What can I say?

It’s Friday again. Unusually, I haven’t made any notes for today’s blog post during the week. I’ve done no writing or editing either in the past seven days. But if I don’t post, it’s the start of a slippery slope, a particular shame as I approach next week’s Blogiversary. So what can I say?

One good reason for not writing was reading. I finished On Golden Hill, which I thought one of best books I’ve read in the past couple of years. It’s a spoof on early English novelists like Sterne and Smollett (at least, I think it is. I’ve never read them, just accumulated enough literary bric a brac over the years to think I would know what to expect if I did. And now along comes a 21st century author with an easier to penetrate, shorter pastiche so I’ll never have to.)

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Detail from cover of “On Golden Hill”

There are great characters – the hero, with the deliberately neutral name of Smith, his friend Septimus Oakeshott, a complex, poignant, wily figure, Tabitha the peculiar heroine, who echoes Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, and the mysterious, tragic but ultimately strong slaves Achilles and Zephyra. Slaves from A-Z, you see? The descriptions of New York in the first decades of colonial settlement are fascinating, and the research into detail impressive – for example 18th century theatre craft or how citizens kept clean. There’s an amusing device, presumably Sternian or Smolletesque, whereby the narrator begins a minute description  – of a card game, for instance, or a duel, and then stops short, telling us he doesn’t have enough technical knowledge and we shouldn’t pay him any credence. Tabitha struck false for me almost from the beginning to the end, but otherwise, this was a stylistically impressive, richly entertaining story with, at the end, a surprising twist that reminded me I was reading in the present day after all.

Then I galloped through the latest Nicci French, Saturday Requiem. If you’ve been with this series from the start, on Blue Monday, you’ll be familiar with psychotherapist Frieda Klein who is unwillingly drawn into investigating whatever gruesome crime the police last made a mess of solving, all the while making powerful establishment enemies, continuing to see clients, and attempting to protect the interests of those who have suffered collateral damage. I thought Monday, Tuesday’s Gone and Waiting for Wednesday were excellent, but by Thursday’s Child I was finding it harder to suspend disbelief and Friday on my Mind has barely registered there.

I’m afraid Saturday is another step down for me. As usual, there was an ingenious plot and I couldn’t put it down but this time it was more because I wanted to tick it off than because I was gripped. Frieda has now walked around London in the small hours a few times too often – the London settings are normally evocative enough to be a character in themselves but these felt barely sketched in. She’s played too many calming chess games, confronted too many invasions of her home and threats to her sanity. As with Eastenders, you can only take so many episodes before you become too inured to be affected. In Saturday Requiem French toys only fleetingly with Frieda’s old adversaries before they disappear without explanation, and doesn’t bother to give her the usual love life or dysfunctional family related setback. This must be because even calm, counselled and counselling Frieda would be too damaged to continue into Sunday – the dilemma for which is set up on the last page and which French is presumably contractually obliged to deliver. It’s an object lesson for a crime writer. Never start a series of books with Monday, or worse still January, in the title.

To be fair, my concentration is not what it was (is anybody’s? Roll on the collective legal action against Facebook, Twitter and all their scheming relations for compensation for damage to our synapses.) Also I was tired after an exciting week. Top sopping for the Hackney Singers at the Festival Hall went very well on Monday, thanks very much for asking. Adrenaline flowed, the London Mozart Players sparkled, the soloists soared and the conductor brought the whole cast together in glorious celebration.

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All this just five nights after the same hall was evacuated and events cancelled for the attack on Westminster on Wednesday 22nd. I do not for one minute wish to belittle the suffering and shock of the victims and their families, but Londoners of all races and backgrounds are the heroes of this story. Why? Because in London terrorism cannot keep a foothold however much the media magnifies it: we all just get on with what is important to us. My daughter’s response on the night of the attack was to get on the tube and go into central London so she didn’t miss her evening class – all the other students and the teacher turned up as well. Ours was to deliver the concert we’d been preparing since Christmas. The audience was full, the South Bank was packed in the sunshine, the blossom is out and the great city of London is alive and well.

Blossom

(In my opinion London is more likely to sustain long term damage from the UK’s own foolish Brexit decision and our ridiculous posturing government – satirical material aplenty there for a modern Smollett or Sterne. My despair at that may be the less positive reason I lost writing energy this week.)

However – onwards and upwards! Next week – look out for a giveaway! Look out for some awards! This blog will be one year old and there will be due celebration.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

Introducing Ed Itor, bully and critical friend…

…or more correctly her* multiple personalities, Copy Ed, Structural Ed and Picture Ed. They work as a team although as in all teams not all of them are always fit to participate.Sometimes they’re benign, and can’t find much wrong. That’s not such good news as it sounds – it only means they’re having an off day or they’ve lost their specs. They’ll find plenty to mutter about next time they look.

*You thought Ed was a man didn’t you? Ha! Ed is short for Edwina.

Ed Tracking 3

Sometimes their advice is straightforward. With an airy swipe Structural Ed points out the end of a paragraph would be better at the beginning, (or indeed the start of the book better at the end). Or not there at all. They monitor my daily allowance of telling not showing, telling me to dramatize more or change everything to dialogue. I love interior monologue, but neither Copy Ed or Structural Ed agree with me on that one so if you’re one of my exclusive group of readers you have the Eds to thank for pruning my neural suckers, and also for weeding if not wholly zapping my more clumsy metaphorical parasites.

If Structural Ed can’t find fault with anything major, such as the setting, characters, time scale, tone, or theme, Copy Ed, who has a more antsy persona, zooms in for a good old nitpick of my commas, m and n dashes, indents, and ellipseez (is that the plural of ellipsis?) She loves nothing more than a session of semi-colonic irrigation. The semicolon is, for me, the writer’s third gear. (When I learnt to drive, cars had only four gears and my favourite was third. You could start in third if you had to – downhill in my ancient Mini I often did – and complete whole journeys, up to quite a speed.) Ed tracking 1Often I’m not sure whether to continue with my sentence or leave it at that; at such times the semicolon is my friend. Copy Ed performs a regular purge; Structural Ed, meanwhile, is on immigration control. She’s spotted too many Points Of View (POVs to the initiated). Slipping in and out too often, with no legitimate reason to be in the text and frequently incorrect usage. They’re unreliable, multiple, I should insist they get entry visas or ban most of them altogether.

Picture Ed is quieter. Maybe I’ll make him male since we all need a consistent pronoun (Copy Ed told me that). He turns up fairly reliably every week with some copyright free photos I can use for the blog. Sometimes I’m short of ideas and if it wasn’t for the inspiration from his photos there wouldn’t be a post at all (for example when I corresponded from Leyton High Road). Sometimes he goes AWOL, off on some research assignment or just looking for a battery, and then I have to do a drawing, or create some sort of montage to illustrate my post that week. To that end, while I was busy taking photos of my keyboard in the bin (What? See below…) some gremlin stuck two sets of brackets in that paragraph! How the Eds are shaking their heads! And all those exclamation marks… Tut Tut.

Recently the Eds have taken to turning up when I’m reading the work of other authors. They sneak up behind me to point out that J K Rowling…really does use…far too many ellipses…when she wants… to show people …breathlessly…running away.. (and why not just say “they” instead of “Harry, Ron and Hermione” every time? She might have cropped a few pages that way.) Louis de Bernières gave a child two different ages within one page early in The Dust that Falls from Dreams, spoiling the rest of the book for me so much that I can’t find the exact reference because I gave it to Oxfam. Do read The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. It’s a mostly brilliant book, great setting, characters, themes – but what’s with all the would’ve and must’ve let alone she’d’ve and he’d’ve and the extraordinary he ought to’ve in an otherwise formal literary tone? The Essex Serpent‘s Ed must’ve’d a bad day because the ending is disappointingly inconclusive, I might add… However Linda Grant in The Dark Circle can’t be blamed for inconclusiveness (inconclusivity?). She wraps up an otherwise sympathetically told, well paced, interestingly researched story of diverse believable characters with a brief part three information dump, as though she resented having to spend any more time with the reader.

Less recently, James, Faulkner, Woolf, Proust and Joyce wrote such long sentences they collectively traumatised all the Eds they knew, causing them to bluster hysterically and go off to find a pier to jump off before changing their minds because after all it really was a question of style or perhaps only a passing thought and such thoughts come and go never knowing which way they’ll lead a protagonist next on the great despairing journey through a world without the comfort of religious certainty full of railways and Guinness illegitimate children shame haunted governesses colonial unfairness mint juleps charlatans snobs and magic in the shrubbery? These past traumas may account for why the Eds of today are so keen on brevity, so down on adverbs and so fixated with colonic purging.

13732457(I’m a few chapters into the dense and beautifully written On Golden Hill by Francis Spufford though, and even the Eds can find nothing wrong yet. So as the best fiction should, it really is helping me escape into a different world.)

When the Eds mess with my reading mind I tell them to go off duty. Can’t I even read a book just for enjoyment any more? But I wish they’d turn up for emails, facebook posts and notes to the window cleaner. They seem to think that’s beneath their notice and yet I can assure them, I make plenty of errors then too.

But to a writer of course the Eds are helpful, really. I wouldn’t be without them, really (were those reallys really necessary, given that I’m not writing dialogue here…reallys seep from my neural byways along with actuallys and of courses and justs. They must be stopped! We don’t need my authorial interior monologue as well as interior monologues from all those jostling POVs.)

The only one I (really) can’t see the use for is their dark shadow, Mess with the Ed. (Copy Ed: Your readers won’t get that unless they read it aloud with a London accent. Me: Who cares? Nobody reads my stuff anyway. But since you insist I’ll add an apostrophe and change the e to lower case to show the dropped h. And if anyone notices maybe they’ll comment and then we’ll see who’s right! Structural Ed: Less interior monologue here, please. Get on with it!)

So – Mess with the ‘ed is the author’s equivalent of live-in emotional abuser. Isn’t your writing crap? Who cares what you have to say? Your characters are unbelievable (not in a good way); your themes pointless; your setting blurry; your ideas out of date; your prose over/underwritten; your dialogue banal, your plot – what plot? You think you’re an author? You think it’s worth even revising this so called first draft? You think the Eds don’t have better things to do?

Ed keyboard in bin 2I came across this article by William Ryan. I waved it jauntily at Mess with the ‘ed. But this week, even Ryan’s clarity and common sense ain’t working. I gaze at the first draft and really just want to give up. It’s uncanny but the keyboard has gone on strike in sympathy: despite changed batteries it’s skipping letters, disconncting, takng th sense frm my words even if I bang it like a high stepping typewriter.. Copy Ed’s refusing even to pick up her red pen until I invest in a new one…my inspiration is draining fast…Dementors loom on the horizon…letters n spaces dispersng… wht’s hppning….where are Harry, Ron and Hermione when you need thm?

©Jessica Norrie 2017

Slog, blog, stop, sing!

blogger-recognition-award-badge1Yesterday I had the lovely surprise of a Blogger Recognition Award from a fellow blogger at Fabulous Fusions. I’ll post about it and make my own nominations in a couple of weeks as it will fit well with my Blogiversary. In April I’ll have blogged a whole year and I’ve learnt some new jargon (Blogiversary?) but I still haven’t changed the world. Must try harder…

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Before rehearsal at Holy Trinity, Sloane Street

This week it’s been not blog but slog. Slogging over that tricky second novel, editing the first draft, chucking/retrieving words, phrases, chapters, trying to animate my flatter characters, stuff events into my barely existent plot, realise my undefined location and tighten my narrative arc, aka narrative droop. It’s time for a break, and once a week I have the ideal solution when I sing top sop with the Hackney Singers (btw there’d be a loud cheer here if the blog had sound effects, and what follows are my personal views of why we deserve it). Another btw: “top sop” doesn’t mean best sop, it just means the soprano part with the highest notes. Narrative droop or no narrative droop, this artiste likes to aim high.

We’re a community choir, so we don’t audition, yet we manage challenging classical works. Some of us don’t read music; some read music in a confused way; some are musically highly literate. Some have singing lessons and know what to do with their diaphragms; others pitch up once a week and open their mouths.

HS scores

For me it’s a relief not to be working alone but with others, and not to be editing my own work but, having learnt the basics, to be at the finessing stage of someone else’s – in this case, Dan Ludford Thomas‘s conducting of Bach’s B Minor Mass. He makes the decisions; I just try and do as he says. Our excellent music team exert all their expertise, goodwill and grace to help us and so far on the day of performance their guidance has always helped us rise to the occasion. I’ve been in many choirs, but Hackney’s the most enjoyable, because Dan, Andy, James and co accentuate the positive, building on what we can do rather than criticising what we can’t (although you learn to read between the lines. When the conductor says brightly: “Hackney Singers are good at loud!”, that means: “But this bit is supposed to be soft.”)

So we’re always learning, but the music team’s hard work and amiable but firm refusal to reduce their expectations produce results that at best take our audiences by storm, moving and exciting as any live music performance by professionals. Often there’s wine too!

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Backstage at the Paralympics, 2012

All the choirs I’ve sung in have something in common: sopranos shriek unless lovingly preened, altos can be too subtle for their own good; tenors are an endangered species to be protected from raids by rival choirs; and basses boom along the bottom a bit behind the beat. Hackney sorts all this out with a relaxed attitude and emphasis on enjoyment. For concerts women don’t wear long black skirts and the men don’t wear DJs and bow ties. We weren’t too proud to take part in the recent Sainsbury’s TV adverts. “Yum, yum, yum! Yum, yum, yum!” we sang, grasping all six notes and words with admirable speed in an hour’s recording session. (We’re open to similar bookings, for a contribution to choir funds.)

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Yum, yum,yum at the Urchin studios, 2016

Members have sung Handel on the stage of English National Opera, sung Mozart and Handel at the Festival Hall, sung with Sir Tom Jones and Paloma Faith at the BBC Music awards, and recorded the soundtrack for a Susan Boyle film at the Air Studios in Hampstead. Groups of us have sung at weddings, funerals and for the Mayor of Hackney. A highlight was singing at the Paralympics Opening Ceremony in 2012, wearing Mao suits and such huge cellophane stars on our shoulders that we couldn’t turn round without shouting a warning.

So please come to our next concert, at the Festival Hall on Monday 27th March. The Bach B Minor Mass has grand airs and pretty tunes; poignant sadness and glorious celebration. It’s a big ask even by our standards, and greater choirs than ours have found it one to grapple with. It’s long, complex, requires all the muscular stamina some of us thought we could manage without, has innumerable “runs” (series of fast notes that look like knitting stitches on the page – drop one and you’re lost! You have to gasp – not visibly or audibly – and pick up the thread again wherever you can.) But we won’t be Baching up the wrong tree because as well as Dan and team, we’re singing with wonderful professional soloists and an impressive orchestra, The London Mozart Players. You’ll hear their oboes and flutes “having a party” as Dan puts it, their trumpets fanfaring a huge choral entry, their strings doubling our voices and their bass section duelling with ours.We also have the not inconsiderable help (they would probably put this the other way round; maybe they have a blogger in their ranks who will do so) of one of Dan’s other choirs, The Lewisham Choral Society Bach mass

Why not join us? Next term we’re singing Orff’s Carmina Burana. We particularly welcome tenors and basses, younger singers (younger being an elastic term) and more singers who represent the ethnic diversity of Hackney (but you don’t have to fit any of those categories or even to live in Hackney). Check out our website for vacancy and waiting list details – remember, there’s no audition and you don’t have to read music! You will have to attend regularly and practise, because this music does take some learning. In return you get a leisure activity to bring joy for the rest of your life.

HS flyers

Now I’d better get back to my editing, before the narrative arc flops as flat as a top sop on a sudden top B… I hope to see you in the audience on Monday 27th!

©Jessica Norrie 2017

Fictional, factual, feminist!

Last week I posted two days late for World Book Day, this week two days late for International Women’s Day. So what? Every day should be international women’s day, until the ridiculous imbalance between two types of human being is resolved.

That’s a big ask, so I’ll start with a few examples you can show your daughters and your sons. Stand by for two heroines from my childhood reading, two from that of my children, and a couple of adults. Some fictional, some factual, all pointing in the right direction though the route may look circuitous to some of you.

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Photo from South Dakota State Historical Society, reproduced in “Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder” by John E Miller, University of Missouri Press 1998

The American writer Laura Ingalls Wilder fictionalised her own pioneer childhood. In the second half of the 19th century , Laura, the second of Pa and Ma’s four daughters,  travelled in a covered wagon from Wisconsin to South Dakota, encountering meteorological and man made hazards all the way. I read her books as a child in suburban North London. Her family were (had to be) independent, tough, adaptable and with four daughters, Pa lacked the help he needed to tend the farm they eventually settled. So Laura persuaded her mother to let her help him, and as he said, it was just the ticket. We learn that if a man gives a woman an opportunity, she’ll repay it manifold. Along the way, we learn how to clean a gun and make bullets (as clear a description as any Boy Scout manual, perhaps Trump should ban it as terrorist training), how to build a log cabin and all the necessary furniture, how to cross a river in flood or survive a blizzard on the prairie, teach a class of students when both teacher and pupils are the same age (sixteen), treat malaria, break in a horse, and make a poke bonnet. Without transgressing the politics of her stratified and conservative society, Laura Ingalls Wilder makes the strongest of social, business and emotional cases for girls and boys to be educated and valued equally.

Dido Twite is entirely fictional. She’s the heroine of Joan Aiken’s Wolves of Willoughby Chase series but first appears in the second book. A neglected London waif with an eye for the main chance, innate crafty intelligence and a yearning for affection, Dido is  resourceful, fit and adaptable from day one. She needs to be: over the course of seven books, she survives a burning shipwreck, comes round from a coma on a whaling ship in Nantucket, foils at least four treacherous plots against the king including one where a giant gun is to be fired across the Atlantic to displace the UK (sound familiar?) overpowers a tyrannical queen who practises human sacrifice, escapes an overturned coach with a drunken driver, a plague of spiders, and various poisoning attempts, stops St Paul’s Cathedral rocking on its foundations, shines a light on hypocrisy and privilege, cares for the sick and frail, rescues children trapped labouring down mines, puts an end to dangerous sects and stands up against injustice and cruelty. (This potted biography may be muddled; the books are complex and I’m due a reread. Anyway, she’s a helluva role model.)

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The only edition of any Harry story I could find with Hermione on the cover

My children read these, took them in and then along came Hermione Granger and Lyra Belacqua. You all know Hermione: the ambitious want-it-all student who got a bit tired and stressed when a spell helped her attend several classes simultaneously to beat timetable clashes, thus enabling her to learn enough magic to get hapless Ron and dull Harry out of their latest dilemma all while juggling the two different worlds she lives in. (Dull Harry? Yes, I’m afraid I can only ever think of him as a plot dump with very little character of his own. But Hermione, Ginny, Luna Lovegood…J.K Rowling to my mind writes better female characters.) And both Emma Watson and J K Rowling have since put some of the Harry Potter money where their mouths are, promoting women’s rights in various practical ways. I can’t be bothered with the carping about the dresses they wear while doing so: nobody criticises the way men dress when they’re trying to better their world (all the time, since the dawn of it).

114982The only one of these heroines created by a man is Philip Pullman’s Lyra Belacqua, due to resurface soon, I’m delighted to hear. Time travel? Pah! This heroine does inter galactic travel (I think – my grasp of physics is less good than Pullman’s). She’s feisty (aren’t they all?), a bit uncouth (shades of Dido there), an incredibly fast learner and again like Dido, in need of a loving family. Instead her mother is Mrs Coulter, surely a magical version of Mrs Thatcher/Theresa May with her love of good accessories and her twists into sheer evil. She’s not pictured on any of the covers I found (strange: the iconography of women’s beauty is all over the place, but put an intelligent heroine on a book cover?) However, here’s an earlier Philip Pullman heroine, the wonderful 19th century detective Sally Lockhart. Who needs Holmes and Watson with her around? There are four Sally Lockhart books, all quite gripping.

 

IWD SdeBThis article would be too long if I went into the writers for adults who inspired my feminism, so I’ll just cite the first and the most recent. In the 1980s I studied Simone de Beauvoir’s fiction and how it related to her life and philosophy; I haven’t read it since but suspect it would still stand up, in a good translation. At university my path crossed very briefly with an author whose work was published two days ago on International Women’s Day 2017. How about this for an in your face title and cover, by the co-founder of the Women’s Equality Party which now has twice as many members as UKIP. Catherine Mayer is of course not fifty feet tall in real life, but history may well see her as a giantess. I bet she was brought up on  Laura and Dido.

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©Jessica Norrie 2017

A Word About World Book Day

I support everything World Book Day stands for. Who wouldn’t want to support reading, advance literacy, encourage authors and readers, swell the book borrowing and buying audience of all ages and races? Do you sense a BUT coming? It’s only a small one.

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Ginny and Ron Weasley, 2002

The schools I taught in and the ones where my children went celebrated World Book Day. One way to do this was by inviting the children and staff to dress up. (Fortunately for you, ex colleagues, I’ve lost the photos.) For me as a parent it was, mostly, fun deciding with the children who they would dress up as, how to put together the costumes, working out the inevitable challenges (Babar’s ears, Pirate Pete’s parrot). Some of that time I was working from home as a translator; at others I had access to my own school library and stationery cupboard which clearly did make my challenge easier. Even so, making a costume at home, if the school gives you enough notice, is not usually difficult.

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Babar, 1998

It’s creative, collaborative, and involves exploring the story, characters and illustrations in more depth than you do by “just” reading the books where they feature (I put “just” in inverted commas because learning to read and continuing to want to read are incredibly complex processes – but that’s for another post).

Making a costume together promotes all the following skills: gross and fine motor skills; listening; decision making; art and design; interpretation; acting/role play; compromise; language – receptive and active; imagination; mathematics (measuring, perception, shape, calculation); sense of humour (yes, humour is an innate skill but if it doesn’t get practice, it withers). And it promotes parenting skills and the right to a childhood. All that, just from making a costume! (Oh, and thrift, as ideas can be reused – Babar can be adapted for Jill Murphy’s Mr or Mrs Large, or for The Elephant and the Bad Baby. Meg can grow into Ginny Weasley, the Worst Witch or witchever you prefer.)

So I was saddened to read this year, that by 27th February British people had spent at least £386,000 on World Book Day costumes. If you DO want to take the quick and easy route, of course you could buy next year’s costumes in the Tesco sale now. When I was trying to consult the Asda cheap costumes page a BMW advert kept driving over it: perhaps you could wear officially licensed Dorothy Deluxe Red Slippers available on Amazon for £80.45 as you go for a spin. But if parents are going to spend £80.45, or £386,000+ for World Book Day, shouldn’t it be on books and literacy projects, not in supermarkets and online giants?

There’s a way of getting ahead of the game for next year, spending just £1 and benefiting Book Aid International, by using one of their 18 costume templates. The World Book Day site’s inspiration page also refers you to Book Aid International, and has plenty of other ideas. Book Aid International aim to equip and run libraries in sub-Saharan Africa: a better cause than Tesco, surely, at 25% of the sale price of their cheapest item today? (I’ve added the link to show I bear no grudges). Tesco do at least manage one black child model out of 20+ (unless they’re all hiding under the superhero costumes), but Book Aid International – sadly, in view of their aims, but in fact in view of everything – none at all. Whoops, I’m going off post again.

The photos on this blog post, rather dog eared and faded now, from pre digital days, are not intended to be smug. I was a good parent in this respect because it appealed to my own interests, but inadequate in others (nutrition, sport, and patience come to mind). I’m now milking the experience by writing in the novel in progress about the relationship between parents and schools and the everyday pressures and joys involved for both – the first rough draft went to the agent this week which is a milestone of sorts. But what my photos do illustrate are happy memories of joint parent/child projects, inspired by books we read together.

I’m quoting from the Manchester Evening News now: With the … finding that 28 per cent of children will choose to dress up as fictional characters that aren’t even from books, and a further 33pc as a character from a book they have never even read, the company is reminding people to not lose sight of the real meaning of the event

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The Artful Dodger, 2001

We used to have a poster at school, in the library, which we showed to parents who asked about tutors and workbooks and extra homework. Often they were stressed themselves and were stressing their children and the poster was intended not to criticise but to help. It looked more exciting than this but all it said was:

Ten Ways to improve reading:

1.Read. 2. Read. 3.Read. 4.Read. 5.Read. 6.Read. 7.Read. 8.Read. 9.Read. 10.Read. 

I would add: 11. Enjoy! (See my post from 2016 for some more ideas – and they don’t involve dressing up.)

No children were hurt in the making of this post and we all continue to live happily ever after.

© Jessica Norrie 2017