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Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach was first published in 1961. As in many of his books, this story contains characters who, because of their dominant position, are able to subjugate or ill-treat the child. Such a trend in Roald Dahl’s plots is not surprising if one gets to know of the author’s own unhappy experience with British schooling.

This particular story is about how a miserable little boy gains peace and freedom with the help some unusual friends and a peach.

James loses his parents when he is four years old and since then, has to live with two very mean aunts.
When he is seven, a mysterious old man appears in the garden and promises James that he could get rid of his misery forever. He produces a paper bag full of “crocodile tongues”, gives James instructions on what to do with them and then disappearing just as mysteriously. In his haste to rush back into the house, James trips and falls down. The contents of the paper bag spill out, sink into the soil and completely disappear. In the next instance, James and his aunts are filled with amazement when they notice that their once barren peach tree has suddenly borne a fruit. The fruit swells up until it is “almost as big as a house”. James aunts decide to make a profitable venture out of the peach tree by allowing the public into the garden to view the giant fruit.

The next night James is sent out to clean up the garden after all the visitors have left. He discovers a hole in the peach, big enough to climb through, which he does. Thus starts his adventure. He finds the most unlikely of friends there, insects as big as himself. With them, James gets to experience two things which he never did in the three years with his aunts – laughter and the ocean. The giant peach takes them on a voyage from one country to another, first by land, then by sea and finally through the air. James adventure brings out in him strengths that was never apparent before – intelligence and courage.

This book is listed in the American Library Association’s “The 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books” and it has been criticised for reasons such as crude expression (the use of the word “ass”), being too scary (James’ oppressive life and the way his aunts died) and containing a racist remark (“I’d rather be fried alive and eaten by a Mexican”). Also, some of the poetry that the Centipede composes may seem crass. But to me, these are issues that parents can discuss with the children and set right what is acceptable and what’s not. Such gliches aside, the book is just great fun, made even more so by the creative twist given to the characters of the insects.

The book was made into a film in 1996 and won Best Animated Feature Film at the French Annecy International Animated Film Festival. The film was also nominated for the Academy Awards.

1Shut up…and just observe. No interviews. Just observe. What do you see? How does it sound? Is it sweet? Is it foul? Is it smooth? Is it moving? Boring?

We are endowed with five basic senses – smell, sight, taste, hear, and touch. These senses, which we use to carry out our daily mundane routines, are writers’ bestfriends, too. If we use them more consciously, we see more action, more life, more movement, more voices in the things, faces, and places that we daily look at and find no expression at all.

“Honing Your Observation Skills” (HYOS) is one of the activities I have enjoyed in my Feature Writing subject when I studied Journalism at the University of San Jose-Recoletos (Cebu City, Philippines) few years ago. Thanks to my mentor Maylaine T. Cerna who introduced this to my class.

It was fun to have my fellow writers here at Writers Coffee Lounge do the same activity. We stationed ourselves in our chosen places (home, kopi tiam, etc) to do this exercise. Below are some of our outputs for the first HYOS activity shared to the group last 15 May 2009. We decided to do this again and for the second round, we will focus on observing a character, a person.

7th Floor
by Aurelia L. Castro

Kopi tiam
By Angeline Koh

Coffee shop complaint
By Cecilia Mahendran

ivan2by Anne Fine

Do not be mistaken. Ivan the Terrible, which won the 2007 Nestle Children’s Book Silver Award, is not about the 16th century tyrannical Russian ruler. It is instead about Ivan, the new boy at St Edmund’s, a Russian who does not speak English. Boris, who understands Russian, is requested by the Principal, Mrs Blaizely, to be his interpreter. He unwittingly agrees and thus starts the fiasco.

The humour in the story stems from Boris’ desire to be a model “civilized” student, an attitude ingrained in him by Mrs Blaizely’s constant emphasis on good manners and positive attitude. For Boris, this means understanding Ivan’s insecurities during his first day in school and looking after his welfare.

But Ivan proves to be more than what Boris can handle. His first shock comes when Ivan is introduced by Mrs Blaizely to all the students during assembly. After Ivan addresses the students very rudely in Russian, Boris is caught between translating the truth and preventing Ivan from becoming an unpopular new student. In the spirit of having “good manners and a positive attitude”, Boris decides to protect his new friend and this decision sets the stage for a very unsettling day.

As they move together from one lesson to another, Boris begins to regret his role as interpreter. He realizes that the little white lies he created during his translations have given all the staff and students a very good impression of Ivan . Nobody will believe Boris now if he were to speak the truth. Despite this, he continues to cling on to having “a positive attitude” and hopes that some of his own “civilized” behaviour rubs off on Ivan to make him a more pleasant person.

Soon, however, Boris’s disdain for the new boy becomes so overwhelming that he decides chucks his positive attitude aside and starts giving Ivan a taste of his own medicine. He dreads the thought of being stuck with Ivan for more than a day and starts to think of a way to relieve himself as interpreter. This, of course, will involve more lies.

Anne Fine has formed a successful plot of mistaken impressions with Ivan the Terrible. You can’t help feeling sympathy for Boris, for the unanticipated web of deceit he spun came out of the honest intention of looking after Ivan’s well-being. You will also empathize with Ivan when a possible explanation for his conduct emerges towards the end of the book.

While the language is geared towards the six to eight-year old reader, there are a number of British expressions that may be baffling, such as “a brilliant spoof” and “feeling a bit of a wally”. Also, a few sentences were so long (one containing as many as sixty words) that they needed re-reading several times. Despite these glitches, the book is still an enjoyable read.