Thursday, 26 August 2010

Anti-Tales Symposium, Glasgow

I was disappointed not to be able to make it to the Anti-Tales Symposium, an academic event on fairy-tales (and their "evil double" the anti-tale!) at the University of Glasgow.

Luckily, Claire Massey of The Fairy Tale Cupboard has written a report on the event, here.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Carnaval del Pueblo, Outside In World, Peru Interviews!

It's taken me a while to get around to posting this, but...

I was in London on 1st August for the Carnaval del Pueblo, the city's annual celebration of Latin American cultures and communities in the city – and the largest outdoor Latin American festival in Europe.

I hooked up with an old TEFL buddy to enjoy the sun, salsa and four stages of live music in Burgess Park.

This year’s Carnaval was special as it celebrated two hundred years of independence for many Latin American nations.

For our own little celebration on the blog – a little nod to Latin America – I’ve brought together Sue Allsworth, an English teacher based in Peru, and Ed Zaghini from Outside In World, the UK organization set up to promote children’s books in translation.

Sue is in charge of English language teaching at Domingo Savio primary school in Ayacucho. The city has a difficult history as the former heartland of Shining Path terrorism, but these days receives increasing attention from foreign NGO’s and travellers. It’s a long way from Sue’s home town of Folkestone.

‘England always felt like a pair of jeans that didn’t quite fit,’ she says. ‘But when I came to Ayacucho five years ago, it felt like a really special place. Nowhere is perfect, but you have to find somewhere where you’re most content.’

Sue had a qualification to teach English as a Foreign Language when she arrived in Peru, but her vocation took time to fully develop. ‘I became a language teacher because it was a way of staying here. I found out I was good at it, and actually enjoy it…Here, I get to make a difference in the world, and now I’m here for the job as much as the place.’

Sue and her business partner Gloria, a primary teacher with 9 years of experience, had each independently planned to establish their own school in the city. When they joined forces, the director of Domingo Savio, an existing primary school, licensed them to use the school’s name in their district.

Today, they offer primary and pre-school teaching in English and Spanish, with activities to develop English language and vocabulary hand-in-hand with the Spanish-language curriculum. It’s a demanding role for both teachers.

‘I must love my job so much,’ says Sue. ‘From 7.30 in the morning I teach adult classes before the children arrive. School runs from 10 until 3 pm, and then we have homework classes right through until seven-thirty or even later. Sometimes it’s hard to get away from the school site!'

Sue’s entrepreneurial attitude and sheer determination to make a difference in a remote and impoverished country has been very rewarding, from the five-year-old pupil who greets her with an impeccable ‘Good afternoon, how are you Miss Sue?’ to children who find the atmosphere of the school supportive and liberating.

‘Local kids with tough backgrounds flourish and develop in the school environment and find the security to be emotionally open,’ she says. ‘Even kids who have relatively good lives materially face emotional challenges.’

While Sue has taken a little piece of the UK with her to South America, the team at Outside In World are bringing the cultures of the world to Britain by promoting literature in translation.

Tying in with our Latin American theme, Ed Zaghini was kind enough to recommend a book by a Chilean author, from the selection at the Outside In World website:

'When I Was a Boy, Neruda Called Me Policarpo is by the Chilean author Poli Delani. Poli was born in 1936 and at that time his family was living in Spain where they become friends with the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and his wife.

'Between 1940 and 1943, Neruda and his wife lived in Mexico City. This memoir is set at this time and follows Neruda’s relationship with the young Poli – and his adventures and misadventures.

'In this book you will learn about Poli and his encounters with the most amazing animals and insects; of his experience of being bullied in a boarding school where he had to stay when the family and Neruda travelled to New York.

'Perhaps the most touching story is that of Poli wanting to buy a fountain pen and a watch and in order to find the money he decided to sell chewing gum at the cinema and clean cars in the car park. When the poor children saw him taking over their job, they violently sent him away. Poli was very angry and frustrated by the incident but his parents and Tio (uncle) Neruda calmly explained that those children needed the job to eat while his motives where purely superficial.

'This memoir is full of facts about Neruda: his passion for collecting things and the time spent in the antique markets in Mexico City looking for strange objects to add to his unique and growing collection; his very strange food habits, including insects and monkeys. But what clearly stands out here in this memoir is his touching relationship with a very young boy.

'There are six of Neruda’s poems included in the book and a short biography of the poet that will clearly serve to introduce his life and work to younger generations. Manuel Monroy’s illustrations perfectly match the spirit of the text.'

You can find more on When I Was a Boy, Neruda Called Me Policarpo at the Outside In website, here. Thanks to Ed at Outside In World for recommending this book!

Monday, 16 August 2010

Birmingham Half Marathon - Fundraising for Volunteer Reading Help

The best thing about July and August is catching up with all my teacher buddies on holiday.

Even though those supposedly ‘long’ holidays are actually pretty full of planning, paperwork, and getting your classroom sorted for September, we still find time to catch up for dinner and drinks and a few giggles. Even if, like me, you’re not actually tied to the academic year and should probably be in the office…

I was especially enjoying the wine and tapas this week, because today I start training for the Birmingham Half-Marathon on October 24th.

I’m running to raise funds for Volunteer Reading Help, after I found out that they need just £510 to fund their helper for 2010-11 at Herne Bay Infant School in Kent.

Just a few hundred pounds will pay for a year’s worth of one-to-one work with the children who most need support with their reading skills.

We’re off to a good start but every little helps, so click on the justgiving widget at the top of this post or head straight to to help out this marvellous charity.

You do your bit and I’ll do mine; I might even try and get my half-marathon time down to something creditable!

Friday, 13 August 2010

Zahrah the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor

Nnedi Okorafor is hardly short of positive reviews at the moment, but I just wanted to drop a few lines about her 2005 Young Adult novel Zahrah the Windseeker, which I picked up this month.

The book sees thirteen-year-old Zahrah venture into a forbidden jungle to find the antidote to a poison which has claimed her best friend Dari. On Zahrah’s travels there are encounters with giant scorpions, psychic baboons, and a city of gorillas, as well as the small-mindedness of Zahrah’s native town to contend with.

There’s been a lot of praise for both the Afrocentric sci-fi setting Okorafor has imagined, and for Zahrah herself as a strong, yet vulnerable and credible, heroine. However, what I really loved about this novel was its focus on the importance, and future of, the book.

The charming, rebellious Dari whom Zahrah must save is a hero precisely because of his bookishness. Dari may not be up to the jungle quest which Zahrah undertakes, but his thirst for knowledge, driven by reading, helps to upset the stagnant and self-satisfied society which Zahrah challenges.

An erratically functioning ‘digi-book’, The Forbidden Greeny Jungle Field Guide, plays a vital part in Zahrah’s journey. Her relationship to this frustrating, inspiring piece of technology makes neat comment on the various brands of e-book reader, at once incredibly useful and unbelievably irritating. Every time she tries to access its pages for advice on a particularly fearsome beast, the otherwise indispensable guide can be counted on to malfunction.

The literary lineage of this chatty, occasionally useful device is hinted at by another reference, made in the novel by a talking frog which Zahrah encounters:

‘“Like every other human explorer I’ve met, you want to know the meaning of life […] The answer is forty-four. That machine was off by two,” the frog snapped.’

Which is up there with Doctor Who’s dressing gown as the neatest Hitchhiker’s reference you will see this decade!

Zahrah the Windseeker isn’t as jokey as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but somehow Okorafor has seen straight to the heart of the Hitchhiker’s series and the sense of wonder that permeates it.

She also makes a neat swipe at the current vogue for ‘adding value’ to books with interviews, extraneous material and reading-group prompts when Zahrah mentions her favourite novel:

‘I’d read it four times. But not once did I read the rambling thoughts of the author – on how to cook the perfect holiday fowl – that came stored in the digi-book along with the story. Of course, as I read the book, every ten pages a little window would pop up on the bottom, saying “Hey, why don’t you read a bit about my thoughts on glazed bush fowl? As you can see, I write brilliantly. I cook even better!’

You can find out more about Nnedi Okorafor at her website, The Wahala Zone, here.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Interview: Young People's Writing Squads

Today Books and Adventures features the Young People’s Writing Squads, an exciting scheme run by Academi, the Welsh National Literature Promotion Agency and Society for Authors.

The squads give gifted young writers in both English and Welsh the opportunity to work with professional writers to develop their talents.

“The idea of the Young People’s Writing Squads is inspired by county sports squads, where talented young footballers or rugby players are pooled together to give them the opportunity for specialised training,” says Elena Schmitz, Academi’s Schemes and Data Manager.

“Similar to these sports squads, the Writing Squads are intended for children who show particular ability and promise for creative writing. This does not mean that they have to get good grades in school, be particularly good at English or be able to spell exceptionally well – but they do need to be able to demonstrate an above average ability for being able to write creatively – they need to be good at inventing characters, stories or using language in an unusual way, for instance.

“The Squads are not only for the gifted and talented performers in school, but for those with an unusual talent and passion for creative writing. “

The scheme has been running since 1996. Today, over 40 squads operate across Wales. Squads of around 15-20 schoolchildren meet four to six times a year for special training sessions. Squad members are encouraged to remain a member of a Writing Squad for the length of their school career.

Together, each squad gets the opportunity to experience and develop different styles, genres and techniques with a variety of writers.

“The children usually come together for a half day and work with one or two professional writers on a specific topic,” Elena explains. “This can include short story writing, science fiction, script writing or poetry. Some Squads tackle more unusual themes, such as writing for magazines, graphic novels or journalism. Often, the children are asked to prepare a piece of writing in advance which they can develop and improve during the session.”

Many squads have a ‘usual’ local venue where they meet. This is often a library, arts centre or council-owned venue. Occasionally, Squads meet in a school, although this is the exception. Academi is keen for Squad activities to take place outside schools and outside school hours, to ensure participation is voluntary and not seen as a school activity.

“In some cases, Squad sessions take place in unusual locations,” says Elena. “They can involve trips to a gallery, train journeys (poetry on a train), museum visits or even residential excursions to an island (the Cardiff Squad regularly visits Flat Holm Island in the autumn). The children are then usually asked to react to their environment and write about the art they have seen in a gallery, for instance.”

Examples of work from a trip to Cardiff National Museum by the Bridgend Writing Squad can be found here.

Academi was awarded a Beacon Company Award by the Arts Council of Wales in October 2008. This allowed Academi to develop the Writing Squad movement, establishing new Squads where no provision had previously existed, as well as creating a new website and running a number of conferences, workshops and special events all over Wales. Funding from the award came to an end in March of this year. Elena expresses disappointment that the additional funding will not be continued beyond 2010:

“A lot of the additional Squad activities which took place over the last 18 months will not be possible due to the lack of funding. We have pointed out to the Arts Council of Wales that timing for stopping the extra funding could not be worse: just when additional Squads have been established after a lot of hard work, money runs out to maintain them. And this at a time of the worst recession in decades, when local authorities - who share the costs for running Squad workshops with Academi - are faced with budget cuts on an unprecedented level.

“Nonetheless, Academi is committed to the Squads movement and we will try to do as much as we can to support them. We will continue to invite Squad members to special events, such as the National Eisteddfod or Hay Festival and provide funding for Squad workshops on an ongoing basis from our Writers on Tour funding scheme.”

The Writing Squad scheme remains ambitious for the future, despite these challenges. Plans to establish new Writing Squads in languages other than Welsh and English proved more difficult than first anticipated, so Academi has focussed on increasing provision, events and opportunities for these communities.

“We hope that by providing more events in languages other than Welsh and English and by engaging more closely with the Urdu and Somali communities in particular, we will be able to create more interest in creative writing amongst parents and will in future be able to establish new Writing Squads in Somali and Urdu, for instance,” says Elena.

One example of this community engagement is the joint Urdu-Welsh poetry reading organized by Academi and Swansea University at this year’s National Eisteddfod in Ebbw Vale.

Academi continues to welcome new Squads, particularly in areas where no Squads have yet been established, such as Anglesey or Rhondda Cynon Taf, as well as those areas where only limited provision exists.

“If teachers are interested, we’d recommend they contact the existing Squad Organiser in their area to start with, to see how their school can get involved,” says Elena. Details for the Squad Organisers in each area can be found at, and if no Squad currently exists in your area, local teachers and librarians can contact Academi at to see how a new Squad can be established.

Our thanks to Elena Schmitz at Academi for speaking to Books and Adventures about this exciting scheme. You can check out the Squads’ site at

Next on Books and Adventures: carnivals, South America....and another visit Down Under!

Friday, 6 August 2010

Into the Hoods...

It's been a busy week for me at work and play, with not much time for the blog.

Coming very soon, you can expect South American carnivals, charity news and hopefully a couple of interviews, but for now you'll have to make do with my review of ZooNation's hip-hop/fairytale dance show Into the Hoods, over on Claire Massey's excellent blog, The Fairy Tale Cupboard:

Hasta luego,