Glimpses in old books…

I love antique books, a love inherited from my father who over decades has collected an eclectic range of extraordinary old books. I love their beauty, the stories they contain, and the sense of holding something that is a direct link to people in the past, not just authors and publishers, but also readers, who over the generations or even centuries have held them in their hands. And I also love the unexpected unofficial glimpses these books can give into those very same previous readers and owners, everything from old clippings, tickets, menus, dried flowers and other such things you can find tucked into the pages, to inscriptions, bookplates and scribbles left by previous readers/owners.

Here’s a couple of examples from my own collection: both are from 18th century books pertaining to fairytales and their tellers, which I am presently using to work on an exciting new project(more details on thst soon!)

The first is a 1786 edition of one of the volumes of the very famous Cabinet des fées compendium, which in 41 volumes gathered the fairy tales written by (mostly) French writers of the l17th and 18th centuries, such as Charles Perrault, Madame d’Aulnoy, Mme Leprince de Beaumont, Mademoiselle de la Force, and many others. This particular volume, number 37, is of great interest to anyone interested in the area(as I am!) as it’s an index of the authors with full notes about their lives and works plus an introduction to the fairytale genre as it was written at the time and a list of all the other volumes in the Cabinet des fées. It’s fascinating in itself, of course, but where an old copy of this parts company with say, a new edition of the same work, is that traces of previous owners remain it it. In this case, they are two bookplates: the first of which, pasted on the inside cover of the book, proclaims the book to be from ‘Case G, Shelf…(unreadable number, perhaps ‘2’) of ‘Brynkinalt Library’. The second bookplate, pasted on the second internal page, just before the title page, informs us that that it is ‘Ex Libris Ellis’ (from the Ellis Library, or Library of the Ellis family) with two women’s names underneath: Lilian Fitzmaurice and Madeleine Blanche.

A couple of searches on Google revealed to me something about the people behind the plates. The library name and the dragon symbol on the frst bookplate had made me pretty sure it had come from somewhere in Wales and so it proved to be but intriguingly, the Brynkinalt Library was not a public library, but a private one once housed on an estate that has belonged to the one family since the 10th century. Could the eighteenth-century faces that stare out at the viewer from the painting featured on the Brynkinalt website have once been bent over this book?

I had no idea, of course, but it’s fun to speculate! And hmm, maybe there’s material for a good story in it 🙂

Investigating the second bookplate also produced an interesting result: the book had once belonged(presumably after it had left Brynkinalt library) to a renowned Canadian scholar in French literary studies and art history, Dr Madeleine Blanche Ellis of Montreal (1915-2008). The bookplate also cited Lililan Fitzmaurice, who turns out to be Dr Ellis’ mother (Lilian’s husband and Madeleine’s father was George Porter Ellis). Mother and daughter are mentioned together on the bookplate, and the book comes from the library of the Ellis family. Was Madeleine still living at home at the time? Or did they own the book together? Small mysteries perhaps; but intriguing glimpses, as well, into past lives.

The second book in my collection that offers an intriguing glimpse into past lives through unofficial additions to it is another book from the 18th century, also within the fairytale genre; a 1799 edition of the first volume of Madame Leprince de Beaumont’s Magasin des Enfants (first published in 1756) which contains within it her famous retelling of la Belle et la Bête, or Beauty and the Beast. It’s a fascinating book of course, and there’s a lot to say about the tale itself and how it differs(very positively!) from an earlier version by an earlier fairytale-writer, Madame de Villeneuve, but that’s a story for another day. Today, what I want to note are those unofficial, marginal evocations of a previous reader’s relationship with this particular copy of the book. And it’s a very different story to the other one!

This reader, whoever he or she was (or else, and more likely, it was more than one person), clearly saw in the book an opportunity to practise hand-writing skills as well as a handy notebook for daily tasks. There is no defacing of the actual text of the book, only the flyleaves, front and back, and the title pages. On the front flyleaf and title pages are flourishes in sepia ink of letters, words and sentences, mostly in French, but the half-title page has these words in Italian as well: ‘Signora Maestra’, which I believe means ‘Madam Teacher’.

I bought the book on Abebooks, from an Italian second had book dealer, so clearly the book had been in Italy; and the look of the handwriting suggested a child, most likely an Italian child learning French, possibly at home, under the guidance of a ‘Signora Maestra’ (and what she thought of the defacing of the book I can only imagine!)

The back flyleaf meanwhile told a different tale. There are some ‘handwriting practice’ scribbles on it but also something quite different: an actual laundy list 🙂 ‘Twenty pieces’ proclaims the heading, which then goes on to list the various articles: draps(sheets) a jupon(petticoat), mouchoirs de poche(pocket handkerchieves), torchons(teatowels) and more. ‘Twenty pieces’ proclaims the heading. The words are in French, in a different, firmer hand to the other, and hints at an adult rather than a child or adolescent. Was it the laundrymaid who wrote those words, or more likely the lady of the house, or perhaps a housekeeper, noting down the articles that had been sent off to the laundry? I don’t know, anymore than I know why you’d use a book as a makeshift aide-memoire, and just once too(the kid scribbling in the book seems more understandable)but here again are glimpses of people from the past, anonymous but whose presences flicker into view, even if briefly, in a rather touching way.

 

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Interview with Sandra van Doorn of Red Paper Kite

Today I’m delighted to bring you an interview with Sandra van Doorn. I met Sandra and her husband Edward at last year’s Independent Publishing Conference in Melbourne and we had a great time chatting about books, publishing, creative work, and France!

Sandra is a French illustrator who has had books published in several different countries, including the award-winning Sleep Well, Siba and Saba (written by Nansubuga Nagadya Isdahl). Born and brought up in France, then globetrotting to the UK, USA, Russia, Europe she’s now living with her husband Edward in sunny Perth, Australia.

But now Sandra is embarking on a brand-new adventure. She is the founder and publisher of Red Paper Kite, which will exclusively publish picture books, and is launching its first title (Hugo) in May 2019.

Sandra, can you tell us about how you came to establish Red Paper Kite? 

The idea of creating a small press for picture books simply came from a need for more creative space and professional growth; publishing picture books felt like a natural evolution from being an illustrator.

As someone who has also done the ‘double act’ of creator and publisher, I know it’s a steep learning curve, setting up a publishing house. How’s the journey been so far for you?

You are right it is a very steep learning curve!

And it can be overwhelming at times.

As a tiny press, I juggle many facets of the business on my own. Finding the right information is not always easy, you find yourself constantly asking “Am I making the right decision?”

But you do knock on a few doors, and meet amazing people along the way, people who are genuinely interested in making your journey easier. People like you Sophie!

I feel grateful for the support I have received from within the industry – particularly my publisher in the UK (Lantana Publishing), who has been very generous in sharing their journey as a small publisher.

But in truth part of the adventure is figuring things out.

What can you tell us about RPK’s Books?

When I was a child, I used to scribble in all my books. It got me into a lot of trouble, but I firmly argued it was meant to be that way. I wanted that idea to translate into our books by creating books that give permission to our readers to scribble and add to the narrative. So, all our books include colouring pages.

Our readers become the illustrators and authors for a moment, they are part of the story. They can stay with our books a little longer, get to know our characters a little better … It’s a fun experience.

Visual narratives can be understood across the world, but of course different cultures have different approaches to illustration and picture books. What are the differences (and commonalities) that you see between, say, French and Australian picture book traditions and trends? (Please do mention any other picture book cultures you might like to as well!)

In France picture books are more than a childhood phase – there is a love for visual art rooted in our culture that goes beyond age, and so we are huge consumers of picture books – even in our adult life whether you have children or not.

Our cultural heritage definitely influences our approach to illustration; our illustrations can be more poetic, sentimental and censorship is a little broader in France.

But rather than comparing, we can choose to embrace and mix all those differences, aiming at creating a richer reading experience. Because really, who wants to read the same type of books over and over?

What are you looking for, in terms of both texts and illustrations, for Red Paper Kite?

There is no perfect profile, but we are curious about authors and illustrators who don’t feel too mainstream. A little fun, a good dose of quirkiness. Stories that reflect the world we live in.

Stories that will appeal to grown-ups too. A story within a story.

I guess we love stories and people with that little “Je ne sais quoi”.

 You will be launching the first Red Paper Kite book in May can you tell us a little about it?

HUGO – The boy with the curious mark, (written by Yohann Devezy and illustrated by Manuela Adreani) is coming out in May.

It’s a sweet story about a boy born with a curious mark, a rainbow.

Hugo’s Rainbow broaches a theme that gets revisited over and over, but with a contemporary edge to it.

His story will teach the importance of acceptance no matter what your difference.

You will love HUGO. Because really, who doesn’t like a rainbow?

How has starting a publishing house impacted on your career as an illustrator? (Or how do you see it impacting it?)

Well … I miss my drawing table!

Hopefully I will get an opportunity to draw again. I still hope to illustrate a few classics, such as Alice in Wonderland or Le Petit Prince.

Can you tell us something about your work as an illustrator, and the books you worked on? How did you start as a professional illustrator?

My career as an illustrator started when I was living in Vancouver, Canada.

I decided to attend art classes at Emily Carr’s University, and Paper Hearts – my first picture book project – was picked up for publishing. It was the beginning of an amazing (and sometimes wonderfully hard!) journey.

After that, I was lucky enough to meet Alice Curry (Lantana Publishing) via the Bologna Children’s book fair which led me to illustrate books about Uganda. It was a wonderful experience, pushing boundaries professionally and culturally – sitting at my desk, I was travelling and discovering a part of the world I didn’t know much about.

Meanwhile another publisher in Greece contacted me and that’s how I worked on texts I couldn’t even read!!

What illustrators have influenced you–from childhood to now?

My all-time favourite is Lisbeth Zwerger– her work is pure poetry and her talent is beyond words.

And then you cannot go past Rebecca Dautremer, Manuela Adreani, Benjamin Lacombe, Elodie Nouhen and Anne Herbauts.

 

Celebrating our home town in a new picture book

I am delighted to announce today a project that’s had to be kept under wraps till now: the picture book Join the Armidale Parade, text written by me, gorgeous illustrations by talented local illustrator Kathy Creamer, and published by local publisher Little Pink Dog Books. Look at the gorgeous cover! Commissioned by Armidale Regional Council, Join the Armidale Parade is a fun picture book for children and families, celebrating the beauty, diversity, colour and vibrancy of our hometown of Armidale, in northern New South Wales.  My story, told in bouncy verse, is focussed around a little girl whose family has recently moved to Armidale, and who takes part in its colourful annual parade, held in the autumn. And Kathy’s created the most fabulous illustrations, full of fun, humour, joy and plenty of Armidale landmarks and references:-) It’s a book that can be enjoyed by both locals and visitors, and even those who may not know Armidale but can appreciate the fun and warmth of a festival parade. It’s, I think, the first time that a picture book for children has been set here.

Although I was brought up in both France and Sydney, and my husband David in the UK, we have lived in this region for a long time now, built a house and brought up three children here. Although I’d had a few short pieces published before I came to this region, my writing career properly took off here, and all my books have been written here. I’m delighted to have been able to collaborate with Kathy, Little Pink Dog Books and Armidale Regional Council in Join the Armidale Parade, a book that pays tribute to a beautiful, creative and friendly town.

The book will be published on May 1.

 

Looking forward to the HNSA Conference!

I’m really looking forward to the 2019 Historical Novel Society of Australasia Conference, which this year will be held in Sydney, 25-27 October.

I’m delighted to have been asked not only to be a presenter and judge of the short story prize, but also Conference Patron. 

With a theme of ‘History Repeats’, and a packed program full of interesting panels, great workshops and masterclasses, pitching sessions and more, this promises to be absolutely fantastic for anyone interested in historical fiction.

Early bird registrations are open now, so head on over and have a look!

Cover reveal for On My Way!

I am thrilled to be able to reveal the gorgeous cover of my forthcoming picture book with the fabulous illustrator Simon Howe, On My Way. The book will be published by Scholastic on June 1.

Here’s the blurb:

On my way to school, Mumma, guess what I saw? A pig chasing a wig! A goat rowing a boat! 

A delightful story about all the extraordinary things you can see on your travels.

I jut loved creating this fun story, and adore Simon’s magical illustrations!

Full cover below.

 

The Hollow Bones : an interview with Leah Kaminsky

Today I’m delighted to bring you an interview with Leah Kaminsky. Leah is an award-winning Australian writer whose published work includes fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Her second novel, The Hollow Bones, has just come out with Penguin Random House Australia. Set just before World War Two, The Hollow Bones tells an extraordinary, gripping story of obsession and ambition, recreating a bizarre SS-sponsored expedition made by German scientists to Tibet, aimed at proving the Himalayan origins of the ‘Aryan race’. With its beautiful evocations of nature and complexity of characterisation juxtaposed with chilling depictions of Nazi racism and lunatic ideas in action, this is a potent novel which explores many disturbing themes, with a light yet deep touch.

First of all, Leah, congratulations on the publication of The Hollow Bones! It’s an amazing and memorable novel and must have taken a great deal of work. Can you tell us something about its genesis, and how you went about researching the background of the novel?

Thanks for those kind words, Sophie. It really has been an interesting journey researching and writing THE HOLLOW BONES over the last 3-4 years. I first came across the material that sparked the idea behind the book while researching my last novel, THE WAITING ROOM, in which I touched on the critical role physicians played in the Third Reich during WWII. As a doctor myself, I have always been fascinated by the beauty of science, so I was gobsmacked when I stumbled across World Ice Theory, or Welteislehre, a pseudoscientific idea postulated by a steam train engineer, Hanns Hörbinger, that became the platform of the Reich in the 1930s, embraced by the German populace as well as high ranking politicians such as Himmler and Hitler. The Nazis banned the teaching of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity on the basis that it was considered ‘Jewish science’. The ice crystal became known as the building block of the universe, based on a bogus belief that the sun was the only star in the sky. Hörbinger postulated that an icy moon crashed to earth thousands of years ago, destroying the civilisation of Atlantis, which lay buried under the Himalayas. I was fascinated and horrified to learn of a German expedition to Tibet of a group of SS scientists, sponsored by Himmler himself, sought to uncover the true origins of the Nordic Aryan race amongst the Tibetan peoples. This little-known story of their leader, 26- year-old zoologist Ernst Schäfer, drew me in as I tried to imagine what sort of man would go to such lengths in the pursuit of academic success and admiration of his peers.

Main character Ernst Schäfer is a complex person—a lover of nature and a ruthless hunter, a man who can show a kind of tenderness towards people like his wife’s disabled sister Margarete, yet whose cold ambition leads him to appalling acts; a man of science who dissents privately about the ridiculous ‘scientific’ theories of the Nazis yet who is quite prepared to serve the regime for his own benefit. Tells us something about how you created his character.

I wanted to look at the complexity of someone growing up in pre-War Germany, and the inherent moral choices confronting individuals as they witnessed the dramatic changes taking place around them. Ernst Schäfer, a forgotten character in history, spent most afternoons of his childhood exploring the forest of Thuringia which lay on the edge of his tiny village. Early on, he became a keen collector and hunter, filling his room with a menagerie of creatures. I was interested to see how this childhood innocence and passion for nature could go so terribly wrong. I read widely, looking at the history of the Third Reich and the SS through personal stories. I painstakingly translated Schäfer’s books, field diaries and letters from the original German, my research taking me to dark places I have always been fearful of exploring. As the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, I went way past my comfort zone in an attempt to examine what leads a man to tread the treacherous terrain of moral compromise. I trawled the archives of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, finding photos, documents and even detailed equipment lists and invoices for Schafer’s earlier expeditions to Tibet.

‘Science is pure and elegant in itself, not a pony to be ridden around a circus ring,’ Ernst tells a scoffing Bruno, a fellow researcher and member of the expedition, at one point. Yet despite this lofty private attitude, Ernst publicly kowtows to Nazi pseudoscience to further his own obsessions and ambitions. It’s a perfect example of what happens when the line between science and politics is blurred too far. Can you expand on that?

Yes. I think that’s what struck me so much about these little-known events. Even though it all happened in pre-war Germany and Tibet, it is so relevant today. The story of the corruption that occurs when science and politics become bedfellows is still palpable today, with contemporary debates raging around climate change and sustainability, as well as animal rights. 

The juxtaposition between Nazi Germany and traditional Tibet is very striking: how did you go about evoking those very different settings and atmosphere?

I initially applied for funding that might enable me to travel to Berlin and Tibet to help with research. When the funding didn’t come through I thought I might need to drop the project. Then I remembered the words of my dear, late friend, the painter Yosl Bergner, who told me he could never visit the places he painted as it would ruin his imagined vision of them. I realised then that the places I was writing about no longer existed – their histories couldn’t be suspended in time. So, I set about visiting Tibet and Germany of the 1930s through books, photos and old film recordings, in a kind of virtual tour of the imagination. This brought my settings to life for me. In a strange way, I think literature lets you visit places that no longer exist. I think visiting modern-day Tibet and Germany may have spoilt my initial vision.

The passages featuring the enigmatic and touching figure of Panda, taken from Wild to be in the Glass country, lend a touch of whimsical fantasy which nevertheless has a serious purpose. Can you tell us something about that?

I visited the library at Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia while I was on my US book tour for The Waiting Room. While I was there, I walked around the dioramas and was shown through the archives and storage in the basement. I came across a four-month-old taxidermied panda that Ernst Schäfer had shot on one of his earlier joint American-German expeditions to Tibet. I felt so sad learning about the background to how this panda ended up at the museum. Several months later, I was at Varuna, the Writer’s House, on a fellowship I was awarded by the wonderful magazine Griffith Review. The tiny voice of Panda insisted on being heard. I tried to ignore it at first, thinking it was a bit strange to have a stuffed animal’s POV I the book, but it took over and became the beating heart of the novel.

Most of the characters in the novel are based on real historical figures—not only Ernst, his team, and his wife Herta, but also major Nazi leaders of the most monstrous kind. What kinds of challenges did you find in recreating encounters such as those Ernst has with Himmler and Göring?

The biggest challenge really was to find the voice of Schäfer’s first wife, Herta. I found so much information about all the other real-life characters, which enabled me to inhabit them relatively easily. I was very aware of not wanting to make them caricatures – they needed to mirror my protagonist, Ernst Schäfer. Herta was the only one who seemed to have disappeared entirely from history. This was in reality a gift, because it allowed me to imagine who she might have been – a woman with a moral conscience living inside an ideological nightmare, watching the man she loved make choices she disagreed with. She and Panda are the only true fictional characters in the book, and also play the role of moral commentators, checking the emotional temperature of those around them.

Many prominent Nazis, especially but not only Himmler, were greatly influenced by fringe and occult elements: by esoteric mish-mash philosophers, quack anthropologists, amateur mythologists, self-proclaimed psychics and mystics and so on, as well as pseudo-scientists. How did you research this aspect of the regime, and how do you think this occult attraction fed into their racist, supremacist ideology?

Reading about the wackiness of all these pseudoscientific and occult beliefs, held by leaders such as Himmler and Hitler, sometimes had me laughing out loud. Until, that is, I began to understand the powerful impact these ideas had on the Reich’s platform which upheld expansionism, racist ideology, genocide, as well as forced sterilisation and involuntary euthanasia of those with mental health issues and disabilities. The Ahnenerbe, or Ancestral heritage organisation, established in 1935 under the auspices of Himmler as an offshoot of the SS, was dedicated to proving that Germans were direct descendants of the Nordic Aryan race, which fed directly into Nazi ideology and its gruesome results. The existence of a school that trained dogs to ‘talk’ and tap out the alphabet, so they could participate in espionage for the gestapo, sounds like something straight out of a comedy, but Hitler took all this very seriously. The slippery slope of #fakefacts into popular belief is especially evident today.

The Nazis became, at least in the West, an image of pure evil, an aberrant and alien phenomenon. That image could distract from the reality of what happened—and make people complacent. And sometimes was evoked inappropriately, lessening the impact of that reality. Today, as the generations to actually go through that period die and revisionists attempt to re-interpretations, how do you think society can guard against the threat of forgetfulness? Can we really learn from the past?

I don’t believe in the concept of pure good and pure evil. The most dangerous state to my mind is complacency and indifference. I think we are doomed to repeat history if we don’t learn from it. It frightens me that recent surveys show that 5% of people in the UK are outright Holocaust deniers. In the US, 65% of millennials and 41% of the general population have never heard of Auschwitz. I think education is the key to understanding our differences and engendering tolerance and compassion. And of course, as a writer, I believe in the power of literature to change people’s lives. The Nazis understood the power of the written word, so much so that they burnt books that didn’t fit their twisted world view.

 

Visit Leah’s website here.

Follow her on Facebook.

And on Twitter.

 

New page on my blog for Read Me A Story, Ink

Delighted to announce that I’ve got a new page on this blog  featuring links to stories of mine that you can read and/or listen to at the fabulous site, Read Me A Story, Ink, a great, free resource for parents, teachers and children, created and run by booklover, bookseller and reader Robert Topp.

At Read Me A Story, Ink, you can find searchable lists of short stories for children by hundreds of authors, with the full text available for download and print out, and some stories also provided as appealing audio readings by Bob himself. A guide to reading age is also given, along with the name of the publication the story first appeared in, and all authors have given their full consent for stories to appear on the site.

Eight of my stories appear on the site. Have a look at my page where you’ll find links to all of them.