Category Archives: History

Unicorns, Centaurs and Pegasus: why are we still fascinated by magical horses?

For much of recent human history, horses were a vital part of our daily lives: essential on farms, for transport and communication, and in battle.

But for most of us, nowadays, horses are almost irrelevant economically and horse-riding is a hobby for a small number of people. Most of us will go days, weeks, even months – especially if we live in a city – without seeing a horse. Yet horses are still a vital and passionately beloved element of our stories and culture.

Many 21st century children will never ride a pony, most will never groom or muck out a horse, but they still love stories about them, and particularly stories about magical and mythical horses.

I know this because when I ask classes of kids about their favourite magical creatures, unicorns almost always top the list, usually followed by winged horses and centaurs (and kelpies, if I’m in a Scottish school) mixed in with dragons and werewolves.

Why is that? Why do horses still appear so regularly in our stories and our imaginations and why do horses lend themselves so well to being given magical attributes?

Is it because of their beauty? Their size, strength and speed? Is it because of their mix of gentleness (a horse’s lips taking an apple off your palm) and potential danger (you don’t want a horse standing on your foot, and you really don’t want a startled horse to kick you)?

Is it that they can plausibly play such a wide variety of roles in stories – wise guide, essential transport, symbol of wealth and power, friend and companion or threat galloping towards you – because they have played so many roles in our history.

Is it because the horse’s importance in many cultures, for much of our history, means they have starring roles in a vast variety of folktales, myths and legends from all over the world? (I tell horse stories from Persia, Ukraine, Gambia, Russia, Australia, Tibet, Greece … and sometimes even Scotland.)

Is it all the vivid ways that storytellers in the past have added little bits of memorable magic to horses: the horn of a unicorn, the wings of Pegasus, the shapeshifting mystery of a kelpie? Are we all dazzled by the amazing and lasting pictures those magical additions leave in our imaginations?

Is it because of the unique relationship between rider and horse, and their dependence on each other? (In many of the ‘horse and hero’ legends I tell, the way the rider treats the horse reveals their character and whether they really are a hero or a bully.)

Is it because a horse, magical or not, can plausibly be a genuine and multi-faceted character in a story, not just a plot point or a magical MacGuffin? (My favourite magical horses as a child were Bree and Hwin in The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis – talking horses who aren’t just modes of transport, weapons or possessions, but characters with goals, moments of heroism, and distinct voices. Those Narnian horses are the protagonists in the story just as much as the two human children.)

Is it that horses are a powerful symbol of freedom, of escape, of traveling the world? We might use buses or bikes now, but the horse’s four fast powerful legs still carry that promise of adventure and freedom.

Despite all the research I’ve done into horse lore and mythology, and all the time I’ve spent discussing magical horses with children, I still don’t have a definitive answer to why we love magical horses. Perhaps they mean something different to each of us…

But I am sure that I’ll be discussing fiery, winged, shapeshifting, horned, talking and ghostly horses with kids again next term. Because whenever I say ‘magical animal’, the horse, in all its mythical and folklore forms, is the animal that leaps straight into their imaginations.

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I’m also sure that no matter how many wonderful magical horses there are in traditional tales, a class full of 10 year olds can always come up with a few new ideas to invent their own 21st century story-horses (laser eyes? snake’s tail? cat’s paws? time-travelling?) and to imagine their own unique adventures.

And I’m sure that even though real horses are no longer part of many of our daily lives, magical horses will star in our stories for generations.

 

Lari Don is a Scottish children’s author and storyteller. Her book, Horse of Fire, gathers her favourite ‘magical horse’ folktales myths and legends from all over the world, and is out in paperback now.

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Saved by a Writer from the Past, or How I Learned to Love Widsith the Poet

Whenever I write a new story, I often seem to reach a point where inspiration dries up and I get stuck. It’s almost as if a voice in my head says over and over again, ‘Why are you writing this rubbish? And what makes you think you’re any good at writing stories anyway?’ I like to think it’s an essential part of the creative process, the temporary triumph of the self-doubt that surrounds any attempt to create something. Get through this, I tell myself, and everything will be fine. But that doesn’t always make it any easier to deal with.

The dreaded moment came early with Winter of the Wolves, my latest Flashback. I had already written two Flashbacks – Revolt Against the Romans, the story of Caractacus’s rebellion in first-century Roman Britain, and Attack of the Vikings, a tale of action and adventure set in the west of Scotland in the Viking Age. I also had a good idea for the new book. It was going to be about the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain, seen through the eyes of a young boy, an orphan who is taken in by a chief of the Angles. I was keen to make the Beowulf story part of the plot too. I’m a huge fan of the poem, and I wanted to come up with a suggestion for how it might have been brought to these shores.

As usual I did plenty of research and came up with an outline. I wrote a decent chapter one, moved on to chapter two… and then found myself grinding to a halt. The words stopped coming, the characters wouldn’t speak or do anything interesting, the story refused to come to life. But I didn’t panic. I’d been in the same position many times before, and so I tried the things that have helped in the past – taking a break, reading my notes again, thinking about the characters from a different angle. Doing more research also sometimes helps – it might be that I haven’t immersed myself in the period enough.

That’s what did the trick this time. With Beowulf in mind, I looked up lots of other Anglo-Saxon poetry, and came across a poem I’d forgotten about. In The Traveller’s Song we meet Widsith, an Anglo-Saxon poet of the sixth century, and he tells us of all the royal courts he’s visited, and the important kings and chiefs and warriors he has impressed with his poems and songs. Widsith is a great character – he’s vain and boastful, and the poem reads like a glorious promotional leaflet aimed at getting him more work. At any rate, it really spoke to me across the centuries, perhaps because I’m a freelance writer too. I’ve certainly met a few writers like Widsith, and I have a feeling he never got stuck.

So I put Widsith into my story as an old blind scop – that’s the Anglo-Saxon word for a poet – who becomes a friend and mentor to my central character, Oslaf. Poets were greatly respected in early Anglo-Saxon culture, as praise-singers for warrior chiefs, but also as guardians of the tribe’s history. Widsith quickly became a very important figure in Oslaf’s story, and to a large extent the plot only works because of him. While I was writing the story I kind of felt that Widsith was looking after me too. It was almost as if I had a co-writer  I could turn to – ‘What do you think of this bit, Widsith?’ I put a quote from his poem at the beginning of the book, but really his name should be on the title page as well.

The rest of the story came fairly easily after that, although for me that means inching ahead at a rate of about 500 words a day. But you get a feel for how well a story is 9781472953780.jpgprogressing, and I knew this one was going to be all right. I’m not usually boastful about  what I do, but I’ve decided to emulate Widsith and say that I think Winter of the Wolves is one of the best stories I’ve written. I certainly enjoyed writing it enormously, and I think the cover (by Illustrator Rob Ball) is brilliant. If you want to find out more about Widsith there’s an excellent Wikipedia article about his poem. I’m thinking of starting a Widsith Fan Club – after all, I really do owe him a favour!

 

Tony Bradman is an award-winning author who has been involved in children’s books for 35 years. His latest novel, Winter of the Wolves, is out now!

Why the Golden Horsemen Came Riding

Growing up, I knew almost nothing about Baghdad and the Middle East except that an author there had written the 1001 Nights, or the Arabian Nights as my Year 4 teacher used to call it. It’s a wonderful anthology of fairytales that has filled the heads of many a child with the notion of flying carpets, thieves hidden in wooden barrels, genies and magic lamps. I received the Bancroft Classics edition for my eighth birthday, which I re-read endlessly. No author was credited with the work on the front cover but I hardly noticed. I devoured the Sinbad films on telly too, especially the Ray Harryhousen versions which had incredible special effects. But of the real Baghdad, I remained mostly ignorant.

In my teenage years, the Middle East started to feature on the news, but nearly always shown in a bad light. Uprisings and terror attacks flickered across the television screens. News reports showed tanks lumbering across deserts, flat-roofed houses being blown up, grim-faced youths hijacking planes. Not surprisingly I never connected those images with the magical lands of ‘Open Sesame’ and delicious lakoum.

Fast forward a few decades and I am doing an author visit at a school in Bradford where I lived for over ten years. Most of the children were of Pakistani and Indian origin. It was a warm day and we were eating our lunch out in the playground. We got to talking about our most cherished wishes. One boy said in a broad Yorkshire accent, ‘my biggest wish is to go truffle hunting with my father in the Afghan mountains.’

It turned out the boy’s father was Afghani. Trapped in the fraught and long-winded process of sorting out his immigration paperwork, he still lived in Afghanistan. The son visited once a year but never during the truffle hunting season.  It was a Eureka moment for me. It brought images of a magical Middle East flooding back into my head. Not the clichéd magic of genies and flying carpets, but the enchantment of real life still tied to the land and the seasons.

I started reading up on life in Middle Eastern countries, now and in the past and I fell for its charm all over again. Baghdad especially drew my interest. Based around the ‘beyt al Hikma’, meaning ‘house of knowledge’, a world-famous library built in the 9th century, it established itself as a world leader in the arts, science and innovation.

As I started sharing my discoveries in my talks to schools, I learnt that most children, even those of Muslim heritage, were unaware of Baghdad’s glorious heyday, of its massive contribution to the worlds of science, mathematics, medicine, poetry and translation. Without its scholars and their mentors, including the powerful caliphs who built the libraries and schools, much of the writings of the ancient world would now be lost forever.

9781472955999.jpgToday the Golden Age of Islam is part of the National Curriculum in KS2. It’s the perfect opportunity to explore the real history of a culture we in the West so often overlook. My book The Golden Horsemen of Baghdad was written to accompany the subject. Like my other works for Bloomsbury Education, it’s a rollicking adventure but it is also packed with information and insight into the culture and the period. I hope you all enjoy it.

 

The Golden Horsemen of Baghdad is bestselling historical fiction author Saviour Pirotta’s latest novel. Out now!

History is All About King What’s-His-Face, Isn’t It?

I’ve spoken to lots of people and groups over the years and I always ask if anyone in the audience doesn’t like history, a question which is always followed by a forest of raised hands that seem to grow out of the faces below them, all looking bored, snotty or argumentative. And then when I ask exactly why they don’t like history the answers are usually ‘coz it’s boring’ or ‘it has nothing to do with us today’ or ‘it’s just about a load of blokes with power and other blokes who want power’.

Good answers. I used to feel the same, but then one day something stupidly obvious occurred to me…history’s actually about people! Not just rich people with power, but all people. All of us today make up part of what will become the history of our time. We all make it, like house bricks, which when they’re all put together, make a building, sometimes a huge building! King What’s-His-Face, and Queen Thingy-Ma-Bob wouldn’t have got or kept their power without the ordinary people to help them. Kings and Queens and Presidents and Generals are just the bodies who give a name to whichever part of history we’re looking at; most of the real makers of history are people like us.

So, why do I write about Kings and Queens? Because they’re like the key that opens history’s door and shows us exactly what’s inside and also who’s inside. In The First King of England, I talk about Athelstan Cerdinga (what a mighty name), but I also tell of Edwin the shoemaker’s son. Not a person you’ll actually find mentioned in any of the history books, but a character who’s based on the ordinary everyday people who helped to make the history of their time.

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They lived when the Vikings were raiding and pillaging and taking the land from the Anglo-Saxon people who lived on these islands. And when you ask anyone today about these times, if they think about it at all, they believe the Vikings were unstoppable and that the Saxons spent their time running away from these nutters armed with axes. And at the beginning that was mainly true, but then came along a group of men and women who learnt how to fight back. So began a time of powerful people with wonderful names like Alfred the Great, Edward the Elder, Aethelflaed the ‘Lady of the Mercians’. Leaders who took back control from the Vikings, but who could only do it with the help of the ordinary people of those times who were just like you and me.

But if you think the Saxon people drove out the Vikings after they’d defeated them, you’d be wrong. The Saxon rulers allowed them to stay as long as they acknowledged them as their rulers too. This was the beginning of the country that would become known as England. A country made up of different peoples from different lands, just as it is today. And King Athelstan Cerdinga was the very first ruler of that new land. Read about him in The First King of England.

 

Stuart Hill is the author of the Icemark series of historical fantasy novels and winner of the inaugural Watersone’s Children’s Book Prize. Stuart’s newest book, The First King of England, publishes on 6th September.

 

 

From Pirate Sword to Pen

Pirates of Poseidon, the third book in my Ancient Greek Mysteries, has recently published. It’s one that I really enjoyed writing because it twins my two biggest literary passions: Ancient Greece and piracy. It is also set on one of my favourite islands: Aegina.

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I grew up on an island rich in pirate lore. Malta sits right at the centre of the Mediterranean Sea, half way between Europe and North Africa. Any empire that wanted to conquer the exotic lands of the Barbary Coast used Malta as a base for their naval operations. The island has been ruled by the Phoenicians, Romans, Carthaginians, Arabs, Normans, Sicilians, English and French. All this activity drew the attention of pirates, of course. For thousands of years, they plundered the sea around Malta, attacking ships as they bustled between the two continents. They left an indelible mark on both the Maltese landscape and psyche. Every corner of the island has a pirate story to tell. Here’s a house where a bride was kidnapped by pirates on her wedding day. Here’s a cave where a young girl hid from corsairs on her way home from the fields. That light at the bottom of the sea? It’s streaming out of a church that tumbled off a cliff after the holy saint in its painting came alive to rescue a boy from the evil pirates.

It’s no wonder, then, that I grew up fascinated by pirate stories. When I first had the idea for the Ancient Greek Mysteries, a good many years ago, the first image that flashed through my mind was of Ancient Greek pirates fighting two boys and two girls on a burning ship. I knew the pirate captain would have a highly polished sword that flashed in the moonlight. He would wear a golden mask to hide his true identity, one very much like the ‘mask of Agamemnon’ found in the ruins of Mycenae.  But who were the plucky kids? I toyed with all sorts of ideas: they could be actors in a touring company, or acolytes in a temple. I even thought of making them athletes, travelling around the ancient Greek world to take part in festival games and contests. But how would they come across the pirates? Why would they be fighting them?

For inspiration, I travelled to the Peloponnese islands. On the ferry from Athens, I chatted with a man with a shaved head and a snake tattoo on his right forearm. He claimed to be a detective, heading to the island of Poros.

“On holiday?” I asked.

“No, work.”

Having read that Poros is a sleepy island with a population of less than 4000, I couldn’t for the life of me think what he could possibly be investigating there. I tried worming some information out of him but to no avail. Later in the week I bumped into him a second time, at the famous temple of Poseidon on the northern side of the island. Was he on a break from his detecting duties, I wondered, or was he visiting the sanctuary in search of clues?

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Suddenly I had a role for the children in my stories. They would be detectives.  The boys would be Sherlock Holmes and Watson transported to Ancient Greece when the temple of Poseidon was at its height. They could travel all around Greece solving mysteries and every story would feature a famous temple hiding a vital clue.

In the end, I never did use the temple for the series. A few days later I visited the nearby island of Aegina, and decided to set one of the stories there.

It took me well over fifteen years to find the time to collate all my travel notes and work out proper plots for the Ancient Greek Mysteries. Other projects got in the way. But I never forgot that first meeting with the mysterious detective on his way to Poros. He was the inspiration for Thrax, one of the main characters and the lead detective in the stories.

Like the man with the snake tattoo, Thrax is someone who keeps his cards close to his chest, and he has a shaved head. Not to look cool but for an entirely different reason. A reason that ended up being the backbone for the whole series. Want to find out what it is?  Nico, the narrator of the stories, would love to tell you all about it…

 

Saviour Pirotta is the author of nearly one hundred titles, including Ancient Greek Mysteries Mark of the Cyclops and Secret of the Oracle. His most recent book, Pirates of Poseidon, is out now.

Managing Homework For You and Your Pupils: The Checklist

Many teachers struggle to manage homework. Many teachers would like to see it banned altogether, in fact, so would many parents! Homework has always been a subject of debate. Does it have any significant impact on children’s learning, or it an expected ‘hassle’ that increases teacher workload and tensions among families? As a teacher and parent, I don’t mind the extra work of arranging homework or supporting my children at home, when I can see its value. When homework builds upon the learning in the classroom, or helps to prepare for upcoming lessons, it can be of real value but it worth remembering these points:

  • Work WITH parents

Communication is key, as is a well-established routine. Right from the word go, share with your parents how much homework will be set, when it will be set, and when it is due. Many schools have a homework policy- as a class teacher, make sure you are familiar with this and are following the guidelines to ensure consistency across the school.

  • ..kids will be kids!

Every week, without fail, there will be someone who will lose their sheet! If your pupils have a homework book, it is worth any sheets being stuck in. Even better, update your class page with a copy of the week’s homework task. This allows parents/older pupils to easily access their homework, meaning you are not bothered when the child/parent is panicking at the last minute!

  • Provide a WAGOLL (What a good one looks like)

Things regularly change in education and often, the strategies used nowadays will baffle the parents. Recently, a friend of mine with a Year 1 child had no idea what it meant to ‘dot/underline the sound buttons’ of alien words. Providing an example of what the homework should look like, with an explanation can save families hours of time and avoid tensions when it is clear that the child was correct, after all! This particularly applies to many maths strategies.

  • Consider the workload (for you and your pupils)

Planning ahead is important here. Weeks vary in the teacher calendar. If you can see you have double parents’ evenings or an assessment week coming up, be careful not to set homework that will require marking- this is the last thing you need. Children also have busy lives, and similarly, when they have evening concerts or school trips, they will be tired. Homework activities that focus on pupils’ wellbeing are particularly useful during busy times. Chapter 1 of 100 Ideas for Primary Teachers: Homework focuses on pupil wellbeing activities.

  • Use homework to prepare for upcoming lessons

Share with your pupils and parents information about upcoming lessons and how they can prepare. This might involve finding out some information, asking questions or planning an idea. Once back in the classroom, the children can discuss these, meaning even those who forgot get the chance to hear from others before the lesson starts.

  • Prepare a bank of useful activities

Keep hold of homework tasks you set, as chances are they will come in useful the following year. It is also worth sharing with the parents a list of activities they can easily undertake on a regular basis. Idea 23 ‘Recall’ (100 Ideas for Primary Teachers: Homework) provides a list of quick-fire recall games that parents can play with their children to support mental maths. These ideas can again be shared on the class webpage, or sent home as a booklet, for parents to refer to. If these games are also played regularly in school, the children are familiar with them, making it easier to play at home.

  • What is the point?

All too often, teachers rush around at the last minute, photocopying some worksheet for the children’s homework. But it worth considering the purpose of your homework tasks. How does it support/reinforce what is happening in your classroom? Is it an appropriate level for the children? Will it add hugely to your workload?

 

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Jenna Lucas has been a primary school teacher for 12 years, originally in Bristol and now in Bournemouth. In her teaching career she has taught Early Years through to year 6 and led English as well as teaching and learning in the curriculum in her own school and in others in a coaching and mentoring role.

100 Ideas for Primary Teachers: Homework is Jenna’s first book for Bloomsbury Education and is available now.

You can follow her on Twitter @JennaLucas81

 

Visit our 100 Ideas page to see the full range of titles in the series for Early Years, Primary and Secondary Teachers

Portsmouth Book Awards 2015 – Behind the Scenes!

Hannah Rolls - editor photoMy name is Hannah and I’m the Fiction Commissioning Editor here at Bloomsbury Education. On Tuesday 30th June I was lucky enough to be able to go to the Portsmouth Children’s Book Award celebration and I thought you might like to hear about it.

Every year, the children of Portsmouth, helped by their librarians and teachers, choose their favourite new books. Back in the dark depths of winter we were excited to find out that two of our books had been shortlisted. Running on a Patchwork of Earth by Jonny Zucker and Warrior Heroes: The Viking’s Revenge by Benjamin Hulme-Cross were both nominated in the shorter novel category, which is voted for by the Year 5 children of 27 schools across the city.

Both books did really well in what was an extremely close vote, but at the end of May we found out that The Viking’s Revenge was the winner. Cue much (extremely quiet) excited squealing, as we had to keep the news a secret until the official announcement!

So bright and early on Tuesday morning one author, one marketer, one author’s family and one editor (me) headed up to the King’s Theatre in Portsmouth for the big reveal (poor Ben had to do some hiding to make sure the secret was safe until the big moment).

King's Theatre, Portsmouth
Beautiful day for a celebration

It isn’t often that you get to hear 1300 excited kids screaming for their favourite books. It was quite a sight to see, and after listening to them all do their best Viking war cries we might have to rely on seeing for a while. Blimey, they were LOUD; I’m not sure my ears work properly anymore!

Some schools had been let in on the secret of the winner a bit early so we were treated to a play, a song and a poem they had written and prepared, inspired by The Viking’s Revenge. Brilliant stuff! Prizes were also awarded to the Readers of the Year, who had been nominated by their schools and librarians.

After a quick pit stop for lunch we headed to a school which hadn’t been able to send all its Year 5s to the morning’s festivities. After a lovely talk from Ben about how to come up with ideas for stories (and some really terrible writing up of ideas from me – must practice my whiteboard handwriting), the children were keen to get their books signed by a real live author.

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Ben Hulme-Cross – real live author

We had an amazing day. Congratulations to all the shortlisted authors and to Portsmouth Library Service for organising such a brilliant event. In fact, for organising three brilliant events because there are picture book and longer novel categories which get their own celebrations too.

*Begins Machiavellian plotting to try and make sure we win again next year…*

Follow Ben on Twitter @bhulmecross and Portsmouth School Library Service @PortsmouthSLS