What You Can Do With A Schooliform

In one of the Charlie and Lola books, Lola announces that she doesn't want to go to school because she doesn't want to wear a "schooliform." (Luckily as it turns out, her school doesn't have a schooliform and she can go dressed as an alligator if she wants to.)

Our school does have a schooliform, though a fairly flexible one. There is an official jacket, official windcheater and hat, and the uniform shop sells checked frocks, tops and trackie pants. But in reality, as long as it's navy or white, pretty much anything goes. Thus Evie went to school the other day in a dark blue Seed skirt with a nifty buckle belt (thanks, Sandra!), a white skivvy and stripy tights and got away with it.

Among the older girls,the current fashion is for white leggings (preferably lace-trimmed)* and netball skirts. Nothing else will do. Some girls also wear skinny pants under their dresses. Others wear a very smart tunic (not part of the uniform, but in prep Alice wanted one because her cousin had one, and she actually started a trend. Now she won't be seen dead in it.)

Back in my day, we rolled our socks down as low as they would go, and we all buttoned our shirts under our chins and turned up our collars (it was the 80s). We did our best to contrive drop-waists in our dresses, knotting our belts or even our school ties at hip-height (until we were reprimanded).

It's astonishing how much flexibility schoolgirls can wring out of the same basic ingredients. I was shocked a few years later to realise that the kids on the tram were wearing their socks LONG and their shirts unbuttoned and their skirts hitched UP. Quelle horreur!

So what did you do with your schooliform?

* if there is a less practical garment for schoolyard play, I'd like to know what it is. We are on our sixth pair already this year.


The Library-Fighters

I have clear memories of all the libraries in my life -- from the soaring glass walls of the Ela Beach library in Port Moresby, to the cupboard sized room (perhaps it actually was a storeroom?) at Tarangau Primary in Mt Hagen, where the headmistress growled at me for borrowing books that were "too old" for me, to the blissful hours I spent on library duty, stamping and sorting, in the cavernous library at my secondary school. There has never been a time of my life when I didn't belong to at least one library. Even when I spent six months in Scotland, I made a beeline for the Stockbridge Library in Edinburgh, curled up in the democratic warmth, and wrote a suite of short stories.

Our school's library has been a little bit neglected lately (note: the picture above is not our library. It is a random library I lifted off Google.) Our library used to live in a gorgeous purpose-built space with a mezzanine, but the year Alice started, that space was turned into the Prep Unit and the library was shunted upstairs into a disused classroom.

Staff shortages (and other priorities) meant that over the last few years we've had a part-time librarian at best, or at worst, only parent volunteers and classroom teachers to keep the library going. At least ours is still open. One nearby school has closed its library altogether; at another, the children can access the library only once a fortnight (attendance optional), and only if a parent is available to process the borrowing.

We're lucky. We're getting one of those snazzy new economic-stimulus buildings, four classrooms with a space in the middle which is designated a "library." Woo-hoo! A group of book-loving parents are starting to organise ourselves to make sure this opportunity to revitalise our precious library doesn't slip away.

Our first job is to do a stocktake. I fear it might not take long. A lot of books have been culled in the last few years, sold off at fetes and fundraisers. The problem is that everyone has their own idea about what makes a book cull-worthy.

Mum #1: Oh, those revolting old books. So tatty!

Mum/Booklover: Oh those wonderful classics -- they're old but they can be re-covered. They might even be valuable!

Teacher #1: (rolls eyes) Please, get rid of all those terrible old-fashioned books full of mums bringing slippers to dad and cooking his dinner! So un-PC!

Mum #2: Some of those books have guns in them, we'd better throw those out.

Dad #1: All those out-of-date non-fiction books must go. Look at this "computer" book, it's a disgrace!

Dad #2: We need books that relate to the curriculum. If it's not relevant, it can go.

At this rate, we'll have no books left! And that wouldn't really matter, if we had a bottomless pot of money with which to buy gorgeous new shiny books to fill the shelves, but of course we don't. And even a nice fat wad of cash doesn't buy you very many books, sadly. Not to mention comfy chairs or beanbags, or a new computer cataloguing system, or nice new shelves on castors, or some audio-books, or DVDs, or (wildest dreams) a full-time teacher-librarian, or any of the other things we'd like.

But because we all love books, we all remember the libraries of our own childhoods, and we all believe that the library is too important to neglect any longer, WE WILL FIND A WAY!!

We will find a way.


The Name-Go-Round

I am slightly obsessed with names, particularly fashions in names, what's hot, what's not. This stems partly from having to choose baby names myself and also with choosing suitable names for characters. Nothing is more jarring to me than reading a contemporary book where the characters all have names that were highly fashionable in the 70s or 80s but have since fallen from favour (like Caroline and Jennifer). My current WIP, set in 1974, features Julie and Nadine, daughters of Barbara and Allan. I obsessively check the birth notices every week to see what's in and out.

I'm fascinated by the cycles that names seem to churn through. At the moment we are living through a revival of the kinds of names that were last hot at the turn of last century. One of my friends pointed out a few years ago, "Our daughters are all named after Edwardian housemaids!" -- Alice, Thea, Lucy, Evie, and Nelly (since then Freya has arrived to break the trend). All the little girls at school are called May and Amelia and Esther and Grace and Sophie. The little boys could be a roll call of WWI soldiers -- Jacks and Wills and Harrys and Stans and Henrys and Alberts.

Of course this matter becomes especially pertinent when there is a BABY on the way (not in our family, but one of our dearests!) and the name debate becomes positively fevered. We named both our girls in utero (perhaps rashly) but it wasn't until I attached a name to my unborn child that I could regard her as a real person. Before Evie was born, we often spoke of her by name to Alice -- when Evie comes, we'll do this or that -- which I think helped Alice accept her arrival quite happily; she was a proper member of the family long before she popped out.

But I digress. Penni and I were talking names this weekend and remarking on the fact that names from our grandparents' generation are back in style. Which leads me to ask: what were your grandparents' names? Are there any neglected gems lurking out there?

(For the record, mine were Matthew Irving and Doris Alice on one side, and Frederick Charles and Pamela on the other. If we'd had a boy, he would have been Charlie.)


Humpty Dumpty Eats Bananas

This is what my girl and her friend made at school!


What Makes You Cry?

A wonderful post over at the Guardian book blog about children's books that "still make you cry." Personally I don't think I've cried at a book that wasn't a children's book for a long time. Also, I cry more now that I ever used to when I was an actual child.

The one that is guaranteed to set me off is the last scene in The Railway Children (cited by many Guardian readers) where Bobby sees her father, returned at last, on the train platform, and cries out, 'Daddy! My Daddy!' (Oh, God, I'm crying just typing this...) The film version makes me weep just as hard, if not harder.

I was also surprised, a few years ago, to find myself sobbing at the death of Matthew in Anne of Green Gables, a scene which I'm sure I read quite dry-eyed, dozens of times, as a yoof.

I must admit that the deaths of animals, which moved many Guardian readers, have never really troubled me, but then I am not really an animal person. Though I was amazed when Ginger died in Black Beauty. I think that was the first death I'd encountered in literature, and I couldn't quite believe it could really be true.

Most recently I found myself tearing up at David Almond's perfect Skellig. Though maybe they were partly tears of sorrow that I myself will never write anything so wonderful.


The Book Files

I have a little black book beside my bed.

It is a diary (an X Files diary actually -- ahem!), but there's no salacious reading in there. It's a record of every book I've read since 1996.

I've always had a habit of jotting down the titles of books I've finished. I used to keep a list at the back of my real diary, the one filled with angsty moanings about the unfairness of life, but I let that journal dry up years ago. Instead I have my X Files list.

Here's a random day's worth and what it tells me:

3rd May
Time In History: GJ Whitrow (98) Picked this up from the Readings bargain table. Not as interesting as it looked. This was obviously pre-children when I had more patience for dull books.
The Red Queen: Matt Ridley (99) A science book, something about sex and evolution? I used to read a lot of pop science, before my brains got scrambled by child-rearing. Don't know if I could struggle through this now.
The Veiled One: Ruth Rendell (01) When I was pregnant with Alice I read nothing but murder mysteries. Hm, that could explain a lot about Alice actually...!
Venus In Copper: Lindsay Davis (02) Another murder mystery, but set in ancient Rome. Alice was a baby. These were light but diverting reads.
Elsewhere: Gabrielle Zevin (07) Rosalind Price from Allen & Unwin lent me this when I was struggling with Cicada Summer. It didn't really help much but it was... interesting.

So in a way, my book diary does function like a real diary. I can remember what was happening in my life, where I was when I read a particular book, and why I picked it up. I go through phases -- mysteries, favourites from my childhood (in one difficult month I re-read all of Arthur Ransome), research for books I want to write (most recently, lots of books about New Guinea), books about the supernatural. There are books I read for my old book group, and books I've read for the new one.

There are weird pieces of synchronicity. I finished Kate Grenville's Searching For The Secret River three years (less one day!) after The Secret River itself. I seem to read more children's books in winter. I read less in September. There are days overflowing with books, and days that are completely empty, year after year.

But alas, the X Files are almost full. Too many days are crammed. So much in my life has changed since the day I bought it at the newsagents in Clifton Hill. In 1996, I was living in a Collingwood share-house, young and single, optimistically sending off short stories to Meanjin and Island. In 2010, four houses later, I'm in Preston, middle-aged and married, with two school-aged children and eight books to my name. I need a new little black book, for all the reading experiences the next fifteen years will bring.

Does anyone else keep a list of their books? Or is it just the Virgo in me?


The Library Book Sale Haul

New Guinea, James L. Anderson & Donald Hogg
A big glossy photo book from 1969, which is exactly the right era to help me with my PNG WIP.

Frontier, Henry Reynolds
One of the first so-called "black armband" (ie truthful) accounts of white violence in Australian history.

The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides
Never read it. Haven't seen the film either. I suspect I might find it a bit, well, stupid. But it's a very pretty edition.

The Binna Binna Man, Meme McDonald & Boori Monty Pryor
I just finished Njuljul The Sun; this is the second book in the series about the same indigenous boy.

White Time, Margo Lanagan
My introduction to the extraordinary world of Margo Lanagan, and the first book anyone at Allen & Unwin ever lent me. Coming from the record industry, where visitors routinely helped themselves to armfuls of CDs, I was somewhat dismayed that it was only a loan. But I get to keep this copy.

Keeper, Mal Peet
After this Onion's recommendation, I couldn't walk past this one.

Bachelor Kisses, Nick Earl
Never read this either. Think it looks sweet and funny. Also I love The Go-Betweens.

The House That Was Eureka, Nadia Wheatley
Man, this is one fat book. But it's Oz history. And this is the updated version. And it features a girl called Evie.

Leviathan, John Birmingham
Did someone say FAT? This is a door-stopper, John Birmingham's history of Sydney, which I've been searching the shelves for ages just to borrow. So when I saw it on the sale table I shrieked aloud (much to the distress of the nice elderly gentleman examining poetry books to my left).

I think we can see that my Australian history re-education phase is far from over. In fact I realise now that, unusually, almost all these books are Australian.

Alice came with me this time and picked up her own haul. A Famous Five book, the third volume of the Wind on Fire trilogy by William Nicholson, a very handsome red-and-gold Reader's Digest volume which she chose for its aesthetic appeal (I persuaded her to put back the two Danielle Steeles she picked up for similar reasons), book about creatures of the night (owls, not vampires), and a rather dubious looking graphic novel which appears to include a disturbing number of near-naked ladies (or perhaps it's the same near-naked lady, it's hard to say.)

On the way back to the car, the moor hens from Edwardes Park Lake moved toward us with sinister intent. Alice scared them away by barking like a dog. We thought they wanted to peck our feet, but perhaps they were just after our books.