Tag Archives: Helen Stephens

Belle and Sébastien

Feeling enthusiastic about Cécile Aubry’s Belle and Sébastien (newly translated by Gregory Norminton), and with the Resident IT Consultant claiming he’d watched it on television as a child (something he rarely admits to), I set about finding out why I only recognised it as a classic book title, but had no recollection of reading the book or being offered it as small screen entertainment.

It made me want to weep. First, because this mid-1960s French children’s novel shows up as a recent film; not even the 1967 television series. Second, because someone has changed the plot so much that they might as well have written a new script about a boy and his dog. And I can find no trace of the book having existed in Swedish translation. I could be wrong, but they are only enthusing about the 2013 film…

Cécile Aubry and Helen Stephens, Belle and Sébastien

This is a lovely book, with illustrations by Helen Stephens done with a real 1960s vibe. Maybe, just maybe, the story is set before the 1964 mentioned in the book, but there are no nazis or fleeing jews and Sébastien’s adopted grandfather does not want to kill the dog Belle. Any nastiness comes from the villagers in this southern Alps French community. That is what the book is about; a boy finding a dog to love, and the ignorant, and scared, villagers wanting to kill the dog they believe is dangerous.

I was thinking that this kind of group unpleasantness would be hard to have in a modern book, and that it clearly shows the passage of time. It works here, though. The period feel is similar to that of I Am David, except this is set almost exclusively in a quiet backwater where the Mayor and the Doctor are the men people listen to.

Sébastien was born in the mountains and his mother died giving birth, so the local gamekeeper brings him up, alongside his own grandchildren. Belle, the dog, was born at the same time, and ends up escaping into the wild when both are six years old. It’s as if they were meant for each other. It’s an easy love to understand. They ‘just’ have to win over the mistrustful villagers who don’t want their children eaten by this ‘beast.’

Really lovely story, which again goes to prove you can have lots of different tales about a boy and his dog.

Odyssey – the Aarhus 39

We have a lot in common. But also, we don’t. That’s no bad thing, though.

Daniel Hahn has edited this collection of translated short stories. I think there are 21 in this, the older, group of stories of journeys from around Europe. If the list of names looks longer than 21, that is because the stories have both illustrators and translators as well as authors. So it’s been a big job to do, this collaboration with the Hay Festival in Aarhus. The Aarhus 39 stands for all the authors involved, as there is a collection for younger readers as well. (And personally I’d prefer to write Århus, but I can’t have everything.)

Odyssey - Aarhus 39

Anyway, this is very interesting. Daniel points out how similar [young] people are, wherever they come from. I agree, but it’s also obvious that we are different. Equal in worth and importance, but a little bit just ourselves.

Another thing about all the languages the stories were written in. You look at the name of the author and you think you know what language they use. But you could be wrong. So many seem to have made a journey or two themselves, and their stories are in a new language. This is fascinating and points to a new kind of Europe.

The Nordic short stories seem to be more into drugs, bullying and illegal behaviour. Further south it is more weird and entertaining. But none of that matters; they are stories about being young, and the journeys are either actual journeys, or about someone learning something about themselves.

I can’t possibly describe them, either their contents or the style. There are too many and they are too varied. The stories are short (yes, that is what a short story is), and mostly easy to read, and interestingly illustrated. They make you think.

If I were to criticise anything, it’s the size of the font. It is too small. And the very worthwhile list of all the contributors at the back; well that font is even smaller and made my eyes ache. But this is such a good idea, and we want more of it.

Just in bigger print.

Brilliant Books, again

And again, probably. This is looking good. Oldham libraries have hit on a successful pattern for their Brilliant Books awards ceremony.

Brilliant Books 2013

Although Ruth Eastham and Caryl Hart might want to pull out soon if they keep winning and keep getting these fantastic mosaic prizes. They’ll need to move to bigger houses before long.

As for me, I will have to stick to setting out early for events, and not try brave new ideas like not getting the train before the one I actually got. But I got there. In time. ‘My’ table was taken, but I got a good one precisely where I like to sit. At the back. I discovered later that ‘my’ table had The Worshipful the Mayor of Oldham sitting at it, so I suppose that was an opportunity missed.

This year Brilliant Books invited all shortlisted authors, and twelve of them were able to come, which is brilliant! And none of the winners knew in advance. Or so they claimed. Ruth Eastham came up and chatted to me before proceedings began, and she seemed to have no inkling she was about to carry more mosaic back to Italy. Again.

Like last year, they had invited children from the schools involved, and they helped by reading out the nominations and announcing the winners. In between that, each book was briefly dramatised and acted out by Oldham Coliseum’s Young Rep Company. Really well done!

Oldham Coliseum's Young Rep Company

It seems I no longer need to be escorted by Librarian Snape as Oldham’s defense against the dark blogs. We agreed we missed each other…

Mayor of Oldham

Super organiser Andrea Ellison introduced Chris Hill who introduced the Mayor, who spoke of his pleasure at being asked for his autograph with no competition from Bob the Builder. The Mayor in turn handed over to the host, Dave Whalley, who never gets to sign anything but expenses claims.

Roving Richard (Hall) refused to rove if he didn’t get applause, so we gave him some. He roved throughout the evening, pestering authors and children alike, making them squirm. Great stuff!

Thomas Taylor

The Early Years category winner was Thomas Taylor (and his ‘cool cat’ friend, illustrator Adrian Reynolds), for The Pets You Get. Thomas thanked absolutely everyone for his prize.

Dave lost the plot quite early, and needed Roving Richard to chat to people while he found where he was meant to be. KS1, Dave! Caryl Hart and Sarah Warburton and their book The Princess and the Peas won, and they spoke about how they work together. Caryl admitted that sometimes reading can be boring (!) and Sarah told the audience to continue to ‘read and draw.’

Caroline Green and Ruth Eastham

By the time Ruth found out she had won KS2 for The Messenger Bird, Dave had worked out how to keep everything in order. Ruth said she’d been telling everyone about how brilliant it is in Oldham and that they must come.

Oldham Coliseum's Young Rep Company

We took a break from awarding mosaics and watched the Young Rep Company’s dramatised version of shortlisted book My Friend Nigel by Jo Hodgkinson.

Gina Blaxill

KS3 winner, Gina Blaxill, was 90% certain she wasn’t going to win, but Forget Me Never came out on top, which made Gina especially happy, since she had been worried about second book syndrome.

Richard roved over to table five where he asked Helen Stephens what it’s like to see your own book in bookshops. He had just noticed her How to Hide a Lion in Tesco, and since he’s not written a book himself, he wanted to know. (It’s exciting.) The young readers continued being hard to interview…

Someone Else’s Life by Katie Dale won KS4, and she brought her mother along, just like when she won in Stockport four weeks ago. She might be unstoppable. Katie mentioned the weird and wonderful characters she’s met, and I rather hope she didn’t mean me.

Brilliant Books 2013

Our host complimented the children on how quietly they had gone to the toilet, and then Andrea went and made them parade around the room very noisily, while someone called Justine sang a song and all the authors stood on stage, clutching mosaics, or not.

Brilliant Books 2013

Then it was signing time and the authors went and sat in line, while children and adults shopped, or simply brought their programmes to be autographed. I walked diligently up and down the line several times to make sure I caught all of them with my camera. Don’t they look fantastic?

Rachel Bright

Caroline Green

Helen Stephens

Katie Dale

Gill Lewis

Matt Dickinson

Caryl Hart

Sarah Warburton

Will Buckingham

Thomas Taylor

And then I went and called my nine 0’clock pumpkin. It’s fascinating how the drive home can be achieved in the same amount of time I spent walking from the tram stop to the Queen Elizabeth Hall…

Love in Venice

‘Jo-Jo was a donkey. His father had been a donkey before him, and his mother as well. Jo-Jo had to be a donkey whether he liked it or not.’

Here is a new picture book version of Michael Morpurgo’s Jo-Jo the Melon Donkey. Helen Stephens has illustrated, and however charming the story about the loveable Jo-Jo is, I feel a book set in Venice needs pictures.

Michael Morpurgo and Helen Stephens, Jo-Jo the Melon Donkey

We see poor Jo-Jo walking with his heavy load of melons, and how unkind his owner is. Then one day his owner finds out that he can charge more for his melons in St Mark’s Square, so that’s where they go. There Jo-Jo meets the Doge’s daughter, and he finally experiences kindness.

The path to happiness isn’t straightforward, but as in most stories you have a happy ending at last. And that’s because Jo-Jo is a brave hero, and the Doge’s daughter is a lovely girl.

(And I knew those statues could talk!)