Friday, 16 October 2020

Children of Ash and Elm

 Children of Ash and Elm

by Neil Price

I’m a gamer.  I play lots of video games, and one of my favourite series is Assassin’s Creed, a long and convoluted series of stories that are set in various historical time periods and places.  The games are meticulously researched: they go to great lengths to seek out the most recent scholarship on the people and places covered in a given game.  Previous games have covered medieval Rome, Ancient Greece, Ancient Egypt, Revolutionary America, Paris, and Industrial Age London.  Next up is the Viking Era, so I figured I’d try to learn a bit more which brought me to Children of Ash and Elm.

Vikings are most famous for being raiders.  Our popular images are of long ships filled with men wearing horned helmets wreaking havoc across northern Europe, pillaging their way through the villages of the Middle Ages. And yes, this is partly accurate: Vikings did raid.  They did kidnap people into slavery. Where they went, bloodshed followed. 

Children of Ash and Elm by Neil Price argues that they were so much more than that.  There is a tendency to write them off as a simplistic people, but they lived in a time of change.  Christianity was being imported into the north, so they were in a confusing transition between the old Norse gods and the new faith. Men and women both fought and farmed, trying to keep their families alive and fed in a challenging environment.

Children breaks the usual routine of many history books by not telling the Viking’s story in a strict historical timeline.  Rather than going chronologically from 800 to 1000 AD, Price starts with describing the people as they were: the social structures, the family life, what kind of clothes they wore., as well as what they believed, and how they interacted with the rest of the world.  Even in the 900s they had access to luxuries from as far away as China, and they travelled themselves far south, all the way to what is now Istanbul, Turkey.

Part of my ancestry is Icelandic, so reading this book was interesting on an intellectual level, but also painted a picture of my long distant family history, going back a thousand years. Neil Price’s years of experience as an archaeologist and professor devoted to Vikings and Nordic history really comes through and he brings the Viking People to life, reminding us that behind every myth and legend is a real culture, full of the same nuances, the same wants and needs, as we have today.  




by Charlotte McConaghy

In a world robbed of rainforests and birdsong, ornithologist Franny Stone embarks to track the final migration of the Arctic terns, known for their unmatched resilience as the birds with the longest migration period – and also as the last birds on Earth. Prepared for the harsh venture to the northernmost part of the globe, Franny seeks out a fishing vessel to take her on her journey, promising that with the terns they will find an abundant, and increasingly rare, supply of herring.  She somehow finds her place within the jigsaw crew onboard the Saghani, led by an ill-tempered captain who begrudgingly allows Franny to tag along, despite her lack of sea legs and know-how. What the crew does not know is that upon arrival at the Arctic, Franny plans to die, this trip being her swan song to a life coloured by loss. As Migrations progresses, readers learn how Franny came to track the terns, inspired by her absent environmentalist husband and seeking to fill the void left in childhood, when Franny’s mother disappeared.  

Charlotte McConaghy’s Migrations drew me in immediately with its vivid description of a world without wildlife. McConaghy paints this world as a shell of what it used to be, all but barren, and this is in turn reflected in her characters. This book asks difficult questions, challenging the reader to consider what a world without wildlife looks like – and beyond this, questioning how far someone might go to preserve even a whisper of how life once was. Each character, even those who make only a minor appearance, is illustrated with a depth often emerging from their own form of loss. At the same time, this is a story of survivors, of resilience: from the unyielding terns, to the enigmatic Captain Ennis Malone, to Franny herself, and offers a fulfilling read to anyone looking to experience the full spectrum of emotion through one written work. This book is heart-wrenching, evocative and exquisitely written: both a love letter and a goodbye.  


Monday, 21 September 2020

Sunny Days

Sunny Days

Book Review: Sunny Days by David Kamp

Most of us, no matter how old (or young) we are, know about Sesame Street, the Muppets, and Mr. Rogers, among other children’s television staples. But who among us knows the beginnings of these shows that transformed children’s programming in the 1970s? David Kamp’s Sunny Days takes us on a wonderful journey down memory lane that lets us inside the creation of these cultural icons that taught kids about diversity, the alphabet and feminism in the 1970s.

 The idea for Sesame Street was born in the late 60s by two friends over dinner. Joan Ganz Cooney, a television producer, and Lloyd Morrisett, a psychologist interested in early childhood development, saw the possibility that television could be used as a tool to teach young children. Together they founded the Children’s Television Workshop, which created Sesame Street.  Their timing was right as there was a general political and social move to diminish learning gaps between children of differing economic status, helping them start school on a level playing field.

 A forerunner in presenting a well thought out, eclectic program, Sesame Street consciously presented a cast that was representative of neighbourhoods in the 60s and 70s. From the start, the cast was varied and included underrepresented groups like people of colour and women who worked. The show discussed timely topics including race and feminism while actively engaging their young audience. Despite the occasional criticism of what they were trying to do, the Children’s Television Workshop team remained dedicated to their goals. The show became a place people wanted to be part of, not for the money, but because it was a place where they could make a difference.

 Sunny Days is a well-researched story of not only the birth of Big Bird, but also how many other children’s shows of the time, Mr. Rogers, The Electric Company, Free to be….You and Me, and Schoolhouse Rock! were all positive influencers of preschool children’s learning in the 60s and 70s. The creative team took a lot of what they had observed in preschool children’s reactions to television overall and applied the same tools to the children’s programs. Snappy shorts that kept children engaged rather than turning them into TV zombies proved to be a successful approach. In fact, many of the short spots were created by admen of the day, applying the same advertising campaign principles that made a jingle stick in your mind. Do you, like me, burst into song with “Conjunction Junction, what’s your function…..” at random times? If you are not sure what I am talking about, many of these older items live on at YouTube, where you too can be reminded of, or learn, a jingle to help you with your ABCs and many other preschool tricks.

Sunny Days is a great trip into a time when a small group of like-minded individuals decided they could make a difference, and they did just that. Kamp’s research is thorough and engaging, and sparked many memories for me and I hope it will for you, too.

 Helen Varga is a Library Technician at the Steveston Branch of Richmond Public Library.