Wednesday, 5 April 2017

A response to: TAKE COURAGE Anne Bronte and The Art of Life by Samantha Ellis

In January, I was excited to read a review for Take Courage – Anne Bronte and the Art of Life in the Guardian. I hadn’t read a biography of Anne before and I decided that this book sounded like one I would read more than once.

I used to ask myself which of the Bronte sisters’ work I loved the most. I remember the first time I read all of their books. Jane Eyre was the first – I read it on the train from Aberystwyth to London. The opening scene, with Jane trying to hide in a corner with a book and then being brutalised by her aunt and cousin hooked me, and from then on I was with Jane all the way.

But then I read Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, written from the point of view of Bertha, Rochester's first wife. It was hard to think of Rochester in quite the same way, after that.

When I came to Wuthering Heights, I started with the feeling that it couldn’t possibly be as good. But I was wrong. I began reading at bedtime and stayed up into the small hours to finish it.

For a long time I thought of the Brontes as Emily and Charlotte. I think I had absorbed the idea that Anne had also written but that her writing couldn’t compare to Charlotte’s or Emily’s. Maybe I even mentioned this to my sister, and she immediately said how wrong I was. Then she gave me a copy of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
I remember the first time I read that, too. Straight away I wanted to know more about the unconventional woman who lived all alone in part of a deserted old house – what she was doing there and how she had come, with her child, to be living this secretive life.
Now I had to wonder which of the three books was my favourite. And over the years, in spite of Jane Eyre’s passionate longing for love, and Wuthering Heights’ wildness and beauty and its poignant love story tucked away in the younger generation, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall grew in my mind. Helen (and through her, Anne) spoke from the book in a timeless way. Like Jane and Emily, Helen is drawn to a Byronic hero. Like Jane, she has fond hopes for his reform. But unlike Jane Eyre, the wedding takes place part of the way through the book. The novel looks out and beyond. It’s about what happens when romance and passion turn sour and marriage becomes abusive. What can the wife do then, it asks, when she is her husband’s property? It seemed to me that Anne was actually the most radical of the sisters.

When I read the review of Take Courage, I knew it would be a book I would want to own in hardback. It’s a beautiful book, both as an object and for the way it’s written. It’s a very personal response to Anne Bronte. Samantha Ellis constructs the chapters through the people in Anne’s life. The last chapter is ‘Anne’ and by the time I got there, I was crying. Anne died very soon after Emily and Branwell, but by the time you reach this point, having been immersed in her words, her ideas and above all her zest for life, it’s awful to imagine her life cut short. 
Samantha Ellis visited the places where Anne lived and she recounts them for the reader with such immediacy that you feel as if you’ve been there yourself. I like her defence of Anne. She sets out to discover just how Anne’s work has been so neglected, and it’s a fascinating story. All the way through, I kept thinking how nice it would be for Anne if she could have read this book written so many years after her early death. I think she would have liked to know that her work still speaks to people, and I hope that this is just the start of Anne taking her true place.
Top Withens (possibly the inspiration for Wuthering Heights) taken in 1910 by my grandfather, Cecil George Waudby
Some people say that Anne’s writing lacks the passion of Charlotte’s and Emily’s. But I don’t think that’s true. I think she just goes further, asking what would it really be like, to be married to someone like Heathcliffe, Rochester or Huntingdon. Even in terms of religion, I think Anne went further. In Jane Eyre, the parson accuses little Jane of being a liar, and asks her where liars go. She replies: to hell. He asks her how she can avoid going there and she says, by staying well and not dying. Of course, that is brave of Jane. But it’s still only a short-term solution. In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, when Helen starts to wonder about her much-loved fiance’s goodness (or not), she searches through the Bible to find proofs that nobody will go to hell in the end. I think this is typical of Anne. Her character is not ready to accept what she’s told. In many ways, she is like a woman of our own time.
Samantha Ellis makes this point in Take Courage, suggesting that one of the reasons Anne fell out of favour is because she was too shocking and radical for her age. But not for ours! I’m glad Anne has found such a champion and I hope her two books and her poetry find a renaissance.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Ten Christmases I love in children’s literature

I decided to try and think of the Christmases that leap into my mind when I think of the children’s books and poems I grew up with or shared with my children. These are the ones I thought of first – there are loads of others too.

LITTLE WOMEN by Louisa May Alcott, opens with Jo’s famous line: ‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.’ Of course, that first chapter then goes on to show how little the actual presents matter after all. I got this book on my seventh birthday, and right away I wanted to know these four sisters.

KING JOHN’S CHRISTMAS from NOW WE ARE SIX, by A.A. Milne, illustrated by E. H. Shepherd, became my favourite Christmas poem when I was six. Like Scrooge, King John is a bad man. So, obviously, he doesn’t deserve a Christmas present, even though he writes an ever-shrinking Christmas list, as it dawns on him that he has no friends or cards and has never given or received a Christmas present in his life. But, even though he’s the archetypal bad boy who Santa shouldn’t visit, this is how the poem ends:
My sister had a beautifully illustrated book of A CHRISTMAS CAROL by that king of Christmas, Charles Dickens. One year Dad read it to us on Christmas Eve. I was enchanted by this tale of a man in the dark turning to the light. I’ve loved every film version I’ve seen since, especially the Muppets’ Christmas Carol, which is so faithful to the original (apart from the characters not all being human!). Although the final scene always moves me, the one that stayed with me most is the image of little Scrooge alone in his boarding school at Christmas, with only the characters from stories for company. And when jaded old Scrooge sees this, it’s the friendship he felt for these characters that awakens his capacity to love. 

BALLET SHOES by Noel Streatfield, illustrated by Ruth Gervais, is another childhood favourite of mine. I never did ballet, but I loved this story of three girls who have no birth families, but find their own family with each other and a motley collection of supportive adults. Always struggling to find enough money, their Christmas is magical because of the simple things that don’t cost anything.
That brings me to MILLY-MOLLY-MANDY, written and illustrated by Joyce Lankester Brisley in the 1930s. These were the most comforting bedtime stories when I was little. Not much happens but you are in this calm and friendly village life with Milly-Molly-Mandy and her friends.
The WILLIAM books by Richmal Crompton were some of my favourite books when I was in the last year of primary school. It’s nice to know that my dad read these same books when he was a child. I still find them funny now because the stories are so completely from William’s point of view and the writer is so strongly on his side. Christmas features in many of the stories, but I especially like the scene from MORE WILLIAM, in which William buys all his relatives presents he would like himself, knowing that it’s only a matter of time before he can quietly get them back.

The HARRY POTTER books are ones which we shared with our children. Christmas runs through them all, but for me the most moving one is in HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE, when Harry has the first happy Christmas he can remember. Like many other Christmas scenes, it features a gift which is more than it appears – his father's invisibility cloak. This helps him in almost all his tasks, but most importantly of all it hides Harry as he walks to face Voldemort, meaning that he can make this most difficult journey alongside those he has loved and lost. It's not Harry's only gift, though. While Ron receives his mother's home-knitted jumper with resigned disdain, to Harry it represents a kind of coming home. 
FATHER CHRISTMAS, written and illustrated by Raymond Briggs is another favourite. His version of Santa is a slightly grumpy, overworked but kind man. He gets up on Christmas Eve and feeds the cat, dog and deer, still in his dressing gown, in the snow. I love all the detailed illustrations of his outside loo, butler sink and wooden draining board. His is not a glamorous life and he lives very simply, but still he travels the world in horrible weather of every kind to deliver his presents to everyone. One spread shows rain, sleet, hail, ice – and poor Father Christmas hunched up in his sleigh. But at the end, he and the deer, the dog and the cat are all tucked up in the warm.
Our children loved all the JOLLY POSTMAN books by Janet and Allan Ahlberg, especially THE JOLLY CHRISTMAS POSTMAN. He delivers presents and cards to all the old favourites – the big bad wolf, Humpty Dumpty, the gingerbread boy and the rest – and finally is given a gift himself (a paper peep show) as well as a ride home in Santa’s sleigh. I used to enjoy reading this story to my children on Christmas Eve.
I started this post with the presents from LITTLE WOMEN so it seems fitting to finish with the presents from Narnia. The first ‘chapter book’ I read on my own was THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE by C. S. Lewis. Father Christmas, coming from our world, doesn’t quite fit in Narnia. But all the same, he turns up with his sleigh and reindeer to tell the children and the beavers that the witch’s eternal winter with no Christmas is breaking, and to give them each a gift. These really are special gifts – so special that they feature in the following stories, giving the children the power to fight evil and heal the harm it causes.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Readers, libraries and awards

In June, I was involved in three book awards - two as a shortlisted author and one as the visiting author who announced the winner.
When ONE OF US was published, I didn't even think about book prizes or awards. So finding out that it was shortlisted for the Lancashire Book of the Year award (LBOY) and the Bolton Children's Fiction Award was both amazing and very nice.
First up was LBOY, in Preston, for a two-day event. It's the 30th year of this award, which was the first to be entirely chosen by young people. I met David Lightfoot who had the initial idea for an award in which the judges are teenagers. He was Head of Library Services then and here he is with Julie Bell, current Head of Libraries, Museums, Culture and Registrar.

I was impressed with how many hundreds of people come together each year with a shared love of reading. The University of Central Lancashire have supported the event for 15 years. 
Julie Hitchin of UCLAN
I think it's wonderful that a university puts so much into an event centred around young people's experience of YA books.I met so many people involved with the event - librarians, including Jill Connelly who organised the event from September 2015 to June 2016, councillors, teachers, bloggers, booksellers, parents and most importantly the young judges, who spoke with such eloquence and inspired me to read 'outside my comfort zone'.

With Jill Connelly, Reading and Learning Manager

At a time when libraries are being closed across the country, it was both inspiring and heartbreaking to be part of something in which so many people of different ages come together in a shared passion for books. I couldn't help wondering if thirty years ago anyone would have believed that libraries would be lost all over the country. I think thirty years ago they felt like something that was part of the fabric of British society.
The thing about this award that really blew me away was the young people who took part in the event. At the award ceremony, each of the judges (all from year 9) stood up and spoke about what they had got from the experience. I met one boy who read over 60 books! Their passion for reading was inspiring and so was their self-assurance and confidence - it was a very imposing room! This year's winner was Holly Bourne for Am I Normal Yet? It was also great fun to meet the other authors.
Shortlisted authors at LBOY
Like LBOY, the Ealing Readers’ Award is chosen completely by young people, this year from 8 high schools in Ealing. It was lovely to be in a room with Ealing schools and I felt very at home because I went to school in Ealing myself from 14 on and I taught in an Ealing school when I first started teaching English.

You can see what a happy and fun event it was. Each group put on a presentation of their chosen book and these were very funny with some great props and excellent acting. Here students from Acton High School psych themselves up for their presentation on Holly Smale's Geek Girl.

When I was at school, going to the library was a solitary activity. I would have loved the chance to be part of a book club, spend time with people who also passionately loved reading and be able to choose the winner of a prize. Lots of the students mentioned that they wouldn't have chosen the book themselves, but having read it, found lots to enjoy. The winner of the Ealing Readers' Award was Girl Online on Tour by Zoe Sugg and the joint winners for the presentation were Greenford High School and Cardinal Wiseman. You can read about it in posts by Brentside, Drayton Manor and Acton High School. I've always wanted to be the person who gets to say: 'And the winner is...', and this was my chance!

 The winner of the Bolton Children's Fiction Award is also chosen by teenagers. This year it was won by Narinder Dhami for 13 Hours  I read the shortlist as there were only 6 of us and it was a real treat. I feel proud to be part of such a great line-up. The event was organised by the Library at Bolton School and held there with students from other local schools. We were made very welcome and all thought it looked like Hogwarts. Many of the young judges had read all six books and they had special bookmarks to tick off as they read. They queued up with their stacks of books and it was really lovely to meet readers.
Some pupils (from St James C of E High School) made trailers for each of the books. These were amazing, not only gripping but also showing such engagement with each book. I loved mine because it captured the feeling I wanted to come across in the book. I particularly liked the crumpled, scribbled-on paper they used as this showed in such a visual way what K’s life is like at the start of the story.

The highlight for me was once again meeting the young people. Some of them told me what they liked about ONE OF US and that was the most exciting thing. There are moments when it’s very tough finishing a novel, times when it isn’t going well and you can feel plagued by doubt. The thing that made me finish this book was the thought that my characters K, Greg, Oskar, Celestina and the others, could only really ‘live’ if young people read their story. So to know that that has happened, but even more to meet those readers is really something I will never forget. I can’t imagine this ever feeling ordinary, however many books I write.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Notes from Canvey Island

I've been meaning to go to Canvey Island for ages and yesterday I finally went! I've set a section from the middle of my current novel there, but I decided I couldn't do that without actually seeing it in real life. I love visiting places as research - somehow even the journey feels like an adventure, and it makes the story almost cross over into reality. I put Canvey Island in my book because it's one of the nearest places to London where you can see the ocean.
And there it was, in the far distance between Essex and Kent, under a sky just waiting to pour down. That's when I realised that I must have seen this bit of coast before. My first ever sight of Britain would have been here, from a P&O liner called the Chu San. I was only three so I can't remember seeing the Thames estuary narrow into the river that leads to London, but it was nice to think I'd been here before, only in the sea rather than on the land. As I walked along the seawall, taking photos and working out where various things could happen in my story, it started to rain torrentially and I got so wet that my jeans were dripping. But that was good, because it rains the whole time my protagonist, Logan, is there. In the moments between showers, there was something beautiful about the light and the huge expanse of sky.
The other thing I loved was watching the ships, boats and sailing boats passing to and from London. Some of them were so near that I could hear the rumble of the engines. I could look at them for hours, and other people obviously do this too because even in the worst of the wind and rain I met people cycling and walking along the sea wall or sitting in the shelters watching the boats.
After getting so wet (including my notebook and the inside of my bag), I decided to write up my notes inside the Labworth cafe, a 30s' building that looks like a ship and serves delicious apple pie and piping hot tea. Was it worth it? I asked myself. Will my book be better because I came here? I think it will - even if these scenes change beyond recognition. Because I spent the day walking round Canvey Island in Logan's shoes, his story came alive for me in a different way.
I found it inspiring to go somewhere new. I'd like to go there again. There is an interesting mural about the flood of 1953, memorial benches under the sea wall, and palm trees dotted alongside the beach:
And there's also this!

Thursday, 3 March 2016

World Book Day

I had a lovely day today at the friendly and welcoming Hoe Valley School in Woking for World Book Day.
It was great to read some of the students' fabulous stories and chat over lunch with them.
I really enjoyed hearing the interesting ideas they came up with in a very short time.

Monday, 29 February 2016

Open doors

When you look at this picture of my local library, what do you see?

I've been thinking about libraries a lot recently. These days, every week there seems to be another group of libraries closing somewhere in the UK. I've always thought of libraries as a constant - just there, full of books. But now I feel that libraries are like a precious endangered species.

I joined a library for the first time aged three. My family were ‘home’ on leave from Hong Kong where we lived (home to me) and my dad, who used to be a librarian, took us our local London library. On the way, as we crossed the railway footbridge, he explained that we could take home any book we wanted without having to buy it. I chose Thumbelina because it had a beautiful yellow cover, and that was my first encounter with Hans Christian Anderson’s haunting fairy tales. Somehow the book’s temporary status made it all the more precious.

Back in Hong Kong, joining the public library was a much more serious business. We had to have photos done, and then go on the tram to an official building where we were issued with library tickets. After that, every Friday before catching the boat back to the island where we lived, we went to the public library. It was enormous, with whole floors of children's books in Cantonese and English . Any book was mine for the taking. I remember the joy of running back to Queen’s Pier with my haul of books weighing down my bag – the heavier the better.

Later there was the high school library too and before my last summer in Hong Kong, aged thirteen, I went there to take out my holiday books, among them ‘A Long Way from Verona’ by Jane Gardam and ‘The River’ by Rumer Godden, books that perfectly captured how it felt to be almost grown up. Jane Gardam’s heroine Jessica wanted to be a writer and made it seem possible for me. Like me, Rumer Godden’s heroine Harriet (also a writer) was growing up far from her parents’ home. Because of these two books, the hours I spent in the cool of the verandah scribbling down my novel in a blue notebook seemed like time well spent.

For me the special thing about libraries is the openness of experience they offer. Nobody chooses your library book for you. It can never be too expensive. You can have the hardback edition, in its plastic cover, and it’s yours for as long as you need it. However many books you have or don’t have at home, at the library they all belong to you.

When I look at that picture of my local library, I see an open door. I hope it stays that way.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Fellow travellers

Last week was special for me. On Monday my friend Kathryn Evans celebrated the launch of her debut novel MORE OF ME

We’ve been in the same online critique group (SCBWI YACritique) for years and during this time we have all watched each others’ stories grow, helped each other through the difficult times and even met up when possible – very special when the furthest away member of the group is based in South Africa. In between, we stay in touch by skype and email. I’ve enjoyed many wonderful book launches, but Kathy’s was special for me because this is the first time I’ve been to the launch of a book I followed from its beginning.

Writing is generally a solitary thing – even if you write in a café, once you start it’s just you and the laptop/notebook/pen. So to have travelling companions on this journey is very precious, and it’s not surprising that they become friends as well as writing partners. I also belong to a face-to-face critique group and again we have supported each other over the years and kept each other going, becoming friends in the process.

I also found out last week that ONE OF US is on the longlist for the Branford Boase Award. This is really thrilling for me because the award recognizes the joint work of editor and author. I learnt so much from my editors Rachel Leyshon and Imogen Cooper. From my perspective as the writer, I felt that they could take a bird’s eye view, finding aspects of the story that I had been too close to see. The things I learnt from them have stayed with me and when I’m writing now I sometimes get little reminders in my head of things to look out for. In the metamorphosis from manuscript to book, editors and authors are also fellow travellers.