Child’s play? Writing a child narrator

I started jotting down ideas for The Magic Carpet during my last few years of teaching. After retirement, it became therapy, to get teaching out of my system – the lessons I’d learnt, the people I’d met, the “all human life is there” reality of any school community. It threatened to be heavy going for its future readers, as it turned into a teacher’s sour rant against the government.

School signFortunately, the words of a wise headteacher came to mind: “Jessica, always remember the only people with an unarguable right to be in this school are the children. Not the head, the staff or the caretaker, not the parents – just the children.” She was right, so I decided to tell my story – of diversity and language, of education gone wrong and going right, of friendships, tiffs and damaged and happy families surviving, imploding or just plodding on in an increasingly intolerant London – through the eyes of the children.

The Magic Carpet starts in September with a new Year Three class (pupils between seven and eight years old). I’ve worked with learners from three to adult in my career, but my most recent classes were Year 2 up to July, the very same age group. I wasn’t just familiar with the voice, I’d been surrounded by thirty examples of it daily. Up shot several imaginary hands: “Miss! Choose me!” I imagined thirty children, sitting cross-legged on an imaginary carpet in front of me as I took an imaginary register. “I can only choose – let me see – five at most,” I said. The hands stretched higher; the pleading volunteer groans got louder: “Me! No, choose me! I’ll be really good!”

My story involves the relationship between home and school. I was looking for a quiet, perceptive, articulate narrator, who’d know when to stand back and observe and when to express their feelings. Alka and Nathan, a girl and a boy, fitted the bill. Then someone a bit clumsy to add humour, like in a pantomime. That was Sky. As I wrote this self-centred child I softened towards her; she had her own problems. Remember the class excitement when a new pupil arrived? I’d introduce Xoriyo. She’d see what was really going on and be an agent for change. Finally, I chose Mandeep, for likeability. Teachers shouldn’t have favourites but in retirement with a fictional class, you can do as you like.

Henry M 3
Assembly at my children’s school, 2000

Now I found a new problem. I’d describe something, then realise even the brightest Year Three child wouldn’t know that concept or vocabulary. Nathan’s father goes online dating, but Nathan would hardly be tagging along, reporting back. Sky’s mother, despite her self-doubt, is a good mother, and would hide her mild depression from Sky. Several elements of my story took place after the children’s bedtimes, or in areas of experience they wouldn’t yet have. But after I’d simplified the language and ideas to account for all that, the voices of Alka, Nathan, Sky, Xoriyo and Mandeep sounded indistinguishable.

A more sensible writer would therefore concentrate on one child narrator, as in Stephen Kelman’s brilliant Pigeon English or Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. But I wanted to reflect the variety of personalities, backgrounds, and abilities in a typical class. When I’d nearly finished The Magic Carpet, Guy Gunaratne published In Our Mad and Furious City, also juggling five diverse points of view. He does it very well, but his youngest narrator is already a streetwise teenager, out and about by himself. If my seven-year-olds did that, they’d come to the attention of social services – or not  – and I’d be back to ranting.

Mid dilemma, the children took over again. Xoriyo opted for a silent protest – a period of selective mutism, not uncommon when a child wants to stay in control of things. Mandeep ran off to play football; Nathan was absorbed in computer games and Sky was moody. That left Alka, a beautiful, bright, shy child who is bewildered and distressed when her secure world is turned upside down by an incident at home. With just one child voice, it became simpler. If she doesn’t know the name of something, I make an adult tell her – “Mum says that plant’s a buddleia.” If she overhears part of a phone conversation, she interprets what she hears literally. She tries to make sense of events in her life by drawing parallels with fairy stories, as all children do (which is why traditional stories remain universally popular). She thinks of law enforcement in terms of school rules. Parents keep her quiet by telling her off or other children bully her or once literally gag her. Once, she tries screaming to get her way. Sometimes she thinks problems through to terrifying logical conclusions because her seven-year-old self can’t get them in proportion.

With Alka in place, four adult narrators flocked to stand guard. Sky’s mother, downbeat but dogged; Nathan’s father, gradually remembering the power of the imagination; Xoriyo’s mother, speaking on her daughter’s behalf for as long as necessary, and Mandeep’s grandmother who has never lost her original childish joy. I hope you enjoy meeting them all in The Magic Carpet – as one Amazon review says: “It is a lovely novel and will resonate with all parents and teachers. Recommended.”

Jessica Norrie ©2019

 

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The glaucoma (occasional) diaries

This is NOT going to turn into a blog about my health. There’s nothing wrong with bloggers charting their health; many are very brave and interesting people and when you have mental or physical health issues you have to get through them however works best for you. But this is my books and writing blog!

That said, last week I had very kind responses with requests for an update, so here goes. And you never know, an occasional diary of glaucomatous events may help with notes for novel four. (“Don’t forget me!” squeaks novel three.)

I have nothing but praise for the skill and kindness of the medics and nurses at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London. It’s early days and I’m finding in a strange way that I’m much more preoccupied with the day to day unrolling of the treatment than with whether the eventual desirable outcome is reached (which is to retain and protect my remaining right eye vision before it goes the way of the rest).

Glaucoma fields test
This is a “fields test” on my right eye, last December. The black sections are vision lost to glaucoma. The treatment involves trying to stabilise pressure behind the eye to halt or slow any further loss.

First Dr K answered a simple question I could have asked weeks ago but didn’t dare. Turns out a “bleb” isn’t a bit of medical equipment/foreign body/object/weird plastic thing the size of a Macdonalds toy as I’d assumed. It’s a drainage flap cut directly in me. Curiously, when he explained this he was so matter of fact about it I didn’t mind at all.

Go figure –  Dr K (I’d name him in dispatches but will ask his permission at the next appointment) cut and stitched the inside of my eyelid. He had no computer guide or laser tech magic; he did it by hand. At follow up appointments he adjusts the stitches by pressing/pushing lightly on the eyelid, to alter the pressure of fluid on the eye, much as you’d adjust gathers in a curtain. I had a general anaesthetic but since that wore off I have felt no pain and minimal intrusion from the stitches.

If you’re looking for a quiet relaxing thing to do in the frenetic City of London on a midweek afternoon, you can’t beat a well judged general anaesthetic. Sure, I was a bit hungry after fasting since 7am, so while waiting to go in I’d described all the things I’d like to eat. Anticipating a post GA sore throat, I conjured up smoothies, yoghurt, jelly, juice. I asked for dried apricots and prunes – lying around all day might slow things down. I’d satisfy my energy needs with pasta salad with mozzarella, take sundried tomatoes and dark green leaves for iron, and a flapjack or cereal bar just in case. Plus grapes because after all I was a patient. I was just passing the time but in the hotel room that night I found: a bright orange smoothie and one called Blue Machine, honey yoghurt, mandarin jelly with fruit slices, apple juice, dried apricots, prunes, pasta salad with pine nuts, more pasta salad with roasted vegetables, olives, sundried tomatoes with mozzarella balls, rocket and watercress, strawberries, grapes, an oat flapjack, a cereal bar, and some camomile tea. As it turned out the anaesthetist’s skill had avoided a sore throat and I was more sleepy than hungry. Fortunately B always has an appetite, and we hope the cleaners enjoyed the things we left in the morning when we couldn’t manage them after the hotel breakfast.

Glaucoma sunglasses
Which would you choose?

The operated eye is bloodshot at levels Boris Karloff would envy, which offsets my blue irises brighter than any coloured contact lens. My glasses prescription no longer fits and I find glare difficult. A kind friend who gives a lot of parties brought round all the sunglasses people left in his house and didn’t collect, which helps, although it further complicates the issue of whether anyone has seen my glasses. I have a plastic eye shield to wear in bed in case I scratch the wound, and over the next three months over 600 doses of eyedrop, antibiotic or anti inflammatory to take. Have filled the prescriptions asap (did you hear about Brexit and the medicine shortages?)

But it’s only a week later, and I can now read several pages without tiring (Shirley Jackson, must tell you about her another time). I can report that the general anaesthetic did wonders for my back! Today is the first day back at the computer without discomfort which is just as well as I have six posts to write, for a Magic Carpet blog tour and some other commitments I made. The cure for any sad carpet is a good airing, aka publicity. The Magic Carpet is earthbound after its initial flurry. If it had sails, I’d say the wind was out of them, despite recent puffs from some excellent reviews for which I’m very grateful. So friends – if you’re nearby please visit (I’m still a bit wary of outings that might get dust and pollution in my eye). And if you can do anything to help The Magic Carpet weave its way further up the contemporary fiction charts at Amazon, I’d appreciate it as much as any bunch of grapes.

 

Glaucoma meds
…and that’s just one of the meds. Hooray for the NHS!

©Jessica Norrie 2019

With an eye to the future

Three weeks after The Magic Carpet was published, the book is doing well and its author is booked for a trabeculectomy operation at London’s Moorfields eye hospital. A “trab”, as we carelessly throw the name about in these parts, involves inserting a small bleb (shunt, drain, thing) under the upper eyelid to relieve pressure of fluid on the eye, which in my case is causing significant sight loss. If successful, they’ll do the other eye in a few months. Just a trab. If you say it really fast you can almost forget it’s happening.

I have been in a right tizz about this for months. I joined an online forum and retreated in terror at the horror stories they told. A calm and gentle person at the International Glaucoma Association pointed out that people for whom things go wrong will always be more likely to post than those for whom all runs smoothly, and that my highly respected  surgeon Mr Gazzard is at the cutting edge (no, she used a more fortunate term than that).

But today I’m fairly calm, if you can be calm when filled with adrenalin, fresh mango scrambled eggs and toast that came out exactly right for once, and two carefully measured cups of tea all finished and washed up by 6.59am. I got up early for what I call the condemned woman’s breakfast before my enforced fast. The term makes my partner wince – gallows humour is not something we share.

Glaucoma
This week’s recommended reading

I wasn’t going to mention any of this on the blog at all, or at least not until afterwards, as it all seems a bit private and not much to do with books which is what the blog is supposed to concern itself with. But now I’m finding it’s a good way of passing a long coffeeless lunchless morning. Next I’ll wash my hair as thoroughly as I can (no bending forwards or getting eyes wet for 4-8 weeks), and pack my overnight bag as we’re staying in a cheap chain hotel near the hospital because this will be day surgery (note: others will be in the house). I was initially offered an overnight room in the patients’ hostel, as I’ll have blurred vision in one eye and a patch over the other, be recovering from a GA, and have to be seen in clinic the following day anyway. Then the local council fire inspectors came along and condemned the building, so the Holiday Inn will be cleaner than the tube (advised not to use public transport) and cheaper than a taxi back to the suburbs from central London. It will be reassuring to be close to their A and E dept but we won’t use the swimming pool, the bar, or the amenities of famously cool, stinkingly trendy Shoreditch. (I do wish our hellish government would retreat from stupid Brexit and fund the NHS instead. I know the staff will be skilled and kind, and the clinical care will be excellent, but I’ve discovered before that it comes utterly without frills. And don’t say what do I expect for free – I’ve paid a lifetime’s National Insurance and tax for the NHS and I’ve never abused it the way certain politicians do.)

When I start ranting I know it’s time for that hair wash. Excuse this post if less carefully edited than usual – it was a bit of an afterthought/timefiller/timewaster/distraction/delete as applicable. And if no other chance comes, huge thanks in advance to staff at Moorfields Eye Hospital and to my optician who originally diagnosed this thing – GET YOURSELVES TESTED FOLKS! To that end, please share this post as you think fit. Must remember to take the nail varnish off! See you – a bit fuzzy perhaps – on the other side!

©Jessica Norrie 2019

Are you looking for a Magic Carpet?

81wjjzeuuxl._sl1500_I searched Amazon for The Magic Carpet. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a… small carpet, according to Amazon. It’s only available in purple and averages 4* reviews. One says: “It does move, that’s the only downside I’ve found so far.” Most people love it.

the men on magic carpetsThe phrase appears too in the title of a book about coaching sports superstars, which until today shared with mine the distinction (?) of not yet having any reviews on Amazon.co.uk. It looks really interesting though! Sending full supportive wishes to my fellow author over in the US, where he is well reviewed. Update: the day after uploading this blog post, I left the review starting blocks so maybe he will too.

81lvd0ecnnl._sl1500_A magic carpet is also a battery powered ‘shimmer and shine’ toy which despite mostly rave reviews, someone says was “the worst toy we bought this Christmas”… (“the dolls themselves are fine but the shoes come off too easily” – er, maybe they’ve been told not to get mud on the, you know, carpet?) The carpet, which “magically flutters” (nifty use of wheels there) “responds to being tilted with over 40 sounds and fun phrases.” Must find a three year old to buy one for.

It’s a tarpaulin, which is “100% waterproof” and has “4 corner attachment points”. I’m liking this product best so far. It sounds so practical. But not really magic.61m1hdqwsel._sl1500_…a carpet shampoo… nah. Life’s too short for shampooing carpets, but each to their own. One customer gives it 5* so she (my sexist guess) must have been blown away.

…an enviably precisely described Vinsani Magic Clean Step Mat Non-Slip Backing Machine Washable Doormat Carpet Runner Rug Liner – Black/White – 45 X 150 cm”…Too long for a book title, though.

…a children’s colouring in kit but I bet adults can have a go too. Colouring in is so last year, but they’ve added simple sewing to help you relive another forgotten childhood activity.

Craft it Baker Ross

It’s all those things and more but The Magic Carpet is also MY SECOND NOVEL! Apologies for shouting but I need to get this piece of contemporary fiction off the ground. If you add my name to your search, or just search in “Books” you’ll avoid all the carpets let alone cleaning them, and no one will make you play with anything unless you want to.  You can choose the enchanted ebook or the bewitching book (paperback). Then you can drift away, until, coming down to earth with a bump, you write a spellbound review so the one I have already doesn’t feel lonely.

Does that sound like a deal? Amazon won’t accept reviews from known connections of the author, so I need more random readers to make their voices heard or my book will never rise through the section rankings to the magical top 100. Thank you! Now we can all live happily ever after… Good luck to all those other products too and hope you appreciated the shout out.

Jessica Norrie ©2019