Tell me about children’s books (and I might give you a free book)

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Since I started my quest to read the world, I’ve encountered all sorts of literary explorers. I’ve had messages from people doing their own round-the-world trips on different timescales and with contrasting criteria to mine. I know of bloggers engaged in sampling the literary offerings of particular regions or continents, or of all the nations playing in the world cup. And I’ve heard from people who are trying to find international books from particular genres. (I even got an email not so long ago from someone set on reading a horror novel from every state – a particularly dark quest, as he pointed out!)

Perhaps the most common inquiry I receive from prospective world readers, however, concerns children’s books. I’ve lost track of the number of parents and teachers who have written to me asking for advice on resources they can use to help youngsters read more widely. It’s great to know that so many children are surrounded by adults keen to help expand their imaginary universes in this way.

Although during my quest I only read two books aimed specifically at children (my choices for Dominica and for the Central African Republic) and one YA novel (Samoa), my literary adventures have brought me into contact with a number of great projects exploring children’s literature from around the world. In the UK, for example, the wonderful Outside In World organisation has done a lot to bring more great books onto British children’s radars. Meanwhile in New York, this list compiled by Marianna Vertsman at Mid-Manhattan Library is a great starting point. There are also some wonderful personal projects, such as the Read Around the World section on mother-of-three Amy’s Delightful Children’s Books blog.

In my reading this year, I was also enthralled by Helen Wang’s wonderful translation of Cao Wenxuan’s Bronze and Sunflower, a glorious children’s story set in rural China during the Cultural Revolution. I made it my April Book of the month and I’ve been very pleased to see that it’s been getting some much deserved attention in the UK Independent and Guardian newspapers this week.

But, as you’ve probably gathered from this project, I’m a great believer that you can never have enough book recommendations. So I thought I’d see what you’ve got to add to the discussion of children’s literature from beyond the English-speaking world. And because it’s the festive, gift-giving season in many parts of the planet and I’m feeling generous, I thought I’d offer you the chance of getting a signed copy of my book in return.

Simply leave a comment below giving the title and author of your favourite children’s book written in a language other than English, and up to four sentences about why you like it. Your recommended title can be available in translation or yet to be translated, and it can be a picture book or full of words. My main criteria are that you love it and that it’s good.

On January 1 at midday UK time, I will read through all the entries and choose my favourite, most persuasive book pitch. And that person will get a signed copy of the UK edition of my book, Reading the World (pictured above). I’ll even personalise the dedication and post it to you and everything. So go on, tell me what children’s stories we English-language readers are missing.

COMPETITION NOW CLOSED. CHECK BACK SOON FOR THE ANNOUNCEMENT OF THE WINNER

A drink on the South Bank

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The first week of October was a rather busy one, what with my event at Henley and a trip up to Wigtown. So what better way to unwind than with a drink back in my home town?

This is I duly did at the London Literature Festival at the Southbank Centre last Wednesday night, in the company of drinks writer Richard Godwin, broadcaster Georgina Godwin, and a warm and friendly audience.

It was a pleasure to a share a stage with Richard Godwin for two reasons. Firstly, as he has just launched his book, The Spirits: A Guide to Modern Cocktailing, Richard is a mine of information on all things alcohol-related and he entertained us with anecdotes about some of our best-loved tipples.

Secondly, having been very dutiful in his research, Richard mixes a pretty mean drink himself. This he did for Georgina and me, presenting us each with a Remember the Maine, a vermouth-based cocktail. It was made to a recipe from The Gentleman’s Companion: Being an Exotic Drinking Book or Around the World with Jigger, Beaker and Flask, first published in 1933 by American author Charles H Baker. Godwin had chosen this beverage partly because of the international theme of Baker’s book, which he felt would complement Reading the World.

The drink certainly helped proceedings go with a swing – no doubt thanks in part to the extra spray of absinthe Richard gave the glasses just before he served them!

A most enjoyable end to a packed week of travelling, reading, meeting new people and talking about books. Cheers!

Picture by cheddarcheez

A weekend in Wigtown

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I wrote my last post on a train bound for Scotland, where I was due to appear at the Wigtown Book Festival last Saturday. Little did I know the treat I had in store.

More than almost anywhere else I’ve ever been, Wigtown lives and breathes stories. There’s a good reason for that: since being designated Scotland’s National Book Town in 1998, it has undergone extraordinary regeneration. More than 20 book-related businesses (including numerous bookshops, as you can see from the photo above) operate there – no small matter for a place with a population of only around 1,000 people, and a powerful testament to what books can do.

The annual Wigtown Book Festival is a big part of this success story. And because of this, many local people throw themselves into making it work, from putting authors up and driving them to and from the station, to ushering at events. The result is that the extravaganza has a cosy, community feel, while attracting some of literature’s biggest names.

I first realised this on the drive from Dumfries station when I found myself sitting next to Caine prize-winner and three-times Orange prize-longlisted Sudanese-Scottish author Leila Aboulela, whose novel Minaret is one of the books on my list for Sudan. The journey took an hour (yes, Wigtown really is remote), but we barely noticed the time because we found so much to talk about, comparing notes on our various writing projects and the books we’d read.

Owing to the timing of my event the next day, I was lucky to have two nights in Wigtown. I resolved to make the most of them by going to as many events as possible. The first of these took place that evening: a shadow Man Booker Prize judging event, featuring an expert panel chaired by critic Stuart Kelly, who was one of the real-life judges in 2013.

None of the six books on the shortlist escaped unscathed as the panel laid into them, although it’s fair to say that Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life came in for a particular bashing. In the end, by a narrow margin, Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island was voted the Wigtown favourite to win. It will be interesting to see how this compares to the announcement of the winner on Tuesday.

The next morning I went to hear young Scottish author Kirstin Innes talk about her novel, Fishnet, which came out of research she did into the sex industry. Then it was off to the McNeillie tent, where Leila Aboulela was talking about her new book, The Kindness of Enemies. Set partly in present-day Scotland and partly in the Caucasus mountains during the Crimean War, the novel explores the concept of jihad and the problems that come with moving across borders. It was, Aboulela said, partly motivated by her desire to ‘put Muslim culture in English literature’.

Afterwards, I queued up to have my copy signed and Aboulela kindly agreed to a photograph, as you can see below – a lovely memento of our discussion.

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Following a sumptuous lunch in the Writers’ Retreat above The Bookshop on North Main Street – the owner generously turns his private living room over to the authors visiting the festival each year – I got invited by writer and explorer Robert Twigger to participate in his ‘The Message Board’ project. This involved the authors speaking at the festival writing a message on a blackboard and being photographed with it.

He’d already garnered an intriguing selection, from ‘Educate all the world’s children’ by Debi Gliori to ‘The dream shall never die’ from former Scottish first minister Alex Salmond, as well as more quirky offerings, such as ‘A pig looks you right in the eye’ from Canadian novelist Patrick de Witt. You can see my contribution below.

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No sooner had I put the chalkboard down then it was off to hear Patrick de Witt speak about his new book, Undermajordomo Minor. I’d not come across de Witt’s writing before, but his droll style and the dark humour of the extract he read quickly won me over, and I’m keen to read him.

Following my event, which took the form of a lively discussion with BBC arts producer Serena Field, I repaired to the Writers’ Retreat once more. Further discussions with authors, critics and editors followed, and the evening ended with a spin around the dance floor at the festival ceilidh.

The next morning yielded another car journey full of fascinating conversation, as Clandestine Cake Club founder and cookbook writer Lynn Hill, author Gregory Norminton, agent and writer Andrew Lownie, and I all piled in with local volunteer Jim for the ride to Dumfries.

Once back on the London train, I tried to get to work on an article I had to write, but I found myself distracted. I was already wondering how soon I could make my way back to Wigtown…

Black-and-white photograph by Robert Twigger

My evening with Helle Helle

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I met a star last night. Novelist Helle Helle is one of Denmark’s best-known and most respected contemporary writers. She’s won numerous awards – and I had the honour of not just meeting her, but also sharing a stage with her and spending an hour chatting about our books.

The event was at the ninth Henley Literary Festival, which this week sees book lovers attending more than 170 writing-related talks in the picturesque Oxfordshire town famous for its regatta.

Helle and I were talking with translator and writer Daniel Hahn. It was a felicitous grouping, as Reading the World and This Should be Written in the Present Tense, Helle’s first novel to be translated into English, are both published in the UK by Harvill Secker, a publisher that Hahn also often translates for.

Despite apologising for her (near-perfect) English, Helle spoke powerfully about her writing process and the way she created the quiet, intimate and enthralling world of her novel, in which lead character Dorte drifts through her days, taking the train into Copenhagen but never attending the university course on which she is enrolled.

I was particularly interested by Helle’s comments on what writing means to her. She used a sentence from her book as an example: ‘They couldn’t keep the weeds under control, they were both of them teachers.’

The humour in this sentence came from the lack of a conjunction, she said. If she had written ‘They couldn’t keep the weeds under control because they were both of them teachers’ or ‘They were both teachers so they couldn’t keep the weeds under control’, the sentence would be flat. It was the lack of conjunction that left the space for that dash of wry humour.

This was the key to literature for her: playing with language and seeing how it worked and making it do interesting things.

Afterwards, we chatted in the green room about the Danish television series that have taken the world by storm. Helle revealed that she wasn’t much taken with The Bridge but she’d loved the first season of The Killing.

Then it was back on the train to London for me – and a long spell sitting at a red signal which meant I missed the last tube home. Although it wasn’t as epic a journey as the night I went to speak at the Hilt in Hampshire, it did mean I didn’t get back until 1.30am.

There’s no rest for the wicked, though, as I’m writing this on a train bound for Dumfries and Galloway in Scotland, where I’m taking part in an event at Wigtown Book Festival tomorrow. Here’s hoping this journey goes smoothly – and that the next discussion is every bit as fascinating…

How does censorship affect a writer’s career?

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A controversy in New Zealand has this month brought the issue of banning books to many bibliophiles’ attention around the world. At the centre of the storm is Ted Dawe’s award-winning Into the River, a Young Adult novel that follows a Maori teenager who wins a scholarship at an exclusive Auckland boarding school.

The book has been out for two years, but on September 3 it was withdrawn from bookshops and libraries after a Christian group objected to its sexually explicit content and portrayal of drug use. While New Zealand’s Film and Literature Board of Review decides whether or not to issue a permanent ban, any company caught distributing the book in the nation faces a fine of up to NZ$10,000. It is the first time a title has been restricted in this way in the country for around two decades.

As censorship was a big issue I encountered during my year of reading the world, the story threw up several interesting points for me. The first was the curious and counter-intuitive effect that bans like this tend to have in much of the English-speaking world. Although such steps are rare in New Zealand, there have been attempts to restrict certain titles in other Anglophone nations in recent years, with the Harry Potter books, To Kill a Mocking Bird and even The Diary of Anne Frank drawing challenges.

What’s interesting about such episodes is that they almost invariably result in precisely the surge of publicity and sales that these works’ opponents would most like to avoid. Although NZ librarians reported borrowing rates for Dawe’s novel dropped when it was first given a warning sticker in December 2013, the latest events have brought Into the River international renown. My first action on hearing about the ban was to order a copy – something I would probably not have if the book were freely available, given that it is aimed at teenage boys.

Granted, the restrictions on distribution may hamper sales inside New Zealand in the short-term, but the widespread media coverage will fix Dawe’s name in many minds for a long time to come and will no doubt drive sales of his other titles, whether Into the River returns to the shelves or not.

The second thought for me was how sharply this situation contrasts with the issues facing authors working in many other languages and under much more restrictive regimes, where the media does not have the ability to challenge similar decisions and hold authorities to account in the same way. Throughout my project, I came across a number of writers whose careers had been stunted and sometimes cut short by often brutal attempts to limit their freedom to write what they felt they must.

When I researched my book Reading the World, I interviewed several of them at length, in particular Uzbek writer Hamid Ismailov and Turkmen writer Ak Welsapar. They had both been forced to flee their home countries in fear of their safety and even their lives.

As they explained to me, rebuilding your career in another language is a huge challenge for an exiled author. Welsapar, who now lives in Sweden, even went so far as to call it a tragedy – not surprising when you consider that the unpublished translation I read of his novel The Tale of Aypi remains without a publishing deal, despite it being the first book ever translated directly from Turkmen into English.

More than 20 years after they fled their homelands, Ismailov and Welsapar have nevertheless made admirable progress. Ismailov has had several works published, most recently his acclaimed novella The Dead Lake,  and was writer in residence at the BBC World Service for several years. Meanwhile, Welsapar has been published in Swedish and Russian, and he was the Turkmen poet at Poetry Parnassus, a cultural event organised to complement the London 2012 Olympic Games.

I was particularly delighted that both writers had short stories featured in the summer 2015 issue of the excellent Index on Censorship magazine.

For Welsapar this represented almost the first prose work he has ever had published in English. Not comparable to the worldwide attention Ted Dawe’s novel has received over the past few weeks. But at least it’s a start.

Picture by Samuele Ghilardi

Book signing in Covent Garden

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Book signings are funny things. You do your talk and read your extract, and then you sit at a table, crossing your fingers that someone will have liked what you said enough to actually buy your book.

Sometimes you can wait a while. Other times, as happened when I gave a talk at a bookshop in south London recently, you are surrounded by so many people asking questions and wanting to talk about books that the signing itself is a bit of a scramble – I think several people went home with rather eccentric variations on my signature that day!

What always makes the experience better, though, is when people I know through the project are there. After my Around the World in 10 Books event with Scott Pack at the Bath Literary Festival a couple of weeks back, I was delighted to be joined at the signing table by Robin Patterson, one of the volunteers who translated a book for me to read from São Tomé and Príncipe. Scott and I had discussed Our Musseque, the Angolan novel by José Luandino Vieira that Robin had translated, and it was great to see Robin signing copies of that book.

Of course, it’s not possible for many of those who I’ve met virtually on my reading adventures to get to events in the UK. People who follow this blog are spread all over the world. My stats show that it has been viewed by folk in well over 200 territories, including in many places like Mayotte, New Caledonia and the Northern Mariana Islands that didn’t feature on the UN list I worked from for my quest. So the chances are that many of you won’t be in Covent Garden at 6.30pm next Tuesday evening.

But if by some miraculous chance you are in London that day, I’d love it if you’d join me for an event I’m doing at the wonderful Stanfords bookshop on Long Acre in Covent Garden. If you come along, you’ll get to hear me speaking about the project, how it started, some of the amazing stories and people we encountered along the way and how the book developed – and ask any questions you want (within reason…).

And if you haven’t been to Stanfords before, you’ll discover one of the world’s best travel bookshops into the bargain.

Hope to see you there…

Reading the World – an evening with Ann Morgan, Tuesday 24th March, 6.30pm at Stanfords, 12-14 Long Acre, London WC2E 9LP. Tickets £3 (redeemable against the cost of Reading the World) available here

The first Amazon rating (or what the book isn’t)

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It’s a moment every debut writer waits for: that first reader review on Amazon. The point when an ordinary person, somewhere out there in the world responds to your work.

For me, that moment came yesterday afternoon. I’d clicked onto my book as I do most days (all right, every day at the moment) to see how it was performing and found that Reading the World had scored its first rating: one star.

Anxiously, I flicked down to the write-up. Had the reader thought the writing was bad? Did they hate my ideas?

No – at least they didn’t say so. As it turned out, the one-star rating was down to the fact that the book wasn’t what the reader expected. They had been hoping for an account of the 196 books I read in 2012 and because the book didn’t conform to their expectations they had marked it down.

The Amazon reviewer isn’t the first person to have expected Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer to be a blow-by-blow description of my year of reading the world. In fact, when I first got the book deal back in 2012, I assumed that that was the form the narrative would take. I even wrote a first draft to that effect, weaving in a lot of material from my online reviews and roughly following the chronology of the year.

Then (with the help of my editors at Harvill Secker) I realised two things. The first was that anyone who wanted a story-by-story rundown of my literary quest didn’t need to go to the bother of buying a book: that material was already online for free. Anyone who went to the list and clicked on a country name could find my account of what I read for that particular nation. It seemed rather limited to package all that openly available material up and expect people to pay for it.

The second realisation was that the 196 books I read that year (well, 197, counting Kurdistan) were sort of beside the point. They were my solutions to the challenge at a particular time and place, but someone else reading the world would find and pick very different things – as the ever-growing selection of recommended titles on the list demonstrates.

I had never set out to source the definitive work for each country (given that I’ve only read one book from many nations, I’m certainly not qualified to do that). Instead, I was interested in exploring and seeing what I could find.

What intrigued me most, I discovered, was not the specific choices, but how they changed my thinking and the big ideas they brought up along the way. I wanted to explore how reading the world can remake us as people and challenge the assumptions that we all grow up with, wherever we’re from. And I wanted to examine why storytelling matters to us and how it has shaped the lives of many of the people I encountered during my quest.

To this end, I decided to structure the book around these ideas. I would refer to many of the texts I read during 2012, but I would also bring in lots of other stories and research too. And I would weave in some of my own experiences as a reader throughout my life.

I hope it makes for a more substantial and longer-lived work than a simple collection of stitched-together reviews would do (it certainly required me to think a lot more deeply than the initial project). But that’s for readers like you to decide.

For now though – until a hopefully more enthusiastic rating appears – I’m perversely enjoying the distinction of my book having the worst-possible average rating on the world’s biggest bookselling website. That’s surely got to be an achievement in its own right?

A night to remember

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So the day is finally here. Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer is published and on sale through all major e-tailers and retailers, as well as some fantastic independent bookshops too. We did it!

Last night I celebrated the event with friends, family, colleagues, fellow book lovers and some of the many people who helped the project on its way at the Free Word Centre in Farringdon. You can see me speaking in the photo above, which was taken by the writer Martin Goodman – one of a number of a number of authors who were there, including Hamid Ismailov, whose book The Railway was my pick for Uzbekistan. I’m not quite sure what I was saying at this point, but it was probably some kind of thank you (there were a lot of those).

It was a joy to see so many people who were important to me and to the project in the same room, but I was particularly delighted by the fact that four of the volunteers who translated a book for me to read from São Tomé and Príncipe were there. You can see us together in the picture below (from left: Clare Keats, Margaret Jull Costa, me, Yema Ferreira and Robin Patterson). It was the first time I had met three of them in person, so it was a very special moment.

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I was also really pleased to be able to reflect the international theme of the book in other ways. It was wonderful that the team from Belgravia Books (the home of French-literature-in-translation publisher Gallic Books) were there to sell copies of Reading the World. I signed a couple for them to take back to the shop, so if you’re passing through Victoria in the next few days you might be able to pick one up if you pop in.

And when it came to the drinks, we had wine from four different countries – Slovenia, Romania, Uruguay and Greece – which was provided by The Wine Pack (@thewinepack if you want to get their tips on Twitter). They’d even made bookmarks with tasting notes and details of which book I’d read from each nation represented.

There were so many wonderful things about the party. I could write for ages about the pleasure of introducing people who I knew shared common interests, reading my work aloud and seeing old friends.

Unfortunately, however, I’ve got to dash. I’m about to head off into town again – this time to BBC Broadcasting House to record a discussion about Reading the World and translation for Radio Four’s show Open Book. Wish me luck!

Pictures by Martin Goodman and Steve Lennon

Ready for launch

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My dress is pressed. The wine is on its way. In a few hours’ time, I’ll be taking those shrink-wrapped copies of Reading the World in the picture above to central London to join a mountain of others at the launch before my book goes on sale tomorrow and I become a published author.

I’m excited to see my friends, family and many of the people who helped make the book happen. I’m eager to hear my editor speak about the project. And I’m looking forward to getting up on stage to read an extract out loud.

But for now, sitting in the peace and quiet of the living room where this journey started just over three years ago, I’m taking a moment to reflect on this project and where it has led. I’m thinking of the people around the planet who shared their knowledge and experience with me, the supporters who cheered me on, and the amazing stories we found together.

Human beings and books are capable of extraordinary things.

Reading the World: the movie

Well, not quite a movie. But a close second. This is the author film made for me by the excellent production company Vloop.

The idea is to give a little flavour of what Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer is like and how it’s different from the blog. At the end, there are links to three very short extra videos about some of the highlights from that extraordinary year, as well as the film of the shelf piling up with books. I hope you like it.

Seeing the finished film is a great end to what’s already been a very exciting week. In the past few days, the book’s first review has been published and I visited the Guardian newspaper’s offices to record a podcast – to be released soon.

There are lots more things to come in the next few weeks as we build up to the UK publication day (or pub date, as I’ve learned it’s called in the industry) of February 5, 2015. Watch this space.