Tuesday, 7 October 2014

We Need Diverse Books

I spent publication day for 'Red Leaves' with the amazing students of St Paul's Way Trust School in London. If you look in the acknowledgements of 'Red Leaves' you will see that girls at the school helped me to step into the shoes of my character Aisha who arrived in this country as an unaccompanied refugee.

I was invited to go back to the school on publication day to give a talk to year 7 and 8 about the inspiration for writing 'Red Leaves.'

I talked about Aisha and was able to personally thank the girls for their contribution. I talked about researching characters who may be very unlike yourself... and the act of stepping into someone else's shoes.

I talked about Iona - the homeless girl from Scotland who nobody in the story is looking for. I talked of the ancient homeless woman Elder who lives in a den in a city wood.

I talked about Zak from a wealthy background who might seem to have everything except a secure home. His father and mother have recently divorced.  Zak's mother is a war journalist reporting about the refugee crisis in Syria.  

We discussed how young people feel the weight of what is said in the media about their religion, culture, identity and right to belong.

'Red Leaves' is set in a wild city wood and as we roamed the paths of the story together we agreed that what all humans share is a universal need across culture, religion, age and economic difference to build ourselves a safe and secure home where we can be ourselves.

Why do we build dens? I asked

'To feel safe, to feel protected, to find a place where you can be yourself,' answered a year seven boy.

Writing with the aim of having your young readers empathising with people and stories they may never usually connect to, feels to me to be both a huge responsibility and a privilege.

On the final session of working with the Somali girl's advisory group I invited them to name my character... they said they didn't want anyone to be put off by finding her name too difficult to pronounce and they unanimously named her 'Aisha'.

I was reminded that my own dad used to sometimes shorten his name from Dr Brahmachari to 'Dr B.' As a strident teenager I used to tell him off . I would say 'Why should you compromise your name... people should learn to say it.' I still think I was right! But I understood the instinct of the teenagers I have worked with. At a time when young Muslim people feel the weight of negativity in the media the group I worked with wanted 'everyone, not just from our background miss!' to love Aisha.

For myself, for the girls who advised me on Aisha's character and I hope for 'Red Leaves' readers, Amnesty's endorsement means so much.

"We are proud to endorse 'Red Leaves' because of its sensitive depiction of diversity and the human need for somewhere to call home. It's a novel that encourages readers' empathy, which is a big step towards understanding, tolerance and kindness - all values that help us to uphold human rights."
Nicky Parker (Publisher. Amnesty International UK)

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