Wednesday, 7 December 2016

A Celebration of Christmas Annuals by Dawn Finch

It's a short post this month from me as the year has run away with me again and I'm determined to get everything done before 2017 arrives. This also means cramming in christmas shopping. I was in a shop the other day and I heard two mothers talking about how christmas annuals were "garbage" books. They both seemed annoyed that people so often give them to children. 

As you know, nothing gets me more annoyed than adults making sweeping negative book decisions for their children, and it started me thinking about how much I loved getting an annual when I was a child. I flicked through the comic Christmas annuals and was pleased to see that they are almost exactly the same as when I was a child.

When I was a very small person, the arrival of the Christmas Annual on the shelves of the paper shop was the first hint that Christmas was on its way. Long before the tinsel went up, the glossy covers of the Christmas annuals were grinning at me from the shelf above the grey universe of the newspapers. These were the books that kept me going over Christmas. When the adult world of Christmas closed in and drowned all concentration – these dip-in books were a marvel (pun intended). They were the hand-held games of their day and you could sneak off, find a spot to sit, and dip into comic adventures, short stories, puzzles, jokes, and things to make and do.

I have a particularly poignant relationship with them however, as I was blessed with an aunt who knew the value of money. This meant that most of my annuals were bought from jumble sales. There really is nothing more depressing than to spend a week looking at that A4 sized parcel under the tree wishing for the 1977 Monster Fun annual, but knowing it’s probably the 1973 Hotspur for Boys with all the dot-to-dots already done.

As a festive post I wanted to share a few of the annuals that gave me many festive quiet moments and escapes. So here’s to the Christmas annual. A much maligned and dismissed item, but something that for many was one of the first books they ever owned. A book that defied technology and sneakily kept reading at the heart of the season. I, for one, am glad they've survived.

Footnote - I did get the Monster Fun one, but had to wait for my dad to finish reading it first.
It was worth the wait.

Post by Dawn Finch
Children's Writer and Librarian

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Tyler Family Christmas

Early in December I begin reading the annual round of much loved Christmas stories. Among them are the March girls delivering their Christmas breakfast to a hungry family and the Ingalls putting baked potatoes at their visitors feet to keep them from freezing on their sleigh ride home.

This year, I would like to give you the Tyler family Christmas as celebrated in 2010. I don't pretend we have the charm of the March or Ingalls families, but it is ours and I offer it to you with love.

There is nothing more magical than waking up to a world covered in snow. A reverential hush descends, footsteps are muted and activities are transformed to fit a new landscape of breath-taking beauty. But when show falls at Christmas, the world becomes a place of enchantment.

We live in the mountains and have been snowed in for some days. Mum, Dad and the dogs are trudging though the snow to meet the family. Cars cannot reach the farm and must be parked two miles down the hill. As people tumble out of their cars smiling and laughing, everyone is caught up in a bundle of hugs, kisses and happiness. We pile sledges high with luggage and presents and tramp back to the house singing Good King Wenceslas: the girls sing the part of the page and the boys take the King. As usual, we shout the last word in the line ‘heat was in the very sod’ and giggle like naughty children in a school assembly.

Eventually, we tumble into the house with cold noses and numb fingers, stamping life back into our feet. We stand in front of the wood burner and melted snow forms small pools on the rug.

The house has been transformed by Mum into a magical candle-lit wonderland with green boughs and twinkling tree lights. As we put the presents under the tree, Dad brings us mulled wine and Christmas has truly begun.

Christmas Eve ends with Mum reading aloud Lucy and Tom’s Christmas by the light of the Christmas tree. Then we watch The Snowman followed by Father Christmas and we give our annual toast of thanks to Raymond Briggs. As we climb the stairs to bed, we sing a slightly raucous version of Father Blooming Christmas.

Silent Night. Soundlessly, the snow falls outside. Mum lies in bed happy to have her family gathered under the same roof for three deliciously precious nights.

Christmas morning dawns and the snow is deeper still. ‘Happy Christmas!’ echoes round the kitchen as we eat breakfast in front of the Aga. Then we bundle ourselves up to head out into the snow. The dogs chase us as we toboggan down the hills witnessed only by a few startled sheep. The kids perfect the technique of standing on sledges as they career down the slopes. Mum falls off and we all laugh as she staggers to her feet covered in snow. The sun is big and red, just like Lucy and Tom’s, and the camera catches the boys jumping over it and flying through the air like winter super heroes.

Back in the house, the piano and guitars accompany our carol singing. The song sheets are falling apart with age, but they are another tradition. At every exclamation mark we slap our thighs; an unmerited capital letter has us standing up and quickly sitting again. What we lack in piety, we make up for with laughter. We finish, as we do every year, with Mum’s favourite, O Come all ye Faithful. As always, Mum sheds a tear of happiness.

Then, we put on our wellies and venture outside again to see who can pop the bubbly cork the furthest. This year one cork goes out of sight and we suspect it lands two fields away – a family record.

We hurry back into the house for present-opening. The youngest passes a present out from under the tree and the recipient opens it carefully – no paper-ripping in our home – while everyone watches and comments. It takes a while, but no one is in a hurry.

Lunch is mid afternoon. We all eat brussel sprouts not because we like them, but because it’s tradition. The wishbone is pulled and someone gets a wish. Afterwards the oldies are sent to doze by the fire while the youngsters clear away, and by the time they join Mum and Dad night has fallen.

Darkness once more transforms our home into a mystical wonderland and the games begin. They are noisy and boisterous and competitive. Merriment is the key component and we laugh until our sides ache.

Bed is late. Mum and Dad go first and youngsters stay downstairs savouring the company of their siblings. Games from their youth are played and no one notices what time they finally troop up to bed.

Boxing Day is quieter. We walk the snowy hills and try out a new camera. In the evening we watch a film, but it takes ages because we keep stopping to talk, tell a story or make a joke.

After a late and very long breakfast the following morning, we pile up the sledges with bags and suitcases and trudge back to the cars. Mum hides her tears as her children drive away. She watches and waves until they are long out of sight.

Mum, Dad and the dogs walk back to an empty house.

Christmas is over, but the memories remain.”

Monday, 5 December 2016

Creative Writing: Erasmus Plus in Paris

I was invited to the Lycee Maurice Genevoix, in Montrouge in Paris, at the end of November to run a few writing workshops based on my short story, The Death of Princess. It was going to be a two-day event - fifty French students from the school for a two hour workshop on the first day, and over sixty international students and twenty teachers, from the Erasmus Plus programme, for four hours the next day.

The school is part of the Erasmus Plus programme. Erasmus Plus is funded by the European Commission to support education, training, youth and sport in Europe. It has a budget of €14.7 billion to provide opportunities for over four million Europeans to study, train, gain experience, and volunteer abroad, and for co-operation in innovation and exchange of good practices in education and teaching.

The aim of the Erasmus Plus meet that I was part of at the Lycee Maurice Genevoix was to foster intercultural awareness and improve creativity and English Language skills amongst the participants. 

To that end, the kids were very well prepared by their teachers before arriving in Paris for their week of workshops, which included a host of activities, talks, workshops on urban farming and taking part in my writing workshop. The week of programmes was organised by an English teacher in the school - Sarah el Bouh, who co-ordinated all the international speakers invited for the week, the international pupils and teachers, and she did it amazingly well, enthusiastically supported by the staff from the school. 

For my international event, pupils and teachers from eight countries were involved: France, Spain, Portugal, Poland, Lithuania, Turkey, Latvia, and Italy. Their proficiency in English varied, but the pupils were engaged and lively when it came to discussing the short story, asking and answering questions and producing written work.

All the countries involved in my workshop had translated my story into their own language. One pupil from Lithuania even wrote out a passage from the story, illustrated it, and framed it before presenting it to me.

Carla Barbi, from the Italian team, presented me with a stunning book on her region of Italy - San Giorgio, Mantova.

The Turkish team came with beautiful drawings depicting different scenes from my story. I was presented with one that I could take home.

The French students from both days had prepared illustrations based on scenes in the short story that had impacted them most. Here's a collection of their work -

 And some more illustrations from the French students -

The kids broke up into smaller groups for discussion and the writing exercises. Each group was mixed in terms of English language ability, but also mixed in terms of nationality. The kids worked with each other, got an insight into each other's cultures and view points, and helped and supported each other in understanding the themes of the story, which was great to see.

Considering the mixed range of English ability amongst the 60 kids, I can honestly say that their level of interest and engagement far exceeded my expectations. It was fulfilling and rewarding, and from the feedback I've had from the teachers, the kids felt the same way too.


So, would I do something like this again? 

Yes, in a heartbeat!

A big thank you to Miriam Halahmy for putting me in touch with this project!

Savita's WEBSITE
Savita on TWITTER

Sunday, 4 December 2016

How to help to save public libraries – David Thorpe

I know that we are hearing a lot about library closures due to council cutbacks, especially following a day of action to highlight this by unions on 5 November.

But, you know, it would help if people paid their library fines. Apparently, over £347,000 is owed in library fines across Wales. Researchers found:
  • The largest amount is in Rhondda Cynon Taf, where £67,679 is owed from the last three years.
  • Second is Swansea, where borrowers owe £66,381.
  • Cardiff library users owe £38,304 and
  • In Newport the sum is £31,748.
Hmm. Now where is that library book I was supposed to return?

Whichever way you look at it that's an awful lot of books that haven't been returned as well as money owed.

Several councils didn't even reply to the researchers' question, leading them to assume that the overall amount in Wales of unpaid library fines might be as high as half a million pounds, enough to build a new library or two perhaps.

That's why it is refreshing that Carmarthenshire Council (£4,320 unpaid in 2015) where I live is still supporting its libraries.

Recently it has held a series of Christmas book fairs in various libraries such as Llanelli, Carmarthen and Ammanford. Authors were invited to present their books and give readings. Here is Angela Fish, who not so long ago gave up her day job as a lecturer to become a children's writer:
 Angela Fish
 Angela Fish with her books about Ben in the Spider Gate.

And Bryce Thomas with his young adult books:

Bryce Thomas
Bryce Thomas
But again, you know, turnout wasn't brilliant. Was this down to lack of publicity or lack of public enthusiasm?

Basically, it's use it or lose it, people.

Libraries in Carmarthenshire do try. They also celebrated Children in Need day and have been making the most of the fact that it has been the year of Roald Dahl's birth centenary, putting on a series of events for schoolchildren.

Roald Dahl day for  schools in Llanelli library

Roald Dahl day for  schools in Llanelli library

And during Halloween Fun Week children at Llanelli Library took part in a Treasure Hunt. Everyone took home a fridge magnet and bookmark and went into a prize draw to win goody bags. There was a Story Time and a Halloween craft session.

 Halloween day in Llanelli library

I thought I'd look for some other good library news just to test whether the picture is all bad. In the past few months:
  1. A housing association and construction firm have joined forces to come to the rescue of a much-loved community library building.
  2. Friends of Llanfairfechan Community Library (FLCL) managed to get hold of a £30,000 Community Facilities Grant from the Welsh Government to do up their library which despite being one of the smallest libraries in Conwy had one of the highest children’s summer challenge readerships. Colwyn Bay-based Brenig Construction is carrying out the work free of charge.
  3. In the Rhondda valley another library is being renovated: Tonypandy, which is undergoing a total refurbishment financed by the council to the tune of £60,000 – which is less than those unpaid library fines! Let's hope all the new users of this library take their books back or pay their fines. 
  4. And Ebbw Vale the library not far away has already had an extensive refurbishment and now offers improved disabled access, a re-designed IT suite and a new community room. You can get free Wi-Fi. And it hasn't lost any of its traditional features.

Ebbw Vale  renovated library

So, with some councils trying their damnedest to keep open the libraries they have, if people want to keep their local library open shouldn't they cease grumbling and use them? And pay their fines!

[David Thorpe is the writer of Marvel's  Captain Britain, the sci-fi YA novels  HybridsDoc Chaos: The Chernobyl Effect and the cli-fi fantasy  Stormteller.]

Saturday, 3 December 2016

DECEMBER'S AUTHOR by Sharon Tregenza


Cornelia Funke is a German author of Children's fiction. She was born on December 10th, 1958, in Dorsten, North Rhine-Westphalia.

As a child, Cornelia wanted to be an astronaut but went on to study pedagogy at the University of Hamburg. After graduating she worked as a social worker with children from deprived backgrounds. Inspired by the type of stories that appealed to the children she worked with she began with illustrating books, but soon decided to write her own.

Her work is mainly in the fantasy and adventure genres. In the late 1980s and 1990s she established herself with the fantasy-oriented series: Ghosthunters.

Her best-known work is probably the Inkheart trilogy: INKHEART (2003), INKSPELL (2005), and INKDEATH (2008). The stories tell the adventures of teen Meggie Folchart and her father, a bookbinder called Mo, who have the ability to bring book characters into the real world.

On ideas for writing, Cornelia Funke says: "they come from everywhere and nowhere, from outside and inside. I have so many I won't be able to write them down in a lifetime."

On characters: "Mostly they step into my writing room and are so much alive, that I ask myself, where did they come from. Of course, some of them are the result of hard thinking, adding characteristics, manners, etc., but others are alive from the first moment they appear".

Favourite Funke quote: I always wanted to ride a dragon myself, so I decided to do this for a year in my imagination.

Friday, 2 December 2016

WHAT’S IN THE SHOPS – Dianne Hofmeyr

As the darkness was closing in, on yesterday’s chilly 1st December 2016 in a temperature of 3 degrees (I’m sure much colder in other parts of the UK) I went in search of bookshop windows looking for Christmas cheer. My walkabout was limited to my borough and a little further afield.

A quick stop before darkness at the South Kensington Book Shop, a great Independent, with the sun still up and the domes and cupolas of the V & A reflecting in the single window, I found a charming alpine snow scene of houses and snow flakes made from printed paper resting on books. In a way, similar to those amazing cut-outs made from books in the V & A’s own book collection.

To the side of the village, a model castle from Usborne’s Castle books along with books touching on Christmas in varying degrees, including some Enid Blyton spoofs. 
Right next door, the Medici Gallery – not strictly a bookshop but a delightful card, paper and much more sort of shop – this being the French Quarter of London, understandably had a display of Tintin and a large Snowy that would steal a few children's hearts. 
Further afield at Daunt Books in the Fulham Road,  their pavement was being dug up and the front of the two very generous windows they usually reserve for the children’s book display were covered by engineering work screening. Inside the shop I manage to capture a view of some baubles that were put in the window just as the pavement came up.

The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots with Quentin Blake illustrating a lost Beatrix Potter story was on display and Karen, the bookseller, assured me The Fox and the Star by designer Bickford-Smith, which won the Waterstones Book of the Year, was selling well. In a limited range of colour, the illustrations of darkness contrasting with flaming orange in spreads like this were wondrously warming on a cold night.

In The Little White Company I found that Nosy Crow had put its claw in the door with quite a few titles and found this display, not in the window but on the shop floor. Interesting to note that on another table I found the White Company are producing their own baby books… all pearly and silvery and soft focus to match the pearly and silvery rooms that mums who shop here, no doubt have created for their babes.
Then in the glittery darkness and getting more frozen by the minute, I set off for Piccadilly to see what the ‘heavies’ had in their shop windows. First up was Hatchard's with the Kitty book again and great to see Three Little Monkeys by Emma Chichester Clark also illustrated by Quentin Blake and a wonderful collection of the Winnie-the-Pooh stories with the original E.H. Shepard illustrations.

Waterstones Piccadilly seemed to fill their three large windows with toys more than books. But great to see The Book of Bees which tracks bees to as far back as the dinosaurs.

And finally the majestic flying angels of Regent Street which pay homage to the original lights of 1954. If you’ve spotted one of your books here, please shout out.  Best Book Offerings go to Hatchards and winner of the Best Display goes to South Kensington Book Shop.

I wish I could have gone further afield but by now I was completely frozen and it was time to head to Jane Ray's exhibition of illustrations for the Nightingale Project and who was there but the wonderful Quentin Blake himself. Jane has produced images that can be reproduced to the height of the walls in the women's Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit at St Charles Hospital. It is an incredible display and prints are for sale in aid of the project. So if you are looking for a gift for someone special for Christmas head for no 1 Nightingale Place SW10 9NG next to the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. The exhibition continues until 21st April 2017.
twitter: @dihofmeyr