Monday, 20 January 2020

Stories from Poland

The story squirrel?
I've just returned from my first visit to Poland. It wasn't a research trip for a specific book, but whenever and wherever I travel I'm always on the lookout for stories, and squirrel many of them away as possible inspiration for future books.

We started out in the capital, Warsaw, where I was fascinated to learn about the Warsaw Uprising in WW2. There is whole museum devoted to it, telling the stories of so many brave people who stood up to the Nazi occupation of their city. People like the poet, Krystyna Krahelska, who volunteered for the dangerous work as both a messenger and a nurse. She wrote the words of Hey Boys, Bayonet on the Gun, which became the most popular song of the uprising. Sadly, she was killed at only 30 years old when rescuing a wounded soldier. Her image lives on in Warsaw - she was the model for a famous statue of the Warsaw Mermaid. 

(Why the symbol of Warsaw is a mermaid when it nowhere near the sea is whole other story!)

Back in December I was lucky enough to meet Elizabeth Wein, who kindly signed a copy of her new book White Eagles for me. White Eagles is also set in Poland in WW2, and is the story of a brave young pilot who has to make a daring escape from Poland after her twin brother is killed. The characters are fictional, but it is based on real events of the time and is a fantastic read - highly recommended.

Warsaw is home to many beautiful buildings including the sumptuous Lazienki Palace, home of King Stanisław Augustus in the late 1700s. I love anything to do with the 18th century and really enjoyed looking around. I especially liked this amazing "Ladies' Library" - a beautiful collection of travel-size books - everything an educated "lady" should read, in their own portable bookcase. I soooo wanted to take this home with me! (Lazienki Park is also where I met the adorable red squirrel at the top of this post - who ran up my leg two seconds after this photo was taken!)

We then went to Krakov - home of one of the biggest medieval squares in Europe, gorgeously beautiful - especially festooned with Christmas lights and trees; yes, it's still officially Christmas in Poland - until February 2nd!). From Krakov we went on a very moving trip to Auschwitz, one of the biggest WW2 concentration and death camps, where millions of Jewish people - as well as those from other communities, such as Roma - were killed. If you have read Anne Frank's diary, you will know the terrible history of these camps. It was very difficult to look round a place where so much suffering happened, but it felt important to witness it. There is a quote by the philosopher, George Santayana engraved on a plaque there, which gets to the heart of it: Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

There were many important books in the bookshop there, all helping us to learn from history. One in particular  caught my eye, a children's book (of course!) - Hana's Suitcase, A True Story by Karen Levine.  I read it on the way home. It combines the tragic true story of Hana Brady, just one of the many children who died at the camp, with the determined detective work of Fumiko Ishioka, director of Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Centre, who set out to find out the truth behind the owner of the suitcase that had been donated to her centre - one of thousands still kept at Auschwitz. Her search led her to Hana's brother, Georg, who had miraculously survived and eventually emigrated to Canada. Hana's Suitcase is told in a sensitive and accessible way, with many photographs. The content may be upsetting for very young readers. It would be an invaluable addition for anyone reading Anne Frank's diary.

Back in Krakow I found one last story. On the way to the famous Wawel Castle, I came across this peculiar statue. Ever since writing Time Dogs, I've been obsessed with stories of real dogs in history. Many cities have stories of super-loyal dogs who have sat faithfully waiting for their owners to return, sometimes for years, when those owners have sadly died. There is Greyfriars Bobby in Edinburgh, Hachiko in Tokyo, and I now discover, Djok, in Krakov. He does look very sad in this statue! Perhaps if I get to write a fifth Time Dogs book, Baxter and the pack could go back to 1991 and cheer poor Djok up a little.

Tuesday, 7 January 2020

Yours Hieroglyphically

Shortly before Christmas I received a fabulous package of letters from Class 5F at Shakespeare Primary School in Leeds, who had been reading The Phoenix Code. I was SOOOO impressed by your writing - both the polite, thoughtful and interesting content, and the neat, clear and stylish presentation. Every letter was enriched with striking artwork that made the letters a pleasure to behold.

I'm really honoured that you put in so much time and effort to write and tell me that you enjoyed reading The Phoenix Code. It was a pleasure to write back and answer all your questions. I'm just sorry I didn't have the time (or talent!) to illustrate my replies as beautifully as you did.

Thursday, 31 October 2019

School Visit Round-up

It's been a top half-term for school visits!

First it was off to Capel St Mary Primary near Ipswich. Year 5 have all been reading The Mystery of the Whistling Caves, and it was lovely to chat to so many children who knew all about the characters and setting and plot - they had lots of predictions about who had stolen the Carrickstowe Hoard, so I had to be very careful not to give away any spoilers. These children had all become total mystery experts!

I loved working with each of the three classes to create new missing treasure mysteries. We came up with three very different, but equally brilliant stories - involving everything from mysterious alien rainbow orbs to ancient Egyptian gold.

Then it was off to Walsall to Park Hall Junior Academy - my third visit to work with successive Y5's to tie in with their reading of The Phoenix Code for their Ancient Egypt Topic. It was a delight to be back - the enthusiasm for reading and writing for pleasure in this lovely school is a joy to behold. It was great fun to come up with new lost artifacts with legendary powers for Cleo and Ryan to search for on their next adventure -  I particularly liked The Silver Potato of Brazil.

By the end of the same week I was back on the road (or rather the rails; my car has been out of action so it was cross-country train time) to one of my other favourite schools, Kensington Primary in Liverpool. - where I'm honoured to be Patron of Reading.

It was a very busy morning - including the official opening of their new library - it's been beautifully decorated so that it's like walking into a magical enchanted forest. I was proud to cut the ribbon (there's a little video of the moment on the Kensington School twitter feed!) - ably assisted by members of the the Liverpool FC Academy, who stayed on to read with the children. I also spent time chatting about Time Dogs with Y2 and reading them a few chapters, and doing a mystery-book vote with Y4. (The book the children chose (based on the blurb and the first page alone, was A Moon Girl Stole My Friend by Rebecca Patterson - a great read!)

There are pictures from the Y4 mystery book compeition here and from the  Y2 reading here.

Thank you to all the teachers, teaching assistants and office staff at all the of the schools for organising these visits and making me so welcome.

If you would like me to come to your school, please see my School Visits page for more information.

Sunday, 22 September 2019

Book Pen Pals

I love the BookPenPals scheme!

If you've not heard of it, this is what it's all about . . . 
"BookPenPals pairs UK authors and illustrators with UK schools to make book recommendations via postcards. Schools reply with a postcard of their own. The Pen Pals pairings last for one school year, and the joys of reading, writing and drawing multiply."

Set up by the amazing duo, Kate Scott and Sarah Moorhead, the scheme has been an incredible success, with more and more schools, authors and illustrators signing up. Last year I was delighted to be paired with two lovely schools, one on Merseyside and the other in Lincoln.

This year I've got three fab newschools; Great Malvern Primary (Y6) and Castlemorton Primary (Y3/4) in Worcestershire and Brownlow Primary (Y6) in Leicestershire.

I can't wait to get to know my new schools. If there's one thing I like almost as much as reading and writing books, it's talking about books, so this is so much fun!
"Authors and illustrators recommend other people’s books to a class, over the course of a school year. They can also send occasional writing advice or drawing tips. Schools reply to let their Pen Pals know if they’ve enjoyed the recommended books. Lovely relationships between schools and authors/illustrators develop!"

I've just written my first postcards - and introductory letters - it's hard to fit everything onto the back of one postcard.  They'll go in the post tomorrow.  It's always hard to choose which books to pick out of all the amazing books out there, and I like to include a few different options each time - after all,  not everyone likes the same kind of book.

It's a great excuse to read more and more and sneak a few more books into my shopping bag each time I'm out (as if I even needed another excuse!)

Find out all about Book Pen Pals on their website here.

Would you like to know which books I'm recommending this month? 

I'll tell you as soon as I know that the schools have received their postcards - I don't want to give away any spoilers . . . let's just say I couldn't stick to one book, and there's a mystery, a history, a funny one and a dog story . . .