Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Learning to love poems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Finding things to read

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 1 January 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Whispers in the Graveyard by Theresa Breslin

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, 2 April 2016

Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders

Now that I've finished reading all of the books shortlisted for the Carnegie prize (oh yes, and burned quite a lot of toast along the way, "multi-tasking"), I have decided which one I want to win (I have never actually agreed with the panel on this front, by the way, which is a bit of a blow.)

Ironically it's the one about which I said to our school librarian "I don't want to read that one. I bet it's really, really boring".  She said that she'd thought it was really rather wonderful, and, in fairness, I normally agree with her about books, but my hopes were still not high.  A feels the same, and said "I'll read that one last. It's the one Mrs D says is most appropriate for Year 7, so it'll probably be rubbish."

Oh, but it's not.  I don't know if an actual child would like it as much as I do.  It's a sequel to Five Children and It.  I do not have fond memories of this particular work.  I never actually read it, but when I was at school the cool girl who got all the boys, and looked a bit like me but prettier, and had a figure a bit like mine but with bigger boobs, and got the solo I wanted in the choir concert, she used to call me Psammead.  We're actually very good friends now, despite the fact that she looks about ten years younger than I do, and is still sickeningly good looking. She doesn't call me Psammead any more, in fairness.

It's fair to say, I wouldn't have read this if it hadn't been shortlisted.  The psychological scars are still too deep. However, I'm so glad I did.  It made me laugh, sob, REALLY care about what was going to happen and think about the past, forgiveness, guilt and regret (I hope it makes my friend feel all these things too! Joking, obviously, I am so over it, honestly.  Completely, that's why I've hardly even mentioned it in this post).

It's set during WW1, with the original five children, plus their youngest sister, who was not born during the events of the first book.  I don't want to ruin the plot, so won't say too much, but the threads of the story are drawn together in a hugely satisfactory way.  It feels nostalgic, but not cloying.  It's an incredible achievement.


I really, really hope it wins.  I cannot urge you strongly enough to read it to your child (I would say 8+, there is death, but in an honourable non-gory Harry Potter way.)  I am going to read it as our next bedtime story, in the hope that reading the ENTIRE interminable series of Origami Sodding Yoda will make C more open to something he wouldn't normally choose.  We'll see...

The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

Well now, this one was the most expensive on Kindle, hence it was the last one I read.  Over eight of your English pounds no less!  And yes, I know I should have ordered it from the library and waited, but our local library is open for about an hour on the third Wednesday of the second month (this may be a slight exaggeration), and when I need to read a book, I need to read it right now. This is also the way I feel about tea.  I should be glad, I think, that I never got into smoking and that red wine brutally disagrees with me.

Anyway, what an amazing book.  It's aimed at a YA audience, but I really think everyone should read it. Yes, everyone in the entire world, and that includes you.  Assuming that at any point in your life you have felt a bit unsure of yourself, like every one of your friends is only pretending to be your friend, and actually they feel really sorry for you, and that you are actually a bit rubbish at everything you do, and that will, ultimately cause everything to go horribly wrong for you and everyone you love.  If you've never felt that way, then fab, keep on keeping on, and good luck to you and all that, but I don't really trust you, by the way, not really.

I'm so glad Patrick Ness thought of this idea, and not someone else, who has great ideas but not the technical skill to create a great novel out of it (see my review of The Killables hidden deep somewhere in this blog). I would do a link, but I'm ill in bed, and that's far too much effort, so just read the whole blog, and you'll find it.  I'm sure you have time to do that, what with not having any real friends, and everything.

I'm not going to say too much about the idea of the novel, because discovering that is part of the joy of this novel (I suggest you don't read the description, the blurb, or any of the reviews, apart from this one). It follows  18 year old Mikey, in the weeks leading up to his graduation.  I think, even for the most tethered-to-reality of us, that's a difficult phase in your life anyway, where things become a bit less obviously planned out. A personal chord was struck for me by the fact that Mikey and his big sister Mel are both old enough to leave home that summer, leaving their 10 year old sister home with her (dysfunctional) parents.  This might well be what happens to BabyM.  This is one of my personal weak spots since one of my colleagues, on seeing my obvious bump said "Wow, that's a bit age gap you'll have there!  I'm by far the youngest of my siblings.  I've always completely hated it.  It's like they had this family, and then I just came along afterwards and never really fitted in" Thanks for that. I hope it's not quite such a difficult home as theirs, but I guess the issue is we all think we're actually perfectly normal really, and that's part of the point of this novel.  Also, that not being normal is actually find and OK.  But not in an "Hey kids!  It's OK to be just who you are!" kind of way.  In a brilliant novel kind of way.

I hope this doesn't win the Carnegie, because Patrick Ness has won it loads of times before, and books like this seem to win it year after year.  But it is brilliant, and it possibly should win. And you, yes, you know who you are, should definitely read it.  And get your kids to read it too, but not the little ones because there are adult themes (ie sex). Read it first, and then decide.  I don't think you'll regret it.  (You might of course, and then secretly hate me even more than you did before.)

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick


Now.  I know a lot of people like depictions of the darker side of life in their cultural consumption.  There’s an awful lot of murder, abuse, genocide in films, books, television.  This is fine, each to his own and all that, but if you’re all have a pint of very dark bitter tasting ale, I’ll have a Malibu and pineapple with a paper umbrella in it, thanks.  I mean, sometimes I’ll have a nice glass of Burgundy, but probably with a handful of Mini Eggs, just to sweeten things up.

It’s not that I don’t like books that are a little dark. My favourite book as a late teen was Wuthering Heights, which is not exactly the epitome of all things cheery.  But, here’s the thing.  Wuthering Heights was exceptionally good.  Interesting plot, complex characters – a masterpiece.  It had something new to say about the world, and didn’t leave you feel as deflated as a balloon that a toddler has loved.

Marcus Sedgwick is a good writer, I don’t doubt that.  C absolutely loves his Raven mysteries, A adored She is Not Invisible, I liked Midwinterblood a lot.  This book is a little like the latter, in that it’s four interlinked stories.  Well, three stories, one poem.  Unfortunately, unlike Midwinterblood, it’s not very good.

So we’ve got four tales, and the topics we cover are genocide, executing innocent young girls, abuse and suicide of mentally ill people, and mass murder.  Linking these four stories is the symbol of the spiral, which, Sedgwick seems to say, will result in the same people killing and obliterating each other, ad infinitum.

This book made me too unsettled to sleep, and depressed at the state of the world, with no redemption whatsoever, and it’s not even very clever.  The “link” between the four stories is a clumsily added motif.

I really hope this doesn’t win the Carnegie, as it’s the only one on the shortlist this year, that, to my mind, does not really merit its place.

Its themes mean that I wouldn’t recommend it to under 13s.  I have already suggested to A that she leave it till last, in the hope that she’ll never actually get to it.