‘Reading Russia’ while researching The Rasputin Dagger by Theresa Breslin

In 2012, when I was just beginning to have vague thoughts that I might write an historical novel set in Russia during the Revolution, an email appeared in my Inbox. Edinburgh International Book Festival was celebrating 50 years and, supported by the British Council, invited 50 writers to do a cultural exchange with different locations world-wide. So, while other writers ended up shopping in New York or sunning themselves in the Caribbean I was one of a group who were asked to speak at a Cultural Fair in… Siberia!

A stop-off in Moscow provided the opportunity to speak with librarians, teachers and students of English literature and see some of Russia’s literary treasures. In addition to their pre-printing press beautifully illuminated manuscripts, there were originals manuscripts of famous Russian writers, such as Dostoevsky and, thrillingly, the handwritten title page of Mikhail Bulgakov’s original manuscript for The Master and Margarita.

Photo: Theresa Breslin Books – Moscow Original MS ‘The Master and Margarita’: ©Scarpa

Photo: Theresa Breslin Books – Moscow Original MS ‘The Master and Margarita’: ©Scarpa

We discussed the transformative power of good fiction and in the evening attended an ‘open mike’ literature session in a night club. Seriously. In a night club. During the music breaks anyone could come up and talk about reading. And they did. Amazing! Young people spoke about the influence of Gogol and quoted favourite bits of Turgenev. And I learned so much about modern Russian writers. We were challenged to name a ‘hero for our times’ I chose Katniss Everdeen – who else?

Russia has enormously influential writers, with Alexander Pushkin rated as the funder of modern Russian literature. In Eugene Onegin Pushkin speaks on writing saying: “… weave together emotion, thought, and magic sound; I write, …”

Pushkin supported the 1825 uprising and his writings were considered so dangerous by the Tsar that he was banished from St Petersburg and barred from any government post. When he died he was buried without ceremony in case the occasion of his funeral would cause unrest. I’m intrigued by Pushkin for he used language in a new way, melding traditional tongues with the words of the common people. He proved a big inspiration for the character of Nina’s father, Ivan, the Storyteller, in The Rasputin Dagger.

Then on to Siberia. I was soooooo excited. It was late October / early November and they said “Oh, it’s not that cold, yet…” Really? I was glad I’d packed my grey-goose down-filled parka with the fur-lined hood. I have to say that Melvin Burgess looked fetching in his dark green wool overcoat and was a particular draw for our teen audiences.

As I’m a former Young People’s Services librarian the organisers were keen that I speak on the subject of Youth Library Services. Despite the remote venue the session was full and I was proud to share examples of British ‘best practice’. Like ravenous wolves the librarians fell upon the material I’d brought with me.

 Photo: Theresa Breslin Books – Siberia Librarians Event: ©Scarpa

Photo: Theresa Breslin Books – Siberia Librarians Event: ©Scarpa

Then Melvin and I had events with articulate and engaging young teenagers, organised and moderated by the pupils themselves.

 Photo: Theresa Breslin Books – Siberia Teen Event: ©Scarpa

Photo: Theresa Breslin Books – Siberia Teen Event: ©Scarpa

It was an absolute joy to talk to these young Russians. Although desperately keen for modern teen fiction from the West, their own reading included Tolstoy and Chekhov, and a wide range of classic Russian books.

And a final interesting fact – schools in Siberia only close if the temperature drops below 26 degrees centigrade!

©Theresa Breslin 2017
Twitter: @TheresaBreslin1

#TeenLibrarian Monthly August 2017: the Antifascist issue

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Game Library Camp 17

If, like me, you were not able to attend the Game Library Camp on the 12th then watching this padlet may be of interest to you:

Made with Padlet

#DadLife: Park Life

My little ginger snap and I have been working on a regular Saturday morning (7am) trip to our local park. This gives my lovely Mrs a chance to sleep uninterrupted by our creaking couch and excited shouts of “Peppa Peeeg!”

I make her a bottle, put a banana in my jacket pocket and we stop off at our local Costa for a latte (for me) and a take-out toasted breakfast bloomer. Apart from morning dog walkers wandering around the recreation ground the children’s play area is usually deserted at this time of the morning.

We start off by sitting down on one of the benches and sharing the bloomer a third for her and two thirds for me and we drink our drinks and then she has her ‘nana – having chatted to a friend of mine whose child is of an age with my little ginge I think that small children have an affinity for bananas that is difficult to put into words. She is good at sharing though and will physically try and fore mushed banana into my mouth if I do not take some willingly.

For several weekends now her main fascination has been with the children’s obstacle course, she is still too small to do it but walks around the course looking at the various obstacles going “oooh” and sitting on the bits that are low enough. Lately she has been trying out beginner geocaching by picking up pebbles and putting them in places that you would not normally expect to find them at the playground.

When she starts wandering heaven help me if my concentration falters – even for a second for she will take off, and she can move rapidly, even on her little legs. I sometimes lag back purposefully and if she notices that I am not keeping pace with her she will turn around and shout at me until I catch up. Sometimes she will head towards one of the gates and if I cannot catch her in time she will try to open it and get into the larger park.

Once she has been suitably distracted she will do a circuit of the playground’s other attractions, down two of the smaller slides, round the merry-go-round and spinning wheel then crawling around the toy train and finally the see-saw with interludes sitting in the little playhouse where she will put wood chips on the table and tell me about them when I sit with her.

She is changing so rapidly, she alternates between demanding her freedom and chasing me away very vocally when she wants to do things on her own then wanting to be picked up and lifted on to whatever she wants to play on. She is at the size where I can still sweep her up and throw her into the air and catch her safely while she screams with laughter and nuzzles into my neck for a cuddle.

I have heard tell that these moments pass by so quickly that I am taking every opportunity to spend time with her while everything is new and exciting – even a quick visit to the park!

Libraries and the Concept of Safe Spaces

The term ‘safe space’ means different things to different people, to those that have an interest in online privacy Libraries may not be considered safe spaces due to local authority filters that block certain sites and key words and also have the ability to monitor what people get up to online; the security and privacy of Library patrons borrowing records is also not secure.

Libraries that host police services can feel unsafe to communities and individuals that have experienced police brutality. Unstaffed/self-service libraries can be unsafe if staff are not on hand to moderate what can be threatening behaviour to other library patrons. Sometimes library staff behaviour can make patrons feel uncomfortable due to prejudices and preconceptions that exist within all individuals.

On the flip side, for parents with young children the library can be a safe place to go for story times and contact with other parents & families who have children of a similar age. For latchkey kids the library can be a safe place to wait if their parents/carers are working late; libraries that offer homework clubs can also provide assistance for them while they do their homework. For people at risk of bullying and abuse the Library can be a safe haven.

There is no one size fits all descriptor for safe spaces, and while it is true that Libraries cannot be said to be ‘safe spaces’ they can be made safer fo rall users. To achieve this, Library staff need to work with the community to identify what practices within the service that make them feel unsafe and change or eliminate them as much as possible while amplifying those practices that provide safety and security for patrons.

#DadLife: Visiting the Library

It is one of life’s ironies that although I am a librarian I do not take my little ginger snap to the library that often. That joy falls to my lovely wife who treks her up to the library several times a week for toddler time, baby rhyme time and sundry craft activities. To be completely honest – this makes me a bit jealous as once upon a time I was a Children’s Librarian in my first Library job (Fish Hoek Public Library) and I have seen how much fun these activities can be!

My daughter loves the library, each time we walk past she points and starts shouting at me at this time it is still hard to understand what she is saying but I imagine it is something along the lines of “No you fool I want to go in *there*” and then she bursts into tears as we carry on walking. This is not, you understand, a form of mental torture I subject my child to, rather it is because that whenever we go past, the library is already closed.

However on Saturday morning while waiting for the car to be washed we had a bit of time so we popped in to our local library (Chislehurst), The moment we went through the doors she started fighting to get out of the pram and made excited noises, the moment her feet hit the floor she ran straight for the Children’s Library.

She grabbed a book off the parenting shelf and brought it proudly to me, it was a book on potty-training which made me wonder if she was trying to tell me something. She then started running round the shelves grabbing books, seemingly at random then plonked herself down and started looking at them. I am always amazed at how carefully she turns the pages – until she gets excited, then I have to step in to make sure that she does not accidentally pull pages out. So far the worst she has done is remove a date-stamp label but I live in fear of having to take a toddlerised book to the library desk.

I love the Library – when I was small my mother took my brothers and I for a visit to our local library every week. It gives me a sense of enormous well-being that we are continuing this tradition with our daughter.

Amnesty International UK has compiled a list of recommended books for young readers to enjoy this summer

Amnesty’s top picks explore and celebrate human rights – including themes of family life, justice, racism and the refugee crisis – and have been selected for three age ranges: younger readers (3-7 years); junior readers (8-12 years); and teens (13-16 years).

Nicky Parker, Publisher at Amnesty UK, said:

At Amnesty, we believe that reading fiction can help develop our empathy and understanding of social justice. There’s nothing better than a powerful story to make us think about what it might be like to be someone else.

Our lists of top summer reads have been carefully selected to help nurture young readers’ sense of individual freedom and self-expression. We hope these books will inspire children to take pride in the ways they are different and special, and help give them the confidence to stand up for themselves and others.

For more information about Amnesty Books and the lists below, see here.

Amnesty’s top books for younger readers: 3-7yrs

Silver Buttons, by Bob Graham,celebrates diversity and tells the story of a young girl, Jodie, who is busy drawing a duck wearing boots with silver buttons.

Welcome, by Barroux,tells the story of three polar bears that are set adrift in the ocean after part of their ice float suddenly breaks off. It explores themes of difference, belonging and climate change, and has powerful echoes with the current refugee crisis.

Vanilla Ice Cream, by Bob Graham, celebrates the interconnectedness of our world through the journey of a young sparrow from an Indian rice-paddy to a city in the North.

There’s a Bear on My Chair, by Ross Collins,which was awarded the Amnesty CILIP Honour 2016, is a witty portrayal of activism and peaceful protest, told through the story of a tiny mouse attempting to move a bear from his favourite chair.

No!, by David McPhail, tells the tale of a young boy in a war-torn country, who sets off to post a letter and witnesses an act of cruelty on his way. It highlights how everybody – even young children – is capable of taking a stand against oppression.

Luna Loves Library Day, by Joseph Coelho and illustrated by Fiona Lumbers,shows the power reading can have in bringing families together.

Swimmy, by Leo Lionni,brings to lifean underwater world in a wonderful story about togetherness.

Oliver, by Birgitta Sif, is a celebration of difference and an exploration of how true friendship springs from self-acceptance.

My Little Book of Big Freedoms, by Chris Riddell, helps readers understand why human rights are so important for leading a free, safe and happy life.

What Are You Playing At?, by Marie-Sabine Roger and Anne Sol, is a ‘lift-the-flap’ book that aims to challenge rigid gender norms around childhood play.

So Much!, by Trish Cooke and illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, is a warm and humorous portrayal of family life.

Odd Dog Out, by Rob Biddulph,is a story of a lonely dog who packs her bags for Doggywood, where she feels she belongs. Itemphasises the importance of individuality and the freedom to live as one chooses.

Handa’s Surprise, by Eileen Browne,is a storyabout sharing and friendship, in which a series of wild animals find Handa’s picnic basket far too tempting.

Footpath Flowers, by JonArno Lawson and illustrated by Sydney Smith, is a wordless picture book about a young girl who gathers wild flowers and transforms people’s lives when she gives them away.

How To Look After Your Dinosaur, by Jason Cockcroft, is a humorous guide for prospective dinosaur-owners and a story about friendship.

I Have the Right to Be a Child, by Alain Serres and illustrated by Aurélia Fronty,uses pictures to bring the Convention on the Rights of the Child to life and help young readers understand their rights.

Amnesty’s top books for junior readers: 8-12 years

Dreams of Freedom, is Amnesty’s latest book, which combines the words of human rights heroes such as Nelson Mandela, Anne Frank and Malala Yousafzai, with beautiful illustrations from renowned international artists including Oliver Jeffers and Chris Riddell.

Peter in Peril, by Helen Bate, is a graphic novel based on a true story about a boy named Peter who is Jewish and living in 1940s Hungary.

Two Weeks with the Queen, by Morris Gleitzman, follows Colin, a young boy who has a plan to break into Buckingham Palace. It is a witty and empathetic book that deals with some difficult themes, such as bereavement and homophobia.

The Bone Sparrow, by Zana Fraillon,winner of theAmnesty CILIP Honour 2017,highlights the plight of Burma’s Rohingya people and details life inside a detention centre in Australia.

Tender Earth, by Sita Brahmachari,is about 11-year-old Laila Levenson who feels daunted by the prospect of secondary school but begins to find her own voice after discoveringNana Josie’s protest book.

Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth, by Frank Cottrell Boyce,follows Sputnik and Prez on a series of unbelievable mishaps, scrapes and adventures, and celebrates the importance of finding a home in a very big universe.

The Hypnotist, by Laurence Anholt,tells the tale of 13-year-old Pip who has to battle racial hatred when he goes to work as a farmhand. Set during the civil rights struggles of 1960s America,The Hypnotist explores the nature of prejudice and racist violence in a thoughtful and original way.

The Journey, by Francesca Sanna, explores the theme of migration through a child’s eyes as a mother and her two young children are forced to flee their country.

The Girl of Ink and Stars, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, is a captivating story about Isabella, the daughter of a cartographer, who is the only person with the skills to find her best friend Lupe when she goes missing.

A Story Like The Wind, by Jill Lewis and illustrated by Jo Weaver, tells intertwined stories about loneliness, the need for shelter, and how music can provide solace for those who are struggling.

Amnesty’s top books for teens: 13-16 years

Max, by Sarah Cohen-Scali, is about Max, a boy born into the Nazi Lebensborn programme designed to engineer ‘perfect’ Aryan children, who comes to question the world view he has been fed growing up.

Here I Stand: Stories that Speak for Freedom, is a compelling collection of stories, poems and graphic narratives put together by Amnesty which explore different aspects of our human rights.

The Art of Being Normal, by Lisa Williamson, is a powerful portrayal of two young people struggling to assert their identity in an often hostile and unforgiving world

Lies We Tell Ourselves, by Robin Talley, is a coming-of-age novel about two brave young women who confront racism and homophobia to live as they choose.

The Stars at Oktober Bend, by Glenda Millard, is narrated by 15-year-old Alice Nightingale who has suffered a brain injury and struggles to express herself. It explores themes of sexual assault, poverty and racism.

The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas, is inspired by the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement and follows 16-year-old Starr, whose life changes forever when she witnesses a policeman murder her childhood friend, Khalil.

Orangeboy, by Patrice Lawrence, is a fast-paced thriller that gives an original and fresh perspective on the struggles facing London’s teenagers and the pressures that surround gang culture.

Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys,follows a host of characters in Germany 1945 as they seek shelter from the Red Army aboard theWilhelm Gustlof. This is a tragic story that has rarely been told.

Alpha, by Bessora and Barroux, is a graphic novel that follows the story of a father who leaves Ivory Coast in the hope of reaching Paris to be reunited with his wife and child.

Straight Outta Crongton, by Alex Wheatle, follows 15-year-old Mo growing up in the tough, crime-ridden neighbourhood of South Crong.

Eight Questions With… Ed McDonald Author of #Blackwing

Hi Ed, welcome to TeenLibrarian and thank you for giving up your time for a quick chat about Blackwing!

To begin, would you like to introduce yourself to the audience?

Hi, I’m Ed, and I write books about people waving swords around. I also like to wave swords around myself.

How would you describe Blackwing to arouse the interest of a potential reader?

Blackwing takes a lot of elements that are familiar to people – magic, monsters, war – and puts them into the structure of a thriller. It’s a lot faster in pace than most fantasy books because I wanted to write a ‘page turner’ rather than an exploration of a world as we get in a lot of fantasy. The plot/story is the main thing and a lot of people seem to burn through it in a few days.

You have taken the premise of an alcoholic antihero with a past ™, working for Crowfoot – one of a group of powerful beings who are have shed much of their humanity and not exactly the ‘good’ guys and pit he and his team against a powerful foe that are even worse. What inspired you to write this phenomenal work?

I studied ancient and medieval history and I was looking at doing a PhD about neutrality towards violence. When you look at the way people acted pre 1900 you see that behaviour in a non-policed society is frequently what we would consider sociopathic in its coldness and brutality. How exactly can a leader justify cutting off the noses and ears of fifty prisoners? I wanted to write about people who felt real to me, and that meant thinking myself into the heads of similarly monstrous characters.

One of the most memorable recurring scenes is how Crowfoot contacts Galharrow via the Crow tattoo – how did you come up with that novel concept?

I needed a way for Galharrow to get messages without meeting anyone. It’s a bit like getting a text message, in a way! But I also needed it to be something that couldn’t happen frequently, and I liked the idea that it hurt him (and he doesn’t necessarily want it) because it shows how skewed the power relationship is between Galharrow and Crowfoot. When your boss sends you angry message that tear themselves out of your flesh, well, it’s hardly a meeting of equals.

I know most people reading this interview have still got the joy of experiencing reading Blackwing for the first time but for those (like me) who have already done so – what can we expect in book 2 – or is that still top secret?

Book 2 is written and I’m editing it at the moment. Avoiding spoilers as much as I can, the idea that’s put forward in the final chapter of Blackwing is the launching point for the next book. We see a return of pretty much every (surviving!) character in one form or another. The war goes on, there’s a new threat rising and again there’s a race against time to save the day. Obviously!

There has been an upsurge in the GrimDark Fantasy subgenre in recent years but I think that Blackwing is near the top of the pile being eminently readable and well great fun without sacrificing any of the dark notes – can you recommend any titles by other authors for readers interested in exploring dark fantasy?

I definitely like my GrimDark to be on the lighter side – I love the grit but I’ve no interest in excessive gore, torture-porn or sexual violence. To me, a fantasy book should be fun, not a trauma. For that reason I’d recommend The Straight Razor Cure by Daniel Polansky (the third book in the series is the real gem), and Joe Abercrombie’s series that begins with Half a King is a great introduction for a YA audience. Joe manages to start out fairly light but by the end, boy are we in the grit, and I like that (and again, no excess).

What was your favourite part of writing Blackwing?

The most fun part of writing a book, for me, is when I just hit on some random idea in the middle of a sentence and think “Oh! Yeah! That would be good. Let’s do that.” And then making it happen, even if it changes the direction of the book.

Most people seem to talk about the Misery, or the Darlings and gillings in Blackwing, but for me the scenes with Ezabeth are the most important. Galharrow’s relationship with her is, for me, the crux of the book and there’s a lot of raw emotion written into them.

Finally, if Blackwing is fortunate enough to make its way to the big screen, who would you cast as the main characters?

Can I have a young Arnie? Just because I love Arnie? No? Ok then:

Galharrow – Rory McCann (The Hound in GoT – he’s big enough)
Nenn – Charlize Theron (she has some Furiosa vibes)
Tnota – Idris Elba (great actor)
Ezabeth – Emma Watson (great actress & feminist)
Crowfoot – an evil raven

Thank you for giving up your time to answer these questions!

Thanks it was fun!

Why Schools need Librarians

I have been in my current post as Senior School Librarian for little over six years, for five and a half of those six years I have been badgering the senior leadership team to let me have the Junior School Library as well. Three months ago they relented and said I could take it over and I began making plans to merge them both (but that is a story for another time).

Jumping back in time three months now, one of the Science Teachers in the Junior School approached me and asked if I had any books on Dinosaurs as the Junior Library had none. I thought that it was odd as if there is one thing that seems to crop up in the interests of small children it is Dinosaurs and any library worth its salt would usually have a few, but anyway I said sure thing and wandered over to 567.9 and put together a pack of books for her.

Back to last week, while I was moving the Junior Non-Fiction section into the Senior Library I found 20+ books on dinosaurs for all ages.

There had been a Teaching Assistant that had a part-time role in keeping an eye on the Junior Library putting books on shelves and making sure that it looked tidy but she resigned at the end of the last school year. While she was in the school I spent some time trying to support her in the role by providing posters for displays, books on running a Junior Library and guidance on selecting books to withdraw, sadly she did not have the authority to withdraw stock and was unable to get permission to do so as there was no-one who had definitive oversight over the Library so effectively all she could do was rearrange the chairs and put books on shelves.

It turned out that although there was a rudimentary system in place to keep similar books together it had not been adhered to and there were books everywhere (but not in a good way)

A School Library need a Librarian to:

  • Keep the collection in good order to make it easier for students and staff to find and use information
  • To make sure that old and outdated materials are withdrawn and replaced
  • To work with staff making sure that non-fiction resources are available for curriculum support
  • To be on hand to ensure the library is open for students before school, after school and during break times
  • To put together book boxes and information packs to support teaching staff during lessons
  • Guide students in developing a love of reading
  • Keep track of items on loan
  • Elevate a room full of books from a repository to a living and vital part of the school
  • Without a full-time or even part-time Librarian the collection will stagnate as there will be no-one to coordinate stock refreshing and while departments may purchase books for the library or donate old stock there will be no-one on hand to make sure that unsuitable materials end up on the shelves
     
    The above list contains just a few of the reasons why Librarians are more than just a luxury for schools. If you would like to others please feel free to do so in the comments field below

  • Libraries. Who needs ’em?


    Libraries are old and dusty

    They really need to go

    and then a few days later:

    “Reading really needs to grow”

    Teachers need to share the love

    and give all kids a kindle!

    Everything is now online

    So libraries who needs ‘em?

    No-one uses books no more

    Let alone to read ‘em!

    It is a shame that no-one reads

    It’s a thing we must promote

    Quickly put some books in gyms

    and a shelf of books on ‘planes

    But we don’t need no libraries

    The government explains!

    They are far too expensive

    and also past their best!

    So fire the Librarians

    and put their jobs to rest!

    Sell off library buildings

    Or make the public run ‘em!

    Cut the hours, cut the stock

    Cut to the very bone

    and if some people shout and moan

    Well they should have some books at home!