The Beijing International Literary Festival has begun at the Bookworm. These two weeks every March are among our favorite occasions in Beijing, up there for us with Oktoberfest and Easter. The BILF attracts some really amazing authors from all over the world, so we are really grateful that we have the opportunity to attend so many events, particularly during the day.
Yesterday morning (March 10) we were at the Bookworm to meet a new-to-us author, Nick Earls. He is from Australia and has written a trilogy for middle-grade children called The Word Hunters. In this series twelve-year-old twins Al and Lexi must help save the English language from magic that is causing words to disappear. In order to save these particular words, they have to travel back in time, sometimes making several leaps in time, to find the origin of some common words. In the first book the children find themselves transported back to Menlo Park, New Jersey, in 1877, to England in 1100, to Hattusa in 1180 BCE, among other places. Along the way they have magic pegs that they need to use to lock the portals and the words into future English. Of course, there are dark forces mobilizing to interfere with their quest.
During his one-hour talk, Nick Earls covered how he came to be a writer, some of his inspiration behind this particular series of books, how he collaborated with illustrator Terry Whidborne, and how he tracks down the meanings of English words through history. He closed with discussing the meanings of English surnames and how they were assigned almost one thousand years ago.
Most of the kids in attendance were students from the British School of Beijing. Brigid, upon seeing the room full of smart blazers, trousers, and plaid skirts, asked me why they all looked like people in a Harry Potter movie. They and Myles were all riveted by Earls’ talk.
The real meat of his talk was his discussion of the origins of words and names. It was obvious that he was truly curious about English and its roots, admitting even that on his computer at home he always has an etymological dictionary open on his screen (I’m guessing this one he links to on the Word Hunters page). He seemed almost as excited to talk about these as he was his books, which made Myles even more interested in reading the series as soon as he could, interestingly enough. We had a running project one term, around the time we studied the Norman conquest, of classifying English words by their origin (Latin, Germanic, Norse, Norman, etc), tracked on sheets of paper on the wall. Myles seeing that other people, particularly writers of children’s fiction, had a similar interest really intrigued him.
Toward the end, Earls talked more about the origins of English surnames, and how they were created during the days of the Domesday Book. He really stressed that the true purpose of a permanent family name in England was for the purposed of tax collection. If a person could be pinned down with a given name and a surname, he could be taxed more easily.
To help the kids understand the relationship between common English names and their origins, Earls drew them into an interactive game. He brought poster boards with sketches of occupations and settings of the time of Domesday, and had four volunteers sort through common surnames and place them on the board. For instance for the occupational names, Shearer was matched to someone shearing sheep, Fuller was paired with someone washing (or making full) the wool, and Jenner/Joyner was a carpenter. He also talked about names that came from a family’s surroundings, like Bourne for those living by a brook, Ashley for residing by a stand of ash trees, and Kirkpatrick for being near the church of St. Patrick. Myles asked me about his last name and mine, but since they are both of Irish origin, they did not follow the same customs.
As a side note, among the best slides Earls showed was about how common the surname "Smith" is, and not only just in England. Just like in England, it also was popular in other European countries as well, reflected in names like Schmidt, Kovac, Herrero, Gowan, and Ferrari.
Myles was anxious to start reading the series. Fortunately the Bookworm was selling all three volumes in the Word Hunters series, and since the line wasn’t terribly long, Earls graciously signed all of them.
I looked online later, and saw that these books are not yet available in the United States. That’s too bad, especially since I can give Myles’ endorsement of them. He started reading the first one as soon as he was finished with his lunch, and read it on the subway and in Starbucks later. By the time we started for home late, after supper far from Changping, Myles was already reading the second book. I plan on reading them myself, also intrigued by Nick Earls’ presentation.
I was worried about the program captivating Myles while leaving Brigid behind, though at the end, while her brother was in the queue for the autographs, she went up to the boards and asked me about each last name shown and how it was related to where it was placed. I hope this is how the next several events will go for us. While in previous years the BILF had booked more picture book authors, this year they are notably absent. The children’s program is skewing older this time. Brigid was still able to find something to connect with in Earls’ talk, and I hope we’re able to find ways for her to enjoy the festival as much as the rest of us.
This post first appeared on Jennifer Ambrose site on March 11, 2014.
Jennifer Ambrose hails from Western Pennsylvania and misses it terribly. She still maintains an intense devotion to the Pittsburgh Steelers. She has lived in China since 2006 and is currently an at-home mother. With her husband Randy and children Myles and Brigid, she resides outside the Sixth Ring Road in Changping, northwest of Beijing
Photo courtesy of Perth Festival