Saturday, 2 August 2014

NOT JUST THE SINGLE STORY – THE BOY ON THE BEACH – Dianne Hofmeyr

Malorie Blackman has asked for more stories of people of colour in YA fiction. And in The Times on July 15th in My Hunt for Stories about Children that look a bit like mine, Nikita Lalwani quotes the Dominican American writer, Junot Diaz who says vampires reputedly have no mirror reflection and in his work he sets out ‘to make mirrors so that kids like me, might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.’ And on TED the writer Chimamanda Adichie speaks on the danger of the single story and warns that ‘if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding. Our lives, our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories.’ 

The exciting news – YA might be lagging in showing people of colour, but picture books aren’t. To kick off as its summer, I’m beginning with one of my favouritea ­– The Boy on the Beach published by Bloomsbury in 1999. Why is this book out of print? Safeguard it if you have a copy. Niki Daly has jumped across borders and shown us a boy on a hot summer’s day. Sheer joy and energy on every page. You can smell the sea, hear the seagulls and feel the sticky ice-cream running down your chin. Of course the boy gets lost as many children do on crowded beaches, and is found by a lifeguard and rewarded with an ice-cream but can’t interrupt licking it for one second to tell his name... which he writes with his toe in the sand.


Diversity needs to be unselfconscious – telling about children of all cultures and all skin colours in all situations. The Tamarind list has picture book stories like The Silence Seeker by Ben Morley, illustrated by Carl Pearce where a boy from a family of asylum seekers moves in next door, and Joe thinks they are ‘silence seekers’ and tries to find a quiet place in the city for the boy. Modern, dynamic, comic style illustrations.


On their list too are: Mum's Late, by Elizabeth Hawkins illustrated by Pamela Venus, where a boy waiting for his mum, worries and imagines everything that might have happened to her, or My Mummy is Magic, by Dawn Richards, illustrated by Jane Massey which depicts a mixed-race family or Siddharth and Rinki by Addy Farmer, illustrated by Karin Littlewood, where Siddharth dreams of India where he used to live. Now in England when his toy elephant gets lost, he feels lonelier than ever.

Frances Lincoln has always forged ahead with picture books that represent children of all colour in a way that doesn't feel forced or pigeonholed, as in Mary Hoffman’s Amazing Grace books, illustrated by Caroline Binch, and Niki Daly’s Jamela stories as well as his The Herd Boy,




or in Piet Grobler's zany illustrations of a mixed race family 'Fussy Freya' by Katerine Quarmby.




Then there are older books like One Round Moon (Bodley Head 1994) written by Ingrid Mennen and also illustrated by Niki Daly. These books depict many overlapping stories of children both rural and of the city – children who have high aspirations, who believe they can do anything they imagine, children who love dressing up, herd boys who dream of being presidents, children who are fussy eaters, children who are jealous of new born brothers. 

The illustrator Karin Littlewood's name pops up continually also on the Frances Lincoln list. Leslie Beake’s Home Now is about a little girl, Sieta, who has lost her mother to AIDS and finds comfort by befriending an orphan elephant. It shows the deep loss any child experiences at the death of a mother.


Other books illustrated by Littlewood, like Chanda by Margaret Bateson Hill, Leah’s Christmas Story by Bateson Hill, Home for Christmas by Sally Grindley, and The Colour of Home by Mary Hoffman all present overlapping stories with abundant energy.



In the early 80’s when South Africa was in the midst of our apartheid years, I started collecting picture books that depicted black children as heroes and looked to the US (simple because I was travelling there more regularly than to the UK) with illustrators like Jack Ezra Keats, Jerry Pinkney and John Steptoe in his very handsome depiction of Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters – a Cinderella story of two sisters who compete for the hand of a king. (though I'm not fond of Steptoe's pastiche approach to the landscape of Africa with Mount Kilamanjaro, a jumping springbok and proteas all depicted on one page... things that occur some 2000 Km apart) 

An all time favourite of mine from those years, is Ben’s Trumpet published in 1979 by Greenwillow Books, written and illustrated by Rachel Isadora, an ex ballet dancer. Set in the Jazz Age it tells of a little boy who hangs about listening to music and longs to play the trumpet but doesn't own one and so plays his imaginary trumpet. It’s as pertinent now as it was in the Jazz Age, or even in 1979 with its message of inspiration for all young musicians.



Picture books seem to encapsulate these overlapping stories in very visual terms. The heroes in them are every shade of brown and reflect all cultures. I'm neither an academic or a librarian. How can I ever hope to make this dip into picture books an entire rich experience of what's available and out there. Please add your titles in the comments below or your personal favourites on Twitter of Facebook, so we are armed with a list that won’t tell a single story but will tell overlapping stories, so that children don't risk 'critical misunderstanding' and will see themselves reflected back in all shades and from all cultures – heroes all of them!

www.diannehofmeyr.com
Dianne Hofmeyr's latest picture book, Zeraffa Giraffa, is illustrated by Jane Ray. On Twitter @dihofmeyr




Friday, 1 August 2014

DEALING WITH YOUR SAGGY MIDDLE by PENNY DOLAN



Fiction sometimes grows large and unwieldy in the writing, so how can a writer deal with this uncomfortable issue? Here, from an author all too familiar with the problem, are some suggestions:
HIDE YOUR WIP – AND BULGE - AWAY.  Are you too familiar with the way your WIP looks? Maybe you can’t actually see it - your turgid, ill-begotten prose - any more? Hide the bulge away for a while. Get on with other styles of writing: non-fiction blog-posts, ideas for a different age range, study books on structure to sharpen the mind and writing. Do something practical to occupy your hands and let the back of your mind maunder on around the plot.

IMPROVE YOUR DIET  Meanwhile, read writing you don’t usually read, too. Get curious. Get hold of books, magazines, blogs and more, so you taste language that you wouldn’t usually go for. Wake up you palate. Cleanse your dull system. . . (Ooops. Maybe not that. )

ENLIST A BEST, BEST FRIEND. While all the above is going on, find a trusted & informed FRIEND or MENTOR who will agree to read your (copy-edited) but troublesome WIP. 

Choose carefully. Ask them for precise feedback. NB Your Best Best Friend can only read your WIP freshly once, so you may need more than one helper as you progress.



TIME AT THE HEALTH FARM
Try, if possible, to retreat to a good SPACE OF TIME for yourself, so that you can give the work your full attention and an unbroken focus. 

Once you lose heart, it’s so easy to keep fiddling with the text in front of your eyes, rather than facing your problem areas and doing something. (Note: plan your home & social demands accordingly.)


 
SAY IT LOUD & PROUD. I sag, we sag, it sags. Take time to read the printed-out WIP aloud, with a pen and notebook in your hand, making notes of the problems as you go. Maybe start this from the point where you are satisfied? We write onwards, eager to get to the end, but often rush through the scenes in between, which need to be as honed as the start and finale. Do they have starts, middle and ends too?

THE TRIPLE-FOLD MIRROR -  WITH SPOTLIGHTS AND MAGNIFYING LENS. Look and study the WIP’s WHOLE SHAPE! Maybe the middle looks worse because the beginning goes on too long? The reader is tired by the time they get there? Or is the ending itself underwritten, or not stunning enough?

INVEST IN A NEW CORSET. Has your STRUCTURE slumped? You may be an inspired PANTSER, but this might be the time to go through the novel, note and improve your novel’s outline. Or, PLANNERS, this is when your existing Outline needs a bit more thinking, a spark or two of excitement.



DISCOVER THE NEW YOU? Yes, create and save a fresh new WIP document, but do leave the original there in case it is still needed, but make sure you can identify which is which a month or so ahead. 

Don't loose the old you - or discover too late that you've been working on both versions at different times. (Hmmm. Adds to today's To Do list.)


GRAB YOUR ACTIVITY KIT. Hooray! Time for pens, markers and post it notes to mark up printed pages. Find space to lay out your print-out so you can assess the relative sizes of the chapter piles. On screen, use DOCUMENT MAP to show your chapters as headings, to add simple heading notes & characters, to analyse what you actually have. Other devices and gadgets available.
 
THE DIET NOTEBOOK METHOD. Go deeper. Just what is this WIP about? What are you feeding the reader? WHY does this chapter/each of these scenes exist? What is the PURPOSE of this scene between these characters? Spend time QUESTIONING your characters in order to deepen the plot and themes.


THE 2:1 DIET. Can ONE character do the work of TWO? Examine the work your characters do, the scenes they appear in. Do you use two characters when a single, better developed role could tick the “archetype” box or interest factor more efficiently and dramatically?

GO FOR THE MAX! Are there scenes and encounters that have not fulfilled their EMOTIONAL POTENTIAL whether an active or a reflective scene? Could the scene could be more effective or explicit?  Do you need to shift some telling into showing?

 
PARK RUN: Has your plot slowed? Does it toddle, taking the reader too much time to get through the scenes? Can you CUT OUT part of the route, the less important scenes? And/or add more hopes and reversals? A scene is where something happens, moves forward. 
Does it?




GI DIET. Is there a Greatly Interesting diversion that you just couldn’t resist that holds up the reading of the story? Can you take it out? Or excise a running story thread? Or is there an attractive walk-on character that takes up too much time? Find and Destroy!
NOT THE L.B.D. AGAIN!  Are there too many “familiar” encounters? Too many slightly SIMILAR scenes? Too many meetings between x & y, or combinations of characters that have the same pace? Maybe what the WIP needs, now and again, is a short summary - and on with the plot.

SLIDE INTO THE SPANX. Ooo-er! Do your descriptions bulge? Do you need to move more cleanly from scene to scene? Do you get in and out of your scenes quickly and neatly? And - pssst! - does every scene have a well-defined beginning, middle and end?




THE TURKISH BATH. Is your novel too TEPID? Too COLD? Even too constantly HOT? Do you need to build stronger contrasts into the emotional TEMPERATURE of your WIP? Can you push the moment and the tension until it’s almost unbearable? Do you have down-time too?

AVOID THE FULL CHOCOLATE BOX. Words, like chocolate, are fattening, and you LOVE WORDS - which makes it so easy to over-write and so hard to cut.  Did your BBF mention any scenes that s/he felt were over-written? Repeated stylistic annoyances?  Over-use of favourite words or expressions? Or are there thickly-written scenes that made you weary when read aloud?

THE TALKING CURE. How goes your DIALOGUE? What is the purpose of each and every conversation, especially in a vague and saggy middle section? Read each section aloud. Are the voices distinctive enough? Is the dialogue just an information dump? Is each stretch as tight and as short as possible? Is there a dramatic subtext, or power play between characters? Does the dialogue progress or stop the story?

THE ELASTIC BAND.  
Have you remembered the subtle things that PING? 

Have you sharpened the “colours” of scenes or characters? Considered the use of recurring symbols? Significant objects? Strengthened threads? Introduced letters and diaries, variety in the reading, perhaps?


 
FEEL THE BURN, ALAS! There’s no quick fix. Trimming the middle will be a trudge, so do find ways of rewarding yourself as you make progress. Keep your audience in mind. Keep each and every character in mind. Be bold, keep confident and may your story emerge a leaner, keener and fitter tale.  GOOD LUCK!


Penny Dolan.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Author, illustrator, or both? By Hannah Shaw

We're delighted to welcome Hannah Shaw as July's guest illustrator. She discusses how it is to be both an author and an illustrator.


DianneHofmeyr has no need to worry about picture book authors who don't illustrate being left in the cold. From the perspective of an illustrator who illustrates for others but does write too, there is room for all of us!

My most recent picture book collaboration with Gareth Edwards  (The Disgusting Sandwich) is probably my favourite picture book so far. I had far more art direction and involvement from the wonderful team at Alison Green than on any of my previous books. I think the end result shows that. I also feel that Gareth's writing brought out something exciting and new in my drawings that I might not have done in my own work.

A spread from the Disgusting Sandwich

Another author / illustrator collaboration that caught my eye recently was 'Oi Frog!' by Kes Gray and Jim Field. That is my picture book of the year, what an hilarious book! What a fabulous pairing. And where would we be without Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, or Julia Donaldson and David Roberts for that matter?

Oi Frog images by Jim Field and Kes Gray


Saying that I do think prizes like the Greenaway are very much focused on the artistic merit of a book rather than the story. I also think they often choose books that appeal to adults rather than necessarily to children - but I think that is another debate.

As an illustrator I do admit that overall, I find illustrating my own books an easier process, I have far more artistic control and generally I feel happier illustrating my own stories, it doesn't necessarily mean that the end result is better but I feel this is the case for my Stan
Stinky young fiction series. I have recently found a niche with these in 'Pic-fic' (picture-fiction, a fiction book which has many integral illustrations such as speech bubbles, diary extracts, doodles and maps). I write around 13,000 words but I end up doing over 200 pieces of black and white interior artwork. This is where someone like me, an illustrator who writes, has the distinct advantage.


Could Pic-fic be the future of young fiction for reluctant readers? Children are used to the bombardment of images from TV and online media. A heavily illustrated fiction book does pique their interest. I

Tom Gates by Liz Pichon another example of Pic-Fic
am a very visual person and as I write, I know exactly what kind of illustration I am going to add. Often I leave gaping holes in my text as I know that I can get my message across as a series of images instead. 

I guess my argument is that books are always evolving and collaboration can be a wonderful thing but having a book which has a strong author-illustrator means no compromises. The best books will always be by authors or author/illustrators who keep pace with changes and push the boundaries, bringing new ideas to life, whatever their skills.


Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Rereading for the wrong reasons? Lari Don

One of the most wonderful but most troubling things about being a writer is that books become work.

Not just writing books, but reading them too.

This can be wonderful, when I tell myself that wasting (spending, investing) a whole day reading a novel that I’m desperate to finish, is in fact legitimate work. But it can also be troubling, when I realise that something I used to love is now something I HAVE TO DO.

This changes my relationship with books. Having to read books, having to think about and talk about books, not because I want to, not because that’s the book I want to spend time with, but because I’ve committed myself to an event or an article or a blog post which makes reading that particular book right now a necessity.

I live in Edinburgh, and I’m doing various events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival next month, mostly in the children’s and schools programme. But I’m also leading a reading workshop on Diana Wynne Jones, a writer whose books inspired me as a child, whose books still inspire me now, whose books I love to read.

But this summer, I have HAD to read them. I have had to reread the ones I am committed to discussing. (Books that, to be fair, I suggested and wanted to discuss, but even so…)

And suddenly I found myself resisting rereading them. I love rereading my favourite books. Mostly because I enjoy them, and am happy to reenter their worlds. And partly because, especially with books by Diana Wynne Jones, Neil Gaiman and others who are inspired by tales of old magic, I recognise more references every time I read them. But that’s when I choose to reread. When a book calls to me and says, come on over here and visit me again…

This summer, there’s been a pile of DWJ books on my study floor, which I knew I had to reread, but which I kept stepping round. Even though The Power of Three is my favourite ever children’s book, and Howl’s Moving Castle is in the top five, and Fire And Hemlock radically changed my relationship with my favourite Scottish fairy tale, and Chrestmanci is the most perfect wizardly wizard ever created… I’ve been resisting. Because I felt that I had to read them, that it was my job, that it was homework.

a small fraction of the DWJ pile!
And this has made me consider how, to some extent, every book I read is work. That everything I read leaves something behind, like a wave on a beach, which changes and inspires and shapes everything I will subsequently write. That I learn from every book, whether I love it or not. That the reader I am creates the writer I am.

But I also know that if I am conscious of what I’m learning from a book, then I haven’t truly lost myself in it. And the books that I just thoroughly enjoy, that I don’t read as a writer, that I just read as a wide-eyed reader, desperate to find out what happens next (and not noticing how the writer is making me care) those are the books I love the most. Probably those are the books that influence me most. And certainly those are the books I happily and enthusiastically reread.

And so. I took a deep breath. I started with Dogsbody, and The Ogre Downstairs, and Howl and those castles. And I have had the most glorious weekend rereading Diana Wynne Jones. To be honest, most of the time, I forgot why I was rereading them (workshop, what workshop?) and just lost myself in the wonderful magical world of her imagination.

Lari Don is the award-winning author of 21 books for all ages, including a teen thriller, fantasy novels for 8 – 12s, picture books, retellings of traditional tales and novellas for reluctant readers. Lari’s website 
Lari’s own blog 
Lari on Twitter 
Lari on Facebook 

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

SCHOOL'S OUT! Or is it . . . ? by Anna Wilson

In January I wrote about the joys of giving children notebooks and letting them run riot with their story ideas. Since then I have met many teachers and parents who have done just this. They have told me how wonderful it is to see this space being used. The freedom to write or draw whatever the child wants has fed into stories she or he has often then gone on to polish in class in structured writing time. (This has not, of course, always been a direct result of my post – many teachers and parents were already giving their children the chance to explore their writing in this way.)

I would not be blogging about this again, were it not for something I witnessed on a long train journey last week; something which had me thinking again about how constraining we can be in our approach to our children’s education and the damage that can be done when pleasure is forsaken in favour of ticking boxes and getting things ‘right’. And, perhaps more importantly, when this approach leaks into home life.

A mum got on the train with her two small daughters, whom I guessed to be about five and six, and her son, who, I thought, looked about eight. They settled into their seats and the mother brought out some pens and pencils, paper and notebooks.

The little girls immediately clamoured, ‘I want my notebook!’ ‘I am going to write you a story!’

How lovely! I thought. What a great way to spend a few hours on the train.

‘Yes,’ said the mother. ‘You each have twenty minutes to write a beautiful story, and then I will read it and check it. Now – remember I want to see “wow” words, good punctuation, proper spelling, neat handwriting and lots of interesting verbs and adjectives—’

The boy groaned loudly (or was it me?) and put his head in his hands. ‘I don’t WANT to write a story!’ he complained. ‘I don’t like writing stories and I am no good at them.’

His mother placated him with promises of chocolate biscuits if he would only ‘be good like the girls and write for twenty minutes without making a fuss’. His sisters were indeed already scribbling away and reading aloud what they had written, eager to share it with their mother. She praised them and told them to keep going for the full twenty minutes.

What is it with this twenty minutes thing? I thought. Maybe she is desperate for a bit of peace and quiet. Don’t judge! You were in this situation not so long ago yourself: long train journeys with young children are tiresome and they have to have things to do otherwise you go crazy and so do they.

The boy then handed over his story. His mother, glancing at it, said, ‘Well, that’s not very interesting, is it? You haven’t used good connectives, there are no “wow” words, your handwriting is messy and you just haven’t made an effort.’

Pretty harsh, I thought.

Then came the killer blow.

‘You really have got to start making an effort with your writing, you know,’ the mother went on. ‘Next year you will have to write for twenty minutes and put all these things into your stories. You have been on holiday for a week already and you have done no writing. You must promise you’ll concentrate on this for another twenty minutes, or you will be no good at this next year.’

I must confess that, at the time, I wanted to lean across and engage the boy in conversation. I wanted to ask him if he liked reading and, if so, what kind of stories did he like best? What about his favourite films? I wanted to get him chatting about his likes and dislikes and encourage him to scribble them down, to use this precious ‘writing time’ as a chance to let his brain go wild. I wanted to tell him that it was OK to do that, and that afterwards he could go back over his story and concentrate on the connectives and the punctuation and the neat handwriting. I wanted to say that all those things his mother was talking about were indeed important, but that perhaps the reason he hated writing so much was that he was struggling with remembering the rules; that if he could forget the rules to start with, he would then perhaps find he loved writing stories, and that he had piles and piles of them to tell. I might perhaps have added that, as a published writer, I would be paralysed if I had to write a clean first draft from the off which obeyed all the rules of Standard English . . . 

Of course I didn’t. I did not want to upset his mother – after all, it was none of my business. In any case, on reflection, it was not her behaviour with her children that upset me the most, rather the fact that she clearly felt anxious that her son was not up to scratch with his English. Indeed, she was so anxious that he improve that she was insisting he work on it over the summer holidays, and work on it in the exact same way he is required to at school. She was armed to the hilt with educational jargon and was turning this terrifying arsenal on her weary son.

I was an editor before I was fortunate enough to develop my career as a writer. I know as well as anyone the importance of good grammar and correct punctuation. I appreciate clean, clear writing and a well-structured plot. I know good dialogue when I see it. My own children will roll their eyes and tell you that I am the first person to howl at the misuse of the apostrophe on a street sign or restaurant menu. Of course I can see why we have to teach these things and why parents should care about their children’s level of competence in English.

However, it makes me extremely upset that an obsession with such technicalities has the potential to wreck a child’s love of their own language. When you are as young as that little lad, creative writing should be fun, shouldn’t it? Leaving aside the dubious value in making your child work over the summer holidays in such a joyless way, I found it heartbreaking that the mother seemed not to see the potential for fun in giving her son a notebook and letting him run riot with his imagination before giving him guidance and advice on how to hone his ideas. Even more heartbreaking, though, was the thought of how anxious the woman seemed to feel about her son attaining certain targets in the academic year to come. She cannot be alone in feeling this.

I only hope that, come September, her son will find himself fortunate to have one of the many inspirational teachers we have in this country who are still in love enough with their subject to occasionally throw out the rulebook and teach from the heart instead.


www.annawilson.co.uk

Monday, 28 July 2014

Writings and paintings

This passage from Kate Rundell's gorgeous Rooftoppers always makes me think of an impressionistic painting:

Paris lay still below them. From where Sophie stood, with both her hands wrapped round the neck of a carved saint, it was a mass of silver, except where the river shone a rusty-gold colour in the lamplight. (p.224)

The way she adds the 'rusty-gold' to the 'mass of silver' - what a lovely contrast of warm and cold metals... and look at those tiny yellow specks from 'the lamplight', which you can just see, can't you, on the surface of the Seine? 

I love the fact that it's a child seeing all this from above, from a place that people generally don't go to, and that she's there with her arms hugging a stern, stone figure - as if trying to give it the affection it's never had. For me, it's this painting:

Gustave Caillebotte, Rue Halévy (1878)

Stories almost never unfold in my head like films when I read, but I do sometimes 'see' static images - paintings, photographs - often specific styles or artistic currents. Sometimes it's the other way around: I'm reminded of a book when I look at a work of art. The other day I went to Madrid for the first time, and I saw in the huge and wonderful Prado museum this well-known triptych by Bosch:

Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights (1490?)
Immediately I was reminded - of course in part because I'd just read it - of J.K. Rowling Robert Galbraith's The Silkworm, with its grotesque gallery of monstrous protagonists and torture scenes:

charming
But also, one little detail called back to my mind a similarly gripping summer read from years ago I'd almost entirely forgotten, Michael Connelly's A Darkness More Than Night... A Harry Bosch adventure, not coincidentally:

it's a story full of Boschian owls, that's all I can remember...
Now Galbraith and Connelly are linked in my mind as inextricably as Rundell and Caillebotte.

Generally, it happens with very famous rather than obscure works of art, perhaps because those tend to stick in one's head more. In children's literature, here are other associations, personal and therefore not always logical, though some are much more obvious than others:

Lois Lowry's The Giver and the 1956 French film The Red Balloon
Malorie Blackman's Noughts and Crosses and Norman Rockwell's 'The Problem We All Live With' (1964)


Sally Gardner's Maggot Moon is Anselm Kiefer all the way. Anne Fine's The Tulip Touch is this Edward Hopper...:

yep, it's the Bates Motel, too... not a coincidence, I'm sure.

I didn't like Neil Gaiman's Coraline very much (sorry), but it was Louise Bourgeois's 'Maman' spiders:


Some authors make explicit reference to paintings, films or other visual art forms, like Marcus Sedgwick in Midwinterblood. I love that - I love looking up the works of art mentioned in books, especially when I have no clue what they are and it throws a completely new light on the text. Some painters, some paintings and some movements seem to crystallise writers' attention. Da Vinci, of course, but also the Surrealists in general, it seems.

Similarly, when I write, I never really picture my characters in my head, but there's always a lot of colours, and many static images, like paintings or stills from films or photographs. Fun adventure stories, whether I write them or read them, look quite like Sonia Delaunay's circles and spirals:

Pippi Longstocking!
Is it a kind of synaesthesia? Not sure, it's not automatic - it only happens with some books, and some paintings or works of art. It also depends hugely on what I've just read or seen, and in which contexts. Does that happen to you too? With which texts and which images? 
_____________________________________

Clementine Beauvais writes children's books in French and English. The former are of all kinds and shapes, and the latter humour/adventure series - the Sesame Seade mysteries with Hodder, the Holy-Moly Holiday series with Bloomsbury. She blogs here about children's literature and academia and is on Twitter @blueclementine.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Geopolitics - Lily Hyde


This time last year I wrote a cheerful ABBA post from high in the Carpathian mountains in west Ukraine. I’d been listening to sad and fascinating family stories that are not just stories, from the woman who is and is not Lesya, and thinking I should write them down somehow. 

They were not just stories, although they felt like it to me a year ago. This now is not exactly a story either. 


I went to the village market early, down by the bridge where the icy river rushes along its bed of pale pebbles. The bridge was still in the shade, the sun not yet clear of the pine-green, copper-green mountains. 
The woman who sells there glass jars of bilberries sat as always in her faded apron, her daughter at her side – and this morning the woman was weeping and wailing, her salty tears running down into the jars. The little girl fiddled with the apron strings with fingers berry-stained blue, and said sternly, stop crying, Mama. Stop it. 
There was no need to ask why she was crying. But in the Russian she learned at school, peppered with words from Ukrainian, Hungarian, Slovak and Romanian, the woman told me anyway. 
Yesterday she was out on the polyana, the high Carpathian mountain pasture where the village sheep flocks wander all summer. She looked up from the bilberry bushes and watched the animals feeding on the steep slopes, like a handful of white and brown beads scattering from a broken string. 
This was what her great-grandfather saw each summer, here on these same mountains, before he was taken off to serve in the Austro-Hungarian army in 1914 and never came back. This is what her grandfather saw, before he was mobilised in 1938 by the Czechoslovak army, and what, via Hungarian, German and Soviet armies, he at last came home to. 
This is what she grew up with, this woman I’ll call Lesya. Her husband grew up with it; their daughter will grow up with it, maybe, although this traditional way of life is dying out at last and anyway Lesya wants something better for their daughter: Europe, travel, civilization, not smelly sheep on high pastures and a hard struggle for existence that hasn’t changed for centuries. 
That doesn’t stop Lesya thinking it’s the most beautiful and precious thing in the world; it is her world, her country, these sheep strung out over the green mountainside, the crystal air flush with their bleating and their ringing collar bells.    
She watched the sheep, and then she turned back to picking bilberries because her husband’s pay as a mobilised soldier in the Ukrainian army isn’t much. As well as jar-fulls at the market she can sell berries by the kilo to traders, who haul them off in refrigerated lorries to far-away Kyiv, maybe even to where her husband is now in further-away east Ukraine, a world she’s never seen though it is part of her country too, apparently. 
You already know how the rest of this story goes. While Lesya was picking bilberries, her husband was killed yesterday in that far-off East Ukraine war. She came home in the evening down the familiar paths to the village, when the news was already old. Early this morning she walked to market to sell those berries she was picking at the time her husband died, because what else can she do? 
And I bought them, because what else could I do? I bought the glass jar they were in too, for much more money than it is worth. I hold it in my hands now, full of tears stained berry blue, as I listen to that stern little girl’s voice saying, stop crying, stop it. 

www.lilyhyde.com