Thursday, 22 January 2015

A Rhino, a Rainbow and an icon

Anyone on here remember "bibliotherapy"? It was big in the '70s and meant that there should be an "issue" book to go with most "issues" that a child would encounter - everything from a new sibling and first day at school to death and divorce.

The best books just had a good story - like John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat or Badger's Gifts and children took what they wanted from them.

These days we don't hear much about bibliotherapy  - maybe because there is such a plethora of what we'd now call "issues books" that people take it for granted that a well-written, attractively illustrated book can make children feel better about a lot of things.


This sympathetic picture book deals with children's fears in a way that is both striking and comforting. The authors are LeVar Burton and Susan Schaefer Bernardo and the illustrator is Courtenay Fletcher. I don't expect I'm the only one who knows far more about the first name than about the other two, especially in the UK.

LeVar Burton sprang to stardom as the twenty-year-old star of the TV version of Alex Haley's Roots; he was Kunta Kinte and was the Chiwetel Ejiofor of his day:


But then he had a whole new career as Geordi La Forge in Star Trek: The Next Generation up on deck with captain Jean-Luc Picard, Lieutenant Riker, Data and Whorf. He was a blind Chief Engineering Officer with a VISOR that allowed him to sense energy waves, a prop based on a woman's hair barrette that gave him a headache every day on set for six years.

And then this versatile actor got the job of presenting the US children's literacy TV series Reading Rainbow and was immensely popular in this role. Now that Burton has tried his hand at writing the same warm, avuncular personality comes through in the text of The Rhino who Swallowed a Storm. Schaefer Bernardo is a poet so I'm guessing she helped Burton turn his story into rhyme.

There is a framing device of a father mouse comforting a little one who  lost her house in a hurricane. When a new storm is raging, Papa mouse puts down his copy of Gouda Times (nice!) and reads her the story of the rhino. (Actually I think the book would have been just as good without this device).

The rhino comes from a time "before there were words" and when a terrible storm destroyed all that was dear to him. He was so upset and angry that he opened his mouth and gulped the storm down inside himself.  It took a long time a lot of help from his friends before he was able to release it in a storm of tears.

It's a book about alowing yourself to let your feelings out and about how we all need help from others.

I don't know if it's available in the UK but it certainly should be.

Monday, 29 December 2014

Losing the plot - what Peter Jackson did to The Hobbit

Photo by Stefan Servos
Well, I've done it. I've seen the third Hobbit movie, The Battle of The Five Armies. When I first heard there were going to be three films made of the slender children's book that prefaced Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, I knew they wouldn't be good. It was clearly a commercial decision not an aesthetic or literary one.

I read the book only once or twice as a child, after discovering LoTR, as opposed to re-reading the trilogy every year till I was eighteen and was forced to realise that the writing wasn't as good as the world-building and plot.

The Hobbit first came out in 1937 and I have the 50th anniversary edition with this cover:


The strongest memory I have of the book is not from my childhood, however, but from the middle daughter's. We were started on my reading it to her when she was admitted, aged seven, to hospital with appendicitis. Between A & E and a surgeon and operating theatre becoming available, we were in a room in a children's ward and she was in pain but also hungry and it was strictly a Nil by Mouth situation.

So I read to her from The Hobbit, bowdlerising for food as I went along; it was very hard. Passages like this:

"At last Gandalf pushed away his plate and jug - he had eaten two whole loaves (with masses of butter and honey and clotted cream) and drank at least a quart of mead."

That would have been cruel to a little girl suffering two kinds of tummy pangs. (We had reached the house of Beorn, you will realise).

I have, of course, read it since then, middlest daughter now being a grown up woman with a husband and baby. The last time was probably after seeing the first Hobbit movie. Then I was struck by how - although clearly a book for children, with a very simple plot - there was a very dull coda after the big battle at the end which seemed to be a rather bureaucratic division of the spoils. All the action, quest and adventure just dissolved.

We were as a family very charmed by Peter Jackson's vision of Tolkien's world and looked forward to seeing each LoTR film each Christmas. Maybe that's why husband and self, without the rest of the family continued to make the pilgrimage to Cineworld every December: we wanted to revisit that  transformation of New Zealand that is Middle Earth.

But...






In order to stretch the story over three movies, extraneous bits of plot had to be added. Specifically the spurious love affair between a female elf and a male dwarf.

Kili A.K.A. Aidan Turner



Tauriel A.K.A. Evangeline Lilly
It felt fake from the beginning, with an older, fatter Legolas (Orlando Bloom) appearing as Kili's rival and a whole extraneous sub-plot about Legolas' father, Thranduil (Lee Pace), who appeared younger and sexier than his own son in a Jason-Isaacs-as-Lucius-Malfoy sort of way.

And clearly we are supposed to care about this love-match with the tension, and music, being ratcheted up for Kili's death and Tauriel's grief (Sorry- Spolier!). But I couldn't have cared less. (Kili and his brother Fili do die in the book but their deaths are dismissed in a sentence; they fell defending their kinsman Thorin Oakenshield).

It is quite clear that the writers understood that their source material would not uphold three movies so they grafted on what they thought would make it justifiable but it shows in every phrase of the clunky script.



Things that did work:

Smaug. Forget the voice of Benedict Cumberbatch, though that didn't hinder. Any decent director with the Weta Workshop at his disposal could and should create a convincing dragon and his hoard and Peter Jackson did not disappoint. The problem was we got one eye opening at the very end of the first part: An Unexpected Journey and the devastation of Lake Town all over before the credits in The Battle of the Five Armies. So only in the middle movie, The Desolation of Smaug, was the dragon used to full effect.

Bard the Bowman. Played by Luke Evans, Bard was the only credible human, caring for his motherless children and generally being an all-round good egg, Dragon-Slayer and effective leader after the destruction of Lake-Town.

Thorin's dragon-sickness. It was a bit repetitive and tedious but nevertheless convincing that Thorin (played by Richard Armitage) lost any moral centre in the lust for treasure and the recovery of the Arkenstone.

Martin Freeman as the Hobbit. But woefully, woefully underused!

All the Dol Guldur stuff apart from  Radaghast (Sylvester McCoy) and his bunny sleigh. It was nice to see Elrond again (Hugo Weaving).

Things that did not:

Turning the Goblins into Orcs and having a whole sub-plot that repeated stuff in LoTR.

Kili/Tauriel love plot and Legolas/Thranduil conflict as mentioned above.

Casting hunky TALL males as dwarves. And leaving the hunkier without prosthetic noses and other bulbous facial characteristics.

Forgetting what happened to the Arkenstone, in spite of its importance to Thorin and the main plot.

Repeatedly omitting the arrival of the Second Orc Army[sic] in spite of the many threats that it was coming.

In fact who were the Five Armies? In the book it's men, elves, dwarves, goblins and the "Wild Wolves." In the film it's dwarves, elves, men and orcs. Said orcs do ride Wargs, it's true but the numbers just don't add up.

And to cap it all a sudden and previously unsuspected flock of SuperGoats appear to transport Thorin and other dwarves up to the rocky prominence where the Orc-ish creature with a blade for an arm awaits them. The goats then vanish.

It's Star Wars all over again: the second trilogy (which comes first chronologically) had better CGI and effects but lost the magic of parts lV, V and Vl.

In the Hobbit movies if the returning Sauron had been that strong and mustered those forces, the LoTR trilogy would never have happened.

Why did no-one have the courage to tell Peter Jackson he was making three Christmas turkeys, even if they turn out to be high-grossing seasonal fowl? It's all in the story and the script, Peter. You knew that once. What happened? Did success make you unable to know when you were repeating yourself (piles of dead elves, battles with rocks being hurled by trolls, seeming dead person under ice opening eyes etc. etc).

It is just possible that someone who hadn't read the book might have enjoyed these films on their own terms. But no-one surely could have defended them as good? If you did, please comment.





Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Lets Toys be Toys


I am so impressed by this campaign! Toys - and books - labelled "for girls" or "for boys" should be a thing of the past.

From the seven-year-old girl who objected to Tesco's putting a "for boys" sign on a superhero alarm clock to the seven-year-old boy who can't wait for me to teach him to knit this weekend, our children do NOT fit into the commercial boxes that some companies want to create for them.

I can honestly say that what one mother of a newborn called called "the tsunami of pink" is far worse now than when I raised my three daughters. At least they had She-Ra as well as Flower Fairies.

And from what I hear it's just as bad for boys.

When I was little I hated all dolls but I might have felt differently if they had looked like this:


This is a "Lammily doll," the first ever to be made to ordinary human proportions, unlike Barbies and Sindys. You can even add tattoos, stretch marks and cellulite!

I reviewed a book called "Made by Raffi"  on the blog here. It is about a real boy who doesn't care for football but prefers to make clothes.

I liked books, drawing things, toy animals, dressing-up clothes (male and female), my toy Post Office and toy circus. I liked pretending to be cowboys, soldiers and guards, as well as princesses.




So I give my support to  www.lettoysbetoys.org.uk (You can use the hashtag #shopoutsidethebox this Christmas)

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Five Children on the Western Front


There comes a point in many writers' lives when they want to write a sequel to E. Nesbit's Five Children and It.* Helen Cresswell did it in 1992 with The Return of the Psammead; Jacqueline Wilson twenty years later with Four Children and It.

I passionately wanted to write Five Grandchildren and It in the 1980s but couldn't get anyone to take it. So I was ambivalent when Helen Cresswell got that gig, even though I admire her enormously.

And now, topically, Kate Saunders has taken the story into the First World War. We had of course spotted the same thing: that "two of E. Nesbit's fictional boys were of exactly the right ages to end up being killed in the trenches," as she says in her Afterword.

Reading and writing with the dubious benefit of hindsight, it is impossible to ignore the history of the early part of the last century and not to make that connection. The first book to feature the Psammead - the grumpy but magical sand fairy who can grant wishes - was published in 1902 and the last in 1905, so Nesbit can't have known how we would view the probable fate of some of her characters.

In Kate Saunders' book, the five children have been joined by a sixth - if the title were accurately to reflect the plot it would have to be Six Children, Some of whom go to the Western Front. The original five children - Cyril, Anthea, Robert, Jane and the baby boy known as the Lamb - now have a younger sister called Edie (in a nice nod to the original creator of the Psammead).

It is a brilliant solution to wanting to make Cyril and Robert old enough to fight while still having a child young enough in the story to champion the sand fairy in much the way that Jane did in the original.

Cyril, known as "Squirrel" is now twenty-one and a Lieutenant in the army, Anthea ("Panther") is twenty and at Art School, Robert is eighteen and at Cambridge, Jane a sixteen-year-old strong-willed schoolgirl, the Lamb is eleven and the new girl, Edie is nine.

They are gathered at the house in Kent for a farewell lunch for Cyril, who is off to the war; it is the autumn of 1914, when Edie and the Lamb (he does not want to answer to his given name, Hilary) find the Psammead back in the gravel pit where he first revealed himself to the children.

He can't grant wishes any more: that was a given at the end of Nesbit's first book about him. But he does still inspire exciting and awkward adventures. Kate Saunders captures perfectly the practical details of looking after and carrying around someone that has to be kept dry at all times, is heavy, and mustn't be seen by anyone not already in the know.

The Psammead is trying to get back to his own time and place but seems to be under a curse preventing him from making any headway. And somewhere along the way he has mutated  from a fairy to a despotic god whose exile has been brought about by his own wicked behaviour.

He has to learn remorse and to seek forgiveness from his victims, a learning curve he reluctantly embarks on against the backdrop of tragedy and loss that the time provides.

Kate Saunders doesn't shirk the implications of the date and some will find the ending unbearable. But, on this day of Remembrance, I'm glad she wrote it this way. I would have too.

Poppies at the Tower of London, Remembrance Sunday 2014

*Of course Nesbit did it first with The Phoenix and the Carpet and The Story of the Amulet.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

A Person Without Stories


Olympics 2012 Opening Ceremony, scripted by Frank Cottrell Boyce, photo by Matt Lancashire

Well, that's not a description that would ever be applied to Frank Cottrell Boyce. I went to hear him give the David Fickling Lecture at the Story Museum last Friday and he kept his audience enraptured  for an hour, telling us stories about many people we had never heard of.

King Anetlas, anyone? Or Henri Gustave Molaison? How about Jeremiah Horrocks or Humphrey Jennings? No, I thought not. You would be on firmer ground with Frank's mate Danny Boyle perhaps, or Raymond Chandler or David Hockney - all referenced in this passionate and entertaining talk about how it's stories that motivate us and keep our attention, rather than the dead hand of "Literacy" as it is taught in schools.

The title of Frank's lecture was "A Million Summer Suns" and this was where David Hockney came in, at the end, when Boyce explained it to us as a reference Hockney made to the sun pouring energy into trees that died and became fossils and thence carbon fuels before we dug them out of the earth to release that energy again. By then we knew what that had to do with stories.

But he began with two images - one of a totem pole in the Pitt Rivers museum commissioned by King Anetlas of the Haida people in what is now British Columbia. This eleven metre pole was the record of the history of his people and he made it for his adopted daughter, to show her what her new family was made of - not wood but stories.

And then Henri Gustave, whose image I haven't been able to trace but who looked as if he would have been played by Robert Pattison in the film of his life. That would have been a movie like Amnesia or Memento because poor Henri Gustave suffered short term memory loss after an operation to cure his epilepsy, which involved removed his hippocampus and more on both sides.

A charming, friendly, pleasant man, who could remember his manners but nothing about what happened to him each day. He was "a person without stories."

Memorial to Horrocks in Much Hoole church. Photo by Chuck Bueter
 Reading for Pleasure is often talked about without definition. Boyce offered "a complicated form of attention." It wasn't immediately obvious how this involved Jeremiah Horrocks but it turned out to be part of a complex chain of how stories are passed on. Horrocks was a fellow Liverpudlian, a 17th Century self-educated man who was the son of a clockmaker. He went up to Cambridge and realised that Kepler's maths was wrong. He accurately predicted the Transit of Venus in 1639 but died shortly afterwards at the age of 22.

And then somehow we were with Raymond Chandler and how he had influenced Frank's chat up lines as a schoolboy - another tale that had his audience in fits of laughter.


"You can get trapped in stories," Frank told us and that isn't always a good thing. It can be a burden. It can also stop you from seeing an alternative narrative, like the policemen at Hillsborough. Or stories can show you a way out as they did to Mariella Mehr.

This Swiss writer was swept up by the "Relief Organisation for Rural Street Children" a Nazi body that separated Yeniche children from their families. She lived in sixteen different orphanages, three reformatories, went to prison and was sectioned in a mental hospital. But she survived and became a writer. Her explanation was that she had "met Heidi." In other words, her way out of her situation was to tell herself a better story.

"Pleasure allows you to enjoy and retain something without understanding it." How refreshing to hear those words in an era where everything has to be explained to oblivion. "Everyone loves being read to."

What a wise man you are, Frank Cotterell Boyce! I could have listened to you another hour or more. I wish our new Secretary of State for Education had been there to hear you say in answer to Nicolette Jones' question that what you would do in schools is institute  fifteen minutes of reading aloud at the end of every day.

Or 're-institute' it. I remember it happening in my Primary School and I'm sure it made me the voracious reader and incontinent writer that I am.

And Humphrey Jennings? He wrote Pandaemonium, the book about the Industrial Revolution that inspired Frank's 2012 Olympics opening ceremony. He gave Danny Boyle a copy.


Danny Boyle

Sunday, 14 September 2014

The Problem of Authorship by Mary Hoffman


A huge row erupted via Facebook last week involving three novelists, one journalist and a major publishing house. One novelist claimed, incorrectly as it turned out, on a thread on the private page of another novelist that a third novelist did not write all the books published over their name in a  popular series.

For the purposes of this post it is not necessarily to know the identities of any of the writers, the series or the publishing house. An inadvertent libel had been committed in what the libeller thought was a private context, like a dinner party, and has been corrected.

But it raises many interesting questions about privacy in Social Media, what constitutes libel, what is a proportionate response and, most importantly, what is the nature of authorship. I write all my own books and would be pretty annoyed to see it claimed anywhere that I did not. But I have had help. Once I paid a researcher to do some preliminary work for me. It was helpful but not essential; much of what she found out, I had discovered independently and I have never been tempted to do this again.

I have used consultants, always credited in the books, to read all or part of the manuscript and comment before publication. Once, when ill and exhausted, I got my husband to do some preliminary sketching out of the possible content of a non-fiction title for children. Is any of the above cheating? I don't think so.

What about ghost-writing? I have never done it but I know people who have. In this the deal is made with the reader that the writer, usually a non-literary celebrity, has written the actual words within the covers, even though the publisher, the "ghost" and many other insiders know or suspect this not to be the case. (Actually even when a book has NOT been ghost-written, there is often an assumption that it has - how surprised people were to find that actors like David Niven, Dirk Bogarde and Rupert Everett have a way with their own words as well as other people's!)

I actually think it's shabby not to credit the Ghost, but perhaps publishers fear shattering the illusion.

James Patterson by Susan Sollie Patterson (Creative Commons)


The hugely successful author James Patterson cheerfully admits to the use of a team of writers to create "his" books. These are not Ghosts but credited co-authors, who often go on to create their own successful literary careers, having used Patterson's ideas as a springboard. Patterson admits to having so many ideas for plots and relatively little interest in doing the day-to-day sentence-by-sentence business that he needs eight or nine other writers to bring his books to fruition.

Another such was Tom Clancy, who died nearly a year ago. His action novels and film scripts made him rich and he used credited co-authors on some of his later titles.

Worse to my mind are the non-existent entities of "Lucy Daniels," "Daisy Meadows" and "Adam Blade" who are in fact committees of writers, some of whom I know, writing to a strictly laid-down brief.

To change media, Damien Hirst has done something similar.

Still image from the 2010 documentary "The Future of Art" by Erik Niedling and Ingo Niermann. by Christian Görmer
He conceived is spot paintings but carried out only five of them; the rest were completed by assistants. Those paintings are still called Damien Hirsts and fetch the prices his name commands, even when he has not blobbed a single spot of paint from his own brush. At least he admits it.

But when did it all change? In the Renaissance in Italy artists had "bottegas" or workshops, which could develop into "schools." When you visit Italian art galleries, many labels are prefixed by "Scuola di" or "Bottega di."

Andrea di Cione ("Verocchio ") Baptism of Christ - public domain

Leonardo da Vinci was apprenticed to Andrea di Cione, called Verocchio = "true eye," when he upstaged his master by painting the angel in the left of this picture. Needless to say, the painting was known as Verocchio's own work until Giorgio Vasari mentioned Leonardo's hand in it, but there was no intention to deceive.

You can just imagine it - "Eh, Leo! You can do that little angel holding Christ's robe. If you make a pasticcio of it, no-one will notice." What a nightmare of an apprentice to have!

So who is the "author" of a book or painting? The one who lays down the scheme or the one at the keyboard or canvas?








Tuesday, 12 August 2014

A masterclass in storytelling


At the end of July I was in Normandy, at the time of the ongoing D-Day 70th anniversary celebrations. I flew to Caen, as a guest of Flybe, who can hop you across the Channel in an hour from London Southend airport.

Both airports are tiny and you wait only 5 minutes to collect your bags from the single carousel at Caen-Carpiquet. We were there to see the Caen Memorial Museum, which is well worth a visit, especially in this summer of War anniversaries.

But our co-hosts were the Normandy Tourist Board who, quite correctly, believed that my small group of fellow journalists would be very disappointed if they didn't also visit nearby Bayeux while they were there. We all know what the Bayeux Tapestry looks like, without ever having seen it, don't we? It's like the Eiffel Tour or the Taj Mahal or Michelangelo's David - one of those immediately recogniseable works of art that lodge in the collective consciousness.

I honestly hadn't known it was on my "bucket list" until I got the opportunity to see it but retrospectively it obviously must have been. Adèle Geras has written a lovely post on The History Girls blog about the "tapestry" - actually an embroidery with wool on linen. Such a coincidence that, after more than three years of running the History Girls blog, I should see this great artwork at the same time as another HG!

But I have this blog too, on which to write about all things literary and I think the Tapestry has a lot to tell us about storytelling. Famously, it is the world's "first comic strip", telling the story from left to right in some 70 metres of scenes from the story of Harold Godwinson, William the First, the Battle of Hastings and ...

Well it stops short of the logical conclusion, which would be the coronation of William of Normandy as the first King of England in the list we now reckon monarchs from. That bit of the Tapestry is missing but has been ably re-imagined by the embroiderers of Alderney in a Finale on exhibition in the Bayeux Tapestry Museum on display till the end of this month.

I won't say more about the Finale here as I intend to put it in my Cabinet of Curiosities on 31st August on the History Girls.

I mention scenes rather than frames above because the numbers on the Tapestry were added in the 19th Century as aids to following the story and for convenience of reference. And there are no verticals separating the scenes, except for those provided by aspects of the mise-en-scène, such as upright walls of buildings and so on.

But it could well have been sectioned into frames and presented as a graphic novel. It is also a terrific piece of war propaganda. History is written by the victors and, whoever conceived the tapestry, thought to have been commissioned by William's half-brother Bishop Odo, it is a trimph of Norman spin.

Nevertheless the Latin text whose lettering is such a recogniseable part of the tapestry's "look" was probably written by an Englishman. Some think the organising mind behind the depiction was William's wife Matilda - a claim dismissed in the Guidebook as an eighteenth century invention. For an in-depth analysis of the possible candidates, I recommend Carola Hicks' book The Bayeux Tapestry: the Life Story of a Masterpiece (Vintage 2006). She plumps for Edith, Harold's sister and the widow of King Edward the Confessor, whose approaching death begins the story.


At first sight this seems unlikely, since Edith was hardly one of the victors. But she survived the Conquest and would have had an interest in promoting William's unification of England and Normandy, so who knows?

What is clear is that there must have been one unifying mind behind the design. It is SO distinctive and coherent: one of its charms in fact is that very consistency. And the story being told here is not just the record of a military campaign and victory/defeat. It is a moral tale about the consequences of breaking an oath.

It begins with Edward the Confessor asking Harold Godwinson, his brother by marriage, to visit William in Normandy and tell him that he is Edward's chosen heir to the throne. Harold and his companions set off from Bosham on the Solent, complete with hawks and hounds, as if on a fine jaunt.

But disaster strikes when Harold is captured by Guy on Ponthieu, a rebellious vassal of William's. One of his company escapes and takes a message to William that Harold needs rescuing. This duly happens but at a price: Harold must swear loyalty to William as heir-designate to the English throne.


 "Harold sacramentum fecit," Harold swears the oath. You can see him doing it in the middle, each hand placed on a shrine or reliquary as he does so. This a serious stuff.  But is it true? The gift of naming an heir did not lie within the power of the reigning king in the 11th century; nor was inheritance of the title determined by family relationship. The succession was decided by members of the Witenagemot, an assembly of nobles. So that immediately undermines the very basis of the moral and historical story.





But what a story! According to the tapestry, Harold breaks his oath and as soon as Edward is dead, has himself crowned king. If that were true, the whole following shebang - the battle, the deaths on both sides, the arrow in Harold's eye - would simply be a tale of an oathbreaker getting his just deserts.



This famous scene of Harold's death is particularly enigmatic though. I looked as hard as I could and could scarcely see the arrow; at was as if it had been added later - or even removed, so pale are the stitches.

The tapestry is truly a masterpiece of storytelling - clear images, a distinctive style, text and pictures forming an integral part of the whole. But as the message is so biased to one view of history (there is no mention, for example, of Harold's army having marched to Hastings straight after a victory in the north against Harold Hardrada and being exhausted), it made me long to invent an opposite view.

A Hastings Tapestry perhaps? What I do know is that I'd kill for an illustrator and art director like the ones Odo employed.




You can see the whole tapestry roll by here.
The images in this post are taken from Wikimedia Commons, and are credited to Myrabella

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Picture books by Mary Hoffman

I have just acquired a new grandchild, a boy, and at his mother's Baby Shower a few weeks ago (itself an innovation since my day) He was given many items featuring giraffes. Jungle animals have always been popular with parents of small children but it has taken awhile for giraffes to make it into pole position above pandas and elephants and lions. Still, I am now told that all new people need a "Sophie the Giraffe," who even has her own website.


This hard plastic teether - charming as it is - is a long way from the long-eyelashed heroine of the new picture book by Dianne Hofmeyr and Jane Ray. Zeraffa was a real historical character, a present from Egypt to France, who made the long journey to Paris in 1827.

Now I may well be prejudiced because this book is written, illustrated and edited by three of my favourite people! Dianne until very recently graced the History Girls' blog with her fabulous photo-essays; Jane Ray is an old friend, with whom I've had the great fortune to publish to publish two books and Janetta Otter-Barry is not only my first and longest-serving picture book editor but a valued friend.

So that caveat aside, I can tell you that this is a gorgeous book. Both women have a real sympathy for and appreciation of the natural world and it shines from every line of text and glowing illustration. Zeraffa is accompanied by Atir, a boy who goes with her every step of the way from her strange journey from the plains of Africa to the boulevards of Paris. First they sail down the Nile to the Mediterranean and then catch a bigger boat for Marseilles. But then how to travel the 550 miles to the capital?

In the end, there is only one way. But once Zeraffa is there, in her own specially-built house, Paris goes giraffe-mad and fashionable ladies glue false eyelashes to their own in an attempt to mimic her beauty. Zeraffa lives out her days in comfort and is a treasured member of the King of France's collection - unlike poor Marius of Copenhagen Zoo.

A completely different but equally lovely title published by Janetta Otter-Barry books, takes a gentle look at what makes a real boy. Maybe my grandson will need this as much as he does giraffes. Raffi is teased because he loves to knit and sew and doesn't like rough playground games and football. "Mum, is there such a thing as a tomgirl?" he asks.

I know a little boy like Raffi, who loves to make things and whose favourite colour is pink - he has lots of girls as friends and would really like a Barbie doll. But even Primary school culture is damning of such "different" individuals. He's a bit old for picture books now, but I'll give this to him anyway.



Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Endings, Beginnings and a one-off

The Carnegie Medal has just been awarded to Kevin Brooks for The Bunker Diary, prompting criticism of YA books which are bleak or have unhappy endings. I haven't read the winning book so will reserve judgment but I HAVE been reading lots of YA over the last few months while I've been away from here and am now going to bring you the best of them.

To begin: two final books, one in a series and one in a "cycle."


Icefall is the fourth and last book in Gillian Philip's remarkable "Rebel Angel" series that began with Firebrand and introduced us to the raw violence and fierce loyalty of Seth McGregor. I hardly like to mention that Seth is, technically, what we would call a Fairy. He and his clan come from the other side of the Veil though they live for many years among mortals.

I was appalled by the killing off of an important character in the second book, Bloodstone, but the series recovered from it and found its form again in Wolfsbane. Now that I've read Icefall, I really need to go back to the beginning and am envious of new readers who can race through all four. It's something I would have done as a teenager.

But having had large gaps in between, I was grateful for the cast list at the beginning to refresh my memory of the complicated web of relationships on both sides of the Veil. The main adversary of Seth and his clan is the villainous Kate NicNiven, Queen of one side and desiring power on the other. In order to reach victory their creator puts our hero and us through the wringer and there were points where I wanted to cry out "Nooooooh!" with all the fervour of  Luke Skywalker seeing Obi-Wan Kenobi killed by Darth Vader or Frodo witnessing Gandalf falling with the Balrog.

It's an impossible book to review without giving Spoilers so I will only say that fans will not be disappointed, though they will be tormented and exhausted by the end.






There's an interesting story behind the third book in Miriam Halahmy's "Hayling Island Cycle." The first two books, Hidden and Illegal, were published by Meadowside, which ceased to exist before the last book, Stuffed, came out. But it had already been written, so imagine how ghastly this would have been for the author. Sadly, it is all too common a tale now.

But Miriam managed to get back the rights to the first two titles and all three are now available through Albury Books in perfectly matching jackets. Phew! All this before one can get to content, although of course the teenage reader will neither know nor care.

What makes this a cycle rather than a series is that the main characters change and someone who has been a minor figure in one book takes a lead role in another - an elegant way of linking books. In this one fifteen-year-old Jess and seventeen-year-old Ryan are attracted to each other but each has a shameful secret and each finds life completely changed by one thing.

In Jess's case it's her father's loss of job and income and the lies he tells to cover up his bankruptcy that precipitate her into a completely different way of life. For Ryan unprotected sex while drunk leads to a fairly obvious outcome with a girl he scarcely knows, just as he is falling for Jess. Both have a lot of growing up to do in a short time, misunderstandings to unravel and responsibilities to face up to.

Halahmy knows Hayling Island well and it has become an extra character in the books not just a setting for them. Another thing that links them is the theme of trust - who can be trusted? Who deserves trust and who abuses it? Jess and Ryan struggle their way back to trusting each other after the devastating turns their lives separately take. It seems we can trust this author.


This is different again, a historical novel of a most unusual kind, set at the time of the American Civil War and featuring a young African American slave girl, Charley. She is freed at the end of the War but life is still so dangerous and uncertain after the killing of the only two parent-figures she knows that Charley has to adopt a disguise.



She pulls on a dead man's clothes and joins the army, rising through the ranks through her skills at shooting. It's a really tough story and the reader must not get attached to any person or animal that Charley becomes fond of. I wasn't a hundred percent convinced by how she hides her gender by washing out menstrual cloths - how would she dry them unnoticed? - but Landman pulls off her deception through sheer force of narrative.


Charley's ultimate fate is most moving and poignant. And Tanya Landman has now joined The History Girls!



This fourth book is the first in a fantasy sequence; I'm not sure how many books there will be. I have followed Ellen Renner's career with interest since she wrote Castle of Shadows and City of Thieves, a series left unfinished by Orchard. Renner has now gone to Hot Key, who published Tribute earlier this year and will bring out the sequel, Outcaste, next year.

It's traditional High Fantasy for young adults with no vampires or zombies but plenty of magic. The interesting thing is that the heroine, Zara, on her way to becoming a powerful mage, hates her father Benedict - with very good reason. He has killed two people she loved, or at least that is what she believes. He is more powerful than her and yet she must outwit him and save the imprisoned hostage from the other side of the Wall, who is to be used as bait in Benedict's schemes.

It involves her making alliances with the Thieves' Guild and the Knowledge-Seekers but they are not sure if they can trust the daughter of the tyrant Arch-Mage. It's full of thrilling scenes and moments of extreme jeopardy for Zara and I can't wait to read book two.

Monday, 21 April 2014

Friendship and Fresco-bombing in Florence

I had only a week at home before setting of to Italy again, this time to possibly my favourite city: Florence. I have been visiting this treasure-house of art and much else since my first summer holiday from university. It was love at almost first sight and since that formative occasion I have been back more times than I can count - well over thirty, including two separate months when I have lived there.

Last year I was actually paid to do it when Julie Foster Hedlund invited me to teach on her first ever Writer's Renaissance - a creative writing course focussing on sense of place and using all the senses. WR includes field trips, hands-on writing tasks and many wonderful meals and visits to the city's gelaterie. So I jumped at the chance to do it again this year, especially as this year I had the chance to stay first with my old Florentine friend.

My first three nights were in an apartment in the San Gervasio area of the city, spending the day sight-seeing and researching my planned field trip during the day and joining my friend upstairs from late afternoon onwards for tea and then dinner.

My first day was spent divided between culture and shopping - the perfect mix. I went to the San Marco convent to check on my memories of the Fra Angelico frescoes in the upstairs cells and one in particular - the Noli me Tangere - which I have written about twice in novels.

And then to the San Lorenzo market, where I had my once-every-two years commission to buy two pairs of Nicola Benson shoes for my husband from his favourite shop. The three men there all know me now! Then I hit the stalls, buying two pairs of gloves and a turquoise handbag for me and presents for other people.

I had arranged to meet Julie after lunch, who was also in the city early, making arrangements to welcome her students. The hotel which is the WR base is the stunning Antica Torre Tornabuoni, with its two roof terraces, so that was a rendezvous we both knew and had the added advantage that I could leave two heavy pairs of men's shoes there till I moved in on Monday.

After tea and a planning session, we went to watch marbled paper being made, which I shall write about over on The History Girls on 1st May.

I discovered there was going to be a half marathon run in Florence next day, so took the number 7 bus out to Fiesole instead of into the city. I'd hoped to see the newly excavated Etruscan road there but the way into it was locked on a Sunday and there was a beguiling flea-market all over the square on top of it.

So I just walked up to the monastery at the top, catching the wonderful view halfway. This was the day the WR students arrived but I didn't meet them till Monday, when I said goodbye to my friend after three evenings of intense discussion (in Italian) about children's books, and moved into Antica Torre Tornabuoni.

Julie and my fellow tutor Sarah Towle had been on a demanding walking tour relating to Dante with the students but we met up for lunch and more planning. Having been chilly all weekend, Florence had turned hot and sunny that day.

It wasn't till that evening that I met our students - three from the US and two from Australia - over aperitifs in the gazebo. We heard what Dante had inspired them to write, following some prompts from Julie, then walked to Del Porcellino, a restaurant just round the corner from the Mercato Nuovo where this much-photographed bronze of a wild boar gets its nose rubbed for luck by hundreds of hands every day.


That's a bit of typical Florentine humour, by the way, to describe a massive wild boar as "the piglet." The original Roman statue is in the Uffizi.

By the end of a large meal and plenty of wine the group was beginning to gel. For all of them it was their first time in Florence and the stimulus was intense.

Tuesday was "Michelangelo Day," started off by Julie and continued by me. After a session in the gazebo, we set off to the Accademia to see David, about whom I have written a novel. As last year, searching questions were asked about the young man's anatomy and answered frankly by me, causing a scandal with one of the official guides.



The afternoons are free so Sarah and I, who are hatching various writerly and publishing plots, together, went off the see the Medici chapels. Daunted by the long queue, we went for an early lunch + more plotting + caffeine, which had been sadly missing from the morning. By the time we were done, there was no queue and we had the place to ourselves. Alas the public are no longer allowed to get into the "secret room" where Michelangelo hid under the New Sacristy during a visit to the city when the de' Medici had been restored to power, but we saw where it was and watched a DVD showing the drawings he made on the plaster while in hiding.

Wednesday was "my" day, when I got to take the WR students on a field trip. I had chosen San Marco partly because of having written about it in two different ways and partly because it is one of my favourite places in the city. But you never know how it will strike someone seeing it for the first time. (Last year I took the first group of students to see the Masaccios in the Brancacci Chapel).

I needn't have worried:they were all blown away. First by the massive Annunciation at the top of the stairs and then by the cell paintings, especially my favourite Noli me Tangere. Gradually they realised that St. Dominic the founder of the Order at San Marco, whose adherents included Savonarola and Michelangelo's older brother as well as Fra Angelico, found his way into almost every painting.

Here is another version of the Annunciation from one of the cells and you can see that the Saint has "fresco-bombed" the subject.

We left the students there - some stayed till lunch - while Julie and I went for a much-needed caffeine + gelato hit. We all re-grouped for lunch at Nuti's and then I introduced one student to the joys of the market, where she bought three handbags ( her score by the end of her trip reached eight!).

And then it was already the last night and our "Faculty dinner" which Julie, Sarah and I had at I Quattro Leoni. It was another enriching experience for all concerned and, as last year, will take a long time before all the experiences are fully absorbed and re-emerge in the students' writing.

I have already been invited back to teach next year; just let anyone try to stop me.

3 lionesses at the 4 Lions - Faculty dinner with Julie Foster Hedlund and Sarah Towle