Amsterdam

Yesterday I got back from an 8-day trip to Amsterdam. What an incredible city! As this is primarily a blog about books, I ought to mention the book-related things first. The Openbare Bibliotheek Amsterdam is a huge newly built brightly lit library with the most incredible cafe on the 6th floor that has the best views out across the city.

The picture below is me looking out across the 4th floor at a corner window towards the Nemo Science Centre.

IMAG1143

This is a cute little reading area in the children’s section. Incidentally, the children’s section is one of the best children’s library areas I’ve ever seen! I was running around, appropriately, like a big kid.

IMAG1145

The Mouse Mansion by Karina Shaapman was in a case in the children’s section and was absolutely incredible.

IMAG1399IMAG1400IMAG1401IMAG1404

I also liked this cute reading banner:

IMAG1407

Other things I liked about Amsterdam:

 

  • Cycling. Amazing! The city itself is so bike-friendly and there are bikes everywhere you look. We also cycled out into the countryside and there were actual roads for bikes with signs and proper routes and everything. I went out on my bike in Manchester today and felt slightly disappointed at how few cyclists I saw on my route.

IMAG1175

  • Food. We didn’t eat out all the time due to being on a budget, but we did eat a lot of dessert; pancakes, waffles, apple pie, ice cream. All amazing. We found a tiny old pancake house called “Upstairs” which had teapots all over the ceiling. There were indeed stairs that you went up to get there. They were very steep. There were only four tables in the place. I had a giant pancake with bananas. We also ate some amazing Indonesian food.

IMAG1203

Speaking of teapots, this was the kettle in our apartment:

IMAG1324

  • We went to the EYE Film Institute and checked out the free stuff in the basement. You could do stuff like leap around in front of a screen making colour patterns and making daft five-second video clips of yourself.

IMAG1377IMAG1386

  • BEER. We found quite a few tiny little bars selling Dutch beer. This picture was taken in a brewery bar called De Prael. We also did a brewery tour at Brouwerij ‘t IJ which I would thoroughly recommend if you like beer and find yourself in Amsterdam!

IMAG1432

Also: everyone was so friendly! We got rescued from a potential 17 km walk due to a flat tire by a friendly Dutch Biology teacher and we met so many nice people. I would definitely go back.

Advertisements

I’ve been cycling more than reading

On Friday, I completed my last full day of work, thus coming to the end of my current job role and embarking on a change of direction in terms of my career. I am no longer a librarian. Of course, I always will be a librarian in many respects, and I will be taking what I’ve learned with me, but it very much feels like the end of a chapter.

I now have seven weeks off until I start my teaching course on the 2nd September. I kicked off the holidays within an hour of leaving work by cycling to Salford Quays and enjoying a beer looking out over the water in the sunshine. Bliss.

On Saturday some friends & I decided to check out some of the free events that were going on as part of Manchester International Festival. My favourite was the Tino Sehgal piece at the Mayfield depot (which is in itself amazing!) which was disorientingly (is that even a word?) brilliant; would thoroughly recommend, if you get the chance to see/experience it.

Then, on Monday, I cycled up a massive hill.

diggle

I have been cycling a lot more than reading of late. Cycling and running and geeking out hugely about new running shoes and cycling shorts and spending inordinate amounts of time on sports clothing websites. I wish I have known when I was younger that things like sports and reading are not mutually exclusive. More on that another time, perhaps.

Anyhow, I am currently doing some reading. I have been enjoying “The Brief and Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz and I’m hoping that I will get some more backyard sunshine reading time before the summer is out. Until then, the sofa will have to suffice.

oscar

I’m also looking forward to reading “And the Mountains Echoed” by Khaled Hosseini this summer. Has anyone read it yet? What are you all currently reading? Any great summer reads I should put on reserve at the library?

Inspiring Blogger Award

blogger

A while ago, I was surprised and happy to learn that I’d been nominated by Of Life and Lies for an inspiring blogger award! I have been blogging, in one way or another, since I could get on the internet (anyone remember LiveJournal?!) Before that I kept notebook upon notebook full of diary entries, short stories & reams of mostly banal thoughts & embarrassing confessions. I am, apparently, a “digital native” However, I still do occasionally question why I blog. And my answer? I like it. I like writing, I like reading, I like talking, I like communities of like-minded people.

The urge to intellectualise everything must be curbed.

So, the rules:

1. Display the award logo on your blog.

2. Link back to the person who nominated you.

3. State 7 things about yourself

4. Nominate 15 other bloggers for this award and link to them.

5. Notify those bloggers of the nomination and the award requirements.

 

Here are my 7 things:

1. I used to trampoline competitively.

2. I have really flexible ears.

3. I once wrote a poem about my local football team, entered a competition with it and won a year’s supply of Wagon Wheels.

4. I am allergic to lots of things, including cats. My one regret in life is being allergic to cats.

5. I used to get in a lot of trouble at school because I did not do any of my homework. The reason why I did not do any of my homework was because I used to read 10 books per week and so did not have time for anything else.

6. I love running. Will I sound like a massive hippy if I say it’s like meditation? Probably. But I’m not a hippy. Honest.

7. I love, love, Bruce Springsteen.

Now, I’m not sure I can think of 15 bloggers to link to. I’m still quite new to all of this. I will, however, link to the awesome blogs I have come across so far.

Books I Done Read proves that book blogs can be fun.

Emily McPhillips is a good friend of mine and she writes beautifully.

Giles Ruffer, another friend of mine, also writes amazing words. Aren’t words amazing?

Of Life and Lies: is it okay for me to nominate the person who nominated me, thus starting a nonsensical but lovely circle of inspiration?

Reading the End is a great book blog and makes me feel less alone in my occasional bad habit of finding out the ending of books.

Things Mean a Lot is another brilliant book blog written by Ana, a Library School colleague of mine. I especially love Ana’s insights on gender in literature, but she is generally one of the most articulate bloggers around.

I know that isn’t a lot of links, but I am hoping to find more as things progress! Thanks to all of you above for inspiring me.

I will try and nominate everyone on their blogs after I’ve posted this, but if I do not get time I will endeavour to do it ASAP!

On eReaders

nook

I had put off buying an eReader for a long time, not because I am a neo-luddite or too sentimentally attached to books made of paper to ever consider that the world of stories could ever be transmitted in any other format, but simply because I was confused. Why do some ebook formats work on some ereaders and not others? Why do you have to pay VAT on ebooks when you don’t on “normal” books? What exactly is “e-ink” and why do the screens of e-readers look so strangely matte?

A long time ago I was a technophobe. I was proud of my old Nokia phone with no camera facility and I loved my record player and I absolutely felt cynical about the spread of the internet and social networking. “Your house looks like my Grandma’s house” was considered a compliment rather than a sign I was behind the times. I wore a lot of floral patterns. I may have resembled a pair of curtains. Eventually, however, I bought a smartphone because it was what they did the hard-sell on in the shop and I, seemingly, am a sucker. After that, I had to concede that my relationship with technology was more complex than I’d initially thought and that, in fact, I did love it. I continued to hate it too. But I loved it. I even learned some html and got a job with “e-learning” in the title.

And so, as soon as ereaders became ubiquitous, I wanted one. I just didn’t know which one. Last year I did a course on ereaders in libraries and felt that the whole world of ereaders, especially in relation to the world of libraries, was such a mess due to daft licensing issues and business models favouring individual consumers as opposed to models that favour lending and borrowing. Kindles, and the way Amazon sold them, seemed particularly at odds with the library model. Ebooks are always connected to their ereader and their owner’s account – they cannot, as with a paper book, go on an adventure into another reader’s hands. This seems to mean that the business can control who reads these books and will use this in a way that means ultimate profit for their company, ergo making each individual reader pay for what they are reading and tying them into that particular company, as is currently the case with Kindles and Amazon. What, I thought, was the point of an ereader if I could never borrow books from my local library on it due to the fact that borrowing books from a library might make poor business sense to Amazon? With this, out went the idea of buying a Kindle. I briefly thought about buying a Kobo due to the fact that they support the more universal ebook format ePub, but still I held back. The entire world of ereaders seemed, and still seems, to be in its infancy, to the point that I didn’t quite want to buy into it until it had taken off its stabilisers.

It was only when I saw that Barnes and Nobles’ ereader model, the Nook, was reduced to £29 that I decided to join the world of ereaders. Nooks support ePub ebooks, meaning that I can take books out from my local library. I am also not tied into the Nook shop; I can download books from anywhere, as long as they are in the ePub format. At the moment, this includes Waterstones and WH Smith.  

Reading an ereader is a different type of reading experience, but it’s one I’ve quickly gotten used to. The first book I read on mine was “The Kite Runner” and I got the sense that I was not truly experiencing the book because I could not see it. Of course, this is nonsense, because what is a book if not a story? And what is a story if not words? The experience of reading on an ereader is, of course, different, and I do still feel like something is lost, but that is probably due to a lifetime of loving books and all the different feelings that are attached to their physical form, rather than anything intrinsic to the stories contained within. I have just finished my second ereading experience and I feel like, this time around, I barely even noticed that I was reading on anything. That’s the thing, isn’t it? When you’re reading something absorbing, you forget everything. That’s why I read; to escape this world for a little while and immerse myself in a different life or a different universe.

That said, I cannot imagine my entire reading life contained within something the size and weight of a Horrid Henry book. I hope that my bookshelves are always full and I always have the dog-eared book that my mother read as a child. If I have children, I hope they can read books with pop-up bits or noisy bits and learn in a tangible way. But if I’m off on a train journey for five hours or on holiday for two weeks by the beach, I’ll give my arms a rest from their years of book-related toil (ever noticed that bookworms have the arms of drummers? No, me neither) or give my baggage allowance space for other things (e.g. holiday wine) and bring my ereader.

One thing though: I found it very frustrating, midway through my last book, that I was unable to read it in the bath. And before anyone says that I should have wrapped it in a polyethylene bag and brought it in with me anyway: I am dangerous with technology and my nickname at work is “clutz”. If anyone figures this problem out, please do let me know.

Also: the VAT thing still bothers me.

Also: I feel kind-of sad when I go into a second-hand bookshop. Because there will never be a second-hand bookshop for ebooks. Will there?

In conclusion: mixed feelings, but it had to happen.

Carnegie Medal: a few thoughts

carnegie

I have to say, I have some very mixed feelings about Maggot Moon winning the Carnegie Medal. On the one hand, I love Sally Gardner for writing books that do not patronise kids, point out that being dyslexic is not necessarily a disadvantage & for saying what she said about Michael Gove and education.

On the other hand, I am hugely disappointed that the medal, yet again, seems to have gone to a book that adults seem to like far more than children do. 

We have been following the award with our year 7 and 8 reading group. This group consists of all abilities, so it can sometimes be hard to get all of the children to read the same book; they are all working at different levels and enjoy different things. This year we promoted the Carnegie shadowing heavily within the group, buying multiple copies and talking about each one with the children.  All books were taken out by at least one child, but the only one that they all managed to read was “Wonder” by RJ Palacio. When it came to our vote, every single member voted for this book to win. Not a single vote for anything else. Now, I’ll admit, Wonder is slightly maudlin, a bit saccharine; I’ll also admit that my school liking it is far from scientific, universal proof that all kids do. However, after speaking to others and hearing the thoughts of many, many professionals, including a bookseller, it does seem that “Maggot Moon” didn’t go down as well with children as many of the other books on the shortlist.

Does this matter? The Carnegie Medal is an award for an “outstanding” book for children and young people. This means that it probably has to have a level of literary merit. There are so many ways of reading, even as an adult, from reading a gossip magazine in the dentist waiting room to studying Shakespeare at PhD level. And, of course, popularity does not necessarily reflect literary quality (I do love Diary of a Wimpy Kid, but would it get taught in English lessons? Probably not).

However, I do feel that there is a balance that needs to be struck in the world of children’s book awards. I enjoyed Maggot Moon as an adult; it was a sparse and terrifying dystopian tale and I completely understand what Gardner was trying to get across. I appreciate that authors such as her and Patrick Ness write books to challenge children. This is an idea I definitely like. What I do not like, however, is that in doing so, I think, in the case of Maggot Moon especially (not so much with Ness), Gardner has rendered her vision completely inaccessible a great number of children. Even our brightest children (a year 8 who reads Julian Barnes, for example) did not fully understand what Maggot Moon was about and, where they did, they hated it.

I do understand that finding the balance between popularity and quality must be difficult for those who run such book awards to achieve. The Carnegie medal is voted for by Librarians, which is the reason, it seems to me, that it is so popular with Librarians and, indeed, booksellers, the media and, ergo, the public. These people must know what they are talking about, surely, if they work with books and kids and then yet more books? Not to mention that they know, they really know, the world of ideas and great literature and knowledge.

But what does the award reflect these days?

I may, in future, look to the Carnegie medal as a barometer of what adults think children ought to be reading. I will probably read the books I find interesting, will take cues from the reviews online. Occasionally I will find a gem that really does challenge children, but that they grow to love through this challenge; that can be taught in lower set English lessons without being patronising (The Weight of Water, this year, springs to mind) or else a book that children just straight up fall in love with as well as having some literary merit too (Wonder).

But I will definitely be wary of ever buying a Carnegie winning book that I haven’t already read for a child and then expecting them to enjoy it.

Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys

outoftheeasy

“What do you do with all this bank, Josie? Be a lot easier if you just lifted your skirt.”

“The only reason I’d lift my skirt is to pull out my pistol and plug you in the head.” 

So. Turns out that I love Ruta Sepetys. I was pretty sure that I loved her after reading “Between Shades of Gray”, but now I am 100% certain. She has done it again. This one is, dare I say it, even better.

Seventeen year-old Josie Moraine lives and works in a bookshop in 1950 New Orleans’ French Quarter. She also works as a cleaner in the brothel that her mother works in. Josie has spent her life dreaming of another world, a world where she does not have to pick up the pieces of her unreliable mother’s escapades; where she is not known as the daughter of a prostitute. Josie wants to apply to go to college and see what else life has to offer, but the world she has always known seems to keep bringing her down.

I love that this book didn’t simplify a subject matter that it easily could have reduced to “books, good; prostitutes, bad”. The characters are brilliantly rendered, in particular Josie and her mother’s brothel madam, Willie, who acts as a sort of surrogate mother to Josie. Their relationship is full of warmth, albeit in an unconventional setting. It would be easy to write a brothel madam as somehow corrupt and at the beginning her character could go either way; however, Sepetys has instead created an incredibly complex character in Willie, who I ended up completely respecting.

Josie is smart and streetwise and heavily influenced by her upbringing, whilst wanting to break the cycle. I thought that the difficulties she faced really highlighted the struggles that some people do face to escape circumstance and poverty. How do you make something of yourself when you’re born to a mother who doesn’t care? How do you go on to do the opposite of what everyone expects? Can you be whoever you want, get to college, be a success, when the world you come from doesn’t recognise what that means? I loved that at the beginning Josie yearned to be a regular college girl from a normal family, but in the end she accepts that she can go to college and still be herself, that those two things are not mutually exclusive.

“Willie said normal was boring and that I should be grateful that I had a touch of spice. She said no one cared about boring people, and when they died, they were forgotten, like something that slips behind the dresser. Sometimes I wanted to slip behind the dresser. Being normal sounded perfectly wonderful.

Josie’s predicament is claustrophobic at times and her continual let-downs at the hands of her mother are gut-wrenching. Josie is trying to find a better life but it feels, at times, like the whole world is against her. She makes some mistakes and makes some silly decisions, but ultimately, all she wanted was a mother who loved her and all she wants now is a better life.

There is one scene in particular that really stuck with me, where you really see what can drive women to become prostitutes and the attitudes men have towards them when they do. The kinds of poverty, gender politics, power-play and misogyny that is involved. It is profoundly shocking to me, still, despite the fact that is certainly not news, that such things did and still do happen to women all over the world.

The other characters are also brilliant. The storyline with Charlie and Patrick is absolutely heartbreaking and I really loved the way that Sepetys dealt with the love triangle storyline.  I would have liked to have seen more of Jesse. I loved the bookshop and Josie’s room above it. There is also a cast of supporting characters who are either wonderfully kind or brilliantly horrid. And the ending. The ending! I don’t know what else I can say without spoiling anything. Read it, now!

Malorie Blackman and Diversity in Children’s Literature

Malorie Blackman

I read a lot of Malorie Blackman as a teenager and then again in my early twenties. I always thought she was fantastic. She never wrote in a particularly difficult way, but at the same time, she dealt with some very complex ideas. As a keen reader, I still felt challenged despite her simplicity; her words flowed, her stories just appeared, like magic, and her characters were so easy to imagine. Simple, but never simplistic.  I always thought that this must be a very difficult thing to do, especially in children’s and teenage literature.

When I was interviewed for my current job, in summer 2011, I saw posters all around school advertising an author visit for the beginning of term. Malorie Blackman. I was terrified when I got offered the job and realised that I would be helping out with it. We ended up with a packed hall full of kids aged 11 to 16 and Malorie spoke to them about all manner of subjects: her career in I.T, her favourite music, Tinie Tempah mentioning her in a song, the lack of black characters in picture books when she was growing up. However, one thing she said really stuck with me. She mentioned that when she was at school she had expressed an interest in becoming a teacher, but her teacher had discouraged her because of the fact she was black. Thus, Blackman ended up working in I.T and only later became a writer.

I think it is important, at this stage, to note that she was saying this to a packed hall where perhaps 70% of the kids were non-white. Having a world-famous black author stand up on stage and talk about her writing and the things she had experienced brought reading out of the Library and into the real world. Books are still and quiet and do not shout about themselves. Blackman talked about the big ideas that are contained within books; the big ideas that so many children in that hall could identify with.  She talked in a dynamic way about things like racism, very much real world issues, and it made everyone think. The racially segregated schools of the 1950s that were the inspiration for Noughts and Crosses, but also the more recent prejudice that Blackman had encountered in her lifetime, in the 1970s, in Britain. Blackman was not only proof that her teacher had been wrong about black people, but also that authority figures could be wrong about everyone.  She also proved that books are, and can be, relevant to everyone.

Of course, Blackman’s race shouldn’t matter. But her comments proved that it did matter to her that she didn’t see black characters in books growing up, that it did matter that her teacher said what she said, it did shape who she was, and that even though racism is ridiculous, our race is still part of our identity. Saying racism is stupid isn’t the same thing as saying that race doesn’t exist. Because it does matter what children see in their books and how that corresponds to their world. In our school, the everyday reality for children is an extremely diverse peer group. If they read a book containing only white characters, they are bound to see that it doesn’t reflect this reality. Of course, historical literature should not be changed simply to reflect this. However, authors such as Malorie Blackman are completely correct in their comments about diversity in children’s literature today. As such, the stories don’t have to be about race, but they should reflect the world that we live in. It is important.

One thing that really angered me fairly recently was the comments that certain (unnamed) newspapers made about the Olympic opening ceremony. The multi-cultural world it depicted was a myth, they said. A certain tabloid paper even implied that a happy mixed-race couple such as the one that featured in the ceremony did not, in reality, exist, or at least they were a rarity. I am not sure what Britain these people live in, but it certainly isn’t London and it is certainly not the same one I live in, or have ever lived in. I grew up in an ordinary town, Stockport, just south of Manchester, in the late 80s and early 90s, and went to a school with children of all backgrounds. My parents were very liberal. That was the world I was used to. When I got to 19 and went to University in Leeds, things were much the same.

Of course, I am here referring to urban or suburban life. I know there are villages, including the one my partner grew up in, that may have no non-white families, or at least very few. But wasn’t the Olympic opening ceremony supposed to be about London? After I read the offending article, which later got edited, I did a quick count of my immediate friendship circle and the racial make-up of its couples. About half of them, I realised, were made up of mixed-race couples. I had never considered this before; it never mattered. It doesn’t matter, not really, apart from to say that this newspaper was wrong. And I didn’t bat an eyelid when I watched the Olympic Games opening ceremony. Race didn’t even cross my mind. However, a London opening ceremony featuring only white people? I’m pretty sure I would have noticed that.

When I read the comments section about Blackman’s comments on the website of the aforementioned tabloid paper, I felt a similar sense of rage.

She said there was a lack of black and Asian children in picture books and described feeling ‘totally invisible’ when she was younger due to never reading a book that featured a black child, The Telegraph has reported.

“PC Nonsense” was the general gist of most of the responses.  Many people said that they live in a mostly white country, so what’s the need for diversity? I think that if this is true, that these people do indeed experience as mostly or all white, it actually proves how diverse Britain is. If my experience is so different to so many others and their experience is different again from a Muslim kid living in Manchester, which is different again from a black kid living in London, then there is a need for books featuring different types of experiences and different types of children. A lot of children cannot relate to the world depicted in many books. It is not relevant to the world they live in. If we were all the same, all books could be the same, could be written to the same formula, featuring similar characters and similar plots. But we aren’t all the same. That, to me, is the crux of this. We aren’t all the same. We are different in many ways. Race is one way. Sexuality another. Religion another. And then there are lots of invisible differences. They are all important, they do matter, but they should not push us apart. They make life interesting and they enrich us. Kids who understand these differences but are not threatened by them are surely more likely to grow up to be mature and understanding adults. And surely this is good for everyone.

If I were to speculate a little, I would perhaps wonder if the reason for the lack of diversity in children’s fiction is that proportionally more white authors are getting published. If this was the case, then why? This is obviously a massively complex Sociological issue that people write PhDs on, so I can’t possibly explore it in enough detail to do it justice, but there are questions, questions like: do children today experience what Blackman experienced when she was younger? It is easy to think that it wouldn’t happen now, at least not so explicitly, but who can say? The Lena Dunham Girls controversy proves how difficult this subject is at the moment, how tangled everything can get. I think Blackman is raising important points that are relevant to everyone, no matter where they live. Those who live in all-white countryside villages need to remember that their experience of Britain is completely different from that of many others. Personally, I wouldn’t recognise their world.

(NOTE TO SELF: Do not read the comments section of bad tabloid newspapers. It is bad for the health)