Showing posts with label Saviour Pirotta. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Saviour Pirotta. Show all posts

Tuesday, 24 November 2020

IMAGINE ALL THE PEOPLE, by Saviour Pirotta

I like to think that all my stories are about people. They may be set at memorable historical moments like the opening of the Parthenon in Athens (Shadow of the Centaurs) or in famous places like the village of Skara Brae in Scotland (The Stolen Spear) and Stonehenge (The Whispering Stones). But the driving force is always the characters. I imagine this is true for most writers. It seems people remember the characters in a much-enjoyed story long after the details of the plot have grown hazy. When I think of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first things that spring to mind are the lovely Mr. Tumnus and his umbrella, and the wicked Jadis in her carriage? 

I love people watching, trying to guess who they are, what they do for a living, what families they have etc. Scarborough where I live is a fantastic place for this kind of activity. I have a special notebook which I've labelled 'the people pot' where I keep notes of characters I've created based on people I've seen. Over time I've developed this into a writing exercise I often use in schools, and it seems to work very well in online sessions too.

Here is a picture I took at the municipal market while on holiday in Malaga last year. 


I call the characters Papa Red Hoodie and Son Blue Hoodie. But are they in fact father and son? Are there any clues in the picture to prove or disprove that fact? Could they be uncle and nephew? Friends? Boss and employee? What names might they have? Where do they live? What kind of abode? Are they alike in their way of thinking or so dissimilar they prefer not to hang out when the stall shutters come down at the end of the day?

Can you think of what they might have had for breakfast this morning, perhaps churros y chocolates at the market, or just a quick coffee and some leftover tortilla from home, eaten on at the wheel as they drive to the fish suppliers? What are they thinking as they serve their customers? Are they happy, sad?

This picture was the starting point for a story I am writing.  Son Blue Hoodie finds something inside the fish he is filleting, something it swallowed before it was caught. And it's something that triggers an adventure, a story that will use all the details I've imagined for the characters.


Here's a second picture, taken in Malta a few years ago. Look at all the band members, the instruments they are playing. Can you think up of a reason why each musician has gone for the instrument he plays? Is there a story there?

(Incidentally, this is the street where I lived as a child. The decrepit house on the left side features in one of my ghost stories but that's another subject, for another post). Meanwhile, I hope you've enjoyed perusing my pictures and you find my hints for creating character helpful. 

Saviour Pirotta's Mark of the Cyclops won the North Somerset Teachers' Book Award in 2018. His online book Pandora's Box has just been voted the Fiction Express Award for best middle grade novel on their platform. Follow Saviour on twitter @spirotta and instagram on @saviour2858.  Preorder his book here





Sunday, 24 May 2020

LIFE IN LOCKDOWN

My thirty years of writing for children have been peppered with school visits and festival appearances, a vital income stream for any author. Although I enjoy them enormously (I would have been a primary school teacher in another life, creating a fab environment in my classroom and producing the school plays), I've always dreamt of an uninterrupted period where I could concentrate on writing, and solely on my writing.
    One of my big dreams is to write an adult detective novel. I have scores of notebooks filled with ideas, plots and character sketches for it. My office walls are festooned with story maps and photos taken on fact-finding sorties to my favourite countries. Am I making use of them? Am I, hell. Sorry for the swear-word but now that uninterrupted writing opportunity has been thrust upon me, I'm finding it incredibly difficult to settle down in my newly decorated office and write. 
    My daily routine has been shattered. No endless trips to coffee shops on Scarbrough seafront with my macbook and pens. No browsing in charity shops and flea markets while mulling over ideas. I am stuck at home and everywhere I look there are procrastination opportunities that are proving impossible to resist. 
    This week, after finding out that there are thousands of people in the same situation as me,  I've taken the big decision to drop the guilt and embrace my period of self-isolation. So here's what I've been up to on lockdown.

   
I've been working on my garden. I've sown tomatoes, repaired a roofless pergola and planted climbers. Unable to go to the ironmonger's, I've made planters using bits of wood, nails and wire found in the shed.

I've been expanding my cooking repertoire. I've taught myself to make proper curry, I've experimented with different kinds of bread making and cooked myself a birthday pie.



I've gone for great walks in my neighbourhood, increasing my foot-count every week. 




Perhaps best of all,  I've been spending time chatting with my family overseas. Here's a picture of my parents in lockdown on Malta. They don't seem too distressed. Let's hope I can visit them again in the flesh.









Friday, 24 January 2020

Mapping out your story, by Saviour Pirotta

I've been conducting writing workshops in schools and libraries since the mid-eighties. Over time, I developed a foolproof template that children could use to quickly sketch out a plot with a beginning, a middle and an end. Inspired by Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand, it was a quest in five easy steps, leading from the main character coming across a problem to solving it and reaping the rewards of his success.

It has stood me well over the years. Reluctant writers with not much confidence especially, found it easy to follow and they all had a plot to work with by the end of the session. Some kids have even used what I term my '5 step story ladder' with great success in the BBC 500 word story competition, dedicating just 100 words to every one of the five steps.

These last couple of years, though, I have been hankering after a more organic and non-linear approach to working out storylines. Looking through my old notebooks, I found some notes I made at Charney Manor a few years ago. I can't remember the exact year but I do recall that Mary Hoffman showed advance copies of Stravaganza: City of Masks, so I'm guessing it would have been 2000 or 2001. With my notes was a map I drew in one of the workshops (Again, I can't remember but I have vague recollection that it might have been a guest speaker rather than a member of the SAS.) It's a map of my childhood, showing my home, the houses on our street where my relatives lived and I used to visit, the road to my school and church and the places where I used to play. I was very good at hiding and eavesdropping on conversations when I was a kid. My favourite hiding place was a secret tunnel behind an ancient honeysuckle that had grown away from the wall. I spent so much time in it I often staggered home dizzy from the perfume. Sometimes I fantasised about finding a secret door under the layers of dead honeysuckle, a portal to a magic world.



Looking at it, it occurred to me that you could start a story by drawing a map for your main character. You could put in all the locations where the main events happen and draw little banners announcing what happens there. You could people it with the characters he interacts with. Using Snow White as an example, you could show the king's castle, (I would have a cutaway with a cross-section of the castle), the nearby forest with the dwarves' cottage, the mountains and the mines, the location of the glass coffin etc. I also draw arrow-paths to show the character's journey. In this case, it would be Snow White's flight through the forest, the dwarves' way to the mines and back, the witch's journey as she follows Snow White and the prince's arrival in the forest.

I found it's a great way to make the story come alive by visualising the location of every stop along the way. In the future I plan to make little cut-outs of the characters so I can move them along the map and imagine how they would interact. Perhaps it's a daft way of working out a story but I find it helps me a lot. What's your favourite way of plotting?

Saviour Pirotta's next book is set in the Stone Age. The second in a series of four, it is called The Whispering Stones and will be published by Maverick in April. His second play for children is an adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood and runs at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough during the Easter holidays. 

Thursday, 24 October 2019

Welcome to Anthesteria, the Ancient Greek version of Halloween, by Saviour Pirotta

The shops are full of Halloween stuff at the moment. Plastic skulls, skeletons, fake fur spiders and grinning pumpkins greet you from every shop window, be it a charity shop or a full-on smart clothes emporium. I am always wary of commercialised festivals whose original meaning has been lost in a mountain of tat and the possibilities of instant profit (Dropping the Saint from Valentine's Day is a particular bugbear of mine.)

Yet I have to admit, Halloween can be fun and even if I don't tend to open the door to trick-or-treaters myself, I do like to indulge in spooky stories when the nights are dark and Christmas is still nine weeks away.

I am fully aware that spooky stories hook the kids and, no matter what book I am promoting, I always include a ghost story about the subject in my events.  This was a little tricky when I first started promoting The Stolen Spear, a story set in the stone age but I soon adapted a Victorian ghost story featuring Neolithic artifacts.

Which leads me to the main reason for writing this post. We tend to think of Halloween as an Irish import into America, a festival based on the ancient Christian festival of All Hallows' Eve itself based on the pagan harvest festival of Samhain. But did you know that other religions and indeed ancient civilisations have/had their own versions of the festival?  In Hinduism, September sees the celebration of Pitru Paksha, when believers ensure that the souls of their dead ancestors are at rest.

Danse Macabre


The Ancient Romans had two festivals similar to Halloween. The Feralia, held in February, celebrated the dead. People would bring gifts of fruit and flowers to their ancestors' graves. The Lemuria, a three day festival held in mid-May, honoured the souls of people who'd died a violent death.

My favourite of these spooky festivals is the Anthesteria, one of four Ancient Greek festivals held every year in Athens. It lasted three days during the full moon in our February. On the third day, the ghosts of the dead were welcomed and entertained in the city, with people leaving food and wine for them on the doorstep.  It always vanished by the morning. Slaves were served dinner by their masters, inverting the usual order of things. The head of the family would paint tar on the doorstop to stop the ghost from actually coming into the house and at the end of the festival, the children would chant: Anthesteria is over. Ghosts be gone!

The festival provides the backdrop for my Ancient Greek Mystery, Shadow of the Centaurs. It was a way to engage children with everyday details of a popular period in history, and to draw parallels between childhoods in long-gone civilisations, different cultures and the modern world.

Saviour Pirotta's Shadow of the Centaurs is illustrated by Freya Hartas and published by Bloomsbury. His latest book, set in Stone Age, is called The Stolen Spear and is published by Maverick. His play, Granny's Exploding Toilet, opens at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough on the 29th October. Follow him on twitter @spirotta and on instagram at saviour2858.




Tuesday, 24 September 2019

New Sightings of Granny, by Saviour Pirotta

My July post about Granny's Exploding Toilet got a lot of hits and some really nice comments, so I thought I'd keep you all up to date with Granny Josephine's progress through Theatreland.  The play has now been cast and the actors contracted.  There's been a read-through of the script. The actors loved it and I only had to change a few words here and there (I wrote three versions of the script before I felt confident to show it to the SJT.) I also ditched some jokes that worked well on paper but didn't translate to the stage.

The number of songs in the play increased from three to seven to ten, which makes the show practically a musical. I'd never written a song before, so I wasn't sure I could do it, but Granny must be showering me with blessings from that great high-security jail in the sky. I enjoyed writing lyrics and the composer is setting them to music as we speak.

This morning I met Julia Wray, the set designer. I loved her maquette of Granny's Street, which reminded me of Staithes, the little fishing village outside Scarborough. I have spent some happy weekends there. The painter Dame Laura Knight lived there for a while as part of the Staithes Group. The local women used to ply her with tragic stories of their husbands' demise at sea and she, in turn, would ply them with expensive brandy to calm them down. I don't think she ever found out the stories where all made up. Those women were kindred spirits of my own granny who, I'm sure, would have hoodwinked Laura Knight out of her entire wine cellar.

The main set changes to show a haunted cinema, a disused pub, a prison laundry and a public loo where the climatic scene happens.  (yup, the title of the piece is literal; you have been warned.)


Writing a book is collaborative. The author works with the editor, the designer, the illustrator and finally with the people in the publisher's pr department. Writing for theatre takes collaboration to a whole new level, though. Once the director has set out her vision and the designers, lighting people, actors and musicians bring their own particular skills to the project, the work becomes very much an ensemble project. It's so exciting seeing it take on a life of its own, growing in ways I could never even envisage. The story of Grandma's Exploding Toilet remains mine, of course, mine and Nanna Josephine (Guzeppa in her native language). Let's hope she's not smoking in the loo up there. 

GRANNY'S EXPLODING TOILET premieres at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough on the 29th of October and runs till the 2nd November. Book your tickets here

Read my first post about Granny here.

Saviour's latest book, The Stolen Spear is out now. His The Golden Horsemen of Baghdad is nominated for the Lancashire Fabulous Book Awards 2019/2020 and shortlisted for the North Somerset Teachers' Book Award.

Follow Saviour on Twitter @spirotta.

Wednesday, 24 July 2019

GRANNY'S EXPLODING TOILET, by Saviour Pirotta



Funny how things turn out!

When I emigrated to the UK in October 1981, I joined a group of artists working at the now long-defunct Commonwealth Institute in London. Authors, poets, dancers and actors, we visited schools all around the UK, introducing children to cultures from the commonwealth. I used to do an illustrated talk with slides called A Day in the Life of A Maltese child. This featured mostly my youngest brother Michael, who I photographed doing various tasks around the home and the village. It also featured my maternal grandmother, although I had no slides of her to show, because she resolutely refused to be photographed. (Actually, there is a grainy black and white snap of her in existence, and you can tell by her rebellious expression that she had been made to sit for the photographer.)

My grandmother was an irascible character. Married to a Maltese soldier in the British army, she moved house with every pay rise, although she stayed in the same street all her life. She was known to blow an entire week's pension on Sunday treats for her grandchildren. I remember with fondness sharing pan con olio on her roof terrace, eating out of a gigantic chipped enamel dish and watching red admirals sunbathing on her backyard wall.  We would pick mint and rosemary to put on the bread, which we rubbed with her homemade sundried tomatoes. Hers was a cheery smile in a childhood filled with austere faces. Grandma would let me dance around the terrace. She listened to my stories and blew eggs to make heads for my hand puppets.

The anecdotes about her soon started taking over my talks. The slideshow abandoned, I started creating narratives based on my granny and her coterie of female friends. Even when I started getting published, I continued telling her stories, although by now they were more fiction than fact.

Soon I had enough stories for a book. It was bought by Kingfisher, who had published two of my most successful folktale anthologies. But as my gran used to say, 'the devil has no milk but still manages to make cheese', meaning mischief happens when you least expect it.

Before I'd finished my first draft of the granny story, now called Gruesome Gran, Kingfisher was bought out by Macmillan, who dropped the entire fiction list. My agent at the time had just passed away and I never had the chance to sort out the ms for another publisher. I continued telling my granny stories in school, though, until one day -

'Sir, is your gran Gangsta Granny?'

It was the first time I'd heard of a certain celebrity's book but it was by no means the last. I couldn't believe my bad luck. The best idea I'd ever had and I'd let someone pip me to the post. Not that mine would have sold so many copies, of course. But still...

In disgust, I decided not to pursue the Granny project any longer. Gran seemed to have other plans, though. Last year I started doing storymaking workshops in Scarborough schools. They are part of an outreach programme organised by the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Hoping to write a play for the SJT, I asked for a meeting and spent a long weekend thinking up of stories that would make great plays for a family audience.  I needn't have given up that weekend. The children's feedback forms from the afterschool clubs were full of Granny stories. That's what the SJT wanted the play to be about.

So here we are a few months later, with a brand new story for the stage. Granny is taking to the boards in the autumn half term. With nine songs, the show is almost a full-blown musical. The booking opens at the end of July but there have been people asking for tickets at the box office already. Who'd have thought it?

And what's the moral of this rather long-winded rant, I hear you ask?  As Granny would say, 'the devil might make cheese but you don't have to eat if you don't want to.' Which means don't take defeat lying down. If you have a good idea, fight to make it become a reality.

Best words my nan never said, ever.


GRANNY'S EXPLODING TOILET premieres at the SJT on the 29th of October. Tickets will be available here. Saviour Pirotta's historical novel for 9 - 12s, MARK OF THE CYCLOPS, won the North Somerset Teachers' Book Awards 2018 in the Quality Fiction category. His new series from Maverick, The Wolfsong Series, launches with The Stolen Spear in August.  Follow Saviour on Twitter @spirotta.



Monday, 24 June 2019

Every Picture Tells a Story, by Saviour Pirotta

These last few months, I've been involved with after-school clubs in six Scarborough schools. Other artists are teaching children scriptwriting, performance poetry, interpretive dance and street art but my brief is 'storymaking'. That's creating stories to tell, whether it be in book form or performing to an audience.

Like most of us professional writers, the children found it difficult to come up with ideas from nothing, so I used one of my favourite techniques with them, one that I used myself as a child. My parents had a set of four framed prints in the hallway. They were given them, I think, by my Uncle Edward who travelled extensively around Italy. They showed the Italian lakes. My favourite one was a vista of Lake Como. It was devoid of people, showing only houses, the entrance to what I fervently believed was a palazzo and a church steeple. I would spend hours gazing at the scene, making up characters who lived in these sunlit abodes and connecting them with stories.


I would keep the project going for years, often revisiting the narrative months later, until every detail in the picture was part of the story. 

I still do this for my own books.  Every story I write has a central location, usually a building that acts as a backdrop to many of the scenes. In The Secret of the Oracle, it's the Oracle at Delphi. In The Pirates of Poseidon, the inspiration came from the temple of Athena Aphea on the island of Aegina. I couldn't visit Baghdad for The Golden Horsemen of Baghdad, so I found old artists' images of the city and visualised the rest from research.

For my after-school club project, I wanted to give the kids a sense of pride in their hometown. Scarborough is often dismissed as a faded seaside resort but it's full of hidden gems, from Italianate cliff-top gardens to reputedly haunted churches.  I took pictures of the locales and the children rose to the occasion. The stories we have created feature interesting characters inspired by our own landmarks. My favourite two are a girl who gets turned into a dragon while riding the ghost train on the seafront and a dead WW2 pilot who appears to warn Scarborians of the peril of plastic pollution. It's nice to share my solitary childhood game with so many eager participants. Long live imagination.


Saviour's latest book, The Golden Horsemen of Baghdad is published by Bloomsbury. His picture book The Unicorn Prince is illustrated by Jane Ray. Follow him on twitter @spirotta.

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

SOME THOUGHTS ABOUT BOOKSHOP VISITS

I've been published for nearly forty years but it is only recently that I've started promoting my books in shops. I've done festivals, and over a thousand school visits, but never dared venture into shops. I think I was put off by a chance visit to Waterstones in Winchester many years ago. A really famous author of adult books was doing a signing and she had no one. I thought if it could happen to someone of her standing, it was bound to happen to me.

That all changed lately with social media. My facebook and twitter feeds were awash with fellow authors doing bookshop events. And so I took the plunge. I've only done two readings and signings, both in Waterstones. I also have one lined up at the Little Ripon Bookshop tomorrow. Here's what I learnt so far:


1.  ORGANISE THE EVENTS YOURSELF

I was primarily promoting The Unicorn Prince, because it's a story I've told many times in schools and feel comfortable performing it in shops. I had a few meetings with the pr people at Orchard  to promote the book but nothing came of them (although they did manage to get some good reviews in the national papers) so I thought I'd do it myself.

I direct messaged four Waterstones on Twitter, all in North Yorkshire where I live, and three responded positively. I was surprised at how eager they were to have me in.




2. CHOOSE SHOPS CLOSE TO YOUR HOME

Some publishers don't mind paying travel costs for events you organise yourself. Others not so much. Do check before if they're willing to shell out before the event as most won't if they event has already happened. I settled on Waterstones in Harrogate and Middlesborough because I could get quite easily and they have lovely coffee shops I love hanging in.

3 SEND PROMOTIONAL MATERIAL WELL IN ADVANCE
Some shops say they will print up their own posters but they're not as good as the ones from your publishers (who you should always badger into printing some for you.) Send them well in advance. I also found offering people in the shop bookmarks and postcards was a brilliant way to introduce myself, and follow the introduction with '...we're having some stories over there if you'd like to join us.'

4 SET YOUR OWN TIMES
Most shops will advertise definite times for the events. I found this should only be taken as a guideline. I mooched around the shops, looking for kids who might like a story, and started only when I had a little group (or the kids I had waiting looked like they might run away.)

5
PROMOTE MORE THAN ONE BOOK AT THE SAME EVENT
As I said, I wanted to promote The Unicorn Prince but the children who turned up at the Middlesborough event were too old for it. Luckily, the canny woman in charge had also placed my Ancient Greece books on the display and we sold some of those. I was able to tell stories at the older kids' level so everything worked out well.

6
YOUR BOOKS WILL ALSO SELL AFTER THE EVENT
I sold only a handful of books in both events but I signed a lot of stock which was stickered and given a prominent place in the shop displays. According to a friend of mine who is a buyer for an independent bookshop, book events create a buzz that stays in the shop long after the author has left.

So there you are. If you like me, you've always been a bit apprehensive about doing events in shops, there's nothing to be scared of. People who go into bookshops are book-lovers and they're always keen to meet an author.


Saviour's The Unicorn Prince is illustrated by Jane Ray. Mark of the Cyclops, the first book in the Ancient Greek Mysteries series won the North Somerset Teachers' Award for  Quality Fiction 2019.
Follow Saviour on twitter @spirotta.
www.spirotta.com

Sunday, 24 March 2019

WHY THE GOLDEN HORSEMEN CAME RIDING, Saviour Pirotta


Book ideas are funny things. Some take ages, years even, to form. Others take shape in an instant, like genies rising out of a lamp.

My latest work for Bloomsbury, the Golden Horsemen of Baghdad, belongs firmly in the second category. I was doing a school visit at a Bradford Primary a few years ago. It was a gloriously sunny day and we had lunch out in the playground, sitting in the shade of gigantic industrial chimney which the children were convinced was haunted.  We talked about our ambitions and one boy declared in the softest of voices, ‘my biggest wish is to go truffle hunting with my father in the Afghan mountains.’

Cover by Freya Hartas


The boy’s father was Afghani. Trapped in the fraught and long-winded process of sorting out his immigration paperwork, he still lived in Afghanistan. The son and his English mother visited once a year but never during the truffle hunting season.  It was a Eureka moment for me. Like most children growing up in the west, my ideas of the middle east were of the Ray Harryhausen and Arabian nights kind.  You know the sort of thing: flying carpets, evil viziers and that omnipresent genie in the lamp. But here was another version of that world. Not one based on myth, but on a reality - and still as magical and fascinating.

In an instant the schoolboy infront of me became the hero of a story, an adventure set in the Muslim past but that did not involve my cliched ideas of spells of and sorcery. Earlier that day I'd been talking with teachers about the lack of books about the golden age of Islam, which was now a part of one of the National Curriculum. 

And so The Golden Horsemen of Baghdad was born. It tells the story of Jabir, a boy whose family are threatened with eviction for falling behind with the rent. Travelling to Baghdad in search of a job, he is caught stealing food and thrown into prison.  But someone there notices that Jabir is good at carving, and he is released to help with a vitally important mission. The caliph, Harun Al-Rashid (yes, him of the 1001 Nights) is sending Charlemagne a water clock decorated with twelve gold-encrusted horsemen.  Jabir is to carve them but it seems the evil landlord has other ideas, setting in motion an adventure story that sees the boy fighting for his life.

The book is getting some very good reviews and I'm hoping that my readers in Leeds and Bradford are pleased with it too. Incidentally, about my  cliched ideas of flying carpets and genies in lamps? Jabir's water clock is partly to blame for that. When it reached Charlemagne's court in 804AD, no one there could figure out how it worked. The emperor's court came to the decision that it was simply 'sorcery', so propagating the myth of the magical middle east.

The Golden Horsemen of Baghdad is out now, as is Saviour's latest picture book The Unicorn Prince. Follow Saviour on twitter @spirotta.  

Want Saviour to visit your school and tell stories about the Islamic Golden Age? Visit his website at www.spirotta.com.

A 1910 lithograph showing Charlemagne receiving Jabir's water clock.





Thursday, 24 January 2019

KUNG HEI FAT CHOI - Happy Chinese New Year, by Saviour Pirotta


This year Chinese New Year starts on February the 5th.  It's the year of the pig!  Here's a legend that many Chinese children will hear many times in the coming days. It tells how the famous dragon dance became such an iconic part of the festivities.  It features the Nian, a terrifying creature thought to be one of the most ancient monsters in the world.

The Nian is believed to make its homes in hard-to-reach mountain caves in the remotest parts of China, or in caverns deep at the bottom of the ocean.  Since no one has looked at the terrifying Nian and lived to tell the tale, no one is quite sure what it looks like.  Some say it is part ox, part lion and part unicorn.  Others insist it looks like a giant lion but has horns on its head.  Yet others believe it is a massive hairy beast with small eyes that are always burning with rage.

Legend has it that every Spring the Nian used to creep out of its hiding place to devour livestock and people, usually children.  One year it stumbled across a small village were a wise man lived.  The hermit noticed several things about the Nian. It stayed away from people making too much noise, and it gave a child dressed in bright red a white berth. The monster hated noise, and was scared of the colour red!

At the next Spring festival, the people in the village were prepared for the Nian.  They had festooned their houses with red lanterns.  Red banners flapped at every door and window.  As the Nian approached, growling at the red lanterns, the gate to the mayor’s house opened and a dreadful, ear-splitting noise was heard.  A lion pounced out of the shadows, shaking its massive head and roaring. The Nian winced at the terrible racket. When the villagers leapt out of their houses, beating ladles and brooms on buckets and washtubs, he turned tail and fled.  No one, livestock or child, was devoured by the hungry monster that year.



The lion was, of course, the wise old hermit wearing an enormous mask, but the Nian had been fooled. Ever since then, the Chinese people have welcomed the New Year with a lion dance in which they make as much noise as possible, especially by letting off firecrackers.

In another, more humorous, variant of the myth, a famous monk called HongJun LaoZu, seeks out the Nian in its mountain lair.
‘Why don’t you eat the snakes that live in the valley instead of children?’ suggests HongJun, hoping the poison in the vipers would kill the Nian.  The Nian gobbles up the snake but survives. 
‘Now why don’t you eat the dragon on the other side of the mountain?’ HongJun says next.
The Nian survives the dragon too, despite the fire in its throat.  ‘Now little man, it’s time I ate YOU,’ it growls.
‘Just let me take my robe off,’ replies the monk.  ‘You don’t want the cotton to get caught in your teeth.’

HongJun peels of his clothes to reveal bright red underpants.  The Nian howls in fright and hastily backs off.  The monk hurries back to the village and instructs the people there to hang red lanterns at their doors and windows. Ever since then, people in China have considered red a lucky colour. And every New Year they give each other lucky money tucked inside a small envelope – a red one, to scare off the Nian in case it decides to come back….

KUNG HEI FAT CHOI - Happy New Year. Don't forget to love everyone, whether they are pigs, horses, cats or whatever.

Saviour is the author of Multicultural Stories from China and We Love Chinese New Year, both published by Hachette. His latest book The Golden Horsemen of Baghdad, published by Bloomsbury.
Follow Saviour on twitter @spirotta.com



Sunday, 23 December 2018

A Gift from the Heart, a Christmas legend by Saviour Pirotta

Christmas Greetings from the team at Awfully Big Blog and many thanks to all our contributors and readers. ABBA is closing for a few days today, but leaving you with Saviour Pirotta's wonderfully apt seasonal story. 

Wishing you all a very happy holiday, full of peaceful moments and good reading, and look forward to meeting you here again on 1st of January 2019. 
  
Merry Christmas - and a Happy & Hopeful New Year! 

Hi all.  I'm up to my neck in gravy and brandy sauce today.  Feeding eighteen people tomorrow, so here's a story to keep you entertained while waiting for the spuds to parboil. It was originally published in the Kingfisher Book of Christmas way back when and I love how it brings a message of hope even when you think there is none. Have a good 'un.
A Gift from the Heart
A Christmas Story from Mexico
Saviour Pirotta

Once there was a Mexican girl whose father was a fisherman. She was called Maria Flores, after her mother who’d died when Maria was still a baby.
One night during supper, Maria’s father said, “My fishing nets have been empty for weeks, little one. We can’t go on like this, not being able to pay our debts. I’ve found work on a ship sailing to Europe. You’ll have to spend the winter with your abuela in the village of San Domingo.”
“But that means we won’t be together for Christmas,” cried Maria. “We always spend Christmas together.”
Papa gave her a big hug. “Sometimes we have to do things we find hard, little one. “It’s all been arranged; your grandma’s expecting you. If you leave tomorrow you’ll be in her village by Christmas.”
“I understand,” said Maria. “Perhaps we’ll spend Christmas together next year.”
Her father gave her another hug, then stood up and fetched the money tin from its hiding place behind the stove. “We’ll have to buy some presents, of course. You can’t go empty-handed.”
Maria agreed. No one she knew would ever call on a friend or a relative without bearing a gift of some kind. The next day she helped papa choose suitable presents at the market. They had very little money but they managed to get a shawl for grandma and cotton handkerchiefs for all her relatives.
The shopping done, and her clothes packed in a neat bundle, Maria kissed her father goodbye and set off for her grandma’s village, a remote hamlet in the mountains. The holidays had already started and lots of other people were travelling too, hoping to get home in time for a good Christmas dinner.
Her father had booked her a seat on a horse-drawn cart, which took her all the way to the foot of the sierra. Beyond that, the path up the mountain was too steep for the cart. Maria continued her journey on a mule, with the San Domingo chemist who’d come down the mountain to buy medicine.
It was late at night, and Maria had fallen asleep on her mule, when they finally reached grandma’s village.
“Wake up,” said the chemist. “We’re almost home.”
Maria rubbed the sleep from her eyes and saw lights flickering ahead. They reminded her of the lanterns her papa and the other fishermen put on their boats.
“Your relatives are waiting for you,” said the chemist.
The mule stopped under a tree, where several people were huddled together against the cold, the grown-ups holding lamps. No one spoke until an old woman stepped forward and said in a very loud voice, “Welcome to our village, Maria Flores. I am your abuela.” She kissed Maria loudly on each cheek, then all the others crowded round her, hugging her and shaking her hand.
“How was your journey?”
“You must be tired and hungry.”
“I am your cousin. I went to school with your mother, God rest her soul.”
Maria felt like a princess in a fairy tale as she was swept into Grandma’s house where a feast of cakes and hot chocolate had been laid out on the table. It seemed as if the whole village had gathered in Grandma’s kitchen, eager to see the visitor.
“Isn’t she a beautiful child?”
“The spitting image of her mother.”
“And so tall for her age too.”
Later, lying in a warm cot by the stove and feeling sleepy from too much travel and too much hot chocolate, Maria thought how lucky she was. She’d never met any of her mother’s relatives before but they had all come to welcome her.
“I’m glad I brought them all a present,” she said to herself. “It’ll show them that I love them too.”
The next day was Christmas Eve. After a special Christmas supper during which they exchanged presents, the people of San Domingo got ready to go to church.
“It’s time for Baby Jesus to get his presents,” said Grandma.
“What do you mean?” asked Maria.
“We have a statue of baby Jesus in the church,” explained Grandma. “Every year we place gifts at its feet. It’s an old local custom.”
“But I haven’t got anything to give Jesus,” said Maria.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Grandma. “You are a visitor. No one will speak ill of you.”
“But I cannot go to church empty-handed,” said Maria. “It would be rude.”
“I’m taking a basket of almonds,” said Grandma. “Why don’t we share them? I have a pretty box you could put them in.”
“That’s very kind of you, abuela,” said Maria, “but my gift has to come from
me.”
She racked her brains, trying to think what she could give Jesus.
“Perhaps I can pick some flowers,” she said. “Jesus would like some flowers.”
“Yes,” said Grandma, “a lot people bring him flowers.”
There was a piece of land behind grandma’s house where the soil was too stony for farming. Maria was sure she’d find some flowers there, wild daisies perhaps, or mountain roses. Alas, she could find none. The field had been picked clean by people wanting to decorate their Christmas table. Maria could see nothing but weeds. What a stingy gift for the king of heaven and earth, she thought sadly. But there wasn't time to try and find something else. The church bells were summoning everyone to the midnight celebration; Grandma was calling from the kitchen window. Maria picked a handful of the weeds, choosing the tallest, and carried them inside. Grandma wrapped them up carefully in a silk shawl, as if they were a bouquet of fragrant blooms.
In church, a choir started to sing carols as people approached the altar where the statue of baby Jesus lay in a manger, a small crown on his head.  One by one they placed gifts at his feet.   A few who were rich gave items of jewellery or pots of expensive perfume. But most had brought humbler gifts: eggs laid by their own hens; nuts and fruits gathered in the harvest; little fruit cakes baked in outside ovens. The people in the village did not have much money to spare.
Soon it was Maria’s turn to give Jesus her gift.  Grandma nudged her gently and they stood up together.  All eyes where on them as they slowly advanced down the aisle.  Maria heard people whispering.
‘What’s the old woman’s gift?’
‘Almonds in a basket.’
‘And what has the girl got under that silk shawl? ’
‘Flowers by the looks of it.  They must be very fragile to be covered like that.’
Just wait until they realise I’ve only got weeds, thought Maria.   They’ll think I want to insult Jesus not give him a present.
She had a sudden urge to turn and run away.  She could keep on running till she’d left the church and the village behind. Then she remembered what her papa had said to her only a few days before.  ‘Sometimes we have to do things we find hard, little one.’
Well, it was very hard for Maria to keep on walking down that aisle with a bunch of weeds in her hands.  But, she firmly told herself, her gift was for Jesus, not the people of San Domingo to admire   As long as Jesus liked it she didn’t care what other people said….   
Before she knew it, Maria was at the altar.  She saw Grandma kneel and place her basket of almonds in front of the statue.  She knelt to put her flowers among the other gifts.
Just then one of the men in the front seats leaned forward. ‘Take off the shawl, dear,’ he whispered.  ‘Show the people what lovely flowers you’re giving Jesus.’
‘I can’t,’ whispered back Maria.
The man smiled, thinking Maria couldn’t undo the silk shawl.  He took the flowers from her, saying.  ‘Here, I’ll do it for you.’
Gently, he pulled away the cloth.  The people in the church gasped. 
‘What wonderful flowers.’
‘Beautiful.’
‘I’ve never seen anything like them in all my life.’
Maria stared.  The weeds weren’t weeds anymore.  They had changed into flowers, shaped like Christmas stars.  The green leaves at the top had grown bigger and turned into red velvety petals.  
Speechless, Maria realised that Jesus had worked a miracle.  He’d seen the beauty of her gift, which came from the heart, and decided to share it with everyone in the church.
No one in the congregation guessed what had just happened. Everyone assumed that Maria had bought the gorgeous flowers on her way to the village.
The little girl did not tell anyone about the miracle either.  She knew no one would believe her anyway.  Only her grandma, who’d seen what happened, shared her secret.  After Christmas the old woman planted the flowers in the bit of land where Maria had picked the weeds.  They grew into a large bush, which flowered every year in December.  Today the poinsietta as the flower is called, grows in many countries around the world.  People take huge bunches of it to church every Christmas, to show Jesus how much they love him. 
Just like Maria Flores did all those years ago in Mexico!          

Saviour Pirotta's latest picture book, The Unicorn Prince is illustrated by Jane Ray. It's been an editor's choice in The Guardian and The Bookseller. His middle grade novel Mark of the Cyclops won the North Somerset Teachers' Book Award 2018 for quality fiction.  Follow him on twitter @spirotta. Visit his website at www.spirotta.com