Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Jan Mark's Norfolk

My daughter's paperback copy of
HANDLES, nicely battered.
This post originally appeared on ABBA in December 2018.

It was because of Jan Mark that I became a children’s author. I didn’t realise it at the time but now, looking back thirty years, I can see that it is true.

HANDLES won the Carnegie medal in 1983. Jan had already won the Carnegie in 1977 with THUNDER AND LIGHTNINGS. These two books, along with a third, UNDER THE AUTUMN GARDEN (which was highly commended for the Carnegie) were set in the Norfolk countryside. I had lived in that Norfolk countryside for a dozen years by the time HANDLES was published, and I had known Norwich since childhood. But I had never seen anyone manage to recreate the Norfolk experience so vividly in print. 

Norfolk dialect is notoriously hard for any actor to reproduce on stage or screen if they are not a native, and equally hard to put into words. Jan Mark managed it, and in HANDLES she took it to a new level. 

I knew the people, too. Erica’s aunt, uncle and cousin, Robert, could easily have been our next-door neighbours. Most people who lived near us got their TVs second-hand from Chris in the next village. He got them from the local tip. Jan Mark describes those televisions perfectly:

 ‘. . .old, huge and primitive . . . It was never serviced and now functioned on two colours only, yellow and purple.  People glared out of the screen, their faces a dreadful acid lemon colour, with deep lilac shadows under their eyes and chins . . . while mysterious figures in the background swam and struggled through a thick violet syrup.’

Chris would have shrugged and said, ‘a lot of people don't mind if the colour’s wrong.’  He sold us a VCR once that didn’t record.  We took it back and he swapped it for another one. It recorded but didn’t play back properly.  I took that one back and he said, ‘some people only want them for the clock.’

My daughter and I wrote to Jan Mark to tell her how much we loved HANDLES.  I’d worked out that ‘Polthorpe’ in the book was really Stalham, and I figured out that ‘Calstead’ must be Ingham.  I found a Mark listed in the phone book in Ingham and posted off the letter.  Jan was no longer living there, but the letter was forwarded, by her daughter I think, and we received this lovely reply:

And so the idea entered my head that it was possible to write books for children set in Norfolk and I started work on a story that eventually became my third novel GREEN FINGERS. In the course of writing it I kept realising that I had accidentally stolen ideas from Jan Mark. I thought I had removed all traces, but later realised that Rain, in my book of the same name, is a young girl who is mechanically gifted, just like Erica in HANDLES.

I told Jan all this when I eventually met her, complete with fag and glass of wine, at some party somewhere. She laughed and said that it’s just the way things are. It happens to everybody. It’s a good thing. I told her we’d written to her all those years before. She looked alarmed.  ‘I did write back, didn’t I?’ she asked me.
Original cover by David Parkins
Chapter head illustrations for HANDLES were by David Parkins, who also provided the cover for the hardback first edition. He also illustrated NOTHING TO BE AFRAID OF, Jan Mark's book of short stories which was highly commended for the Carnegie in 1980. David Parkins went on to draw The Three Bears and Billy Whizz for the Beano, and Desperate Dan for the Dandy.  

Chapter heading by David Parkins from HANDLES
I love the wonderful, unsentimental characterisation in those Norfolk books. At a first reading it may seem that the native Norfolk people in HANDLES are harshly treated. Certainly, Erica takes a poor view of her country-dwelling relatives. Here’s a short extract. Erica has tried to recover her uncle’s jump leads from motorcycle mechanic, Elsie:

            Uncle Peter dried his hands. ‘Best we keep going in relays until he do find them. He’ve been promising me them leads since May.’
            ‘Perhaps we should all go together,’ Erica said, ‘so that he’d notice.’
            ‘He’d not notice if we went in with a tank. (. . .) He’ve got that much on his mind that take him a week to see what’s under his nose. I don’t know why someone so slow-thinking as Elsie took to motor bikes in the first place, them being so fast.’
            Erica thought it was a cheek for someone as slow-speaking as Uncle Peter to talk about Elsie being slow. Auntie Joan said, ‘Elsie hent slow, he’s just always thinking about something else. Never what you want him to think about.’
            ‘You want him to think about something,' Robert said, shoving his oar in, ‘you got to give him a week’s notice. Time you get back, he’ve started to think about that.’ He grinned, as if he’d come up with something clever. Erica withered him privately.

Jan Mark’s genius is to let us both sympathise with Erica’s impatience with her country relatives, and at the same time see the humour (and perceptiveness) in their conversation. All is not quite as it seems in the adult world that Erica is keen to join.  Her relatives’ battles with the peacock that ravages their vegetable garden are comical, but the family rely on the money they make from selling the vegetables. Elsie, the affable, absent-minded motorcycle mechanic, has an unhappy wife and an unhappy daughter.  

Behind the nicknames and the jokes, real life is lurking. Erica’s stay a small Norfolk village is as revealing and transformative as any visit to a foreign country. 

HANDLES is a wonderful book, and I wish I had written it.

Jan Mark's obituary in the Guardian
David Parkins website
HANDLES is currently out of print. (2019)

Saturday, 16 November 2019

A New Reception Class

Looking through some old writing I came across this short piece from 1994. I'd been working part-time for a while, and trying to turn myself into a writer. I'd just started the novel which became my first book, TROUBLEMAKERS, and my wife, Ellie, had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. Then the headteacher of the school where I was working asked me to take on a new Reception class for two terms, and I said yes.

When I saw it just now, I realised that this piece of writing catches something important about the way I felt about my job and the way I approached it.  Here it is.


It starts slowly.
There are fifteen children in the morning,
Another fifteen children in the afternoon.
We look after them,
Give them good things to do,
Crack jokes, read stories,
Learn their names.

One at a time,
We put the balls into the air.
By the end of the week,
Thirty balls spinning, flying.
We weave a pattern with our hands and minds
To keep the whole complex tracery of interaction
From ending in a great bouncing
Of very bouncy balls,
Breaking things, rolling everywhere,
Getting lost.

The pattern becomes so complex,
So demanding
That night and day it fills my mind,
Running along beneath everything I do:
Get this done!
Remember that!
Do this!
Until even sleep is exhausting.

Why do I do it?

Because one day, magically,
I will put my hands in my pockets,
Take two steps backwards,
And gaze up in wonder
At the maze of spinning balls
Suspended by their own energy 
And the energy we’ve given them,
Weaving patterns in the air. 

Friday, 15 November 2019

A First Book for my Grandson

This piece was first published over on ABBA five years ago, in September 2014. I'm going to repost all my posts from that blog on here over the next few weeks but this was the first one I wrote, as a guest post. It would be nice to think that everything had changed for the better since I wrote it, but a read of this 2019 report from the Book Trust shows there has been more talk than action. 

September 2014

I have seen various reports recently about the lack of diversity in children’s literature: from Savita Kalhan on this blog, and elsewhere from Malorie Blackman and Bali Rai.  This is about what happened to me.

My grandson is seven months old and the other day my daughter, Emily, asked me if I’d like to buy him his first book.  ‘Yes!’ I thought, ‘That will be fun.  Maybe I’ll get a board book copy of THE BABY’S CATALOGUE.’  It was my son’s first book too.  He’s a few years younger than Emily and it hadn’t been published when she was born.  In fact, Emily more or less grew up with the Ahlbergs.  EACH PEACH PEAR PLUM was published the year she was born.  I even have her original copy of FUNNYBONES, in which, long before there were any sequels, she had penciled her own ideas for future books.  For example: GETTING MARRIED AND KISSING and BIIING A HOUSE.  You see how children engage with picture books?  

So, I took myself off to my local children’s bookshop.  I should say at this point that while I am a white, grey-haired man, and my daughter is white with blue eyes and masses of curly blond hair, my son-in-law is black.  Fallou, my grandson is a perfect, mid-brown mixture.  

On the way to the bookshop I wondered whether maybe THE BABY’S CATALOGUE would be a little old-fashioned.  Then I started to remember that it was full of those wonderful pictures of all kinds of babies and all kinds of mums and dads.  And I remembered all the fun we used to have looking at it, and how Tommy eventually destroyed it; used it up entirely, what with eating it and dragging it around.  

Sadly, when I went into the shop they didn’t have a copy, which was a shame.  On the other hand I would enjoy looking through all those picture books for the first time in years, wouldn’t I?  I was sure to find something good.  I must have looked through twenty or thirty board books before it dawned on me - I hadn’t seen a single picture of a child who wasn’t white.

At first I thought this must have been bad luck, so I kept looking.  It wasn’t bad luck.  The board books in this (very well-stocked) bookshop were almost all about white children or animals.  I moved on from board books to picture books.  It was the same thing.  Sure, there were some books with black, brown, yellow children, but the others vastly outnumbered them.  I found to my astonishment that I was starting to feel upset.  I guess I’d assumed that in the fifteen years or so since I last looked seriously through the picture book shelves of a bookshop there would have been many more books like THE BABY’S CATALOGUE that depict children of every shape and colour routinely.  I’d seen what Malorie Blackman had said, but there is no substitute for personal experience.  I also know that for many of you reading this it’s already personal, and has been for far too long. And I feel embarrassed that it’s had to become personal for me to feel angry about it. 

It can be done . . .

I asked a member of staff about the situation.  She very helpfully found me some books, among them THIS IS OUR HOUSE by Michael Rosen and Bob Graham and the CLAP HANDS series of board books by Helen Oxenbury, but the Michael Rosen was published in 2007 and the Helen Oxenbury in 1987.  Other books I was shown included SO MUCH by Trish Cooke (1994) and books by Ezra Jack Keats, who died in 1983.  They’re all terrific books, but we should be able to go to this year’s crop of picture books and find images in them that ALL our children and grandchildren can recognize and identify with.  There are some, sure, but nowhere near enough. 

The world that is represented in a lot of picture books doesn’t seem to have changed much since the world of Judith Kerr’s THE TIGER WHO CAME TO TEA, whose cafĂ© and Dad and street scenes come straight out of the 1950s England I grew up in.  It looks absolutely nothing like Wood Green, where I live, or like Peckham, where my daughter lives, or Birmingham, Leeds, Newcastle or Liverpool.  It doesn’t even look like provincial market towns and villages in the countryside.  Not any more. 

I’m not sure where it is, this picture book world, but I can tell you that in most primary schools and nurseries in this country there are children who won’t find anyone who looks like them in most of the books that they are given.

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

The Power of Print

A BBC B microcomputer  32 KB of RAM
The first computer printer to enter my life was a dot-matrix printer attached to a BBC computer in a primary school. When children entered my Reception class I used to sit down at the computer with them and get them to tell me stories about their lives, just a couple of sentences as a rule. Then I'd print the stories nice and big on a sheet of A4 paper and they'd draw a picture and I'd stick them all in a big book. Those books must have been read hundreds of times, each child reading their own story to anyone who would listen. From this simple activity they learnt a fundamental lesson. Writing was a way of communicating their thoughts and ideas to other people. Writing was important. THEIR writing was important.

Of course, the key thing here is turning the things children say into words on a page, and writing it by hand is almost as good.  But seeing the words in print does add something, and that was especially so when computers were new.

When I started writing my own stories I used a typewriter at first, before moving on to a word-processor which was like a typewriter with a two line LCD display and a floppy disc drive. That floppy disc meant that I could take bits and pieces that I'd written and print them out on the inkjet printers at work. I was amazed at how much more important my writing looked (to me at any rate) when it was printed out in Times New Roman 12 point.

When I wrote a whole novel and I was ready to send it off I wanted it to look important, and my neighbours let me print it out on their printer (I was still working on the word processor). I printed out a lot of drafts of that book on their printer—thanks Clare and David! I used to try different fonts, trying to see which was the most impressive. Years later I asked an editor if they minded which font a writer used. The answer, not surprisingly, was that it made no difference at all.

Still, children love to see their writing in print, and those simple stories we wrote at the computer were their introduction to publishing. As they got older we made a lot of books, among them little 8-page pamphlets, stories with a cover and a sentence on each page. I would photocopy these and make half a dozen books so children could sit round a table and read them together. This often confused them, and I had to take the to the office to show them how the photocopier worked. A few years later I was visiting a school, talking about the publishing process. I showed a group of children some copies of a book I'd written. One child put up her hand and asked me 'How long does it take you to make all those books? Do you have to colour in all the covers?'

I was able to set her mind at rest, but it goes to show, just because you tell a child something, it doesn't mean they understand.
(Or an adult, for that matter!)

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Learning to Read — the Tram Map Method

The Nottingham Tram Map
There are many different ways of learning to read and the route my four-year-old grandson has taken is a new one on me. He has learnt the names of all the stops on the Nottingham tram lines, together with the automated announcements that go with them, and now, looking carefully at the words, he is gradually learning to recognise them.

In the long ago, had he been in my class, he would have started a project on trams. We would have made a tram journey game to play with his friends. We would have played pelmanism and snap with cards with the names of the stops written on. We would have sorted them in different ways — lanes, roads, streets, vales. We would have made model trams.  We would have worked out how many people would fit on. We would have written stories about trams and photocopied them so we could read them together as shared reading books.

I could go on, probably forever, but at least for half a term. We always tried, back then, to start from children's own interests and, with a touch of creativity from the teacher, we could almost always cover everything that needed to be learned. And it was fun.

Even if other children didn't share an obsession with trams it was still possible for an individual child to follow their own path. And if you think that having thirty children all doing different things sounds like hard work, well, it is and it isn't. Children who have chosen their own field of study tend to be highly self-motivated, and anyway it was rare that thirty children were all doing their own thing all the time. But it was a given, when I was a young teacher, that if a child came into school enthused by ants, or trains, or puppies, then we'd try to build on that enthusiasm, often with the whole class, but quite frequently with the individual child.

Even with the onset of the National Curriculum it was still possible to work like this, especially in the Infant School. It was the arrival of the Literacy and Numeracy hours that really started to change things. Before the late 1980s very many Primary Schools were still the kinds of places described in my favourite government document, Primary Education (1959). I've quoted from this before, but here's another sample:

Statutory requirements are less exacting than they have ever been . . . The head is thus left considerable freedom for planning the daily programme. The timetable is an expression of his (sic) educational philosophy and that of his colleagues; it reduces to firm terms what they consider best for children, and demonstrates their beliefs about the relative values of what the school has to offer.

It has already been said that young children thrive best on a regular routine, and that they respond to its rhythm and balance. But this does not mean that the timetable should ever be a tyrant which, by its fragmentation of time, encourages short-lived occupations, or which brings to an unnecessarily abrupt end undertakings in which children are profitably engrossed.  (My underlining)

And what did my grandson's teacher (who is very nice, by the way), say when she heard of his ability to decipher the Tram map?

'Well, he still has to do phonics, you know.'

Monday, 22 February 2016

Nature Study for Infants

In the long ago every infant classroom had a nature table.  'Nature walks' were a thing.  We went on them most weeks through the school grounds, looking for signs of Spring, or Autumn.  Most of the old teaching guides I possess are full of images from the natural world.  I would be very happy if my children had this kind of lesson at school, and I'd also be happy if they saw illustrations of this quality instead of endless clip-art.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Sesame - a number game for young children

This is the title of a maths game devised by Zoltan P Dienes.  He thought up a lot of games.  This one is a way of gradually familiarising children with the ideas underlying place value.  To play, you need Duplo or Lego, though you could use any construction toy, and you need a dice marked with only the numbers 1, 2, and 0.  The players throw the dice in turn and collect bricks according to the number they throw.  When they have enough to stick 3 bricks together they must do so and shout SESAME!  If they don't, another player can say SESAME, claim their three bricks and make their own SESAME with them.

With very young children the winner is the first to make a SESAME.  Later on they can carry on playing until they have 3 sets of three when they must shout SUPER SESAME!

In the same way, the game can be played with money.  Using a dice marked, say, with numbers from 0 to 4, a player who has enough for 5p must shout SWAP! and change their 5 pennies for a 5p coin.  Once they have enough for 10p they shout SWAP! again.  And so on.

Using Dienes blocks you can play another similar game, this time with an ordinary 1-6 dice.  The first to collect 10 cubes shouts TEN! and trades them for a ten rod.  And so on up to a hundred (if you have plenty of time to spare.)  Or you can set a time limit and have fun working out who has the most at the end.  Is one TEN worth more than nine ones?

To quote Dr John Olive, and there's a link to his article below, "One of the key aspects of the Dienes’ mathematics program was the notion of “multi-embodiments” of the same mathematical structure (Dienes, 1960, 1971; Seaborne, 1975)."  Dienes advocated working/playing with different number bases with very young children, and this game demonstrates a very practical advantage of doing so.  The mathematically inclined among you will have noticed that SESAME is a base 3 game, and because of this you can play it quickly.  It doesn't take too long to get three bricks and put them together to make this new thing, the SESAME, and even a SUPER SESAME doesn't take an impossible length of time.  Thirty years ago most schools had a beautiful wooden set of Dienes Multibase equipment.  I would love to have one now.  More about Zoltan Dienes to come, but I'd recommend this article about one educator's experience.  (You'll have to download the pdf.)