Saturday, 10 June 2017

Alex Wheatle at the Derby Book Festival

I posted a while ago about finding Crongton Knights to read when I was trying to second-guess the Carnegie shortlist.  It was a brilliant find, and I have since recommended it to my own children, and to some students I teach.  Predictably, my own kids completely ignored me, but some of my students have now read, and enjoyed both Liccle Bit and Crongton Knights.

The other week in the library, I was handed a programme for the Derby Book Festival.  I think it's now in its third year, but I was slightly too caught-up in baby and toddler-ness to organise myself to go to anything before this year.  I was thrilled to discover that Alex Wheatle was coming to the festival, and book tickets, not only for me, but for A and C too, knowing that they would enjoy it, even if they didn't.

We arrived early.  I'm not quite sure what I expected from a provincial book festival.  My only experience of a book festival are the sessions I've attended at the Imagine Children's Festival at the South Bank centre.  Everything has been utterly packed and, although all the sessions we've been to have had some value and merit, they were not what could be described as intimate.  In sharp contrast, today we were shown through to a small room at the independent cinema in Derby, with comfy sofas, and there were few enough people that there were only three rows.  We were right at the front.  This, and the big bag of Minstrels I bought beforehand, were enough to persuade A and C that this was somewhere they wanted to be.

What an absolute inspiration Alex Wheatle is.  Having talked about the creation of his imaginary South London town of Crongton, and read an extract from his newly published Straight Outta Crongton (I would like to point out for posterity that I anticipated that one of the books in this series would have this name), Alex told a little about his life.  Brought up in care, Alex was in trouble with the police, and even had a spell in prison.  He told how writing had been a way of releasing all of the negativity and the poisonous feelings, and had turned into something that he wanted to do as a career.

His story really is incredibly impressive, and he told it in the same warm, funny, self-deprecating voice that comes across so clearly in his novels. He answered questions honestly, and with feeling, and A and C both left the talk feeling buoyed-up to use what he had said to help them with their own writing. Needless to say, they are both now going to read all of the books, including the signed copy which we left clutching.

"Honestly though", said C as we left, "you didn't have to insult him!" What?  How could what I said possibly be taken as an insult?  Alex was asked by a young man if he thought he wrote well from a female perspective, and basically answered that he does his best.  I told him as he signed our book that when I read Liccle Bit and Crongton Knights I assumed he was a woman in his twenties.  "That wasn't the insult Mum!  The insult was when you then added "so when I booked tickets I wondered who the picture of the middle-aged man was!"  You can't go round pointing out that people are middle-aged!"  So, apologies for that indiscretion Alex, I think you are utterly brilliant, and I am very much looking forward to reading the next installment.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

The 2017 Carnegie Shortlist

There have been several contributing factors to my having read all but one of the shortlisted novels for the Carnegie Medal already this year.  Firstly, I have been on a couple of trips away for several nights without WiFi, which has led to me rapidly using up an entire month's supply of roaming data. This led to my realisation that without WiFi, my motivation to read is greatly increased, and that, actually, I really love reading.  I think the reason that the phone gets picked up rather than the Kindle or book, is that it just seems like so much more effort to read something more complex that Mumsnet, but I'd forgotten how utterly worth it it is.  This is good news for my intellect and my ability to discuss the latest releases in literature, quite possibly bad news for my bank balance.

Secondly, I read an article a while ago about how sitting down is the new smoking.  I decided that I would do a dual-pronged attack on my love of checking Facebook on my phone, and of sitting on my bottom, by only looking at my phone when standing up.  This has further dramatically reduced my inane phone use, it's a bit less tempting when I have to stand to use it.

So, all but one of the books read, and since I'm not reading the last one, I'm done for the year.  I've chosen not to read Beck by Mal Peet, because A is shadowing the award with school, and I've told her she can't read it, and, since she can't read it, I've promised I won't either.  It's not appropriate for her age group and, although I am very far from her age group, I understand her annoyance that she won't be able to "complete" the reading list, and I want to show her that I understand by giving myself the same problem.

This leaves us with seven.  I've already written on this blog about The Smell of Other People's Houses and The Bone Sparrow. I would be happy enough if the first of these won, but The Bone Sparrow was definitely among my least favourites of this year's offerings so I hope it doesn't.  Neither A nor C could get past the first couple of chapters, which is hardly a shining recommendation from the youth vote either (yes, I know, sample size of two, but both are avid readers and both found it utterly dull, as did I).

My favourite this year was Railhead by Philip Reeve.  I've not read anything by him before, but I certainly will after this offering, which I thought was great.  Dystopian steampunk with lovable but flawed characters and a really interesting setting. I'm hoping that Raven will remind C enough of Skullduggery Pleasant that he'll make it through the initial couple of relatively pedestrian chapters to the good stuff. Would recommend for boys and girls, 10 ish plus.

I also expected to and did love Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys, who I felt should have won for Between Shades of Grey a few years ago.  In fact, I wonder if the only reason she didn't was that I, and everybody else I knew who read it, kept calling it 50 Shades of Grey by mistake.  Anyway, I didn't love this quite as much.  I felt the Nazi character was so odiously awful that he was more of a caricature (obviously I am aware that Nazis on the whole were odiously awful, but he seemed such a puppet compared to the other characters that it jarred horribly with the other narrators, whose stories all harmonised in a very pleasing way.)  Good for lovers of war fiction, and those who like different viewpoints about the same events.

I also loved Sputnik's Guide to Life on Earth by Frank Cottrell Boyce.  C was disappointed with it, as he loves Cosmic and Millions, and this was aimed at younger readers (8+), and he is not yet of an age where he can let this go.  Anything aimed at lower juniors is a no go area when you're a eminent Year 6. I thought it was rather beautiful though.  Like all his books, it doesn't shy away from the darker side of life, but the reader is left with a wonderful sense of hope.  It's about a boy in care and, rather confusingly I read it at the same time as My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal, which also features a boy in care, and is also great, but does not feature an alien that everyone else sees as a dog.  I found myself weaving threads of the two plots together in a rather confusing manner, so I'd recommend them both, but perhaps not at the same time.

I finished Wolf Hollow today.  It started VERY slowly, and if it had not been on the shortlist, and I'd got it out the library, so had no financial investment in it, it would have been returned from whence it came forthwith.  However, it was an excellent novel in the end, there are a lot of people who end up dead at the end, but it's quite gentle still.  It's set in rural Second World War America, which was interesting, if a touch Steinbeck-for-kids in places.

I didn't particularly like The Stars At Oktober Bend.  The narrative voice was trying to be interesting, but I'm not sure it had the effect that the author was looking for, because it didn't seem to ring true and just ended up being an irritant.  The love story was absurdly unlikely, making The Smell of Other People's Houses seem humdrum and down-to-earth. The characters were either unbelievable or two-dimensional, and I found I didn't really care whether any or all of them died when the denouement came.  In fact, I only read it a fortnight ago, and I can't remember.  Needless to say, I hope this one doesn't win!

So, good luck to all, apart from the one I can't read, and the two I wish I hadn't!


Sunday, 5 February 2017

The Art of Being a Brilliant Teenager by Andy Cope

I came across a recommendation for this book on Mumsnet, when I was looking for ideas for what to buy A for her birthday.  I feel a little alarmed and unbelieving that my gorgeous little lovely baby girl is going to be thirteen on Friday.  How this can possibly be, when I was eighteen myself a mere couple of years ago, I do not know, but, according to calendars, clocks and The Internet, it is thirteen years since 2004, so thirteen she must be.

We have bought an overpriced pink polaroid camera, and one of her uncles has bought a matching case and accessories which were deemed utterly essential by A (mainly glitter and stickers from what I can see, but I guess if there's one time in your life that glitter is essential, it is when you're a teen. I find glitter sits in the "laughter lines" these days. This uncle still retains the coolness of a much younger man in A's eyes, because he is, as yet, unencumbered by children, and he lives in a trendy part of London and takes her to restaurants where you have to queue to book in, and the pizza is the size of an actual table. (Why, yes I am jealous of my own children, who have a trio of extremely awesome uncles, and no, I am not proud of it).

Anyway, obviously I need to buy some books to go with it, so I decided that, since this was recommended, and has ALL THE STARS on Amazon, that I would just buy it. 

It came.  I started to read it, mainly because it's a new book just out the packet, and that stuff is like a drug to me, but also because I thought I should take at least a cursory interest in its appropriateness. Oh my Lord, it irritated me.  The introduction basically went along the lines of "Oh my God I bet your mum and teachers are SO boring.  I bet they tell you what to do and all of that, and it really brings you down.  You know they mean well, but...  But hey!  Listen to me!  I'm not like them!  I mean, obviously I'm a grown up, but I'm a REALLY COOL one.

I stopped reading. Went back to the reviews. Apparently there IS stuff of merit in here, but I shall not be reading it.  I will let A read it, although she has a tendency to judge quickly too, so we'll see how she likes his tone. It reminded me of the 22 year old teacher you get in Sixth Form who isn't quite sure if they really want to be a teacher but they DEFINITELY want ALL the kids to like them ALL THE TIME, so instead of actually teaching you the things you need to learn about your A-Level, tell you about their really cool snowboarding trip.  Possibly about three kids think they are cool.  The rest of the class is thinking "omg why did you go on a snowboarding trip, you're too OLD, you SAD OLD LOSER".

According to Amazon, it's about making the most of your own unique personal gifts and strengths.  Which I'm sure is a thing to be celebrated.  But I can't help but thinking I've bought my precious daughter an assembly in book form.  Sorry A.  I honestly wasn't trying to be cool.  I gave that up a VERY long time ago, and I'll leave that to your uncles.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Learning to love poems

I often think, with poetry anthologies, the packaging is so vital.  By which I mean, not just the cover, but the concept behind the anthology, and what it is trying to offer you. Often, these can be depressingly glib "The Nation's Favourite Love Poems!" would do nothing for me, since "the nation" have plenty of favourite things that I think are not really very good at all, such as the Conservative Party and the X-Factor. However, the clever ones can really teach you things - a current favourite is A Poet's Guide to Britain by Owen Sheers, which offers a selection of poems which easily help me to understand what poets have felt about surroundings that are familiar to me, and allow me to perceive them in a new and interesting way.

A lot of people will tell you that they hate poetry.  But if you look at any post on social media that's about loss, grief, the death of someone important, people almost always post a poem.  Poetry haters will often have poems at their wedding, and it's very rare to go to a funeral without hearing verse.

Dissecting poetry is very much a part of GCSE English courses, and has been so since the inception of the qualification, and will probably be so forever. English is about communication, and poetry is a distilled form of communication, laced with all sorts of devices designed to help you write an ancient truth in a new way, or a modern truth in an ancient way.  Some students I've taught have thought of poems as a puzzle to be dissected and reassembled, which is usually a helpful way of viewing them.

What is really, really not helpful is to tell your kids you hate poetry.  It's the age old complaint from maths teachers  that parents put off students before they've even really got going with "I hated maths at school" or "nobody in our family is good at maths".  I've never said this to my kids (well, it's not true in our case, there are loads of very talented mathematicians in our family.) And whilst I wouldn't call myself a talented mathematician, (and neither would anybody else who has ever met me), I try really hard to be positive about maths to my children.  Because, actually, they've got to do it! So me moaning about how unfair and rubbish it all is is only going to entrench them in a position of animosity towards maths, and the poor buggers who have got to teach it to them.  It simply is not helpful.  We all have our preferences for different subjects for study, but surely it's best for our children to discover what theirs are for themselves, rather than based on our hatred of our maths teacher circa 1994, who was probably just annoyed that we spent the entire maths lesson stabbing I LOVE LEE SHARPE'S LEGS with a compass on an eraser, rather than listening to what she was saying.

Anyway, I digress.  With poetry, familiarity kicks out contempt.  Babies and toddlers adore poems.  I can't think of a toddler who doesn't love a rousing chorus of Row Row or a good reading of Bear Hunt.  Keeping this going as the child grows can be challenging, but is really worthwhile.  I've blogged before about good poetry books for younger children - there is lots of good stuff about.

I am about to return to teaching GCSE English after a rather extended time out.  What strikes me about the new syllabus is that not only is there a lot of poetry (although, like I said, there always has been), but students are no longer allowed to take the anthology of poems into the exam room with them.  This means they have to remember an awful lot about an awful lot of different poems.  I think this is a real shame, since it turns the exam into more of a How Good is your Memory? test, rather than a How Good are You at Communicating and Understanding Communication? test, which is what it should be. I am hopeful that by the time my children take the GCSE, there may have been some adaptations.  However, for A, this is only three years away (EEEEEEK!), so there probably won't.  I realised that A and C don't really read much poetry any more.

Given that they both love reading, I felt I should try to increase the amount of poetry they're reading, because the more exposure they have now to different poetic forms, the easier it is going to be for them to navigate the choppy sea of GCSE. I bought A Poem for Every Night of the Year by Allie Esiri, partly because it looks great, but also because it keeps the dose of poetry short and regular, like my Nan would have administered cod liver oil.  It's also designed to be read in the evening, as a kind of reflection, and sometimes in anticipation of the day to come.  For example, on Sunday it was a poem by Langston Hughes, and the explanation of the poem mentioned that Martin Luther King Jr Day is around this date.  It was, and C took more of an interest in it, because he had read a poem about it. A is not overly impressed, but is humouring me.  C comes down to ask for his poem if I forget to read it to him.  He then tells me what he thinks the poem is about.  Sometimes his insights are lovely.  Sometimes they make literally no sense whatsoever. However, at 10, I'm not really worried what he is saying about the poems, because any engagement is positive.  And I'm sure that as time goes on, the perceptive comments will start to appear more frequently. And, most importantly, who knows how long he will let me sit a read a poem to him when he's all fresh out of the bath and in his jammies.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Finding things to read

I was pondering earlier how much easier it is nowadays than in my youth to find something new to read, especially for a young person.

We had a school library at our school, but the librarian was one of those (sadly all too common) folk who seemed to think that the sole purpose of every other living soul was to annoy her.  I remember asking her once (before I was ejected from the library once again) why she worked in a secondary school as she seemed to hate everyone, but specifically teenagers.  This is a criticism that I often hear levelled at teachers (only very rarely at me, when I'm having a particularly grumpy phase).  However, for her, it did seem true.  Her main aim for the library seemed to be emptying it of people who might actually want to use it for, for example, borrowing or browsing books, so that she could sit alone in there, surrounded by bookiness.  Which, now I think about it, sounds rather lovely. 

The local library was a much more welcoming and pleasant place to be, although small, and I worked my way through the entire older child and young adult section before I reached 14. WHSmiths was my main source of new reading material, and visits there seemed few and far between.  They weren't, of course, but everything seems so V-E-R-Y S-L-O-W when you are young.

These days, the Internet acts as amazing library and WHSmiths all rolled into one utterly fabulous package.  And thanks to cookies (which I'm sure I should be more wary of, but I'm an optimistic sort who struggles to see beyond "isn't new technology WONDERFUL!) my kindle and Amazon KNOW what I want to read next!  Perhaps even before I do.

This is how I stumbled on the fabulous Crongton Knights by Alex Wheatle.  I read The Smell of Other People's Houses and the Other People Who Finished This thingy came up with Crongton Knights.  It was cheap so I downloaded it.  Annoyingly, it's the second novel in a series, so I had to then download and read the first, Liccle Bit, before I could get started.  No matter, they're both fabulous.  Like when I read A Suitable Boy and Trainspotting back in the far flung days of Smiths and Miss Brookes, the fabulous English teacher, telling me what to read, it took me a while to get my head round the dialect it's written in (the novels are set in Brixton).  However, they wouldn't work as a portrayal of life for young people in the area without the dialect, and it's all part of the flavour.  They're excellent. Terrifying, exhilarating, depressing, but full of the wonders of the indomitable human spirit. I'm looking forward to any future instalments.  Secondary school age plus - gang crime and naked selfies feature, although there is minimal bad language.

Tonight, C stumbled upon a series of books I have a feeling he is going to love (he is unable to sleep as I write, because he is too excited about what's going to happen next, what fun I'll have getting him out to school in the morning). For the first time in the history of his life, he stumbled on something he enjoys through homework!  He was doing a timeline of classical Greece, and he asked me about the epic poems.  I gave a relatively comprehensive response (I thought), but my answer to his supplementary question was "I don't really know, I always found it a bit boring."
"WHAT!?" C was aghast at me
"How can you like really boring history programmes and not find classical Greece interesting?  I love learning about it!"  Hmmm, I thought, how can I make him have faith in me again?  Recommend a book. 
"You should read Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief.  I think you'll like it."  I'm like a human kindle...

Sunday, 1 January 2017

The Smell of Other People's Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock

I wrote this blog post yesterday evening, after a promise to myself that I would start writing it again in the New Year.  It being New Year's Day, I felt it was a little early to break a resolution, so a post, any post must be written.  If I were to mark the original post (green pen, natch), it would say "please re-read, and preferably re-write, when you are not suffering from the ill effects of sloe gin and cassis flavoured fizz.  This does not represent your best work." So that it what I am now doing.  My actual marking will have to wait a little longer.

I'm not entirely sure that my emotional response to the end of this book was entirely appropriate or proportionate, due to my tired and emotional state.  Either way, I finished my first book of 2017, and it was utterly brilliant.

It's for secondary school age children - there is death, teen pregnancy and domestic violence, but it isn't violent or particularly hard hitting.  It's set in Alaska in 1970, and although I've never been to Alaska, and wasn't around in 1970, the reader gets a very strong sense of place and community. It's narrated through several different characters, but this doesn't make it disjointed, as they are all woven into the narrative seamlessly. Apparently, it started from an exercise at a writing class which was "write about the smell of other people's houses".  And it is a little bit about that, but it's about an awful lot more too.

The only criticism I would have, is that it's about as accurate about what teenage love is like as Stephenie Meyer's Breaking Dawn, except instead of vampires, there are broken-hearted floppy-haired gorgeous runaway indie boys.  In this book, all you have to do to make one of said boys fall in love with you is be a bit intuitive, good at ballet and fishing, or be pregnant and look a bit sad.  I'm pretty sure young love is not actually that simple.  And I say this as somebody, who, seventeen years ago around this time, feel instantly in love with a floppy haired gorgeous indie boy, and, as it felt at the time, but some miraculous aligning of the planets, he liked me too.  I call it love at first sight, because it paints me in a MUCH better light than "the first time I saw him he was so impossibly gorgeous, funny and lovely that I went home and dumped my boyfriend", which makes me sound a LOT more shallow. So I'll stick with love at first sight, and that is what I shall be telling my grandchildren thank you very much.

Therefore if even I think it's ludicrously unrealistic about young love, then it definitely is.  I have given A the book to read, but with the above warning (taking out the bits that make her mother sound shallow, obv). I hope that one day she will remember the first time she ever saw the love of her life, and remember the first words he ever said to her ("is this seat taken?"  "NO. NOT NOW NOT EVER, SIT THERE AND NEVER MOVE") but I realise that this is not everyone's experience. And actually, the first flush of excitement, however exciting and wonderful it is does get a little dulled by everyday routines and having to organise children and money and tax and going to the tip and other crap things you (usually) don't have to do when you're 20.

But, hey, it's a lovely book.  Don't judge it by its romanticised version of life. Sometimes we all need a little bit of unlikely and miraculous love in our lives, and if we need to get that from a novel, then so be it.


Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Whispers in the Graveyard by Theresa Breslin

Having read the entire shortlist in record quick time (for me anyway), I decided I would embark on reading every Carnegie prize winner since the prize was inaugurated (1936 as it turns out). This is not going to be a quick effort I don't think.  Most of the books are still in print (which is pretty impressive, really), but some are trickier to track down.

Lots of my favourites are represented.  The second ever winner was The Family From One End Street, which is one of my favourite books of all time (obviously A hated it, as the fates would suggest).  I would strongly encourage you to read it if you haven't already, it's short and really very good indeed. Tom's Midnight Garden, Watership Down and The Ghost of Thomas Kempe are other books I have loved.

I've read lots of the classic winners, and also most of the winners from the late 1990s and early 2000s.  I trained to teach English in 2003, and our tutor was very passionate about the need for us to keep up to date with YA literature, so that we can push our students on and make recommendations based on contemporary knowledge.  This was fine when I was a student and had no children and not a great deal else to do.  I read voraciously and with great enjoyment. 

I still find time to read YA literature; mainly because I now only work two days per week (more accurately, I am only *paid* to work two days a week).  I honestly don't know how full-time English teachers manage to keep up with YA literature now, along with their absolutely crippling workload.  And I know you'll all think - in their 13 weeks of holiday, but for teachers who are also parents, that's their time for re-introducing themselves to their own children. And catching up with the marking and planning for the term ahead. The answer is that probably most English teachers don't.  Which is sad and worrying.

Anyway, I started my quest with Whispers in the Graveyard, which won in 1994.  I don't remember this book, but I'd say it's probably aimed at younger secondary aged children and I was at the dog end of my compulsory schooling by 1994. It's very good.  It's like a Kestrel For a Knave-lite mixed with The Graveyard Book.  The main character is loveable, and there is a redemptive Miss Honey figure who the reader can't help but fall in love with.  Excellent for boosting the confidence of children with dyslexia, which is one of the themes of the novel.  It's a very short read, so good for a holiday bedtime story.