Sunday, 17 November 2019

Where does the river run gold for children's rights?

In this the thirtieth anniversary year of the declaration of the Rights of The Child, I have been thinking of how central an exploration of children's rights has been to my writing journey over the past decade or so. 

My Rites of Passage stories have one thread in common, they all explore the journeys and struggles of children and young people with diverse diaspora roots as they navigate our world. It's a search that, against the backdrop of politics today can sometimes feel like an odyssey I share with many children and YA novelists.... a seeking for commonality, empathy, fairness and humanity and doing this through the eyes and sensibility of the young ... for them.. can feel deeply charged...even urgent. 

A decade of stories and contributions to YA anthologies that have grown from our times

From beginning writing my first novel for young people over a decade ago, my stories have not turned away from the larger struggles we face in the world today, like racial and religious intolerance, mental health, grief, poverty inequality, homelessness, the treatment of refugee people and environmental complacency.

I have not explored these stories through the eyes of children because I set out to tackle 'issues' but because in beginning each new story  I  discover child characters I want to journey with... young voices whose vision and realities are struggling to be heard.

A lot has changed for children's rights in the decade or so that these three stories span.

It was a beautiful moment for me to discover the journey-thread for Jide Jackson, from his desperate plight in the Rwandan Genocide in 'Artichoke Hearts' (2011) to his becoming a trainee doctor, re-visiting the land of his birth family in my later book 'Tender Earth' (2018).

Artichoke Hearts, Jasmine Skies, Tender Earth ( Published by Macmillan  Children's Books)

When I began writing 'Artichoke Hearts' the politics of the world did not intrude too deeply on the Levenson family to the extent they do in my more recent novels. Rightly or wrongly, the Levenson parents wished, and were more or less able, to shield Mira and Krish and their new baby Laila from having to learn about some of the more brutal events in world history ' before they were ready'. But they were protecting their children from a story that their fellow class mate was facing.

In 'Jasmine Skies', as Mira travels to India her activist eyes are opened and the novel that completes this book-family 'Tender Earth' sees Janu, a young man who runs an orphanage in Kolkata returning to a London in which the inequality, homelessness and racism are shockingly present. Laila (the baby in 'Artichoke Hearts') becomes the narrator in 'Tender Earth' and she must navigate her story through a time in which the disruptions of the world are mirrored in her own classmates and community. She finds she cannot stand by and see hatred and discrimination grow. The racist attack that Janu experiences, or the defiling of Bubbe Dara's husband's grave with swastikas is tragically, no act of the imagination.

Children must find a way to grow from these tender times
'Tender Earth' ( Macmillan Children's Books) 

A 'Tender Earth' it is for Pari, the child of Iraqi refugee parents who must every day experience the racist abuse in her substandard housing conditions (written pre-Grenfell tragedy but all too poignant now). The inequalities deepen as Pari is too proud to tell her new best friend, Laila, that she is hungry at school. In writing scenes in this book I wanted to speak to Pari and say 'it is not you who should feel ashamed.'

I am often asked where all these stories have come from... and keep coming from! It's simple... it's children who inspire me...and a deep wish to see their rights protected and respected. As the ghost of George Orwell says when I imagined him showing up to hear the story of a refugee child, notebook in hand 'Speak Amir, I came to hear you speak.' ('Amir and George', Stripes. I'll be Home for Christmas).

In 'Red Leaves' Iona, a homeless girl from Scotland has been abandoned on the streets of London and her rights are really only protected through the random kindness of a Sikh family-'The Kalsis' who attempt to guide her and offer comfort and shelter. These children, holding diaspora journeys from Somalia, America, Scotland and London... meet in ancient woods that have historically protected them.

Red Leaves ( Endorsed by Amnesty)  Published by Macmillan Children's Books

The rights of children.... holding courage keys to the story hive!

In writing my latest novel 'Where The River Runs Gold' (Orion) I asked myself where does the river run gold for children's rights? What kind of society can we build in which the rights of the child are truly honoured and protected. I have imagined a near future world in which environmental damage has brought forward a crisis in food production, leading to the decimation of bees, pollinators, tree and plant life..... and of course into this world children are born. Greta Thunberg is such a bright beacon in our times and, like Greta, my young characters Shifa and Themba must fight for their rights to be  protected.  In my story The Emergency Ark Government has suspended the laws to deal with the immediate climate and food production crisis.... and as a result the children must trust in the promises of leaders.       

Where The River Runs Gold ( Published by Orion) Carnegie Nominated.

“It’s becoming all too clear that climate change will have a devastating impact on human rights. Where the River Runs Gold explores a not-too-distant future where children are enslaved so that their small hands can be used to pollinate plants
. Their rights are multiply denied because of the greed of corporations and governments. It’s a bleak prophecy, but author Sita Brahmachari, as ever, pays tribute to the power of solidarity and friendship and this book has a warm and glowing heart.”

Nicky Parker, Publisher. Amnesty International UK

Children and young adults today understand how deeply words used, the truths they hold and the narratives we tell matter in helping us face our biggest challenges. In the near future world The Ark  authorities know what they are doing when they close the libraries and remove the books from the majority of 'Freedom' children, discouraging them to paint or draw, read stories, question the status quo or imagine a different future.

But stories are powerful forces indeed and Shifa refuses to stop sewing re-wilding seeds! For Shifa and Themba access to the pages they can hold is denied them and the portal to their broad education is closed, they protect their story hive because they know it holds the courage keys to their future.

In imagining the world through children's eyes, I pause long and deep to try to see what they see, feel what they feel and time and again the question that comes as I write is how are we protecting these children's rights: to have a childhood, to be safe, to have a home, to be treated fairly, with equality....the right to breathe fresh air, to access nature, to play, to express themselves, to follow their faiths  and cultures and have them represented, to be included, to drink clean water, to eat, to be educated, to enter the story hives of their imaginations and to look forward to a brighter and more beautiful future?

Where The River Runs Gold  (Endorsed by Amnesty ) is published by Orion (Hachette Children's Books)

Rights of The Child Resources and Information:

'Tender Earth,' 'Corey's Rock,' 'Red Leaves' and 'Where The River Runs Gold' have been endorsed by Amnesty International.

'Tender Earth' was honoured by The International Board of Books for Young People ( 2018)  commenting that this depiction of contemporary childhood resonates in the Britain of today.


  1. What a fascinating blog. I love reading Sita's books so much, and they have had such an impact! She's done so much good for children's rights in books and life. Good to think about all the children's books that make children and adults think about rights on the 30th anniversary of the Rights of the Child. Thank you Sita!

    1. this comment above by BookTrust's Emily Drabble by the way (don't know why it comes up as unknown!)

    2. That means so much. Thank you Emily. I consider myself extremely lucky to be working in a community of authors who care so deeply for the rights of children and write stories that challenge and shed light on children's experience of growing up today.

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