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"Why children need books and I need to write them"

"Everything I experienced in India and England as a child simply became material with which I could overlay a complete fantasy"

IN WHATEVER SOCIETY WE LIVE,  stories are an essential part of growing up and helping us to become members of our community. The very first contact a child has with storytelling is often the bed time story. In the safety and warmth of their bed, their imagination can be stirred; the seeds sewn, showing the child what wonders are to be found in a book.

It is through stories that children learn about values and roles, about good and evil, about fun and silliness, about happiness and sadness – about life and death. It is through stories that children can make sense of a confused world and learn to overcome the obstacles they will inevitably meet.

Many of the so called “fairy stories” British children are told, turn out to be global stories; stories like ‘Cinderella’, which probably originated over two thousand years ago in China, but a version of which can be found in almost every country in the world. This, for me, underlines the essential common experience we all share as human beings; that we all yearn for a loving family; we yearn to be loved and share our love, we recognise injustice, and the victims of injustice – and the perpetrators of injustice. We look for ways to put things right – whether it be, as in fairytales, with the intervention of a fairy godmother, or a magic lamp or, as in religious stories, with the help of a Merciful God recognising the good qualities of the person involved. Either way – the essential message in all these stories is that virtue and goodness do everything they can to win through.

For thousands of years stories were told by storytellers, or acted, danced, sung, and ritualized, handed down from one generation to the next. They were threaded into a unifying process, which ensured that their values would be passed on and inherited by the next generation. It helped to consolidate not just belief systems, but culture and identity. Animal fables such as Aesop’s, were another way to put across morals and ethics to the young child – and indeed, for a long time, it was thought that those were the best kind of stories to tell children.

Then came the printed word; the book. I would argue that it is the committing of the word to the page that has changed the nature of storytelling. This is not to say that it is for the better or the worse – but that it is different. A book connects the reader directly to the author and, at the same time puts the power into the hands of the reader and away from the storyteller. The book fixes authorship, and imposes a responsibility, and a lasting accountability on the author as well.

I believe that with the advent of the written word, literature became a means of communication which was of its time, rather than for time immemorial – (though great literature is likely to find a relevance in any age.) It meant that writers could write about the world they live in, and for the world they live in; be about real characters rather than icons or symbolic characters; about real events, rather than misty, mythological events of some legendary past. But, I fervently believe that the oral tradition – the old fairytales, the myths and legends of the past, are an inherent part of ones culture, and continue to help interpret the world we live in.

But gradually, as literacy became more wide-spread, the role of literature changed. It became, not just a way of preserving culture and information, but a form of entertainment and leisure; a tool for self expression and the spreading of ideas. It was able to speak with a contemporary voice about contemporary and real issues. Widespread literacy brings empowerment; not just political empowerment, but personal and social awareness. As a writer of books for children, I felt it was valid that they had this power too; that they too should be free to have a one to one relationship with a book, identify with characters and interpret what they read.

Books for children used to be solely for moral and educational reasons, but contemporary writers feel that it is also possible to incorporate ethical dilemmas, and issues resulting out of social problems like divorce, drugs, or alcohol abuse, as well as providing escapism into worlds of fantasy or science fiction.

I was born in 1941 in British India, when the British Empire was absolutely in tact. My mother was English and my father Indian. Both were proud of their cultural heritage – and yet both shared the same values and the desire for justice. So I don’t remember any argument about the rights or wrongs of the need for the British to leave India. Both were deeply influenced by Mahatma Gandhi and his aim to have a free and independent India, and an India which was tolerant and able to accommodate all faiths and religions. My own name personifies this: Jamila, which is Arabic, Elizabeth which is Judaeo-Christian, and Khushal-Singh, my father’s name, which is Hindu/Sikh.

My parents, by the way, met in Iran in the late 1920s – and spoke so lovingly of this country throughout their lives, that I have always wanted to visit – and feel deeply privileged and happy to be here. But especially to be here, not as a tourist but as a writer, to share with you some of my experiences, and what I hope to achieve as a writer of children’s books and to learn from you what you think is important in children’s books.

It was my own mixed background that became the basis for my writing. When we moved, as a family, to Britain in the 1950s, I witnessed the great changes taking place in British society. As the British Empire dissolved, there was widespread emigration to Britain from all the old countries which had been part of the British Empire; especially from Africa, The West Indies and Asia. People of different races, colours, religions and values had to find a way of living together in harmony. It put great stresses on communities, and many people, both British and others, had a crisis of identity.

In the meantime, I had been going to school, then college, into the work place, then marriage and motherhood. With my children growing up, I was naturally interested in them reading as much as possible, and this brought me into contact with children’s books. I myself had been an avid reader as a child, and I also loved writing stories. One day, an event made big news throughout the country. A teacher of young primary school children had asked her class to paint their self-portraits – something all young children do in school. Her class was very mixed with white, brown and black faces. However, she was disturbed to find that when she looked at their paintings, all the white children had painted themselves white, but all the black and brown children had also painted themselves white. “What did this mean?” asked the professionals; the teachers, politicians, psychologists and social workers. Most people agreed that it demonstrated that black and brown children felt life would be better if they were white.

I was very affected by this story – and it made me look around. What positive images could one see, which would enable a black or brown child to feel good about their colour, and to feel that they really belonged to the society into which they had been born? Nearly all children’s books were about white characters; most faces on television and film were white; advertisements showed white people – and in fact, it was hard to find any images of non white faces with which a non white child could identify, and say “that could be me.” Thinking back to the oral tradition of storytelling – one of its great strengths was that the storyteller could always make their tale belong to their own community – so Cinderella, for example, was Finnish in Finland, French in France, black in Africa, brown in China etc. etc. But – the drawback to the written word – if drawback is the right term – is that it is specific. The author is identifiable and wants his words to be interpreted the way he wrote them. So there’s no room to manoeuvre. The only answer, it seemed to me, was for there to be more diversity; a greater range of books for children, which would reflect the diversity of our society. I felt I could make a start – especially with my mixed race. I knew India and its culture. I knew Britain and its culture. I loved both – and could always see what could unite the two cultures, rather than what divided them. If my family could be united, then society could – for I have always felt that the family is a mere microcosm of society and indeed the world at large. Perhaps because the story about the self portraits involved young Primary school children, I made a definite decision to try and write a story for that age group; a story in which my main character would be black.

It was a very short, simple story; just fifteen hundred words long. It was called ‘The Miraculous Orange Tree’, about a little black British boy, who wakes up one morning to find an orange tree growing in the backyard of his British inner city home. As gradually he persuades his Grandfather and then his mother and father to take a look, it brings back all their memories of their homeland, where orange trees really did grow in their backyards – back home in Jamaica.

I was so pleased to find a publisher very quickly who understood and appreciated what I was trying to do. She read my short story, liked it and then said, “do you think you could write another seven or eight more?” It was a turning point for me; focussed me on having to decide: could I be a writer? I decided to give it a try. I set aside a room as a study, told my family and friends that I would be writing at certain times, and was not to be disturbed. I knew that to be a writer, I couldn’t just do it when I felt like it, or treat it like a hobby. It was a job like any other, with a contract and a fee. I set about thinking deeply about the kind of stories I wanted to write and, over a period of a few months they began to pour out onto the page. Each was set in Britain about British children, but each from a different ethnic minority. There was Aziz from Pakistan, Pearly from Ghana, John from Hong Kong, little Grandmother from Cyprus – and just to remind people that ethnic diversity was not just to do with colour, I also wrote stories about Danny from Wales, Robbie from Scotland, Kathy from Ireland and Anna from Poland. My aim was to write stories which appealed to everyone – not just children from ethnic minorities. Whatever message you’re trying to put across – I don’t believe you’ll succeed unless you can tell a good story.

Writers are both public and private people. On the one hand, they seek to find a public who wishes to read them, but on the other hand, they write alone, expressing their own identity and feelings. Often the most powerful creativity comes from people for whom their art is their main form of self expression – whether it be the writer, the poet, the musician, the dancer or the painter. I believe that the happiest people are those who find the environment which best enables them to express themselves – whether this be as a farmer, artisan, teacher or doctor. As a child growing up, music had been my greatest love and where I felt I could best express myself. But it was a revelation to find, later in life, that it was in writing that I found the freedom to explore my ideas and my imagination; to be myself and write freely about the things that interested me. So when my publishers encouraged me, and asked for more and more, I soon found myself writing novels for older children, as well as shorter stories for younger readers. Everything I wrote was still firmly for young people. I think it is because I sense that they are so vulnerable – often growing up in a confused world – and I felt that if I could make sense of my world through my writing, it would help them too. At any rate – the books in which I think I finally found my voice were those which became ‘The Surya Trilogy’; these books most reflected my history and background. It also took me back to the ancient myths and legends of India – which I felt mirrored the twentieth century events I was writing about. And that is how I re-discovered that the oral traditions of the past, which produced these myths and legends and realised that they were still as pertinent as ever, and continued to enrich the creative and storytelling process.

Everything I experienced in India and England as a child simply became material with which I could overlay a complete fantasy. As a child can turn a table into a house, or two chairs into a train, I turned my life into a fiction, in which any resemblance to characters living or dead is purely coincidental – as they say in the movies!

In a diverse society such as Britain is today, I believe that it is essential for children from other ethnic groups to know their own history and cultural traditions. There was once a false hope that all peoples would simply feel British; learn about the kings and queens of England, dress in a western way, read very English-centred books, and all eat fish and chips! But it left huge portions of society feeling alienated, and it was soon clear that for people to have a proper sense of identity they had to know their roots and their own cultural heritage. And the so-called ethnic British also need to understand that Britishness is far less pure than they thought; that there is hardly any such thing as a pure language, let alone a pure race or a pure society – and that fish and chips notwithstanding, one of Britain’s most popular food is Rice and Curry. Although of course there are problems which still exist, and which I try to play my part in tackling, most people in Britain now accept that they have been enriched by becoming a multi-cultural society. What was once considered alien and foreign has become part of the British way of life. Writers, film makers, musicians, food, clothes – and even language – have all merged to become one main stream. .

I enjoy talking to children, and pointing out how many words they thought were English but which are in fact Anglo-Saxon, Greek, Latin, Viking, French, German – and yes – even Indian!

A great part of the life of a writer of children’s books in Britain, is spent visiting schools and libraries, so that children can meet the writers of the books they read. Not only can they see that authors are as much flesh and blood as they are – but they realise that writing isn’t done by strange people who could almost come from another planet. It is done by the kind of people they themselves are or will be. And this makes them realise that they too could write – if they feel inspired. Indeed, creative writing has become almost as important a part of a child’s curriculum as reading. This is because we believe that children must explore the imagination, and find ways in which they can express themselves and their opinions. I believe children must feel empowered to shape and form their opinions and feelings, but also to articulate them too. Only by articulation can people communicate properly, empathise with each other, and learn about each other’s needs. Only by articulation can injustice be identified and only through empathy and understanding another’s point of view – can you be activated to do something about it.

Having told you that it was my British Indian experience that set me on the road to writing, in due course, my voice became stronger. I felt more confident that I could express my ideas and concerns in a wider field, and claim more of Britain than I had done before – after all – I had now lived there for over forty years. In the year 2000, I published a book called ‘Coram Boy’ which was set in eighteenth century England. It enabled me to write about children, some of them upper class, but who were trapped by the tight conventions of their society, and others who through poverty and abandonment, were being enslaved, murdered or trafficked into servitude. Having seen the poverty and inequalities of parts of Indian society, it enabled me to empathise with the plights of my characters. My latest novel, ‘The Blood Stone’, was also an historical novel, this time set in the seventeenth century, and about a young Venetian boy who has to travel from Venice to Mogul India with a priceless diamond – in the hopes of paying a ransom to free his father. It was very exciting for me to research Mogul India and learn about the links of the Persian speaking Moguls with Iran – another reason why I’m so pleased to be here!

Most of us writing for children today want to offer them a whole range of experiences. We fight against allowing reading and writing to become heavy and onerous – like some kind of duty that has to be fulfilled. We all argue against mere duty reading and think it is counter productive. Education should not be compartmentalised – or even just for children. All life is learning; all entertainment and leisure pursuits are most meaningful when they reveal something new about ourselves – and our capacities to love and laugh and be curious. Many children used to associate reading with school – and therefore with compulsion. If a child leaves school hating books, then it has all been for nothing. I, and most of my fellow writers, urge schools to encourage reading for pleasure ; to broaden the scope of what is available, and to make sure that children have the best possible books at their disposal. Most school libraries and public libraries have become cheerful and colourful places, where people feel happy to spend time browsing and choosing the books they want. Writers, teachers and librarians collaborate to promote reading in all sorts of ways – not least by encouraging children to write their own stories too. There have even been national polls on radio and television, to find out the nation’s favourite book. It all helps to make reading seem “cool!” – Sorry – the common expression in the English speaking world meaning “definitely acceptable. Ok.!”

People often ask me, “when are you going to write for adults?” as though somehow, writing for children is a lesser art, and of less importance. I usually answer, “when I grow up.” Until adults see the value of children’s literature, then children themselves will never really feel that the book has any value beyond the class room.

But essentially, I write for children because I feel I have something to say to them. I care about them, and the issues they have to face while they are growing up. I want them to feel that they are not less important than adults. On the contrary, they are the future and more important. Of course I’m pleased when a parent or teacher comes to me and tells me how much they’ve enjoyed my books. But the greatest compliment of all is when I get a letter from a child telling me how much they liked my writing.

What a wonderful thing a book is! This simple object can be taken anywhere, read anywhere; in a park, on a bus, in your home. And during the period of reading, the reader is experiencing hundreds of sensations and meanings; dialogues and descriptions – being guided through fantasies and mysteries, geographies and histories in a unique dialogue: just the reader, the author and, paradoxically, silence.