First the quiz, now the answers. Well done everyone!

Many people said my Christmas Children’s Book Quiz was too hard – sorry! I was just about to provide more clues, when a friend who is a bit of a Hermione emailed me with a 98% score! (If you haven’t tried the quiz yet, it’s here.)

Whether you raced home like Hermione or are sulking in a snowdrift, I hope I conjured childhood memories and showed you books you haven’t heard of. Children’s literature deserves every bit as much attention as writing for adults, so I’ve added links to explore further (or enjoy reminiscing). One thing I’ve learnt from setting this quiz is that my knowledge needs updating, something for the next lockdown perhaps.

Round 1: Did you, like me, read these as a child?

  1. Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling. Kipling was a product of his time and class, with much of his writing jingoistic. But these animal stories remain delightful.
  2. The Children Of Green Knowe by Lucy M Boston. Not now as well known as she should be, Boston wrote ghost stories based on her own ancient home. The second, The Chimneys of Green Knowe, was unusual in featuring a heroine whose blindness isn’t central to the plot.
  3. Peter Pan by J M Barrie. Strange notions of childcare here! But as stipulated in Barrie’s will, Peter Pan royalties go to Great Ormond Street Children’s hospital in London.
  4. Just William by Richmal Crompton. She preferred her numerous novels for adults, but William – who never ages – is universally recognisable.
  5. Thomas The Tank Engine by the Rev W Awdry. Despite brilliant illustrations the original text is somewhat dense, but the characters have adapted for each generation.
  6. Island Of The Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell. This is a stirring story of an indigenous teenage girl’s survival after cruelty leaves her alone on a a remote island. See some of the Goodreads reviews for more in depth thoughts. I loved this as a teenager.
  7. The Wolves Of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken. The first in a long, wonderful series. Aiken is up there with Pullman and Rowling for creating imaginary worlds and intelligent female leads.
  8. The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge. Charming, nostalgic, romantic…
  9. Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield. Streatfield’s knowledge of theatre helps this classic story of yet more disadvantaged young girls deciding what they want and going for it!
  10. The Borrowers by Mary Norton. There are definitely Borrowers in my house. Inventive, and yet it teaches about vulnerability and inequality too, if you want morals in your children’s reading.

Round 2: A Picture Tells a Thousand Words

  1. Lucy and Tom’s Day by Shirley Hughes. This was first published in 1960. Hughes, now in her 90s, is still producing high quality stories and artwork, something new for every generation.
  2. The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. The first book I read my children, when they were just a few months old. I’ve used it for the happiest teaching ever since, in lots of different languages.
  3. Peace At Last by Jill Murphy. Another brilliant, repetitive bedtime story even for the youngest babies.
  4. Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans. “In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines / Lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.” Who wouldn’t carry on after a start like that?
  5. Funnybones by Janet and Allan Ahlberg. The skeletons try to scare the humans but they’re much too funny!
  6. The Snowman by Raymond Briggs. Just to show that a book can captivate without words. Briggs has also produced much darker work, and drawn a touching biography of his parents.
  7. Handa’s Surprise by Eileen Brown. Beautiful illustrations, funny ending.
  8. The Mousehole Cat by Antonia Barber and Nicola Bayley. I still can’t read this without welling up – try it for yourself or just admire the fabulous pictures.
  9. The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. This 1962 US classic was possibly the first published picture book to feature a black child without stereotyping. It was still popular with the children I taught up to 2016.
  10. So Much by Trish Cooke and Helen Oxenbury. At this family party, seen through the eyes of a toddler, you’ll have SO MUCH fun!

Round 3: Classics Old and Newish

  1. Anne Of Green Gables by L M Montgomery. The later books disappoint (me), but Anne Shirley as introduced here is great fun, overcoming a rotten start in life to win everyone’s hearts.
  2. What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge. The message about learning good behaviour through disability is cloying now, but this story fascinated me as a child. Again, the sequels are less successful (I think).
  3. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Still good enough to make a great recent film. Amy was always my favourite, but you’re supposed to like Jo best. The sequels? Nah…
  4. Noughts And Crosses by Malorie Blackman. A simple but clever premise, and an excellent recent TV series. Some reviewers miss the point!
  5. Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone by J K Rowling. Not sure where you’ve been if you’ve missed this one. An imaginary world that’s given pleasure to millions, despite some of the author’s recently expressed opinions running into opposition. The sequels work brilliantly, if at too much length.
  6. The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe by C S Lewis. A wonderful series for any child (or adult) who’s ever played about with a fictional universe. It’s a shame about the girls’ roles and the blond, noble Narnians against the dark skinned evil Calormenes, but the imaginary world created and the love of nature and animals remain outstanding.
  7. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Having loved this as a child, I was surprised how wordy I found it when reading it to my own children. But a roll call of illustrious illustrators have had enormous fun with the invention and characters over the years.
  8. Winnie The Pooh by A A Milne. Now the subject of many Facebook memes, Pooh remains as lovable and silly as ever.
  9. Northern Lights (published in the US as The Golden Compass) by Philip Pullman. My use of the UK title of the first in this fantastic series may have thrown some of you. But hey – it’s meant to be a mystery. The recent BBC adaptation does it far more justice than the film.
  10. Mary Poppins by P L Travers. Quite dry to read, compared to the film, but worth persevering.

Round 4: These characters are (part of) the family – but in which book(s)?

  1. Mary, Laura, Carrie and Grace Ingalls are the daughters in the Little Houseseries by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Controversial now for the way some (not all) characters view American Indians, but beautifully written and fascinating social history as long as it’s clear it’s from the point of view of white “pioneers”.
  2. Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis are The Railway Children (E. Nesbit) For an Edwardian woman, Nesbit had an extraordinary life.
  3. Pod, Homily and Arriety are The Borrowers (Mary Norton). See above.
  4. William, Charles, Percy, Fred, George, Ronald and Ginevra are the Weasley children’s full names (Harry Potter). See above.
  5. Kurt, Marcie and Minal Cricket are the siblings of Clarice Bean, in the series by Lauren Child. A popular contemporary series.
  6. Pongo and Missus are the parent dogs in The 101 Dalmations (Dodie Smith). This link is to the edition I had as a child, as I prefer the cover to one with film stills.
  7. Sally and I (her narrator brother) are visited by The Cat in the Hat (Dr Seuss). When he comes back things get even crazier!
  8. Lily Rose, Kate, Jim, John, Jo, Peggy and baby William were The Family From One End Street by Eve Garnett. The language may seem patronising, but when published in the 1930s it was ground-breaking as the first British children’s series to feature a poor working class family in a realistic way.
  9. Naledi, Tiro and Dineo were siblings in Journey to Jo’burg by Beverley Naidoo. It’s an easy to read story of children living in apartheid era South Africa. For my mixed ability classes of 12 year olds it packed a powerful emotional and educational punch.
  10. Ahmet is the schoolboy refugee separated from his family in Onjali Rauf’s prizewinning 2018 debut, The Boy at the Back of the Class, illustrated by Pippa Curnick. There’s also a US book with the same title by Tahlie Purvis, which I hadn’t heard of when I set this quiz. Take a point (or two) if you’ve answered with that one (or both)!

Round 5: Animals

  1. Paddington by Michael Bond. Pooh may like his honey, but for Paddington only marmalade will do.
  2. Orlando, the Marmalade Cat by Kathleen Hale. Hermione tells me there’s also a heroine called Marmalade Atkins in a series by Andrew Davies.
  3. Wilbur is described as SOME PIG in letters spun into Charlotte’s Web by E B White.
  4. In The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, Ferdinand is a bull who would rather smell the flowers than fight in the bullring.
  5. Mog is Meg the witch’s cat in Helen Nicoll and Jan Pienkowski’s Meg and Mog picture books. Mog is also the Thomas family’s cat in Judith Kerr’s Mog the Forgetful Cat series. There may be more!
  6. One owl service is a set of dinner plates featuring owls with magical properties in Alan Garner’s The Owl Service.
  7. The second is the postal service provided by owls in the wizarding world of Harry Potter. See above.
  8. The two benevolently despotic elephants I thought of were Babar by Jean de Brunhoff, and Uncle, by J P Martin. Hermione also suggests Colonel Hathi from The Jungle Book.
  9. In The Magician’s Nephew by C S Lewis, Diggory’s Uncle Andrew was planted (and watered) by an elephant who mistook him for a tree. Google “images from The Magician’s Nephew” to see this incident as depicted by the wonderful Pauline Baynes. (Must blog about children’s illustrators some time.)
  10. The Elephant’s Child (Rudyard Kipling) was spanked by his aunts and uncles for his insatiable curiosity. See Just So Stories, above.
  11. Elmer, in David McKee’s picture books.
  12. The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams.
  13. Anansi the spiderman features in traditional folk stories that originated in Ghana and spread to the Caribbean. Anansi tells stories and plays tricks.
  14. Although a dog, Nana was nanny to Wendy James and Michael in Peter Pan (see above). They escaped through an open window as she was babysitting.
  15. Mole, in The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame.

Round 6: Identify the author and/or the book(s) they are talking about.

  1. “It is the book I’m proudest of because it had something to do with the death of the Dick and Jane primers.” Theodore Geisel (Dr Seuss) said this of The Cat in the Hat (see above). The UK Dick and Jane were Janet and John. Janet helped Mummy in the kitchen. John helped Dad wash the car. They were boring.
  2. “… reviewers at the time said things like: “in spite of the strange title, it’s a very good book.” Judith Kerr on When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit interviewed in the Guardian 18/2/15
  3. “… my father had got to where he was by climbing upon my infant shoulders.” Christopher Robin Milne, in his autobiography The Enchanted Places, showed resentment of the Winnie the Pooh books by A A Milne.
  4. Richmal Crompton complained here that William Brown “takes possession of every story I try to write, even though they are not about him.”
  5. “I knew it would make people feel uncomfortable.” Malorie Blackman writing here about Noughts and Crosses.
  6. “If you read my novels, you know, they’re not black novels – they’ve just got characters in them…” Benjamin Zephaniah quoted in The Guardian 14/10/14

Round 7: Snippets of random information

  1. Tolkien and C S Lewis drank together in The Unicorn pub, Great Malvern, Worcestershire, whose gas lamps feature in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe (see above).
  2. James Thurber was part blind after being shot in the eye by his brother in a childhood game of William Tell. (The Thirteen Clocks and The Wonderful O was a favourite of mine as a child, in the Puffin edition with illustrations by Ronald Searle.)
  3. Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York and once married to Prince Andrew signed a seven book “nurturing” children’s book deal in Australia and New Zealand in early 2020. I think authors should get contracts on merit, not because they are linked to the UK royal family. So I am not giving a link to her books. 10,000 bonus points if you agree.
  4. The UK children’s author and illustrator who said “I get on with (children) perfectly well but spend time with them? No, no, no…” was Quentin Blake.

Round 8: And lastly, in honour of a Europe I’m so sorry and angry to leave, have a go at these questions:

  1. Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (whose parents were Polish).
  2. Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans (France). See above.
  3. Miffy by Dick Bruna (Netherlands).
  4. Strewwelpeter by Heinrich Hoffmann. This link is to the German edition because I loved the picture which was on my English copy as a child. Horrifying stories of awful punishments for children who misbehave.
  5. The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank (Holland). Apologies if I muddled you – I always thought this had the title I’ve given but now see recent translations call it The Diary of a Young Girl.
  6. Fables by Aesop (Greece).
  7. Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren (Sweden).
  8. Pom, Flora, Alexander and cousin Arthur are Babar’s triplets and nephew in the French books by Jean de Brunhoff. See link above.
  9. When they’re told by the Brothers Grimm (German brothers who collected fairy tales from all over Europe).
  10. Pinocchio (by Italian Carlo Collodi) and Johnson are both shown with noses that lengthen with every lie.

I hope you enjoyed my quiz. Do keep sharing it, and let me know how you did by commenting below. Happy new reading year!

Questions and answers © Jessica Norrie 2020.

Quizzing around the Christmas tree!

This Christmas will be quieter than usual so here’s a quiz to print off and mull over. See how much you can do without Google! Please do post comments and scores, but not answers – they’ll be on the blog after Christmas. You may have to think back to your childhood, maybe even your parents’ and grandparents’ childhoods as I’ve realised many of my choices are old fashioned. If any 21st century children and grandchildren would like to contribute up to date and more diverse examples of well known books for a future quiz that would be great and you can email them to me via the blog.

There are a whopping 75 questions (I worked HARD on this, or you could just call it self-indulgence). Score 1 point for every correct fact you get – eg a point for authors and for picture books illustrators’ names. A point for the title or series, extra for the countries the books come from in Round 8 and any other answer to a specific question. I make the maximum score 150 but it could be more. Let me know what you get – and note, some books and authors may appear in more than one question.

Here’s an example, for two marks: TMG by PP would be Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce.

Round 1: Did you, like me, read these as a child?

  1. TJSS by RK
  2. TCOGK by LMB
  3. PP by JMB
  4. JW by RC
  5. TTTE by RWA
  6. IOTBD by SOD
  7. TWOWC by JA
  8. TLWH by EG
  9. BS by NS
  10. TB by MN

Round 2: A Picture Tells a Thousand Words

  1. LATD by SH
  2. TVHC by EC
  3. PAL by JM
  4. M by LB
  5. F by J & AA
  6. TS by RB
  7. HS by EB
  8. TMC by AB and NB
  9. TSD by EJK
  10. SM by TC

Round 3: Classics Old and Newish

  1. AOGG by LMM
  2. WKD by SC
  3. LW by LMA
  4. NAC by MB
  5. HPATPS by JKR
  6. TLTWATW by CSL
  7. AAIW by LC
  8. WTP by AAM
  9. NL aka TGC by PP
  10. MP by PLT

Round 4: These characters are (part of) the family – but what is the book or series?

  1. Mary, Laura, Carrie and Grace
  2. Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis
  3. Pod, Homily and Arriety
  4. William, Charles, Percy, Fred, George, Ronald and Ginevra
  5. Kurt, Marcie and Minal Cricket
  6. Pongo and Missus
  7. Sally and I
  8. Lily Rose, Kate, Jim, John, Jo, Peggy and baby William
  9. Naledi, Tiro and Dineo
  10. Ahmet – and why is he on his own?

Round 5: Animals

  1. Who liked marmalade?
  2. Who WAS marmalade?
  3. Who was SOME PIG?
  4. Which animal hero of a 1936 children’s book banned by General Franco and burnt by Hitler was, according to Life magazine, accused of being “everything from a fascist to a pacifist to a burlesque sit-down striker”?
  5. Who had a cat called Mog? (At least two possible answers.)
  6. Describe an owl service…
  7. …and another?
  8. Two benevolent despots in children’s literature happen to be elephants. Can you name them?
  9. In which book did someone’s uncle get planted by another elephant who thought he must be a tree?
  10. And whose aunts and uncles spanked him for his insatiable curiosity?
  11. Who is made of patchwork?
  12. .…and who of velveteen?
  13. Where in the world does a spider play tricks and tell tales, and what is his name?
  14. Which canine babysitter lost sight of her three charges?
  15. Who got fed up with spring cleaning?

Round 6: Identify the author and/or the book(s) they are talking about.

  1. “It is the book I’m proudest of because it had something to do with the death of the Dick and Jane primers”
  2. “It was a brilliant title but the publishers didn’t like at first. Even reviewers at the time said things like: “in spite of the strange title, it’s a very good book”
  3. “It seemed to me almost that my father had got to where he was by climbing upon my infant shoulders.”
  4. “He takes possession of every story I try to write, even though they are not about him.”
  5. “I knew it would make people feel uncomfortable.”
  6. “If you read my novels, you know, they’re not black novels – they’ve just got characters in them; it’s about who they are, you know, the story and it represents the communities that I’ve lived in, which are very mixed communities. I don’t sit down and go “right, I’ve got to write black literature for black people” or anything like that. I just write stories.”

Round 7: Snippets of random information

  1. Which two UK authors used to enjoy a drink together in this pub, in a town whose gas lamps inspired a famous scene in a book by one of them?
  2. Which humorous US cartoonist and writer for adults and children was part blind after being shot in the eye by his brother in a childhood game of William Tell?
  3. Which Brit signed a seven book children’s “nurturing” book deal in Australia and New Zealand in early 2020? (10,000 bonus points if you can guess my thoughts about this.)
  4. Which UK children’s author and illustrator said about children: “I get on with them perfectly well but spend time with them? No, no, no. There’s no need, you see. I just make it all up.”

Round 8: Lastly, in honour of a Europe I’m sorry and angry to be forced to leave:

Photo by Mau00ebl BALLAND on Pexels.com
  1. (Picture book) WTWTA by MS
  2. (Picture book) M by LB (oh! I already had this in Round 2. 2 free points then.)
  3. (Picture book) M by DB
  4. (Poems) S by HH
  5. (Autobiography) TDOAF by AF
  6. (Classic) F by A
  7. (20th century Classic) PL by AL
  8. Where might you find Pom, Flora, Alexander and their cousin Arthur?
  9. Why might reading fairy tales not be an entirely happy experience?
  10. How have cartoonists recently compared Boris Johnson to an Italian classic character?

Questions © Jessica Norrie 2020. Photos of The Unicorn and Snowman with books © Jessica Norrie.

Reading for Remainers

We’ve heard so much recent talk about hard or soft Brexits. Call me a whinger, accuse me of not accepting a democratic result: I’ll still whinge, I’ll still refuse to accept. travel-books-2I don’t, as far as I know, have any “foreign” blood – unless being a quarter Scottish counts or my grandmother’s maiden name deriving (arguably) from that of a favourite of William the Conqueror’s. But since the referendum, part of my soul’s been torn out. I was brought up European before we’d even joined the Common Market. My parents lived through World War Two, just too young to be called up. My mother had to leave her school at 14 when so many pupils were evacuated it wasn’t viable for it to stay open. Trying to restart her education, she went as a paying guest to the French Massif Central in 1946, where she witnessed more that war had done. Later she managed a degree in French and Italian while bringing us up.

Before our first European holiday when I was seven, we had an introduction through books my parents provided. There were huge hardback Babar books (some with illustrations which would now be thought offensive so I’ve chosen one of the later books to show here: note the Citroën and what is surely a Provencal landscape):

babar-1
Babar’s Castle, Laurent de Brunhoff, Methuen 1962

Then came the delightful Madeline (“In an old house in Paris covered with vines/Lived twelve little girls in two straight lines“). Cuddly, philosophical Moomintroll was a comforting bedtime read from a minority ethnic Finn who wrote in Swedish.

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This is Rome, by M Sasek, first published 1960

From This is Rome –  more cities covered now – I remember a multi-armed policeman directing mad traffic with six gloved hands.  In The Story of Ferdinand, a bull lived happily under the “cork trees”of Andalucia until captured for the bullring, but he was too peaceable animal to fight so they allowed him back. I’ve now discovered this classic was actually American, and has an interesting political history.Germany offered the terrifying Strewelpeter and Emil and the Detectives, which I tried several times but found boring. My father was equally bored by a gentle Dutch children’s classic called The Wheel on the School but I liked this environmental tale of protection for nesting storks. Then there was a sweet book of cartoons called The Lovers by Raymond Peynet. This was for adults, but such a Gallic blend of innocence and naughtiness was delightful for a child. What you give a child, an adult remembers, and Peynet was a precious find when we cleared the house after they died.

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By that time we were setting off annually in the Vauxhall Victor to Dover for our holidays “on the continent”. My mother did the talking, French, Italian, (no Spanish because they refused to go there until Franco died), German because although we were still playing English vs Germans in the school playground and our neighbours in Finchley had come over on the Kindertransport, my own parents had decided they wanted to put that past behind them. As soon as Spain grew out of such ideas too, they went there. When they retired they went to Hungary, what’s now the Czech Republic, Rumania, Greece, Portugal – my mother’s well thumbed phrase books evidence of her will to try meeting the locals on their own terms.

My memory is of a France still war scarred and dilapidated as late as 1970. We stayed in fly blown hotels and endured nasty toilets in the yards of dark cafes.But we discovered potage, beignets, and vinaigrette. We children drank Orangina, learned how pizza and ice cream should really taste and played boules on beaches that stayed warm till after dark. 61672I was lucky to see Marcel Marceau, the famous mime artist and as a teenager the films of Chabrol, Truffaut, Fassbinder. I learned from Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet and Polanski’s Macbeth that Europeans could collaborate across borders and centuries to create extraordinary art (much older, I discovered the potent mix of Shakespeare and Italian opera). I began very slowly to read in French: “Bonjour Tristesse” was my first conquest and from it I learned the phrase “J’ai envie de…”

J’ai envie de rester européenne.

My French Literature BA in the then school of European Studies at Sussex included German, Spanish, Italian, Danish and English literature too (plus Russian and Scandinavian), to be read in the original if possible. Why did I choose that degree? I think the books started it off, even more than the holidays, because books were so wonderful, no matter how often you read them, whereas the holidays were sometimes uncomfortable and the drives, in pre cassette/CD/DVD days, very long. Europe wasn’t perfect, after all, but then neither are we.

I tried to bring my children up the same. Babar and Madeline of course, but also a child’s version of Don Quijote, my son patiently allowing me to translate a few pages each night for a bedtime story, and a picture book called The Beast of Monsieur Racine that my daughter recently admitted she found “creepy”. Sebastian is always late  showed us what a rural Swiss school would look like (once he got there). On holiday in Brittany we saw lobsters in tanks outside restaurants and read the wonderful Monsieur Thermidor  (author from Warwickshire, actually). Frog and the Birdsong by Max Velthuijs helped them understand when their grandmother died. Cuentos para contar en 1 minuto y 1/2 (stories to tell in a minute and a half), picked up in the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid, boosted my daughter’s Spanish GCSE. Together we watched films by Almodovar and Guillermo del Toro, and I knew I’d done something right when she qualified as a translator of Spanish and Italian.

don-q-1
From Don Quijote de la Mancha, retold by Antonio Albarran, Grafalco 1998

My family and I are European citizens. We can work, have medical treatment, travel… We have assured rights to holiday and sick pay, to maternity and paternity leave. We share the whole heritage. It doesn’t mean we aren’t equally fond of and proud of the English language (I write in it, after all). But between us we’ve lived in France, Spain and Italy. We have friends from all over Europe, some here, some there. These assets and relationships will now be weakened or even lost. I’m motivated by literature, but there are parallel arguments for scientists, economists, musicians, artists, medics. My children and I never had to go through a blitz on our city or hear guns booming as we stood on a doorstep on the south coast. Let’s not forget the original reason for establishing a European community: to create stronger trading and cultural links and thereby prevent another war.

In bookshops in Europe (many more than we now have here) I browse so much translated work, because nobody there minds reading the work of “foreign” writers. It shames me that we have so little available here. But, whether you read in translation or in the original, it does seem to me that if we keep reading, relating to and discussing European writers, we’ll never truly leave Europe. So why not Books against Brexit? Given the rise in hate crime since the referendum, we need a counter movement. (En passant, before I get yelled at, I do recognise the wide spectrum of opinion among Brexiteers and I know most of them have no racist or fascist intentions.) Rock against Racism and Love Football, hate Fascism were successful campaigns, so would Books against Brexit work? Could it even be parented by my other idea (as far as I know equally hypothetical) Words for the World?

In subsequent posts I’ll be making some recommendations.

Parce que j’ai envie de rester européenne. 

european-books-2

 

© Jessica Norrie 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Narratives from the riverbank.

592657Of all landscape features, it seems to me a river is the one that lends itself best to carrying a narrative, either the whole story (Three Men in a Boat or Deliverance), or departures and episodes that hook the reader like a helpless fish. Think how Dickens starts Our Mutual Friend with Lizzie Hexham and her father rowing along looking for dead bodies in the Thames, and how in Oliver Twist the events leading to Bill Sykes murdering Nancy begin at London Bridge. (The Victorian Web has a fascinating discussion of the setting.) Alice in Wonderland begins on the banks of the river Isis, which is where the real Alice and Lewis Carroll sat as he told the original tales, fortunately over a century before Inspector Morse started fishing bodies out of it. Mole starts the The Wind in the Willows  by falling in, Ratty saves him, and then they just go with the flow.

More grimly The Bridge over the River Kwai was a bestseller, about POWs in the Far East, and competing for grimness is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, set in the Congo. Surely it’s no accident that these settings have inspired such successful films.

More books set on or by rivers are discussed here, and picture books here. For older children I’d add two favourites. Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken is the second in a long series of wonderful adventures.The rightful heir to the throne is rescued from a sinking barge on the Thames by art students in a hot air balloon! Only Joan Aiken could fit so much drama into one chapter – and that isn’t really a spoiler, as there is so much else in the story both before and after that episode.

back-hearts-in-battersea-pic
“Battersea Castle”  from “Black Hearts in Battersea”, 1992 Red Fox edition

The second is Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie. Her family have to cross a river on a hastily made raft of wooden logs, in their covered wagon drawn by ponies. (Memory says it was the Mississippi, but the book’s gone on a journey of its own so I can’t check.) During the crossing the river rises in a flash flood and the ponies must swim for it. On another occasion the horses pull the wagon across an apparently ice bound lake. Half way across the ice begins to give way…These stories were based on true events of her pioneer childhood.

Unless there’s a drought, a river flows along episodically, with a start and an end (an open end, as it flows into the sea), changing as it moves along, a place of work and pleasure, danger and refreshment. The river at Hiroshima represented salvation to victims of the A Bomb: For my burning body the cold water of the river was as precious as the treasure. Now it’s a calm, serene and beautiful place, with cranes (birds not machines!) and riverside walks.

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The Map that came to Life sends two children on a walk with a large scale Ordnance Survey map. On the way they cross, encounter, climb and wade through various landscape features and pass significant and domestic buildings. Similarly, in Kyoto, Japan the Kamogawa River came to life as we walked along it and I tell the story in the photos below. It flows between wide sloping green banks. We descended steps to the path beside it, and immediately the roaring traffic was quieter, the air cleaner, and the sky wider. It’s too shallow for boats, but stepping stones led across and we saw them in use. We met a man walking his dog who was delighted I wanted a photo (I think they both were).

There is only one wooden bridge left among the stone ones, but there were rows of old wooden teahouses, bars and homes, and because Kyoto has  a “no high rise” policy the modern flats were not (too) intrusive. After bowing our thanks to the man with the dog we came to another man doing T’ai Chi, echoing the serenity with his controlled, beautiful movement. By the next bridge a flautist trilled on one bank, playing call and response with a violinist opposite. Herons, very close, swooped to pull gleaming fish from the water and there were butterflies with huge orange wings. A volunteer (I presume) group of elderly Japanese were out weeding and picking up the rare litter, too busy to greet us. On the far bank we saw an artist painting the riverside buildings, his back turned to a second artist… who had set up his easel in the water itself, the bottom edge of the canvas barely above the surface.

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And then we came up the steps, past the tramp with a huge pile of bags in a trolley at the top, and back into the heat and traffic above. We’d been offered an oasis full of characters. Long may their stories continue, and may the river add new ones every day.

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© Jessica Norrie 2016

Inspired by Miss Happiness and Miss Flower

This writing blog got diverted and may seem more like a travel blog, so let me, Japanese fashion, impose some order. (Travelling followers picked up recently, please do stay on board: I think our interests coincide.) Hiroshima was so striking I wanted to deal with it first, but now back to what I read to complement my trip.

Why did I go to Japan? My fascination arose from childhood, and a book called Miss Happiness and Miss Flower by Rumer Godden. A small girl receives a present of two Japanese dolls, and her cousin models a house for them to live in.

Of course it’s dated now. Girls may design and work with wood as much as boys; children, sadly, no longer go to the high street by themselves to find information at the bookshop (so few local bookshops remain, for one thing). But nevertheless it was a delight to reread, thirty or more years later, the night before leaving for Japan.

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Geiko dancers on stage in Kyoto

Rumer Godden deals, with a light touch, on culture shock and homesickness and efforts by both sides to integrate. The children Nona and Tom understand the dolls need a home different from British homes, where the walls slide and discrete areas may be screened or opened up according to temporary considerations. Everything must be polite and ordered, and there is beauty in small, humble moments – one flower in a tiny vase, a scrap of silk for a pillow. The dolls have very human characteristics; Miss Happiness is optimistic and can accept hardship;  Miss Flower is nervous, can’t believe a foreigner can understand her and is so grateful and gracious when the foreigner attempts to do so. In a bonus for those with a talent for carpentry, the book includes instructions on how to make a Japanese doll’s house.

Dolls and puppets are important in Japanese culture, and feature in the next novel I read. Junichiro Tanizaki is a classic Japanese author, and Some Prefer Nettles was published in 1928. I returned to Tanizaki after another absence of thirty years, having as a teenager adored his epic The Makioka Sisters, about a family of sisters living in Osaka (It’s comparable, perhaps, with Lorca’s House of Bernarda Alba, Chekhov’s Three Sisters and any number of green spined Virago Modern Classics. Or even Jane Austen). 51jqirzmz2l

I wasn’t disappointed. Here again was the clear prose; the economical, poetic images conveying in one line as much as a page of Western description; psychology rendered through gestures, clothing, or choices of food and drink. Tanizaki’s characters think carefully about the design of every object they use, in order to enhance the experience in anticipation, during use, and and in memory. It’s a centuries old Japanese trait that continues today- think of Japanese technology, or think of a Zen garden.

In Some Prefer Nettles, a couple are preparing for divorce. There is no animosity between Kaname and Misako, they are simply tired of each other, but they have a child and an elderly father to consider. And so they proceed with care, with resignation, almost hoping to be denied the pleasure they seek, if it will help diminish the shock to the order of things. Meanwhile there are doll festivals and puppet theatre outings in which their situation is reflected through age old Japanese culture. (The puppets are life size and operated by up to three puppet masters at a time: I saw the one below at the theatre in Kyoto.)

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The husband, Kaname, was brought up in old Tokyo “before the earthquake” (of 1923) and harks increasingly towards tradition; the wife seeks modernity but remains adept at selecting his kimonos and arranging  flowers for the shrine. “He looked down on her, a sort of mute regret rising in him, without fear of meeting her eyes…..The early cherries were just coming into bloom.” It’s a beautiful, elegiac portrait of a society and a marriage, with a surprising number of echos for the contemporary Western reader.

41uvfhb2pslI considered reading Murakami, having found the same simple, limpid prose quality in Norwegian Wood, but felt I should explore a wider range of Japanese novelists and discovered Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami. Where Tanizaki told a story of modern marriage in a traditional society, this book, set in contemporary Tokyo, tells of timeless romance under modern conditions. A youngish woman meets her old teacher by chance, and he’s now retired and a widower. As with Tanizaki, you can open any page at random and be sure of finding elegiac, gentle prose, a yearning quality: the teacher’s name is Sensei and the narrator murmurs and repeats it just for the joy in the sound of the name. There’s the design commitment again: practical details investing everyday items with a touch of poetry. “The hot spiciness of the crackers really did go quite well with saké…I heard a faint chirping and then the sound of the leaves on the branches rustling for a moment, and then it was quiet again.” I suspect this simple beauty is a quality of the Japanese language, or it may be something that happens in the interface when Japanese is translated into English. But both novels – in which not a huge amount happens – are immensely clear, readable, universal and moving despite the significant cultural differences between us.

I read these two novels on my return. While I was in Japan, I read Motions and Moments, the third essay collection by Michael Pronko, an American professor who has made his home in Tokyo. At first I found these illuminating: as we moved around Tokyo I recognised quirks that he (affectionately) identifies. I was helped to understand certain customs through his intermediary insights; I enjoyed his descriptions of Japanese gardening (they use tiny secateurs like nail scissors to clip their shrubs with minute precision) and understood what he meant by getting lost in Tokyo “vertically as well as horizontally”. The first two parts of the book (Surfaces and Miniatures) were well written, witty and informative. Part 3, Constructs, could have used some editorial help with, er, construction (and I’m aware he acknowledges the help of Newsweek editors at the end). Perhaps by then I was too immersed in the spare beauty of Japanese expression to enjoy American verbosity and repetition. But it’s worth a read if you are going to Tokyo.

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Tokyo street scene

© Jessica Norrie 2016

 

Harry Potter and the Athenian Quest

My children were the same age, more or less, as Harry Potter, and grew up with him, their interests and concerns maturing alongside his. It was Harry Potter who got my son Robert – for years more into cartoons and articles about football – to grips with reading long, unillustrated texts, paving the way for Philip Reeve and Philip Pullman later on.

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In 2007, Robert and I went away, to join a group, none of whom we knew yet, on an activity holiday with plenty to offer both of us. I never went on holiday without lots of reading matter, and took what I thought were “good” books along for him as well, but without much hope that he’d read them. In pre Kindle days it was a heavy, bulky labour of love.

Rob seemed sad in the days before we left. He liked the holiday idea, but was upset because the final Harry Potter book was due out the day after we were to leave. When he returned all his friends would have read it, and he anticipated having to hide himself away until he’d finished it too, or they’d tell him what had happened. Rumour had it this was going to be a thick book, so he’d be hidden away a long time. Even if he avoided  friends and the media, how would we stop his sister spilling the Bertie Bott’s every flavour beans?

There was no way to get it before we left. Bookshops had strict confidentiality agreements, stocks were locked up at secret locations, copies couldn’t be pre-ordered for dispatch to a remote Greek island, reachable only by several coaches and two ferry trips after flying to Athens. Rob was philosophical, but by taking us out of the UK on such an occasion, I had blundered, and I felt guilty. He packed the other books in silent, dreary politeness.

At Heathrow there was the usual dull hanging about after check in. HP bpopks 1-6Harry Potter posters popped up everywhere. News on the terminal monitors showed children and adults queuing up outside bookshops due to open at midnight, being interviewed about how excited they were. The airport shop windows were swathed in paper, ready for a grand unveiling – just after our plane was due to leave. You could buy the other six – but those we’d read already.

A delay was announced. Hope glimmered: we might be able to buy a copy. But we were called to the departure lounge. There we sat, bored and frustrated, in no man’s land, away from the bright lights of the shopping concourse, but not airborne yet either. My son grew quieter and quieter. I felt more and more guilty.

The plane was called, over five hours late. We arrived in Athens, trailed miserably through customs and got to our hotel as dawn was breaking. There was to be a late morning ferry from Piraeus, and the tour operators postponed breakfast so we could get an hour of sleep in the rooms we’d paid for and expected to use all night. Rob crashed out straight away, jaded and fed up. It was very, very hot.

I thought hard. My father had been a bookseller, and I knew about big events in the publishing world. Here we were in a European capital – there had to be a bookshop somewhere eager to conjure euro treasure from a pile of pristine Harry Potters. Leaving Rob asleep, I went to try and find one.

After my sleepless night, my eyes felt gritty and my tummy wasn’t quite behaving. I had rather a large sum of cash on me that I should really have left in the bedroom safe but I was too exhausted to think straight. I wandered away from the hotel, whose name I instantly forgot. After one block I realised all the street names were written in the Greek alphabet and I’d have no idea how to get back unless I noted some landmarks. Ah – SEX SHOP! screamed huge red readable capitals on the corner. That would have to do. I was just off Syntagma Square, but I’d never been to Athens before and didn’t realise. I’d left my 13  year old son sleeping, oblivious to my absence in a foreign city, we had to be at breakfast within an hour or we’d miss the coach transfer, and I’d prioritised a lone quest in a strange place for a book from another country… It’s not what the parenting manuals advise.

I crossed to a more salubrious side of the square and chose a road at random. Abracadabra! There was a bookshop, the owner just opening the shutters! In the window – two different editions of the new Harry Potter, child and adult. I rushed in, I gabbled, I almost kissed the man, I explained my son’s narrow escape from being marooned on a Harry Potter-less island! He was a serious chap and didn’t respond with due appreciation of the miracle he’d wrought. That would be 33 euros and would I like it gift wrapped? 33 euros! But I didn’t hesitate. I paid, fairly danced back to the hotel and woke Rob, who was very grumpy.

“We have to go to breakfast,” I said.”Can you fit another book in your case, I’ve no space?”

“I’m not hungry and I don’t want more books, we’ve got loads already.”

“OK,” I said. “I’ll see if someone else wants it then, it’s ever so big and I can’t carry it myself.” I let him catch a glimpse.

It was one of those moments that sum up what motherhood is about. Rob shot up from the bed, yelling: “HARRY POTTER!” Later on the ferry, someone saw him reading it and word travelled. “How did you get THAT?” An English crowd gathered in wonder.

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Robert had immediate kudos on that holiday. Some savvy people were having it flown out from the UK, but it wouldn’t be there for at least five days and he had a head start. They queued up to persuade him to pass it on to them when he’d finished it. They pestered him to know what was happening until he pointed out that if they left him to it, he’d be able to pass the book on sooner. In the end, he chose a pleasant, mild man, perhaps in his mid thirties, for his successor, buried himself in HP emerging only to swim, wind surf and eat and steadfastly refused to divulge any secrets.

Back in London, two months later, a large parcel arrived out of the blue. It contained a generous selection of recent feature film DVDs. There were hours of entertainment for the whole family as the nights drew in and wind surfing became a distant memory. With the gift was a note: “To Robert. Thank you so much for making my holiday so special by choosing me to read your Harry Potter book after you. Wishing you and your family well for the future. Yours, D.”

Wishing you well too, D, wherever you are. What a great time we all had in the end. It was our first holiday without his father and sister, so it could have been disastrous. There was that delayed start, and the teenagers I’d expected would be company for Rob all turned out to be toddlers. Instead the adults with their shared Harry Potter interest helped him to grow up and he’s now a singer songwriter, telling his own stories in his wonderful voice, while the setting inspired my own first novel too.

 

© Jessica Norrie 2016