Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Patricia Wrightson, Part 1: The Song of Wirrun and Beyond

Books and Adventures starts an in-depth look at the work of the late Patricia Wrightson (1921-2010) this week.

I read her trilogy The Song of Wirrun for the first time this year, immediately after hearing news of her death in March. It’s an absorbing, sophisticated fantasy quest rooted in Aboriginal mythology.

A few comments from my earlier blog post are here. I wrote it based on the books I happened to be reading at the time, Wirrun and John Gordon’s The Giant Under the Snow, which draws on British legends for its spooky, dark adventure. Now, looking back, my comments on ‘the power of the land’ seem rather na├»ve in the face of long and deep-rooted debates about the place of Aboriginal culture in Australian children’s writing.

I was keen to move beyond the snapshot of Wrightson’s work offered by the obituaries and, from my limited Pommie perspective, try to understand the issues raised by her use of indigenous Australian myth. In fact, I was compelled: these books were just so gripping for me as a reader, I needed to know why they were out of print and so controversial. Over the next few posts on the blog I hope to give an outline of the critical debates on Wrightson for readers as new to her novels as I was.

Mark Macleod, Patricia Wrightson’s friend and publisher at Random House, was kind enough to join me for an e-mail discussion of her work and legacy. I started by asking him about the importance she held for Australian children’s literature in the postwar period, as both a writer and as the editor of Australia’s School Magazine.

He explained how Wrightson acted as ‘an enabler, whose passionate commitment to making stories with an Indigenous theme part of the literary mainstream helped prepare readers for the many Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists who followed. The cross-cultural partnership of Dick Roughsey and Percy Trezise, who changed Australian picture books in the 1970s, for example, found an audience already used to thinking of Indigenous subject matter for children as exciting, dramatic and edgy. That is at least partly due to the high profile success of Wrightson as a 'real author' in the education market before them.’

Yet somehow Wrightson has become a writer less read than revered: a name to conjure with, but one whose books are difficult to obtain.

‘It was significant that news of her death was carried in Midwest newspapers and regional networks in the United States, but barely rated a mention in Australia,’ Mark Macleod suggests. ‘I think we are still vaguely embarrassed or guilty about the idea that she might have been just another one in a long line of exploiters of Indigenous people - but in many cases that view is not the result of close acquaintance with the texts themselves.’

So why are these fantasy adventures by a heavyweight of children’s literature so hard to get hold of these days? And what is there to say about her use of Aboriginal myths and beliefs in those fantasies?

Over the next few blog posts, I want to look a bit deeper at Patricia Wrightson’s work and legacy. As critic Brian Attebery points out in a 2005 article, ‘the borrowing of one culture’s traditions by another is a serious and risky business’, with a danger that privileged white societies ‘acquire whatever is of value in indigenous culture while consigning the bearers of that culture to invisibility or extinction.’

So how might we read Patricia Wrightson’s relationship to the Aboriginal myths in her writing - appropriation, advocacy or something else entirely?

We'll be looking at this question next time on the blog. For part two of this feature, click here.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Birmingham Half Marathon

Yesterday saw the EDF Energy Half Marathon take place in Birmingham. I was pleased to get round in 1:48 - just shy of my target time.

Thankfully donations for VRH didn't fall short and I'm pleased to say that we've raised enough to fund the Helper based at Herne Bay Infant School for 2010-11.

A few odds and ends are still coming in from generous folk who weren't able to donate online - and there's still time to click on the widget above and give to this outstanding literacy charity. Every penny goes towards helping school pupils become literate for life.

This week on Books and Adventures we'll be starting the long-awaited series on the late Australian writer Patricia Wrightson, and following that up with news from Paint the Town Read, an exciting literacy scheme that runs down under.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Roland Pietsch on The Real Jim Hawkins

Today on Books and Adventures we’re joined by Roland Pietsch, a historian whose chequered past includes running a music venue, and work on TV’s Who Do You Think You Are?, alongside university and outreach work in East London.

Roland’s book The Real Jim Hawkins, released this month, looks at the real-life counterparts of the hero of Treasure Island – boys as young as thirteen who enlisted in the Navy when Britannia ruled the waves. For fans of Robert Louis Stevenson’s great adventure story, it’s an opportunity to see the truth beyond the swashbuckling adventure.

‘Of course I was a Treasure Island fan as a kid, even though I grew up in the very non-maritime city of West Berlin,’ Roland told me.

Roland Pietsch

Treasure Island had been adapted as a West German television series. Then my auntie from the other side of the Wall gave me the actual book, and an East German record, as Christmas presents. Jim Hawkins’ treasure hunt not only easily crossed national borders, but even the hardened ideological borders in my childhood.’

As an adult researching his PhD, Roland discovered the truth behind Stevenson’s novel in the archives of the London Marine Society, an eighteenth-century charity that recruited thousands of impoverished boys for service at sea.

Roland found that the real-life boy sailors had a surprising amount in common with Stevenson’s Jim Hawkins: ‘Both were placed in such dangerous and adventurous situations, that they had to stop being boys and prove themselves in the adult world.’

One of the reasons for recruiting sailors so young was to make them immune to the horrors of war. The Navy fostered a culture of fearlessness and nonchalance in the face of danger. It was also necessary to impose discipline on unruly boys brought on board.

Roland compares this to ‘an eighteenth-century ASBO’, but then points out that Stevenson’s Jim Hawkins is no clean-cut hero himself: he takes the stolen treasure at the end of the novel, without considering that his mates have no more right to it than Long John Silver and company: ‘Doesn’t this hint that even the fictional Jim Hawkins was a bit of a cheeky character?’
Sadly the fictional Jim’s prospects were far happier than those of real 18th-century boy sailors.

In such dangerous roles as ‘powder monkey’, boys were expected to fetch gun powder from below decks to charge the ship’s guns, dodging shot and wooden splinters in the heat of battle.

‘Many lost their lives at sea,’ says Roland, ‘or struggled to come to terms with witnessing so much bloodshed at such a young age. Some battle scars went deeper than a wooden leg.’ Alcoholism and internment in the infamous madhouse at Bedlam were often the consequence of a seafaring youth.

One of the more incredible real-life stories discussed in Roland’s book is that of Mary Lacy. Disguised as a boy, this teenaged girl managed to serve on board a cramped Navy vessel. Ships of the time like HMS Victory comprised 850 men in a small wooden world, 50 metres long, 15 metres wide and 6 metres deep, a challenging place in which to conceal one's true gender.

'Then again,' Roland points out, 'washing opportunities were limited, so nobody ever detected Mary. The closest they came was when she challenged one of the other ship’s boys, who was a bit of a bully-boy, to a fight - she was expected to take her shirt off for the boxing match!’
Roland’s book offers a fascinating and often surprising glimpse of the truth behind the vision of seafaring life found in novels and movies. It’s available here, and you can find Roland’s article on The Real Jim Hawkins for Sabotage Times here. For more information, visit Roland's website,

Next time on Books and Adventures – pausing only to catch breath after the Birmingham Half Marathon – we’ll be beginning our in-depth look at the writing, and legacy, of Australia’s Patricia Wrightson.

Friday, 15 October 2010

help2read - Volunteer Literacy Support in South Africa

Books and Adventures continues our world tour of literacy support this week, heading to South Africa to visit the literacy NGO help2read.

help2read founder Alex Moss started visiting South Africa shortly after the introduction of democracy to the country in 1994. A visit to a township with a leading member of the struggle against apartheid inspired Alex to help with the construction of a new society in South Africa.

‘I was struck by the shocking levels of illiteracy arising out of the lack of adequate education during the apartheid years,’ Alex explains. ‘I was convinced that the disadvantaged majority would only ever be able to reach their full potential if they could fully enjoy the benefits of education, benefits which require the prerequisite of literacy.’

Working as a volunteer with Volunteer Reading Help in the UK showed Alex a model of literacy support which could be taken to South Africa at a comparatively low cost, but it took time for the project to get off the ground.

Early in 2005, Alex met Dee Cawcutt, the Principal of Muizenberg Junior School, just outside Cape Town. Dee offered to put her school forward as the first for what would become the help2read programme. The children, aged 5-12, are selected by class teachers as being those, other than children with special needs, perceived as most in need of assistance. They read and play literacy games with their volunteer helper, working in the school library or a quiet place outside the classroom, supported by help2read’s resource boxes full of interesting and beautiful books.

Alex takes up the story:

‘In the summer of 2005 I persuaded my daughter to come back from Washington DC, to be trained at VRH and to go to Cape Town to set up the programme. She arrived in Cape Town in early November 2005 and quickly set about recruiting volunteers wherever she could. On 1 February 2006, six trained volunteers started at Muizenberg Junior School.’

Within weeks the school was reporting unprecedented change in the pupils on the programme, ‘from being completely shut down to becoming happily involved in school life and the excitement of learning.’

The early volunteers for help2read were, like those of VRH in the UK, often middle-class people eager to share the benefits of their education and make a contribution to society. In South Africa, this group continues to provide a significant minority of volunteers – but a great change has come about from 2006, when help2read began recruiting from among the parents of a township school.

This proved very successful and quickly became the model for most help2read volunteer recruitment. Alex explains: ‘The volunteers are the literate parents of children at the same school as the children they are helping and are able to achieve equally impressive results with the children as those we gained at Muizenberg. Volunteers also benefit from the empowerment that they experience in becoming a respected member of the school community and with the success which they achieve with the children they are helping.’

help2read has already helped over 5000 South African primary school children to become literate. ‘In every single case,’ says Alex, ‘these children would have been early drop outs from the education system without the help our volunteers have given them. Now each one of them has the opportunity to go all the way through the system, to university and beyond.’

help2read’s sights for the future are also set high. Having adapted the VRH model, developed in a wealthy Western country, to a South African setting, the help2read team are planning to extend their programme to all African countries where English is the medium for education.

‘We hope to open our first programme outside South Africa by 2012,’ says Alex. ‘In the longer term, we believe that the help2read concept can be replicated in other languages and can be a major part of the solution to the literacy problem that exists in all developing countries.’

To find out more and get involved, visit

Monday, 11 October 2010

Running for Reading at Herne Bay Infant School

Busy times at Books and Adventures – but we still need your help to raise just £510 for a Reading Helper at Herne Bay Infant School.

Tomorrow I’m speaking at a VRH event in Kent, the county where I first discovered this amazing charity – and I’ll be dropping in to the brilliant school whose pupils need your help.

Our fundraising target is tantalisingly close – as is the race; my aching legs will find the end of all this training on 24th October a welcome relief – so every penny counts.

Click on the widget below or go to

Friday, 1 October 2010

Books Around the World with Outside In - Children's Book Week Event

Just a quick reminder that next week is UK National Children’s Book Week.

This year’s theme is ‘Books Around the World’, and to kick things off, the team at Outside In are holding an event at the Free Word Centre, Farringdon, on Monday 4th October at 5pm.

Alexandra and Ed from Outside In will be talking about the ‘Reading Around the World’ programme which has successfully encouraged UK children to read more books in translation.

You can find my May 2010 interview with Ed here and more on Children’s Book Week at the Outside In website, here.

Have a great weekend, all.