Posted in difficult subjects, general and welcome, poetry

A Pantheist Poem for National Poetry Day

Today, 6 October 2016, is National Poetry Day and Twitter is full of celebrations for everything from best-loved verses to unusual and little discovered gems.In the spirit of the day, I thought I would share a silly sonnet I wrote as part of an Open University course, which is a take-off of a well-known Shakespearean composition (apologies to the Bard for taking such liberties…):

If Shakespeare were a hypochondriac…

 

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

I think I’d rather not.

All spring and summer I suffer from hay

fever. Out! Out! Damned yellow snot!

 

So what can I compare thee to instead?

Perhaps an autumn morn?

But with the onerous onset of SAD

Would I feel too forlorn?

 

Could I compare thee to a winter’s eve?

Of virgin snow just laid?

Unfortunately there’d be no reprieve

From Lemsips freshly made.

 

Believe me, darling, you are beautiful

Alas my illnesses are plentiful.

 

This however is not the Pantheist poem that I alluded to in the title of this post. That refers to the poem I have chosen to share with you today, a poem that apparently has been voted one of Britain’s favourites but whose authorship has been greatly disputed.

The piece in question is ‘Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep’ by Mary Elizabeth Frye (1905-2004), a comforting reflection of what happens to our loved ones when they die. I’d come across the sonnet years ago and loved it for its simple message that, once our physical bodies cease to exist, our souls find homes in the marvels of the natural world, and that God is reflected, and can be found, in Nature. I believe this is a sort of pantheistic view (you can read more about Pantheism here).

The poem took on special meaning to me more recently as I lost my stepfather Keith just over a week ago. He came into my life when I was already an adult but has been there for me and my family over the past two decades, providing love and support, friendship and kindness. He was a much-loved grandfather to Holly, teaching her how to play hide and seek (making her laugh by always standing underneath the coat stand in the hallway so she would just see a pair of legs sticking out from under a mountain of jackets) and amusing her with Mini-Cheddar tricks.

When my mother, stepsister and I were discussing the service for his funeral next Monday we all agreed that this poem expressed the sentiments of our own beliefs and provided a comfort that we needed at this sad time.The idea that we can remember Keith every time we see a sunset, or a flock of birds, or in the stars seemed apt – he loved the natural world and was a keen and skilled gardener. And with all the atrocities taking place in the world at the moment, it’s vital that we look to Nature for reassurance and peace because, while warring governments and regimes insist on tearing apart our planet and displacing or killing innocent people, Nature carries on regardless. The sun rises and sets and the seasons change despite our actions. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves that there are things out there that bigger than us, although we also play a hugely important role in ensuring their survival.

Apparently Mary Elizabeth Frye  wrote this, her only poem (that we know of), on a brown, paper shopping bag after hearing the story of Margaret Schwarzkopf, a young Jewish girl who had stayed with the Frye family. The young woman wasn’t able to return to Germany to see her dying mother because of the increasing anti-semetic violence in the country leading up to the Second World War, and was forced to mourn her at a distance. Frye’s words attest to the fact that we can still ‘be’ with people spiritually even if we cannot be with them physically and it’s easy to see how Schwarzkopf’s experiences could have inspired the sentiments expressed in this poem.

So many people liked Frye’s sonnet that she wrote out her own copies and gave them away. She never copyrighted the poem or officially published it, which is why its origins came into dispute a little while ago. But it has become one of the most popular poems in this country and abroad for its simple beauty and its timelessness. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

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Which is your favourite poem? Who is your favourite poet? Please share, and Happy National Poetry Day!

Posted in difficult subjects

Living with the scars of war

I discovered a new children’s book today at a book fair I was running. It was Half a Man by Michael Morpurgo, beautifully illustrated by Gemma O’Callaghan, and I couldn’t think of a better piece of writing for Remembrance Day.

The blurb on the book says that it is “A poignant tale of the physical and mental scars of war” and I would add that it not only applies to those who return from war but the families and friends who were originally left behind. Morpurgo begins this non-fiction piece with a traumatic dream that he, as a child, used to have.

“This one was always the same. It began with a face, a twisted, tortured face that screamed silently, a face without hair or eyebrows, a skull more than a face, a skull that was covered in puckered, scarred skin stretched over the cheekbones. It was Grandpa’s face and he was staring at me out of his scream. And always the face was on fire, flames licking out of his ears and mouth.”

The dream is based on the reality of what happened to his Grandpa during World War II, who served in the Merchant Navy. While travelling across the Atlantic, his ship was torpedoed and he was severely burned and nearly drowned. He was rescued but the scars that remained with him meant he lived with the events of that night for the rest of his life. Michael, as a boy, was warned by his parents not to stare at his Grandpa because it was impolite. However, Michael admits:

“But every time, sooner or later, I’d do it; I’d sneak a crafty look. And very soon that look became a stare. I was never revolted by what I saw… I saw the suffering he had gone through in his deep blue eyes…”

When Michael was 12 or so, he spent the summer holidays with his Grandpa on the Isles of Scilly. It was then that he heard the whole story, not just of the attack but of the consequences of surviving. While the medical unit treated him and other burn victims with respect “[Dr McIndoe] made us feel right again inside, like we mattered, like we weren’t monster men”, his family struggled to cope with the scars he carried. His wife eventually left him, taking their baby daughter – Michael’s mother – with her: “No one wants a monster for a husband. No one wants half a man, and that’s what I was, Michael, half a man.” The result was that he “lived with that hate inside of me most of my life…”

Michael’s Grandpa admits all this to his grandson because he is the only one who stared at “his forbidden face, his forbidden hands.” And when his Grandpa died, a while later, the goodbye letter he left to his Grandson echoed his appreciation: “Thanks for looking at me like you did.”

Like many of Morpurgo’s books, Half a Man raises pertinent questions about humanity and emotions without becoming overtly moralistic. He relates his Grandpa’s story without striving for pity or shock or outrage and yet somehow the reader feels this on the Grandpa’s behalf. And while the book is aimed at the children’s books market I feel that its message is more aimed at the adults – about the importance of looking at life an people through a child’s untainted eyes. To ditch self-consciousness and prejudice. O’Callaghan’s sensitive illustrations capture the mood well, using colour to evoke mood and emotion.

I am not sure if I would necessarily put this book in my primary school library, and if I did I would target it at the older readers. Some of the information contained within – such the opening nightmare scene and the revelations about how his grandparents’ marriage dissolved – feel too adult for a young audience if there isn’t an older reader there to talk through the issues.

But don’t get me wrong: this is an important book on the fallout of war. No matter who wins, there are always those who suffer, who lose a part of themselves and their life as a result. For Michael’s Grandpa, it was his family and their ability to see him as a man, behind the scars. Things may have changed for the better nowadays – and I really hope this is the case – but we must never forget the everyday battles of those who come back from war. Remembering someone who dies as they once were is traumatic but we can still hold onto an ideal of who they were. Readjusting to those irrevocably changed – physically, emotionally and spiritually – is perhaps even harder.

Michael ends with a simple but powerful statement about his Grandpa, one which applies to all of those who return from war scarred by their experiences:

“…he wasn’t half a man.”

Posted in difficult subjects

Review: A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness

Today’s review is of A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness, from an original idea by Siobhan Dowd, and illustrated by Jim Kay.

(Again, this is Sam – on my own. I have a couple of reviews waiting from Holly to put up but she’s been busy with end-of-year assessments at school, so we’ll get those up very soon.)

Image courtesy of www.telegraph.co.uk

What it’s about (from the publisher):

The monster showed up after midnight. As they do.

But it isn’t the monster Conor’s been expecting. He’s been expecting the one from his nightmare, the one he’s had nearly ever night since his mother started her treatments, the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming …

This monster is something different, though. Something ancient, something wild. And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor.

It wants the truth.

Sam’s review:
I’ve been sitting here for two hours, trying to write this review. I don’t even know where to start. I keep getting up, going to the loo, making a cup of tea and coming back to stare at the screen.

It’s common for me to like, or even love, books. It’s not common for me to be so taken with them that words elude me. To worry that I am doing an injustice to the book by trying to review it. However, A Monster Calls is one of those books. Reading it was harrowing but I didn’t want it to end, as I felt I was living alongside 13-year-old Conor and sharing in his pain. But finish it I did, early this morning at 1am, tears streaming down my face.

The power of this book lies in its perfection. Nothing is wasted – no word is superfluous; the distressing subject matter is depicted with economic language and the understatement heightens its emotional charge. There are no histrionics to ensure that we fully understand Conor’s daily inner turmoil; instead there is an uncertain calm that simmers with tension, fear and incredible bravery as a very isolated Conor faces his greatest fears with stoicism.

However, anger at his mother’s condition, at the fact that classmates and teachers are either treating him with kid gloves or are bullying him for being different, and his sadness over his father’s abandonment of him and his mother for a new family in the USA, threaten to swallow him as he experiences far too much grief than is fair for a 13-year-old to shoulder. This is where the Yew Tree comes in – an unlikely and terrifying ally for Conor but whose mission, it slowly appears, is to help Conor come to terms with his world through the telling of stories: three told by the Yew Tree, and the last Conor’s own, which he does not want to share.

Having read the story originally on Kindle, with some of the illustrations included (you can click on them to enlarge them) I had to go out and buy the proper, hardback version, full of its breathtaking pictures by Jim Kay.

The Monster comes for Conor: www.guardian.co.uk

These add even more emotional depth to an already powerful book through the nightmarish use of monochrome, almost like photograph negatives in appearance. The shapes are rarely rounded but spiky, angular and violent, which complement the text. The Yew Tree monster is rather like the pagan symbol of the Green Man, and its use in this book about death is significant. Its presence and appearance might be terrifying but its meaning – that of rebirth and new life – gives some hope to the bleak story.

The Yew Tree Monster bares a striking resemblance to the pagan Green Man. I love this picture because it expresses his own vulnerability. Image courtesy of thebooksmugglers.com

 

The tragedy and awful irony that lies in this book, and which remains with the reader long afterwards, is the fact that Siobhan Dowd – who came up with, as Patrick Ness says in his Author’s Note, ‘the characters, a premise and a beginning’ did not have the time to write it as she died from cancer at the young age of 47. Luckily, Patrick Ness stepped in to complete this work, though not without doubt,  ‘When I was asked if I would consider turning her work into a book, I hesitated. What I wouldn’t do – what I couldn’t do – was write a novel mimicking her voice. That would have been a disservice to her, to the reader, and most importantly to the story.’

Patrick Ness needn’t have worried. A Monster Calls is a real masterpiece and Ness should feel proud of what he has achieved with Dowd’s original idea. This book deserves to be read by people of all ages – it’s not just a novel for children. I urge you to pick it up and read it, but make sure you have tissues to hand at the end.

Have you read A Monster Calls? Please share your thoughts if so – I would love to hear them!

What books have made you cry?

 

Note: Part of Siobhan Dowd’s legacy lies in the creation of the Siobhan Dowd Trust, which seeks to bring books and reading to vulnerable young people in the UK. You can find out more about the Trust’s work here.

Posted in difficult subjects, humour, Young Adult

Review: Madame Doubtfire, by Anne Fine

Today’s review is of the book Madame Doubtfire, by Anne Fine, and the film it inspired: Mrs Doubtfire.

courtesy of annefine.co.uk

What it’s about (taken from the author’s website): Lydia, Christopher and Natalie Hilliard are used to domestic turmoil and have been torn between their warring parents ever since the divorce. That all changes when their mother takes on a most unusual cleaning lady. But there’s more to Madame Doubtfire than domestic talents.

Holly’s review: This book is about three children whose parents are divorced. When the mum decides to get a house minder to look after the children and won’t let Daniel the dad look after them, well that’s when Madame Doubtfire comes along. I liked this book because it is funny but also it has some inappropriate language which I think would make me say that children below the age of eight shouldn’t read this book. I think it is more for an older child – for example, there are a lot of fights in the book between the parents or the parents say nasty things or act nastily towards each other. In conclusion I think this is a good book even if there is bad language in it because it is funny and exciting because of what happens when Madame Doubtfire goes to work as a child minder. But don’t let me say too much or I will spoil the surprise.

When I watched the film of Madame Doubtfire (aka Mrs Doubtfire) I think I liked it slightly better because they changed it and I liked how they changed it. I don’t usually prefer the film to a book but I did with this one.

Sam’s review: I must admit that I first came to this story from the film and as an adult, having not known about the book. Therefore, when I saw it in the library, I got it out for Holly, remembering how the film, despite its sad subject matter, made me laugh. I was quite surprised and rather shocked by the very different tone in the novel. Anne Fine does warn on her website that it is a book for older readers and I can see why – as Holly said in her review, there is a lot of fighting between the parents and the language is rather ripe in some of the passages, though certainly nothing offensive and I am sure many younger children nowadays – 16 years after its initial publication – will have heard all the words before. But what really made me feel uneasy reading this with Holly (aged 10) was the vitriol between the mum and dad. This of course is entirely realistic in the situation and I am not condemning Anne Fine for it at all, especially in light of this perhaps being more suitable for children older than Holly. I would argue that ten would be the absolute minimum age for children to read this at, not eight, as I think the subject matter is not so easily understood by younger children who might just find it all distressing – I must admit to squirming when reading certain passages.

Anne Fine has done a marvellous job capturing the emotional turmoil of a family caught up in the intensity of divorce. The humour provides a relief from discomfort but even that at times doesn’t come across as easily as in the film, which has its visual nature on its side. The film felt less bitter, no doubt so that younger children could enjoy the content and I think this is where the two diverge: the book is for teenagers/young adults whereas the film is aimed at younger children and up. The book seeks to explore the raw emotions of divorce and the lengths a parent will go to in order to see their children. The film does this too but it relies more heavily perhaps on humour to lighten the mood (whereas I think Anne Fine wanted to explore the emotional depths more). Like Holly, I preferred the film, which tended to play on sadness rather than bitterness in its more emotional moments, but perhaps that is because I find the subject matter difficult to deal with anyway and the film provides more of a comfort blanket.

Madame Doubtfire is a good book but needs to be approached as a young adult book, as Anne Fine originally intended.

 

Have you read Madame Doubtfire or seen the film? What did you think about either or both?

Posted in difficult subjects

Two books about the Holocaust: is it too much for children?

We have recently read two books about the Holocaust and wanted to write our thoughts about them. Normally we don’t give age ranges for our reviews because it can be so subjective – everyone can enjoy a picture book and very young children often love hearing chapter books. However, we will in the case of these two books as their subject matter can be distressing for children.

The first is The Cats in Krasinski Square.

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Image courtesy of http://www.goodreads.com

Author: Karen Hesse

Illustrator: Wendy Watson

Age range: I would suggest at least six or seven just to cope with the ideas presented in the story. Nothing horrible is overtly described, and the illustrations are not distressing, but the questions that may spring from the book might be difficult for parents to explain and very young children to understand.

What it’s about: The story takes place in Warsaw during the Second World War. A young girl and her sister have escaped from the Jewish Ghetto and are struggling to feed themselves, while smuggling food into the ghetto to the people who are starving there. The young narrator makes a fuss of the cats who have been ‘orphaned’ because their humans have been taken away to Concentration Camps (this is never directly stated but implied). The cats are OK because they can live off the mice and their quick thinking and clever survival skills come in handy when they are used to outsmart the Gestapo at Warsaw’s train station. The book is based on a real-life event that Karen Hesse read about and is moving, exciting and compassionate.

Holly’s review: I liked the way Karen Hesse described what was happening and that it was both made up and true. It was upsetting too because of what was happening to the people. The drawings tell the story as much as the words, and the words are written like a poem. I love stories about World War II. I feel I shouldn’t be excited about them but I am interested in history and I liked it when we studied World War II at school.

Sam’s review: This book was recommended to me because of my browsing history on an online bookshop. I had been reading Holocaust survivors’ accounts (Primo Levi’s If This is a Man and The Truce and Elie Wiesel’s Night) and was interested in how this aspect of history had been explained in children’s literature. Karen Hesse’s story is brave, honest and suspenseful, as our young narrator explains the deprivations of life in occupied Warsaw and how the Resistance attempted to defy their enemies and help their fellow man. The added element of the cats’ involvement appeals to children’s interest in animals, and makes it all the more fascinating with the knowledge that it was based on a real event. I didn’t find it too difficult to explain what was happening to the Jews in Warsaw to Holly, but then again we had read a couple of other books before this and this was the gentlest.

 

The second book is Rose Blanche.

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Image courtesy of http://www.goodreads.com

Author: Ian McEwan

Illustrator: Roberto Innocenti

Age range: This book is much more disturbing than The Cats in Krasinski Square and I wouldn’t attempt it with anyone younger than 9 unless they have had exposure to the Holocaust before. Holly has read Judith Kerr’s memoirs which touch upon the fate of the Jews briefly but not this starkly. The illustrations in this story, while marvellous, are very shocking and left Holly speechless at one point. I wouldn’t show it to very sensitive children either, although Holly is and did cope, but got very angry and emotional at one point.

What it’s about: The story begins with the outbreak of war in a German town, and the positivity and optimism that they will enjoy a positive outcome. As the story progresses, situations become worse for the townspeople and impatience over rations begins. More importantly, it has in the foreground a young non-Jewish German girl who witnesses what is happening and, accidentally, becomes involved beyond her ability to cope. One day she watches as a boy escapes from the back of a truck and then is beaten by German officers. In her indignation, she follows the lorry out of her town and stumbles across its destination: a concentration camp. The inmates, including children, look out at her from behind barbed wire and their skeletal appearance horrifies her. From that day on, she secretly sets out to help them until disaster strikes.

Holly’s review: This was very upsetting because the story was tragic. It was a very good, descriptive story but if you don’t like sad books then don’t read this. At first I was angry when I read it because they shouldn’t have ended it the way they did and also I think the girl in the story should have told someone what she had seen rather than keep it to herself. The drawings were quite shocking and less child-like than in The Cats…

Sam’s review: This was a toughie. I stupidly hadn’t read the book before Holly grabbed it off our library pile and so hadn’t seen the sort of drawings we were soon to come across, which were beautifully done but harrowing. When Holly came across the scenes at the concentration camp she went silent as she tried to comprehend what she was looking at. I explained it to her but she wanted to move on, so we did. The ending was shocking because it is not what is normally expected in a children’s book, but then again this is no ordinary picture book. When we finished the story, Holly was silent and then burst out in anger ‘That’s stupid! Why didn’t she tell someone?! How could she keep that to herself?! I hate books like that!’ We talked for a while about the war, and she asked why nothing was done sooner to help the people in the camps. It opened up a lot of discussion into the matter – and about war and atrocities more generally – and I think a child needs to be old enough to process this information to understand the book and not simply be traumatised by it. It’s definitely worth reading but it is vital to get the age right. I think we did, because Holly later wanted to read it again with her father and was happy to talk about it, but I would approach it with caution, and certainly would advise any parent to read it through first before showing it to their child.

Other World War II books you may be interested in:

  • When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, by Judith Kerr: A story about a young girl and her family’s escape from Austria and their continued quest for safety during the uprising of the Nazis. Based on Judith Kerr’s own experience. (Suitable from age 8 upwards)

 

  • I am David, by Anne Holm: A Nazi officer helps a 12-year-old boy escape from a Concentration Camp, with food and instructions on where to head for. The book is the story of his journey and the people and places he encounters. Incredibly moving and beautifully written. (Suitable from age 8 or 9 upwards)

 

  • The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank: This book hardly needs an introduction. Anne Frank and her family are in hiding from the Nazis and the diary reveals what life was like for them in their isolation, and the everyday fear they encountered. (Suitable from age 8 upwards)