In celebration of the imminent release of Jessica Norrie’s new book on July 22nd, I will be sharing her literary column posts again every fortnight over the summer. More about The Magic Carpet later in the post.
Reading from the very start
What is the beginning?
Before I wrote fiction and blogged, I was a translator, teacher and teacher trainer, with students ranging from 3 – 80+. I learned if a child learns young enough to appreciate different points of view through reading stories, the habit ebbs and flows but is never quite lost, with huge repercussions for how their lives develop.
Non-fiction can be told as stories too. The beginnings are usually clear, the plotting goes all over the place, the ends may be murky, but there’s always a story in there somewhere. It may be obvious – Henry VIII and his six wives, Harriet Tubman, Mahatma Ghandhi. Sometimes the story has to be disinterred, for example if it concerns people who were illiterate themselves or whose words weren’t thought important enough to record. But it’s always there.
“The only time kids understand the world is when they read.” Katherine Rundell, quoted in the Guardian. I think only is arguable but I’d happily substitute best or clearest. Never underestimate the power of even the simplest text to enable the process.
So what’s the first book I remember reading? Stand by for nostalgia!
Ant and Bee, by Angela Banner, was first published 1950. Perhaps it was the 13cm x 10cm format, just right for little hands, or the key words printed in red, or the clear illustrations pointing out exactly what those strange curly symbols signified – anyway, I loved the Ant and Bee books and gave them to my own children. Such simple examples of making sense of the world. Sadly, in my 1991 Ant and Bee: an alphabetical story, “G” is for “gun”. But the illustration, a toy cannon, is unthreatening, and more recent editions may have changed, as many illustrated alphabets did post the Dunblane school massacre.
I had picture books in various formats. Huge flat Babar books with curly script only my father could decipher. A wonderful story, now lost, illustrated in pinks and oranges, introduced me to the world of sultans, domes, minarets, and travelling on a magic carpet. Please comment if you can identify what this was! The Giant Alexander lived more prosaically in Maldon, Essex. Alexander was created by Frank Herrmann, a publisher who also brought the Dick Bruna Miffy books to the UK. I discovered that at Seven Stories, website of the UK National Centre for Children’s Books.
It’s invaluable to begin young to meet “other” cultures. Research proves reading fiction improves empathy, starting with children’s fiction. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s pioneer childhood was completely unlike my urban, sophisticated home but with her I found common ground – and adventure!
On chilly nights when I hug the radiators, there’s nothing like re reading The Long Winter to put my shivers in perspective. (I’m aware of debate over Ingalls’ depiction of native Americans and will return to that another time. As a child, I got another viewpoint from Scott O’Dell’s Islands of the Blue Dolphins.)
My children, in their 20s, are the Harry Potter generation. I tell our story of one HarryPotter publication day here.
The J K Rowling of my childhood was Joan Aiken, whose heroine Dido Twite opened my eyes to child neglect, poverty, danger on the London streets, and inequality. What a strong female role model! Malorie Blackman and Jacqueline Wilson deal with such themes more realistically, but Aiken’s treatment within raucously exciting stories set in an imaginary historical period is unbeatable. Her words from the Joan Aiken blog sum her up:
“From the beginning of the human race, stories have been used…as magic instruments… (for) helping people to come to terms with the fact that they continually have to face insoluble problems and unbearable realities.”
Anyone a decade or so older than me may feel similarly about Narnia (there are contemporary questions about Narnian values, and I was surprised to find how racist much Babar looks now. But they remain ripping good yarns which I’d like to see edited for modern audiences).
There are a surprising number of orphan stories – I, Juan de Pareja taught me about art and had a black slave hero. Janet Hitchman described foster homes and Barnardo’s organisations in The King of the Barbareens. Children have the right to loving, comfortable homes. Such children become confident adults. But if we want them to be caring adults too, they should have books like these. Hitchman was born in 1919: a century later too many children are still homeless or orphaned. We still need stories relevant to them: to help them feel valued, to reflect their lives and record the injustice they suffer, and to point the way forward.
My childhood books sound grim and worthy! But they weren’t – that’s the point about good children’s and YA literature. It mixes lessons with magic (The Little White Horse) (The Little White Horse); craft and tradition (Miss Happiness and Miss Flower) history (The Witch of Blackbird Pond) ), science fiction (The Master) or crime with spare, menacing dialogue (a bleak Scottish story I can visualise but no longer find). Some haven’t stood the test of time – Pamela Brown’s The Swish of the Curtain, Noel Streatfield’s Gemma – but I remember them better than the adult fiction I’ve been reading for the intervening four decades.
For children to understand this world, we must show them others – historical, imaginary, allegorical, funny. It’s even more important, in these days of staying in for fear of traffic, pollution and paedophiles.
It’s humanly possible for your childhood reading to be adrift of mine by 45 years either way.
I’d love to hear which stories formed you. Thank you for reading!
© Jessica Norrie 2018
My thanks to Jessica for this wonderful post that enables us to travel back in time to enjoy her most treasured reads. Stories that have stood the test of time.
The Magic Carpet
Outer London, September 2016, and neighbouring eight-year-olds have homework: prepare a traditional story to perform with their families at a school festival. But Nathan’s father thinks his son would be better off doing sums; Sky’s mother’s enthusiasm is as fleeting as her bank balance, and there’s a threatening shadow hanging over poor Alka’s family. Only Mandeep’s fragile grandmother and new girl Xoriyo really understand the magical powers of storytelling. As national events and individual challenges jostle for the adults’ attention, can these two bring everyone together to ensure the show will go on?
Pre-order the book for July 22nd: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Magic-Carpet-Jessica-Norrie-ebook/dp/B07TXZP2S2
And on Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Magic-Carpet-Jessica-Norrie-ebook/dp/B07TXZP2S2
Also by Jessica Norrie in English and German
One of the many reviews for the book
The Infinity Pool is a piece of literary fiction set on an island where a camp exists called Serendipity, where men and women can go to relax, regenerate and find themselves in fairly basic and primitive surroundings. The camp offers holistic therapies, fresh food and the chance to meet like-minded individuals.
The story opens with an attack on a key member of Serendipity, it then turns back almost a year. Adrian is a known womaniser and searching for a fresh injection of life he befriends a young local girl. Island villagers already dislike visitors to the Serendipity camp, they find them intrusive and disrespectful of their local culture and customs. There is often an undercurrent of trouble waiting to erupt between the campers and the villagers.
When the camp re-opens the following year, the leader fails to turn up. Magda, the camp’s head housekeeper makes sure the camp continues to run as best she can, but some returning campers are disappointed by the absence and the camp’s atmosphere degenerates without their leader. Relationships with the villagers heat up and become violent.
You won’t find cosy characters here, many were selfish and awkward showing how they didn’t mix well with the locals. There are several storylines vying for attention, and the ending wasn’t what I expected at all. This book is quite different from lots of mainstream dramas, but will draw its own audience of readers.
Read the reviews buy the book: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jessica-Norrie/e/B01CEUZF26
and on Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Infinity-Pool-Jessica-Norrie-ebook/dp/B011RA8QZW
Find more reviews on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/3270629.Jessica_Norrie
About Jessica Norrie
Jessica Norrie studied French literature at Sussex University, and trained as a teacher at Sheffield. Then she wandered into parenthood, told her now grown up children stories, and heard theirs. A qualified translator, she worked on an eclectic mix of material, from health reports on racehorses to harrowing refugee tales. She taught adults and children, co-authored a textbook and ran teacher training. In 2008 came the idea for “The Infinity Pool”, which appeared in 2015 (and in German in 2018). Her second novel “The Magic Carpet”, inspired by teaching language and creativity in multicultural schools, is published on July 22nd, and she is working on a third. She also spends time blogging, singing soprano, walking in the forest and trying to move out of London.
Connect to Jessica
I know Jessica would love your feedback on the post and it would be great if you could share. thanks Sally