Bold Girls

On International Women’s Day, I’m very proud that Following Ophelia has been included among the recommended books for the Children’s Books Ireland BOLD GIRLS campaign.

There’s so much to love about this.

“BOLD GIRLS aims to break down societal barriers and to instil confidence in girls and young women by showing them female characters in children’s books with agency, power and opinions, addressing at a young age some of the issues that stand in the way of women achieving their ambitions, whether that be in leadership, in government, in the arts. BOLD GIRLS will highlight and review books that feature strong, intelligent, self-possessed female protagonists in children’s books, as well as celebrating twenty female Irish authors and illustrators, both emerging and established, who have made an exceptional contribution to the canon of Irish children’s literature.”

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I’m all about instilling confidence in girls. It’s why the specialist talk I give in schools is called Winning Like a Girl. All my heroines gain confidence to become strong and able to take care of themselves and each other (and occasionally men too) in the books I write. In Following Ophelia, Mary Adams has to break down all the barriers of class, sex and money imposed on her by Victorian society to do what she knows to be right. Men just want to stand and look at her. She wants so much more.

But talking of women taking care of each other, one of my fondest memories as a new writer was getting in touch with Sarah Webb – children’s author, adult writer, festival curator, reviewer for the Irish Independent and all round legend. I simply wrote to her to say thank you for her lovely review of Threads. Next thing I knew, Sarah was organising a tour around Ireland for herself, the wonderful Judi Curtin and me, courtesy of Children’s Books Ireland.

We called itYour Wildest Dreams. It was my first book tour – brilliant and funny and lovely. Judi is an absolute star in Ireland and such a great person to know. Sarah knows absolutely everyone and is kind, considerate and inspirational to them all. How she finds the time to do everything she does and be a hands-on mother to her children is quite beyond me. Happy International Women’s Day, Sarah! And Happy Mother’s Day on Sunday too. Sarah picked me up and looked after me and made me feel so special.

Since meeting Sarah I’ve encountered lots of other Irish children’s writers – and there are lots. We all know that Ireland takes literature seriously on both sides of the border and many of the best writers are Irish – from Siobhan Dowd, Derek Landy (who knows something about how to write a bold girl) and Eoin Colfer, to Sarah herself, Judi, Sarah Crossan, Brian Conaghan, Shelia Wilkinson and Roddy Doyle. I’m so happy that some of these authors are friends. (Others I simply fangirl over.) So being part of a Children’s Books Ireland initiative that ALSO celebrates bold girls feels pretty good to me.

Happy International Women’s Day. May you be lucky enough to know inspirational women. And if you are a bold girl yourself, may you grow up to be as inspiring as some of the women I’m lucky enough to know.

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Revisiting Hay

I’ve just been looking through old blog posts I’ve written and came across this one, written in 2012 for Hay 25. It was published on the same page as one by John Finnemore, who is one of my writing heroes. Even though I didn’t encounter him in the green room or the bookshop tent there (damn), I had a wonderful, wet time and I think the blog captures it.
If only all writing experiences were like this. It’s enough that some are. Even in the rain. http://blog.hayfestival.org/index.php/2012/06/sophia-bennett-on-hay-25/

Monochrome – seeing in a different light

(Having just said I wasn’t using this blog any more, I enjoyed exploring it again. And so here I am, back, writing about things I love.)

 

I wrote a book about art. And then I wrote another one. I shall be writing more …

Unveiling Venus came out last month. It’s the sequel to Following Ophelia and describes life as an unwilling artists’ muse in the macho, colour-drenched world of the Pre-Praphaelites.

I’ve always wanted to write about art, having fallen in love with the Renaissance painters when I was a teen. That’s when I visited half the galleries in France and Italy, and I haven’t stopped. For the launch of Unveiling Venus I wrote a series of diaries about visiting some of my favourite haunts in London – on my own, with my youngest son, who is an artist, and with a friend. You can read about the trips to Pre-Raphaelites and the Opera: Passsion, Power and Politics here and here. Below, is my visit to Monochrome.

 

Monochrome: Painting in Black and White at the National Gallery

Back again. I don’t actually come to the National Gallery nearly as often as I go the Tate, the V&A or the Royal Academy, but I like being influenced by friends and family, and what they want to see. It’s a chance to discover fresh artists and ideas that I wouldn’t have known about otherwise. And spend time with people I love.

This time, my eleven year-old has shown an interest in the Monochrome exhibition that’s just opened in the Sainsbury Wing. He’s a good artist, preferring to work in black and white than to use colour, so this seems a great opportunity to explore artists who have thought likewise. Also, it costs an arm and a leg to live in London: we might as well take advantage of what’s on offer. Entry for this exhibition is free for eleven year-olds by the way, as it is to the whole permanent collection for everyone. I used to take this for granted, but visiting museums outside the UK, you quickly learn to appreciate the free access and lack of queues. We, the public, own much of this art. And we can see it whenever we like, for nothing.

We wander around the early rooms, looking at paintings and stained glass for monasteries (the Cistercians thought colour could be too distracting) and paintings made to look like etchings for prints. It’s all very clever. We keep wandering. It’s not a large exhibition and soon we reach the room with twentieth century abstracts on the walls. One, by Bridget Riley, is like a horizontal bar code. Stare at it for a while and the lines seem to be moving. Another is a black square on a white painted square background. One of those ‘your 4 year-old could do it’ paintings. It was made in 1926. The note said the artist – a Russian whose name I forget – hung it up in the corner of the room, like an icon.

And as soon as I read this I feel a meditative quality coming from that black square and its white frame. Are they a contemplation of life and death, and the divine? The squares aren’t quite perfect and that is part of the painting’s appeal. With abstracts like this, the beauty is in the detail. A simplified copy doesn’t have the same effect at all. If your 4 year-old created something so delicate and resonant – by accident or otherwise – she would show a hint of genius.

But my 11 year-old hasn’t quite mastered the joys of staring at early twentieth century abstract art. He’s into Hockney and Picasso, neither of whom are represented here, and he’s already moved on. He comes back, breathless and grabs my sleeve: ‘You have to come.’

So I follow him into the next and final room, where our eyes are immediately assailed by an oppressive yellow-orange light. It’s like walking around in a glass of bright, clear orange juice and I don’t like it. My son is beaming. ‘Look! Look at my t-shirt!’ I notice, before I do, that there is nothing on the walls in this room. No paintings or photographs. Something else is going on. Then I look at my son’s bright blue t-shirt – and it is grey. Or rather, he is all shades of orange, as am I, but without any other colour references, all my eyes pick out are differences in dark tones and light ones. My coat – hot pink – is merely ‘mid-tone’. We have become black and white.

It’s disconcerting, but fun, now I’m getting used to it. Of course we take several selfies which I later upload to Facebook and Instagram. Fascinatingly, with the black and white filter on, the photos look as if they were taken on professional film, in a studio. This light has somehow sharpened our images.

We go back to the previous room so my son can copy one of the paintngs for his sketchbook. When we re-enter the orange room it is full of sixth formers on a school trip, being strictly instructed to stop taking selfies and start taking notes. I pity them. All the art I’ve loved I’ve discovered in my own time and in my own weird way. Though my love of art did start on a school trip to the Tate, which I thoroughly hated. I took three postcards of Mark Rothko home with me that day to remind me how ridiculous his red and black abstracts were, and fell in love with them all within weeks. Their sadness and stillness spoke to me. I love them still. Today, the sixth formers have become the art. They are a black and white crowd in an orange filter. We are all strange and wonderful together. The world experienced differently – literally in a new light.

The trip is worth it for this room alone. Of course we have a hot chocolate in the café too, and nip up quickly to catch my favourite of the National Gallery’s paintings: ‘The Ambassadors’, by Holbein, which looks like a perfectly normal Renaissance painting of two rich young men, until you notice the misshapen baguette lying awkwardly on a diagonal in the foreground, and stand at the side, as I was made to do when I was ten, and see, in a sudden shocking reveal, that it is a very large skull.

These men, though they seem to have everything, will die one day, just like the rest of us.

My son stares at the painting, confused, looks at me, looks back, sees it for the first time, and grins.

Art as play. Art as discovery. Art as an in-joke, a meditation on life and death, a new perspective.

Next on the list is a visit to the blockbuster Modigliani at the Tate Modern, on now (with a friend), followed by the blockbuster Picasso exhibition in the spring (with family). But an artistic adventure doesn’t have to involve the planning, queues and crowds of a blockbuster. Sometimes a room full of unexpected light can be enough.

Good art shows us how to see the world in new ways, and in the struggling and divided societies we live in at this moment, we need it more than ever.

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Where to find me

Hi – and thanks for dropping by.

I started this blog a long long time ago and there are many posts of it that capture my excitement at being a debut author and writing my first books. Do feel free to take a look and see what inspired me about fashion, pop culture and writing.

But these days I teach as well as write and I have less time for blogging. If you want to know what I’m up to, you can generally find me on my website, my Instagram page or Twitter. See you there.

5Gullyshed

Instructions for a Second-Hand Heart – review

This post, by my friend Jo about my friend Tamsyn’s new book (!!), shows just how amazing children’s books can be. I can’t wait to read it, and cry about it. And I agree with Jo about that cover …

heartOn Tuesday I went to the launch for Tamsyn Murray’s Instructions for a Second-Hand Heart. It was a fab party in the stunning children’s department of Waterstones Piccadilly.

I had started reading the book on the way to the launch, and finished it on the journey home. Tamsyn had warned me that I would need tissues – and I did, though I hung on grimly to the very end before emotion got the better of me! It’s rare for me to shed actual tears at a book, so an extra star to Tamsyn for achieving that 😉

Tamsyn explains how long the journey to publication has taken for this book - four years! Tamsyn explains how long the journey to publication has taken for this book – four years!

So – to the story. Jonny is being kept alive by a machine called a Berlin Heart, because his own heart is damaged. He needs a heart transplant urgently, but as he explains, ‘it’s not like…

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Perfect 10

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Until this month, I’ve had a regular monthly blog post on the great children’s author site, Girls Heart Books. I’m sure I’ll be back blogging for them soon, but meanwhile, here’s my last post, about how some of my favourite Olympians have inspired my writing:

‘Nadia Elena Comăneci was born in Onești, Romania, (formerly known as “Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej”) in the Carpathian Mountains on November 12, 1961.’

So begins the Wikipedia entry for – up to now – arguably the greatest female gymnast in the world. I was 10 when Nadia Comăneci got her first perfect 10 on the uneven bars in the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics. She was 14. It was one of those moments. A girl – like me – was the best in the world, the best ever, the best possible at what she did. (She went on to get a whole lot more perfect 10s. They had to change the scoring system.) No-one could ever take that away from me. Girls rocked. They were powerful. Even little, light girls, like me. They had hidden powers.

I never forgot.

You can read the rest here.

How about the rest of the Girls Heart Books site? If you look around, there may be lots to inspire you too.

A summer of writing – and Winning Like a Girl

I can’t believe it’s July already. This has been the busiest term – starting a new book, with a new publisher, researching mid-nineteenth century London (fabulous and fascinating), teaching like mad (I have the best students, seriously), and fitting in school visits and festivals when I can. Last year I was busy finishing Love Song and felt I didn’t get out enough. So this summer I’ve been making up for it.

Yesterday was the last visit, and the furthest afield (except for Edinburgh), in Sheffield. I gave three talks that summed up everything I’ve been up to recently. First up was a workshop on book illustration to Year 12, talking about the importance of a cover in selling a book, the thinking behind the rejacketing of most of my books this year, and why my favourite book covers often say the least about what’s inside. The artwork the girls at Sheffield High came up with was brilliant. I only wish we’d had longer so they could have finished their book covers. Several of them, I think, could have been better than the original:

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Then it was time to talk to Year 8 about how I became a writer and where my inspiration comes from. They had so many great questions afterwards, and I spotted a few passionate writers in the crowd. I love talking about how books are made, and about the things I love to write about: music and art, girls and friendship. But best of all is knowing that someone in the audience is going to go home and write her own story tonight. I’ve done my words. It’s her turn now.

And then, at last, it was my last Winning Like a Girl talk of the year, to 100+ Year 9 girls, who crowded into the room, listened brilliantly, stood up and participated, knew loads of great stuff about women and history, asked some fabulous, searching questions, and generally gave me lots of  hope for the future of womankind.

You were amazing, Sheffield High. I hope I get to come back one day.

I’m going to miss these visits over the summer. But meanwhile, you can catch me at YALC in London on Saturday 30 July, at the Wigtown Festival in Scotland on 1 October, or in Bath, talking about music with Robert Muchamore on 8 October.

Have a great summer. In these troubled times, make sure you smile and share a little happiness.

Sophia xxx

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