MARK SCOTT REPORTS FROM ACROSS THE POND
The Child and the Book-
Right now, I am in the middle of changing my life. This short sentence sounds so simple, but is loaded with personal hope. I have decided, at the age of 41 that I need a change in career after spending nigh on twenty years working for a great corporate beast. With the kids almost safely through university, I get a refreshing opportunity to scratch a huge itch that has been there for years. As such, I am currently studying for an MA in English Literature at Sheffield University (as well as working full-time!) as a stepping stone to my PhD which I shall start in about 18 months.
During my first two semesters, my studies have led to me to two Children’s Literature conferences – each amazingly different, and each fulfilling for different reasons. The first of these, in November last year, was the British IBBY conference held at Froebel College, University of Surrey at Roehampton; home also to the [British] National Centre for Research in Children’s Literature or NCRCL. The conference theme was time in children’s books, and the author list was impressive: Theresa Breslin (Remembrance), Joanna Gavin (Coram Boy), Philip Reeve (Dark Engines). The conference also provided the opportunity to announce that London will host 2012 world IBBY conference -
I hope to see some of you there!
Guest of honour for the 2006 conference was Philippa Pearce, and Puffin Books laid on a special reception for her; which included a great big cake! Their gift and the celebration were timely. Sadly, as many of you know, Philippa Pearce died in December last year. It is a lasting and fitting memorial to her seminal work ‘Tom’s Midnight Garden’ that it has been included in the Carnegie Medal all-time top ten, a public vote initiated to celebrate 75 years of the honour. Visit the Carnegie Medal site here to learn more (and to find out who won). While there, you will see some of the wonderful books that, over the years, have won the honour. For whom would you have voted? http://www.carnegiegreenaway.org.uk/home/index.php
The 2007 Carnegie Medal shortlist was extremely diverse. The list included Kevin Brooks’ ‘The Road of the Dead’, which I had just started reading when I last wrote my last blog for NCBLA. It is not an easy read, violent in places, and is a sort of thriller for teens; a progression of the theme he started with ‘Candy’ where one of the main protagonists is a teenage prostitute. Some of the British librarians (who vote for the Carnegie Medal) are not happy, calling it a ‘nasty’ book. I am not so sure it is nasty, difficult yes, and I cannot say I loved it. But, I think that Kevin Brooks’ short listing is probably in recognition of his impressive body of work, which he has produced in an amazingly short time.
By the way, to allay any fears you may have over the pond… to my knowledge none any other of the short-listed books has the word ‘scrotum’ in it at all – so I think you may be safe from this potential corrupting influence should you wish to read any of them.
The winner of the 2007 CILIP Carnegie Medal was Meg Rosoff for ‘Just in Case’. I’m not sure what I think about that to be honest. I am not a great fan of MR and simply didn’t get the hype over ‘How I Live Now’ but hey, that’s the wonder of books – we all like different things….
The second conference I attended, early in 2007, was ‘The Child and the Book’ held over two days at Bogazici University in Istanbul. The conference is primarily for research students and research groups specialising in books for children. But, more than this, it aims to bring together researchers from all over the world, rather than just from English speaking countries. It works! Indeed, I spent the first coffee break speaking to an academic who specialised in children’s books from the Basque Country, and then had a short chit-chat with Harry Potter’s Hebrew translator. The University sits on a steep hillside above the glittering Bosphorous, in the most beautiful location. Istanbul, the city that sits astride the confluence of Europe and Asia, is amazing, and the juxtaposition of these two influences provided a suitable backdrop to this eclectic conference whose theme was ‘Lost in Translation’.
I listened to papers on German science fiction novels, identity in British immigrant literature, the concept of time, female stereotyping in Pullman’s His Dark Materials (a very good paper delivered by a fiery student from the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia) and so on. One paper struck a chord with me, and I have thought about it ever since. Presented by an American scholar, her argument (and this is my paraphrasing) was that a child’s unfamiliarity with place and culture is an inhibitor to the reception of ‘foreign’ children’s books, and this is particularly the case for American children. This worried me somewhat. I wonder whether, indeed, this is the case?
By now, I guess you have all seen the film adaptation of Katherine’s ‘Bridge to Terabithia’. My first exposure to this was in of all places, India – a country I visit regularly as part of my [corporate] day job. Flicking through the local paper, I happened upon an advert for the film, in either Hindi or Marathi (I can’t speak either with any fluency, so I’m not sure.) In the midst of my hectic schedule, I could not find the time to go. How I would have loved to see this move playing in India, in a cinema filled with devout followers of Bollywood! And my mind wandered back to that paper I heard in Istanbul: how would these people in such a different country, with such different experiences, respond to Katherine’s story? And as I thought about it more, I concluded that - within this magical, vibrant land, home to millions of smiling, beautiful people, and the ultimate symbol of love, the Taj Mahal - they would probably love it. After all, the common themes we share through stories are those of family, friendship, imagination, love, joy and loss. These universal bonds connect us all in our world of children’s books and join us across our physical world.
Once, on a Nile cruise boat many years ago, a large colourful man, an archaeologist, stood up and thanked us all for visiting his beautiful country. “Remember,” he said (paraphrasing someone famous he had once heard, I think), “the reason we travel the world is not because of how different we are, but for how similar we are.” I like that.
With this in mind, I will end with a final scene from Istanbul.
My partner Steve and I sit having dinner in an old print works. A fire is burning in a small fireplace warming the chattering diners. A Turkish boy in his early teens comes in from the cold night. He is poorly dressed, his face stern; he clutches a large bunch of roses and walks amongst the tables offering them for sale to the seated couples. As he passes our table, our waiter reaches out, strokes the boy’s red cheek with the back of his hand, and looks directly at him. It is a simple and beautiful gesture, loaded with meaning. As clearly as if he were speaking out loud he is saying: “How are you? Are you okay?” The boy smiles and, barely perceptible in the darkened restaurant, nods his head.
The boy heads to the staircase that leads to another dining room, and rushes to help a waiter with a large tray and who is struggling with a closing door. The waiter thanks him with his own smile and the boy disappears upstairs. A few minutes later, he appears once more. As he passes, the boy briefly slips his arm around our waiter’s waist and nods. It is a gesture of parting; a reciprocated gesture of love and caring. In this world of ours, where crass assumptions run so deep, these two people have communicated so much without speaking a word. This boy, who probably has so little, finds friendship and kinship in this place. He is safe, he is known and he is cared about.
And as this trip draws to a close, in this building that once produced words; in a city that bridges Europe and Asia, modern and ancient: I am drawn back to the title of this piece. The child and the book, the book and the child – a place of trust, kinship and love – an image reflected in this scene. We all recognise this place; it is one we all wish for.