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!

Monday, June 26, 2017

The Wilds of Kildare

Last week was another busy week, as I was invited to take part in the Children's Books Festival organised by the Kildare Libraries: Newbridge, Athy, Kildare Town, Maynooth, Leixlip, Naas, Celbridge... the county holds no secrets for me now.
I met with hordes of enthusiastic Senior Infants, 1st and 2nd class, plus, once, an entire school where children aged 6-12 all had some excellent questions about the writer's job and the intricacies of Disaster David. They were not alone in this. Everywhere I went, the kids were full of chat and ideas and comments, in the best possible way.

We did a lot of predictions and wondered if people could break their legs in a book for children (they can). We looked at how a book was made and explored the role of the illustrator, the writer and the printer (sorry editors and publishers, you were only briefly mentioned!). We talked about giants and about how we might live if we suddenly became one: would we play football with the moon or basketball with humans? eat our breakfast out of a bathtub? use lots of planes as a jetpack to go about the world? wear trees or houses for clothes?
There were some brilliant suggestions there and some terrific drawing of what life might be like if we had a Gigantor (a gun for making everything giant-sized), if our entire family could fit in the palm of our hand, if we could (literally) break into banks and so on. Some of our giants were too big to fit on the page, one of them (stroke of genius!) even had her head on the other side of the paper!

A week before the end of the school year, one might have worried about a certain lack of focus or too much excitement (in one school they still had the bouncy castle from Active Week up and running, an actual BOUNCY CASTLE!). There would have been no need: those kids were so on the ball and into it, and SO well behaved. Special mention of the school I met in Athy who came into the library, sat down on the mats and just listened without anybody telling them to do any of these things. And also a special shout out to the ladies of Presentation Girls in Maynooth, all 60 of them, who were awesome.
To everyone, thank you so much! It was a pleasure meeting you and sharing stories with you (some young writers in Celbridge actually brought in their own productions!). Have a brilliant summer!

Friday, March 31, 2017

International Children's Book Day 2017

I was in Meath recently for International Children's Book Day. ICBD is celebrated on or around April 2, which is the birthday of Hans Christian Andersen and it's the occasion to celebrate international children's books and stories. IBBY (the International Board on Books for Young People) is the organisation behind it, and it crops up the world over at the initiative of the local branches of IBBY (IBBY Ireland in our case), libraries, schools or arts centres.
Thus I went off with the lovely plan to present a book published in English, relating the story of an Armenian folklore hero and written by a French author. It doesn't get much more international than Disaster David!
Now, as with all lovely plans, some adjustments (ie big improv) had to be made.
(1) I had to go to Meath twice that morning, courtesy of the bus strike: the first time I nearly went on the bus (there was no bus); the second time, I rushed home from Busarás and drove.
(2) the first group I met in Navan expected to hear about Mad Cap. As they hadn't had a chance to read the book yet, there was no disappointment, it just meant that the Q&A at the end was a bit disconnected from the rest of the session.
No matter, we had fun thinking giant thoughts and wondering how different the world would be if we woke up as huge versions of ourselves. The brainstorming was lively and surprising, and the kids' drawing skills proved most impressive.
I was delighted to restore one participant's faith in grown-ups when I turned out to be the first adult she had ever met who knew about manga.
Onwards and forwards, I took to the road again, to Trim this time, where Surprise Number (3) awaited me: 25 ladies from 5th Class instead of the 3rd Class we were expecting. I had a feeling a picturebook (even such a Magnificent and Sophisticated one as Disaster David) wasn't going to work for this audience, so I went into Mad Cap gear and we had a hoot of a session with plenty of shouting and imagining and drawing (kids can seriously draw in Meath!) and writing about super-heroes and equally-super-villains. The Q&A this time strayed into Book Doctor territory which was also great fun. (If you missed my book recommendations, I'm listing them again below, ladies).
So a great day all in all, and a great reassurance that, yes, I can improvise if needs must!
Plus, I got to meet a young song writer who's in with a chance to write the song for the Irish contestant in the Junior Eurovision. How cool is that?
Thanks to everyone for having me and looking after me!

Book recommendations:
Who Let the Gods Out by Maz Evans: for fans of Greek mythology and running around the Underworld
The Thin Executioner by Darren Shan: a stand-alone novel with plenty of action and gore; his best book in my humble opinion
The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin: a sad-and-funny story for fans of Jacqueline Wilson

That's it, as far as I can remember!
For those who wanted to know more about Book Doctors and Book Clinics, it's over here: and here for the upcoming dates:

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Writing, rewriting, giants and babies

Chris Haughton's starry night in Goodnight Everyone gets the Baby Bookclub treatment
I've been busy with the Patron of Reading thing lately and it has been a hoot. The baby book club is proving a riot every time and it seems that everyone involved is really enjoying it: babas, toddlers and grown-ups. It is very rewarding to see people coming back and asking for more; even more rewarding to see the little ones rush over to the mats and wait excitedly for the story to begin. And what to say about the preschoolers who bring in their favourite books to show the rest of the group (unprompted) or the stories of terrible-twos who had no time for story-time and who now will grab their grown-up and demand a book be read to them? All of these milestones in the life of a young reader I am totally claiming as a benefit of Baby Book Club. Totally and totally shamelessly. Ahem...
First Class are giants today
I've also been busy trying out new material on my very willing guinea pigs (sorry, kids): doing a poetry workshop with Second Class (of all things!) and, especially, bringing out Disaster David to various school visits.
He has proved a very likeable hero and we've had great fun reading about his antics and creating some new ones for him.
An interesting aspect of this for me has been rewriting the text for a younger audience (of infants classes). A simplified version, with a bit less poetic imagery but a stronger purpose. Which has me wondering why I didn't write it like this in the first place? Writing simply has always been an issue for me; that is one of the reasons I started writing in English, thinking I wouldn't be able to indulge in fancy language as much in a foreign tongue. It worked for Beckett, but I'm not sure it has for me! (The other reason for writing in English was to stop sneaking in heaps of internal rhyming as I do in French; this has been a lot more successful as I can't seem to rhyme in English.)
After-school writing club has been good fun too, with highs and lows, as in everything. It always amazes me how much talent there is going round and how different the creative sensibilities.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Disaster David has landed!

He's here! In the flesh and paper and ink, my last title of 2016, Disaster David has made its way to Dublin from distant Armenia where Zangak Publishing did a fine job with my words and Julie Grugeaux/de Terssac's stunning illustrations.
This is a story very freely inspired by a traditional Armenian tale about David, a young disaster-prone giant.
It involves sheep, leopards and chamber pots, among other things, and is a light-hearted musing on how one's failings can be turned to an advantage.
The book is published in both English and Armenian (two separate editions) and can be purchased in all good bookshops in Armenia as well as online here or there. There will be more widespread distribution eventually, so watch this space for updates!