Is this what we really want?

Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me by Kate Clanchy

I’ve just ordered a copy of Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. And now I am no doubt the target of social media hatred.

Until very recently, Kate Clanchy had a solid gold reputation as an extraordinarily gifted English teacher, particularly in the area of creative writing and particularly among young people from a wide variety of ethnic groups and disadvantaged backgrounds. Her pupils flourished under her inspiring tutelage, writing poems of an originality and sophistication way beyond their years, and many have since gone on to successful careers as poets as adults. In this memoir, Clanchy looks back on 30 years of a job she clearly loved and excelled in, writing with such power and conviction that the book won the 2020 Orwell Prize for Political Writing.

Accused of racist stereotypes

Then, a couple of weeks ago, things went wrong. Badly wrong. A scathing review of the book on Goodreads attracted other negative attacks. Clanchy was accused of using racist stereotypes (‘chocolate coloured’, ‘almond-shaped eyes’) to describe children from different ethnic backgrounds, of not disguising individuals enough and therefore not protecting them, of blatant profiteering by writing this memoir on the backs of the pupils she taught, just to make money etc etc The furore seemed to come out of nowhere and felt hard to credit; if these criticisms were well-founded, how on earth did Clanchy’s publishers miss them, let alone the judges of the Orwell prize? It looked as if the reviews were prompted by malice from people for some reason out to destroy the author.

A horrible mess

And that was where the author herself made a big mistake. She called for help on Twitter, denying she had used any of the terms she was accused of, eliciting much sympathy… until pages of the book started appearing online, scattered with all the epithets her critics so deplored. She was caught, fair and square, in a mess far more horrible than if she’d owned up straight away. Grovelling apologies, from both Clanchy and Picador, her publishers, combined with a promise to rewrite future editions to remove the offending areas, have not satisfied the huge swathes of morally outraged, and it looks quite possible to me that the terrified publishers will simply let a prize-winning, best-selling and – judging by the hundreds of 5 star reviews – moving and inspiring book go out of print.

Hazara girl
Image by Shamsheri,
CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;,
via Wikimedia Commons

A huge loss

Which is why I’ve just ordered a copy while I still can. Whatever its defects – bearing in mind how sensitivity to inappropriate language has heightened in the last couple of years – the overall tenor of Clanchy’s memoir seems, from all the glowing reviews, overwhelmingly celebratory and supportive of the young people who enliven its pages. To cancel this account of their personal and literary achievements would be a huge loss both for them and for us. If you doubt this, just look at the way some of Clanchy’s former pupils have rallied to her support, in particular ‘almond-eyed’ Shukria Rezaei, for whom this epithet is ‘at the core of her Hazara identity’ and one she uses in her own poems: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/i-do-have-almond-shaped-eyes-my-teacher-kate-clanchy-described-me-beautifully-vtwp50b06 The Sunday Times, 15th August 2021). 

Freedom under threat

I still can’t make out why Clanchy denied she’d written the phrases she was attacked for, instead of arguing that some, at least, (like ‘almond-shaped eyes’ above) have a long poetic tradition in the particular culture she applied it to. Better to have done that than deny what could – and was – so easily proved against her. But I am keen to read the book myself and make up my own mind, a freedom that looks increasingly under threat as publishers find themselves under pressure to withdraw controversial books.

Is this what we want?

Is that what we really want?

Jericho Book Fair, Sunday 27th June 2021

Calling all book lovers!

On Sunday, 27th June, 2021, the FIRST LIVE OUTDOOR BOOK EVENT since lockdown is taking place in Oxford. It’s the Jericho Book Fair, situated in Mount Place, Jericho, OX2 6BJ. LOTS of fascinating and fun books, with several indie publishers and authors taking stands, including Writers in Oxford.

The Fall of a Sparrow by Griselda Heppel

And it’s at the Writers in Oxford stand where you’ll find me, on the eve of publication day, signing copies of The Fall of a Sparrow. I’ll bring a few Ante’s Inferno and The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst along too for good measure. Come and say hello! Ooh, and if tempted by some of the many titles on display, BRING CASH. Not sure how many card readers will be available.

The Tragickall History of
Henry Fowst
by Griselda Heppel
Ante’s Inferno by Griselda Heppel

Update on the Update on The Fall of a Sparrow

An appropriate Groundhog, having its Day. Photo by Doug Brown from Pexels

… or deja vu all over again. Which instantly makes me think of The Matrix, though in this case Groundhog Day would be more appropriate.

Just to say that publication of The Fall of a Sparrow has been hit by another delay and the book will now appear on 28th June 2021.

But look what arrived in the post, folks! I AM SO EXCITED BY THE SHEER BEAUTY OF THIS JACKET, created by the wonderful team of wood engraver Hilary Paynter and designer Pete Lawrence.

The Fall of a Sparrow by Griselda Heppel

There’s something special about a lime tree

The Fall of a Sparrow by Griselda Heppel

So, as I mentioned not long agoThe Fall of a Sparrow will now appear on 28th May, 2021, the day many UK schools break up for Half Term.

Mildly annoying, but what is a month after all, in the Greater Scheme of Things? Especially as, given that the action all takes place in the first half of the summer term, to have the book appearing literally on the day the story ends is a nice touch. Cleverly planned, even. Not.

A crucial part of the story

What the new date does mean is that the gorgeous summery cover image will match the time of year even more than before. The fritillaries I got so excited about last month may have finished flowering; but lime trees everywhere are coming into full leaf, just like the one engraved in such magnificent detail by Hilary Paynter for the book’s jacket. Indeed the tree takes up most of the illustration; appropriately, as it plays a crucial part in the story.

Aged 10, I attended a school in rolling English countryside, where a single, huge lime tree towered above a small nearby woodland. Now, there’s something very special about the way a lime tree grows – if it’s allowed to, and not tidied up – in that it shoots out countless stems from the base of the trunk, and also further up as the trunk divides into branches.

The perfect hiding place – a mature lime tree

A blessed escape

These stems, sprouting with leaves, form a thick screen, so that if you climb up the main branches into the heart of the tree, you can snuggle down there for as long as you like, completely hidden from below. A few friends and I did this occasionally – not too often, we didn’t want to set alarms going as to where we were – and it gave some blessed moments of escape when school life became just a bit too much.

When you just need to escape up a tree. (Photo by Anastasia Shuraeva
from Pexels.)

The best hideout ever – if you know how to climb it

So when in The Fall of a Sparrow, 11 year-old Eleanor, friendless and homesick, is drawn into playing with the strange, jerky-limbed little boy who follows her around, the lime tree rose up in my imagination as the perfect place for them to get to know each other. Warm, dry, shielded from the rain and searching eyes, what could be a better hideout than this, 15 feet or so above the ground? Perfectly safe, too – as long as you know how to climb it.

Unfortunately, Eleanor doesn’t.

April brings out fritillaries – and The Fall of a Sparrow

And the moment has (nearly) come! Three weeks TODAY, on Wednesday 28 April, my book The Fall of a Sparrow will burst on to the world. Inasmuch as any new book can burst anywhere these days, what with bookshops barely open again and launch parties being out of the question. No matter. The book’s glorious cover depicting a lime tree newly come into leaf against a clear blue sky speaks of reawakening and the return of spring. Publication date wasn’t intentionally fixed to match the story but it’s only just occurred to me how neatly it does.  

The Fall of a Sparrow by Griselda Heppel
Ante’s Inferno by Griselda Heppel

All my books are set at different times of the academic year. This doesn’t just give variety; it also contributes to the atmosphere of each. For Ante’s Inferno, it’s the autumn term with its dark, damp days and solemn theme of Remembrance; The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst unfolds against the bleak light and cold winds of January/February; and now the mystery running through The Fall of a Sparrow is all the more poignant for its setting in the early summer term, a season of hope and bright spring flowers.

The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst by Griselda Heppel

One flower in particular. If you look closely at the bottom left-hand corner of the cover, you may spot it.

Fritillaries

As a young teenager, my son had a delightful German exchange friend called Niklas. The boys quickly bonded over their common language of computer games, and my biggest problem was finding things for them to do which got them away from their wretched screens and into situations where perhaps a little English chat would be needed. One Easter, I managed to coax them on to a bus into the city centre, determined we should make at least one museum visit (this being Oxford, after all) – only to discover that all museums were closed. ‘Right,’ I announced. ‘That’s it. The fritillaries it is.’

Fritillaries in the Fellows’ Garden of Magdalen College, Oxford

No turning back

Triumphant grins turned to looks of horror when it dawned on the boys that I was talking about… a flower. No turning back, though. I marched them down the High Street to Magdalen College, through several quads until we reached the Fellows’ Garden, where the path skirted a large, fenced off meadow in which this loveliest of spring flowers was in full bloom. Thousands and thousands of fritillaries dotted the grass, their purple and white checked petals seeming to flow together to create skeins of colour against the green. The boys maintained a lofty lack of interest, gazing around out of sheer kindness to me before heading home at the speed of light. Ah well, I thought, I’d tried.

Fritillaries with Magdalen College behind

On Niklas’s return to Germany, his mother emailed her thanks, adding an urgent question: her son couldn’t stop talking about some amazing flowers he’d seen. Bell-shaped, their petals looked as if they’d been cross-hatched with pen and purple ink. What could they be? From a dictionary we discovered that the German for fritillary is Schachblume, or ‘chessflower’ – a perfect description of its fine, almost startling chequerboard pattern.

Chessboard pattern on a fritillary, aka Schachblume.

The key to the mystery

So the boys had been intrigued, in spite of themselves, by this magical flower. Somewhere I must have stored up the memory because in The Fall of a Sparrow, fritillaries play an important part, bringing my heroine, Eleanor, face to face for the first time with the mysterious little boy who won’t leave her alone. Who is he and how does he know so much about her? These delicate, fragile petals are the key.

And they bloom in April.

Bring back The Log of the Ark – children are missing out.

Here’s a fun Desert Island Discs type question. If invited to discuss a neglected literary work on https://www.backlisted.fm/, what would you choose?

I’ve recently come across this website and discovered it to be one of the most popular book podcasts. On each episode a guest (usually a writer) chooses a book they love and makes the case for why it deserves to be better known. The result is a rich treasure trove featuring half-forgotten classics ranging from The Horse’s Mouth by Joyce Cary to Penelope Fitzgerald’s Human Voices, discussed by writers of such heft as Mark Haddon, Hilary Spurling and William Fiennes.

In the unlikely event that I’d ever be asked to contribute, I know exactly what I’d choose. If they’ll allow a children’s book, that is (they do, sometimes).

The Log of the Ark

The Log of the Ark by Kenneth Walker and Geoffrey Boumphrey is a wonderfully written version of the bible story, full of invention and humour, both witty and absurd, with charming line illustrations. First published in 1923, it went through several reprints, the last one in the 1970s. And while I hold it to be every bit as enchanting and timeless as its contemporary forever-in-print Winnie the Pooh, I can see why, in the last few decades, it has disappeared from the bookshelves. Because alongside all the warmth and fun of a bunch of chatty, squawky, roaring and harroomphing animals sharing cabins, learning to eat porridge instead of grass (none of them are carnivorous – as yet), organising games of skittles and concert parties to pass the time, there are some very dark moments indeed.

The Loathsome Scub

A strange, slippery creature, the Scub, is discovered on board. Noah – a kind and fair man – welcomes him along with everyone else, while deep down fearing there is something sinister about him. His fears prove well-founded: the Scub sets about spreading poison throughout the ark, planting thoughts in the minds of the strong animals and terrifying the weaker ones. Some of the funniest and most endearing creatures simply don’t survive. To let children laugh at and grow fond of characters only to abandon them to a heartless fate is something no publisher today would accept from a writer for 9 – 12 year-olds.

The arrival of the Seventy-Sevens on the ark.

So were children tougher up to 50 years ago, more able to cope with this kind of harsh realism? In a way, yes. Up to the 1970s, the bible played a much greater part in their cultural surroundings. From a very young age they were used to stories of evil worming its way into human relationships and corrupting them: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the wickedness of mankind before the Flood. The Loathsome Scub is just another depiction of how bad things happen to good people. Watching him subtly set one creature against another, you wish he’d never come on board the ark, or that Noah might catch him in the act of terrorising defenceless animals and be justified in expelling him. But he’s too clever for that.

The Loathsome Scub slinks away from the ark under cover of night.

A new, divided world – yet there is hope

This illustration of people’s powerlessness in the face of determined evil might seem a tough message for a 9 year-old reader, but there is hope too. The rain stops. The floodwaters recede. The ark comes to rest on dry land and the animals gallop off into fresh, green meadows and freedom – all within the parameters of a new, hard reality of survival. The serene, antediluvian equilibrium has been swept away; the world is now divided between carnivores and herbivores, predators and prey. You just have to adapt, that’s all. Evil can never be eradicated but life is beautiful too.

In our more secular age, in which justice and equality are highly valued, the Scub would have to get his comeuppance. Smaller animals might be threatened, but they’d survive. (Unless the book were rewritten for a Young Adult audience, in which case bleak realism and hopelessness may reign unchecked.) Our instinct to protect younger readers from the random unfairness of life is totally understandable and I feel it myself as a writer for this age.

The elephant’s bath.
The spherical wumpitty-dumps conquer a hill on their way to the ark.

Generations are missing out on the wumpitty-dumps

At the same time I regret the fact that generations of children will never be able to laugh at the elephant’s difficulty with bathtime soap, or the hippopotamus’s attempt at poetry, or the wumpitty dumps’ totally unique mode of getting about.

And that is their loss.

(Adapted from an article first published on Authors Electric.)

How not to Pile it On

It’s OK to fire barbs, tweeps. We’re the good guys.
Photo by Anastasia Zhenina from Pexels

‘People lashing out need to take a step back and think about what they would actually say in person rather than when hiding behind a screen.’

So wrote a fellow Tweep a couple of weeks ago, and I couldn’t agree more. It’s not a groundbreaking idea; we know that social media – Twitter in particular – have reshaped the whole way subjects are discussed and how people relate to each other. But we don’t seem able to control ourselves, to stop pouring hatred down the throats of those who express a different view, or – heaven forbid – use the wrong words by accident. Before this global free for all, irritation and outrage could be vented harmlessly by yelling at the television screen; now the temptation to fire barbs publicly at the writer/politician/newscaster/actor/singer/academic/footballmanager/poorclumsytwit who’s ventured an opinion they might not even realise is controversial – is just too much to resist. Especially when your own sense of virtue allows you to participate blamelessly in the fun. You know you’re the good guy here.

The Matt Haig Pile-on

Recently the well-known bestselling writer, Matt Haig, was subjected to an avalanche (or pile-on, to use the technical Twitter term) of vile, poisonous, I-want-to-kill-you type abuse. His crime? Describing as ‘psychotic’ a troll who threatened to burn down his house with him in it. He saw his mistake at once and apologised to all those suffering mental health problems hurt by his casual use of the word, but this didn’t save him. Eventually he issued 4 screenshots totalling over 1000 words of apology, self-castigation, bridge-building and earnest avowals to Do Better, before leaving the Twittersphere altogether.

What I found heart wrenching about this whole episode is that Haig himself suffers acutely from depression and anxiety disorder. His memoir Reasons To Stay Alive recounts the years of suicidal depression he experienced in his twenties and how he got through them with the help of what he liked doing best – reading and writing – and the people he loved. All the more reason, of course, why he should have known not to use mental health terms carelessly, and that could explain the intensity of the vitriol unleashed. Yet somehow it also allowed those who felt the most outrage to ignore his own fragility, the ease with which this one, much-apologised-for mistake could tip him back into the well of depression that is never far away. Was that their aim? Even those who acknowledged his apology took care to let him know it would never be enough. What did they want – blood?

Be Kind

Photo by Eva Elijas from Pexels

Every so often an appeal goes round on social media for people to Be Kind. From the above you can see why. It’s a shame, because in other ways Twitter can be a wonderfully supportive, entertaining, exciting and funny place where you engage with people who share your interests, find out about new books being launched, ask questions, watch videos made from unintentionally hilarious mundane events, from that majestic early You Tube sensation, Fenton, to most recently, the gloriously anarchic Handforth Parish Council meetings – in fact, ahem, spend far too much time on when you should be, cough, writing.

But that’s another story.

(Adapted from an article first published on Authors Electric)

THE FALL OF A SPARROW – a haunting tale for 2021

The Fall of a Sparrow by Griselda Heppel

Happy New Year, all!

I am VERY excited to announce that my new book, The Fall of a Sparrow, will be released in April 2021. If you haven’t already seen the cover – and even if you have (I just can’t resist reposting it asoftenaspossible) – here it is: a stunning combination of the talents of leading wood engraver Hilary Paynter and designer (also wood engraver) Pete Lawrence. This is the third book cover they’ve created for me and while the ones for Ante’s Inferno and The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst are equally awesome, I think this one may be my favourite. The contrast of the fresh, summery green leaves of the lime tree with the spookiness of the face peeping out gives the atmosphere of the story perfectly.

The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst by Griselda Heppel
Ante’s Inferno by Griselda Heppel

I don’t know about you but I find a haunting tale set against a dark, menacing background doesn’t stay with me nearly as much as one in which the writer builds a warm, sunlit world where things aren’t quite right…

In The Fall of a Sparrow, 11 year-old Eleanor Cooke has been sent away to a school run by a great-aunt she’s never met. Shunned by the other girls, dismayed by Great-Aunt Margaret’s coldness, Eleanor struggles with loneliness; so when a strange, gawky little boy greets her as a long-lost friend, she’s glad to find an ally. But as Davey follows her around, begging her to play games and climb the lime tree ‘like they used to,’ Eleanor is at first baffled, then horrified to find the boy knows things about her he can’t possibly know, things no one should know. Unravelling the mystery draws Eleanor into a dark web of family secrets, awakening a long-buried tragedy that soon threatens to engulf her.

The Fall of a Sparrow is my third book with Matador and like the others, for age 9 +. Here’s hoping that by April 2021 the bookshops will be open again; but if not, there’s always online ordering, from the publisher direct or the websites of many traditional booksellers such as Blackwell’s, Waterstones, Bookshop.org ….

Oh, and of course, um, Amazon.

How to burst into tears while racking your brain

The die is cast. The cover revealed. The Fall of a Sparrow – a haunting tale for 9-13 year-olds, set in a spooky boarding school– will come out with Matador in April, 2021, and I’m at that awkward stage common (surely?) to all writers, of having returned the completed copy edit to the publishers, only for several missed errors to occur to me. Ah well, I may have another chance to tweak things.

Nevertheless, to have got to this stage is very exciting, and while giving the manuscript its final polish, I had a flashback to someone I hadn’t thought about for years: someone who managed to inspire the idea that I could be a writer one day while giving the first, unwelcome inkling of how hard it was going to be.

Between the ages of 12 and 13 I had an amazing English teacher. She was young, warm, funny, kind, extraordinarily widely-read and determined that we should be too. She only stayed a year before returning to the USA but in that time we studied Lord of the Flies, Silas Marner, Julius Caesar, Arms and the Man, most of The Master Builder (a bridge too far, that was) and some short stories including E M Forster’s The Machine Stops (which recently had a new lease of life, thanks to Covid) and a shocking tale called The Lottery. (I know. It was only years later I discovered Shirley Jackson’s short story to be one of the most famous of all.)

Mrs McGrath’s sudden reappearance in my writing life is down to the fact that, in addition to opening our eyes to such a fabulous world of literature, she taught a rather more painful lesson: she introduced the concept of cliché to our innocently creative minds. I’d been accustomed, till that moment, to have my depictions of Dark, Stormy Nights and Wild, Tempestuous Seas and Sunshine Flooding the Cornfields with Gold praised for their colourful descriptions; now here was my favourite teacher telling me something I couldn’t quite understand but which clearly wasn’t good news for someone who thought being able to write easily meant being able to write.

Sunshine flooding cornfields with gold
pexels-adrianna-calvo-365265.

It’s a lesson we never stop learning. Avoiding clichés like the plague (groan… sorry) is one of the first things drummed into newbie writers, along with Show Not Tell, Active Voice Not Passive and For Heaven’s Sake Cut The Adverbs. Given that The Fall of a Sparrow is my third book, I may no longer be a newbie writer but all of the above still have to be struggled with if the end result is to be a freshly imagined, gripping, well-written (oh yes, I hope so) and thoroughly unputdownable read.

What’s challenging is that while some clichés are easy to avoid (does anyone really burst into tears? I’ve never been able to visualise that), with others, it’s hard to find a way around them. I spent ages racking my brain for another way of saying, er, racking your brain, and if your main character has a lot of puzzles to solve, as mine does, an awful lot of brain racking goes on.

What I really need is Mrs McGrath.

PS To rack or to wrack? Now there’s a question.

(From an article first published in Authors Electric Blog)