Berkhamsted School plays host to two really good authors for children, part 2: Paul Dowswell

Paul Dowswell, a children’s author, spoke to Year 7 and Year 8 boys on the  research he carried out to assist him in his writing of his historical novel Auslander.  Set against the backdrop of Hitler and the Second World War, Paul examined what it was like for the Germans who were against Hitler’s regime and against Nazism.  He captures  the essence of their fear whilst highlighting the true bravery and courage shown by  German individuals . It’s a superb novel suitable for both children and adults alike.

Within the presentation Paul spoke to the boys on what German life was like under Hitler. The control he exercised across all areas of life including babies’ first books, the family unit, a doll’s house, children’s games and political postcards: all examples of primary sources which he came across whilst carrying out his research in Berlin . The slides in the photos hone in on specific examples of the control, manipulation and propaganda which was cloaked across Germany.  Although the boys are not specifically focussing on this period of History they did impress Paul with their knowledge  and their engagement during the event was a joy to the eyes.

From Fact to Fiction

We invited Paul in specifically to fit in with a forthcoming Library research project embedded in their scheme of work.  Year 8 will be involved in carrying out a History research project on Elizabethan life. Although this author does not write about the Elizabethans he does very successfully include historical facts into a wonderful and thrilling story and it is this which is the key, as we want our boys to do something similar. When the project lessons  begin next term, we will be able to look back and discuss his process of research, sources he used and finally how he uses those facts in his story. We hope that this will help the boys when they come to write their own historical diaries.

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Mrs Ashwell’s Christmas reading…

Mrs Ashwell also had a very productive reading time during the Christmas break and thoroughly enjoyed the books she read.  The first is:

“Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. Born a poor black tobacco farmer, her cancer cells – taken without her knowledge – became a multimillion-dollar industry and one of the most important tools in medicine. Yet Henrietta’s family did not learn of her ‘immortality’ until more than twenty years after her death, with devastating consequences …Balancing the beauty and drama of scientific discovery with dark questions about who owns the stuff our bodies are made of, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” is an extraordinary journey in search of the soul and story of a real woman, whose cells live on today in all four corners of the world. “A fascinating, harrowing, necessary book”. (Hilary Mantel, “Guardian”). “A heartbreaking account of racism and injustice”. (“Metro”). “A fine book…a gripping read…The book has deservedly been a huge bestseller in the US. It should be here, too”. (“Sunday Times”).”  NielsenBookDataOnline

and the second is:

“In the winter of 1991, at a concert in Krakow, an older woman with a marvellously pitched violin meets a fellow musician who is instantly captivated by her instrument. When he asks her how she obtained it, she reveals the remarkable story behind its origin…Imprisoned at Auschwitz, the notorious concentration camp, Daniel feels his humanity slipping away. Treasured memories of the young woman he loved and the prayers that once lingered on his lips become hazier with each passing day. Then a visit from a mysterious stranger changes everything, as Daniel’s former identity as a crafter of fine violins is revealed to all. The camp’s two most dangerous men use this information to make a cruel wager: If Daniel can build a successful violin within a certain number of days, the Kommandant wins a case of the finest burgundy. If not, the camp doctor, a torturer, gets hold of Daniel. And so, battling exhaustion, Daniel tries to recapture his lost art, knowing all too well the likely cost of failure. Written with lyrical simplicity and haunting beauty and interspersed with chilling, actual Nazi documentation, “The Auschwitz Violin” is more than just a novel: it is a testament to the strength of the human spirit and the power of beauty, art, and hope to triumph over the darkest adversity.”  NielsenBookDataOnline

Two extremely powerful books – they sound absolutely fascinating, I will put them on my reading list.  Mrs Ashwell is currently reading The hare with amber eyes by Edmund de Waal, winner of the Costa Book Awards Prize for Biography.

If This Is A Man (Primo Levi)

On Thursday 4th March, 2010, World Book Day, we asked teachers to talk to their classes about their favourite books or books they are currently enjoying.

Mr Cale introduced Primo Levi’s ‘If This Is A Man’ to his classes on Thursday and he says:   “… not everyone’s cup of tea I understand, but some very powerful words nonetheless.”

This book is Levi’s autobiography and tells of the horrors, both sights and sounds, and experiences that he endured during World War II.  As Philip Roth describes it:

“‘With the moral stamina and intellectual pose of a twentieth-century Titan, this slightly built, dutiful, unassuming chemist set out systematically to remember the German hell on earth, steadfastly to think it through, and then to render it comprehensible in lucid, unpretentious prose. He was profoundly in touch with the minutest workings of the most endearing human events and with the most contemptible. What has survived in Levi’s writing isn’t just his memory of the unbearable, but also, in THE PERIODIC TABLE and THE WRENCH, his delight in what made the world exquisite to him. He was himself a magically endearing man, the most delicately forceful enchanter I’ve ever known.”

Is an interesting pattern developing here?  It’s fascinating that people are reading various texts by different authors around a similar subject.  Join the discussion!

Man’s search for meaning (Viktor E. Frankl)

On Thursday 4th March, 2010, World Book Day, we asked teachers to talk to their classes about their favourite books or books they are currently enjoying.  Mr Maxted told his students about  Viktor Frankl’s book ‘Man’s search for meaning’ which, in the course of his reading, had a powerful impact on him.  He says:

“Viktor Frankl was Professor of Neurology and Psychology at the University of Vienna Medical School. He was the founder of what has come to be called the Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy – the school of logotherapy. His writings have been called ‘the most important contributions in the field of Psychotherapy since the days of Freud, Adler and Jung’ by Sir Cyril Burt, ex-President of the British Psychological Society.

During World War II he spent three years at Auschwitz, Dachau, and other concentration camps. During this time he observed that those prisoners who gave up on any purpose in life would be dead within a few days. They would simply refuse to leave the filth of their wooden bunks. Frankl was instrumental in maintaining the morale of prisoners, attempting to instil in them a meaning and purpose to their lives even when undergoing hideous suffering. Indeed, he tried to show that there could be a purpose to their involuntary suffering. Frankl calls this attitude a “tragic optimism”.

The school of Logotherapy aims to treat the depressed and suicidal by helping patients to discover a meaning and purpose to their lives. Frankl describes this absence of meaning and purpose as the “existential vacuum” which requires filling.

Upon reading the book, it is not difficult to see why Frankl survived the Holocaust or indeed why he was instrumental in enabling others to survive. This is a work of tremendous optimism in the midst of unimaginable suffering and is a testament to the triumph of the human spirit. He rejects the idea that we are pre-determined to respond in a particular way to our circumstances and reinforces the importance of the decisions that we make. It is the old maxim, “with great freedom comes great responsibility”. In a superb line, Frankl argues that “the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast”!

Frankl concludes his book as follows:

“In the concentration camps…we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions. Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered the gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips”.

Frankl truly was a remarkable and inpirational man, and if, after reading this review, you are tempted to read this, or any of his books, please leave a comment here.