Unreliable Dinosaurs

Certain authors appear very frequently on school library bookshelves and even though on-one ever seems to know them by name, their books seem to be everywhere. Philip Sauvain is one such author, a mainstay of school library collections in the past, who has written extensively on geography and history subjects as diverse as Scott of the Antarctic, map work and victorian seaside holidays. It is hard to imagine how anyone can write about skyscrapers one minute and Iron Age people the next, but he managed to, and countless children before the age of the internet must have gleaned what facts they could about icebergs or roman helmets from one of his 150 or so texts. All credit to him for a long and successful career in writing (he is now 81 I think).
Dinosaurs, written by Sauvain and published in 1976, is from the ‘A First Look Book’ series, illustrated by Jim Robins with black and white photos and three-colour prints. First Look Books formed a massive series published by Franklin Watts between the 1970s and the 1980s. There are books on milk, linen, wood, vets, lasers and helicopters. I think they were aimed at top infant and junior children aged about 6-10. One thing you notice about them is that the sentences are very very short and complicated words are in bold. Nevertheless despite the wholesale and somewhat mechanical nature of the series, Dinosaurs has a certain appeal, showing Sauvain’s skill. After all it must have been incredibly hard to produce good quality books to order, on any range of titles, within strict word limits and with restricted vocabulary.
Sauvain tells us what we need to know about how dinosaurs were discovered; the range and variety of types; what they did and where they did it. But he also picks out the dinosaur facts which might appeal to a young child and presents them in a quiet understated way which allows the imagination room to breathe. Here, for example, Sauvain asks us to:
‘picture a swamp a million years ago with small groups or herds of plant-eating dinosaurs grazing in a wood by a lake…..The only sounds might have been the champing and grinding of teeth and occasional croaks or barks’.
Or here:
‘If you could have gone to a dinosaur feeding ground 140 million years ago, you would have needed light clothes to keep you cool and waterproof boots to keep you dry when wading through the swamps’.
Plenty of atmosphere, who needs Jurassic Park?
I like Sauvain’s authorial voice too, it is firm and practical rather than avuncular and seems to imply that although he too might like to wade through some prehistoric swamps with you, he isn’t going to admit to it outright.

There are some great contemporary dinosaur books out there and I wouldn’t expect Dinosaurs to stand up to the scrutiny of modern children. For one thing our understanding has moved on. It is interesting to read Sauvain’s reasons for the extinction of the dinosaurs for example (other animals ate their eggs; they caught some nasty disease; the evergreen trees which were the food of the plant-eaters were replaced by deciduous trees which they could not eat). Most people now agree with the Alvarez asteroid hypothesis (and the evidence to support it) that the extinction of the dinosaurs was caused by one or several massive meteor strikes on the earth which caused atmospheric and weather chaos. This theory really only gained credence in the 1980s, so was just missed by Sauvain’s book. Other areas of knowledge about dinosaurs have also moved on as new discoveries come to light. Sauvain himself reflects on this at the end of the book:
‘there might even be new types of dinosaur, waiting only for someone to come along and find them’.
However I think this indicates nicely the temporary nature of factual knowledge. I like to think that the male, white-coated palaeontologists in Sauvain’s book were not wrong, merely making steps along the way towards future, different ‘truths’.

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February 28, 2014 · 8:15 pm

Mark Hearld’s birds

I am a bit slow to catch up on this one, but I am really loving Nicola Davies’ A First Book of Nature, illustrated by Mark Hearld and published in 2012. It is the sort of book which I think is really exciting: a mix of poetry, fact and inspiring, artistic illustrations which refuses to sit neatly in one category of fiction or non-fiction and challenges preconceptions about what a non-fiction book could be. Each season is represented by beautiful images of wildlife and a simple poem or even a recipe which provide just enough information and lots of imaginative potential.

From A First Book of Nature by Nicola Davies and  Mark Hearld

From A First Book of Nature by Nicola Davies and Mark Hearld

The illustrations are a really interesting mix of collage, print, paint and drawing which I find very appealing and with a bit of a ‘mid century’ feel. I was thinking that I particularly liked the birds and then realised that I had seen one before close at hand! There, on the notice board above my work table I have a lovely bird card which I bought from

Bird mobile by Mark Hearld

Bird mobile by Mark Hearld

the Yorkshire Sculpture Park last summer. I didn’t realise it was one of Mark Hearld’s until I looked on the envelope. Since then I have seen his work all over the place, as often happens, and on Pinterest on wallpaper, mugs and even as fabric upholstered on chairs. You can see a short video of him talking about his work here: http://youtu.be/byG6w2qaWnw
This is a beautiful book and I think a future classic, published not surprisingly by Walker Children’s Books who have a strong reputation for publishing innovative non-fiction. It is recommended for children aged 3+. My only criticism is with the title as I have found on so many occasions that putting ‘A First Book’ on any cover tends to deter all but the youngest readers, which is a shame as I think older children (not to mention adults) will gain much pleasure from it.
From Winter Trees in A First Book of Nature by Nicola Davies and Mark Hearld

From Winter Trees in A First Book of Nature by Nicola Davies and Mark Hearld

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Nothing to disappoint

If you visit an art gallery, somewhere, usually near the door or desk, there is bound to be a book offering visitors the chance to record their names for posterity and make a comment on the exhibition. People do write in them, mostly appreciative, occasionally effusive praise of the exhibits and gallery space and very occasionally more critical comments. Children write in them too, often on the parents’ behalf. My observations  suggest that,depending on the quality of pen offered, people writing in visitor books usually like to display their ‘best’ and most flamboyant handwriting style, maybe reflecting a suppressed artistic urge in sympathy with their surroundings.

Apparently museum visitor books have been in existence since the Sixteenth Century, although making a comment is a more recent addition, and a lot can be found out about visitors, their habits and preferences from studying them (Macdonald, S. 2005). I once found out a boyfriend’s infidelity by studying one. Visiting a gallery (as a student) in London, I saw his name in the visitor book alongside the name of a girl I knew he knew. Coincidence? Up the street  in another gallery, there was the same coupling of names. I was no Sherlock Holmes but even I could work it out. Visitor books might offer all sorts of other unintended sources of information about the whereabouts of people or their companions, missed liaisons and artistic rivalries.

Watercolour painting by Allan Bruce

I was thinking about this because my dad recently had an exhibition of his beautiful watercolour paintings along with two other fellow artists  (here http://www.samscorergallery.co.uk/2013/11/12/peter-moss-neil-simpson-and-allan-bruce/). They had a visitor book and by the end of the exhibition there were some lovely, positive comments about all three artists,  a fair smattering of comments from children and some funny and some non-committal observations. Amongst these was one which just said ‘nothing to disappoint’. I have been thinking about this one for a while. I wonder how long the author spent mentally composing that sentence. It was obviously meant as kindly, indeed complimentary, possibly even humorous. The author, it implied, was a man of taste and discernment and the work had met his exacting standards. But it seems like a cup-half-empty sort of comment to me, a bit like ‘meets expectations’ in a school report. Given that there is much in life which may disappoint, surely we should view things more positively which fail to disappoint? Maybe the problem is having too many expectations which might stop us from being taken by surprise.

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Don’t ask me what my favourite book is!

Theseus and the Minotaur

Theseus and the Minotaur

For World Book Night on April 23rd this year I was invited to an event at which we were asked to bring along our favourite book to discuss and share. The enormity of this task almost put me off going. I felt myself wriggling and squirming inside. I seem to get asked this question quite often and people seem to expect me to know, but I find it virtually impossible. I can never make up my mind on one book and I am sure that asked this at different times in my life the answer would be completely different (or even at different times of the week). Maybe I haven’t read my favourite book yet (I hope not!).

Decisions like this always remind me of a most embarrassing occasion when I was 17 and on a creative writing course at the wonderful Arvon Foundation. We were asked to choose a favourite poem to share one evening. I thought I ought to choose something portentous and important but not too well-known, so after a great deal of deliberation and searching in the library, I chose a poem by Yevtushenko (I can’t even remember what it was about now).  When I shared the poem in the evening the guest poet (Gavin Ewart- there I’ve said it) really let rip and slated it as full of self-pity, pompous and mawkish (and more words along those lines). As a rather shy teenager I was mortified. I felt exposed as a fraud, my earlier admiration for the poem melting away under such eloquence.  I think I realised that I had chosen the poem for the wrong reasons and I had very little to say in its defence when faced with this barrage of unexpected criticism (I thought everyone would listen politely and then move on).  I have not been able to bear to read the poem since (or anything else by Yevtushenko incidentally) although I now think it was wrong of him to be so dismissive, whatever he thought of the poem. However a lesson learned: choose something you really like, and can stand up for-not something you think you ought to like.

Oedipus

Oedipus

Which brings me back to this book, Myths and Legends, which was (eventually) my choice for the evening.  I think books which have a profound effect on you in childhood must be up there as all time favourites. And this one certainly did. I was given it for my eighth or ninth birthday and loved it for the illustrations as much as the stories. Whilst I knew some of the Greek myths and legends from school, many of the other tales such as Tristan and Isolde were unfamiliar, and the story I liked best was Beowulf, with his crazy mother and all the arm-ripping, blood-dripping gory bits were good too (and well-told without too much elaboration in this version). Much can be said about the importance of myths but the bottom line is that they are great stories and somehow, in a way which is inexplicable, can fascinate and entrance readers of all ages and in all eras.

Beowulf wrestles with Grendel

Beowulf wrestles with Grendel

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Deianira from Heracles

This beautiful book was first published in 1964 (mine is a 3rd edition from 1969). It was written by Anne Terry White and illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen. The language was a bit challenging for me but had a formal, detached style which seemed to fit well with the haughty and remote gods and heroes of mythology. However the illustrations made the chief impact and I remember quite clearly spending hours trying to copy them. As a child I loved the way that the images were  patterned and decorated and not too realistic, allowing my imagination to fill in the gaps. The highly stylised and angular figures seem to really evoke the mythological characters who are almost, but not quite, human. 

Many people will know of the Provensens, an American husband and wife team who worked together for over 43 years writing and illustrating over fifty children’s books (there is more about Alice at  http://www.childrensliteraturenetwork.org/birthbios/brthpage/08aug/8-14aproven.html ). They won the Caldecott medal in 1984 for The Glorious Flight (about Bleriot) which  is very different in style although it still has a slightly dream-like unreal quality.  Although I didn’t think I knew their other work, I have often seen The Glorious Flight on school library shelves and Shaker Lane, another title which was published in 1987.   I shall investigate some of their other works although I doubt they can beat Myths and Legends: definitely an all-time, genuine favourite. On the evening I think the other people in the group, although maybe initially surprised that I had not chosen a ‘proper’ novel, liked the book too and understood why I had brought it along.

A hero comes

By the way Escaped Librarian hopes to be back more regularly, current technology issues permitting!

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A Walk with the Walrus and the Carpenter

Sandsend beach

Sandsend beach

Sandsend beach in North Yorkshire is a beautiful sandy bay surrounded by cliffs with a view of the ruined Whitby Abbey at the south end. It is an interesting sort of beach with rocks, caves, fossils and rivulets running into the sea, the sort of beach where you could while away a whole day beach-combing or exploring. What makes it interesting and relevant to this blog is that apparently it was whilst walking on this beach that Lewis Carroll thought up his  poem the Walrus and the Carpenter which was told to Alice by Tweedledee  in Alice through the Looking Glass, published in 1871. If you don’t know the poem you can read it here http://www.jabberwocky.com/carroll/walrus.html.

the sea was wet as wet could be, the sands were dry as dry...

the sea was wet as wet could be, the sands were dry as dry…

You can imagine thinking up a poem on Sandsend beach. It is just about the right length to get thoughts going. At the north end the sands stretch out far into the distance and you can see why the tidy-minded Walrus and Carpenter might have  ‘wept like anything to see such quantities of sand: ‘if this were only cleared away’, they said, it would be grand!’.

There have been several attempts to interpret the poem. Some describe the elderly walrus and carpenter as aggressive sexual predators, preying on the innocent young oysters. Others comment on the Victorian morbidity and ‘creepiness’ of the poem. Some consider the walrus, carpenter and oysters to represent political figures of the time. I prefer to enjoy it as a clever and entertaining nonsense poem. As a child I loved the contradictions in it (the sun shining in the night, the oysters wearing shiny shoes even though they had no feet, the boiling hot sea etc.) and the form and language of the poem made it easy to remember.

By John Tenniel

By John Tenniel

The Victorians of course loved oysters which were a cheap, easily obtainable food and something of a staple for the poor. Oysters were gathered from beds around the coast in their thousands until they ran out- quite suddenly- due to pollution and over-fishing. Having walked the length of Sandsend beach I can confirm that the Walrus and the Carpenter did a pretty comprehensive job in finishing off that particular oyster bed. I couldn’t find a single oyster shell, ‘but that was scarcely odd because they’d eaten every one’.

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Shivering with Shackleton

Readers of this blog who know how I love a story set in chilly climes will understand how thrilled I was to find this copy of Shackleton’s Epic Voyage by Michael Brown and illustrated by Raymond Briggs, mouldering forgotten and unloved on a school library shelf! Briggs may be best-known for his rather cuddlier snowy tales The Snowman and The Bear, but I think this little book is far superior. Published in 1969 the book marries sparse but effective text with some wonderful expressive drawings by Briggs. They seem to convey the drama and vastness of the South Pole with a very limited palette and really show how drawn illustrations have a valid place in non-fiction books, offering an additional perspective , a sense of ‘being there’ which photographs are not always able to show.

‘There were storms, and seas so big that in the trough of a wave the boat seemed surrounded by mountains of water’.

Briggs’ explorers, bundled up against the cold, are simply and sometimes crudely drawn, with little individual characterisation,  but this seems to emphasise their fortitude and vulnerability in the face of unbelievable odds. Here they are preparing to set off on a five month trek across the ice, pulling the sledges towards Elephant Island.

Shackleton, a gaunt , bearded figure, gave the order, ‘Hoist out the boats!’

The expanse of the landscape is contrasted with the claustophobic setting inside the boats and tents. Here the crew huddle in their boat the  James Caird adrift on the polar sea.

‘All cooking must be done over a single primus stove that needed three men to handle it’.

Shackleton’s Epic Voyage lacks index or glossary or even a contents page. Many of the children I know, raised on a diet of National Literacy Strategy objectives, might not even recognise it as a non-fiction text. But it is a great example of a creative non-fiction book, which must have given many young readers back in the early 70s that particular blend which the best NF books possess: true facts, simply told and ideas to inspire the imagination.

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Leaving Book Group

1903 Two women reading (wikkimedia commons)

I’ve been going to my book group for nearly 10 years, so it was quite a big decision when I told them last week that I was going to leave. There was no big reason for leaving, just that I’m about to start studying again and have lots to read for work and, well, if I’m honest, the last book finally put me off- I really couldn’t bring myself to read about The Pile of Stuff at the Bottom of the Stairs when I have my own pile to contemplate (no disrespect to the novel which may be great and I did try honestly but couldn’t get past page 5). On the whole I enjoyed book group- I’m not going to launch into a tirade against book groups in general. My book group was friendly, not too intimidating and relaxed (although I have heard of others which are not). At a time when I didn’t get out much with small children, the monthly meeting was very welcome and helped me get to know people in a new area. I’ve always read books but I suspect like lots of people there have been times when I’ve fallen into old habits and found it hard to select new books or step out of a ‘book comfort zone’. Book group, with its new book every month provided a useful introduction to a different and changing set of reading materials.

So I planned to write a sort of celebratory homage to the many wonderful books my reading group introduced me to, and explain how I read things I wouldn’t otherwise have read etc etc. Except here is the thing- when I started to make a list of them for this blog I realised how few I could remember in any useful detail. All those books, all those months and it’s all a bit of a blur. I can remember, for example, that we read Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and A Short History of Tractors but we must have read them around the same time because the plots of the two seem to have formed a hideous amalgam of fishing and farming in my head. (Perhaps I should explain, we borrowed our books from the library, so I didn’t have my own copies readily available to jolt my memory).

Not quite like my book group, but almost

Yet books I have read not on the book group list have, by and large, remained clear in my mind, so it’s not just my failing memory.  Maybe that is because the books I chose for myself often had a resonance or meaning for me which gave me a purpose for reading them and gave them, in turn, a place to connect to in my mind. Moreover, being told to read  a book is often a reason for suddenly finding yourself  not wanting to read it. I found Life of Pi for example quite tedious in the book group context, but in another I may well have enjoyed it.

Does it make the experience of a book better and deeper when you have discussed and shared it with others? Occasionally our discussions would be interesting and lively (I seem to remember that The Lovely Bones  and The Swan Thieves prompted heated debate)  but quite often I felt as if we were going through the motions before moving on to the snacks and wine. Does a book always need to be discussed? Take for example State of Wonder which I read and enjoyed and thought was well written  but didn’t have anything really to say about it.  And it’s hard to know which novels will inspire good discussions- especially when not everyone in the group wants to read tried and tested classics.

Then there was the problem of recommending something for the group to read. I like lots of books and love quite a few but anything I have suggested or recommended has usually turned out to be unpopular. I suppose I should be more robust about this but, again, if I’m honest, it hurts a bit and it’s hard not to take personally. If someone says a book you like is pretentious, don’t you feel that you too, are similarly culpable? Sometimes it feels better and safer to think of the world inside a book you have enjoyed as existing solely for yourself, private and unexplored by anyone else.

So maybe all of this just means I need to move on from book groups and communal reading at least for a while. Maybe in the end I need the simpler relationship of reader and book, in which even the author has  a peripheral place.  As Virginia Woolf said,  ‘the pusuit of reading is carried on by private people’.

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