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The Children's Books Which Still Make Me Laugh Out Loud - Pete Johnson

Posted By Jacob Hope, 19 September 2018

We are delighted that Pete Johnson, author of multi award-winning titles like The Ghost Dog and How to Train Your Parents is joining this year's Youth Libraries Group Conference to discuss funny books.  Here he talks about some of the books that made him laugh as a child and continue to provide mirth and merriment.  Which books made you laugh as a child and do they continue to do so today?


Writing this,  I only have to look up, to see them massed across two shelves. Some are rather shabby and battered now, but they have travelled through time with me.

For these are my most treasured children’s books. The ones which cast such a spell, they made me a reader. And many of them are funny stories.

Now, if you’d come across me when I was eight or nine, I doubt if you’d have described me as fizzing with comic energy. I was a painfully shy,  fearful boy. ‘Look at people when they’re speaking to you,’ my mum would say. But I found that very hard. I was much happier mumbling away to my shoes.

This at least, was the outward me. But as soon as I could escape the tyranny of what other people called ‘real life’ I was off travelling the countryside with my irrepressible alter ego, William Brown.

One night while reading a William book I caused my parents to come tearing up the stairs. They’d heard a noise. What had happened?  It was very simple. I’d been laughing so hard at William and the Princess Goldilocks (from William the Pirate) I’d fallen out of bed. My parents were so pleased to see me smiling and free from my usual anxiety they didn’t say a word. In fact, they helped me buy all thirty eight of the Just William books by Richmal Crompton. William’s anarchic spirit called up something in me, as well as his optimism and resilience and sense of purpose.

I collected every one of the Jennings books by Anthony Buckeridge too. He was similarly bold and impetuous, never deliberately causing trouble but still leaving a hilarious trail of accidents and disasters. The moment when Jennings accidentally stuck his head in the railings, while attemping to photograph a squirrel never failed to make me fall about helplessly.

I re-read the William and Jennings stories over and over, marvelling not only at the brilliant characters but the witty dialogue and careful way they were structured. I suppose I was starting to analyse them.

 But mainly, I was a boy who, left to his own devices, could swiftly fill his head with gloomy thoughts. In fact, I could depress myself in seconds. And there was only one antidote.

 Another book which always lifted my spirits was Holiday at the Dew Drop Inn, by Eve Garnett. Here, my favourite character from the One End Street books – Kate Ruggles – spends two glorious months in the country. Now Kate was more than a bit like me – earnest, bookish, eager not to give offence. The book’s humorous tone, gently mocks Kate’s endless worrying and anxiousness and I suppose in laughing at Kate I was also beginning to laugh at myself.

Anyway, I finally started to become more confident. My secret self, so far hidden from everyone but my fictional friends began to shakily emerge. There were even moments when I’d been glimpsed looking cheerful, happy even. But then – disaster.

When I was twelve we moved away. And I was plunged into a new school, at which I felt instantly out of place. Soon a horrible cloud of misery settled over me and clung to me unceasingly every day. I’d  never felt more isolated. 

But at my lowest point help, once more, was at hand. I came across an Armada paperback. (Hands up who remembers Armada books?) called Mike and Psmith by P.G Wodehouse. The cover featured a boy in cricket whites and another reclining in a chair – wearing of all things, a monocle. It didn’t appeal to me at all. I nearly stopped there. But standing in the bookshop I read the first page. That was enough. I was hooked. I sat up half the night finishing it.

There was something to make me laugh on every page. But best of all there was the author’s beguiling voice. And long after I’d put the book down, I still had this big smile on my face. Next day I tore to the library to see what else P.G.Wodehouse had written. And there was a shelf and a half of Wodehouse treasures. So began a golden chapter in my life. Whenever I was feeling down I reached for Wodehouse or Edward Eager.

Eager is best known for Half  Magic, a wonderfully inventive and funny book about a magic coin, which makes wishes come half true! This became a favourite escape read.

Shortly afterwards, I discovered several other hardback Edward Eager books for sale at my local library – 20p each. I bought all six of them. I’ve never made a better deal. The books captivated me and especially Seven Day Magic, which has a great central idea: library books are magic. Soon  this book is taking the characters to their favourite fictional worlds.

As with Wodehouse, it was Edward Eager’s voice – wry, quizzical, often  dryly humorous – which especially delighted me. And that’s why I wrote to him c/o his publishers to say how brilliant and brilliantly funny his books were and ask what else had he written as I was extremely keen to read them. I knew he lived in America, so I expected a bit of a wait for a reply.

But, in fact, it came almost by return of post. It was from his publisher to thank me for my enthusiastic appreciation – but to tell me., Edward Eager had died back in 1963 (at the age of just 52 of lung cancer,  I later discovered) and the seven books I mentioned were the only ones he’d written.

I felt as if I’d lost a friend. And a friend who’d helped me get past the towering misfortune of having to change schools.

That’s why books which make you laugh are so special. They are the ones which reach right out to you. They go on doing that for me today. I only have to open any of these titles at random and within a very few pages I am laughing out loud. And there’s a rush of joy as they cast their spell all over again.

Tags:  children's literature  conference  funny  history  laughter  reading  Reading for Pleasure 

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What is on our Bookshelves - an opinion piece by author Miriam Halahmy

Posted By Jacob Hope, 18 September 2018
Updated: 18 September 2018

 

At the Youth Libraries Group Conference, Miriam Halahmy will be speaking on a panel with Candy Gourlay in discussion with Chloe Germaine Buckley from Manchester Metropolitan University talking about unconscious bias, cultural appropriation and colonial influences in children's literature and collections of these.  Here Miriam talks about her time as Head of Special Needs at a school in Camden.

 

In 1981 I was Head of Special Needs in a Camden secondary school and The Rampton Report on the education of children from ethnic minorities was published. The recommendations of that report had a huge impact. Our school had many children of Asian and African Caribbean descent as well as many other cultural backgrounds. As a staff we were concerned to promote a multicultural society and the classroom as a microcosm of that society.

 

One of Rampton’s recommendations was that teachers review all books and materials and assess them for appropriateness in today’s multicultural society. I remember so well the day I went back to my classroom, looked through my tiny library and threw away those books which presented a negative view of children from a different culture.  It was a painful process as we had no money to replace them but there was no way I would have left such books on my shelves anymore.

 

A recent report stated that only 1% of children’s books have a BAME main character and only 4% have any BAME characters. Is that because we threw our books away 30 years ago?

 

No, of course not.

 

But our work embracing the multicultural society – valuing each child and the cultural background they brought with them, displaying world maps to showing where everyone came from, etc,  – often feels today as though it is being ridiculed. There are claims that the multicultural concept of society has undermined our Britishness.

 

Rubbish! is my answer. We were the bedrock of creating a more tolerant society and it seems the job has hardly begun in the world of children’s books. I would urge anyone providing books to children and young people to scan carefully through your collections as we did and literally throw out the less enlightened books and materials.

 

Meanwhile my job as a writer is to ensure that all characters in my books represent the multicultural world I come from, have lived in and worked in all my life. But then I have always found that quite a natural part of my writing.

 

Miriam Halahmy

www.miriamhalahmy.com

Tags:  collections  conference  Diversity  libraries  reading  representation 

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The Back Story of Riding a Donkey Backwards

Posted By Jacob Hope, 14 September 2018

Children’s author Sean Taylor will be appearing, with Eleanor Martin of Khayaal Theatre, at the YLG Conference in September. Here he introduces RIDING A DONKEY BACKWARDS – wise and foolish tales of Mulla Nasruddin, a collection of traditional Islamic tales, full of riddles, humour and wisdom.

 

You’ll have to excuse me. This is a story that is likely to offend you…

 

At a wedding, a few months ago, I got into a conversation with a young man who sees the world very differently to me. His hero is Jacob Rees-Mogg. The young man said, “Do you want to know what I think about burqas? People are surprised that I have nothing against Muslim women wearing them. In fact, I’m all in favour of burqas…for ugly people. Do you agree with that?”

 

I told him I didn’t agree. The young man was slightly apologetic for his arrogant ‘joke’. “Sorry. I’m just being facetious…” he told me. But I didn’t leave it at that. I asked, “What’s behind what you’ve just said? What do you actually think about Muslims and their beliefs?” He said, “I’m really not bothered by them. But Islam, as a religion, always takes itself far too seriously. And I can’t stand people who can’t laugh at themselves.” I asked, “Have you ever heard of Mulla Nasruddin?”

 

Nasruddin is the hero of our book, RIDING A DONKEY BACKWARDS. It was a collaborative writing project, with Khayaal Theatre, several years in the making. And it came about as a direct result of a terror attack. (You can find the full story here: http://www.minervareads.com/riding-a-donkey-backwards/ )

 

In the introduction to our book, we say: He has many names because stories about him are told in many different countries. In Turkey he is Hodja. In Central Asia he is Afandi. The Arabs know him as Joha. Others call him Mulla Nasruddin. He is a trickster. And Muslims all over the world love him because he makes them laugh… If he doesn’t make you laugh, he will certainly make you think – and perhaps think sideways instead of straight ahead. He may even make your thoughts do somersaults inside your mind!

 

That last sentence feels key to what’s special about Nasruddin stories, and also key to what made us want to put together a collection of these stories for young readers. Human beings love having their thinking ‘spun around’. It’s one of the commonest forms of humour . (A boy tells his father, “Dad, there’s an invisible man at the door.” His father says, “Tell him I can’t see him at the moment.”) The 21 Nasruddin tales we retell will get you laughing because they spin your thoughts around. But we wrote them down because we’d like to go beyond that.

 

Islamophobia is a growing problem in the UK and beyond. People are often persuaded that Muslims are aggressive, fanatical and narrow-minded. Co-authors, Khayaal Theatre, have long worked to remind people of the traditions of poetry, wisdom, questioning and humour in Muslim cultures. RIDING A DONKEY BACKWARDS is a part of that work. We hope that the book itself will do some ‘spinning around’ of people’s thinking. We’d like it to show readers that Islam is not, to quote the young man mentioned above, “a religion, that always takes itself far too seriously.”

 

I sent him a copy, for starters.

Tags:  children's books  dconference  diversity  reading  representation 

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How the Light Gets In - The Background to Debi Gliori's 'Night Shift'

Posted By Jacob Hope, 08 September 2018
Updated: 08 September 2018

Night Shift by Debi Gliori was one of the 2018 CILIP Kate Greenaway medal shortlisted titles.  Debi recently visited Bury Grammar Schools who have been shadowing the awards to provide insight into the background for the book.  

Night Shift had unusual origins.  It began as a series of unplanned pictures rather than as a book.  Debi worked on enormous rolls of paper using charcoal, which she describes as one of the oldest drawing materials.  She used her fingers to help create the work, making this quite literally a hands-on experience and allowing the creation of the smudged fog, a term she uses to describe the depression she's had since she was twenty-five.  'I drew how I felt - numb and miserable.  It seemed as though there was a pane of glass and as though all of the great stuff in life was happening behind that'.  

The series of drawings communicate how depression manifests itself and makes us feel as well as the insidious and sneaky way in which it affects life.  'Creating the pictures wasn't therapeutic.  It triggered memories and reminded of what unfamiliar territory depression was when it first occurred.'  Debi described how the hustle and bustle of working around the clock to meet deadlines led to a lack of sleep and increased pressure in her early twenties.  'It was terrifying, I used to belief I could hear what people were thinking.  It was like static on the radio that I could not tune out from.'  

When Debi's agent, Penny Holroyde, saw the pictures, she suggested with the addition of some spare text, they might form the basis for a special book.

'Debi told me she had been working on some large pictures in charcoal and I asked to see one. She sent me the image of the girl clutched in the dragon’s arm and told me that sometimes, during depressive periods, it’s easier to point at a picture than describe in words how you feel. This image (although cropped for the final book) and the sentiment behind it, moved me enormously and Night Shift, the book, became a little seedling. Debi obviously has a sublime way with words and I thought that simple captions would be the most effective way to carry the imagery and there is an intimacy in the picture book format that suits the subject matter perfectly.'

Penny Holroyde, Holroyde Cartey Agency

 After the conversation, Debi began thinking about the way this could show how depression is a real illness and the way it makes people feel.  She thought back to Leonard Cohen's line, 'there is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in,' and realised that finding a way to re-frame depression was the key to giving structure to her illustrations and creating a narrative around these.  

The moment when this clicked into place was serendipitous, it was during a walk on the beach.  Debi recounts how helpful she finds being out in the natural world, among trees, rivers, sea and sky.  On this particular occasion, she stumbled upon a feather, comprised of both light and dark elements, and realised this could provide the shift in perspective that she needed.

Debi's unique honesty and courage in recounting her personal experiences and making these both engaging and accessible for young people made the event every bit as affecting, heartfelt and affectionate  as 'Night Shift' itself is.  The Youth Libraries Group are delighted that Debi will be joining their annual conference Reading the Future this September and discussing the role books and reading can play in unlocking young people's emotion and empathy.

Tags:  conference  diversity  illustration  kate greenawayvisual literacy  mental health  reading 

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Through the Eyes of Nikesh Shukla

Posted By Jacob Hope, 06 September 2018
Updated: 06 September 2018

We are delighted to welcome Nikesh Shukla editor of The Good Immigrant, author, columnist for The Observer and tireless champion for representation in publishing and books to discuss his journey into Young Adult fiction with the publication of Run, Riot.

 

Run, Riot is my first book for teenagers and it’s an interesting journey, I think, for why I decided to write for teenagers. One of the more inspiring things about working on The Good Immigrant has been the wealth of teenagers who feel represented by the book and that they are seen, their stories valid. Some have said that it’s the first time they’ve read books featuring about people just like them. Others told me that it was the first book they read that wasn’t for school and now they can’t get enough.

 

So working on The Good Immigrant has been a real vindication of my desire to find young readers of colour and why it’s so important that they see themselves in books.

 

But my journey to writing YA starts well before that.

 

In around 2012, I was invited to do some creative writing workshops at a Young Offender’s Institute, not long after my first novel came out. I hadn’t ever really taught creative writing and I didn’t know how I should be in front of the young people. What did they want to get from me, the session, the day? To cut a long story short, I was terrible. I sucked so badly at teaching creative writing that the guards had to intervene and most the kids back to their cells, because I didn’t know how to be with them. I didn’t know how to inspire them or what I wanted them to do. I think, sadly, I wanted them to think I was cool. And when they asked me questions about how much money I earned as a writer, the facade dropped, for them, and for me, and I realised what an utterly stupid thing to wish. To look cool. How facile of me. The thing that stayed with me was that sense of failure: knowing that I could have made a difference.

 

I decided that the thing I needed to do was youth work. Be with young people, inspire them, help them find their voice. I remember talking to another workshop leader at the YOI, an ex-gang member who had turned his life around and did motivational talks. He impressed on me the importance of inspiring the next generation. And I believed him.

 

This is how I found myself, a few years later, working on a youth project called Rife magazine, designed to give young people in Bristol where I live a platform to tell their stories in their own voices and talk about the issues directly affecting them.

 

One of our first team of journalists was a young Asian filmmaker/poet/stand-up called Adibah. One of her first pieces for Rife was called ‘We Need To Talk About Stokes Croft’ and discussed her experiences of growing up in this ‘cool’ area of Bristol, and how it was now utterly gentrified, to the point where she no longer felt welcome there.

 

It led me down a rabbit hole of exploration about gentrification: how ultimately most of us are complicit in how it manifests. Live in any city in the UK and you will see property developers buy up properties in low income areas, offer out cheap space to artists, who create a cool vibe, which attracts people, which drives up property prices, which in turn then allows those property developers to flip properties for huge amounts of money. This is a very ‘dummies’ guide to gentrification’ way of looking at things, but talking to the young people I worked with in Bristol, this is how they described what was happening in the city they all grew up in.

 

And I was complicit. I moved here from London cos it was cheaper to live. I’m part of the problem.

 

Talking to those young people about the types of book they read, a lot of them said the same thing about YA: they didn’t feel it was for them. One of them even went so far as to say she felt ‘UK YA was written by white women in their late twenties for white women in their late twenties who wanted to read the books they wished they’d had in their teens’. Whether this is an accurate reflection of UK YA or not, it is still a valid perception by a young person outside of the industry. However those of us who are inside the industry see it, we have to listen to the consumers who have no insider knowledge. All this young person was, was someone who wanted to feel seen. She wanted to feel like her story was being told.

 

So I wrote Run, Riot for Adibah and for all the young people I met along the way at Rife, who felt like their stories weren’t being told, and the issues they felt were important weren’t being seen on our bookshelves. This is a thriller about gentrification and corruption and the things we hold on to in order to maintain our communities. I know that young person I mention feels seen. Because this one is for her.

Tags:  author  diversity  inclusion  representationreading  YA 

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All the fun of the fair

Posted By Ferelith M. Hordon, 27 August 2018
All the fun of the Fair YLG is fun – especially when it provides the excuse to go all the way up to Edinburgh to the Book Festival. I am not saying that I had the honour of actually doing anything, but knowing that members of the Committee (yes, a potential added perk) were chairing various sessions it seemed the perfect opportunity. I knew Edinburgh, of course, having grown up there – but that was before the Book Festival. Nor was I staying for long; three packed days that were well worth the journey. The programme was (is) mouth-watering; the opportunities missed! Phillip Pullman, Joy Court chairing sessions on the Carnegie and the Greenaway, Chris Riddell, Marcus Sedgwick....but let us not repine. I was able to enjoy not just one session with Melvin Burgess wowing a tent full of teenagers with his anarchic views but a brilliant discussion chaired by Agnès Guyon involving Melvin, Steven Camden and a new author on the block. Liz MacWhirter. Look out for their books – The Lost Witch from Melvin, Steven’s Nobody Real and Black Snow Falling by Liz MacWhirter. A beautiful package; let us hope it makes its way south since it has been published by a small independent Scottish press, Scotland Street Press. Of course the Festival is not just aimed at children. As at Hay the main programme is devoted to an adult readership. But a children’s librarian cannot be so confined. As a result I had the great pleasure of hearing Martin Salisbury as he took us a quick canter through the history of the Ilustrated Dust Cover from the early 20th century to the 1970s. It was fascinating to see how many established artists also created these covers – Edward Bawden for one. Then since translation has become a real interest and focus, it was fascinating to attend the Translation Duel hosted by Danny Hahn at which he invited two expert translators to translate the same text and then discuss the differences – many. I ended my stay with a conversation between Hilary Spurling and Jenny Uglow around their recent biographies; and guess what, Jenny Uglow’s deals with that icon of children’s nonsense, Edward Lear. A fitting conclusion I felt as I ran for my train south.

Tags:  Edinburgh Book Festival 

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A YLG day - YALC and A Monster Calls

Posted By Agnes A. Guyon, 29 July 2018

Living in Edinburgh, I had never been to YALC. It was time to change that, and this year, the stars were properly aligned. I had already booked a ticket to see "A Monster Calls" that day, with a group of YLG friends - yes, friends, because we are far more than just a committee, but a group of people with similar interests who enjoy doing things together.

I also had an ulterior motive for attending YALC, namely speaking to all the publishers who haven't yet signed up for our wonderful YLG conference exhibition and enticing them to do so as soon as possible. I had no real expectations about YALC but I couldn't help noticing how different it is from the YLG conference. First of all, the scale - YALC takes place at the Olympia, a huge, very open venue. The space was very well used and it never felt crowded despite the number of people there. The atmosphere was very relaxed, with people sitting on the floor, in group chatting, or on their own engrossed in a book. The fact that the Film and ComicCon was taking place on the floor below and YALC tickets granted you entry to that too, meant that people with all sorts of wonderful costumes from superheroes to book characters, could be spotted now and then, adding to the atmosphere.

The event area was open and people could go in and out very easily during the event. The events themselves were interesting, with an impressive line-up. Most main events were panel events with 4 or 5 authors, one of whom was also the chair. I enjoyed the “Centenary of Women's Vote” with Alwyn Hamilton, Katherine Webber, Sally Nicholls and Sheena Wilkinson. It was followed by a discussion on retelling of classic tales and featured Deidre Sullivan, Kristina Perez, Louise O'Neill, Mary Watson and Melissa Albert. I didn't have time for more but I did visit the exhibition, which I found slightly disappointing for its lack of proofs or other freebies, which are a feature of the YLG conference!

At this point, I need to urge you to book for it, if you have not done so yet! Please go to:

https://www.cilip.org.uk/events/EventDetails.aspx?id=1059241&group=201316

After YALC it was time to meet up for "A Monster Calls" at The Old Vic. What a powerful performance! Imaginative, intensely moving but never soppy, I loved it!

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YLG National Conference Reading the Future - Early Bird Booking Extension until July 15th!

Posted By Susan U. Polchow, 05 July 2018

 

The Youth Libraries Group are delighted to be extending our Early Bird offer for the YLG National Conference 2018 “Reading the Future”.

Numerous people have expressed interest in attending but have stated that extra time would aid employer decisions. Professional development is a key part of maintaining knowledge and awareness offering a chance to engage with up to date research, changes in cultural context and current best practice. The deadline for the Early Bird offer has been extended until 15 July. We are keen to provide some rationale for attending conference, whether this be as a day delegate or on a full place.

• Conference this year is focused explicitly around reading - one of the six universal offers for libraries decided by the Society of Chief Librarians, policy and agenda setters for libraries across the United Kingdom
• Latest research from key organisations and agencies including BookTrust and the National Literacy Trust
• Networking opportunities with publishers and the opportunity to pitch for author visits, proof copies of books for reading groups
• *It is worth noting that average daily rates reported by the Society of Authors are between £400 and £500 for an author, this means one successful pitch for an author to a publisher - (which would also include the authors travel and accommodation), would more than recoup the entire cost of conference.  Conference gives direct access to a host of publishers and the opportunity to build strong partnerships.
• Showcase of forthcoming titles to aid programming and planning and receipt of publicity materials (tote bags, book marks, badges and more!), copies of new books at no charge
• Chance to share best practice with other professionals across the United Kingdom
• Key part of continuing professional development offered by the Youth Libraries Group, the special interest group for the Professional Body for librarian and information professionals
• Opportunity to showcase best practice from authority and to learn about existing best practice in other authorities and regions so as to replicate existing and proven frameworks for quality and cost-effective service delivery
• Engage with relevant creative provider - app producers, BBC, Gerry Andersen entertainment - to explore models of engagement and hooks to attract non-users
• Receive in-kind materials including book proofs, advanced reader copies, bookmarks, posters and other related point-of-sale
• Actively highlight role of  in supporting and maintaining awareness of the UK's oldest and most prestigious children's book awards, the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals, the profession's flagship awards.
• Maintain links with the Youth Libraries Group, one of the leading training and development bodies for librarians working with children and young people in the United Kingdom

The Youth Libraries Group Conference is one of the real highlights on the children's book and reading calendar. Find out more and book your place at https://www.cilip.org.uk/events/EventDetails.aspx?id=1059241&group=201316


 

Tags:  carnegie  children's books  conference  illustration  kate greenaway  reading  visual literacy  ylg 

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Diversity and Inclusion in Children’s Books and Libraries at The Curve in Slough on Friday June 8, 2018

Posted By Elizabeth F. Beverley, 27 June 2018
Updated: 27 June 2018

Youth Libraries Group South East and South West held a joint training day called Diversity and Inclusion in Children’s Books and Libraries at The Curve in Slough on Friday June 8, 2018


Our objectives for the day were to achieve the following:
• To increase understanding of issues around diversity and inclusion in children’s books, and why they matter
• To consider how we, as library staff, can support and promote diversity and inclusion in children’s books and in our libraries
• To showcase examples of diverse and inclusive children’s books
• To provide opportunities for discussion and sharing good practice


Many thanks to everyone who attended our training day with YLG South West and a special thanks to Slough Libraries The Curve - Slough for hosting & the library tour.


The amazing Tales on Moon Lane for selling a selection of the inclusive and diverse books on the day.


We had fantastic talks provided by:

Alexandra Strick from Inclusive Minds
Storyteller and Author Chitra Soundar
Caroline Scott from Empathy Lab
Anna McQuinn from Alanna Books
Poet and Author A F Harrold


Thanks to Jake Hope, Slough Libraries and West Sussex Libraries for sharing an insight into their diversity and inclusivity work they have been doing.

 Attached Thumbnails:

Tags:  children's books  diversity  inclusion  training course  youth libraries group south east  youth libraries group south west 

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Riding a Donkey Backwards - A storytelling show at Conference

Posted By Jacob Hope, 15 June 2018
Updated: 15 June 2018

 

Riding a Donkey Backwards is a collaboration between storyteller and author Sean Taylor, the Khayaal Theatre and Shirin Adl. Across 21 stories, it recounts the fables of Mulla Nasruddin.  Sean Taylor and the Khayaal Theatre will perform a special short-fire storytelling performance of the stories at this year's Youth Libraries Group Conference.  Sean discusses how the book came to be created.

 

Riding a Donkey Backwards came about, indirectly, because of a terror attack. Back on 7th January 2015, there was a massacre in Paris, at the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine. That day, I could feel people in the UK were shaken by the nearness of the violence, and I sensed some ‘retreating into shells’ going on. This made me want to do the opposite. At an event at Shakespeare’s Globe about 12 years previously, I’d met Luqman Ali and he’d given me a leaflet about Khayaal Theatre. Khayaal is a theatre company founded by him and Eleanor Martin. It is dedicated to showcasing the rich traditions of story, poetry and humour in Muslim cultures, and also to building engagement between Muslim communities and the wider world. I kept the leaflet Luqman had given me. Sometimes I’d come across it, wonder if there might be some way of collaborating with Khayaal, and decide probably not. But, that day, I wrote to Luqman. Looking back, my message said, among other things:

I have no more connection with, or understanding of, the Islamic world than you would expect from a man with an interest in stories and poetry who grew up in the home counties of England. My strongest connections are, in fact, not to the east, but to the west. My wife is from, Brazil. We have lived there on and off over the past twenty years. But rather than seeing these things as obstacles, I shall, for the sake of this message, see them as reasons for making connection. Might we meet? Might we talk a bit about stories, and about theatre and about work with young people? Might something fruitful result from this impulse to reach out? 

We met at the British Library, a few weeks later.  It was clear that, though we are from quite different cultural backgrounds, we had a lot in common in terms of our work around story and education, and our shared interest in the imagination, dreams and humour. So it seemed natural to try to find a way to work together. I had in mind there might be ways Khayaal could make use of my experience of writing for theatre. Actually, they expressed an interest in writing a children’s book. So the idea of retelling some of the stories of Mulla Nasruddin in a publication for young readers was born. I thought newly-founded Otter-Barry Books might show interest in the project.

Some say Mulla Nasruddin was a real man who lived in the thirteenth century. Nobody knows for sure! Many different countries claim to be his birthplace, including Turkey and Iran. In the introduction to the book we say:

He has many names because stories about him are told in many different countries. In Turkey he is Hodja. In Central Asia he is Afandi. The Arabs know him as Joha. Others call him Mulla Nasruddin. He is a trickster. And Muslims all over the world love him because he makes them laugh. If he doesn’t make you laugh, he will certainly make you think – and perhaps think sideways instead of straight ahead. He may even make your thoughts do somersaults inside your mind!”

They are age-old stories, but I think they are absolutely relevant to the times we live in. Nasruddin challenges fixed ways of looking at our world, and stuck ways of behaving. So the stories about him fly in the face of fundamentalist thinking – whether it be the single-track thinking of Islamist fundamentalism or the equally narrow thinking of Islamophobia. Take a story like the one we’ve called They Can’t Both Be Right! In this, Mulla Nasruddin is asked to settle an argument between two men, in a tea house. Nasruddin listens to the first man and says, “You are right.” Then he listens to the second man and says, “You are right.” Then the owner of the tea-house says, “Well, they can’t both be right!” And Nasruddin says, “You are right!” This is a brilliant, light-hearted way of pointing out that the world cannot be seen in black and white (as more and more people seem happy to see it.) In another story, called Don’t Ask Me! the donkey Nasruddin is riding is startled by a snake. As the donkey gallops madly off, a young farmer calls out, “Where are you going, Nasruddin?” Nasruddin calls back, “Don’t ask me! Ask the donkey!” Can you feel how this has a message for anyone who thinks they have simple answers to the challenges of our times? When an out-of-control donkey is carrying you, how can you sit there stiffly certain about where you are going? At one level this tale is just a funny anecdote. But scratch its surface (or the surface of the other stories in our book) and you find wisdom. Nasruddin asks fresh questions in the face of ready-made answers. The stories in Riding a Donkey Backwards offer new ways of thinking to anyone numbed by the world, or feeling driven to recrimination and aggression. These are reasons why we wanted to bring Nasruddin, his provocations and his heartfelt laughter to life for young readers.

Khayaal Theatre’s Eleanor Martin joined Luqman and me in the writing process. And it turned out to be a fruitful collaboration, with lots of discussion, and drafts to-ing and fro-ing as we worked out which Nasruddin stories to include and how to tell them on the page. Otter-Barry Books brought Iranian illustrator Shirin Adl on board, and Shirin came up with the wonderfully crafted illustrations which make Riding a Donkey Backwards so beautiful to look at.

See and hear Sean Taylor and Eleanor Martin from the Khayaal Theatre perform from Riding a Donkey Backwards at the Youth Libraires Group Conference.  For further information and to book places please visit https://www.cilip.org.uk/events/EventDetails.aspx?id=1059241&group=201316

 

Tags:  conference  illustration  performance  reading  storytelling  traditional tales  visual literacy 

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