Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Why the last few days have left me feeling ashamed to be a member of the UK book community

Human Rights Campaigner and Martin Ennals Laureate Ahmed Mansoor was arrested by the UAE government on Sunday.

After last month’s blog about the unethical sponsorship of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature I was not intending to return to the topic this year. But after the events of the last few days, culminating in the arrest on Sunday of prominent UAE human rights campaigner Ahmed Mansoor, I feel obliged to do so.

February’s blog was written in support of the International Campaign for Freedom in the United Arab Emirates’ festival campaign. Rather than encourage authors to boycott the festival, as last year’s Think Twice Campaign (which I co-organised) had done, the ICFUAE campaign encouraged UK authors attending this year’s festival to use their appearance as an opportunity to speak out in favour of human rights, free speech and democracy in the UAE.

The ICFUAE wrote an open letter to UK authors attending the festival and tweeted authors to draw their attention to it.

The ICFUAE published an open letter addressed to the UK authors appearing at the festival pointing out that, while UK citizens are accustomed to speaking freely and criticising their government, UAE citizens are routinely persecuted by the festival’s sponsors for exercising these same rights. The letter encouraged authors to highlight the need for greater human rights and freedom of expression in the UAE when tweeting, blogging or posting about the festival on social media. The ICFUAE tweeted authors directly to draw their attention to the letter and English PEN and The Society of Authors also shared the letter widely on Twitter.

Disappointingly, the ICFUAE tell me that they are not aware of any UK authors who highlighted their concerns for human rights in their festival coverage. The author coverage that I have seen has generally presented a glamorous, rose-tinted view of the UAE, emphasising the opportunities for cultural exchange that the festival offers. I don't doubt the positive effects of this exchange, or that the festival does good work in other areas, but I don’t accept that this good work justifies authors ignoring the overwhelming number of human rights violations carried out by the festival's sponsors.

One of the authors who blogged about this year’s festival is children’s author Philip Reeve. I’m a big fan of Reeve’s books, so I was particularly disappointed to read the following paragraph on his blog referring to last year’s Think Twice Campaign.



Emirates Airline –
an institutionally homophobic company,
owned by an oppressive government that
presides over a modern-day slave state
… but they sponsor a lovely
literature festival.
I entirely reject Reeve’s suggestion that the Think Twice Campaign did not have any significant positive effect. The aim of many boycotts is to raise public awareness of an overlooked issue and, by doing so, encourage change. I don't think that it's "absurd" to suggest that the Artists Against Apartheid group who pledged not to perform at Sun City in South Africa, helped to focus the world’s attention on South African apartheid and that this attention helped to encourage the South African government to abolish the apartheid system. The principal aim of the Think Twice Campaign was to raise awareness of the plethora of human rights violations carried out by the festival’s sponsors. Reeve may have been aware that Emirates Airline are an institutionally homophobic company, owned by an oppressive government that presides over a modern-day slave state, but the feedback received by the Think Twice Campaign made it clear that many people were not.

The UAE human rights campaigner Ahmed Mansoor has said that “the root cause of so much of the violence in the region is despair. Human rights are being violated on a daily basis and nobody in the outside world seems to care.” I’d like to think that, as far as the UK is concerned, the problem is not so much a lack of care as a lack of awareness. The small gang of wealthy autocratic rulers that form the UAE government has become very proficient at projecting the image of a liberal, progressive country to an overseas audience. They employ a two-pronged strategy, investing copious amounts of sponsorship money in high-profile international sporting and cultural institutions that present the UAE in a favourable light, while persecuting, imprisoning and torturing UAE residents who dare to present a less-than glowing view of the country. The cases of Australian illustrator Jodi Magi and US aviation consultant Shez Cassim show that even foreign citizens can fall victim to the UAE’s sociopathic obsession with whitewashing its image.

This two-pronged strategy has been particularly conspicuous in the two weeks since the close of this year’s festival. As returning UK authors posted blogs about their glamorous adventures in Dubai, the UAE government has been quietly tightening its stranglehold on freedom of expression within the country.

On 15 March, just five days after the close of the festival, a UAE court sentenced Jordanian journalist and poet Tayseer al-Najjar to three years in prison and a $136,000 fine for the crime of “insulting the state’s symbols” in his Facebook posts. Tayseer had been held without access to a lawyer for more than a year before being brought to trial.
https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/03/17/uae-jordanian-journalist-convicted


Three days later, on 18 March, as human rights campaigners were preparing to celebrate the release of Osama al-Najjar after a three year prison sentence, the UAE government announced that Osama would remain behind bars. Osama had been imprisoned for tweeting his concerns about the ill-treatment of his father, Hussain Ali al-Najjar al-Hammadi, one of many prisoners of conscience convicted in what Amnesty International describe as a “grossly unfair mass trial” of 94 government critics in 2013.
https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2017/03/uae-decision-not-to-release-osama-al-najjar-indefensible/


Last Sunday, 19 March, UAE authorities launched a midnight raid on human rights campaigner Ahmed Mansoor, carrying out a lengthy room by room search of his home, including his children’s bedroom, and arresting Ahmed.  His family has yet to be informed of his whereabouts.

Amnesty International have described Ahmed as "the last free human rights activist in the UAE". His arrest was the latest development in a sustained state-sponsored persecution campaign that has seen him fired from his job and his bank account robbed of $140,000. He has received numerous death threats, been beaten repeatedly and the UAE authorities have gone to extraordinary lengths in their attempts to hack his phone.

After imprisoning Ahmed for eight months in 2011 for the crime of “insulting officials”, the UAE government confiscated his passport, forcing him to remain in the country. Despite everything he has been through, Ahmed has continued to speak out against human rights violations within the UAE and in 2015 a jury of ten global human rights organisations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, awarded him the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders in recognition of his courageous work.

Amnesty International have said that they are “appalled and dismayed” by Ahmed’s arrest and expressed “fears that he may be at risk of torture or other ill-treatment while in custody.”


The UK book community has a history of standing up for others. In recent years, fundraising campaigns for the victims of Typhoon Haiyan and the Syrian conflict have made me feel proud to be a member of that community. But, in the last few days, the way that so many UK authors and illustrators have turned a blind eye to human rights violations in the UAE has made me feel ashamed to be a part of that community.

I would have thought that authors and illustrators would be one group of people that would recognise freedom of expression as a fundamental human right. Freedom of expression is being brutally suppressed RIGHT NOW in the UAE. Tayseer al-Najjar, Osama al-Najjar and Ahmed Mansoor are not characters in a book – they are real people with real families, enduring real suffering for daring to speak out against a tyrannical government.

Whatever you think of the Emirates Festival, if you are an author or an illustrator and you genuinely care about freedom of expression and human rights in the UAE, please use whatever channels you can to speak out and demand the release of Ahmed Mansoor and the other prisoners of conscience being unjustly held by the UAE government.

Go on! Please make me feel proud again.




Whether you are an author, an illustrator or anyone else, here are a few ways you might make your voice heard.

You can quickly email the UAE government to call for Ahmed's release using this Amnesty International page. It will only take a minute (literally 60 seconds) of your time: https://www.amnesty.org.uk/actions/free-ahmed-mansoor-human-rights-uae-united-arab-emirates



You can call for Ahmed's release on social media using the hashtag #FreeAhmed.

You can tweet the UAE's Vice President and Prime Minister  Sheik Mohammed on @HHShkMohd

You can write to the UK's UAE Embassy at:
His Excellency Mr Abdulrahman Ghanem Almutaiwee
Embassy of the United Arab Emirates
30 Princes Gate
London
SW7 1PT
Tweet them on @UAEEMbasssyUK
contact them through their Facebook page
email them on informationuk@mofa.gov.ae
or phone them on 0207 5811281

You can write to your local MP.
If you don't know who your MP is, you can find out their name and contact details at https://www.theyworkforyou.com/mp/
You can download a Word document containing a template email to send to your MP here:
http://eafolthinktwice.org.uk/FreeAhmedMPemail.doc
The ICFUAE have also provided a template letter here:
http://icfuae.org.uk/campaigns/urgent-action-demand-ahmed-mansoors-release


Representatives of global human rights organisations explain Ahmed's critical role in defending human rights in the UAE in the video below.




UPDATE 29 March (19 days after the close of 2017 Emirates Festival)
After being forcibly disappeared, held in secret detention for months and subjected to beatings and deliberate sleep deprivation, a UAE court has sentenced prominent economist, academic and human rights defender Dr Nasser bin Ghaith to ten years in prison. His "crime" was to criticise the UAE government on Twitter. His official conviction was for “posting false information” about UAE leaders and their policies and “posting false information in order to harm the reputation and stature of the State and one of its institutions”.
Amnesty have said that "by imposing this ludicrous sentence in response to his peaceful tweets, the authorities have left no room for doubt: those who dare to speak their minds freely in the UAE today risk grave punishment".
https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2017/03/uae-prominent-academic-jailed-for-10-years-over-tweets-in-outrageous-blow-to-freedom-of-expression



Monday, 20 March 2017

Ruby Flew Too! • Readers' Emails



I mentioned in an earlier post that I’ve received more emails and letters about Ruby Flew Too! (titled Ruby in Her Own Time in the US) than any other book that I've written.

It's clear from these messages that Ruby's story has had a profound effect on the lives of many families and been a comfort and inspiration to readers of all ages during challenging times. It seems to have struck a particularly strong chord with families of premature babies.

Here are a few excerpts from some of the emails that families have sent me since the book, which is beautifully illustrated by Rebecca Harry,  was first published in 2004. All excerpts are shown with the writer's permission



"I first discovered your book when another parent mailed it to me while my daughter was fighting for her life in a NICU in Portland, Oregon. Her daughter was also born in the same hospital and was a survivor of the same birth defect, CDH that was the reason why we were there.
There is something you come to learn with a child in the NICU. It is always on THEIR time schedule. In their own time. You can never push them. They will do things when THEY are ready. All those things are the same things that your book speaks to. I read this book to her while she was attached to ventilators and while she was being weaned down from the nasal canula, and as she was learning to eat.
49 days after her birth, my daughter came home. In her own time.
I just wanted you to know how the story has touched me, and many other parents."
Liz, Oregon, US

"Our daughter, Brooke, was born pre-maturely and spent six months in the NICU with pretty serious health concerns. She couldn't breathe or eat on her own and we were told that she wouldn't live to see her first birthday. Brooke needed a trach tube and ventilator to help her breathe and was vent dependent for almost two years. We slowly weaned Brooke off the vent and she started to do things the doctors said she wouldn't. Brooke did see her first birthday and is now a happy four year old girl. While we were in the hospital, we read Ruby In Her Own Time to Brooke almost every day. We always told Brooke that she would do things in her own time, just like Ruby. It is such a beautiful story and she still enjoys reading it today."
Heather Illinois, US

"I reread your book whenever I am anxious about our little Ruby. As with most preemies she is behind in all her milestones and there have been many a time when I have battled with my own frustrations at how far ahead her peers always seem to be. When I find myself asking "will she ever crawl?" "will she ever walk?" or "will she ever talk?" I always revert to mother duck's words of profound wisdom - "She will. In her own time." Thank God for mother duck!
I wonder if you ever thought, when you were writing your book, what a profound effect it would have on a family somewhere on the other side of the world. You must have been guided by an angel. Thank you."
Tess, Cape Town, South Africa

"I'm not sure who gave us Ruby In Her Own Time, but I must say this is my favorite children's book. The book was given to us when my oldest daughter, who turns 13 this Tuesday, was a baby. The funny thing is I think we referenced it more as she got older than when we read it to her as a child. Although she was an excellent student since the time she started school, in most other aspects of life she was Ruby. Whether it was playing sports, going on rides, trying new things, Casey was always cautious and not always willing. The only difference to the book was as the father I was the one saying, "in her own time". As she becomes a teenager this week, I've look back at how she blossomed over the years. The girl who did not walk until 16 months can run like the wind. The timid kid who stayed away from the ball in sports became an excellent athlete. The painfully shy girl, has opened herself up to new adventures and a curiosity about the world. When my wife would get slightly frustrated with her holding back on things I would always say, "she will, in her own time". To which my wife would reply something like she really is Ruby. … Thank you for this wonderful piece of work which I hope my children will pass down to their own someday."
Kevin, New York, US

"You see, children's books are every bit as important and moving as the greatest novel ever written. For your beautifully illustrated book (and do thank Ms. Rebecca Harry for her gentle artwork) showed us in that moment that one day, our daughter would be okay. In the darkest hours when we worried if she'd ever eat food or gain weight, if she'd ever look like normal children or if she'd always have to rely on a feeding tube, we'd repeat "in her own time". Our daughter loved to see that she was special in her own way, and that it was okay to be herself. Well I'm happy to tell you that today, two and a half years after having her feeding tube put in, with a lot of therapy, medicine, and love, Ruby had her feeding tube taken out for good at the hospital. Just like the duckling in your book, she's brave and blossoming and true to herself. We read Ruby in Her Own Time tonight, turning page after well worn page, some of them with edges she chewed on when she ate nothing else, some splattered with her tube formula, some barely clinging to the staples. You told us she could soar, that she would one day fly higher than we ever dreamed. And that day has come. It's honestly a wonderful gift you gave us, a stranger nearly a world away, completely by happenstance. But your words and your lovely tale will forever be treasured by our family, our Ruby, who has indeed done it in her own time. Thank you so much."
Kat and Randy, North Carolina, US



All three of the Ruby books are now available in new Hatchling Books editions.



Click here to go to the Hatchling books web site


Monday, 13 March 2017

How to Draw Ruby, with illustrator Rebecca Harry



To mark the publication of the new editions of our Ruby the Duckling books, illustrator Rebecca Harry has taken over my blog to show you How to Draw Ruby. And it looks like she's found a little helper …








You can follow Ruby's adventures in these Hatchling Books paperbacks.


You can find out more about Rebecca Harry and her books at her website rebeccaharry.com,
follow her on Facebook at @rebeccaharryillustrator or on Twitter at @BekHarry1.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Ruby Flies Again! – RUBY THE DUCKLING new editions

All three of the Ruby books are now available in new Hatchling Books editions

The children’s book business is exactly that – a business – and if sales begin to tail off for a book, a publisher will often decide to take it out of print. Any stock that remains in the warehouse is sold off at a heavily discounted price for sale in bargain bookshops and the book disappears from bookseller’s databases. As I write this, a little under half of my books are out of print. Every now and again a publisher may decide to delight an author by putting an out-of-print book back into print. However this a relatively rare occurrence and – generally speaking – when a publisher tells me that they are taking one of my books out of print I’ve learnt to take it in my stride and focus on getting new books published.

“Generally speaking” that’s what I do – but some books are harder to let fall by the wayside than others. Over the last few years all three of the Ruby the Duckling books, written by me and illustrated by Rebecca Harry, have gone out of print. Both Rebeca and I were especially sorry to see these books go, so we decided to make an effort to put all three books back into print again.

One of the reasons I was personally keen to do this is that I’ve received more emails and letters about the first Ruby book, Ruby Flew Too! (titled Ruby in Her Own Time in the US) than any of my other books. Readers from all over the world have written to me to tell me how Ruby’s tale has touched their lives and given them comfort in what have often been extremely trying circumstances.

A spread from the new edition of Ruby Flew Too! Ruby’s story has touched the lives of readers all over the world.

Having done a bit of research and read a few articles like this one, Rebecca and I decided to re-publish the books as print-on-demand editions using Amazon’s Createspace service.

Although Rebecca and I owned the rights to the book’s text and illustrations, the typography and title lettering design of the original editions belonged to the original publisher, so we had to re-typeset the spreads (using open licence fonts) and create new title lettering for the covers. The typesetting of the new editions is similar to the originals as the text placement has to fit into the gaps in Rebecca’s original illustrations, but we took the opportunity to make a few changes here and there. Some of the spreads have been cropped slightly wider to show a little more of Rebecca’s artwork and we’ve added in a book plate page at the front and an “About the Author and Illustrator” page at the back. As such, the new editions could be seen as being the “Director’s Cut” versions of the books.

A spread from the new edition of Go For It, Ruby! The text has been re-typset and some of the spreads have been cropped slightly wider to show a little more of Rebecca’s artwork.

We did the first book on its own as a trial run and agreed that if either of us weren’t happy with the printed proof copy we would not make it, or any of the other books available. So when the proofs eventually arrived through the post, we were both relieved and impressed by the quality of the printing and binding.

We were impressed by the print quality of the new print-on-demand editions.

All three books are now available under the specially-created imprint of Hatchling Books. Rebecca has designed this lovely new logo …


… and we’ve set up a web site at hatchlingbooks.co.uk where you can find out about the books and download these free Ruby activity sheets. There's a colouring sheet, a board game, a spot the difference and a maze.


The whole exercise has been a bit of an experiment for Rebecca and myself. We’re hoping that books will continue to sell without a mainstream publisher to promote them, but only time will tell! We’d love to think that by making them available in this way, Ruby’s story will continue to entertain, inspire and comfort new readers.

One of my favourite spreads from the new edition of This Way, Ruby!

The books are available for £6.99, $9.99 Or €8.99 each through Amazon’s UK, US and European stores. US buyers can also purchase them at a 15% discount through the Hatchling Books eStore.


Click here to go to the Hatchling books web site

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

PRINCE RIBBIT – a perfectly-timed picture book for the post-truth era?

The cover of Peachtree's US edition.
Prince Ribbit, my latest picture book with illustrator Poly Bernatene has just been published in the US by Peachtree Publishers and has already picked up some good reviews.

It’s the story of a cunning frog who tricks his way into a royal household by convincing two fairytale-obsessed princesses that he's really an enchanted prince who can give them the happily-ever-after they have always dreamed of. Fortunately the two princesses have a non-fiction-loving younger sister, Martha, who sees through the frog’s fakery and sets out to debunk it. The characters use books to back up their arguments, and both sides dismiss each other’s evidence with the refrain, “Just because it’s in a book doesn’t mean it’s true!”.

Some US reviewers have commented that the book’s theme of fact versus fiction – and how to tell the difference between the two is especially relevant at a time when “fake news” is having an increasing influence on public opinion.

While one book is sufficient proof for big sister Arabella, Martha delves deeper in search of the truth.

The January 2017 edition of the School
Library Journal stressed the need for
young readers to think critically.
The lead article in January’s edition of the School Library Journal stressed the need for educators to teach their students to think critically about information they receive, whether it comes from a book, a newspaper or a website. Reviewer Elizabeth Bird makes a similar point at the beginning of her detailed dissection of Prince Ribbit in the same edition.

“Children in the 21st century have to be taught to use their brains when they read. High school curriculum spend a fair amount of time drilling this idea home, but considering how young kids are when they search for information online these days, wouldn’t it behoove them to be taught to think things through from the start? Enter Prince Ribbit, a book that drills home a very simple message: “Just because it’s in a book doesn’t mean it’s true.” Its timing could not be better.”

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Prince Ribbit’s fact versus fiction theme was inspired by some of the “popular science” books I was reading when I wrote the story in 2013. The laws of libel do not apply to science, so it’s worth bearing in mind that the authors of such books are free to misrepresent scientific evidence in order to appeal to a wider market. This was clearly the case with some of the books I was reading, which gave contradictory accounts of the same evidence. They could not all be right, so how could I find out which books' accounts were closest to the truth?

"Enter Prince Ribbit, a book that drills home a very simple message: 'Just because it’s in a book doesn’t mean it’s true.'
Its timing could not be better."

Elizabeth Bird
School Library Journal
The answer was to delve deeper into the evidence and examine it critically using the methods advocated by campaigns like Ask For Evidence. After doing so I had a clear idea of which books I could rely on and which books I could not.

Although the Ask for Evidence campaign has its roots in the scientific community, the critical thinking approach it promotes is equally applicable to other areas including politics, where policy makers often allow ideology – or just old-fashioned prejudice – to trump the evidence. Fortunately there are organisations that encourage evidence based policy making, such as the Education Endowment Foundationwhich does a great job of objectively evaluating evidence relating to education policy. The next time you hear a politician claiming that 'smart school uniforms lead to academic success' or that 'performance related pay will raise teaching standards,' a quick look at the EEF's easy to use ’toolkit” will allow you to assess the current evidence (or lack of it) for such claims.

When I wrote Prince Ribbit four years ago, I had no idea that the story might have a topical relevance by the time it was published. And I did not have a message in mind when I was writing it – I was simply trying to write an entertaining tale. But I’m delighted that it’s seen as promoting critical thinking. With this in mind, I’ll leave the last word to Elizabeth Laird's SLJ review.

“Read carefully. Read critically. Read everything and then form your own opinion from the facts, as best as you can gather them. Or, if you just prefer, read this cute book because it has princesses and talking frogs in it. As far as I can tell, that’s a win-win situation.”

Princess Martha remains unconvinced by the frog's fakery.

Find out more about Prince Ribbit on my web site


Buy at amazon US Buy this book at amazon UK
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