Watching images of humans piling up on the borders and shores of Calais, Hungary and Greece these past few months I’ve struggled to communicate to my children the scale of the situation faced by these refugees. Facts and figures aren’t enough to convey the human tragedy behind the pictures we were witnessing. As with all difficult conversations I turned to children’s literature to help explain the crueller things in this world.
I was contacted around this time by the author Jon Walter asking whether I’d like to give away copies of his first novel for children, Close to the Wind. It’s a book about being set adrift from your home and family and it communicates the experience of being a refugee far better than I could ever hope to. Although packed with enough incident to keep my click happy kids engaged, the book’s genius lies in its setting, a timeless, placeless environment that has what Jon describes as a ‘fable like quality’. It feels like walking around an enormous film set of bombed out streets, tanks and a gargantuan ocean liner. There might be an unreality at play here, but you never once believe these are actors delivering lines – there’s real jeopardy. The guns feel real, the tanks also, as do the pl… But before I give too much away let’s ask Jon some questions.
Was the book inspired by any particular conflict, story, or image you have seen?
As often happens with novels, there were a number of things that came together to inspire the book. One of them was the film ‘Cry Freedom,’ set in South Africa during apartheid. There is a scene where the journalist Donald Woods has to leave his home at a moment’s notice to be flown out of the country and I was really struck by what that must feel like and I wondered what I might do in a similar situation. I imagined having a plan like Papa does in the book and though I don’t want to reveal what that is, once I had THAT scene in my head, then I could follow the story and see what happened.
The other thing I like to do is have a tone or a feel for the shape of a book before I start to write. In this case I wanted to write something that had the shape & feel of John Steinbeck’s smaller books – so I’m thinking of Cannery Row, Of Mice and Men, The Red Pony. Although the shape of the book changed as the story grew, I still wanted the universality of those Steinbeck books and this fitted with the idea that conflict and mass migrations of people have always happened regularly across the world. So it was important that the story didn’t become cluttered by the politics of a specific situation and that’s what gives the book its fable like quality.
Of course, writing a story that isn’t set in a specific time or place can have its problems and when I was struggling with how best to tell the story, I came across Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. Like ‘Close to the Wind,’ his graphic novel is both real and unreal and it gave me the idea to give the book a feel of the 40’s and 50’s, a time that seems both modern and yet historical.
What has the reaction been to young readers to the plight of Malik?
They put themselves in Malik’s shoes and have the same hopes and fears that he does. Although they may not have experienced war, they will understand the anxiety of being separated from their families or of being scared. Many of the children that write to me say how brave Malik is and that they couldn’t do the things he does but I tend to disagree – you never know what you’re capable of doing in any given situation, but reading stories like this give us heroes who can be our role models.
The refugee story is more common than we acknowledge (think about Watership Down or Superman or James & the Giant Peach.) They give us heroes that are resourceful and full of hope and they tell us we can start anew, that change isn’t the end of the world and that experiencing difference and diversity is a good thing & will make us stronger.
What message would you like readers to take away from the story?
I hold on to the idea that generosity and hospitality should form the basis of how we interact with the world. We like to tell stories that have this expectation at their heart because this is how we’d like to see ourselves and how we’d like others to see us if we ever became a stranger in a strange land.
Close to the Wind is Published by David Fickling Books, cover art by David Dean. Other images taken from Shaun Tan’s The Arrival.