next one is about non-white British soldiers in World War I, something that comes as a surprise to people who think that British soldiers always are white.

Publishers need to adapt and publish more ‘minority’ books or they will soon not have any readers left. And it could be a good idea for bookshops not to treat prospective customers as hooligans just because they are young, male and non-white. They might just still want to read, and even buy, a book. Or two.

Campaign for the Book (2)

Thank heavens for people like Alan Gibbons. Someone who not only thinks that things are wrong, but who does something about it. I have barely had time to take in all his emails and newsletters this winter, let alone act on them. Just imagine how busy Alan has been; writing, digging, travelling. Possibly even doing some writing for himself once in a while. Must find out.

So, after the lighter introductions, we settled down to more serious things. Question Time with the politicians, except we ‘only’ had Ed Vaizey and Richard Younger Ross, because Lyn Brown had been promoted to the Whips office during the week, and in this mad world that means she can no longer say in public what she thinks about a subject she is very interested in. A lot was said by those present, but whether any of that will ever happen is anybody’s guess. The panellists had reasonable ideas, but they would, considering the circumstances. The audience had lots of questions and ideas, and we could have gone on forever.

After lunch it was time for two wonderful talks by the librarians who have been in the centre of the storm, so to speak. Clare Broadbelt, who was made redundant when her school library was closed, spoke eloquently on what it had been like both before – when things were normal – and during the period leading up to the closure. It was a good thing to hear how many of her pupils had spoken up. They had started petitions, only to find them torn up and told they were rubbish. And the reading room that had been promised in place of the library has not materialised.

The second talk was by Cath McNally, librarian from the Wirral, where they have an awful lot of millionaires, but also a great deal of child poverty. If all librarians can speak as well and as touchingly as Cath did, then we have much to be proud of. She cried at the end, describing how ‘her’ children had recommended books back to her, which just goes to show how much influence the library has had. I wonder if the suggested small stock of books in the GP’s surgery will have quite the same effect?

Gillian Cross spoke about her use of the mobile library, both forty years ago, and now, noting the changes in needs. The difference is the internet and as she said, the old ways won’t be coming back.  Miranda McKearney from the Reading Agency and Marilyn Mottram from the UK Literacy Association spoke about their findings from experience and research. According to Marilyn there is plenty of money out there; we just need to look for it in different places. Martyn Coles, head teacher at the City of London Academy, is unusual in his love for libraries in schools, and he reckons that architects need to be pushed in the right direction by caring head teachers, if new schools are to be built with sensible libraries.

After a number of smaller workshops, the day finished with Beverley Naidoo and Frank Cottrell Boyce. Beverley spoke movingly about her own early experiences from South Africa. Post-Sharpeville Beverley learnt to look at things in new ways, and she was introduced to other types of books than those she’d been reading. She mentioned a number of books that have helped her and inspired her. She was saying how wonderful it would be if our taxes were spent on books instead of on bullets and bombs, and her vision of planes dropping books instead is a powerful one. She told a Nigerian friend about coming to this Campaign for the Book conference, and her friend was shocked that we in the UK would need a conference like this. Beverley quoted Susan Sontag,  ‘libraries are a precious treasure chest.’

Frank Cottrell Boyce told a long and funny tale about his daughter’s tin whistle ‘lessons’, which was a random way of describing how anything that is good should be taught. You share, rather than teach. He had had a recent bad school visit, which convinced him of how books should not be treated in schools. As Frank pointed out, his own father had taught him a love of football by playing it with him, not by turning it into lessons. One of Frank’s daughters who is not into reading, had been given Northanger Abbey on her iPod. Apparently Austen doesn’t work so well on shuffle, however; you just don’t know who is married to whom or for how long.

Alan Gibbons finished by saying that he is in this for the long haul. He wants more names on his petition, and he wants us all to organise many smaller local meetings like Saturday’s conference. He’d like authors to adopt an area as their own. ‘A library without a librarian is no library, but a room.’

Campaign for the Book (1)

Alan Gibbons

As I usually seem to do, I ran into Fiona Dunbar in the Ladies at the start of the proceedings of the Campaign for the Book. Since this was held in the impressive King Edward School in Birmingham, which is a boys’ school, we have to be grateful for there being facilities for us girls at all. And while in toilet mode, I may as well admit to ending the day in the Gents, where the lone male customer was showing considerable courage in the face of so many women invading.

Having spent a whole day looking into the future of libraries in schools there is a lot of stuff to tell, so let the number one in the title be a warning that I will not disclose all right now. In actual fact, having begun by not being serious, I may as well continue not being serious. I had a surprisingly easy journey, only getting a little lost cutting through Birmingham University. That is despite the great help from that super-organiser Jean Allen, librarian at KES. Beautifully visible in cerise, and with a beautifully audible voice – so many people whisper, you know – Jean masterminded a first class event. Lots of food. Good food. Things worked.

Fiona Dunbar and Catherine Johnson

I have always wanted to write the words stone mullioned windows. There! I have done it! They had them, you see. Great Hall. The school’s Chief Master (what a title!) spoke. He’s a former pupil, along with his mate Lee Child (who I distinctly remember saying a few years ago that he had had an ordinary English school background…), and he was suitably amusing before leaving in order to stop his son setting fire to their house. Or maybe that was a joke.

Theresa Breslin

It’s fascinating with events where the authors are mainly in the audience. I have only listed the ones I know and recognise, although the list provided had more people on it. (From an alibi point of view I don’t want to state that X was there, in case he wasn’t.) Was pleased to discover Theresa Breslin was on the list, and worked hard at deciding what she might look like. She was, of course, the one sitting to my left.

Celia Rees, Linda Newbery and Penny Dolan

Alan Gibbons is the driving force behind the whole campaign, so he was there. Celia Rees had a speaking role, and so did Gillian Cross. Steve Skidmore kept people in order during one discussion, and Beverley Naidoo and Frank Cottrell Boyce ended the day.

Gillian Cross

We had two sittings for lunch, and if I say that I first lunched with Theresa Breslin and later with Fiona Dunbar and Lucy Coats, you’ll wrongly assume I ate twice. I just didn’t leave when I should have, since it was so nice to finally meet Facebook friend Lucy.

Most of the 200 conference goers were librarians and others similarly occupied. And not a single Gudrun Sjödén stripe in sight. With so much on the programme I was amazed to find we finished on time. I had done a little autograph hunting during the day (my bag would have been a lot lighter with fewer books carted round), and then I finished off the day’s hunt by catching Gillian Cross and Beverley Naidoo as they were leaving.

Bernard Ashley, Lucy Coats and Fiona Dunbar

The Haggis-knee played up on the way back through the university, so some hobbling was engaged in, and I was overtaken by loads of librarians. Like the famous tortoise however, I caught the train and they didn’t. Ticket issues, I believe. Found Beverley Naidoo again at New Street station, where I was also offered a Malteser by polite young Muslim man. All in all, very nice.

(Sincere apologies for being such a very dreadful photographer.)