Tag Archives: Elizabeth Wein

Freedom to Read, Freedom to Write

Some events simply want to go on for longer. Or, failing that, to come back and continue. The SCBWI discussion on freedom to read and to write, with Lari Don, Candy Gourlay and Elizabeth Wein, was one such event. There was so much to talk about, and with three women with lots to say, an hour was not enough.

But that’s my only complaint! Very ably chaired by Elizabeth Frattaroli and Justin Davies, we all enjoyed it from beginning to end.

Despite feeling I know these three authors well, I had not stopped to consider what very different reading backgrounds they have, growing up in three countries well apart from each other.

Candy Gourlay

Candy grew up in Manila where she did have access to a school library, but there were no public libraries at all in the Philippines. She began alphabetically, but got stuck on B for Blyton, fascinated by the different world discovered in those books. But she never found any brown children in them, and deduced that maybe Filipinos weren’t allowed in books. There was one, The Five Chinese Brothers, which as an adult she has discovered to be very racist.

Elizabeth Wein

American Elizabeth spent her childhood in Jamaica, and therefore did have access to books about children of all colours. Her father recommended what to read, and she felt she had a good selection of books. Her favourite is A Little Princess, and her dream was to live in a cold climate. (I would say that Scotland is a dream come true.)

Lari Don

Lari was ‘not exotic’ at all, she said, growing up in Dufftown. And while her family and relatives lived in houses full of books, there were no Scottish books. She read Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, Narnia. Her favourite was Power of Three by Diana Wynne Jones. There weren’t YA books in those days, and most of the books Lari read were about boys. Not about girls, and not set in Scotland.

Candy described coming to Britain, with all its wonderful libraries. And now they are being closed!! There were no publishers in the Philippines back then, but today there is a vibrant publishing scene. And there are some libraries. Her own problem is with rights, as US publishing rights include the Philippines, which makes the books too expensive. She has to negotiate a deal to make her own books affordable in her own country.

Reading from her new book, Bone Talk, Candy did so on her mobile phone. (She apologised.) After listening to her read the wild boar incident, I want to listen to Candy reading the whole book. It became something completely different when she read it.

Lari likes mixing different cultural ideas in her writing, but she’s now wary of cultural appropriation, and no longer feels sure she’s allowed to write about culture belonging to others, and definitely feels you can’t touch Maori or Aboriginal stories. You have to be sensitive.

Elizabeth spoke about the freedom she felt writing for Barrington Stoke. It’s not harder. You just write short, like a novella, and then there is the editing, which helps make these dyslexia friendly books easy to read. So for instance, in Firebird, they chose another spelling of Tsar – Czar – because the first one is easily confused with star. And even if you’re not dyslexic, short is always good.

For freedom to read, Lari suggested letting children choose what to read, or even not to read. It’s interesting to see how all three authors had so many thoughts and ideas on all this that they – almost – fought to speak.

When it was Elizabeth’s turn to read she chose three, very short pieces. First there was freedom in Code Name Verity, then some lines from her favourite Ursula le Guin, and finally the freedom on what to do with your hair and make-up in Firebird.

As for their own freedom, now that they are successful authors, there is a lot less of it. Elizabeth believes in discipline, being interested in what you write and to start small. Candy uses a forest app on her phone, where during 20 minutes a tree grows, and she is unable to access the phone for anything else. So she writes. And she doesn’t do homework for fans who write to her.

Lari loses herself in her own world. She then read to us the first bit from her Spellcheckers series, where Molly becomes a rabbit. Lari feels the best thing about being an author is to meet her characters. Elizabeth enjoys meeting readers and other writers, while Candy finds no one has heard of her…

There was barely time for questions from the audience, but they were all able to ask lots of questions during the book signing afterwards. It took time, but everyone left satisfied, and before the next event was ready to move in.

The bookfest should ask these authors back to continue where they left off.

Elizabeth Wein, Candy Gourlay and Lari Don

(Photos Helen Giles)

A second Saturday of EIBF 2018

Our second book festival Saturday was mostly spent chatting to author friends we’d made earlier. And that’s a very nice thing; this meeting up with people who’ve all come to the same place. It’s also a rather bad pun to indicate that the first event yesterday morning was chaired by Janet Ellis. I got slightly more excited by this than my Photographer, until I did my maths and realised she’s too young for Janet’s time on Blue Peter. But us oldies enjoyed the BP-ness of it.

Kit de Waal

We had to get out of bed really early to get to Edinburgh to hear Jo Nadin and Kit de Waal talking to Janet. But thank goodness it was in the Spiegeltent, where you can buy tea and cake to revive yourself. I reckon we survived until well past lunch on those calories. It was so early when we got to the gates that the gates were actually not open, so we joined the queue, where we were discovered by SCBWI’s Sarah Broadley. My eyes were not open enough to see anyone at all just then. (That’s Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, in case you were wondering. It is, even if you weren’t.)

Jo Nadin

Once my eyes had opened a little more, I saw Alex Nye arriving for her event chairing A L Kennedy. And when we were back by the yurts after the first event, we watched A L being given the Chris Close treatment, although I think she might actually have given Chris the A L Kennedy treatment. She had her own ideas of what to do, like covering her face with a mask.

Jo Nadin and Kit de Waal

We also hung in the signing tent while Jo and Kit did their thing, meeting young miss Nadin for the first time, and after that they were ushered out to the photocall area, which brought back fond memories for Jo. And us.

Sent the Photographer over to catch perennial weekend morning favourite Andy Stanton and his long signing queue. It’s nice with traditions.

Andy Stanton

While getting ready to cross to George Street, we spied Barry Hutchison coming away from his morning event, and I could have sworn that was Chae Strathie who turned up as well. Barry came over for a hug. Two hugs, really, but that was before my Photographer mentioned the squirrels. We were treated to an impromptu show about a banana drink and a piece of popcorn in the wrong place (Barry’s throat; the wrong part of it) before he was called on to drive his family home.

Lari Don

There was a queue for the SCBWI event with Lari Don, Candy Gourlay and Elizabeth Wein, but it was all right. We got in and we got seats.

Candy Gourlay

Elizabeth Wein

Afterwards we hung in the George Street signing tent talking to the various SCBWI members and waiting for Candy to be free to socialise. Even Mr Gourlay turned up for a moment before deciding it was hopeless and walked off again. When the wait was over and Candy had promised not to talk to anyone else – hah! – we went for tea in the yurt, where we had such a good time that we forgot that Candy was going to be photographed by Chris Close, and she had to be extricated to high-five herself and to smile at the unlikeliest props. (At least she didn’t get the head with the black and white-chequered cloth covering!)

Candy Gourlay

Finally met Barbara Henderson in person, a split second after I worked out that’s who she was, and mere hours after talking about her book at home. Chatted to a charming **illustrator, whose name I forgot immediately, and her charming son, who will go far. Caught a glimpse of Donna Moore and then Photographer and I disagreed on whether we saw Jenny Brown or not. But it was definitely Yanis Varoufakis outside.

When there were more SCBWIs round the tea table than you could shake a stick at*, we decided we needed to run for the train we had picked as reasonably safe from too many Runrig fans heading to Stirling. Seems most of the 20 000 or so had not chosen our train. Just as well.

*There is obviously no such thing. I have plenty of sticks.

** Hannah Sanguinetti!!

(Photos Helen Giles)

Firebird

My interest in the female Russian pilots from WWII has finally been met. Well, I’d happily read more, but Elizabeth Wein’s dyslexia friendly novel Firebird goes some way to satisfying me. It’s a start.

Elizabeth Wein, Firebird

I knew the British and American female pilots had a tough war, even without fighting. But the young Soviet girls who flew planes had a completely different war. More was asked of them, and then it seems Comrade Stalin had the bright idea to suggest that if they ended up behind enemy lines and survived, they’d be shot for treason when they got back home.

The mind boggles.

Anastasia in Firebird has flown for as long as she can remember, and it makes sense to volunteer on the day her country joins the war. But even though she flies well, they make her stay on as a flying instructor to begin with, rather than join her male friends.

That would have been a different story, whereas this one, where Anastasia and many others form a women’s unit of pilots is infinitely better. I’d read about them, and after this taster, I’d like to read more.

It was a cruel war for everyone, but I’m fairly sure the Russians had it worse (unless it was the Germans who froze as much on their side of the line), and there was never much in the way of good news.

They were skilled, and they were brave.

The ones I enjoyed the most

It suddenly struck me that perhaps it’s unwise to say anything about best books. Because this time of year I usually list the ones I liked the most, which isn’t the same thing.

And by the time December rolls round I often despair. Yes, I remember that marvellous book I read recently. This year that was La Belle Sauvage. Because it was recent. Longer ago and my memory blacks out, in much the same way as when someone asks what I did at the weekend…

No need to worry though. Out of the 137 books (2017 wasn’t the best year for finding reading time), the twelve that emerged more victorious than the rest, were closely followed by quite a few other excellent contenders.

Best of 2017

I’ve not picked a best of all, nor am I doing the alphabetical order.

Elizabeth Wein, The Pearl Thief

Sally Gardner, My Side of the Diamond

LA Weatherly, Black Moon

Joan Lennon, Walking Mountain

Michael Grant, Silver Stars

Joanna Nadin, The Incredible Billy Wild

Anthony McGowan, Rook

Phil Earle, Mind the Gap

Jakob Wegelius, The Murderer’s Ape

Hilary McKay’s Fairy Tales

Patrick Ness, Release

Philip Pullman, La Belle Sauvage

And as you can see, the 2017 colour for book covers is primarily black with some blue and teal. Rather like last year, in fact. I appear to have picked six women and six men, which feels nice and equal.

There is only one translated book, but there are two dyslexia friendly books, plus one prequel, one equel, one end of a trilogy and one middle of a trilogy. And two Scottish books. All good.

Books like these are what makes it all worth it.

Barefoot among the prawns

Halmstad Library

Earlier this year I just missed the opening of the refurbished children’s department at Halmstad Library, and I promised myself I’d go along and have a look later. This I’ve now done. I wasn’t sure at first if it’d be a noticeable change, or just some new paint here and there.

Halmstad Library

It was much more than that, and really quite attractive. They have money to spend in Sweden, and children and books do well. There is a tiny carpeted bridge for small feet to run across. And back. And back again.

Halmstad Library

In fact there are several carpeted areas for small children to crawl on all fours in. And bigger children to just enjoy lazing around in. You have to take your shoes off, and there are signs that make this quite clear and there are pigeon holes to put the shoes in.

They have a small kitchen style room to the side, called a workshop, where parents and young children sit round a kitchen table, doing stuff. I wish I could have taken Offspring somewhere like that, back when.

Halmstad Library

There is an astronomy area, with space-y carpet. And there are tables at which you can play Ludo and similar. I was gratified to discover a prominently displayed copy of Kodnamn Verity, that well-known book by Elizabeth Wein, my second favourite, ever.

Halmstad Library

That was in translation, but should you need fiction in English, there are many shelf metres of the stuff. More than in some English language libraries.

Halmstad Library

Further along there are still the comfy lime-green armchairs for adults and plenty of desks for people to plonk their laptops down and work. That is if they are able to with such a good view of the river outside.

Halmstad Library

And when you’ve had enough carpet and wifi you can eat a fresh prawn sandwich in the adjacent café. By that I mean freshly shelled prawns, and even I was surprised to find this kind of quality in a library. Plentiful prawns too.

But if you’re tempted to think this is unadulterated paradise, it isn’t. I lost my balance a little, standing next to the carpeted moon surface and put one little shoe-clad foot over the edge of the carpet. Luckily for the safety of any child, the librarian wasn’t too busy to notice and she was able to come and tell me off straightaway.

On occasion I feel that Swedes need to consider public relations and kindness, and not merely the cleanliness of carpets or style to die for.

Launching The Pearl Thief

Elizabeth Wein was clutching a bunch of flowers when I found her just inside the doors of the Perth Museum last night. (I hadn’t thought to get her anything…) She introduced me to a fellow American, whose name I immediately forgot. Sorry.

I said hello to Elizabeth’s publicist Lizz, and it is so nice to find that London-based people occasionally venture this far north. I mean, Perth is practically the North Pole. I stepped outside again to fortify myself with a sandwich, where Alex Nye found me. She had also braved the travel situation, but had to drive (trains stopped at her station going north but not south, which is no way to get home), unlike me who had the luxury of the London train. Very nicely timed.

Gavin Lindsay, Jess Smith and Elizabeth Wein

After bagging a seat on the back row, I was greeted by ‘Mr Wein’ who was doing his utmost not to pass on his cold. And five minutes past the starting time the museum’s lecture theatre was just about full.

Elizabeth was joined by Jess Smith, another local author with a traveller background, who’d been an early reader of The Pearl Thief. They were kept in order by Gavin Lindsay of the Perth and Kinross Heritage Trust. We were treated to the first chapter in Elizabeth’s book, and she apologised for not being able to read with a Scottish accent. (That’s OK.) Then Jess read a long poem called Scotia’s Bairns, accompanied by a slideshow of old travellers, showing how they lived. She described it as a fading culture, that has to be grabbed before it disappears.

Elizabeth Wein

Elizabeth made her heroine Julie posh, so she could be educated and well-read in the 1930s. The reason the travellers are in the story is due to her PhD in folklore, having been introduced to them by her professor, and Jess was there to see to it that she described them properly. ‘Casting’ a pair of traveller siblings balanced Julie and her brother Jamie. Jess said she ‘lived’ in the story, but both she and the editors demanded more action. And apparently the villain was the wrong one.

Jess Smith

Jess spoke of writing her first book, about her life growing up in the travelling community, explaining how she could deal with the bullies. She just learned to run fast. She hopes that young people will read her books, and she spoke fondly of her mother. Both writers agreed there is a lot of freedom in fiction.

Gavin Lindsay, Jess Smith and Elizabeth Wein

‘A homecoming’ is how Elizabeth described The Pearl Thief. It’s the first book set where she lives. Lara, the librarian from Innerpeffray Library, was in the audience, and I wasn’t the only one to have visualised her as the librarian in the book. Asked when Elizabeth knew she wanted the library in her story, she said she’d always known it was a part of it.

The reason Elizabeth wanted to return to writing about Julie was that her voice is so easy, although in this book she needed to adapt because Julie is younger. And the back story had to be expanded, as Elizabeth only had a name for one of Julie’s five brothers. She doesn’t know whether it’s best to read The Pearl Thief before or after Code Name Verity, but said that the experience would be different, whichever of the books came second.

Jess had a cousin in the audience who’s read all her books and loves them, and Jess suggested she would like Elizabeth’s book as well, and that she’s not getting paid to say so.

Logboat

Before finishing Gavin Lindsay mentioned the museum’s archeology programme for 2017, which includes the logboat that features in The Pearl Thief. And as long as we didn’t bring drinks in, we were allowed to have a look at the boat, which was much larger than I had imagined. It was surrounded by notices not to touch, and I was overcome by this dreadful urge to disobey, but didn’t…

Elizabeth Wein and Jess Smith

People bought books, had books signed, had more to eat and drink, and chatted. I explained my conundrum to Elizabeth that I didn’t know which of my copies of The Pearl Thief I would like to have signed, so in the end I’d brought both. Yes, I know it’s greedy, but this is the prequel to the second best book in the world. A bit of greed is fine.

I helped myself to one of the free maps of Perth, having got there totally mapless (someone had left the printer without toner), and set off on the walk back to the station. Halfway there I was asked to rescue my new American friend, who felt a bit lost. I could do this, but I’m warning you; don’t ask if you actually want to catch your train. She had so much spare time that we talked about books and reading and she very nearly didn’t make it and had to run. Which was entirely my fault.

But it is good to meet other book fans.

After this I discovered that one route to my platform involved getting the lift up to a glass-fenced bridge over the station. Aarrgghhh.

Reader, I did it!

And the evening also solved a little problem I’d had. So it’s all good.

Perth Museum

The Pearl Thief

Reading the prequel to the second best book of all time can be nerve-wracking. But for those of you who have also read Code Name Verity, you know why it has to be a prequel, and you will bless the opportunity to see more of Lady Julia Lindsay MacKenzie Wallace Beaufort-Stuart. Or Julie, if you don’t want to be too formal.

And you don’t, because Julie is fun and brave and outspoken, even at [barely] sixteen. The first chapter had me slightly confused while I worked on working out what kind of story this was going to be. It’s 1938 and no WWII yet, and Julie has just escaped early from school. That’s boarding school in Switzerland; not one just round the corner from her Scottish home.

Elizabeth Wein, The Pearl Thief

This is a romantic crime novel, featuring a girl who might have read too much Harriet Vane, and which is very much in the vein of Mary Stewart. It’s wonderful.

The danger of returning home early and unannounced is what might happen if something happens. As the title suggests, there is a pearl thief around, somewhere close to where Julie and her mother and grandmother are sorting out her late grandfather’s estate. Everyone else thinks it was the travellers. But the Stuarts know this is most unlikely, and Julie tries to find out what happened.

Her brother Jamie shows up (I love Jamie!) and there is much scope for romantic entanglements of various kinds. But who can you trust? I quite like the unreal Davie Balfour.

We learn a lot about Scottish Earls and Scottish pearls. We learn more about Julie’s mother and grandmother; both of whom we met in Code Name Verity. The international/French aspect of who they are is better explained.

Much of this adventure takes place at a thinly disguised Innerpeffray Library, making it all the more interesting for me.

And there is much kissing.

And kilts.

Where are the girls?

Well, mostly not in yesterday’s book, Kid Got Shot. It’s a pretty male book, and apart from Garvie’s mum and his teachers, the female part is played by the gorgeous Polish girl everyone – including Garvie – falls for.

As I believe I tried to suggest when telling you about Mother-of-witch last month, I was brought up in such a way that I never felt women were worth less or that you have to constantly count the sexes and make sure they are balanced.

Am I weird? No, don’t answer that!

I happily read about musketeers and anybody else offered in the books I came across. Thinking back, I wonder if I found it hard to identify with girls in books when they were not the kind of girl I was, and then I felt that if I’m not going to be like them, I might as well read about male characters. In the end it didn’t matter as long as it was a great story.

But I recognise that not all girl readers have such belief in themselves, and they do need to see more female characters in books. In its article Balancing the bookshelves, the Guardian wrote about the need for more girls. It is not wrong, but I didn’t absolutely agree either.

When I think of the ‘new age’ of reading that to my mind began with Harry Potter and His Dark Materials, I don’t think of the sexes or any balancing. Yes, Lyra is a girl and a strong one, too. But her daemon is a boy. Harry is a boy who hangs out with best friends Hermione and Ron, making up that traditional fictional trio of two boys and one girl. The Famous Five are two of each, if you don’t count Timmy the dog, and you forget about George being George.

I’ve not really stopped to check whether there are more boy characters because more men write books. When it comes to children’s or YA I believe, without having counted, that there are more female authors. And many of them write about boys. I see no reason why they shouldn’t.

Looking at my three favourite books, we have [primarily] one girl, two girls, and then a boy. All three authors are women. But while Meg Rosoff has Daisy in How I Live Now, she has also written some wonderful male main characters. I don’t feel that is wrong. In fact, I assume the stories demanded it. Can male writers manage good female characters? Yes, they can. Look at Marcus Sedgwick’s girls! I’m guessing his books needed females.

I think it’s too easy to get worked up about the sex of a character. What we need is a society where all are equally valued, albeit not all identical. But obviously, if reading about a particular person in a book turns into a life-changing experience for a young reader, then I’m all for it.

YA? Or actually for old, proper adults?

When I read the two books by Michael Grant recently, Silver Stars and his WBD book Dead of Night, I thought – again – about what makes them YA. Why not just plain adult? After all, they are about adults. More or less. OK, his characters lie a bit to enlist, just like teenagers did in WWI. But they are to all intents adults, and with what happens in the stories, they definitely become adults pretty soon.

There’s a lot of bad stuff happening, and some of them die. The reader is treated to war scenes that can be quite upsetting, especially when you know they are based on reality. It’s not just something the author has made up to spice the book up a little.

There are relationships that are more grown-up than what you find in ‘high school’ stories. Some sex, as would be appropriate for what is being written about.

Take Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity, which is also about war and also about characters only just adult enough to do what they do in wartime. They are adult enough to appeal to the real adult reader, but not so old that they don’t suit teenagers.

At that age I used to read Nevil Shute, because there was no Elizabeth Wein or Michael Grant. His books were accessible enough, and often about the same kind of topics, but the characters were – generally – older, and their problems also a bit older.

But I think the main difference is still that there is hope. Yes, people die. It would be unrealistic for them not to in a war. But as Michael said in our first interview in 2010, ‘it’s always good to hope, don’t you think?’

While I’m going on about YA war books, we can mention Lee Weatherly’s Broken Sky dystopia, set in a world based fairly closely on WWII. Her characters are also adults, and behaving as such. And to me the books feel like YA, unless I’m thinking this because I know they are. Not having got to the end of the trilogy yet, I still hold out hope that the end will not be as bleak as an adult-only version could get away with.

And anyway, Debi Gliori told me years ago about signing her Pure Dead books for an adult reader, who refused to believe they were children’s books… After all, if you have them in your book club, that surely proves it?

Let’s keep them out

Or kick them out, in case they already sneaked in.

I’m afraid I can’t leave the state of the world’s affairs alone. There are days when several hours pass without me thinking about this, and there are days when they don’t.

Where to start? Last week at least the children’s books world cried out when Australian author Mem Fox was detained by US immigration officials and treated as though she was a threat to their country. There is very little I can say. I don’t know whether this was done through sheer ignorance, or knowing full well what they did and that that was the whole point.

Maybe on to Australia after that. It seems no country is better than the rest. Luckily it appears that a last minute intervention has saved the deportation of a [Bangladeshi] doctor and her autistic daughter, who it was feared might become a burden on Australia and its tax payers’ money.

While we’re in the medical world, let’s move on to Sweden, shall we? A week ago a 20-year-old pregnant woman was refused entry to the antenatal clinic in a leading Gothenburg hospital, because she looked like a muslim. She is muslim. Born in Sweden, but still. She had phoned in about a concern in her pregnancy and been told to come in. Except when they saw her staff didn’t want to open the door.

Sticking with medical issues, my thoughts went to Malala, the foreign girl from a country so many don’t want immigrants from, who was permitted to come to Britain for her life to be saved. And we all feel so good about that, and we admire her for what she’s gone on to do after recovering. She’s become a National Treasure, unless I’m mistaken?

The same goes for Nadiya Hussain, who bakes and writes books and is so popular you need to queue up to get her autograph.

On Saturday a Facebook friend of mine, author and journalist Hilary Freeman wrote an article for the Guardian about her worries for her family’s future. She has a young child and the father of the child is French. He hasn’t been here long enough to qualify for anything, nor does he earn enough money. The article is very well written, and manages to cover the concerns of many, even if our individual cases vary.

Thinking some more about authors. Two of my top three favourite books were written by immigrants. I keep those books in my ‘special’ bookcase. Had a little look to see who else is there, and counted up to eight ‘foreigners,’ including Italian Scots, before the shelf disappeared behind the armchair. But you get the picture; lots of fabulous books have a non-British background. Even when ‘we’ think it’s good old English stuff.

If I did to my bookcase what the Davis Museum in America did when they removed art by immigrants (for the best of reasons), it’d soon look pretty deserted.

And there is always something that can be done, putting people in their place. Quoting Wikipedia, Tamarind Books ‘was founded in 1987 as a small independent publisher specialising in picture books, fiction and non-fiction featuring black and Asian children and children with disabilities, with the mission of redressing the balance of diversity in children’s publishing.’ This is very worthy and I have the highest opinion of Tamarind. But now that it is also an imprint within a much larger organisation, has it become the place to stash away the slightly foreign authors? You know, ‘you will be happier next to your own kind’ sort of thought.

As for tax payers’ money, I always believed it was there for the burdens in life.