Thursday, March 22, 2018

The Music of What Happens

“The music of what happens,” said great Fionn, “that is the finest music in the world.”
He loved “what happened,” and would not evade it by the swerve of a hair.

This quote from James Stephens' Irish Fairy Tales, you could say, had something to do with the workshop I ran recently for the Mother Tongues Festival in Dublin. It was in French and it was LOUD. Young people (ages 3 to 8) and their grown-ups (no ages were mentioned) were invited to listen, to voice and to label the 'music of what happens'. 
We guessed what could be making the noises recorded on my phone. We told each other what cows say and how ambulances go. We recognised things and actions from sound words ('bang!' 'ha ha ha!' 'miaou!'). And we looked at orphan sounds: noises that don't have a word to describe them (like snow or skiing or dreaming). 
On the day, I was also lucky enough to meet Louise Williams, a radio reporter working for RTÉ Lyric FM's Culture Files (produced by Luke Clancy). We had a great chat about multilingualism, untranslatable words and the language of cows.
You can hear me and lots of other great contributions to the discussion on the show's podcast, right here.

All in all, we had a brilliant time and I'm delighted to be invited by South County Dublin Libraries to run this workshop again (on a multilingual basis this time, not just French) in Clondalkin Library on April 5th. Tickets are free but should be booked, I'm told, on this eventbrite page. This will celebrate nicely the 2018 edition of International Children's Books Day.
Come along!

(Photo credits: Sarah Ryan and Zoë Holman.)

Monday, November 20, 2017

Look at me, reading a grown-up book!

There is a life beyond kids' books. Apparently.
Once in a while, I venture out of the kids’ section of the bookshop or library and find myself in the grown-up aisles. Usually this happens when I’m on the look-out for the latest title from Haruki Murakami, Jonathan Coe, David Mitchell or ArtoPaasilina, but occasionally I end up with books that I haven’t looked for at all and didn’t even know existed. Such was the case with Jo Baker’s Longbourn, a hand-me-down from a friend who has recently been converted to the joys of tidying and did a clearout of her shelves.

I am a long-time fan of Jane Austen’s, whose books I have read and re-read a respectable number of times (which is quite a rare occurrence for me). Why, I even wrote a thesis on Presentation and Representation of the Body in Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion and Sanditon! A clear favourite, as for a lot of people, is P&P which I have read enough times to feel like I could quote the dialogues verbatim (but I can’t really), which I’ve seen adapted numerous times on TV and on stage, and of which I have read a handful of spin-offs. Among the latter, I would heartily recommend Natasha Farrant’s Lydia, the Wild Girl of Pride and Prejudice: a brilliant, brilliant take on the original that gives Wickham a break and Lydia a chance, and is a great teen novel in its own right.
But back to Longbourn. Longbourn is the Upstairs Downstairs version of P&P, with a main focus on Downstairs, as we follow Sarah the maid in her interactions with her peers, her immediate superiors (Mrs Hill) and her ‘betters’. With Sarah we scrub, we brush, we polish. We scatter tea leaves to help sweep up the dust, we trim bonnets and wash Mrs Gardiner’s kids’ stinky nappies. We trek through the muddy lanes of Meryton, avoiding dodgy militiamen and trundling carriages. Young Polly’s less-than-thorough approach to most jobs quickly irritates a reader who is wholly on conscientious (but not all-accepting) Sarah’s side; or at least until we find out Polly is only twelve and way too young by modern standards to be doing most of the work that is her lot.
Baker has done her research very well and wears it very lightly and yet it’s in plain sight. The craftsmanship of Sarah and her colleagues as they go through their unforgiving chores is fascinating and, perversely, a joy to behold. The dirtier, the better. Suddenly, the likes of Elizabeth and Jane appear much more alive and human now that we know how their soiled linen is washed and boiled be it as part of the dreaded weekly washday or following their ‘monthlies’.
Who do you think curled that hair and laundered that frock?
And yet, at the same time, they remain figures at the periphery of Sarah’s life and story. The Bennets are, ironically, enormously absent, even though their requests and needs dictate what goes on downstairs. Shadows and shadow-puppet masters at the same time, the family cannot claim Longbourn as their own and the novel is not Pride and Prejudice. Cleverly, the original gives Baker’s book its tempo and an initial framework, but not its plot. All the events that readers of Austen know are only relayed in so far as they impact on the maids and cook and footman, all the social engagements becoming another chore on an infinite to-do list, the balls equating to somebody waiting half the night in the cold by the carriage… Darcy’s declaration is a non-event, it only features in as much as Sarah opens the Collins’ door to him on the fateful day where he makes a complete idiot of himself. But she’s not in the room to see it and nothing transpires below stairs.

As Baker puts it in her afterword, ‘where the two books overlap, the events of this novel are mapped directly onto Jane Austen’s. When a meal is served in Pride and Prejudice, it has been prepared in Longbourn.’

'When a meal is served in Pride and Prejudice, it has been prepared in Longbourn.’
Not all Austen fans will be charmed by Baker’s take as it will be seen as ‘tinkering’ with beloved characters. She adds nothing that isn’t already there in so far as the Upstairs are concerned, but she digs deeper behind the scenes and pushes some traits, sometimes to the extreme. Lizzie isn’t all that nice and charming when dealing with people are not on her social radar (‘Oh! Smith! You mean the footman! (…) You called him Mr Smith, that’s why I misunderstood you; I thought you meant someone of my acquaintance. I thought you meant a gentleman.’) And as for Wickham, suffice it to say that he definitely does not get a break here.
Baker’s prose is masterful and so self-assured that it is hard to believe this is her début. Just as she’s not afraid to unpick the fabric of P&P, she boldly goes at the fabric of language, often playing with nominal sentences that, despite their lack of verbs, are hugely dramatic and bombard the reader’s senses. When Sarah and Darcy finally come face to face (not by the Pemberley pond, not in a bathroom, but in a perfectly respectable drawing-room scene), in the closing pages of the novel, here is what we can read: ‘Sarah risked a look at his big handsome face, the meat of him: the sheen of cheekbone and nose, the gloss of eyes, the smooth rubbery flesh of his shaved lip. He was descended from a race of giants; he must be.’

‘The meat of him’!
This is a rich, daring, vivid and, yes, meaty, reimagining that more than stands on its own two legs and has a lot to say about the horrors and joys of work, the place and consideration of women and girls, the passing of time, the madness of war, and the importance of making a place your own, be it Pemberley or indeed Longbourn.

Highly recommended!

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Can you guess the book? A game and a competition!

Inspired by the National Book Tokens' Hidden Books Game, the kids and myself have come up with a kids' books (and characters) alternative. It's completely homemade, low-tech and you won't win a year's supply of books if you can crack it. But can you?
There are 12 childhood characters and/or books to find, from picturebooks to novels via manga and all are favourites in our house. Pics of close-ups below.
Do share and let me know how you got on at juliette[AT]juliettesaumande[DOT]com and be in with a chance to win a book or two!
You have until Friday 8 December
Have fun!







(7) & (8)
(ok, this is a tricky one as there are in fact 2 sets of clues rolled into one picture:
a) bird and feline on the bottom sign go together
b) the other 6 signs go together)





Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Children's Books Festival in Cavan

And here we are, myself and my kids' books colleagues, back on the roads of Ireland hopping from county to county, jumping on buses, catching trains, hiking rides from passing hot air balloons... This month is Children's Books Festival month in many corners of the island and nothing will stop us in our quest for delivering the best talk/workshop/bit of entertainment to the story-hungry masses.
Thus it was that I found myself in Cavan yesterday (in spite of Bus Eireann's best efforts to mislead me into Meath and keep me there*).
We had a great time chatting about Disaster David and Mad Cap, doing some crazy writing, drawing and extremely-loud-reading.
Special mention to the girls who fancied themselves as superheroes (you rock), the guys who created the very striking kingdom of sky mice, the writers who came up with the idea of playing football with a giant ball made of all the rubbish from the dump, the 6-year-olds whose writing hands couldn't keep up with all their ideas, the lady who had plans to publish her own story (keep at it!), the group who wrote the first ever riddle to come up in my writing workshops.
Also, apologies to anyone who may have been offended by:
a) my use of the word 'kick-ass';
b) the mention of 'knickers';
c) the suggestion that homework be cancelled for the day that was in it.

And finally, what better place to talk about giants than Cavan's super duper red-brick Johnston Library in the company of PJ Lynch's own (and Swift's!) Gulliver?!

*(Fear not, Meath, you'll get your turn soon)

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Team up!

Often desk-bound for long hours at a time, with only an attention-seeking cat (maybe) for company, and kept afloat by the faint hope of a parcel delivery for a bit of human interaction ('Sign here!'), the writerly life can feel lonely sometimes, as I'm sure must feel the life of the illustrator.
This is why the Tandem Fair project is such good fun. Set up a few years ago by a bunch French writers and illustrators, it is now in its 18th edition. What, you ask, is a Tandem Fair? The idea is simple: writers and illustrators are invited to send a sample text or an image to the Fair host; the host, on a given date, publishes the pieces on their blog together with contact details for all the contributors; writers and illustrators (who have contributed or not) are then invited to have a look at what is there. If anything takes their fancy, it's up to them to get in touch with the creator and suggest a text for an image they like, or an image for words that have caught their imagination.
There is no guarantee of a book deal at the end, only that of a fun, creative moment and, perhaps, a new friendship...
The Tandem Fair is open to everyone regardless of where you live (although it might be handy to have one language in common with your new partner!) and what your level of experience is.
For this edition, super-duper illustrator Élice is your host. So please, don't be shy and send in a pic or a text. All the details can be found on Élice's blog here; contributions to be in by Sept 24.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

SMGS Patron of Reading: 1 year on!

The school term is coming to a close and with it my year as Patron of Reading for SMGS National School in Dublin 8.
It's been absolutely brilliant and I'm very grateful for the school who essentially said yes to every crazy bookish idea I threw at them, from Writing Club after schools to Christmas competitions and Baby Book Clubs.
Here's a wee video showing all the hard work done and all the great times had.
(You may need to activate Flash for this to work!)

Thanks all and have a brilliant summer!