Gill Lewis in conversation with Jake Hope

Winner of the Little Rebels Children’s Book Award for radical fiction, Gill Lewis books often probe at social and ethical issues. Her latest book, A Story Like the Wind, poignantly recounts the story of a refugee boy escaping an impossible situation in his homeland. A powerful treatise on the importance of stories, music and art in our lives, A Story Like the Wind is an emotionally sophisticated, engaging but highly accessible story illustrated throughout by Jo Weaver.  
The book has been endorsed by Amnesty International, an organisation the Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals works with on the Amnesty CILIP Honour for a book from the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals which seeks to recognise a book from each shortlist which illuminates, upholds or celebrates human rights.

Jake Hope recently met with Gill to find out more about A Story Like the Wind.


JH: ‘They are only memories; moments of light locked into his synapses and pockets of time spilling away to the stars.’ 

There’s a beautiful blend of poetry and science around this depiction of memory, how key is the idea and past to Rami and the others in the boat?

GL: We are made up not only from our DNA, but from stories. Some of these are the big stories that have shaped the world around us, but many are the smaller stories of our own lives; the people and places that have influenced us. Some of these stories are passed through generations; some are the shared moments with friends and family. Stories make us who we are. They give us our identity. How do you hold onto your identity, onto these memoires when you are torn away from home? In the story, Rami tries to hold onto these memories, and it is through his music that he manages to do so.

There is a sense of community and camaraderie on board the boat, how did you go about building this up and how important is this to the idea of the story as a whole?

Initially the passengers are strangers to each other, all frightened and alone. As Rami shares his music, they begin to share their stories with each other and in doing so, give each other comfort and hope. Jo Weaver’s wonderful illustrations show the sense of community has been built up through the story.

The image of the boat on the ocean seers itself onto the minds of readers and instantly brings to mind all manner of images of refugees from the popular presses, how much research was involved in crafting the novel and were there any stories that particularly stayed with you?

Several years ago, I heard a Mongolian folk-tale Suke and the White Stallion, a story about the power of music to overcome oppression. It is also a story about the origin of the violin. I didn’t know how to tell the story until I saw a news-story about a young Syrian man playing his violin at a border control. The image was a powerful one, showing how music can cross physical and political boundaries and also boundaries of prejudice and fear. Music and stories allow us to connect with each other, and share our common humanity. Not long after the publication of A Story Like the Wind I discovered that the young Syrian I has seen in the news-story had made it to safety in Germany and is continuing his musical studies. He has an album My Journey of which the proceeds are being donated to the Red Cross.

‘My name is Rami and I am still alive’. In spite of the a lot of the sadness of the story, there it is also a tremendously humane and life-affirming story. The writing deftly suggests tragedy and trauma without ever being gratuitous, was this a difficult balance to achieve? 

Writing about the refugee crisis is a huge challenge, to achieve the balance of reality and yet offer hope. It is important not to shy away from difficult subjects yet bear in mind the age of readership for some of the dark themes. In the story we realise that each of the passengers has witnessed and experienced traumatic events but I hope I have managed to balance this with an offering of hope and a vision for the future.

Whilst being timely and topical, there’s a fable-like quality to the story. Was it very deliberate to make the experiences feel universal?

Yes. I love folk tales and how they have been passed down through history, often through oral story telling. Folk-tales and fairy-tales have universal themes that speak to us all, no matter what culture or religion. The fable in A Story Like the Wind tells of the origin of the violin from the Mongolian horse head fiddle, and how the horse head fiddle carried stories and music along the spice routes and silk roads, and eventually became the violin and cellos that first appeared in Europe. The stories of our global connections go back thousands of years and show how stories and music bring us together now as they did in our past. The passengers in the boat recognise their own stories within the story Rami tells, and it gives them hope for the future and for freedom. There is some comfort from knowing that stories about overcoming oppression can be hundreds, possibly thousands of years old, and what people have fought against in the past can be fought against again.

‘The soldiers forbade us to play more music. Perhaps they knew its power.’ The role of the arts and stories are massively important as mechanisms for change in the character life. How important do you think they are and what contributions can they make to our everyday lives?

Stories and the arts are incredibly powerful for telling universal truths and for shining a light on the darker side of humanity. In many countries today musicians and artists are restricted from creating and sharing their art as it threatens the authority of those in power. During the Second World War, the Nazis classified any art they deemed ‘unpatriotic’ as degenerate art. They didn’t want art to reveal the truth of the horrors and reality of war. We need art now more than ever, in all its forms, from books, to art and sculpture, to music and films to satirical cartoons to speak out for us all, for justice and freedom. I was honoured that Amnesty International endorsed the book, as the charity supports artists and writers around the world whose voices can’t be heard.

Rami’s story about Suke and the wild foal is heart-breaking but ultimately is uplifting. A lot of your novels have explored quite dark issues but shine moments of hope into these. Is hope necessary in fiction for children and young people?

My stories do explore some dark issues, and I try not to shy away from the bare truths and realities. I think children see many worrying stories in the media and need access to a way to understand these issues and have an opportunity to discuss them. Fiction is unique in providing this, and a offering a narrative to understand from another person’s perspective. For me, hope is a vital part of story telling, because stories become our maps and guides. They are there to shine a light in the darkness, to offer hope when there may little to be found.

You won the ‘Little Rebels’ award for radical children’s books with ‘The Scarlet Ibis’, what did winning the award mean to you and has this altered any of your approaches to books and to your writing?

Winning the Little Rebels Award was a huge honour. The award recognises children’s fiction which promotes social justice or social equality, challenges stereotypes or is informed by anti-discriminatory concerns. So, I was very chuffed to be considered a little rebel. I think my books have always had a central theme of justice for both human rights and animal rights. However, the award has brought to my attention the need for more diverse books so that children can have books as mirrors to their own worlds as well as windows to others’ experiences. The award also champions the need for the voices of more BAME authors to be heard to offer a greater variety, richness and depth of stories in the world of children’s publishing.

Jo Weaver’s illustrations create an incredible sense of place and emotion on the story. Can you tell us a little about the process of how these were created? Did you and Jo have any interaction over stories, characters or moments in the stories?

Jo Weaver’s charcoal landscapes and her characters and animals are indeed wonderful and add another layer of depth and understanding to the story. I was lucky to meet Jo and hear about her approach to the illustrations. The art director at Oxford University Press designed the layouts and spreads for Jo to create her artwork to fit within the pages. Then Jo created her vision of the book. I think it’s wonderful to see another person’s interpretation of your words and Jo manages to capture the moments of isolation on the sea, to the warm memories of home and the stunning sweeping landscapes and horses of the Steppe mountains in Mongolia.

What would you hope readers take away from reading ‘A Story like the Wind?’

I hope that the book enables the reader to empathise with those people fleeing war and conflict, and to understand the human stories behind the headlines we see in the media.

Many thanks to Gill Lewis for this interview. A Story like the Wind is published by Oxford University Press and is out now. 

CKG Review: Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk

What the Judges Say:

“The language used in this novel exquisitely conveys the atmosphere of the 1940s American rural setting…Every character is believable, well developed and fully rounded, combined with well observed small domestic details. This is a truthful exploration of small-time attitudes and injustice without being overly sentimental, and exploring questions of morality within the confines of the story.”


What We Say:

“The year I turned twelve, I learned how to lie.”

From the moment I read that gripping first line, I was absolutely hooked on Wolf Hollow. There aren’t many books that I read in one day but I swallowed this one whole. 

Compelling is the first word that comes to mind when I think of this book. It’s not a cheerful story and it takes you to some pretty dark places but, from that first line onwards, you’re completely drawn in and have no choice but to go there.

The book tells the story of twelve year-old Annabelle, whose unremarkable life in sleepy, rural Wolf Hollow is rudely interrupted by the arrival of a new girl at school, Betty Glengarry. Betty’s reputation precedes her (she has been sent to live with her grandparents in the country because she is “incorrigible”) and she very soon reveals herself to be a cruel and manipulative bully.

Before long Betty is bullying Annabelle and making threats against her brothers. But Annabelle has an ally in Toby, a First World War veteran who lives on the edges of Wolf Hollow’s small community:

He didn’t ask for food or money. He didn’t ask for anything at all. But instead of drifting through on his way to somewhere else like the others, he circled endlessly, and I confess that I had been nervous about him in the beginning.

When Toby challenges Betty, she soon sets out to get revenge in startling and very disturbing fashion. And Annabelle is forced to tackle questions such as, when is doing wrong actually right? And what if lying is sometimes actually in the best interests of the truth? 

This book has been compared to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and it’s easy to understand why such comparisons have been made – a rural American setting; a small community; a lying antagonist; the “mockingbird” character, wrongfully accused of something terrible and left facing the wrath of the townsfolk; and a girl approaching adolescence being confronted by some very grown-up dilemmas. 

Wolf Hollow is a really well-crafted novel, a challenging read that explores some pretty big concepts and really makes you think about human capability, motivation and morality.

Emma

Wolf Hollow is published by Corgi Books

Find out more: listen to Lauren Wolk talk about Wolf Hollow here:

http://www.carnegiegreenaway.org.uk/watch.php?id=10

CKG Review: Railhead by Philip Reeve

What the Judges say:

‘Engaging and fast-paced with clever use of humour. The book explores what it is to be human with some harsh criticisms of society in subtle ways’ – Judging panel

Railhead

What We Say:

Often reading the Carnegie shortlist can be a challenge – the best sort of challenge – but one that requires a degree of stamina nonetheless. I’ve just finished reading Wolf Hollow and The Smell of Other People’s Houses – two outstanding works of fiction that immersed me in times and places that I’d never even thought to think about before. Reading Railhead hot on their heels was no less thought provoking – it certainly took me to a time and place I’d no conception of before – but when I tried to think of a word to describe it, rather than thinking in terms of immersion, it felt to me that the act of reading was that of taking flight. It was effortless and wondrous.

What a joy it was to be swept away on a tide of such imagination. The plot is propulsive; we join the action literally mid chase as we follow petty thief Zen Starling fleeing the scene of his latest crime. Before we know it we’re embroiled in an intrigue plot to steal a piece of art and wrestling with concepts of artificial intelligence, the power of corporations and the logistics of interstellar train travel.

The world building of Reeve’s ‘Great Network’ is linguistically beautiful and richly imaginative. The blending of different cultures and languages effortlessly creates a distinct and unique universe: Zen’s industrial hometown, the solid sounding Cleve, sits in contrast to the faded grandeur of the plaintively named Desdemor and a seemingly inexhaustible list of other worlds and places. Worlds are described in rich detail – I delighted in the idea of living in a bio-building grown from modified baobab dna which, if left to run to seed, might sprout ‘random balconies and bulbous little pointless extensions’. And oh the trains! ‘Barracuda beautiful’ and named with an appositeness akin to Anglo-Saxon kenning: the dangerous and unpredictable Thought Fox,  the two lovers Wildfire and the Time of Gifts who ‘fill the fog-lit night with trainsong’ and the brusque but honourable Damask Rose who together create a cast of enchanting and believable characters all of their own.

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Uncle Bugs – one of the Hive Monks. Art by Ian McQue

There’s challenge in the text too. Reeve’s descriptions create a visual uneasiness about many of the characters: the Motorik Nova with her freckles, the mythical remoteness of the Guardians and the squirming unpleasantness of the Hive Monks. All raise questions about sentience and the rights of the individual which the reader must somehow reconcile. There’s really a lot going on underneath the fast paced and often gently humorous plot.

To surmise: a rip roaring read, that ticks all the Carnegie ‘s boxes: linguistically sophisticated with a thriller of a plot and a raft of convincing characters. I can’t believe that it’s taken me this long to read it. The sequel is already on order!

From the Horse’s Mouth:

You can hear more about the creation of Railhead and the enduring appeal of children’s books in Philip’s interview on the CKG shadowing site: http://www.carnegiegreenaway.org.uk/watch.php?id=2

Philip Reeve Shadowing Website

CKG review: Beck by Mal Peet with Meg Rosoff

What makes an outstanding book for children? Rich in language, holding a compelling plot and utterly convincing characters, Beck is at the upper end of the ability and interest level for this year’s Carnegie shortlisted titles. This has led to some criticism as has its uncompromising glimpse into an age of racial prejudice and power hierarchies. In spite of these facts, Beck, offers its readers an intensely poignant and thought-provoking experience that they will return to time and again. 

Beck is a rites of passage novel set in Liverpool, Canada and the United States. Ignatius Beck is born out of wedlock, the lovechild from a dalliance between his mother and an African soldier. Orphaned and growing up in an age of prejudice, Beck’s early childhood is a struggle. His plight becomes harder still when he is taken in by the Catholic Brothers. Suffering physical and sexual abuse, Beck is sold into a life of servitude. Disgusted by the maltreatment he experiences, he escapes and becomes embroiled in bootlegging forging a friendship and close alliance with Irma and Bone, but things turn sour when gang rivalries manifest themselves resulting in Beck needing to take to the road again.


 Through an almost mystical encounter, Beck meets with Grace McAllister and forms an uneasy relationship, one scarred by the cruelty and rejection he has suffered formerly. In spite of this a difficult form of spiritual, emotional and sexual awakening occurs for Beck, although bonds remain hard for him to form and maintain. A story of resilience in extreme adversity, it is hard not to champion Beck through the harsh landscape and life that he journeys through.

 The story behind its creation is itself fascinating and quite beguiling – written by Mal Peet, a past winner of the Carnegie Medal with his novel Tamar, the book was incomplete upon his death in 2015. Friend and peer author, Meg Rosoff, also a past Carnegie winner with her novel Just in Case, completed the novel. An extraordinary story of identity, prejudice and attachment this is a book that makes profound and humane comment that readers will ponder upon long after the final pages are completed.

Jake

Beck is published by Walker Books

Review: Much Ado About Shakespeare – Shakespeare Day 23rd April

Much Ado About Shakespeare – The Life and Times of William Shakespeare: a literary picture book by Donovan Bixley

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April 23rd is Shakespeare Day so it seemed fitting that our ‘What We’re Reading Wednesday’ for this week should be Shakespearey. This is in fact a book that I wanted to nominate for this year’s Greenaway Award but the fact that it is a New Zealand import made it disappointingly ineligible. It is, however, a corker of a book that deserves some shouting about!

The subtitle says it all: ‘The Life and Times of William Shakespeare: a literary picture book’. Bixley says his aim is to offer a new interpretation of Shakespeare’s world: a play on words and pictures that attempts to draw back the curtain and shed light on the bright and exuberant world of Shakespeare’s life and times.

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Double page spreads combine words from the plays and map them on to historical fact/context. The fact that the known details of Shakespeare’s life are pretty sparse allows Bixley some fun with his interpretations (Macbeth’s ‘double, double toil and trouble’ accompanies the birth of Shakespeare’s twins). It is a work of speculation but a joyous one at that that allows us a gateway to this world.

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