A Child’s Christmas in Wales: Dylan Thomas

As the snow is falling on the blog pages (courtesy of WordPress wizardry) and was recently attempting to fall perilously near to the The Landing Bookshelves region, I hereby present a very snowy, Christmas themed post. I was rooting around upstairs for an idea for a seasonal offering and as the snow was flurrying (I didn’t think that was a word but my spell checker obviously does) by the window I spotted the wonderful snow filled A Child’s Christmas in Wales (Dylan Thomas, 1959). We have a version with illustrations by Edward Ardizzone (1973, 1993) that I added to The Bookworm’s Christmas collection a few years ago. I took a few scans to show you some of Ardizzone’s brilliant drawings (see below) of small schoolboys having seasonal adventures in a snowy Welsh village. I have also included a picture of the 1959 edition taken from Wikipedia, alongside our own illustrated edition. It’s enough to make anyone ready for Christmas, with or without the white stuff. Last week we attended A Night Before Christmas at The Pavilion Theatre in Dun Laoghaire and I was delighted to hear Michele Forbes reading from A Child’s Christmas as part of the cornucopia of seasonal stories.

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I began leafing through the pages of the book with a wodge of mini post-it notes in hand, so that I could mark my favourite bits to quote. Before I had finished doing this I realised that the book was already bristling with little paper strips. There were so many bits of the text and so many brilliant drawings that I had to give up my post-it notes before marking up the entire book. As I was doing this on the Luas one morning, apart from trying not to lose scraps of sticky paper, I was also smiling away and imaging it was Christmas already.

For this brief seasonal post, let us just concentrate on the snowy parts of the book:

One Christmas was so much like another…that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.

Such is the fascination of snow that we imagine that all our Christmases were snowy when we were young. The narrator of the book talks about several Christmases, that all meld into one big, snowy Christmas as he tells of childhood games and adventures.

Thomas describes the snow with a wide range of evocative descriptions. Snow was ‘shaken from whitewash buckets’ and then ‘it came shawling out of the ground’; on the roofs of the houses it resembled ‘a pure and grandfather moss’. The town was ‘bandaged’ and the landscape enticingly described as the ‘frozen foam of the powder and ice-cream hills, over the crackling sea’. It certainly sounded magical, as well as edible.

The reader becomes caught up in a white wonderland when anything could happen (at least in a schoolboy’s fantastic imagination) in between Christmas lunch with the aunts and uncles and a spot of carol singing:

Or I would go out, my bright new boots squeaking, into the white world, on to the seaward hill, to call on Jim and Dan and jack and to pad through the still streets, leaving huge deep footprints on the hidden pavements.
‘I bet people will think there’s been hippos.’
‘What would you do if you saw a hippo coming down our street?’
‘I’d go like this, bang! I’d throw him over the railings and roll him down the hill and then I’d tickle him under the ear and he’d wag his tail.’
‘What would you do if you saw two hippos?’
Iron-flanked and bellowing he-hippos clanked and battered through the scudding snow towards us as we passed Mr Daniel’s house.

I love the thought of hippos charging through a snowy Welsh village, on the way to who knows where. The snowy scenes in A Child’s Christmas in Wales truly are scenes of the ideal Christmas that we all wish we had had or think that we have had. Much like the eternal sunny summers of our youth that you just don’t get any more. Or so we think.

Here’s wishing anyone who chances upon this post a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. If you want to browse a few seasonal posts from the archives, then have a wander around The Landing Bookshelves while you’re here! 

The Magi: in Art and Poetry

To mark the end of the Christmas season, I have returned to one of The Landing’s poetry collections for a suitable verse. You might recall that Read Me: A Poem for Every Day of the Year (chosen by Gaby Morgan) has appeared here before in poetry features.

The poem for 6 January is by poet and translator Christopher Pilling, who originally hailed from my hometown of Birmingham but who now lives in the Lake District. ‘The Meeting Place’ was originally published in Poems for Christmas (Peterloo Poets, 1982). It was inspired by a Rubens painting, The Adoration of the Magi so I have included it in the post. Rubens painted several versions of this painting, and this particular one now belongs to Kings College, Cambridge. If you want to discover more about the history of this representation of The Adoration of the Magi, then take a look at Patrick Comerford’s blog who has featured the painting today as the last in his Art for Christmas series.

The Meeting Place

(after Rubens: The Adoration of the Magi, 1634)

It was the arrival of the kings
that caught us unawares;
we’d look in on the woman in the barn,
curiosity you could call it,
something to do on a cold winter’s night;
we’d wished her well –
that was the best we could do, she was in pain,
and the next thing we knew
she was lying on the straw
-the little there was of it-
and there was a baby in her arms.

The Adoration of the Magi

The Magi

It was, as I say, the kings
that caught us unawares…
Women have babies every other day,
not that we are there –
let’s call it a common occurrence though,
giving birth. But kings
appearing in a stable with a
‘Is this the place?’ and kneeling,
each with his gift held out towards the child!
They didn’t even notice us.
Their robes trailed on the floor,
rich, lined robes that money couldn’t buy.
What must this child be
to bring kings from distant lands
with costly incense and gold?

And what were we to make of
was it angels falling through the air,
entwined and falling as if from the rafters
to where the gaze of the kings met the child’s
-assuming the child could see?
What would the mother do with the gifts?
What would become of the child?
And we’ll never admit there are angels
or that somewhere between
one man’s eye’s and another’s
is a holy place, a space where a king could be
at one with a naked child,
at one with an astonished soldier.
I love the almost gossipy way the event is being described, as though someone is just popping round from next door to see what’s going on. Being ‘caught unawares’ and almost not in on the action!

Once again, ‘A Happy New Year’ to all of my followers and thanks for reading!

Picture credit; Wikipedia, with thanks.

Summer at the Bookshop: it started with a sketch…

In honour of bookselling summers gone by (and fellow booksellers), I am re-posting an edited version of a blog article that I originally wrote for Writing.ie when I was working for Hughes and Hughes a few years ago. It was first posted on 31 May 2012 in the now discontinued Booksellers’ blog column. The post was inspired by the fun we had putting together a summer themed table at the front of the shop. The book recommendations from 2012 still stand I think, so if you are looking for ideas for the kids then read on…

If anyone had told me twenty years ago, that bookselling would involve playing with bits of coloured paper and cotton wool; I would have raised a gently inquiring eyebrow. These days I am more experienced in such creative matters. Indeed, there are times when it feels less like working in a bookshop and more like being back in primary school. Thank heavens for all of those Blue Peter watching years when I was being inspired by Val’s and John’s handiwork.

Like most creations, our summer themed table began with the merest sketch of an idea. The tricky part is usually translating the idea into 3D reality (and serving customers at the same time). That was where the cotton wool came into play as we attempted to create a model of an ice-cream cone (complete with flake) for our shop front display table. With the addition of yellow wrapping paper and some crepe paper in a lovely shade of blue, we were well on the way to bringing the seaside to a Dundrum shop floor.

The table was truly a joint effort: Claire, Maeve and Michelle were responsible for some very bijou beach huts and a shoal of little Nemos. And did I mention the fierce-looking pirates? However, the piece de resistance was Andrew’s larger than life ice-cream cone, which dominates the table, inviting thoughts of summer treats. Don’s original idea was very well realised by the team and we were very pleased with ourselves (she said modestly).

Summer Table

Our rather splendid summer scene

We have all had a great deal of fun cutting out shapes, but the serious purpose was obviously to make something a little more eye-catching than basic merchandising. We filled the table with stock aimed at parents and children, with a mixture of new summer titles, colouring and activity books and toys. We arranged some bright and cheerful gardening gear for kids, which include hats and gloves for any future ‘Bloom’ exhibitors out there. When I saw the little ‘Bug House’, I was reminded of Dick King-Smith’s enchanting ‘Sophie’ books. For anyone not familiar with the series, the plot of the first novel saw Sophie earnestly collecting garden bugs of all shapes and sizes for her mini farm. Not all parents would appreciate that one I suppose…

For parents travelling with younger children, sticker, activity and colouring books are usually a good idea. For example, the Airport Colouring Book will peacefully while away the inevitable waiting time. If not, there is always Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler to rely upon, with for instance the Tales from Acorn Wood Activity Book.

Usborne Books had the bright idea of bringing out a book made up of holiday postcards for children to colour. There’s no excuse for anyone not to send cards home to the grandparents then! We also have plenty of ideas for summer holiday reading. Gerry Boland’s new Marco adventure, Marco: Master of Disguise (O’Brien Press) is completely charming. Marco is an escaped tea drinking grizzly bear who is hiding out from the zoo authorities. Áine McGuiness’ illustrations are wonderful; you could just see yourself giving a home to a grizzly like Marco (always assuming that you had enough tea bags).

For children’s holiday reads, then look no further than to the winners of the CBI Book Awards, announced recently. For older readers, Celine Kiernan’s Into the Grey is a gripping and atmospheric story. Celine received the double whammy of the Book of the Year Award and the Children’s Choice Award. I’ll hazard a guess at which award she was most pleased to win.

At the other end of the reading scale, his delightful picture book Stuck will no doubt appeal to the many Oliver Jeffers fans around. Stuck won the ‘Honour Award’ for Illustration, beating off stiff competition. Jeffers’ new book, The Hueys in the New Jumper has recently hit the bookshelves, which promises to be another bestseller. I want a Huey of my own now please (complete with orange jumper). Mark O’Sullivan won the Judges’ ‘Special Award’, for My Dad is 10 Years Old; Paula Leyden won the Eilís Dillon Award for The Butterfly Heart, based on her own experiences of growing up in Zambia. Siobhán Parkinson had two titles in the shortlist and won the ‘Honour Award’ for Fiction with Maitriόisce, which explored five generations of a family. Last but by no means least, Roddy Doyle was lucky enough to win the schools’ ‘Shadowing Award’ for A Greyhound of a Girl, which is now out in paperback just in time for the holidays.

Congratulations to all of the winners mentioned above. I hope I have given a few useful ideas for the holiday season, but if you need a bit of help choosing, just pop in and ask a bookseller.

I hope the post has inspired you to either pop into a real bookshop for your children’s summer reads, or to grab scissors and paper and have some creative fun during the holidays! The Bookworm read A Greyhound of a Girl when it first came out and thoroughly enjoyed it and going a little further back, she was a firm Sophie fan. If you’ve never met Dick King-Smith’s feisty heroine then do give her adventures a read.

Picture credit: me (unfortunately I’ve lost the original jpeg file so the quality isn’t great) and also used on the Writing.ie blog post.


Books are for everyone

As a bookseller my heart sank into my boots every time a customer asked for the ‘boys’ or the ‘girls’ books. I used to do my best to convince people that there’s no such thing; that stories are for everyone but I wasn’t always successful.

Here’s a recent post (re-blogged from the young bookbug in our household) about the campaign to change hearts and minds….

Spoils from the Trinity College Book Sale

As regular readers probably realise, I  don’t need to be adding any more books to the huge TBR Pile that is the Landing Book Shelves but nevertheless I brought a few new additions home recently.  I hasten to add that the photographic evidence shown here is slightly misleading in that some of the books belong to one of the other book bugs in the household. Note that I’m attempting to fudge the numbers here.

Book Sale Purchases

Now where to put them…

I was particularly pleased to spot a Noel Streatfeild novel, When the Siren Wailed that I had not come across before. This was originally published in 1974 (William Collins) with the Collins Lions paperback edition I found dating from 1984. The book retains its Eason price sticker, originally costing £1.54. The blurb on the back from The Birmingham Post says, ‘Noel Streatfeild vividly recreates the atmosphere of blitz-torn London with all its friendliness, horror, confusion and tragedy. Her book cannot fail to impress young readers.’ The books tells the story of three children despatched with their school mates to safety as part of Operation Pied Piper.

Stories from the blitz interest me because my mum was evacuated from Birmingham during the war and she was lucky enough to make a lifelong friend as a result. I don’t think she ever had any exciting adventures as a result of being an evacuee though. I was struck by the fact that Laura the eldest sibling in the story,  was nine at the beginning of the war when the evacuation programme began. She was given the responsibility of looking after her two younger brothers Andy and Tim on a journey to an unknown destination with a train load of strangers. My mum was also nine years old at the outbreak of war but as an only child would have been sent away without the comfort of brothers or sisters. It’s hard to imagine now a circumstance where you would send a child away alone with a luggage label attached to a coat, a suitcase and a gas mask. Fortunately it all turned out well for my mother in her temporary home.

Closeup Books

Which one?

Now the only question remaining (apart from where to put the books when one bookshelf already covers the only landing window) is what to read next…I’ll keep you posted on that one.

I’d love to hear from anyone else who loves second hand book sale bargains too!

First Day of Advent

This time last year I was just embarking on my Advent Calendar challenge for the Landing Book Shelves but this year’s December won’t be as bustling. I hope to do some seasonal posts but I’m continuing with the challenge of reading War and Peace too; my aim is to finish the book by Christmas.

As this is the first day of Advent the ritual of putting up the Advent Calendar has taken place in our house (the calendar having first been retrieved from the mysterious depths of the loft by He Who Put The Shelves Up). There is usually more than this one calendar in the house thanks to various friends and relations but they are mere bit part players. The perpetual Advent Calendar is the star of the show.

Advent Calendar

Advent Calendar

The calendar is a hard backed book that opens out into a 3 D scene of a living room with a fireplace, down the chimney of which Father Christmas will pop on Christmas Eve. The calendar is by writer and illustrator Atsuko Morozumi and published in 2006 by Mathew Price Ltd. I can’t remember when we first had the calendar but it has certainly been doing its duty for the last few years. A few creases have appeared but it is wearing well.

It’s hard to believe that Christmas is coming closer again, I really must get geared up for making mince pies and other seasonal goodies. The first door on the Advent Calendar is always a wake-up call to get planning and list-making. I’ve also had my first Christmas card.

Advent Calendar Interior

Interior of the Advent scene

If you have a favourite Advent Calendar at home do drop me a line in the comment box. By the way, does anyone else remember the Blue Peter team making an Advent decoration with wire coat hangers and tinsel?

A Witchy Halloween Poem

This is my small contribution to the Halloween festival, in the form of a poem taken from a poetry book called The Story Witch and Other Rhymes that my sister gave to our daughter a few years ago. I like all of the poems in the collection as they are funny, imaginative and not at all tedious to read aloud over… and… over… and… over again. This one is short enough to reproduce in its entirety.

Witches and Wizards

The Story Witch

A Seething Cauldron

Witches and Wizards are born not made.
Their parents are witches and wizards too.
A different blood runs through their veins
And they will go to the greatest pains
To emphasise this point to you:
Witches and wizards are born not made!

So look very hard for your family tree –
You may find it somewhere on your shelf,
And examine it very carefully.
You may be a wizard or witch yourself.

The Story Witch and Other Rhymes written by Eileen Cross and illustrated by Helen Ricketts (2005). Printed by Anthony Phillips & Davis Print & Design.

Eileen Cross, a literacy volunteer was inspired to write this collection by the children at Quinton Church Primary School in Birmingham. A percentage of the proceeds from the sale of the first edition were donated to Acorns Children’s Hospice Trust. I’m not sure if it is still available to buy new but I did notice that a second-hand copy was advertised recently via Amazon.

Witch Family Tree

Where do you fit in?

Happy Halloween folks! And don’t forget to check your family tree for pointy-hat wearing ancestors…