Tardis Destinations – Companion’s post by author Helen Grant

Helen Grant

Helen Grant

For this post we welcome aboard our Tardis YA author Helen Grant. Helen writes the most wonderfully scary and atmospheric books and her latest (Demons of Ghent) is due out today. It is the second book in her Forbidden Spaces trilogy, the first being Silent Saturday, and the latest in a rake of fabulously scary books. I am a great fan of Helen’s work and so am thrilled to read her choice for a Tardis Destination, and a tale of a delicious mystery…. over to Helen!

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Tardis Destinations from Helen Grant

 If I had a Tardis, I know exactly when and where I would go: the city of Ghent in Flanders (the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium), 1426.

 Although I spent every summer in Belgium as a teenager, I never visited Ghent until 2011, when we were living in Flanders. I fell in love with the city instantly. It has such a strong sense of times past: there are many beautiful old guild houses, magnificent churches and even castles. If you stand at the top of the keep of the Gravensteen castle, you can see the three famous towers of Sint-Baafs cathedral, the Sint-Niklaaskerk and the Belfort (city belfry).

Sint-Baafs from the Belfort

Sint-Baafs from the Belfort


It’s amazing to think that if you had stood there five centuries ago, you would have been able to see that same view.

 Ghent is also intersected with canals. There is one particularly beautiful waterfront area called the Graslei where the gorgeous old buildings are reflected in the glossy water.

Graslei, Ghent

Graslei, Ghent


Altogether, it is an enchanting city.

 When we visited it in 2011 I was working on the first of three books set in Flanders, and I decided there and then to set the second one in Ghent. It is hard to write convincingly about a place when you have only spent four hours there, so I went back for a week in December 2012, and spent days walking about, taking photographs, writing notes and asking questions.

 I loved everything I visited in Ghent, but the place that spoke to me most of all was Sint-Baafs Cathedral. Built in the 14th-16th centuries, it is a massive Gothic church with a huge square tower, a vaulted crypt and lots of interesting side chapels. Best of it, it houses the Ghent Altarpiece, the enormous panelled painting sometimes called ˝The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.“ It was largely this painting that convinced me that I wanted to set a book in Ghent, and indeed it features in my new thriller Demons of Ghent.

 
Demons of Ghent
I’d like to go back to Ghent in 1426 because I would love to satisfy my absolutely raging curiosity about the Ghent Altarpiece! There are so many unanswered questions about it. It is described as being by ˝Van Eyck“ but there were two Van Eyck brothers, Hubert and Jan, and nobody seems to know for certain who contributed what to its creation.

 Hubert Van Eyck was the elder brother and he is thought to have been commissioned to create the Altarpiece around 1420. However, he died in 1426 and the work was apparently taken over by his younger brother, Jan. It was evidently completed by 1432 because that year it was installed in the Vijdt chapel in Sint-Baafs.

 Over the years there have been many theories about who was responsible for what part of the painting. It has been made much harder by the fact that there is virtually no other surviving work by Hubert for comparison. He is thought to have started a painting called The Three Marys at the Tomb but someone else finished it – perhaps Jan. There is  a latin verse on the painting’s frame that praises Hubert and describes Jan as ˝second in art“, but this might be a piece of brotherly generosity. In the past, Hubert’s very existence has actually been questioned, because of the lack of evidence of his work.

 There is also a weird story that Hubert Van Eyck’s right arm – presumably his painting arm – was cut off after his death and preserved in a casket over the cathedral door. The rest of him is buried somewhere else in the cathedral. How strange is that?!

 I think writers, with our overactive imaginations, make great conspiracy theorists. I heard all of these disparate details – the confusion over who painted what, the death of Hubert before the painting was finished, the severed arm thing – and some truly wild explanations suggested themselves to me. Some of those ideas became the backdrop to Demons of Ghent.

 I’d love to travel back to 1426, just before Hubert Van Eyck died, and see what was happening. Did Hubert hand over the brushes and the pots of oil paint to Jan when 95% of the painting was finished, or did he leave his younger brother with little more than sketches? If I could ask Hubert about the rest of his now vanished oeuvre, what would he tell me – perhaps even show me? Did his contemporaries really think that Hubert was the greatest and Jan was second best – or was that a piece of humblebragging from Jan? Did they really cut Hubert’s arm off his cooling corpse and stick it in a box over the door, like a particularly grotesque bit of interior decor?

 Maybe Jan stood there watching while they sawed the arm off, thinking, “Ha, that will serve you right for leaving me with a handful of sketches and six years’ work on your blimmin’ design.”

 That’s the main reason I’d go back, to find out what really happened. But there’s one other thing about the Ghent Altarpiece that fascinates me.

 The central focus of the painting is the Mystic Lamb on its red-and-gold altar. On either side of it are crowds of saints, prophets, pilgrims, hermits and so on. In total the painting has 170 figures gazing into the central panel at the Lamb, or casting their eyes down, sometimes to read holy books. Amongst the red-robed clerics at on the right, a single bishop stares out of the painting at the viewer, his head inclined, a challenging expression in his eyes.

 When I first noticed this figure, I found him distinctly creepy. Are we, the viewers, meant to notice him? Why does he, alone, attempt to connect with us? Is there some significance to his challenging gaze? I’ve often wondered – all the figures must have had models, so was there something special about that one? Did Hubert, for example, put himself into the painting? Since the only portrait of Hubert I’ve been able to find was a woodcut made long after his death, there is no way to know now. Unless….I had a Tardis.

Useful links:

 http://closertovaneyck.kikirpa.be   A website showing the Ghent Altarpiece, with the ability to zoom in on any part of it.

 http://www.randomhouse.co.uk/editions/the-demons-of-ghent-forbidden-spaces-trilogy-book-two/9780552566766   Random House website entry for Demons of Ghent, including click function to read a sample of the book.

 http://www.helengrantbooks.com   My author website.

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Ask A Librarian – “Help, I’m not that good at reading!”

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Over the years a lot of parents have come to me to quietly ask how they can help their child with reading when their own reading is “not good enough.”

First, let’s start by taking a little time to put that into perspective. I’m not going to bore you with depressing (and suspicious) national statistics, we’ll just have a little positive thinking instead. A lot of adults lack self-esteem in their reading due to poor or incomplete schooling in their own childhood, or lack of higher level development in their adult reading – they simply don’t do it much and so haven’t improved. Lacking self-esteem means that people see themselves as worse readers than they actually are. That is a shame, but it certainly does not mean that you lack the skills to support your child’s reading. Every parent that I’ve worked with in this situation has turned out to be a far better reader than they thought they were – they just lacked self-esteem and practice.
As an experiment I once took a group of struggling teen readers and we used school assessment guidelines to assess the reading levels of various pieces of common adult reading materials – Nuts, Loaded, Hello, OK and the red top newspapers, the kind of thing most often found in their homes. They were surprised to discover that these averaged out at a level 5 – which would be the level expected from a bright ten year old. So it’s not surprising that adults are not finding that their reading ability is improving in adulthood – the material they are reading is not going to help.
But, that’s still ok (no pun intended) you don’t have to be reading War and Peace to help your child with their reading, and you certainly don’t need to be forking out large sums of cash to buy into expensive schemes. Put the self-doubt to one side, you are the perfect person to help your child with their reading because you have the one thing that a scheme or reading package doesn’t – you have their love. Your child loves you and that means that they want to please you and make you proud. At that all important pre-reading stage they will listen to you and that is when you can get books into their lives – before they are reading at all.

Start off by setting the scene – have books in your house so that you can build a reading and booky atmosphere and environment. You can get books cheaply from charity shops and boot sales, and a library ticket is free! You can sign a tiny baby up to the library and borrow books so that they can develop their sight by looking at bright colours and wonderful images in picture books before they even know what words are. The very first step towards your child enjoying reading is to make sure that they see books around the home all the time.

Next, learn with them! If you are really not sure about how they are learning to read at school, be honest and make an appointment with the teacher to chat about it. I have never met a teacher who would not be understanding and helpful to you with this. They too want what’s best for your child’s development and they will help you to help them. They can show you how reading is handled in the school and can give you strategies to support and encourage your child.

Then, enjoy it. We are lucky enough to be living in a golden age of children’s literature. I have worked with children’s books for over a quarter of a century and I have never seen finer books than those being published today. Some people keep harking back to children’s books that were published a century ago but these (though undeniably great) will not interest a modern child. Their world is completely different to those books and reading for pleasure at a young age hinges on the ability to identify with the characters and the story. Books written today will speak to your child in a language that they understand. It doesn’t matter that your child has not read some heap of antiquated classics, maybe they will later, maybe not. In my experience most of the adults who claim to have read the classics have actually seen the movie!

Modern children’s and young adult fiction is stunningly good and varied. I haven’t read a so-called “grown up” book in ages as most of my reading material is for younger readers – and it is superb! High quality books for young readers are published all the time and some of the best writing around is to be found in books for children and young adults. Seriously, read it yourself and share the experience with your children, you won’t regret it! Challenging, thrilling, beautifully written and rewarding books fill the shelves in every bookshop and library. This means it can be a bit of a minefield choosing, so ask the librarian which books are the ones most enjoyed by readers.

Don’t rule out series books, and certainly don’t allow snobbery to creep into your choices. Boys particularly love series books, and there are some that could hook your child for a very long period of time as they wait for the next one along, and devour a huge string of stories. This is all about reading for pleasure, forming a reading habit, and it should be fun. Your child should be allowed to pick up a book that catches their eye and give it a go. It might be something you don’t like… tough!

Most of all the best thing you can do as a parent is to help your child see reading as a pleasurable and everyday activity. It’s not homework, it’s not a lesson, it’s simply something that always happens in your home. If books sit at ease in your family, then reading will become a natural part of your child’s life and a habit they carry with them always.

You do not need to be a “good” reader to support this at home, but you do need to be a book lover – and the two are not the same!

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If you are genuinely concerned about your own literacy levels, or those of someone you know, there are many courses that will support you and help adults in this situation. You are not alone and it is important to remember that. You can find out more information about adult literacy courses by using this link to the National Literacy Trust website or call the Gov.uk courses guide free on 0800 66 0800 .