Flashback Friday

Flashback Friday – Skellig by David Almond

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Synopsis:

The baby is here. Dr Death visits the new house every day. Mum and Dad say the baby will be fine, but they don’t seem certain themselves. Michael won’t talk to anybody about his concern for the baby. Instead, he stays home from school, and explores the new house.

It’s a strange place, full of dust and decay. Old Mr Myers seems to shadow every corner. There’s the toilet put in downstairs while Mr Myers was dying, and his takeaway menus.

Then there’s the shed, and Skellig. Is he a man? Is he real? Whatever he is, he refuses to move, even though the shed might fall on top of him. It’s like Skellig has given up on the world. It is like he has given in to decay. 

Michael isn’t certain he can help Skellig. Then he meets Mina, a girl nothing like her peers, a girl who knows about blackbirds and owl pellets and William Blake. Strange but assertive, Mina insists on meeting Skellig.

Together the children learn about angels, and evolution, and lifting each other up. Together they learn about Persephone, who came back after months in the underworld.

 

Discussion: 

I thought I knew Skellig. How wrong I was. Almond’s work is like fine wine – it is perfection first time around, and it improves with every reread.

Skellig came into my life shortly before my eleventh birthday. The book had been out for two years, and my primary school raved about it. We worked with it in literacy. I won a Year 6 Certificate for my poem about Skellig – a certificate I treasure equally with my degree. Our teacher read to us every evening, but she was too slow. When I opened my birthday presents, I found a copy of Skellig in my hands. I had talked about it so often, my Mum found me my own copy.

As my early reading of Northern Lights was about a girl running around with Arctic Bears, my first reading of Skellig was about a boy who finds a strange being in his shed. About 27 and 53.

My Name is Mina arrived, a prequel which added a new layer to the original text. It also turned Mina into a character I strongly related to. From the age of 13 I became largely self-taught. Intensely interested in the world, but different from my peers. At the same time, I reread Skellig, and told the then-owner of my favourite bookshop that Skellig was the most perfect text I had ever come across. She told me many school customers said the same. At this time I reread Skellig. Planning my Flashback Friday, I thought this would be sufficient. I chose to reread, but I thought I knew the text.

How.

         Wrong.

                           I.

                                 Was.

Somewhere along the way, the original text had muddled with the television interpretation, which I bought on DVD at the same time as my last reread. This brings out the baby’s story. Makes more of life and death, of the tension between father and son.

Five years is a long time. In those five years I have learned to read critically. Suddenly I can see why Mina’s mother is cutting a pomegranate, shortly before the baby comes home. Suddenly I understand this is Michael’s journey and Michael’s fear and anger.

Something else has happened.

In the past year, I have heard David Almond speak about his work. Twice. That has given me an insight no amount of textual analysis could uncover. I’m due to see him in concert with Katherine Tickell this Autumn. BOOK. BOOK. Almond is building on his interest in different art forms doing the same job. In children’s natural understanding that song and story and drama and visual art are one and the same thing. Read the scene in Ella Grey, where Ella gets out her old art box. That’s what this concert is about.)  

I finished Skellig last night. This morning, I am reading Heaven’s Eyes. Next I will reread The Fire Eaters, or Kit’s Wilderness. Did I say read? I meant savour. Indulge in.

 

Have you read Skellig? Has hearing an author talk enriched your perception of their work?

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Flashback Friday

Flashback Friday – Charm School by Anne Fine

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Synopsis: 

Bonnie’s been dragged to a new town.. As if that wasn’t unfair enough, Mum doesn’t know where to find a babysitter, so Bonnie is forced to spend the day at Charm School while Mum sits her boring exams. The indignity. Bonnie heads out determined to be anything but charming.

Charm School is a strange place. As if it isn’t bad enough on a regular Saturday, it is the annual ‘Curl’s’n’Purls’ show. The winner gets the glistering tiara, and the chance to choose their very own special name. And what names they are: Miss Cute Candy. Miss Stardust. Sweet Caroline. Not only do the girls learn to be charming, they learn how to flounce around in dresses and polish their elbows in lemon juice. Charm School is a place where girls come to be ‘ladylike’.

Bonnie is certain she doesn’t fit in. She hides behind stage, crossing her fingers the lighting technician won’t turn up and send her back into Charm School. When she befriends and immediately falls out with Araminta, Bonnie becomes certain it is her job to teach the girls a lesson they will never forget. Will the girls accept Bonnie’s ideas?

 

Discussion: 

Charm School was published when I was ten. It was holiday ‘tradition’ to buy a book at the airport, (never mind we had only been to the airport once before. If I got another book, it was tradition.) Charm School looked a little short, but I loved Anne Fine’s work. The plane was delayed – we were sat on it for two hours before it took off. By the time I reached Greece, I’d read Charm School twice over. It didn’t matter. I read and reread it through the holiday, and have reread every year since. Of the books mentioned in the post which began my Flashback Friday series, Charm School is one of the most read.

In 2015, I introduced Charm School to a group of girls who came to the creative writing club at the bookshop I worked in. The group took to Charm School the way I had fifteen years before – they raced through it, but I never saw them more animated.

It may be short, but it opens the way for some deep discussion. Feminist narratives have become popular over the past year. Charm School was ahead of its game – or behind, if it was a product of the original feminist era. Perhaps the reason Anne Fine’s work connected with my opinionated-little -liberal-self was it was packed with messages I wanted to hear. Bill’s New Frock? Another great feminist narrative. Let me be clear – Anne Fine bangs a drum, but she does so quietly. Her message forms the beat of her story, but the story itself can be enjoyed even if the political undertones go over the reader’s head. Anne Fine is a great storyteller. Like Dick King-Smith, who I wrote about a fortnight ago, Anne Fine knows how to hold her audience’s attention.

Charm School is funny. It is funny on different levels. As a child, I appreciated the mayhem Bonny provokes, (‘nuff said,) for the sake of the mayhem itself. As an adult I appreciate the message behind that mayhem. I’m not saying I didn’t appreciate the message as a child. Tweenage girls notice nail-varnish and overpriced face-creams like no-one else. The book is aimed at an audience who is awakening to this strange idea that girls have a different set of standards to perfect. It challenges it in a kid-friendly way, but its message remains relevant. I think it will remain relevant when I am elderly, and wishing my wrinkles away.

 

 

 

Flashback Friday

Flashback Friday – The Mousehole Cat by Antonia Barber and Nicola Bayley

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Synopsis:

Mowzer and her human are old. Their families are grown. Mowzer and Tom live in their cottage, comfortable with each other’s company and their well-worn routines. Tom takes his fishing boat out and catches fish for Mowzer’s supper. One Winter, a great storm takes hold. Mowzer knows it is the great strom-cat, who plays with men on the sea as if they were mice. No boat can leave the safety of Mousehole harbour. In a community which relies on fish for its table, this is a disaster. The residents of Mousehole are left to starve.

Old Tom knows it is his duty to go out and fish. The young men have families. Mowzer accompanies him. She cannot imagine life without old Tom. Besides, she knows no human would stand a chance against the wrath of the Great Storm Cat.

 

Discussion:

Inspired by the Cornish legend of Old Tom Bawcock, The Mousehole Cat has become a primary school staple since traditional tales were written into the National Curriculum. It is a beautiful retelling. The cats in the story know more than their human counterparts. The reader is privy to this ‘secret’ – to the knowledge Mowzer has of the Great Storm-Cat. This is a legend within a legend, offering excellent scope for discussion about what legends do. Is the great storm-cat real, or are the cats explaining the storm through narrative? If so, what might the story of Tom Bawcock be about?

 I came to the story through this video. Friends had recorded it from the television, (I kid you not, on a VHS,) alongside a documentary about the making of the film. Left to my own devices, I’m not certain it would have got back to our friends. I was delighted to find it on YouTube, many years later.

The text is poetic. In places, such as the list of Mowzer’s weekly menu, it lends itself to rereading. These sections fit in with the flow of the story, but they also become separate rhymes. This is ideal for young children. When learning to read, we gain confidence through repetition of favourite passages.

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As a teenager, I spent a lot of time trying to reproduce the illustrations. None of these attempts survived – to memory, none were completed to my satisfaction. Regardless, the book remained a favourite beyond early childhood, and encouraged me to look closely at artwork.

My family have always had cats. I loved Nicola Bayley’s illustrations from three or four, when I met The Patchwork Cat. Since my late teens, I have collected her work. From The Mouldy to the animal cat books, to the wonder that is ‘The Necessary Cat’. When I’m in book haunts like Hay-on-Wye, Bayley’s name is always high in my mind. I would hazard a guess that this is one of a small number of books better known for its illustrator than it’s author. This is no criticism of the text, only a mark of how these pictures stay with you. A quick GoodReads search reveals Barber has written another cat story, and a couple more legends. I will get my paws on a couple of these and get back to you. If they are anything like The Mousehole Cat, they should be compulsory reading.

Tom Bawcock’s Eve is celebrated annually in Mousehole. It is a life’s ambition to visit during the celebrations.

Did you come to any books via TV or Video? Comment below. Would love to hear your thoughts. I understand this is a discussion new Children’s Laureate Lauren Child is keen to start.

 

 

 

 

Flashback Friday

Flashback Friday – Lady Daisy

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Synopsis: 

Tasked with cleaning out the box room in his Grandmother’s house, Ned finds a porcelain doll. Imagine his surprise when she opens her eyes and talks. Lady Daisychain is put out. She was last awake in 1901, and does not at first accept that nearly a century has passed. She expected to be awoken by her doll mother, Victoria.

Ned takes Lady Daisy home. As she brings the Victorian era to life through her tales, Ned deals with some obstacles. There’s school bully, Troy, who says boys can’t have dolls. Then there’s the strange Mr Merryweather-Jones, who would happily take Lady Daisy out of Ned’s hands…

Discussion: 

Lady Daisy is primarily about the passage of time. Ned won’t let Gran talk about the future, and her own mortality. Lady Daisy awakes to find 90 years has gone by since she shut her eyes. The world as she knows it has changed. It is also about ancestry – from Dad’s football gloves to the doll in the family attic, Ned’s interest in the past develops, primarily when he is able to relate dates to stories.

I met Lady Daisy when I was eight. My Year 3 teacher was a great one for reading at the end of the day. I spent a happy year on that carpet, (or up on the HUGE Victorian water pipes if I was quick enough – three small children could squeeze on to that pipe at a push. It was prime seat. This, needless to say, was in the years before reading corners stuffed with cushions and beanbags. The book was linked to our Victorian topic, and it whetted my interest. I found a second hand copy in that year, and have read it almost every year since.

Harry Potter mania took hold when I was nine, (two years after initial publication.) Prior to Potter mania, and the consequent surge in children’s publishing, Dick King-Smith was among a handful of ‘staple’ authors writing for children in the UK. I had been familiar with his work from the age of five or six, when I enjoyed the Sophie books, and I looked for his name in the library.

Why do I revisit Lady Daisy? As well as the comfort of regressing to those afternoons on the carpet, it encompasses my favourite themes. If you read my Top Ten Tuesday post earlier this week, you might have noticed the high proportion of historical settings. A year or two later, my timeslip fetish began. Lady Daisy formed the groundwork of this interest.

The final chapter is called 17/06/2010. I kid you not, I kept tabs on that date across the twelve years from that initial encounter, and miffed when I found nobody online making a FUSS. I cannot spoil the ending, but the speed with which seven years have passed serves to prove the book’s message. Time flies – but new generations come in that time. I hope another generation of schoolchildren will find Lady Daisy, and read her through the next 20 years. 

 

  • Flashback Friday was a meme run by Bookshelf Fantasies. Continuing from this week’s Top Ten Tuesday, I decided to begin a series of Flashback Friday posts. Thanks to Bookshelf Fantasies for the idea.