Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A Day in the Life

Last Saturday saw the one-day conference organised by Children's Books Ireland in the brand-new Lexicon library in Dun Laoighaire: A Day in the Life.
As one has come to expect of such events, it was a inspiring day, with enough food for thought, communicative enthusiasm and friendly chats to shake off the January gloom and properly kick off the new year.
Laureate na n'Og Eoin Colfer started off the proceedings by making a passionate case for "a farmers' market of stories": books that have a deep and precise sense of place, that are rooted in a unique location and yet resonate with readers from near and far.
Next up was Alan Nolan, illustrator in residence in the Church of Ireland College of Education. Alan introduced some of the methods he uses with future teachers to get them to engage with children's books so that, when they get to the classroom, they will in turn get the kids to engage with said books. Putting texts into pictures, such as song lyrics into comics, was one of the intriguing project he had the students work on.
After that, Colm Keegan (performance poet writer in residence in Lexicon) was in conversation with Sarah Crossan and had an enlightened and enlightening chat about poetry and the verse novel ("I like the verse novel" said Crossan " because I only have to write 50% of it and the reader can write the rest. I can leave space on the page"). For Crossan, "poetry belongs to us, it's not out there"; and Keegan adds: "poetry belongs to the body, not on the page".
After a Book Clinic and a Monster Doodle over lunch time, the delegates were treated to extracts from books by 11 new Irish writers. Let me tell you people, 2015 is going to be dark, scary and will potentially contain bears.
The final session was a one-woman-show which had the audience totally enthralled: Julia Eccleshare, children's books ed for The Guardian. She (who "never go[es] anywhere without thinking about a story") wowed the delegates with her aplomb, her knowledge of kids books and her passion for them. Why are books important in this day and age? "Because you never get lost any more. Getting lost in a powerful experience. Where will you find that? In fiction."

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Looking back

Back in December, I was invited in our local school to tackle the intimidating task of entertaining 24 Senior Infants three days before the trip to the panto, one week before the school play and two before Christmas.

I wanted to do a writing workshop that would be fun and not too much like work. I also wanted it to be a collective event, involving not only them (as a class) and me, but also all 24 kids individually.
Usually, I meet older groups, where pretty much every one is able to come up with a story and write it themselves in a quite a short period of time. But with Senior Infants, no matter how bright (and these were, of course, fabulous), writing is still physically difficult and takes time. We only had an hour, which was not enough to do anybody's creativity justice.

So, I cheated. Let me repeat that: I CHEATED.

I came up with a hybrid solution where I did most of the writing and they filled in the blanks.
I wrote a story (a Christmas one, of course) about a character who had to go looking for baubles to put on their tree. I put the text on big colourful sheets of paper, made up pictures with wrapping-paper cut-outs and print-outs from some of my own books, and left a few blanks on each page: the protagonist had no name; there was no picture of him/her; the night sky was lacking stars, etc.

I had selected 3 possible heroes (a dino, a princess and a cat), all from my published stories. For each spread, I had prepared an envelope with what was going to be needed to complete it: stickers, cotton wool for snow, a hat for our hero, a home-made bauble...
When we got to business, I asked one boy to take a paper out of a hat. The lucky dip gave us our heroine whom we named (after a collective brainstorming and a vote) Pixie. Pixie's pic was duly and expertly glued by a team of kids on that first page, as well as the "shiny things" the text said she loved. Pixie was later joined by Rex the dinosaur and Jack the cat.

On every page, there was something for the audience to do and comment on.

Icing on the cake (but it was only fair), the cover had their name on it:
I hear they spent some time reading it together snuggled under the class Christmas tree...

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

What do we tell the children?

I kept mine out of the Charlie loop as much as possible. I did it because at 6 and very-nearly 3, they were just too young. Also, I did it because I could. I could avoid dreary images on the telly by not turning it on. I didn't have to hide the front cover of a newspaper as we don't buy one. I just spent a few days frantically checking news websites for more updates, more info, more analysis. More guidance, perhaps.
But for those of you who feel they must explain the events to the children in their lives and don't know how, here are a few links that might help.

Here is how some Parisian parents dealt with it (article in English, on

French-speaking parents have the option of downloading for free the special editions produced by the teams behind a series of newspapers aimed at children from the age of 6 onwards (pictured). With clear text and infographics, these give a lot of background information that is key to understanding the events in context. They also provide a lot of testimonials from children themselves about how they felt in the aftermath of the attacks and of the march.

You can find out more about these special editions here (in English). This article also features a handy check-list on "How to talk about it" which I reproduce here:

Based on his 20 years of providing news to youth of all ages in France, Play Bac chief editor François Dufour offers six tips for discussing tough news events with children :

1. First, make sure the child really wants to to talk about it at all!
2. If the child wants to talk about it, begin with the questions they have : encourage them to talk, taking all the time they need to ask their own questions.
3. Adapt your speaking: Keep your answers simple, understandable and intelligible.
4. If you need to use difficult words (terrorist, Islamist ...), explain them. If necessary, check in the dictionary together
5. Explain the difference between events (facts) and opinons: children often confuse the two.
6. In some ways, there is no difference by age groups: The reality is the same for all. If reality is shocking, it is normal for your child to be shocked. Like you!
7.  That said, parents must adapt to the issues of children according to their ages,  giving more detail to the oldest and more explanation of words to the youngest. The younger the child is, the more you have to offer ‘small talk,’ making even shorter sentences and even simpler words. Give even more attention to vocabulary. For example, while the the words "Republican values" may be understandable to a 16-year-old, they will need explaining to an eight-year-old.”

Finally, here's how they did it elsewhere in Europe and further afield.

It's about living together

The excellent Zoe Toft at Playing by the Book put together a list of children's and YA titles that promote understanding and reaching out between communities. Here she's looking specifically at books "which might help spread understanding of what life can be like for Muslims living in the west". You can find the list here.

The Guardian also ran a feature by Sita Brahmachari titled "Books to breed tolerance where she has a compilation of "stories for children that explore our differences and common humanity". As a follow-up, the Guardian asked its readers to send word of "books that had helped them see the world differently". Those are listed at the bottom of Brahmachari's article.In addition to the many, many great recommendations these two links offer (with the likes of Marjane Satrapi, Eva Ibbotson, Deborah Ellis or Jamila Gavin), I'd like  to add a couple from my own reading pile:A Bus Called Heaven and Vanilla Ice Cream, by Bob Graham. Two picture books from age 4+ where the warmth, softness and inclusiveness of the illustration is perfectly matched by those of the story.

A Hen in the Wardrobe, by Wendy Meddour. A fun family caper with more serious undercurrents of belonging and acceptance. 7+

Benny and Omar, by Eoin Colfer. As hilarious as you might expect, with added GAA bits. 9+

Chalk Line, by Jane Mitchell. Freedom fighters, children soldiers and the ravages wreaked by war make up the backdrop of this powerful read. YA

Just Like Tomorrow, by Faiza Guène, a story set in a drab Parisian suburb but led by a strong, imaginative and very funny narrator. A tale about opening up and growing up, and growing stronger, not tougher. (I reviewed this one for Inis a long time ago).

Made on Earth, by Wolfgang Korn. In this fictional but extremely well documented account, Korn retraces  the "life" of a red fleece jacket from the oil rig where the petrol needed for its fabrication is extracted to the shop where it is sold and onwards to a second-hand market in Africa and finally a refugee boat drifting out at sea. Very accessible, this shows how globalisation connects people from all sorts of places, its impact on so many lives and on the environment. 10+

Now enjoy those, and share them!

I am Juliette

In France, Wally/Waldo is called Charlie
Devastated, powerless and angry was how the recent events in Paris left me. Seen from the comfort and the distance of my island, they seemed incomprehensible. And strangely personal. I didn't know any of the victims personally, I had never read Charlie Hebdo or shopped in that particular supermarket. But I had grown up with the cartoons artist Cabu did on children's TV; I used to live in Paris; I am, whatever that means, French. And "we" don't do "that sort of thing". Except we did.

The shockwave this started (and, here, I am speaking for myself) is truly unprecedented and will resonate and keep shifting things for a long time to come. Devastated, powerless, angry... But also very worried and confused. What was it all about?

The solidarity march that took place in Dublin on 11 January was the first I ever attended on my own and the quietest one I ever joined. Being alone in a mass of 5,000 strong gives you time to think a bit.

Who and what did I go march for? For freedom of speech? In memory for the victims? Against the use of senseless violence as  a solution to anything? Did I march because I was Charlie? Jewish? A cop? Ahmed? And what about the others, all the others that die at the hands of that senseless violence and that we don't (want to) hear about so much?

The only satisfying answer I have is: all of the above. The best line I heard about the Paris march (which gathered a bit more than 5,000) was that it was "about living together". Instead of "Je suis Charlie", my sign should have read "I am human".

Now that that's established, what do I do? Do I turn on the 24-hour news channels, become super aware of all the evil in the world and make myself sick with worry and suspicion? Striking a balance between awareness and fear is not an easy thing.

So I suppose I'll do what I've always done. I'll read a good book and pass it on. Not just "any" good book, one that is, precisely, "about living together". In Paris, in Inchicore, on planet Earth.
It may not be much, but it's a start.