#EightCandleBookTag

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I’m joining in with a Word Press Book Challenge, suggested in the interests of festive inclusivity :-).  The idea is to mention one book for each of the eight nights of the festival of Chanukah, which starts tonight. So I have amused myself by listing eight books, some of which are old favourites and some of which were new reads this year, with (gloriously tenuous – I have an over-vivid imagination) links to the Chanukah story.  I’ve got football, the Chalet School, Coronation Street, Little Women, Renaissance Italy and the Napoleonic Wars in here, amongst other things.  I know.  I’m weird.  Also, if you Google “Chanukah”, it comes up with a really cute cartoon – give it a go!

Thanks to  The Chocolate Lady   for suggesting this.  Sorry that I’m not very good at finding books to fit categories suggested elsewhere, but these are my eight books … in no particular order.

The Lights of Manchester by Tony Warren.  Lights – Chanukah, Festival of Lights.  We hear a lot about “diversity” these days, and that’s important, and wonderful up to a point, but it gets rather silly when, for example, you get people claiming that the new CATS film is racist because the colour of the fur on one of the costumes doesn’t match the actress’s skin tone … without stopping to find out that he character concerned, Victoria, is also known as “The White Cat”, so her fur has to be white.  It’s nothing to do with racism!  I do wish everyone would try a bit harder to look for the good in society, instead of assuming the worst.  Most people are actually rather nice.  Anyway, in this lovely book from the 1990s, written by the late creator of Coronation Street, the main character is white and Protestant, but her soul mate and eventual husband Barney is Jewish, her best friend Mickey is gay, her friends Judy, Monica and Delia are all Catholic, and Delia’s husband Carlton is black.  Tony Warren wasn’t trying to make a point, or to prove anything, or to accuse anyone of anything, like some people seem to do incessantly.  He was just writing about life, and people, and Manchester life and people in particular. I first read this book just before the festive season in 1992.  It’s an all-time favourite.

No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton.  The baddies in the Chanukah story are Syrian.  Except that they’re actually Greek.  Like Cleopatra and the rest of the Ptolemy brigade were Egyptian, but actually Greek.  Anyway, the baddies are the rulers of  “Coele-Syria”, an area now forming parts of Syria, Lebanon and Israel, and are generally referred to as “Syrians”.  This book, also set in Manchester, came out this year, and is about Syrian refugees.  It’s an important subject, and I love the way it uses a traditional GO-type format to tell a modern-day story.

Circe by Madeline Miller.  As I said, the Syrian baddies are actually Greek!   This book’s about Greek gods rather than real Greeks, but I’m including it because it’s the last book I read.   I believe there’s a mini-series coming, so fingers crossed that it’s shown somewhere I can see it!

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant.  The Chanukah story isn’t actually in the Jewish or Protestant versions of the Old Testament, although it’s in the Catholic, Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox versions … I always thought it just wasn’t in, but apparently it depends which version you’ve got.  How very confusing!   Anyway, I was going to say that, although it isn’t actually in the Bible, but make that “although it isn’t actually in all versions of the Bible”, it’s still a religious story, and they tend to feature blokes as heroes, so it’s great to have a book which focuses on some of the female characters in the Bible … and this one’s become hugely popular.

Hunting Midnight by Richard Zimler. This is primarily set in the very lovely city of Porto. No, it isn’t about football: it’s about the Napoleonic Wars. It’s also about crypto-Jews. There’ve been a lot of times during which, for one reason or another – being Jews or Muslims in the Spanish or Portuguese Empires, being “heretics”, belonging to a Christian denomination that’s on the opposite side to the authorities during/after the Reformation, belonging to any religion in a strict communist regime – people have been able to practice their religion only in secret. This was also the case in the Chanukah story, in which the Syrians-who-were-actually-Greeks were busy Hellenising everything. According to a great historical tradition dating back two millennia (ahem, which was possibly invented in the 19th century, rather like a lot of those wondrous “age-old” Christmas traditions, but never mind), Jews meeting in secret to study religious texts would, if caught by the Greek-Syrian authorities, pretend to be playing a game with spinning tops.  No spinning tops in this book, sadly, but Richard Zimler’s books are always interesting.

The spinning tops are actually historically accurate, i.e. relating to that period of history, even if their link to the story may possibly be a bit tenuous.  And, if you do look at the Google cartoon, you’ll see them in there.

The Greatest Comeback by David Bolchover. This one is about football! And the author’s from Manchester, and a lifelong United fan. The link here is that the Maccabees, the heroes of the Chanukah story, whilst they were possibly more interested in playing with spinning tops than in playing football, have ended up with a load of sporting clubs named after them, the most famous being Maccabi Tel Aviv and Maccabi Haifa, who are often involved in Champions League or Europa League action. This book’s a biography of a Holocaust survivor who went on to manage Benfica to European Cup glory.

The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi by Jacqueline Park. I was trying to think of a book which involved olive oil, to go with the Chanukah oil story, but the best I could think of was a book set somewhere where I’ve seen lots of olive groves, so either Greece or Italy. This one’s set in Renaissance Italy, where the heroine, Grazia dei Rossi (who is Jewish, although I don’t think she ever mentions Chanukah!) works as a secretary for Isabella d’Este, daughter of the ruler of Ferrara and wife of the ruler of Mantua. Both of those areas have lots of olive groves!

Little Women by Louisa M Alcott. A sub-plot in the Chanukah story involves a woman called Hannah, who has seven sons. Although, apparently the books about the Maccabees, which are or aren’t in the Bible depending on which version you’ve got, don’t actually mention her name, but she’s usually called Hannah … although in some countries she’s called Miriam. Or Solomonia. Anyway, Hannah and her sons are arrested by the Syrian king. Who is actually Greek. Pass the doughnuts, someone: I’m confusing myself here.  Anyway, I thought it’d be easy to come up with a book about someone called Hannah, but it wasn’t. However, we do have Hannah, the March family’s faithful old retainer in Little Women – and, seeing as there’s yet another new film version of Little Women due out later this month, I thought that that was quite apt. And I do like to have American Civil War books on my lists.

And … because there are actually nine candles, because one is needed to light the other eight, and because it seems a bit weird not to have a Chalet School book on the list, book number nine is Peggy of the Chalet School by Elinor M Brent-Dyer. When Peggy Bettany returns to her friends after her surprise appointment as the new Head Girl, Judy Rose teases her by chanting “See the Conqu’ring Heroine Comes” … referring to “See the Conqu’ring Hero Comes” which (although it’s actually a veiled reference to the Battle of Culloden!) is about Judah the Maccabee, the leader of the Maccabees.  Incidentally, someone has put up a giant lime green menorah (well, a metal one with fluorescent tape on it, but it looks lime green!) by the side of the road not far from chez moi, and, every time I walk past it, I think about all the Chalet School fandom jokes about characters liking lime green clothes, furnishings and even vehicles.  It’s certainly hard to miss!

Told you I had an over-active imagination!  Thank you to anyone who’s read all that.  Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Season’s Greetings, Happy Holidays, Cool Yule, or any other form of festive greeting you prefer.  They all work.  Peace and goodwill to one and all xxx.

 

No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton

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This is a very well-written children’s book, telling the story of a family of Syrian asylum seekers in Manchester in the style of a traditional ballet book, with the Mary Martin/Miss Arrowhead role of the fairy godmother ballet teacher poignantly being filled by an elderly lady who came here as a Jewish refugee from the Nazis.  It really does get across the messages of the situation in Syria and the issues faced by asylum seekers – and also the teacher’s experiences as one of the Kindertransport children eighty years earlier, making the point that there are refugees in every generation – in a way that the intended audience, probably children aged around 9 to 12, will be able to understand. Older readers will get a lot from it too.

11-year-old Aya, her mum and her baby brother have come to Manchester from Aleppo: what’s happened to her dad isn’t explained until later on.  At the start of the story, they’ve already been here for several months, but there are flashbacks to what happened in Syria.  I’m not normally keen on books which jump around like that, but I can see that starting in Aleppo and describing the war there might have been too much in a children’s book.  Like many people fleeing Syria, they’d led a happy and comfortable life there, the dad being a doctor – who’d spent some years working in the UK and spoke fluent English, which he’d taught Aya.

They came to the UK via Turkey and Greece, so, because they should have claimed asylum in Greece, the first EU member state they came to, their claim for refugee status in the UK is complicated. I don’t want to get political – and the issues around the asylum situation are far more multifaceted than the author seems to want readers to believe, even allowing for the fact that she’s writing for children – but I don’t think anyone could argue that the asylum claim process isn’t inefficient and doesn’t take too long; and we see that the family are in limbo for months whilst they wait for a decision.  They receive help from volunteers at food banks and advice centres, but also meet with some hostility from their landlord when they cannot pay their rent.  The author’s keen to make the point that her characters have their pride: when a kind girl gives Aya some old leotards and ballet clothes that she’s grown out of, Aya feels uncomfortable about being seen as a charity case.

The book doesn’t try to explain all the complexities of the war in Syria and who’s on which side and why – does anyone, never mind a child of around 11, actually understand that? – but it explains that attacks on peaceful protests spiralled into civil war, and it doesn’t shy away from describing bombings and telling us that Aya lost friends in the bombings, and that other people she knew were detained and haven’t been seen since.  Children in the intended readership age group are old enough to know about this, and fiction is a very good way of getting the message through.

We learn that Aya was injured by shrapnel and has a permanent scar as a result, and also that her mum is struggling physically and mentally after leaving Syria too soon after the difficult birth of her son.  The combination of that and the fact that she (the mum) doesn’t speak English puts a huge amount of responsibility on Aya’s shoulders.  What can bring joy and hope back into her life?

And that’s where we get this fascinating mix of genres – the title of the book is an obvious act of homage to Noel Streatfeild, and this is a very 21st century story combined with a traditional Girls’ Own story.  In the community centre where they go for advice, ballet classes are being held in another room – and we learn that Aya had ballet lessons back in Aleppo and was very keen.  There’s a moving scene later on in which some of the girls in the class are surprised to learn that there were ballet classes in Syria, a country they only associate with war, and Aya is sad that they don’t initially realise that life there was once perfectly normal.

In true GO style, Aya goes to watch the lessons, is invited to join in, and is so brilliant that Miss Helena, the teacher, offers her the chance to attend classes without paying – but, evidently understanding that she doesn’t want to be seen as a charity case, invites her to pay her way by helping out in the classes for younger children.  We later find out that Miss Helena, who was originally from Prague, came here on the Kindertransport, alone, and became a world famous ballerina.

Having Miss Helena in that role of what I’ve called the “fairy godmother ballet teacher”, a classic ballet book trope, is inspired.  She later tells Aya all about her own experiences – and this again is something that’s so important for children in the intended readership age group to know – and the point is made so well that war and persecution and refugee crises happen in every generation, over and over again.

Aya makes friends with a girl called Dotty, the daughter of another world famous ballerina – who wants her daughter to follow in her footsteps. There’s a sub-plot about how Dotty doesn’t really want to be a ballerina.  That’s very Lorna Hill – think Mariella Foster and Vicki Scott.  And the girls in the class arrange a concert to raise funds for the refugees – that’s very Girls’ Own too.

In some ways it is a classic children’s ballet book, and yet at the same time it’s a million miles away from Ballet Shoes or A Dream of Sadler’s Wells.  It’s all woven together very cleverly.  Aya and Dotty get locked in at the ballet studio after staying late to practise, standard enough storyline … but then Aya has a panic attack, and we learn about how she and her family travelled from Syria to Turkey in a container on a lorry, and nearly suffocated.  And about the conditions in the refugee camp.  It doesn’t spell out the dangers there, especially for women and girls, but there are mentions of it being unsafe to go out at night, of screaming, and of Aya feeling uncomfortable at the way some of the men look at her.

It is a children’s book, despite some of the hard-hitting subjects it covers, and adult readers will need to suspend disbelief over some aspects of it.  If Miss Helena started attending ballet classes before the Second World War, she must be the oldest ballet teacher in the world!  And would Dotty’s posh family, who live in a mansion – in an area near woodland, so does that suggest Alderley Edge? – be sending their daughter to ballet classes in a community centre in an underprivileged area miles away?  But try to ignore all that – it’s necessary for the story!

Dotty’s family have got their own swimming pool.  Dotty invites Aya to swim in it with her … and that brings about another flashback, this time to the flimsy boats making the crossing from Turkey to Greece, and that’s when we find out that the boat Aya’s family were in overturned, as so many did, and her dad drowned.  There are all these juxtapositions – from a ballet studio to a refugee camp, from a swimming pool in a mansion to people drowning whilst being taken across the Aegean in boats that aren’t fit for purpose, by unscrupulous traffickers who care nothing for human lives.

And Dotty, and another girl in their ballet class, are auditioning for the Royal Northern Ballet School.  Sadly, this doesn’t actually exist 🙂 .  But think Sadler’s Wells/Royal Ballet School, but based near Manchester.  If Aya can get a scholarship there, she’ll be entitled to stay in the UK because she’ll get a study visa.  She’s missed the preliminary auditions, but Miss Helena manages to swing it so that she can be seen anyway.

Just as an aside, it doesn’t specify which part of town any of the action’s taking place in, but there are some definite clues on the journey to the ballet school.  They seem to be heading across town on the Mancunian Way, and then out on to Chester Road, past the two Old Traffords 🙂 .  So they must be based on the north side of town, to need to cross town to get to the south side … which suggests the Cheetham Hill/Crumpsall area.  Then they keep going, so that’ll be straight down the A56 in its various incarnations south of the city centre, and it sounds as if the ballet school building is based on either Dunham Massey or Tatton Park.  I just had to try to work that out!

As Aya rehearses for the audition, she remembers dancing in the refugee camp, and thinks about how dancing is universal.  I’ve also seen videos of little kids in refugee camps playing football, just like little kids do in Manchester and Madrid and Munich.  Football, dancing, singing …  they don’t care who you are or where you are.

Of course, the audition is on the same day as the final asylum hearing.  Aya’s overcome with anxiety, and also with feelings of guilt at the thought that, if she succeeds, she’ll be granted a student visa but her mum and brother may still be deported.  And – this is very Girls’ Own, in a very un-Girls’-Own scenario – she faints in the middle of it all.  She doesn’t feel that she can go on, until Miss Helena explains that she lost her parents and sister in the Holocaust and turned round all the survivor guilt into believing that she had to make the most of the chance that she’d been given and that dancing was her way of making something beautiful out of the saving of her own life and the loss of theirs.  The pairing of the two characters who’ve both been through so much, in the traditional ballet book roles of the poor but brilliant student and the fix-it teacher, is a very clever touch, and very well executed.

I won’t give away the ending.  But I will mention the afterword, in which the author talks about “lightbulb books” for children, and how that’s the sort of book she’s tried to write.  She’s certainly ambitious: she talks about aspiring to write something that’s like When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and The Silver Sword and also like Ballet Shoes, The Swish of the Curtain and the Sadler’s Wells books.  Time will tell how this book’s received, but I do hope that a lot of people will read it, and get a lot out of it.  It uses the term “the kindness of strangers” over and over again.  That’s something that we should all aspire to.