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?

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

A celebration!


Thank you Seven Stories and Shotton Hall students and teachers!  Two weeks ago, I wrote about the project launched by Debbie Beeks at Seven Stories in partnership with The Academy at Shotton Hall in Peterlee. Since then, I've driven 800 miles and every mile was made worthwhile by a wonderful day on 4th June, the highlight being the Drama Club's play to celebrate Journey to Jo'burg's 30th year and the arrival of my archive at Seven Stories in Newcastle.

Weaving their own contemporary story around Naledi's and Tiro's challenging journey in apartheid South Africa, the Shotton Hall students created an imaginative piece about how stories are passed on - both within and across generations. At the heart of their work was a strong empathy with Naledi and Tiro and a rejection of injustice. I loved the freshness and vitality of the students' work and, judging from audience response, so did 200 Year 6 primary school children attending the performance at East Durham College. Watch a short video here! You can also read more about the project in The Northern Echo.


It was also lovely to see Arts Award work created by Year 7s in response to the book. Kate Edwards, Chief Executive of Seven Stories, and I are pictured here admiring some of it. Some pieces were 3D, including one that involved two doors, making a point about segregation and inequality. 

Earlier in the day, Seven Stories' archivists showed me how my materials are being stored and currently being catalogued. Fascinating! Here I am with archivist Kris McKie and collections assistant Danielle McAloon with some of the special cardboard boxes containing papers that not long ago were kept haphazardly in boxes under beds. 


My work will have some very wonderful companions in the Seven Stories' Collection, including some of my all time favourites. Elizabeth Laird is one of them. The archivists had laid out on a table a few items that they thought would be of particular interest. These included a small box of photographs Liz had taken when researching A Little Piece of Ground, a poignant novel about football-loving Karim, trapped by tanks and curfews in the Palestinian town of Ramallah under Israeli occupation. There was much delight when Jehan Helou, President of IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People) Palestine, also visiting the Collection, was able to point out in a photo Samar Qutob - translator of Journey to Jo'burg and Chain of Fire into Arabic. What a small world!   


If any sharp-eyed detectives spot on the table (bottom left in our picture) the tell-tale shape of Judith Kerr's much loved Tiger Who Came to Tea, you are right.  There he is with the little girl Sophie in Judith Kerr's original illustration... and you will be glad to know that we all washed our hands very well before handling anything!

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Preparing for a journey down memory lane... and preparing to be surprised

Next week I shall travel north to Seven Stories where my papers are currently being catalogued.  Wonderfully, some Journey to Jo'burg papers in the archive have already gone 'into action' through a Theatre-in-Education project celebrating the little book's 30th anniversary.  Students in The Academy at Shotton Hall's Year 8 Drama Club have been exploring my archive material and creating their own theatre piece in response. The project was launched at the school a few weeks ago by Debbie Beeks from Seven Stories.

I am intrigued by the process and hugely looking forward to seeing the students' play next week at the Lubetkin Theatre at East Durham College.  As part of their research, the Drama Club have interviewed a former Durham miner, Dave Temple, who was very active with other union members in supporting South African miners during the apartheid years.


 Dave Temple told the students the story of his friend France, a South African miner whose real life story reminded them of the young boy who works in the orange farm in Chapter 3 of Journey to Jo'burg.  So I expect there may be some questions about links between fiction and reality - and hopefully lots of other questions from Shotton Hall students as well as from local primary Year 6 children who will also be in the audience.

I've also heard that some Year 7 students are creating a graphic novel based on the story. So Naledi and Tiro, who set off on a life-saving journey to the big city all those years ago, are still touching hearts and minds. Isn't that the wonder of stories, taking us across time and place?

Finally, good luck Shotton Hall Drama Club - I am excited about seeing your play and I can't think of a better way to celebrate Journey to Jo'burg's 30th year!