refugee

Girl. Boy. Sea. by Chris Vick

girl boy seaIn recent years, many a children’s author has been inspired to write a story influenced by the movement of refugees across the globe. The images of children traipsing their way across a dusty road, young boys hitching rides in dangerous places, girls shouldering too-heavy bundles across their backs. The plight of the refugee is one of survival against all odds; the issues of scarred pasts, horrors witnessed, uncertain futures, a sense of not belonging, an awakening of identity – all pose questions. To whom do we belong, to where? Who are we? And nowhere is the power of the individual more diminished than when faced with the might and terror of the sea.

Vick deploys these ideas with dexterity; deviating from them, twisting them, and showing their import against the backdrop of an ordinary, fairly privileged British boy who must also fight for survival.

Bill is sailing off the coast of Morocco with his peers when a storm hits, and he’s shipwrecked and abandoned in the ship’s small rowing boat. As the rations run low, a girl clinging to a barrel comes into sight across the waves. Together Bill and Aya, a Berber, navigate together, waiting for rescue, desperate for other humans. But mainly there is the water, and just their two minds. With the power of storytelling, and the inevitable human will to survive, this is a tense moving read about the growing bond between two desperate and vastly different people, and the lengths humans will go in order to live.

Told in the timeframe of the days and nights the two spend at the mercy of the sea, sunburnt, hungry, and scared, and on the precipice of life itself, Vick interweaves their days with Aya’s stories of Shahrazad and the Arabian Nights. The way the heroine prolonged her life at the hands of the king by playing on the king’s curiosity – his desire to know what happened next, night after night. In the same way that Bill and Aya persevere: Aya by telling stories and Bill by listening. Cleverly, Vick does the same with the reader – pulling us along on the journey, making us wait for the next piece of the survival story.

As Aya and Bill have to overcome their language and cultural differences, Vick shows the reader their compassion for each other – something that grows as their understanding of each other grows. This basic coming together mirrors the way their lives have been stripped down to the essentials – water, food, shelter. But also company. With each other, their purpose is stronger, their agency secure, their will to succeed strengthened.

Vick is clever in his storytelling. As with many tales of shipwreck and survival, the cast of characters can be thin, and stuck at sea the scenery the same for miles, and yet Vick draws out every nuance of their day to day, the shift of their bodies in the boat, the patterns of the ocean.

In fact, it is this last that really dazzles – the power of nature, both the strength of the sun and the changeable features of the sea. The author has a detailed knowledge of marine biology, and here it is put to excellent use in the scene with the whale, which is evocative and incredibly dramatic, but also used in Vick’s descriptions of the interminable endlessness of the ocean, and the emptiness when viewed just from a bobbing rowboat.

In a nuanced middle section, Vick also manages to weave in some moral ambiguity – a dangerous situation in which he enhances cultural differences and behaviours, the threats to women and minorities, the power of knowledge but also the power of making assumptions about a person because of their background.

By the end, some of the detail is graphic in the extreme, and yet unbelievably tender. Vick doesn’t shy away from the devastating rawness of the situation, but by leading the reader there, he also explores the deepest emotions. There is love as well as courage, hope matching despair.

Life is stripped to its essence – what do we know, how safe are we, can we find compassion to be the support system for someone who doesn’t even think in our language, who can’t begin to fathom how different our way of life is? And yet, each is simply human.

Vick easily places us in another’s shoes by transplanting Bill from his relatively safe and easy life into that experienced by a refugee, by making his protagonist embrace the grit it takes to survive, and doing it all with taut and distinct prose. This is a powerful, starkly told novel, which holds its tension to the end, and although simple in its essence, is as profound as the depths of the sea.

Age 10+. You can buy it here. With thanks to Zephyr for the review copy.

Refugee Week Books

Refugee Week starts this week, with the slogan ‘Different Pasts, Shared Future’. It’s a theme well worth bearing in mind in our current climate, especially if you read this article in The Observer from 9th June, which pointed to the increased number of war refugees, and the growing threat of climate change that will result (and already is) in an increased number of climate migrants.

One hopes that the next generation will use their passion and skills to solve some of these issues, be it understanding different political, ethnic and religious tensions, or coping with the displacement of people due to changing climate. Even, one hopes, to reverse some of these changes, but ultimately to accept the global movement of people.

Teaching tolerance starts young. Two picture books that provoke thought and understanding about accepting others’ differences, and learning to embrace others in new communities, are aimed at the very young – The Suitcase by Chris Naylor-Ballesteros, and Quill Soup by Alan Durant and Dale Blankenaar.

migrationsBut firstly, there is the striking little Migrations: Open Hearts Open Borders with an introduction by Shaun Tan. This postcard sized-book is a selection of illustrations from children’s book illustrators around the world. The illustrators submitted images for a travelling exhibition (visiting London, Worcester, South Africa, Korea), to express support for human migrants. Each illustrator submitted an illustration of a bird on a postcard, and a message on the reverse.

The book highlights the intense difference in style between children’s illustrators – from those well-known in this country, such as Chris Riddell and Petr Horacek, to the lesser-known Marija Prelog from Slovenia. She has etched a beautiful red-breasted bullfinch, whose claws and facial expression look it to be in some kind of distress – the ‘clouds’ in the sky resembling shadowy human figures that might be swimming or struggling through the air. It’s a powerful arresting image. Myungae Lee from Korea has colourfully crafted birds as a series of balloons held by people on the ground with their arms raised – turning the postcard vertically to use the space.

Divided into themes: Departures, Long Journeys, Arrivals, and Hope for the Future, the book is both inspirational and thought-provoking. Migration, of course, is tied up with ideas of journey, destination, flight and discovery – just like children’s fiction.

And also like children’s fiction, it has hope pulling the strands of the journey together, a dream of something better. Each journey and illustration is an individual act, but very much part of a whole. The idea – to have to leave one community but to join or form another community in a better, safer place.

You can buy it here.

The idea of community is threaded through the two picture books – both asking for acts of kindness in welcoming strangers.

the suitcaseThe Suitcase by Chris Naylor-Ballesteros is the story of a funny little creature who arrives in the book after trekking over quite a jaggedy mountain, pulling a suitcase.

He looks pretty fed up and tired. The animals at his destination ask him what’s inside his case, but they know he’s fibbing when he explains that as well as a teacup, there is a table and chairs, a house and more. When the stranger curls up and goes to sleep, weary and vulnerable, the other animals break into the suitcase to sate their curiosity.

The inherent message is making amends for doing something wrong, welcoming a stranger, and gaining an understanding of what that stranger has been through. There is an intense lesson of empathy here, which children will gain through the osmosis of reading.

The arrival of the creature at the destination is illustrated with pages of simple colours in a landscape of mainly white space. But the journey is depicted by the landscape dominating the page – from the high mountain to an abundance of waves that threatens to drown the book. A struggle before final acceptance.

Effective in its simplicity. You can buy it here.

quill soup

There’s an old folk tale called Stone Soup, shared commonly in European communities (although it has other global variations) in which a hungry stranger tries to convince the townspeople to share their small morsels of food with him, and in the end makes a meal for the whole community. Sharing is best – breaking bread with strangers who become new friends.

This is the essence of the story in Quill Soup by Alan Durant, illustrated by Dale Blankenaar, but in this retelling the stranger is a porcupine called Noko, and the story has been replanted to Africa – the village populated by an array of African animals including meerkats and monkeys. The style is unique – vivid colours dominating each page, intricate patterns and silhouettes, in active, highly populated scenes, so that a child is almost seeking the animals in the jungle – picking out their shapes and eyes in a teeming patterned landscape.

An excellent retelling that not only teaches about welcoming strangers and sharing resources, but for a Western readership, it shows cultural diversity in the actual design of the book. You can buy it here.

The House of Light by Julia Green

house of lightSometimes it’s the quiet books that have the most forceful impact. When I read Close to the Wind by Jon Walters, I understood that this understated book with its everyman tale of migration and movement was a thing of beauty. And now Julia Green has done the same with her timeless tale of stagnation and closed borders in The House of Light. As we move into a more politically uncertain time, filled with aggression and anxiety, this kind of book will resonate with young readers, but will also stir them with its moral integrity and innate sense of hope for the future.

Bonnie lives with her Granda on a wild coastland, where the sea is out of bounds and border guards patrol the area and keep tabs on who is attending school (and who isn’t!). When Bonnie is scavenging on the beach one day she finds an upturned boat, but realises it has been recently used. Before long, she discovers the owner – a bare-footed boy hiding from the authorities. In these lean times, he’s hungry and in need of shelter, so Bonnie harbours him, waiting for the day when he can take his freedom – and maybe she can too.

This beautifully written novel not only lays out the political foolhardiness of closing borders, denying citizens’ rights, and the rule of tyranny rather than compassion, but it also shows the differences that individual people can make. Bonnie learns more at home than at school, under the moral guidance of her Granda, and realises that it is appropriate to welcome strangers and mete out kindness rather than comply with rules that don’t make sense. In the current period of political language around migrants and refugees, this is particularly compelling.

More than this though, the book speaks to the wonder of creativity, and thus creative thinking. The schools impose strict timetables of arbitrary rule-learning rather than embracing any creativity of thought, and when Bonnie discovers a house in which art and liberty are celebrated, she sees that creativity and freedom are connected.

But most of all, it is the wildness of the natural world that shines through the book. The coastline is depicted with intense beauty as well as harshness – Bonnie learns the wonders of the woods near her house, the benefits of snow (over which a boat can be more easily pulled and when footsteps disappear), but most importantly, the use of nature to guide and to heal. Birds give Bonnie clues as to what’s going on, she learns to read the sea and the creatures within, and she understands when to take from nature for survival and when to let it grow and flourish. This is a timely children’s novel set in a world in which medicine no longer exists for people like Bonnie, and she must turn to nature for its healing plants and tinctures. Moreover, energy supplies and mass food production have disappeared too – and it is up to Bonnie and Granda to seek from the animals and from the land. This is about people in a modern world re-learning the earth, its natural resources and its wonders.

This is children’s literary fiction, and Green steadily guides Bonnie and the reader through the book with the metaphor of light highlighting principles. When to break the rules, and how the individual is important. Bonnie’s relationship with both the boy, Ish, and her Granda are drawn tenderly and evocatively. The reader feels her doubts and pain, her love and instincts. Although this is a simple story, it is well told, with underlying depth and memorable characters, and a tangible setting. It sears its message and vision into the reader’s mind.

The novel is indicative of the courage and hope this generation will need to take into the future, and is a hidden gem. I heartily recommend letting it light up your young reader. For ages 9+. You can buy it here.

Cover artwork by Helen Crawford-White. With thanks to OUP for the review copy.

What My Pupils Have Taught Me About Writing: A Guest Blog by Catherine Bruton

no ballet shoes in syriaA couple of weeks ago my book of the week was No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton. An astute, moving novel about a refugee, drawing on influences from Noel Streatfield to Pamela Brown, it publishes today, at a time when the media is talking about how many adults are reading children’s books, and why. One of the reasons, of course, is that we adults can learn so much from the children around us – their views are fresh and often untainted, their hope more sustained, their outlook less jaded. Many children’s authors start as teachers, reading other children’s books and picking up dialogue or character traits from the children populating their classrooms. Catherine Bruton is one such author: teaching and writing. Here, she outlines what her pupils have taught her about writing:

Being an English teacher is a great privilege. I get to spend all day talking books and writing with young people. Ok, sometimes we have to do grammar and learn how to jump through GCSE exam hoops and write timed A Level essays, but the rest of the time we read and write and talk about stories and poems and words and ideas.  And for everything I’ve managed to teach in over 20 years at the chalkface, my pupils have taught me a hundred times more. Here are three of the biggest lessons I have learned.

  1. Never underestimate young readers.

Reading books together means we end up talking about  all the important stuff – love and hate,  death and despair, loss and longing, family and friendship and freedom and growing up – books cover it all. And my pupils show me daily how open-minded, how thoughtful, how receptive young people are – often much more so than adult readers. I learn so much from the way they react to books and characters – from their openness to new ideas – from the new and changing perspectives they bring to texts each time we read them.  Which is probably why I don’t shy away from big topics in my books (terrorism and Islamophobia in We Can be Heroes; family breakdown and reality TV in Pop!; urban poverty and institutional racism in I Predict a Riot; refugees and most recently the migrant crisis in No Ballet Shoes in Syria) My pupils teach me never to underestimate my readership – and that’s a great lesson as a writer.

  1. Go with the flow!

Teaching creative writing to young people has taught me so much! The youngest writers I teach bring an energy and excitement to writing tasks that I wish I could bottle and imbibe (or sell – I’d make a fortune!) Whatever prompt I bring, whatever idea I suggest, they are immediately fizzing with ideas – ideas which pour out of them unfiltered, uncensored, unquestioned.  They don’t second guess themselves, they don’t question their right to tackle a particular topic, or their ability to realise their vision – you certainly don’t hear young writers  debating what the market predicts for publishing trends!  They trust their imaginations, they enjoy their ideas, they are playful, unfettered and free – and it is glorious to behold. As you get older and more self-conscious/ self-critical that joy is incredibly easy to lose, but my pupils remind me how central it is to the process. Writing is work but it can also be like play – and a degree of abandonment is necessary to get into the state of ‘flow’ which is when the best ideas come pouring out. So I try to remind myself that there will be time to edit later, time for apostrophes and self-doubt later, time to interrogate the concept later (time to dust later!) – sometimes you need to go with the flow and allow yourself to enjoy it!

  1. Learn to love your internal critic.

As my students get older I witness the arrival of their ‘internal critics’. It’s a stage all young writers go through, which tends to hit around adolescence, and it leads them to question themselves, to doubt their creative impulses, to fear failure, to worry about how their writing will be received. Sadly, for many young people this is the moment when they stop writing – and many adult writers find themselves paralysed by similar sentiments! But as I try to explain to my pupils (and remind myself!)  it means they are coming of age as a writer, because the ability to be analytical, critical, objective about your work is absolutely necessary to the editing process. As Dorothea Brande explains in ‘Becoming a Writer’ an author needs two heads – the creative head and the editing head. They need to be kept apart as much as possible but they are BOTH necessary to crafting a successful piece of work. I advise pupils to put work aside for a period before returning to it with an objective critical frame of mind and I try to follow my own advice and learn when to shut out the internal critic – and when to invite her in. It’s not always easy though!

So, a huge thank you to all the wonderful young people I have had the privilege to teach over the years – and who have taught me more than they can ever know! Mrs B (or Miss P!) loves you all!

With thanks to Catherine Bruton. No Ballet Shoes in Syria publishes today and you can read my review here, and buy the book here

No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton

no ballet shoes in syriaOne of the most important skills reading teaches us, albeit subliminally most of the time, is that age-old question: ‘What must it feel like to be you?’, or ‘empathy’. The word empathy stems from the Ancient Greek, em – in, pathos – feeling. In fact, our usage of the word has increased, in particular from the 1950’s onwards. This is interesting, as most people might feel that in recent years our feelings of empathy have waned.

Because of course, as our world becomes more global, our acceptance of others seems to decline. Despite the fact that our high streets look the same, we drink the same brands, own the same clothes and do the same jobs, we keep recognising and highlighting our differences. Sometimes recognising difference is good, but when used against people, it is not. Identity politics has never seemed such a loaded term. Setting us straight, is this insightful and winning new novel from Catherine Bruton, No Ballet Shoes in Syria.

Eleven-year-old Aya could live anywhere. She has a father and mother, a little brother, and a huge passion for ballet, which she learns under the tutelage of Madame Belova in her dance studio near home. However, that’s Aya’s previous life. In Aleppo. Since the war, she has had to flee, and the reader meets her as she seeks asylum in Britain. When she stumbles across a ballet class in the community centre in which her family is seeking help with their asylum application, the instructor recognises her talent, and her situation. Before long, Aya is fighting for a ballet scholarship, a place in Britain, and contact with her lost father. Luckily for her, she has more than one empathetic English resident on her side.

This nuanced gentle portrayal of a young Syrian girl is a fantastic read and an eye-opening book. Bruton successfully shows her roundedness and that of the characters around her. Aya has had to take over and assume a great deal of adult responsibility in the wake of her mother’s traumatised state – the loss of Aya’s father and the journey has been too much. Aya takes great care of her baby brother Moosa, fights for their rights, and also tries to navigate the delicate balance of still being a child, and adapting to life in a foreign country.

The girls in the ballet class are also beautifully brought to life, but play a very distinct role within the novel. It is their attitudes (and changing attitudes) to Aya that inform the reader and will start to pose questions in the reader’s mind. Here, with their youth and naivety making them susceptible both to what they’ve been told by elders, but also making them more open to Aya, they come to discover the differences between refugees and asylum seekers, but also come to understand the cyclical role of history through their ballet teacher, Miss Helena.

Aya’s situation calls to mind Miss Helena’s own past – her own refugee status in the Second World War, as she fled Nazi Germany and found a home in England. Her experiences, although very different from Ava’s, show how time moves on, but the same wounds are inflicted. By that token though the same wrongs can be corrected – through kindness and empathy:

“Perhaps if history was always repeating itself – wars and families fleeing their homes; persecution, refugees – then other stories recurred too: stories of kindness, sacrifice, generosity.”

Through this very stark quote, Bruton also pulls the reader into the stories that have preceded No Ballet Shoes in Syria, and those to which she refers in her introduction – Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr, the books of Lorna Hill and Pamela Brown and many more.

Alongside Aya’s gradual acceptance into the ballet class, Bruton flashbacks through Aya’s journey from Syria to Britain – interlaying the text with memories. This slow revealing of Aya’s past is like the slow learning of friendship – a gentle discovery of the other person, helping us to know and understand what they have been through, and their hopes and dreams for the future.

At the same time as the reader’s growing awareness of Aya’s past, Aya slowly learns about the country she’s come to – the accents, the food, the different ways the children live and behave, and also the similarities – in particular the global language of dance.

But perhaps my favourite element of the novel is the idea of community. It is not carelessness that sets the world of form-filling and yet also ballet classes within a community centre. Bruton cleverly shows the reader all the different forms of community that exist, and how useful they are for us as human beings to reach across the divide. The community of asylum seekers themselves, helping and looking out for each other, and slowly replacing the community they have lost in leaving home. The community of ballet dancers, all helping each other to improve and succeed. The community of global dance – the fact that Miss Helena recognises and knows about Aya’s dance teacher from Syria. And of course, the global community of human beings and how by recognising ourselves in each other, we can come together and accept and invite difference.

To assuage any fears about getting Aya’s voice wrong, Bruton took the opportunity to work with Bath welcomes Refugees and Bristol Refugee Rights in the writing of the book and her research sparkles throughout. She’s also the alter ego of Cate Shearwater, the author of Somersaults and Dreams, and her ability to see dance, creativity, and sport as outlets of expression and emotion are very apparent.

The book is published on 2nd May and you can pre-order and buy this story of hope here.

The Plight of the Refugee

the day war cameThe Day War Came by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Rebecca Cobb
This is a powerful book that works because it touches the ordinary in each of us. Cobb is an illustrator in the ilk of Judith Kerr and Shirley Hughes – she draws her characters and situations with a crayon childlike warmth, summoning a familiar feeling of domesticity, with her children’s faces expressing the wonder and hope so redolent of innocent childhood. Yet, as in her best work, including Paper Dolls and The Something, she manages to create the darkness and uncertainty that can befall a child, whether it be the bittersweet passing of time in Paper Dolls, or the fears that lurk within the depths of imagination in The Something, or indeed war in The Day War Came.

She complements Nicola Davies’ text wonderfully, which itself tells this story with an acute simplicity, stirring the heart because it bears inside it the pang of extreme suffering. There is a superior energy and force behind the text and illustrations’ understatement:

“I drew a picture of a bird.

Then, just after lunch, war came.”

The war itself feels brutal, as does the journey to flee it. The girl is shown in distress, and there are symbols throughout – of domesticity altered, destroyed and damaged – red shoes adrift on the tide, orange flowers echoing the orange flames leaping from the buildings, children’s drawings strewn in a blast.

the day war came
But even more haunting are the images and words afterwards – the internal war that follows the child in the doors shut in her face, the turning away of people. The image of hope comes in the end with an empty chair borne by a welcoming boy.

The picture book came out of a campaign called #3000chairs, after 3000 child refugees were refused entry to the country in 2016. Nicola Davies’ poem started the ball rolling, and artists contributed drawings of chairs. You can read more about this campaign here, but the picture book will have an effect for years to come – changing minds and moving hearts about the plight of children caught up in war. You can buy a copy here, £1 from every copy sold goes to the charity Help Refugees.

boy at back of classThe Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q Rauf, illustrations by Pippa Curnick
An empty chair starts this book too, but it is soon filled with a Syrian refugee. The narrator (who remains anonymous in name and gender until fairly near the end of the book) is empathetic towards him, and soon envelopes him within the friendship group. What begins as a mundane look at an outsider fitting into a new school, complete with language barriers, a bullying problem, and sympathetic teachers, turns into an interesting political commentary on the UK’s treatment of refugees, all told within the neat confines of a children’s adventure story.

The narrator and his/her friends pick up on attitudes and information from the grown-ups and news broadcasts around them, and their naivety and misunderstanding leads the group of friends to find a rather far-fetched solution to reuniting Ahmet with his parents (whom it is presumed are waiting to cross the border into the UK to be with their son again).

The differing views on refugees and acceptance dominate the book, and cleverly, by keeping the narrator anonymous, the reader will find their own views challenged in the presumptions they have made about the protagonist, which comes to a head at the climactic point of the novel.

Above all though, this is a neat, well-told story that explores the power of small actions to initiate change – that calls upon the role of the individual in society, and the impact that kindness can have.

There are nods to other children’s books, but what the author has done most wisely is perfect the innocence and openness of the narrator’s voice in encapsulating the simplicity of school life as seen through a nine year old’s eyes, alongside the complexity of issues in wider society. Suitable for 8+ years, and you can buy this novel here.

tomorrowTomorrow by Nadine Kaadan
Another child who has had his domestic routine disrupted is Yazan, a Syrian boy, in this wordy picture book by Nadine Kaadan, herself from Damascus. At first the war curtails his activities and routines, confining him to the house and subjecting him to boredom. Then, it intrudes his confined space – coming into his house in dark poignant watercolour abstract shapes leaking from the loud noise of the TV news. When Yazan escapes outside in the hope of riding his bicycle to the park he sees only emptiness, and buildings that seem to tower over him, confining him in a different way.

There is much to explore in the imagery here, with anxiety and fear portrayed within a deconstructed urban landscape – buildings are blood red and crooked, or grey and strewn with cracks – even Yazan’s parents are drawn with buildings as their clothes as if the destruction outside is eating them up, the war-torn streets projected inside their circle of domesticity.

As Rebecca Cobb, Kaadan looks to the everyday domestic images – a child’s paper aeroplane, the excitement of a red bike and its bell to express an affinity with this ‘everychild’. Kaadan reaches for a hopeful ending, pictured in the illustrations of happy colourful days and the limitless freedoms of nature and the park in the imaginations of mother and child.

A fascinating exploration of how an illustrator can take one symbol of war and use it throughout a book, whilst also showing her characters with sympathy, humanity and depth. You can buy a copy here.

Winner of the 2018 Klaus Flugge Prize

klaus fluggeThe winner of the 2018 Klaus Flugge Prize for the most promising and exciting newcomer to children’s book illustration was announced last night, Wednesday 12 September. I’m delighted to tell you that the prize went to Kate Milner for My Name is not Refugee (Barrington Stoke), and I was lucky enough to ask her about her win.

Kate studied illustration at St Martin’s College as a young woman – and illustrated magazines on Commercial and Housing Law for a while, but spent most of her career as a librarian. Cuts to the library service resulted in her losing her job, and that prompted her to do an MA in children’s book illustration at Anglia Ruskin University. She created the story that was to become My Name is Not Refugee as part of her degree show, and with it won Student Illustrator of the Year in the V&A Illustration Awards.

And now the prestigious Klaus Flugge. How do you feel?

I am absolutely delighted and quite astonished. I really did not think I had a chance.

my name is not refugeeThe award-winning book is called My Name is Not Refugee. In modern history there have always been refugees. Why do you think your book has been so popular/ caused such a reaction now?

I wrote the book to explain to children what a refugee is. I wanted to get a tool into the hands of teachers, parents and librarians to help them define the term for children and give some small hint of what the experience might be like. The issue has become much more contentious recently because many on the right like to depict refugees as invaders or spongers, not people in real need. I wanted to provide something to be used by people with a more balanced view.

You said you felt quite angry when you were drawing the illustrations for the book, in particular the one with the caption ‘We’ll sleep in some strange places’, but that the anger hasn’t filtered through in the final book – it’s stripped back. Which emotion would you like children to feel when reading the book?

I would like children to feel sympathy for the plight of refugees and curiosity about why they are in such a difficult situation. It was important to me not to make this an angry book, children don’t need adult’s anger; they need clarity.

Did it take a long time to write and illustrate the book? And did the stripped back illustrations and limited palette come naturally as you were planning?

I certainly wrote and illustrated the first draft ridiculously quickly with, lets be honest, not very much planning at all. I thought of the idea about twelve days before the final critique for my MA at Cambridge. It was obviously supremely stupid to embark on a new project so close to the end of the course; I tried to stop myself but I failed. The stripped back quality comes, partly, from trying to make a book that applies to all sorts of refugee situations so trying to avoid specific details like domestic interiors. At that stage it didn’t really have a palette, that evolved later in discussion with the publishers.

Do you feel that your book has a happy ending or is it ambiguous?

It is happier than the reality of most refugees lives would suggest. I wanted children to be able to read it as happy, and the boy at the centre of the book is a cheerful, outgoing character so I think he would flourish. I’m not sure his mother would find it so easy.

Is there a need for more political books for young children?

I don’t think children care much about party politics, and who can blame them, but they are curious about an increasingly complicated and inter-connected world. Picture books are a very flexible and relatively cheap way of introducing all sorts of new ideas, emotions and information. Nice, decent adults tend to feel that children should be shielded from politics, and I can see their point but, if we’re not careful the only voices they hear on these subjects are ignorant and shouty.

kate milnerYou started life as an illustrator but then became a children’s librarian. Do you think you have a special insight into what children want from a picture book by being blessed with these two different but rewarding careers?

Working in a library certainly made a huge difference to me. Being surrounded by children’s books all day was really inspiring. My job involved reading out loud to groups of children and reading a book out loud is such a good way of discovering if it works or not. Too much detail about the thoughts and feelings of farmyard animals bored me as well as the children I was reading to.  Knowing something about children has been a huge advantage in one respect, I know that they are curious about many more things than they are sometimes given credit for.

Can you tell MinervaReads readers a little bit about your next project/book?

I am working on a very different kind of book for Pushkin Press, a novel for middle grade children with illustrations. It’s called Duncan and the Googleys and it’s a serious book with jokes about the way modern media works for children and against them. I am also looking forward to doing more projects in the vein of My Name is Not Refugee and I’m working on an idea at the moment.

What is your favourite picture book?

My current passion is for The Railway Passage by Charles Keeping published in 1974. It is a  strange tale about a group of old people winning money on the football pools and the perils of wealth. I love it because it conjures a whole world of people and places, and because the drawing is superb.

What advice would you give budding illustrators or authors?

The very worst plan is to produce work that you think will be commercial. It won’t be, it will just be derivative and stale. Make work that matters to you, make it as fun and lively and real and magical as you possibly can.

Congratulations again on your win, and thank you for answering my questions. You can buy Kate Milner’s My Name is Not Refugee here.

A Taste of Home: A Guest Post from Victoria Williamson

fox girl and the white gazelleVictoria Williamson’s debut novel, The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle, is the compelling story of two frightened girls who are dealing with traumatic circumstances within their own families, and yet through their unlikely friendship, manage to overcome and even banish some of their fears.

When the two girls discover an injured fox and her cubs hiding on their estate, they realise that a friendship between them will help the foxes. Slowly, they discover that they have much more in common than just saving foxes, and soon it is Reema (a Syrian refugee) showing Caylin (a native Scot) how to fit in and belong in their local Scottish community. The power of their friendship gives a stability and a hopefulness to both girls.

Caylin is troubled – the reader first sees her in the role of bully, taking birthday money from a school girl, but the reader is soon aware that although Caylin’s actions can’t be excused, there are reasons behind her behaviour. Williamson draws Caylin with breathtaking empathy.

In alternating chapters the reader meets Reema, a refugee fleeing her wartorn country, and coming to terms with the damage the war has inflicted upon her family and the realities of facing life in a completely different country and immersing herself within its culture:
“Here even the trees speak a different language.”

Caylin is a wonderfully drawn character – distrustful of adults around her due to past circumstances, predisposed to show a lack of effort at school, and yet remarkably likeable, and completely misunderstood. And Reema too, is shown bravely straddling her old and new lives, embracing her new culture whilst trying not to eschew the old. But it’s Williamson’s own grasp of the two cultures that makes for such an effective read.

Here, she explores how she used the sensation of taste and the meaning of food to explore the characters within her novel:

Harissa cake, mint lemonade, tangerines, pears, plums, beans, soup, fish and chips, battered sausages, tea, lamb stew, peanut butter sandwiches, chocolate biscuits, corned beef, porridge, pizza, chewing gum, toast and jam, tabouleh salad, chicken shawarma, baqlawa pastries, ma’amoul cookies, bubblegum, coffee, meatballs, yoghurt, ice cream, custard, sweet and sour pork, crisps, flatbread, chicken casserole, pancakes with whipped cream and chocolate, black pudding, haggis, Irn Bru and deep-fried Mars Bars.

This is just some of the food mentioned in The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle.  It wasn’t until I was editing my novel that I realised just how many times food and drink was discussed, and how important it was to my characters. For Caylin, chips from the local chip shop are not just a necessity as her mother’s expensive alcohol habit uses up their benefits money, but a treat to be looked forward to at the end of a hard school day. In chapter three she says:

“I stuff the plastic bag with the wrapped chips down my jacket as soon as I get outside, hugging them to my chest and soaking up the warmth and delicious smell. Then I run home, the secret stash of chips protecting me from the wind and the rain like a magic charm.”

For Reema on the other hand, the chips in the school canteen are a greasy reminder that she’s in a foreign country very far from her beloved Syria. Even something as simple as a cup of tea that doesn’t taste the same makes her homesick, as she describes in chapter four:

Mama makes the tea that our neighbour has brought instead of using the packet of tea leaves the mosque gave us along with a big box of food supplies. She is afraid the old lady will not like our strong Syrian tea, and she wants our guest to feel welcome. I try not to make a face as I sip the weak brew. It tastes soft and sad, just like the Scottish rain. I long for a cup of strong black tea and the lashing rain of home.

Victoria in Cameroon

It got me thinking about the time I spent working as a teacher in Africa, particularly my two years in Cameroon. The food was so different from anything I’d eaten before – boiled fufu corn and Njama njama (a kind of fried huckleberry leaf), rice and bean stew, ‘foot cow’ pepper soup, and egusi pudding (ground seed paste with dried crayfish).

And then of course, there was achu.

I thought I would never, ever get used to the taste of achu and yellow soup. It looks about as appetising as it sounds: a grey, volcano-shaped mound of pounded coco yam with a play-doh like consistency, and thick yellow soup with a crushed limestone base. The first time I ate it the only way I could swallow it down was to take a big gulp of water with each bite, fake-smiling at the teacher who’d spent hours preparing it for me and hoping I wasn’t going to look like an ungrateful guest by throwing it up on the table. Try as I might to avoid it over the next two years, it turned up regularly at the end of each long school meeting, prepared by some of the female staff. We’d share a drink and a laugh together over our meal, and eventually I learned to tolerate and then grow strangely fond of the grey goo that I’d struggled to swallow at first.

Towards the end of my time there, I found my mind wandering in class when lunchtime approached, but it wasn’t the rice and beans I enjoyed so much at the local chop house I was thinking about. I couldn’t get the thought of my mother’s shepherd’s pie and cherry scones out of my head. There were times I’d even think longingly of the oxtail soup she used to make for lunch when my brothers and I would come running home from primary school, which was odd, as I didn’t even like oxtail soup!

This is where Reema’s homesick voice comes from, when she asks her little sister in chapter twelve:

“Remember the food Aunt Amira used to make? The tabouleh salads and chicken shawarma and baqlawa pastries? And the Eid al-Fitr feast when we would invite all our family and friends to eat Mama’s famous ma’amoul cookies?”

My mouth is watering at the very thought of my favourite dishes, but Sara is frowning at me as though I am speaking a foreign language.

In the months after I returned to the UK, I got to eat all of the food I’d missed – my mother’s homemade cooking, spaghetti Bolognese, moussaka, chille con carne and chocolate cake. But one day as I finished teaching a maths class just before lunch, I realised a strange thing. Instead of fantasising about the pasta and pizza, fish and chips or baked potatoes in the canteen, all I could think about was a big plate of achu and yellow soup. Two years of trying to avoid the stuff, and there I was missing it like a long lost friend. That was when I finally understood. It wasn’t about the food at all. It was about the people I’d shared the food with that made the memories of it so powerful.

That’s why Caylin loves her chips so much despite eating them every day until her unwashed uniform starts to smell of grease. They remind her of happy times and make her feel safe. In chapter five she describes sharing a meal from the chip shop with her mother:

I snuggle up next to her on the couch and rest my head against her fluffy dressing gown. She puts her arm round me and holds me tight as we laugh at the stupid film and the rubbish acting. This is my favourite time of day – just before bed, when Mum’s slept off the doctor’s tablets to help with her depression, and before she reaches for a bottle to help her through the night. This is when I can pretend we’re a proper family again and the accident that ruined it all didn’t ever happen.

No matter where we are in the world, our thoughts, opinions and memories of the food we eat will be shaped by the people we share it with. Even if at first we struggle with the flavour, texture or smell of a new dish, ultimately whether we come to love and miss it will depend on our willingness to connect to the people who sit with us round the table. Despite missing home so much it hurts, Reema comes to discover a fondness for Scottish food when she makes friends with Caylin and starts to feel more at home in her adopted country. Caylin describes this in chapter twenty-nine:

On the way home we stopped at Michael’s Superchippy. We had a great party eating Syrian food with the Haddads  a couple of weeks ago, and I wanted to share something from Scotland with Reema and Sara. I asked Brian to get them a black pudding or haggis supper, but he said they weren’t allowed to eat meat that wasn’t halal, from their own Muslim butchers.  I was disappointed, but Brian winked at me and asked the guy serving us for a deep-fried Mars Bar each for pudding.

Now we’re sitting on our sofa, eating chips and deep-fried chocolate bars, and I can’t stop laughing at Reema’s impression of a Glaswegian accent when she says “pure dead brilliant!” and takes a swig of Irn Bru from her can.

“Does this mean I’m Scottish now?” Sara asks, licking the chocolate off her fingers. “Am I properly Scottish?”

Brian can see that Reema doesn’t like her saying that, so he says quickly, “You’re Syrian-Scottish, Sara. You get to be two things at once, which is extra special as most of us only get to be from one place, and that’s boring.” Brian’s good that way.  He knows how to say the right thing and make people feel more relaxed. I was totally wrong about him. He isn’t a bit like Mum’s old boyfriends.

“Syrian-Scottish? Yes, I like that,” Reema smiles and clinks her Irn Bru can against mine like it’s champagne we’re drinking.

So next time you’re far from home and faced with a strange dish you’re not sure you’ll like, take a look at the people you’re eating with. If you’re willing to let your guard down and make new friends despite language and cultural differences, then chances are you’ll come to miss that food just as much as the friendly faces round the dinner table when you leave.

With thanks to Victoria Williamson for writing with such passion about her novel. You can buy your own copy here

YA Shot: An Interview with Sita Brahmachari

ya shotYA Shot 2018 (an author-run books festival) is human rights themed this year, which makes it a perfect opportunity to interview Sita Brahmachari. Sita’s novel, Tender Earth, has been nominated as one of the UK Honour Books by IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People).

The characters in Tender Earth are diverse in both their backgrounds and their outlooks, and Amnesty International has endorsed the book as illuminating the importance of equality, friendship and solidarity. But it’s not just Tender Earth that eschews these qualities. Sita’s books cover a range of topics, from refugees in Worry Angels and Artichoke Hearts to dealing with divorce in Red Leaves, to the rights of a lollipop man, music, and dealing with loss in her latest for Barrington Stoke, Zebra Crossing Soul Song.

But although they cover so many issues, each book always includes a diverse range of characters. Sita has been the online Writer in Residence for Book Trust, discussing finding a voice and being engaged in current affairs, and Writer in Residence at Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants, and is an Amnesty Ambassador championing Universal Human Rights. So I asked her the following:

How much of an impact can storytelling for children have on changing the world/on influencing human rights?

Tender EarthI read I Know Why The Caged Bird’s Sings by Maya Angelou when I was twelve years old. I forgot that I was reading. I had stepped into the life of another human being.  I was walking with the young Maya through all her struggles in a time and a country that I had never visited. Reading this book opened a portal in my mind and heart. My reading journey really started there and it has led me to explore so many territories and realities that I would never get to visit in one life time. I love that (if libraries and specialist librarians are properly supported) all books can find their way into the hands of all children. Access to books is perhaps the greatest indicator of equality. In Tender Earth Laila is partly inspired to become an activist by reading I am Malala. This is close to my own experience and I hope young readers might be inspired to empathise with many people through my stories and that their empathy might lead them to act, as Laila does to show her support for what she believes in.

Your books are often about identity, whether it be our cultural identity, heritage, nationality. How important is it for children to know their family background?

I’m interested in all kinds of different identities. There is the identity that we grow up with which we may be comfortable with or not. I’m also interested in the identities we choose.

zebra crossing soul song

I think of it this way. When I was a young child my parents made choices on my behalf – nothing unusual there – But as we grow we gather our own tastes and interests, as well as strong feelings about the identities and  beliefs we should be free to choose. In Jasmine Skies Mira is interested in tracing her family history. It gives her a sense of belonging to a wide diaspora family. However, In Red Leaves Aisha, a young girl who is a Somali refugee, is deeply connected to the family she has had to leave behind, but she must forge a new identity in a new land. We all have several identities depending on context. I think I’m really interested in how identities inform character. In my latest story for Barrington Stoke Zebra Crossing Soul Song Lenny is shocked that Otis his friend would stare at his dads as they stand kissing on the doorstep.

Many children like Aisha or Lenny are adopted or fostered and their early stories may be very unknown or unlooked for…what I’m interested in is depicting communities that are open to allowing us to explore all of who we are and can become, including who we love, how we love, what we believe, our cultures, where we come from, where we travel to.

For me, exploration of identities is a rich seam for storytelling… I would say most human beings do seek places where they feel a strong sense of belonging whether that be in stories or life.

I’ve noticed lots of inter-generational relationships in your novels. Is this something drawn from your own experience?

I find the way we structure and segregate a society through age to be limiting.

I often find that young people in mixed age groups are more open to widen their horizons and listen to each other. In Tender Earth Dara, who was a Kindertransport refugee, has much to share with Laila about her first-hand experience of being a refugee. I am fascinated in the relationship between oral history and storytelling. Whenever I meet young people I encourage them to ask members of their family about their histories. My first novel Artichoke Hearts explores the idea of what we inherit from people who come before us. In Brace Mouth, False Teeth on work experience in a nursing home, Zeni discovers a whole world in the mind of Alice a woman with dementia. I try to paint many different kinds of families in my stories… there is no one size fits all, but in all the kind of families I depict they quite naturally include members of every generation.

Many of your books deal with refugees and the global diaspora.  Do you think we are getting better at welcoming refugees in this country, or worse?

worry angelsWe are at a moment in history where the politics of migration rages through every media discussion. Some of the language used de-humanises. We are also at a moment when our children are growing up with images of children their own ages drowning at sea and making terrible journeys to find safety. Many unaccompanied children have been denied their legal right  (UDHR) to join families who already live in this country. In Tender Earth Dara (who arrived here as a refugee on Kindertransport) cries as she watches the news. But Laila (12 years old) and Pari (the child of Iraqi refugee parents) become best friends. Since Jide in Artichoke Hearts, my stories include refugee children as part of the narrative…Aisha, Janu, Rima, Amir, Pari…they are part of all our stories. How we welcome children in stories matters deeply. Amy May’s and Grace’s welcome of Rima and her family in Worry Angels is the welcome I would like to see in stories as in life. It’s the welcome that I think is just as important for Amy May as it is for Rima in order for all of us to live in a more empathetic society.

I’m glad you mentioned empathy. Can you tell me a little about your involvement in Empathy Lab

I am delighted that Empathy Lab have picked Tender Earth as one of thirty stories that can help young people feel more empathy. I had early discussions with Empathy Lab about the kinds of activities I do in schools and the strongly empathetic responses young people have to my stories.

Writers must fully enter into the worlds of so many different characters. I will often engage in thorough research to get under the skin of situations. The process of having empathy for characters and people who may on the surface feel unapproachable is a valuable one as a storyteller and a reader but also in life in general.

I would go so far as to say that it is perhaps the most important ability we can learn as human beings whatever we choose to do.

For me empathy is active … it creates stories and characters but it also leads me to act differently eg. my discussion about refugee people above led me to work as writer in residence in a refugee centre for several years along with Jane Ray. It also led me to become an Amnesty Ambassador.

I’ll be joining six other writers to work in libraries with inter-generational groups to explore how empathy in stories and life can help us to connect and feel more deeply for each other. In Worry Angels Rima tells her friend Amy May to ‘feel about it.’ Her translator corrects her English to ‘think about it’ but I want my stories to go beyond thinking to make readers ‘feel about it.’

Do you think it is necessary to portray life’s difficulties and sadness in books for children?

kite spiritChildren experience every human emotion just as adults do, and they are often experiencing them intensely for the first time. If we don’t include the full range of human emotion in stories we deny access for children to explore their own emotional worlds.

Stories offer a place for us to explore difficulties as well as mysteries and wonders. Very often they allow us try on different ways of being, paths to avoid as well as those to take.

Just as Nana Josie in Artichoke Hearts involved Mira in all aspects of her planned funeral, I think it’s vital that children and young people are given access to all that impacts on their lives. In Kite Spirit I explore the impact of ‘not speaking’ and ‘ staying silent’ about the pressures faced. I am very happy that this story has been taken up by The Reading Agency as a story that helps young people explore their own mental health, and PHSE resources will be created around the story.

 

Reading your books, it always feels as if they are very much character led. What comes first for you as a writer – the character, the plot or the setting?

Characters always come first for me. They often lead me to their stories in unexpected ways. This is the adventure of writing …characters, like people, won’t be confined and limited by conscious thought, list making and planning….they grow best when you give them space to dream, imagine and expand and then they can take you places in a story and landscape you never plotted out for them. It’s in the space between what you think you might be writing and what you actually write that the magic and mystery of writing lies. Being free to explore in that space allows the imagination to flourish and the possibilities for your stories to open up.

Landscape is also a character in my stories. The Kolkata in Jasmine Skies is perhaps one of the biggest most vital character in that story and its human characters grow out of the landscape. In Kite Spirit I draw heavily on the Lake District landscape of my childhood. Similarly the North London Woods in which Red Leaves is set provided the inspiration for the character of the homeless ‘Elder’… whose skin resembles a gnarled tree trunk in that wood. I find plot from placing my characters in juxtaposition with each other, with landscape and situation and seeing what they say and do! In many ways plot is what comes to me through improvising with my characters.

We have symbols for religion, countries etc. There are also lots of symbols that leap out from your books. How important is it for you to attach a symbol to a story – for example – the artichoke charm in Artichoke Hearts?

artichoke heartsI’m one of those people who likes to collect things! It’s not only Nana Josie in Artichoke Hearts who collects random things like ‘holey stones!’ I have to admit that my bookshelves need cleaning and sorting as much as Uma’s do in Tender Earth. In her keenness to throw out some old objects that have been kept on the shelves because they originally meant something Uma almost throws away the most important symbol in the story. The charm that chimes back to Nana Josie in ‘Artichoke Hearts’ is only saved at the last minute because of Laila’s inquisitive nature. Most children I know like to collect things… shells, pennies, books…

These unifying metaphors often come to me in quite a random way… the artichoke was a vegetable on my table before it was a charm… but it was perfect as a way of drawing together what I was writing about…the complex layers of a life…and what’s at the heart of it.

Often these symbols have a deep personal meaning for me and by planting them in the story they act as a story hearth hidden deep in the centre of the book and giving warmth… it’s these symbols that keep the core of the story alive.

Does it irritate you to be asked about diversity in your books or is it cheering? Do you think we’ll ever get to a point when it’s a given and not an asked question?

We’re not at a point where the children we write for and the characters in the stories are representative of the diverse, global, economically unequal world we live in, so quite simply I see it as part of my job to talk about this and where I can promote change I do. For me it’s not an agenda… all those who love stories want more diversity of stories.

As a child I needed them and didn’t find them, as an adult and as a parent of three young people ranging from early twenties to thirteen years of age, I was shocked to find how little things had changed. Over the past decade the debates around diversity including BAME, LGBTQ and disability representation, and also the need for global stories to be translated into English, have become greater and there is activism and the realisation that outreach is needed in many areas of the children’s publishing world. However, this takes place at a time when there are cuts to library services and in the roles of professional librarians. There is little point writing stories with diverse heart and souls if all young people don’t get access to them.

In my stories, I believe I normalise diversity by populating my books with a diverse cast of characters and stories… this goes far beyond including names from different cultures. It’s about deep engagement with different people…with difference and with similarity…and it’s about a joy in the mystery of travelling a wide, diverse universe of cultures, histories, languages, experiences and beliefs. This is the normal of how we humans live in the world and increasingly so with technological connectivity. It’s the world our children are growing up in but it’s not the norm in books yet. Until it is, everybody’s horizons are limited. Many children will feel their absence in stories and this can have a deep impact in them finding their presence valued in all aspect of their lives.

Can you tell me a little about your route to publication?

Sita Brahmachari

I was late to learn to read. I lived in my imagination for a long time. I was a doodler and a daydreamer like Mira! When I was ready I became a voracious reader and got a reading chair at the age of thirteen – no one else was allowed to sit there! I travelled to new galaxies on that chair!

I studied English at Bristol University. I was in a community theatre play and discovered I loved working with young people on creative projects. My first work was at The Royal Court Young People’s Theatre where I was lucky enough to work on the National Young Writers Festival. Over the next years I wrote plays with and for young people and worked for many different theatre companies.  At the heart of my work I have always felt the importance of young people’s voices being heard. I was writing novels and poetry before I started reading but never showed my work to anyone. In 2005 I finally plucked up courage to send my story Artichoke Hearts to agents. It was miraculous to me that Macmillan Children’s Books published it and it won The Waterstones Children’s Book Prize. Since then I have been commissioned to write four futher books for Macmillan Children’s Books, four for Barrington Stoke Publishers, short stories in anthologies for Amnesty International and Walker Books and Stripes Publishers (Crisis at Christmas) and a theatre adaptation of Shaun Tan’s graphic novel The Arrival. In September I have my first illustrated novella published by Otter Barry Books, illustrated by Jane Ray. I am currently under commission to write two new novels.

With many thanks to Sita Brahmachari. She will be on the ‘Family, faith and identity panel’ at YA Shot on 14th April at 5pm. 

 

Worry Angels

worry angelsI’m delighted to host the launch video for Worry Angels by Sita Brahmachari, illustrated by Jane Ray. This super-readable book deals with issues around family breakup, anxiety and refugees, using the healing powers of art and friendship to overcome worries. Despite being a shorter read, it’s beautifully soul-searching and handles complex emotions in an age-appropriate way, providing much space for thought and contemplation. I highly recommend. Below, Sita Brahmachari introduces the video and video artist:

I first met the artist Grace Emily Manning when I walked into a cafe and she had an exhibition of her beautiful Kites flying above my head. I had just been asked by Pop Up Festival to create an exhibition around my novel ‘Kite Spirit’ and so I thought our connection was ‘meant to be’. I contacted her and found that she was studying for her final year at Central St Martins and asked if she would like to create an installation so that people would have the experience of physically walking inside my book! Grace worked with textile artists from The Royal Opera House and created the most beautiful landscape of owls, moss, heather​ and sculptures for readers to explore the themes of the story. Since then Grace and I have worked together on many projects. She has created a magical patchwork storytelling quilt for me to take around to schools for creative writing inspiration (a film of this has been made for Pop Up Festival.) She created an animated for my novel ‘Red Leaves’ and now this beautiful animation for ‘Worry Angels’.

TRAILER: Worry Angels by Sita Brahmachari from Barrington Stoke on Vimeo.

It’s by no coincidence that the name of the artist-teacher who runs the Sandcastle Support Centre is also called Grace! The ‘Worry Angels’ book trailer gives a visual insight into some of the symbolic elements of my story and captures deep feelings children and young people have about how we can communicate our worries and anxieties even when everything in life feels like its changing and built on shifting sands. 

Worry Angels is published today by Barrington Stoke, and is available to buy here.

Grace Emily Manning’s website can be found here