Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Refugee stories and a new generation of writers



It's Refugee Week.  Indeed every week throughout the year is another week with hundreds of  thousands of refugees struggling to find somewhere safe enough to call home. But in the UK, this is a week of special events to stop and remind those of us lucky enough to have homes.


Monday 19th June also happened to be the 80th Carnegie Medal event and the 60th anniversary of the Kate Greenaway Awards. The ceremony now also celebrates the Amnesty CILIP Honour Awards for a book chosen from each shortlist that engages young readers with human rights. As a former Carnegie winner, I was delighted to be invited and have the chance to meet Zana Fraillon, author of The Bone Sparrow. It is an extraordinary novel about a boy whose young life has been spent inside an immigration detention camp. In this bleakest of settings, we experience the human spirit, freedom of imagination and the power of story.  I ended reading The Bone Sparrow in angry tears. Zana lives in Australia but came to London to receive this hugely deserved Amnesty CILIP Honour Award.   

I was also delighted to meet Francesca Sanna, creator of The Journey which also received an Amnesty CILIP Honour Award. It's about a mother and two children seeking safety after war takes their father. The story is vividly told in the voice of one of the children while the illustrations convey a dramatic and often frightening journey. However, the images and words reflect the children ensconced by their mother's love, determination and hope for their future.

It's seventeen years since an earlier refugee story won the Carnegie. The Other Side of Truth is soon to be released 'A Puffin Book' and I couldn't resist holding my advance copy alongside Francesca's The Journey.  Tonight, before writing this blog, I watched the news and heard Lord Dubs, who arrived in Britain with the Kindertransport in 1938 (the year after the first Carnegie Medal was awarded) reiterate his plea for the UK to offer a home to today's young refugees. "We can't step aside."  Thank goodness there is also a new generation of writers for young people whose books reflect that same spirit.

This year's Carnegie Medal goes to Ruta Sepetys for her historical novel Salt to the Sea, with refugees and a maritime tragedy at its heart. To read more about it and the other award-winning books and their authors, click here . 

Friday, 16 June 2017

The power of reading... and re-reading


Down Second Avenue was one of the books that had a huge impact on me as a student in South Africa in the early 1960s. In his memoir of growing up not too far from where I had grown up in Jo'burg, Es'kia Mphahlele could have been writing about another planet. Until my university years, I had been completely blinkered within apartheid's 'white bubble'. This book, along with Peter Abrahams's Tell Freedom, introduced me to life beyond my blinkers. I was also lucky to have fellow students who helped to slash the bubble. But the invitation of these two fine writers to enter their lives - to see through their eyes and hear their inner voices - exerted a particularly intimate power and a necessary shock.

Es'kia Mphahlele and Peter Abrahams are sadly no longer with us but their work lives on for new generations. My friend Mma-tshepo Grobler recently wrote that she'd bought a copy of Down Second Avenue on a recent trip home to South Africa. (We first met when her brilliant educator mother, Martha Mokgoko, ran an extraordinary workshop on Journey to Jo'burg shortly after it had been 'unbanned' in 1991.) I was keen to know Mma-tshepo's thoughts:

Down Second Avenue was a completely different read the second time around. I read the book when I was about 10 years old I think but my memory of the book was nothing like what I have just read recently. Mphahlele’s retelling of his time growing up in the rural areas and then his subsequent move to Marabastad is the part of his story that I think my childhood self connected with the most. His description of the uncles, Aunt Dora, his gran, his surroundings and everyday life in Marabastad, the police and the neighbours are all elements that were present in my childhood. Two things that struck me whilst reading the book now as an adult are 1) how like Mphahlele, sustained poverty, difficult working conditions, neighbourhood politics were accepted as normal to me as a child and 2) my mind as a 10 year old was definitely not developed enough to understand the gravity and depth of this book. My adult self was completely blown away by the broadness of this book. Mphahlele skillfully addresses, questions and recounts so many themes and issues that we still face as South Africans. What saddened me most after reading was the thought that the politics of poverty still prevail with a vice grip on our people – nothing has changed. 

What an indictment in that last line. It is time for me to re-read Down Second Avenue too.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

The artist with his work at the Nelson Mandela Children's Hospital!


In my last post, I wrote that Piet Grobler and I were delighted to have our stories - in words and pictures - on display as murals in the new Nelson Mandela Children's Hospital in Johannesburg. Piet has now visited the hospital and says he was thrilled to see that they look really lovely. Here he is in front of a setting sun, while being investigated by one of his cheeky birds! In the picture below he looks relaxed yet, if you ask me, dangerously close to Lion.


May the children who come to the hospital have lots of fun imagining....

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Nelson Mandela Children's Hospital opens in Johannesburg



Last month, the Nelson Mandela Children's Hospital opened in Johannesburg.  Piet Grobler and I are absolutely delighted that some of Piet's illustrations and the stories I retold in our Aesop's Fables and Who is King? Ten Magical Tales from Africa appear as murals on some of the hospital's walls. I feel sure that Madiba would have loved the wisdom and wit in these ancient tales. I think he would have enjoyed our South African setting for Aesop's tales. I'm also sure that he would have endorsed the moral of The Farmer and his Children (above): "Work is the real treasure"!

Making this new hospital a reality has involved not only vision but a huge amount of work. Aesop's story of The Grasshopper and the Ants (below) might well ring a few bells...



 In 2005, Madiba expressed his wish that the Nelson Mandela Children's Trust should help improve medical care for children. The idea of a specialist hospital in Johannesburg was born. The only other children's hospital in South Africa was nearly 900 miles away in Cape Town.

In 2009, my old university, Wits, donated the land. It happens to be only a fifteen minute walk from the old Queen Victoria Maternity Hospital where I was born. The Queen Vic hasn't been in use for many years but this picture of it (below) was taken in the 1960s when hospitals in apartheid South Africa were segregated. That knowledge will always be a terrible part of our history.


Just behind the old Queen Vic (although not visible in the photo) stands Constitution Hill. This is the site of our wonderful Constitutional Court next to three of apartheid's prisons of terror: The Old Fort, 'Number Four' and The Women's Jail. The Constitutional Court includes the original bricks from the destroyed Awaiting Trial Block. You can read more about this extraordinary site, embodying the best and the worst of SA's history here.

A sick child lies at the heart of Journey to Jo'burgWhen 13 year old Naledi eventually gets to a hospital with Mma carrying the children's very ill baby sister, she sees a young mother being handed a plastic bag. It contains her dead child. Such things happened time and again under apartheid. Madiba was among the many political prisoners, black and white, who spent time incarcerated in those brutal cells on what is now Constitution Hill. For the Nelson Mandela Children's Hospital (NMCH) to be built less than a mile away carries a special meaning. A vision of humanity can survive inhumanity.

The NMCH Trust, under its chairperson Graca Machel, set out to raise 1 billion rand (around 70 million pounds) to make the vision a reality. Young people too have been involved in fundraising via 'For Kids By Kids' . The Trust declares that "No child in need of care at this hospital will be turned away."  Beds are limited and needs are great but let us hope that this ideal will always be the hospital's guide.

Piet and I will be happy if our murals give both pleasure and food for thought. Every time that I tell Aesop's story of The Lion and the Warthog, in which a vulture waits for the spoils of the fight, I always speak of South Africa's good fortune to have had the humane wisdom of someone like Nelson Mandela. It is indeed safer to be friends than enemies. But the challenges of inequality and poverty remain great. These are challenges for everyone.  Just as for the ants and the children of the farmer in those tales from over 2500 years, there's still much work ahead.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

A Wisp of Wisdom - Animal tales from Cameroon



Earlier this year, I was invited to join an unusual project of retelling animal stories from the Korup region of Cameroon that might otherwise be lost. The project was started by author Tom Moorhouse who is also a wildlife conservationist. Tom and all the authors who have worked on A Wisp of Wisdom, as well as the artist Emmie van Biervliet, have given their time free of charge. This is so that 2000 copies of the book can be sent to children in the Korup region. In this part of Cameroon most children speak English as a second (maybe even third) language - and books are scarce. 

We think you will find the stories are full of fun as well as wisdom. There are tricky tortoises, cunning monkeys, blue-bottomed drills, flies stronger than elephants, hungry crocodiles and animals who gather for meetings in the sky. 

You can find out more about the project, the storytellers (I think you will know some of them!) and how you can buy the book here .

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

The Other Side of Truth - journey to a musical play



Last month Grafton Primary School, near Holloway Road in North London, invited me to their Year Six Black History Month musical production based on my novel The Other Side of Truth.  The audience was the entire school, children and staff, family members and friends... or, in the words of Grafton's head teacher Nitsa Sergides, the 'Grafton Family'. Nitsa is a remarkable headteacher with creativity and commitment to every child at the very heart of the school. Grafton employs a part-time writer-in-residence (Diane Samuels), artist-in-residence (Tessa Garland) and musician-in-residence (Juwon Ogungbe), each of whom works with the children on a weekly basis. How remarkable is that? I also recently learned that Nitsa was awarded an OBE in 2011 for services to education. In my dreams I would make her Secretary of State for Education with her teachers leading the whole department!

I have been in touch with musician Juwon ever since he composed the music for Trestle Theatre's production of Burn My Heart . We have been talking for some time about how we would love to try out The Other Side of Truth as musical theatre. Some years ago I adapted the novel for BBC Radio 4's 'Afternoon Play' so I already had a play script, although one based on sound. But it gave us a starting point. Juwon needed time and space to create music and songs. Funding research and development is always tricky. I knew about his work at Grafton, but the penny only really dropped when by good chance this summer I was invited to meet children from the school who had read Journey to Jo'burg. We met at the amazing little Museum of Immigration and Diversity in Spitalfields' Princelet Street. That's another story but you can get a glimpse here...



Well, one thing led to another and a couple of weeks into the autumn term all of Year Six at Grafton were working on a cross-curricular The Other Side of Truth project, culminating in their production before half-term. It was quite a feat... and I take my hat off to Juwon, and dedicated teachers Anna Sutton, Bea Symes, Justin Ward and others.  With two classes, each presented one half of the story, hence two different actors for each main role, involving every child.  I'll paste a few pictures below, with thanks to Tessa Garland.  I wish you could hear the music too.

Mourners gather in the family house in Lagos to lament what has happened to Mama...



 Sade and Femi learn that, to remain safe, they will have to be smuggled out of the country...



In her new school in London, the bullies get to work on Sade...



and then tighten the screws...



At last, Sade and Femi reunited with Papa - but in prison?



Outside...



Mr Seven O'Clock News with Uncle Dele...



Finally, headteacher Nitsa Sergides commends the actors and everyone who has worked so hard...


not forgetting the musicians...



The night before the production, I received a most moving message from Deputy Head Anna Sutton:

Some of the children will shine tomorrow and some, less confident at acting, will do their best at this stage in their young lives.  However, more importantly every single one of them without exception, has learned a great deal from your story and every single child and adult has been moved to tears at some stage in the rehearsals. Personally, I can't watch the end without holding back the sobs and not always very successfully either! So touching 60 young lives and several old lives - this is success!

Thank you, Grafton School! Your production was an amazing gift and I'm delighted to be counted part of the Grafton Family.  Moreover, I still find myself humming some of Juwon's songs. May the journey continue.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Save Barnet Libraries!


As soon as this picture popped into my inbox, I knew I had to share it.  Both my children were born in Barnet.  For some years I also worked in the London Borough of Barnet with children who found reading difficult. That was about forty years ago and I took it for granted that there were local libraries across Barnet containing treasure troves of books for children. For young readers who struggled with squiggles on a page, it was only a matter of time before we found the keys that opened the doors for them into the exciting world of books.

But in this picture, taken by a friend just a few days ago, here are children and families demonstrating to SAVE BARNET LIBRARIES.  The man on the right, doing a jig to the drums, is none other than the children's author Alan Gibbons. For the last few years Alan has been speaking out, loudly and clearly, against the dangers of libraries being closed and of professional librarians losing their jobs. This is what he wrote last year in a campaign to save eleven local libraries in Liverpool:

"Books open doors of the imagination, doors of opportunity - but not everybody can buy books. Figures show that one in three children in the UK do not own a book - if you close libraries those children cannot borrow books either. Young families, schoolchildren, students, the elderly, disabled, unemployed and many more people use and love the threatened Liverpool libraries - what will they do once they are gone?" 

I agree with every word. Libraries are not a luxury.  Or are we to go back to the age when literacy and literature were only for the wealthy? Go to any National Trust or English Heritage great house and you will find it contains a large library. Andrew Carnegie (after whom the Carnegie Medal for Children's Literature is named)  was born in a humble cottage in Scotland and, having made a fortune as an industrialist in America , gave much of this to develop educational and cultural institutions, including public libraries. Why? Because he understood that books open doors of the imagination, doors of opportunity - but not everybody can buy books.

Let's hope that Barnet's councillors will hold on to their senses and recognise the true value of their precious libraries. To quote Alan again, what will they do once they are gone?