Monday, 9 July 2018

Literary Treasure: David Almond's 'Where Your Wings Were' Seven Stories Exhibition

Diary of an inspirational day at Seven Stories 'Where Your Wings Were'  Exhibition launch. 
28th June 2018.

David Almond is quite simply one of my inspirations as a writer.  So when Sarah Lawrance Collection and Exhibitions Director at Seven Stories invited me to be in conversation with him about his work at the launch of his exhibition 'Where Your Wings Were,' it was not a hard decision to accept!

ON THAT MORNING....I arrived in Newcastle to blistering sunshine and walked along the Quayside to Seven Stories. The beautiful tidal Tyne with its monumental bridges was all of a glitter.  On the opposite bank I read a sign that said 'Go with the Flow/ Swim Against The Tide'... 

I thought about the last time I'd met David at The Hay Festival and he had spoken about a seam that ran through all his stories; the power of the imagination and creativity to harness the passion of youth and  help young people grow...    

'We need to break away from narrow notions of learning into something more tender, more creative, more complex that explores the strangeness of the human heart, that explores the real world and real objects and the mystery of them.' 

I thought about my own journey as a writer and my own children and how important it has been for them to swim against the tide and find their own creative hearts. One of things I have always loved about David's work is it's rootedness in the North of England. In my early childhood we lived in Hull and The Lake District where my mum's family come from and the landscapes of Almond's work speak deeply in me to a place of awe and wonder at the power of the natural world and how we as human connect and impact on it through our imaginations and industry. 

As I walked past a foundry workshop I was struck by the art on the underside of a red brick arch...I was later to discover that this beautiful work is just one of the extraordinary exhibits that forms part of the ' Winged Tales of  The North' art trail  commissioned by Seven Stories from David Almond (words) and Kate Drummond (Visual artist) inspired by David Almond's work. It's a stunning exploration of how an imagination is formed from the landscapes out of which it grows...and it takes you  through the Ouseburn Valley as part of Newcastle's Great Exhibition of The North ....

Staring up at the beautiful owl and kingfisher - much loved birds and powerful symbols in my own stories, I felt a huge sense of anticipation and also considerable nerves!

David Almond in front of the arch on which he has created his own flash fiction.


Prior to the interview I was lucky enough to tour the ' Where Your Wings Were' exhibition with David as he shared with me the experience of moving through his own work ... that what he appreciated is the space in the viewer's imagination the exhibition allowed for visitors to imagine and dream for themselves. 

It's this space in Almond's work that I most appreciate.

In keeping with this idea, the exhibition space allows you to fly around it in any way you wish.  You feel as light as a bird on entering the gallery ...where dreams and imaginings of wings greet you at the door and invite you in.

I chose to enter across a wide expanse to a hypnotic vision of a murmuration of starlings. There is space here to sit or lie and take in the wonder and mystery of this vision of nature, a constant theme in Almond's work. All his stories hold something of this hypnotic power and energy.

After the epic contemplation of the large sky screen I bobbed around smaller more personal spaces of exploration inviting the viewer to settle and peck about! I peered into light boxes containing flames tilting and growing, leaned over the edge of a bridge where the surging energy of  the river feels like it's running  through you.

These immersive spaces are hard to leave just as these symbols settle on the mind of a writer and recur in stories...writing themselves into your work... owls, wings, stones, pits, rivers, dreams of flying...

The viewer is invited to lose themselves in these epic natural forces and also to find themselves reflected and refracted in them. Finally pulled away from the power of the weir I came face to face with myself in a reflecting lens where faces and figures distort producing ghosts and monsters. I placed  my hand in a tangled web and nest and found another's hand reaching mine from another realm!

Later in the day David and I would talk about  monsters, fear, angels and flight in his work and they were all here in this exhibition.

At the end of this exploration of self and nature I was invited to write my own fears on an enormous chalk board... once those fears are voiced they too fly around the space.Here is an invition for everyone to experience the power of writing and stories.

After writing on the chalk board I wandered into a walkway of Almond's beautiful illustrated notebooks revealing what Almond calls  'the messiness' and the meandering nature of storytelling (although his notebooks are creations of layered beauty). Anyone interested in the creative process will want perching tim in front of each of these notebooks!

After prizing myself away from the notebooks I discovered on a far wall the iconography of an author's childhood. His learning of the Catholic catechism, his songs of an altar boy which gave him a love of the rhythm of his voice and the mysterious power of words. His own writing inspirations discovered in the Felling Library.  From these powerful objects of childhood  I was pulled away by children's recorded gasps and laughter as they engaged with Almond's stories. On a large screen  images mutated from Almond's work, I saw Skellig's Wings, Mina's tree, A dark pit of 'Kit's Wilderness', a reeling press from 'Heaven Eyes', a wide open tide where the teens of ' A Song for Ella Grey' escaped to... 'The Colour of the Sun,' sea and river creature, stones...a mountain tarn in the Lake District where I sang as a child. Almond's images mutate and are transformed by the watcher to enter their own wild landscape of the imagination.. the power of stories and the ancient human instinct to tell them flies with you out of this gallery .

Later Almond told me the experience of walking through the exhibition was like 'walking through my own mind.'


In the foyer we met some 'young producers' who helped to create the ideas and elements for the Art Trail inspired by Almond's work.

We walked along the Ouseburn Valley together beginning with the owls and kingfishers that I had already discovered flying under the arches. We moved on to a mythophone, (perhaps the writer's ear?) distilling Almond's voices and stories, past the pigeon crees, along the canal where a derelict old den could have easily produced a skellig... From there we trailed under a railway bridge where we dared a group incantation ..'Essalamus.' Three times we spoke the word we were warned would lead us into peril... from then on we were all caught in its enchantment!  On this beautiful trail David had woven  new words dedicated to the places that have ignited his imagination in his stories.

It was hot and by the time we returned to Seven Stories I was beginning to feel nervous. The exhibition and the art trail had managed to capture the essence of Almond's magical passionate world so beautifully and following a viewing of the exhibition an audience were gathering to hear him speak about his life's work.

In inteviews questions can be the barred way or the open gate that let's you find a way in to speak about the walled gardens and the wildernesses of the writer's mind...

Collection and Exhibitions director Sarah Lawrance  gave me an excellent tip ... make it a conversation between i did. I asked David the questions that fly up in me when I read his work .Questions about landscape, his own childhood, about his engagement with monsters as well as angels, his capturing of voice, and he read from  his beautiful most recent novel 'The Colour of The Sun'... and we got lost in the flight and flow of conversation! To hear David read his work to an audience including his own siblings was a truly moving experience. All that was left to do was thank David for sharing his mind, imagination and humanity with generations of people throughout the world through his books, films. radio plays and now through this extraordinary exhibition. I'm sure this exhibition will tour far and wide but you will never feel it's power as truly as in the place it grew.

If you do one thing this summer try to get to Seven Stories to see this exhibition. It will  reveal to you the ways that an imaginations grows, flows, flies and roots itself in the song and sway of the written word where it finds lodging for a tide and time... until a page is turned and it takes flight again in the reader's mind.

The next morning as I walked along the Quayside thinking about the creative writing workshop I was to hold that morning.... I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the sun dancing on the Tyne  and of the glittering presence of wings and light floating in and out on the tide of all our imaginations.

P.S.  I am not sure what this means! When I visited The Lake District for my cousin's wedding recently I had a little present from a pigeon deposited on my shoulder! It came seemingly out of a bright blue sky... I made my cousins laugh by instantly thanking my Dad... (the kingfisher, his favourite bird). Walking under the Tyne bridge into Newcastle... you guessed it... the same deposit on the same shoulder... well not exactly the same. I was informed that in all probability the bird that had left its present was the rare and raucous sea bird the... Kittiwake... I flew back to my nest with two new words ... Kittiwake and Cree!

Thank you Seven Stories for the invitation and this meeting of minds, hearts and wings! Now back to the chalk board....

With thanks to Victoria Sanderson - Marketing & Communications Manager for use of these wonderful photographs. 



Saturday, 16 June 2018

#RefugeeWeek2018 Diary: poetry, events, exhibition, publication and football!

Exhibition: 'Essence of Welcome'

Celebrating Refugee Week (18 – 22 June), an exhibition of poetry and images from the Art and Writing Class held at the Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants. The class is run by Sita Brahmachari and Jane Ray, Writer and Artist-in-Residence at the Centre. 
South Library, 115 Essex Road, N1 0ST Monday 11 – Saturday 23 June
Monday and Wednesday 9.30am-8pm, Friday and Saturday 9.30am-5pm. Closed Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. Free


Through the doors of the library
Into the marble foyer
We come
To find our poems and paintings welcoming us
We sing our song of what it means to learn to speak, laugh, play, write and read in your mother
To sing in Lingala
Lingala is the language that my heart first heard
Lingala is the language that my voice first spoke
Lingala is the language of my heart and soul
Oh! Lingala, Lingala, Lingala

This is a good place to find our words and paintings
This is a place to plant ideas
Where no book is censored
Where you will not be placed in prison for expressing what you think, what you believe, choosing the
wrong books
For painting an image that the government does not like
This is place of freedom
Of independence
Where you can choose the books you want to read
This knowledge you can reach for with your own hands, unforced
Libraries are not free in all countries
They are not open doors for everyone
You can go, only if you have the money to pay
Here you can enter
On a grey winter’s day
Use the computer
Drink a cup of tea and read a book
Here you can sit in peace and warmth

Here you can quench your thirst for knowledge
Join a group
Here you can paint the colour of ideas
Hear a child’s laughter
Here you can spend your energy reading a book,
Journeying wherever you wish
Not only to improve your English
But to nourish your mind
Here is a place
To fly free in your imagination
To lose and find yourself again in words
Slide your mind across the marble floor
Up the spiral staircase
To where the sun shines through a globe window

The library is a place of light
When we walk out onto the pavement
We see a woman is spending her time to see our exhibition
It is a good feeling
To see her looking at our paintings
Reading our stories

Post cards of art and writing are available from:   @RefugeeWeek    @IslingtonCentre

Saturday 16th June
Harberdasher's Girl's School Invites Islington Centre Members to a family day out incuding swimming, art, drumming and a barbecue.

Monday 18th June
Islington Libraries school events with Jane Ray and Sita Brahmachari

Sita Brahmachari and Jane Ray will be working with specially invited classes of Year 3 or Year 4 children to explore refugee experience of people living in their community. 

Wednesday 20th June
Archer Academy (Patron of Reading School) Year 10 assembly. Talking of the depiction of refugee characters in my stories and how my work in community over the years feeds into writing.

Sunday 24th June
Amnesty International #Familiestogether #Footballwelcomes
Come and have a family day and enjoy football fun and art. I'll be offering the welcome and writing a poem about why it's vital that children should have the right be reunited with their families. Enjoy a sunday with your family and lobby for people like Amal and Muhammad to do the same.#

Publication: 'A Country To Call Home'  Ed. Lucy Propescu ' Published by Unbound following June 2018 Launch. With contributions from many authors in  the YA book world about the experience of refugee children.

'A Country to Call Home implores us to build bridges, not walls. It is intended as a reminder of our shared humanity, seeking to challenge the negative narratives that so often cloud our view of these vulnerable young people, and prevent us giving them the empathy they deserve.'

There are so many extraordinary stories here. My contribution is 'Amir and George' (First published by Stripes/ Crisis in 'I'll Be Home for Christmas). It tells the story of Amir, a young refugee child integrating into a city school. He enters the George Orwell Public Speaking Competition and finds himself at the finals at Eton where George Orwell went to school. The story, as the title suggests, is a meeting between Amir and George Orwell.  Lucy Prosescu set up a wonderful scheme in which authors could bid for Chris Riddell's wonderful illustrations. Authors were then able to select a school library to benefit by receiving copies of the book. Getting these stories into children's hands feels vital in our times.  Writing this story made me think deeply about my purpose of being a writer for children and young people. Chris Riddell recalled his seminal  image of Alan Kurdi captioned by the words ' Swarms' forcing David Cameron to experience his own de-humanising language.  I'm proud to have Chris Riddell's wonderful portrait of George Orwell as a reminder of why so many writers for young people are carrying our notebooks with us too... and insisting that the individual stories are told. 

Friday, 8 June 2018

Empathy Day 2018 #ReadforEmpathy

'What if no one can tell if they're living in a time that's losing its heart?'

Laila Levenson (aged 12) Tender Earth (Macmillan Children's Books) A #ReadforEmpathy choice

Empathetic Learning is the best kind... when I think of the things I remember from my young years it is always the moments of learning where I was moved by something or someone that have stayed with me.

So too the books that made me laugh or cry, or took me on a rollercoaster of a journey, are the books from childhood that I remember still today.

For Empathy Day 2018 I'm heading to Sheffield Libraries where my day will start by asking people to share a story of a moment of learning through empathy that has had an impact on their lives.

With Mary Lea of Sheffield Libraries at the Empathy Cafe
“We’re pleased that people have come along to participate in this project and it is our hope that everyone who gets involved in our Empathy Day activities will become an Empathy Ambassador, using their empathy skills to help others.” Mary Lea (Cabinet member for Culture, parks and Leisure) 

I've been working closely with Sheffield Libraries to look at how empathy can be increased through characters we meet in stories. The science shows that it can. The beautiful thing about empathy is that it can grow in us... and the more we step into the shoes of another who we may feel we share little empathy for at the outset of a story... the more profoundly we grow. In my experience the Empathy tree is nourished through reading and writing!

I'm often taken aback that a character I can have decided is a secondary character at the mapping out stage then become the ones I empathise with the most. This has happened to me so many times now that it reveals what we all have...unconscious bias.... why empathy is magical is because by truly exploring a character's life from the inside out, by walking in their shoes, you discover so much about the world and about your own world view, and your ability to expand both.

That's why I am delighted that 'Tender Earth' has been selected as one of this year's #ReadforEmpathy books.

Sheffield Libraries have chosen themes in 'Tender Earth ' that are key issues in their communities. Their aim, in inviting me to work with them, is to explore how reading about characters and situations that are relevant in their own community can help people to increase empathy for one another across generations, cultures and religions.

In 'Tender Earth' young Laila Levenson asks the question
'What if no one can tell if they're living in a time that's losing its heart?'

She can't stand the idea of that but at first she's overwhelmed by navigating through some of today's very present realities that impact directly on her and her friend's lives. Poverty inequality, racism and religious intolerence. Laila doesn't know how she can change things but once she starts to feel true empathy for the people around her, a portal opens that leads her to understand how her feeling for others can be transformed into empathetic action that can change her community for the better.

Published by Macmillan Children's Books 2017 

The Read For Empathy Titles

Walking in Empathy Shoes

Tender Earth nominations and awards:

Endorsed by Amnesty International UK
Chosen for the IBBY UK Honour List ( Novel)  2018
Longlisted for: Carnegie Medal 2018
Longlisted for the Shrewsbury Book Award 2018
Selected by Empathy Lab for their 2018 Read for Empathy Guide
Shortlisted for the Little Rebel Awards 2018
Shortlisted for the Haringey Book Award 2018
Shortlisted for the Southern Schools Book Award 2018

Monday, 15 January 2018

Zebra Crossing Soul Song - Read it with the playlist!

Published 15th January 2018
Barrington Stoke Teen Read
Edited by: Emma Hargrave 

What inspired Zebra Crossing Soul Song?

Fifteen years ago, when my son was four years old, a zebra crossing man saved his life. I wasn't a published author then but as I have been scribbling stories and squirreling them away since well before Lenny's age(18) I wrote this in my notebook.   

'Zebra Crossing Story'
A story about a Zebra Crossing man who saves a boy's life.. the crossing as a place of learning, growing, philosophy, psychology music, river, life.... 

In the story that has emerged all these years later Lenny looks back at his growing up through memories on the crossing from nursery to sixth form. As I wrote I myself was taken back to the hideous moment that every parent and carer fears of losing sight of their young child....only to find them heading for a busy road. 

The Zebra stripes are no longer accompanied by a crossing person but every time I walk across the zebra I thank the crossing man for saving my son's life...

While writing I found myself listening to some of my favourite music tracks to allay the sense of panic that comes whenever I think of that moment on the road.... The tracks I played have become the accompanying sound track of 'Zebra Crossing Soul Song'. 

Although I knew little about the crossing man who saved my son's life...the character of Otis came to me... his name of course borrowed from Otis Redding -  after all he had and has my true 'Respect'. 

"Man can learn a lat about hum-man nature right here on de crossin'. Lenny... It all about de way you cross... all about de manner of crossin', Lenny son. Why else you  t'ink I pass me life as a ferry man? It important work you know!" (3)

I wrote ' Zebra Crossing Soul Song'  to this playlist... 

There are no chapters in Zebra Crossing Soul Song... but tracks and a playlist to listen as you read...
Listening to 'Father and Son' by Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) gave me the idea to create a lyrical dialogue between a boy and the Zebra Crossing Man who saved his life many years before. It also prompted me to create a different kind of family unit than that song depicts. Lenny has two dads in Kwame and David. Many people have influenced Lenny's growing up but it's Otis who has had the greatest impact...

'He taught me to think of words like songs
in my head
Otis was the best teacher I ever had
And now school's ending
No Island in the middle
Otis is gone
And I'm moving on
Otis was a crossing man
Otis was a ferry man
Otis was a river of thought
Otis was a river of words.'

Lenny is re-taking his A' Level Psychology....

Recently I listened to a radio programme about the increase in the search for 'perfectionism' among young people and the negative impact it's having on levels of anxiety and mental health. From what I gleaned the psychiatrist said the causes had interlocking spurs but were broadly:

  • Personal as public - The presence of the Selfie and the production of ourselves, and our bodies as a potential site of perfectionism targeted for improvement.  What's your best angle?'
  • Educational - The constant reaching for targets and  A * results rather than a focus on the process of learning.   
  • Societal - The need to bring order to a world that can seem increasingly unpredictable, insecure, fractured and chaotic... where plotting a future path may seem for many young people an impossible task 

As Lenny grows up... the pressure of life soars....
Lenny struggles with the pressures and challenges that growing up today places on all young people just stepping out into the world...He's re-taking his A' Level Psychology and struggling with revision on the subject of 'memory.'  There are so many questions and expectations... Why did Otis 'lose it' on the Crossing? Why has he gone away? What will Lenny do with his life after exams? He's drowning in the 'Career Fair' requirements to 'Plot his journey forward.' and he's lost the one person in the world he could really work things out with.

But Lenny, like Otis is growing into a songman... finding in music a place to be, to relax, to explore his deepest thoughts, ideas and aspirations for himself and the impact he can make on the world, but most of all Lenny is starting to find out that there is more than one way to make the crossing...

'Listen up now, man, if you waan be a 
Tek a lyric down
Catch dem word dat hinspire
listen deep inside de music
See what plays thru ya
See what plays true to ya'

Zebra Crossing Soul Song is available to buy here:

Poster available:

Want a poster of all four Barrington Stoke titles for your class or library?
You can download the poster here;