Author visit from Marcus Sedgwick

An author visit is always a literary highlight of the school year, and Marcus Sedgwick’s talk to Year 8 was no exception. Marcus is the author of some thirty books for children and young adults, ranging from vampire tales set in Transylvania to contemporary psychological thrillers and dystopian graphic novels. With such a diverse canon to his name, it was no surprise that Marcus’ talk, which encompassed the themes of his novels, was of great interest to all in attendance.

Addressing the classic question all writers are subjected to (“where do you get all your ideas from?”), Marcus took us on a virtual tour of his writing desk and workspace, which he’d assured us had been tidied up before he welcomed us in! Inviting the audience to ask about an area of his ‘office’ that looked particularly interesting to them, Marcus discussed how the number 354 was of particular significance to him, and its coincidental trail through his latest novel,  the psychological thriller She Is Not Invisible. As well as figuring heavily in the plot, the number 354 is also the number of pages in the book, and the blurb is written in three paragraphs of, respectively, three, five and four sentences.

Coincidence? Who can say?

Marcus also discussed how coincidence can be found in surprising places: for instance, Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy had a lot more in common than being assassinated USA Presidents. He pointed out that we as humans always look for patterns in things, as can be seen in the slide of the picture below. Coincidence, and the strange, intangible feeling inside when we experience it, is a very human phenomenon.


After this, Marcus talked about a real-life Romanian ritual that inspired My Swordhand is Singing, reading an extract from the book which caused the room to draw a collective breath at its conclusion, and a multitude of girls scurrying to the front of the room to get their hands on one or more of his books.

A reminder, if any was needed, that visits from talented, accomplished and inspiring authors are invaluable for firing the imagination of our students, encouraging them to undertake a journey of discovery that can only really be provided within the pages of a Very Good Book. Marcus was a big hit, and there’s no doubt in my mind that we will be welcoming him back to the school in the not too distant future.

Carnegie Season has began

Yesterday, both the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medal nominations were announced.

For those not in the know, these medals are awarded for the year’s most outstanding work of fiction  written for young people (the Carnegie Medal) and picture book written for children (Kate Greenaway).

The initial nominations are, for the first time, to be whittled down to a longlist by the judging panel, and then reduced even further to a final shortlist of eight in March 2014. The panel comprises librarians who are members of CILIP (that’s Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals to you), whereas suggestions for the nominations are made by other school and public librarians…like me!

Looking at this year’s nominations, there’s the usual mix of the well-established (Malorie Blackman, Anne Fine, Terry Pratchett), the critically acclaimed, who have been shortlisted before (David Almond, Kevin Brooks, Annabelle Pitcher), the up and coming who may be the next big thing (Dave Cousins, Emma Pass, Rebecca Stead) and the quite-frankly-they’ve-got-no-chance-because-they-don’t-have-enough-literary-merit (whose names I shall diplomatically withhold).

What do I mean by ‘literary merit’? I’m talking about a book that is more than just a superficially good read. It needs to fire the reader’s imagination, make them think, provoke an emotional and intellectual response, and have the potential to stay with them long after they’ve finished it…and in a good way too!  So that’s why the much vilified Twilight series doesn’t make the cut (the only emotional response those books provoke in me are angry bemusement that they actually got published, let alone become a global phenomenon).

The worst books in the world – Fact

Let me put it another way – you wouldn’t expect to see a fluffy chick lit novel make the Booker Shortlist would you? I imagine such a happening wouldn’t help the cause of authors like Eleanor Catton (see previous post) one iota.

Anyway, we shadow the Carnegie Medal at Surbiton High School, and all who participate thoroughly enjoy it. One girl told me she is really glad it happens, as it means she gets to read books she wouldn’t normally even consider, and I’m sure that’s how many, if not all, feel about it. One of the most fun things is the Shadowing site we maintain, in which we discuss, argue and debate our favourite choices, through blogs, polls and reviews.

In an age of many book awards, the Carnegie may just be the most important award for the reading tastes of young people. As a genre, young adult fiction is thriving, with an abundance of choice of reading material to cater for just about every taste. So if you want to get in to the finest books in children and young adult fiction, you could do worse than keep an eye on the Carnegie Medal.

Are female authors still treated unfairly?

On Tuesday evening, a little bit of literary history was made. 28-year-old Eleanor Catton scooped the prestigious Booker Prize for her second novel The Luminaries.

The result was only a slight surprise. There was no Bring up the Bodies-esque front-runner. Jim Crace was the favourite with the bookies, but not a head and shoulders one. The Luminaries was always going to be a decent dark horse choice, and many had a feeling Catton would sneak in under the radar.

One common myth is that, once you’re a published author, you’re rich for life. That’s not true in most cases: for every JK Rowling there’s thousands of published authors you’ve never heard of. But winning the Booker does thrust an author in to the limelight, and one of the benefits of being thrust in to the limelight is that people are now rather interested in what you have to say.

Eleanor Catton

In an interview with the Guardian, twelve hours after she won the Booker, Eleanor had something to say about how female writers are treated, and people will listen to her in a way they almost certainly wouldn’t have done had she not triumphed on Tuesday evening.

“I have observed that male writers tend to get asked what they think and women what they feel,” she said. “In my experience, and that of a lot of other women writers, all of the questions coming at them from interviewers tend to be about how lucky they are to be where they are.”

Does she have a point? She goes on in the interview to also point out how her novel was scoffed at by men over the age of 45. The suggestion being that she was a young upstart who, at the age of 28, couldn’t possibly be taken seriously as a novelist capable of writing a book of outstanding literary merit, certainly not worthy of being shortlisted for a prize as important as the Booker.

It would seem that certain old habits of the literary establishment, with their prejudices, die hard. Whilst there are certainly successful female authors in the world, there is a general sense that perhaps they’re not getting the respect they deserve for it.

Whether you agree with this or not, this serves as a timely reminder that, as much progress has been made over the years, this issue will not disappear overnight. That it still is something that needs to be discussed speaks for itself: if male and female authors were truly equal, the gender of an author would not be considered at all.

So how do we change this state of affairs? Can we change this state of affairs? The answer, as it does with so many things, lies with you.

Libraries give us power

I know what you’re thinking, when you see that title. You think I’m going to tell you all about how the library is fantastic, and that you should all come down here to satisfy your intellectual curiosity. Incidentally, if you haven’t seen Miss Handley’s brilliantly crazy display, plus the frames of curious items some of our students did over the summer holiday then you really should.

Well, people, that’s my job. I’m here to instil a love of reading, to give you a guiding hand on your independent learning endeavours. So yes, there is going to be some of that: it’s inevitable. But as I enter my third year, and our newly opened library does too (I guess you could say I was part of the deal), it seems like a good time to reflect on the position of the library in the school. No, I don’t mean that in a “what is our five year plan for the library” sort of way. I mean it in a different way entirely…

ugandaThis past summer I spent four weeks volunteering in Uganda. I was teaching at St Andrews Primary school in Bwebajja, near the capital city Kampala. Before I went out there, I knew it was going to be an eye opener, and believe me it was the furthest out of my comfort zone I have ever been. I’m a reasonably well travelled guy: I’ve set foot in every continent bar South America, totalling 21 different countries in all. But Uganda – with its dusty roads, corrugated iron shacks on every street corner and electricity and running water that was erratic at best and non-existent at worst – stood apart as a truly unique experience.

Ever since returning, there hasn’t been a day where I haven’t thought about Uganda. I got to see a lot of the country: going on safari to Murchison Falls National Park was a real highlight. But the one thing I miss more than anything is the children from the school. These children have nothing. Those who lived on the school site stayed in unbelievably dark, damp and cramped conditions, in most cases sleeping two to a bed on a triple bunk. There is no state education system in Uganda, so in a sense they’re actually much better off than the 60% or so of children who can’t afford to go to school. But this doesn’t mean they’re wealthy. On one day during my last week, the Principal (with great reluctance) sent all those who hadn’t paid their fees home. The net result was I had about ten students out of the usual forty five in my class.

Yet, while they have more cause to complain than most, they were always so happy. Not once did I see a child feeling sorry for themselves. What I did see were children who were endlessly eager to learn, constantly asking me questions that ranged from where I’m from to who Socrates was. It really was an inspiring, humbling thing to witness.

So what has this all got to do with the library, and how you use it? It may sound so very hackneyed, but it’s made me grateful for what I’ve got. We should all be grateful to have such a well-resourced library that unlocks the doors of knowledge to those who are curious and brave enough to find the key. We had to scrape by on a few of each core text book in St Andrews, which often meant painstakingly copying whole pages on to blackboards. Those children who were asking me about Socrates and the UK don’t have the option to find the answers in the library, or to simply use Google.

“Libraries gave us power”, sang the Manic Street Preachers back in 1996. They still can, and I urge you all to use yours to empower you, especially when there are so many people around the world who are unable to access one.

Joseph Humphreys, Librarian