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English teacher interested in language and culture, and also in fiction using magic, myth, folklore and the supernatural. Now teaching part-time in a Leicester Upper School (ages 14-19) and also writing for children, teens and teachers.

Monday, 30 May 2011

That fine line between pedantry and accuracy

I've written before about the tensions inherent in teaching English at A Level: the seeming hypocrisy of not allowing students to describe such-and-such a dialect as "wrong" because it uses a non-standard subject-verb agreement (like "so I says to him,..."), while underlining their every mistake. Of course, a lot of that (or should that be alot of that? ;-)) is about context and mode - writing and speech are different, and have different rules.

This is one thing that I do really struggle with sometimes, and I really see myself fitting into that 'older person' stereotype of getting all hot and bothered about mistakes. I'd like to argue that it's about respect for words and grammar and so on, but just how school-teacherly and old-fashioned does that sound? I do see more and more misspelt printed and mass-produced material, and I do happen to think that is a problem. What intrigues me is the indignation people will display about this, when we all in fact make errors sometimes. I think, perhaps, we get all hot and bothered because we assume that someone making a mistake does so because they don't know how to get it right - but this may not be the case (although of course, sometimes it is). 

I was particularly amused at some students' disgust with Virgin Media when their 'superfast broadband' ads which mentioned each town by name misspelt Nuneaton as Nuneton. OK, this is a shocking mistake in a mass-produced billboard advert, but many of the students who were upset were the same ones who clearly think I am 'mean' or 'picky' to correct their misuse of  your/you're and bizarre (to me) constructions such as 'as a pose to' (as opposed to....).

For the time being, I am justified in correcting spelling, punctuation and grammar errors, since these things will cost marks in their A Level, although those marks are becoming fewer. I also think that universities and employers receiving these young people are likely to assume that an A Level in English (especially in Language or the combined Language and Literature) means they are able to write accurately.

How do you feel about accuracy in writing? If you find yourself uncertain about some of the more commonly confused homophones (your/you're; their/there/they're; it's/its etc) and/or apostrophe usage, you might find the  accuracy section of my student website useful.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Exams, Luck and Folklore

It's that wonderful time of year again when students gather in the corridors outside all the biggest rooms, stressing each other out with last-minute revision/advice. It's a weird place to be as a teacher: obviously the exams are theirs, you've done your bit, but at the same time... And the anxiety coming off them in waves doesn't help.


Here are a few of the luck-attracting rituals and practices I've seen and heard of recently.

Special items

  • Lucky pants and lucky socks seem to be the most common items of clothing with a special status. There are tales of students having to wear the same underwear for all exams, even if they fall on consecutive days...
  • Lucky jewellery is also fairly common.
  • Talismans, mascots and charms can also be found (students will sometimes try to bring little ornaments or toys into the exam room, but often are prevented from doing so as they are not sanctioned objects).
  • The lucky pen is of course a standard exam season item. It's not at all unusual to hear a panicky student explaining that yes, they have another pen but their lucky pen has run out. Clearly failure will follow.


Special preparatory behaviours

  • Ritual breakfasts are required by many, ranging from specific cereal that is only eaten at exam time (one boy swears by Coco Pops, but never eats them the rest of the year) to comfort foods like banana sandwiches.
  • For others, not eating before an exam is essential (even an afternoon one - ack!).
  • Some students use mp3 players while queuing for the exam room to avoid all that nervous 'did you revise x?' 'do you think y will come up?' that some find comforting and wrecks the mojo of others.


Exam room ritual behaviours

  • The Lining Up Of Pens is a ceremony performed by many, requiring writing implements to be arranged in a very specific way.
  • Some students have to walk around the little desk before sitting down. 
  • Twiddling of bracelets and rings is commonly done in a ritual way, or a pendant or ring may be kissed for luck before commencing. 
Obviously, many students also place their faith in revision and study :) It's interesting how we find comfort in specific objects and odd little behaviours. I'm not suggesting that students believe wholeheartedly in these things, but these are very real habits that people have established as part of their coping strategies to get them through the horror of public exams. If that's not folklore, I don't know what is.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

An Act of Love by Alan Gibbons

Title: An Act of Love
Author: Alan Gibbons
Publisher: Orion
Publishing: 2 June 2011
Genre: Teen Thriller

Find it at Amazon UK

The blurb says ...
Seven-year-old Chris and Imran are sworn blood brothers.


Ten years on they are treading separate paths. The spectre of terrorism has wrecked their friendship. It has changed their lives and could even end them.


A story of two ordinary boys growing up in an extraordinary time - our time. A time of terror, when atrocities don't just happen in TV reports about people in faraway places.


Rioting, fighting, maiming and killing are happening here, on our doorstep.

My verdict: a thrilling tale that tackles important issues by involving you at a personal level. Highly recommended for teens and adults.

This novel deals with important contemporary issues of identity, terrorism and the radicalisation of teens by means of good honest storytelling. Yes, I appreciated the insight I gained into how kids can be driven into some difficult-to-understand paths, but this is achieved by stealth: what gripped me and pulled me along was the story of a friendship. I simply had to know what would happen between the two boys.

The narration adds a further layer of interest and drama. The novel begins close to the end of the story with an impending disaster, and then unravels through sections covering different times. This is what makes the book a thriller for me: from the very start, we know where it's all heading and the question is how could it get there (and, of course, how is it all going to end?). As well as switching times, the point of view shifts, with first-person narration from Chris and third-person narration from Imran's perspective, as well as occasional sections from other points of view.

If you think this sounds complicated, it is, but it's handled masterfully. Sections are all clearly signalled with headings telling us whose story it is and the date. In the hands of a lesser writer, this complex narrative style could have made the story difficult to follow, but Gibbons' firm grip on all the threads means the telling affords us a closer relationship with both boys, and our sympathies are constantly pulled. Providing both sides with a voice demonstrates the simplicity of the rhetoric on both sides, and allows us to understand in a way that a simpler or more direct style couldn't achieve. Gibbons doesn't preach, lecture or tell us what to think, which is of course always important, but even more so in the YA market.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and believe it has an important contemporary message. Its strength lies in its skilful storytelling, which will allow it to touch its audience and engage them with the issues at a personal level.

Thank you to Orion Books for sending this book for review.

This is my eighth review for the British Books Challenge hosted by The Bookette.

Who's Afraid of the Date?

Apologies for the repost, I was trying to fix some glitches with the labels. This was a post that was removed when Blogger had a fit last week.

So, this month we have a Friday the Thirteenth. Does this worry you? Will you be unable to leave your house in case of disaster? They do say that more accidents occur in the home than anywhere else, though, so that might not be the best plan.

Far from being an ancient piece of folklore, this one seems to be most definitely a more recent phenomenon. Snopes has the earliest reference in the US as 1908 and in the UK 1913, although there are plenty of earlier references for Friday and the number 13 being independently unlucky. Many sources link these to Christian events, such as Christ being crucified on a Friday, Judas being the thirteenth at the Last Supper, Eve tempting Adam on a Friday and so on. I've also heard that thirteen is a number associated with witches because a year holds thirteen full moons (or any other stage of moon cycle, of course...).

Interestingly, I also read that in some places, Friday the Thirteenths see fewer accidents than other days - and this is ascribed to people being extra careful because of the date. So perhaps it's a good thing after all, and we should be worried every day. Or perhaps not.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Birthday Celebrations

Family traditions around birthday celebrations are a special kind of folklore that can be very localised. People may celebrate with particular food or family customs. In our family, if a birthday is a 'school day', presents are opened after school, usually once everyone is home. As in many families, a cake is an important part of the celebration of a birthday, sometimes baked by some of us, sometimes bought. We tend to only do candles on the cake for kids' parties, not family celebrations.

I personally tend to view my birthday a bit like New Year, as a natural time for looking backwards and forwards and checking how far I've come. This works particularly well for me as my birthday falls in May, so a good time for measuring progress on New Year resolutions and the like. It's also nearly the end of the school year cycle (they're sitting their exams in the next few weeks), so the end-of-a-cycle thing works professionally too, and this is a time we're all naturally talking about how we'll change things for next year.

It's interesting how birthdays tend to cluster. For us, this is a busy week, with my birthday yesterday and my husband's to come on Saturday. We often have a joint celebration and sometimes joint gifts (films, music and edible goodies we like, but here's a hint: domestic-themed joint presents are not so loved!). The kids' birthdays aren't far apart either, being 29th September and 10th October. Oh, how I remember the older one's 5th birthday party when the little one was 11 days old and I was somewhat tired...

Cakes with candles are now common to many industrialised cultures, but did you know that in Japan and China, for example, it was traditional to celebrate everyone's birthday at the New Year? And that in many African cultures, individual birthdays aren't particularly marked? In that context, coming-of-age rites are important at specific milestone ages.

Do you mark birthdays in a way that is particular to you? Do you know of interesting traditions to celebrate birthdays?

Saturday, 7 May 2011

When I Was Joe by Keren David


Title: When I Was Joe
Author: Keren David
Publisher: Frances Lincoln
Published 2010
Genre: Teen Thriller

Find it at Amazon UK

The blurb says...
It's one thing watching someone get killed. It's quite another talking about it.

But Ty does talk about it. He names some ruthless people and a petrol-bomb attack forces him and his mum into hiding under police protection.

Shy loser Ty gets a new name, a new look and a cool new image. Life as Joe is good. But the gangsters will stop at nothing to silence him. And then he meets a girl with a dangerous secret of her own.

My verdict: a gripping, engaging thriller. Ty's voice, expertly created, draws you in and doesn't let you go. Highly recommended from teens upwards.

The central voice of Ty is definitely a key strength of this book. He narrates the story, gradually sharing more of what happened 'that day', and regularly revealing his feelings (albeit not always deliberately). He is a wholly sympathetic character and you are desperate for things to go well for him, but at the same time he is a realistically drawn teenager. This means his choices aren't always the best ones, and there are some wonderful moments where he clearly doesn't grasp the subtleties of what is going on around him.  A sentence that sums up the delightful 'teenageness' of him for me is:
'Yeah,' I say and she says, 'You know, Ty, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger,' which is pretty amazing because I would have thought that Maureen'd be way too old to have even heard of Kanye West.
The story is pacey; helped by starting after the incident that ruptures Ty's world, which means the truth of what he saw is delivered in a tantalising trickle throughout the novel. And there are fantastic twists. At one point, I did such a sharp intake of breath that the woman next to me on the train was laughing at me!

At the same time as dealing with this big central incident that drives the story, the bulk of the novel is ultimately about fitting in and being accepted. Ty's life is complicated by having to move to a new area and live as someone else. This gives David lots of scope to explore 'normal' teen stuff like negotiating friendships and romantic/sexual feelings, together with all that angst about who or what is 'cool'.

The novel deals with the important issue of knife crime (as well as at least touching on other issues affecting teens, such as bullying, identity, relationships, self harm, attitudes to different kinds of families), but it isn't an 'issues' novel, it's an engaging story which happens to highlight some issues. This is the perfect way to address issues for this audience: teens (no scratch that, people) run a mile from preachy books. This novel will get them thinking because it will have first engaged them with Ty and his specific and personal situation and concerns.

This is my seventh review for the British Books Challenge hosted by The Bookette.

Monday, 2 May 2011

April A-Z: Reflections Mega-Post

So, that certainly was a challenge. When I started this blog in December, I never expected to be blogging daily (OK, six days a week). It's been fun, though, and has definitely helped me to improve my blogging habits. I've seen three main benefits from this challenge:

  1. I've encountered (and now follow) several new, cool blogs that I probably wouldn't have come across otherwise.
  2. I've gained quite a few followers myself through the challenge. That was an unexpected benefit for me, and very welcome.
  3. Blogging within strict limits, like all writing to restraints, has been very freeing (in an odd kind of way). Having to come up with something starting with _ has forced me to search around for topics that I might not have blogged about otherwise. Some were a mite forced, but the most successful ones were arguably the ones I struggled most to find - there's definitely a lesson in there!
So, would I do it again? Yes, but not immediately. It's certainly encouraged me to go looking for more challenges/memes to join in with, but I don't intend to blog on a daily basis from now on.


Sunday, 1 May 2011

April A-Z: Zeitgeist

Zeitgeist(from German, literally time-spirit; used in English to mean 'spirit of the age', the all-encompassing tone or theme of the time)
The zeitgeist in books is, I guess, like the concept of a trend. But of course, as we all know, writing 'to trend' is problematic, since books published now were usually accepted for publication at least a year ago, and therefore written at least two years ago. So if you start writing your 'trendy' book now, you're already (at least) two years behind!

This is, of course, depressing. What if I have the perfect idea for a vampire dystopian YA novel? Well, many say 'get on with it anyway'. Every time you hear of something being too old hat to contemplate, somebody somewhere has produced something so good that a publisher couldn't turn it down even though it was on the very theme they're telling everyone not to pitch with! An interesting angle, something absolutely not derivative, may well get you read. And that may be the key here: too many people are writing very derivative and formulaic stuff because they believe that to be the trend.

What's reassuring is that agents and publishers never define precisely what they're after. They'll talk about voice: a strong voice, a unique voice, a fresh voice. They'll talk about plot and/or characters: a plot that hooks, characters we care about. But this is all in quite general terms; they won't specify theme, plot type or genre (beyond the 'we don't handle sci-fi'-type statement). This is because they don't know either. How many times have you read "I'll know it when I see it" or some version of that?

Don't stress about whether your current or next WiP is 'on trend' (or likely to start a new one) - just write the best book that you can.

Have you read anything interesting about 'trend' lately?
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