Month: April 2011

Kids Stuff

Sometimes when I’m walking down a familiar street, or if I’m in work, I like to try and imagine what it was like the first time I was there, before it was familiar.  I can manage it for a few seconds at most. It’s a strange experience. Try it sometime.

Like forgetting what you already know writing from the perspective of a child must be a hard thing for an adult to do. Who remembers what it was like to be 10? And I don’t just mean where you lived and where you went on holiday, but what was it actually like? It isn’t very often that I read a book told from a child’s point of view where I can really allow myself to be taken in by the story. To Kill A Mockingbird springs to mind as a good one.

More recently I’ve raved about Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands to every member of staff here since it came out last year. Being able to describe the inner mind of a child is pretty impressive, not many pull it off. On top of that how many women can write as if they were a boy? How many men can tell a girl’s story? If you want evidence of how hard it is, well…pick up Eleven Minutes by Paulo Coelho and have a quick browse.

My old partner in crime gobbles up children’s fiction like there’s no tomorrow. But now she’s gone so I need to step up. Two books I’ve read recently took me back to how different the world seemed as a child. My Sister Lives On The Mantelpiece (13+) is the first novel by Annabel Pitcher. In the aftermath of his sister being killed in a terrorist attack 10 year old Jamie is brought to a new home in the Lake District with his dad, living sister Rose and half of his other sister in an urn. (his mother ran away with the therapist…and had the other half of the sister buried). Dad is alcoholic and Rose may be anorexic. Well that’s the setup. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound like the kind of book I would read. I’m glad I did though. It might sound rather grim, but Pitcher manages to achieve a tone that is slightly comic at times, which stops this from becoming a morose read. Part of this achievement is down to Jamie and how he views the world. There is dry humour to be found in the stoic musings of an innocent 10 year old.

All of the back story is really a means to explore the relationship between Jamie and Sunya, a Muslim girl at his new school. The racial tension is only a small part of the host of problems that arise when a 10 year old tries to build relationships. Jamie’s mistakes were all too familiar to me! The relationship between Jamie and Sunya was totally believable. They acted like kids act. I cared about them and that is what sold this book to me. So don’t be put off by the subject matter (or the cover) this is a very fine book.

My second recommendation is another ‘family issues’ story (I don’t know how this happened!). In Alan Silberberg’s Milo And The Restart Button (8+) Milo is adjusting to a new home and life without his mother after her death. I don’t think I ever read a book when I was a kid about someone coming to terms with bereavement, but there is just something about this book which is so genuine and touching. The emotional issues that Milo is dealing with are kept quite far below the surface. The tone for the most part is quite slapstick. Milo expresses all the kind of gross bizzarre humour that you might expect from a young boy.

What really impressed me about this book is how Milo’s bottled up grief over the death of his mother is addressed slowly and subtly without the book becoming sentimental. On the surface this is a funny, frivolous kids story of trying to fit in. The deeper emotional content never detracts from the comic tone. I think that’s probably why it works so well for me. Milo is impossible not to like and is a constant source of odd little reflections, just like you would expect from a kid his age. This book deserves to be hugely successful. I cannot recommend it highly enough!

So don’t be fooled into thinking this stuff is easy.  Writing quality children’s fiction is a great skill and not something to be considered inferior to ‘proper’ adult fiction writing. Shame on you Martin Amis!

Book Dominoes in the Norrington Room

We’ve all seen amazing footage of millions of dominoes toppling, right? After seeing this video I posted a link on our Twitter feed saying how much I liked it, but could followers refrain from doing it in our shop.

Several got in touch to say that the shop (especially the Norrington Room) would be a fantastic venue to do this. And so, we are going to give it a go. As I have mentioned it to staff today there has been a palpable sense of excitement and anticipation. Everyone wants to do it. Looks like a monster has been created!

The plan is to have an experimental run after shop hours to work out how long it takes to set up, how we can best film it, how ambitious we are able to be etc. If you are reading this and you want to be part of the trial group then contact me or contact us on Twitter @blackwelloxford #bookdominoes Do let your friends know…

Depending on how the trial goes we have various options – I would like to get in touch with Guinness World Records to see if there is a record for book dominoes (traditional dominoes is over 4 million!) and I would also like to find the best ways of raising money for the National Literacy Trust. I would prefer to run the main event at the start of next autumn term and invite plenty of people to come and watch.


The book that I have most enjoyed selling this year

It is a necessity, rather than just a desire, for us to put unusual and delightful books in front of our customers. A case in point is this book

It is a remarkable book, originally published in 1847 by William Pickering – a bookseller / publisher famed for publishing scholarly editions of classic authors. Not a great deal is known of the author Oliver Byrne. He was not only a mathematician, civil engineer and prolific author, but also ‘Surveyor of Her Majesty’s Settlements in the Falkland Islands’ and an advocate of Irish armed revolt against British rule. However, he is best known for this beautiful and beguiling masterpiece, in which the first six books of Euclid’s Elements of Geometry are presented where ‘Coloured Diagrams and Symbols are used instead of Letters for the Greater Ease of Learners’.

This edition is published by Taschen, an Art publisher, and you can see the use of yellow, red, blue and black in the diagrams is reminiscent of Mondrian.

Indeed, the book was first offered for sale in our Art & Poster shop. I am no mathematician but when I saw it I fell in love with it and decided that we would feature it in the main shop. I showed the book to various booksellers in the Norrington Room and they agreed. Despite no review coverage it is a delight to be able to report that sales have far exceeded our expectations (we have sold hundreds of copies) and reaffirms our conviction that promoting books from beyond the mainstream is what Blackwell’s on Broad Street should be doing day in day out.

Even if you have no desire to buy the book do take the opportunity when you are next in the shop to visit the Maths Dept. and take a look at a magnificent work of art.

More than words: revelling in the court of Tim Smit

“YOU ARE ALL GOING TO DIE” bellows Tim Smit, the charismatic founder of the Eden project, recounting a previous talk where having arrived late was rushed on stage and unable to think of anything to say. And so begins one of the most inspirational hours of my life. Brimming with great anecdotes and insights into both his own way of going about things and general observations on how people interact, Tim has all the verve and charm of a motivational speaker, while pouring scorn over all the jargon and empty posturing of “innovative” companies, where people “think out of the box”. This is a man who ambles into the Sheldonian Theatre, ruffled hair, creased shirt tucked into his jeans, looking like he could easily be heading over to the garden to do some weeding…although in his case potentially on a massive scale!

This is where Tim Smit spoke

The Eden Project is an £80million environmental initiative, and we’re told to date that it has generated £1billion. What do you do when you are trying to bring a project to fruition and you’re stretched to the limit, and feeling like you can’t possibly bring everything together asks Tim. As a rule? Well, you take one more step out on a limb. Getting the funding for the project required some good fortune and Tim largely credits his success to taking risks and the sheer positive power on others generated by believing in what you are doing.

Another principle Tim lives by is seeking out the great potential in unexpected situations. Organisations and institutions obsess about gathering together the “great thinkers” in “centres of excellence”, but what of the untapped resources bubbling away within us all? And who knows what spark can ignite when you get people in situations they never planned? Well funnily enough I didn’t know who Tim Smit was before today and (rather shamefully) I knew nothing of the Eden project. So I came to the Sheldonian Theatre with no expectations, and I left having been treated to a fantastically stimulating event.  I’ve had my mind energised by a vision of how this country could invest in sustainable energy and move into a new age of industry and production, an “exciting” time, which Tim believes could prove to be as historically significant as the age of enlightenment. And why not, if we can show some of the drive and commitment which has been on show today?

Tim has a cunning little method to encourage novel situations: he accepts every third invitation (providing there’s no clash with family commitments). So was Blackwell at the mercy of Tim’s social invite roulette wheel when we asked him to appear at the Oxford Literary Festival this year? I never thought to ask him. But I do know that all of us here at the Sheldonian Theatre today were very lucky to have been able to spend a little time in the company of this inspiring man.

– Tom Osman

The Oxford Literary Festival – Set Up and the First Weekend In Pictures

The unpacking begins – this might take a while

You can’t create a masterpiece with out making some mess

The Nerve Centre

The shelves are up but empty – watch this space

Will the unpacking ever end?

Coffee needed as things take shape

Remember those empty shelves

Occasionally Zool will yodel to keep spirits high

Build it and they will come

Jemima on the till – she is Queen of Everything at #oxlitfest

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