Tag Archives: Morris Gleitzman

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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That’s funny

Much as I don’t enjoy the trend of famous comedians suddenly discovering that they need to write a children’s book, and doing very well and getting plenty of publisher attention for their efforts, it has caused one improvement to the state of things. Humour is now seen as something worth considering.

I have always liked humorous fiction. I have long felt there’s not enough of it, and also that it’s been so wrong to look down on it. As though humorous fiction is to children’s fiction as children’s fiction is to Booker prize type fiction; i.e. inferior.

It’s not. In fact, I’d suggest that just like writing for children requires more skill, and not less, to write good humour means you have to be really excellent at what you do. Not everyone can do it, or do it well, but when they can, the results can be spectacular.

A couple of weeks ago Adrian McKinty blogged about his twenty funniest novels and it’s an interesting list. I agree with his choice, about the ones I’ve read. I might have picked others, and it could be Adrian doesn’t find them funny, or that he’s not read the same books I have. These things happen.

I do agree with him about this, though: ‘It’s got be funny throughout too. One really funny scene as in Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim for example just doesn’t cut it. I’m also not allowing anything that people say is funny but which actually isn’t or perhaps used to be funny but isn’t anymore. I’ve read Gargantua and Pantagruel and they are not funny. Shakespeare’s comedies are not funny. Dickens is not funny.’

There’s a lot in life that’s not funny. But there’s also a lot that is. And yes, I hated Lucky Jim the first time I read it. Loved it on the second read. But Adrian is right; one funny scene isn’t enough. (Apart from The Vicar Of Nibbleswicke, I don’t reckon Roald Dahl is funny. Not in that way.)

I’ve not thought this through enough so I can give you my own list, but Terry Pratchett is obviously on it. Would be, I mean, if there was a list. And even if I stick to children’s books, I reckon Douglas Adams has to be on it. From there it is a quick jump to Eoin Colfer and from him to many other Irish authors (it must be the water?), and then jump again, to Frank Cottrell Boyce, Joan Aiken, Morris Gleitzman, Debi Gliori, Barry Hutchison, Hilary McKay, Andy Mulligan, Kate DiCamillo. And last but not least, my fairy blogmother Meg Rosoff. She doesn’t only kill goats.

My apologies to anyone not mentioned. I didn’t go about this scientifically, but merely wanted to mention that being funny is a good thing. A good read is good for your wellbeing, and a funny read is even better. Go on, find something to make you laugh! Preferably until you cry. The hankies are on me.

The Christmas book ad

The advertisement for books for a child for Christmas; which books should it contain? I was happy to stumble upon an ad that seemed to recommend good books. And it did… but it was from The Folio Society, which sells expensive editions.

And what they suggested were classics. The kind the giver and/or their parents, and grandparents, used to read. When you see a suggestion like that you often think that’s all there is. Or you are likely to, if the only ‘new’ book you’ve heard of is Harry Potter, who will soon be joining The Wind in the Willows, Peter Pan and Wendy, The Hobbit, Ballet Shoes and Hans Andersen’s Fairy Tales as a classic read.

The kind of book well-meaning adults go on and on about.

At the other end of the scale you have the books ‘everyone’ has heard of, but which don’t necessarily need advertising to sell. Jacqueline Wilson, Horrid Henry, David Walliams, Wimpy Kid. They are all fine! But like the books above, they are obvious choices.

Could we have an ad like The Folio Society’s ‘Best books for kids this Christmas’ that might mention slightly less famous books (and that could also mean the recipient is less likely to have a copy already), but ones that are so very good in a general sense that few children would dislike them if they got them for Christmas?

As The Folio Society ad says, it’s good to leave children alone to read. I’d just like them to have something more recent than what grandad liked when he was a little boy. Considering the books in the ad, they will be aiming at the age group between seven and twelve, roughly?

So, let’s see. Eva Ibbotson. Very reliable choice. What do we think of Michael Morpurgo? I find he is less of a household name among mature buyers than you’d think. Perhaps one of his less famous titles. Philip Pullman. Again, some of his less well known books, so not HDM.

I’m rambling, and you are thinking I’m picking famous names. But away from our select and relatively small group of adults who like children’s books and know about them, I hear people chatting about my big heroes as though they are minor players or newly discovered small fry. Good, but not gods. I have to stop myself from bashing their heads in. (Figuratively.)

Morris Gleitzman. Anything, really. Judith Kerr. Michelle Magorian. Jan Mark.

How am I doing? I’m avoiding picking those authors whose work might be best aimed at a particular age or sex to be successful, however excellent.

By the way, do children still enjoy The Wind in the Willows? Or is it now more of an older person’s choice, rather like Roald Dahl?

After

I was going to ask Morris Gleitzman why he decided to write a fourth book about Felix, and especially one set between the second and third books. I didn’t have to, however, since he explains why in the back of After. Apparently Felix himself felt he wasn’t quite done, yet. And since we already knew he survived to become an old man, that’s not a spoiler.

After is set just before the end of WWII, but because the people living through that period didn’t know about that, it’s not as if it makes their lives easier. Felix is not having a good time at all, when circumstances change to his living hidden in the barn.

He is 13 now, but still as wonderfully naïve, and just as kind and good natured, as he was at six. Not wanting to give too much away, it’s hard to talk about this book. Felix meets and loses several people important to him. He himself becomes important to others, and he does his bit for the anti-war effort.

Felix is constantly hoping for some parental figure to love him. It doesn’t matter so much who, as long as there is someone. Starvation and the cold make life almost impossible, and there are other events which go a long way to explaining Felix as an old man.

But it’s the humour which matters the most. That, and kindness. It’s odd that you can have so much humour in what is such a bleak story. You – almost – know that the book will have to end well in some way, but it is impossible to guess how.

I don’t know about Felix, but I could read more. Felix the teenager. Felix the adult. He’s a lovely person and we feel better for getting to know him.

Pizza Cake

You have to love Morris Gleitzman! There is something so nice and kind in all that he writes. You feel good. You can even hope that it’s not all going to go horribly wrong. Life is Pizza Cake.

Pizza Cake is a collection of ten funny stories, and oh, how I wish Morris’s unusual perception of teachers could be true! (Or maybe not? You never know.) There is the memory of a grandfather who was brave. The pain of having a funny name.

I didn’t quite get the dad’s diary story, but that was probably just me. Complaining is very me. Was, anyway. Could your sister’s boyfriend be a vampire? And when is funny food actually quite nice?

The importance of paperclips must never be underestimated. Life is always unfair, and writing stories is good.

You’ll enjoy every single one of these tales. I did. The book could have been a lot longer.

Pizza Cake

(I wanted a normal cover image, but found none, so picked this off Morris’s website. My book is red, not blue. But this will do.)

One Dog and his Boy

I’ve been gorging on sweet dog stories for a while. Or so it seems. Hot on the tails of Oliver and ‘his’ Barclay in Too Small to Fail we meet Hal and Fleck in Eva Ibbotson’s last book. Both boys have dreadful parents, rich and with no clue as to what their sons really need. And it’s not more of the latest toys, nor is it to spend time with housekeepers.

They need their dogs. The dogs they have fallen hopelessly in love with. Dogs that are equally potty about their boys.

But the adults rule, especially when they have too much money. Hal’s parents strike me more as charicatures. In fact, the whole book is more of a story story, but it’s one of the best. I’m not sure when it’s set. It’s sort of a mix of now and then and never.

There isn’t just the one dog, either. Fleck has friends at the Easy Pets Dog Agency, and they too need a happy end. And let’s face it, even if Hal’s parents could learn to see sense, they would never take on five dogs of varying sizes.

Eva Ibbotson, One Dog and his Boy

Unlike Oliver, Hal quickly realises that his parents really have gone too far when they rent a dog for him for the weekend, and then return it, believing he will soon tire of Fleck. So he takes action, but only after thinking things through carefully.

I don’t want to give anything away, but there are several nice girls who all love dogs, and there are some very nice and sensible adults. And because this is an Eva Ibbotson story things sort themselves out. It took me a while to work out how she was going to do it, and when it happened it was even lovelier than expected.

After a book like this I could even half want a dog.

(Irresistible doggie pictures by Sharon Rentta.)

Too Small to Fail

Why did I ever stop reading Morris Gleitzman? I read some of his books when Son was the right age, and when he moved on, I moved on. But you just don’t move on from Morris and his books. His latest one, Too Small to Fail, is as wonderful as I wanted it to be.

Morris Gleitzman, Too Small to Fail

The cover is intriguing. Small boy. As is to be expected. Small dog. That too is normal. Pile of money. Less so. Camel. No.

But it works.

The first sentence is ‘Oliver wanted more,’ and that’s enough to make you take notice. Olivers tend to want more. But the thing is, this Oliver has a problem, which is that his parents are too rich. And the wanting more, isn’t Oliver being greedy. He feels there must be more to life than luxury and banking. (His parents are bankers.)

More could be a nice little dog, like the one in the pet shop window, for instance. Oliver would very much like a nice little dog. The little dog wants Oliver quite a lot too.

And then someone buys the dog, and the dog – and possibly Oliver too – is in danger.

This is a good and easy way to understand investment banking. Oliver sort of understands, and the reader will have a decent grasp of it at the end of the book. There isn’t only a dog in need of help. There are 16 camels in dire straits. There is an angry ex-housekeeper and there is an angry and sad orphaned girl.

To save the dog he loves and to make sure the camels are all right, Oliver needs to do some investment banking of his own. His parents continue being busy making more money, until…

Well, let’s just say it’s exciting, and it’s hard to work out how it will work out. I hope there really are little boys like Oliver. We need them more than ever now.