Tuesday, 25 October 2022

Digging up the past for book ideas by Victoria Williamson

The national tourism organisation for Scotland, VisitScotland, has since 2009 been running themed years to celebrate aspects of Scotland – its people, culture and heritage – that deserve recognition. 2022 has been designated Scotland’s Year of Stories and, as an author with a passion for history, this past year has provided a number of opportunities for me to explore the intersection of local history and archaeology, and the stories they inspire.


Children trying some traditional spinning and weaving at Auld Kirk Museum 
(Copyright: Kirkintilloch Herald)

My love of the past began as a child on frequent visits to Kirkintilloch’s Auld Kirk Museum, which housed a collection of historical objects such as Roman soldiers’ uniforms and household items through the ages. Staff also put considerable effort into engaging children through activity days and, growing up, I got to try out everything from traditional crafts such as carding wool, spinning and weaving to attempting shoemaking on a cobbler’s last.


Children try their hand at weaving (Copyright: Kirkintilloch Herald)

These visits sparked lots of story ideas which I scribbled down on bits of paper with hand-drawn illustrations, stapling them together to form my first ‘books’ which usually ended up in the bin when a better idea came along. There was one story idea that stayed with me for many decades, however, inspired by my memorable year in primary four when I was eight, when I learned about the poems of Robert Burns for the first time. That year we read Tam o’ Shanter, and I still remember the thrill of hearing the spine-tingling tale of witches through the medium of Scots poetry and learning about the early life of Burns and the world he grew up in.

The story of witches dancing to the devil’s music in the Auld Kirk at Alloway stayed with me, and when I turned to Scottish stories for inspiration for my books as an adult, that was the first tale that jumped straight into my head. Researching the life of Burns, I came across accounts of the young Burns hearing folktales of kelpies, wraiths and bogles round the kitchen fire, and I could imagine him being just as spellbound by the stories he was told by adults as I was as a child. That got me thinking about a fictional account of how his own adult poem Tam o’ Shanter could have been inspired by a childhood encounter with witches in the Auld Kirk. The story of Hag Storm is therefore a metafiction of the young Rab having a spooky Halloween experience which later becomes the basis of his own supernatural poem.


But it isn’t just books, poems and my own childhood experiences which I’ve drawn on to come up with my own novels. As a member of Archaeology Scotland, I’ve been lucky to have had the chance to get involved in local archaeological digs, and over the past year have got out and about in Denny, near Falkirk, and Cathkin Park, Glasgow, exploring Scotland’s past. Not only do community digs like these teach volunteers the basics of field excavation – from topsoiling, mattocking, trowelling and surveying techniques, to cataloguing finds and interpreting evidence – they also give us the opportunity to experience history in a hands-on way which is very different from the experience of reading about it in a book. I’ve been amazed on these digs just how exciting it is to uncover little pieces of the past, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant-looking. Bits of broken china, glass and bent nails can seem every bit as thrilling a find to an amateur historian like me as digging up stashes of Roman coins or a new dinosaur bone is to a professional. Uncovering the foundations of strike-breakers’ houses in Denny and the original Third Lanark football team baths and changing rooms in Cathkin Park were wonderful experiences, and it felt to the volunteers like we’d found our very own ancient Egyptian tomb or Mayan pyramid.



Uncovering the foundations of strike-breakers' houses in Denny

One of the best things about engaging in local archaeological digs is getting the chance to hear the stories told by excavators, volunteers and visitors to the digs sites about their own experiences of the site as children, or about their ancestors’ experiences. Visitors to the Denny dig site who looked at the displayed ‘Virol bottle’ we’d found recalled being given Virol as a supplement, either by their parents or at school. Passers-by and museum staff at the Jimmy Johnston Academy at Cathkin Park recounted tales of their visits to the football stadium when it was still standing and shared their memories of their time in the park as children. The finds at these sites represented real links not just to the past buried under a layer of ash at Milton Row in Denny and years of soil and infill at Cathkin Park, but to the childhoods and lived experiences of local residents who took part in these digs or who visited the sites. It also emphasised for me the ability of community archaeology to connect the everyday experiences of people alive today to those who lived in the past.



Victoria using a mattock to remove the soil from an excavation area in Cathkin Park, Glasgow

Archaeology Scotland has long been providing fantastic opportunities such as these for volunteers to engage in local digs and find out all about the history on their doorstep. My own journey as an author was started in childhood by enthusiastic historians who passed on their knowledge and encouraged me to explore all of the stories my local area had to offer. But it’s not just children and young people whose imaginations can be sparked by local digs, and whose early experience of history and archaeology might set them on the path to becoming the authors of the future. It’s never too late to embark on your writing adventures, so why not get involved in one of Archaeology Scotland’s digs in this Year of Stories, and see what local tales you can uncover?


Writing Challenge

Imagine you find a hag stone, either by a river or by the sea. Have a think about the location where you find it – can you describe it? Is it by running water in a deep, dark forest? By a stream in a sunlit glade? By a stormy sea with wind-tossed waves? On a sandy beach with warm waters lapping at your toes? See how many interesting adjectives you can use to describe the place where you find your hag stone, as where you find it might just influence what you see through the hole!

Now…

Put the hag stone to your eye and look through the hole. What do you see?

Describe the ‘other world’ that you can see through the hole. This place can be anything you like – a fantasy world, a futuristic science fiction world, funny, spooky, scary, weird or magical – it’s up to you! I’d love to read your hag stone tales, so do get in touch on Twitter or through my website to show off your writing!


Watch Victoria's YouTube video by clicking here



Victoria Williamson is a children’s author who grew up in a small town north of Glasgow, surrounded by hills and books. She started writing adventure stories from an early age, with plots and characters mostly stolen from her favourite novels and TV shows! These days the stories are all her own, featuring the voices of some of the many children she’s met over the years on her real-life adventures around the world.
Victoria was a teacher for many years, working in all sort of exciting places from Cameroon, Malawi and China to the UK. She now divides her time between writing and visiting schools and literacy festivals to talk about books and run creative writing classes.



Website: www.strangelymagical.com

Twitter: @strangelymagic

Tuesday, 18 October 2022

Book Recommendations for Black History Month 2022

To celebrate Black History Month 2022, on this week's blog we have each chosen a favourite historical novel written by a Black or Asian author, featuring Black and Asian protagonists. Barbara's choice is an unmissable classic; the other books are ones that you may not have caught up with yet, as they were published more recently, but they are all excellent and well worth discovering.

Meanwhile, on our YouTube channel, Barbara Henderson looks at Matthew Henson, the Black explorer who may well have been the first to reach the North Pole. You can read his story in Race to the Frozen North by Catherine Johnson (Barrington Stoke).


You can watch Barbara's YouTube video here


Ally Sherrick


CHILDREN OF THE BENIN KINGDOM
by Dinah Orji (Dinosaur Books Ltd)

An exciting and immersive adventure and the debut novel of Dinah Orji, a British author of Nigerian heritage, who was inspired to write a story set in the historical Kingdom of Benin in present-day Nigeria by travels she has made to her ancestral land.

It tells the story of Ada, a young girl growing up in the rainforest with her father, Papa Eze, a herbalist and healer who helps heal the sick in their village. When he himself falls ill, he decides the time has come to tell Ada the truth about her own heritage and ancestry, something we learn he has held back from her to keep her safe.

Using this new and unexpected knowledge about herself and her family, Ada sets off into the heart of the forest with her friend, Mbe, to look for the Edo kingdom, a place which she hopes will help answer the many questions she has. As it turns out, the people of the kingdom need her help to overcome the bitter feud between the ones in power too. But there are people – bad people – hot on Ada’s heels and, together with her friends, she must use all her wits, courage and the help of her ancestors to overcome them and reach her goal.

This is an exciting adventure set in a time and place which offers a brilliant opportunity to engage young readers in discovering about one of Africa’s most fascinating civilizations, the ancient Edo Kingdom of Benin, and to understand more about the culture and beliefs of the people responsible for creating the astoundingly beautiful Benin Bronzes.


Susan Brownrigg


THE LIZZIE AND BELLE MYSTERIES: DRAMA AND DANGER
by J. T. Williams (HarperCollins Publishers)

Drama and Danger is the first in a Georgian-era mystery series which centres on two real-life young women – Lizzie Sancho and Dido Belle.

Set in London in 1777, J. T. Williams imagines that the two girls had met and become friends despite their difference in status. Lizzie’s family run a popular tea shop while Belle lives at the magnificent Kenwood House.

The story centres around the Drury Lane Theatre Royal. Lizzie’s father, Ignatius Sancho, is about to become the first black actor to play Othello – but on opening night a chandelier crashes from the ceiling almost killing him.

Lizzie and Belle both spot the assassin high above the theatre stage and join forces to bring the villain to justice. 

Their investigations have them exploring London and realising that the attack is linked to a slavery plot and that The Shadow is working for someone from the theatre. The closer they get to the truth the more danger the girls find themselves in!

I especially liked that the author uses an imagined story to get readers to think about gaps in history and that reimagining the past is empowering.


Drama and Danger is just under 350 pages, making it look a chunky read BUT J.T.’s story is fast-paced and broken into 5 acts, with gripping short chapters. The book also includes a number of gorgeous illustrations by Simone Douglas as well as letters and case notes from the girls, all of which make this an ideal introduction to historical fiction.

The final chapter ends with a teaser for a second book – Portraits and Poisoning – which I am really looking forward to!


Catherine Randall


THE LION ABOVE THE DOOR by Onjali Q. Raúf (Orion)

This book, by the prize-winning author of The Boy at the Back of the Class, is based on such a brilliantly simple idea that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t read a book like it before.

Leo and Sangeeta have got used to the fact that no one in their school history books looks like them. Then, on a trip to Rochester Cathedral to learn about the Second World War, Leo spots someone with exactly the same name as him on a war memorial. This discovery triggers a roller-coaster ride of exploration and a race against time as Leo, Sangeeta and their friend Olivia hurry to reveal the facts about their newly discovered heroes in time for the TV show coming to film at their school. But someone in their class doesn’t want them to succeed. It takes the help of the friends’ whole families, both at home and abroad, to show the world their ‘Forgotten Heroes’.

This is an important book for upper KS2 which challenges the traditional, lazy narratives about WW2, and introduces children to war heroes from Singapore, India and Ghana. It also captures brilliantly the shocking, casual racism to which children from non-majority backgrounds are subject to every day, making us think about how we treat others who are different from us.

The back of the book contains excellent resources about Black and Asian heroes of WW2, a picture section, and a map you can fill in as you discover your own forgotten heroes.


Jeannie Waudby



CANE WARRIORS by Alex Wheatle (Andersen Press) 

Alex Wheatle takes an historical event – the 1760 uprising on the Jamaican Frontier sugar plantation – and brings it to life through the eyes of Moa, a 14-year-old boy.

Moa has spent all his life enslaved on the plantation, subjected to brutal beatings and forced to watch the systematic horrific treatment of his friends and family. His whole life has been lived in terror. The story opens with Miss Pam’s death. She was a beloved healer and lifter of spirits who has kept alive precious wisdom from back home. Now Moa is faced with a huge decision: will he join the uprising to free the Frontier and neighbouring plantations? What follows is a tense battle against the odds, a band of brothers who are fighting for freedom to live their own lives in safety and peace, and to protect their friends, neighbours and families. Once Moa leaves the plantation, even in this danger he is amazed by the new things he sees: tiny insects and plants, fruit generously growing wild for the taking.

The first paragraph opens with ‘the chanting of tiny creatures’ and this begins a relationship throughout the book between nature and people. To Moa and his friends it is a source of comfort and nurture, a place to hide and to return to. But to the white British enslavers, it is a thing of foreignness and terror, there only to be exploited.

The sea too has different meanings for Moa. When he first sets eyes on it, he is delighted and astonished by ‘the wide blue waters’. His first thought is that across that expanse lies the home he has never seen. Yet it is the means by which his life has been stolen and he knows that across it will come the British military with their muskets and cannons and their determination to protect their money-making system of slavery. Moa and his band, increasing along the way, take a moment of peace in its cool waters. The sea to Moa comes to mean a way home – whether it is alive or lost in battle. 

This is a heart-breaking and thrilling novel in which something that really happened comes vividly alive through one boy’s choices, courage and hope.


Barbara Henderson


NOUGHTS AND CROSSES
by Malorie Blackman (Penguin Random House)

My recommendation for Black History Month is not a new book: Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses was first published in 2001. Apart from the fact that it is a wonderful read by an inordinately gifted storyteller, it felt ground-breaking in its simplicity, swapping black and white in an alternative history.

In Blackman’s version of a recognisable 21st century world, Crosses, those of Afro-Caribbean heritage, are the privileged ones, while the white Noughts are expected to be content with disadvantage and subservience. Throw in a love story and political unrest, and you have plenty of conflict to sustain a series. Thought-provoking, entertaining, and frankly genius, Noughts and Crosses was recently adapted into a successful TV series too. For me as a Time Tunneller, the standout chapter depicted a history lesson. Callum, the main Nought character, is among the first to attend a reputable all-Cross school and finds that history only remembers those of Cross descent, conveniently ignoring those of Nought origin. Blackman skilfully holds up a mirror here – most of the BAME inventors and pioneers mentioned by the fictional history teacher in this chapter were unfamiliar to me. Yes, that felt compelling – Noughts and Crosses achieves that rare and precious thing of entertaining me, challenging me and teaching me something new.

Wednesday, 12 October 2022

Would you risk the future to change the past? The Butterfly Club books by M.A. Bennett

The Butterfly Club books are about the ultimate kind of travel – time travel. They are about meeting like-minded people in other places. The series takes as its subject very well-known events, but largely unknown heroes.

Everyone has heard of the Titanic, but Guglielmo Marconi, whose wireless radio saved hundreds of lives on that doomed ship and countless lives over the following century, is unknown to many.  Everyone’s heard of Tutankhamun, and most people think that he was discovered by Howard Carter, but not many young readers will have heard of Abdel Rassoul, a boy their own age, who was actually the first person to discover the greatest archaeological find of all time. Most kids will have heard of the Mona Lisa, but most won’t know that the painting wasn’t famous at all until it was stolen in 1911 by a man named Vincenzo Peruggia, who thought that her smile could save his home country of Italy from defeat in the impending Great War. And the moon landings of 1969 are familiar to most, but many space fans won’t realise how close the Apollo 11 came to a fatal explosion on the moon’s surface, only averted by the brave men and women of Mission Control. 

Illustration copyright David Dean 2022

One of my objectives in writing The Butterfly Club series was to bring these unknown characters out of the shadows and into the light. Hopefully more and more children will be made aware of their extraordinary lives. All the Butterfly Club books hinge on a theorem called The Butterfly Effect, a concept that states that the mere flap of a butterfly’s wings in one place can have a huge impact in another place far away. Each book focusses on one extraordinary real-life character from the past, who, in a small way, changed history. 



The second book in the series, THE MUMMY’S CURSE, revolves around a tiny action by a twelve-year-old boy, who stumbled on unimaginable treasure and changed the face of archaeology for ever.  The Butterfly Club, a Victorian society which uses time travel to plunder the future for wonders, have their eyes on a shiny new prize. In Egypt a man named Howard Carter searches for a lost king – Tutankhamun's mummy, rumoured to be the greatest archaeological prize of all time. Together with her friends, Konstantin and Aidan, and a clockwork cuckoo, Luna Goodhart boards the Time Train. The gang travel from Greenwich, London in 1894 to Egypt’s Valley of the Kings in 1922 in a race to uncover the mummy first. With the aid of famed author Arthur Conan Doyle, the time-travelling thieves dodge tomb traps and solve temple puzzles to locate the long-dead pharaoh. But as it turns out it is not the time thieves but Howard Carter’s waterboy, a twelve-year-old called Abdel, who stumbles on the top step of the long-buried tomb almost by accident. But when Abdel disturbs Tutankhamun's 3000 year sleep he wakes something else too – a deadly and ancient curse. And now all the time thieves must face the terrifying consequences of their actions...



And now for a writing challenge! And because I would never set a challenge that I wouldn’t take on myself, it’s one that I’ve already completed between the covers of THE MUMMY’S CURSE. I want you to imagine how you would feel if you were the first person to walk into Tutankhamun’s tomb after 3000 years. Would you feel excited? Adventurous? Or a little bit scared of what you have disturbed? How would you describe the golden treasure that awaits you? The smell of the ancient stone? The sand underfoot? Howard Carter, the famed archaeologist who has enjoyed credit for the discovery for all these years, actually acknowledged his waterboy Abdel as the discoverer of the tomb, and gave him a very precious pendant from the treasure chamber. How would you feel if someone put that pendant around your neck? Would it feel heavy? Cold? Would you feel like you deserved it, or that it wasn’t really yours? Or even that it was cursed?

Abdel Rassoul in Tutankhamun's pendant

Good luck with your own writing. And if you want to see how I did in the challenge, read THE MUMMY’S CURSE! 

I’ll leave you with this thought. There are plenty of huge things going on in the world at the moment and it’s easy for children (and adults too!) to feel small and insignificant. But the Butterfly Effect, and Abdel’s experience, reminds us that everything is connected, and maybe one day a small action that we take will have a big significance in the world.  

Marina Bennett x

Watch Marina's YouTube video on Tutankhamun by clicking here


M.A. Bennett was born in the north of England to an English mother and a Venetian father. She loved history so much she studied it at four different universities. She also studied art and worked as an illustrator, an actress and a film reviewer. Now she has her dream job of being a writer and her books have been translated into more than 20 languages. She lives in London - the home of Greenwich Meantime.

The Butterfly Club books for middle-grade readers are: The Ship of Doom (published 3 March 2022), The Mummy's Curse (published 13 October 2022), The Mona Lisa Mystery (to be published 13 April 2023) and The Trip to the Moon (to be published 12 October 2023)

The Butterfly Club books are published by Welbeck Flame, an imprint of Welbeck Children’s Books Welbeck Children’s Books and are widely available in bookshops and online.

You can follow Marina on Twitter: @MABennettAuthor

Wednesday, 5 October 2022

Memorials and Memory by Matthew Wainwright

On a chilly morning in early autumn, a funeral procession moves through the silent streets of London. The coffin has come from the grand surroundings of Westminster Abbey, and it is headed for a smaller church in the countryside, where its occupant will be laid to rest alongside their family.

Crowds of mourners line the way, their heads bowed in sadness and respect. They have gathered to say goodbye to a person whom most of them never met, but who had a deep and lasting impact on their lives. 

This is a scene you might be familiar with. Maybe you watched it, in person, online or on the TV, on 19th September 2022, the day of the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. But did you know that the same scene took place almost exactly 137 years before, at a funeral for another very important person – an earl, no less – who was loved just as deeply by the poorest and lowest people in society?

Anthony Ashley Cooper, seventh Earl of Shaftesbury

That person was a man named Anthony Ashley Cooper, the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury (which is rather a mouthful, so we shall call him Lord Shaftesbury). His funeral took place on 8th October 1885, and it was one of the grandest funerals of the time.

As Lord Shaftesbury’s coffin left the funeral, a poor labourer standing nearby said: ‘Our earl’s gone! God Almighty knows he loved us, and we loved him. We shan’t see his like again!’

Why was this man so loved by so many? Why was his funeral attended, not just by MPs and bishops, royalty and nobility, but by labourers, factory hands, flower girls and the poor and destitute from every corner of London?

To answer this question, we need to understand the work he did.

A life of charity

Lord Shaftesbury was a politician, which meant he spent a lot of time in the Houses of Parliament, making speeches and trying to persuade the government to pass good laws. Those laws were usually about the working conditions of poor people, mostly women and children, who more often than not were condemned to a life of grinding labour for little money.

What set Lord Shaftesbury apart from other politicians of the time was that he also spent many hours visiting the poorest people in London, as well as people with mental illness who had been locked away in ‘hospitals’ that were no better than prisons. He wanted to really understand people’s lives, their suffering and their hopes. As a committed Christian, he believed that the lowest flower girl was just as important as Queen Victoria herself and should be treated with the same dignity and respect.

Lord Shaftesbury gave his whole life to charitable work like this and his influence is still being felt today. Now children don’t have to go to work from as young as four or five years old, slaving away in grimy factories or choking chimneys. Instead, they can go to school, have a good education and find a job when they are grown up. This is largely thanks to Lord Shaftesbury’s work.

Let’s look quickly at some of the laws that Lord Shaftesbury helped to pass.

Lunacy Laws

Twelfth Night entertainment at Hanwell Lunatic Asylum. Wealthy patrons would visit asylums on special occasions to inspect the patients

In Victorian times, people with mental illnesses and learning difficulties were called ‘lunatics’. They were often locked away in places which were called ‘hospitals’, but which were more like prisons. Often the staff treated them little better than animals.

Lord Shaftesbury helped to pass laws that made these hospitals better places to stay in, and helped doctors make more of an effort to understand the treatment and help that people really needed.

Child Labour Laws

A girl drags a coal cart through a passage in a mine. Boys and girls as young as six could be left alone in the pitch dark for up to twelve hours a day

We’ve all heard of the terrible jobs that Victorian children had to do: sent down mines in pitch blackness; forced to work in noisy, dangerous factories beside spinning machines with no safety equipment; sent up chimneys just thirty centimetres wide with nothing but a brush.

Lord Shaftesbury changed all of that. It took a long time, and many people opposed him, but he eventually brought in laws that limited the number of hours children could be made to work, and the age they could start working.

He also supported the ‘Ragged School Movement’, which set up schools for poor children all over the country, and Sunday Schools, which were run by churches so that children could have at least one day a week in a classroom.

* * *

In the middle of Piccadilly Circus, right in the heart of London, stands a statue: a winged man holding a bow, standing on one leg with the other leg stretched out behind him. The man is Anteros, a Greek god of love, and the statue is called the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain. It was put up in 1892 to remember the work of Lord Shaftesbury.

Statue of Lord Shaftesbury in Westminster Abbey

There are other memorials to Lord Shaftesbury: a statue of him stands in Westminster Abbey, for example. There are also memorials all over the place, for all kinds of different people: people who died in wars, kings and queens, and others who did great things. Here and there you might see a bench with a small metal plate on it, giving the name of a well-loved local person and remembering something they said or did.

History is all about remembering: often we remember the deeds of kings and queens, soldiers and fighters, famous names from the history books. But as a historical author I also love to find out about the lives of the people who often aren’t remembered: the ordinary, everyday people like you and me. Their lives are just as fascinating and just as worth remembering as people like Lord Shaftesbury.

So next time you are out and about, look out for memorials, big or small. And think about what you might be remembered for in a hundred years’ time!

Watch Matthew Wainwright's YouTube video on Memorials by clicking here


Matthew Wainwright is an author of historical fiction for young people. His first book, Out of the Smoke, is based on the life and work of the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury and is published by Wakeman Trust. He works with schools and libraries to promote literacy and creative writing, and to help students develop an understanding of history. He lives in Greenwich, London, with his wife and four lively girls.

Website: https://matthewwainwright.co.uk/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/mattwauthor
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/mattwauthor
Buy link: https://www.waterstones.com/book/out-of-the-smoke/matthew-wainwright/9781913133108

Ferdinand Who? By Candy Gourlay. Illustrated by Tom Knight

Thanks to the Time Tunnellers for inviting me to be your guest this week! I thought I’d use this opportunity to talk about Ferdinand. Ferdin...