On our #Suffolk Safari we meet a rabbit working an Amy Winehouse eyeliner.
Finding books that reflect different cultures can be a challenge but after having a rummage through the book shelves, we’ve unearthed some really cool books for kids, showing life in all its diversity and range. Here they are.
Azzi in Between by Sarah Garland
A powerful graphic novel about Azzi and her family who seek refuge and shows just how dangerous some people’s home lives can be and the difficult decisions and risk involved in reaching refuge. Azzi and her parents are in danger. They have to leave their home and escape to another country on a frightening journey by car and boat. In the new country they must learn to speak a new language, find a new home and Azzi must start a new school. With a kind helper at the school, Azzi begins to learn English and understand that she is not the only one who has had to flee her home. She makes a new friend, and with courage and resourcefulness, begins to adapt to her new life. But Grandma has been left behind and Azzi misses her more than anything. Will Azzi ever see her grandma again? Drawing on her own experience of working among refugee families, renowned author and illustrator Sarah Garland has produced an exciting adventure story to be enjoyed by readers of all ages in a fresh and modern format.
Bravo, Chico Canta! Bravo! by Pat Mora & Libby Martinez
A multi lingual mouse and his family live upstairs inside an old theatre. They love going to the plays and shouting ‘Bravo!’ when the curtain falls. But when Gato-Gato, the theatre cat finds them, Chico Canta must use his gift for languages to save his family. Bi and tri lingual conversations fall naturally into place in this book and the child will absorb them with no awareness that he is being ‘taught’.
“Let’s form a line,’ un fila por favour’- Mrs Canta who was as round as a top, liked to sing and speak many languages- English, Spanish and Italian. Mrs Canta spoke to animals too. She could speak cricket, spider and moth.”
Umbrella by Taro Yashima
Momo can’t wait for a rainy day so she can enjoy and use her birthday presents — red rain boots and an umbrella. Bright and colorful, with bold illustrations that will have your children impatient for rain and the beautiful, rhythmic song of the rain falling on Momo’s umbrella – Pon polo, pon polo, polo polo pon polo. In addition to telling a story of a preschooler’s impatience and eagerness, the story also tells of a child’s growing independence. With the rain comes an opportunity for Momo to grow and mature. “The street was crowded and noisy, but she whispered to herself, `I must walk straight, like a grown-up lady!'” Momo also shows signs of becoming more responsible, “She did not forget her umbrella when her father came to take her home. She used to forget her mittens or her scarf so easily — but not her umbrella” The story concludes with this memorable note, “It was not only the first day in her life that she used her umbrella, it was also the first day in her life that she walked alone, without holding either her mother’s or her father’s hand”- a bittersweet moment for parents.
Yo? Yes? by Chris Yaschka
This short children’s book is about two lonely boys, one Caucasian the other African-American, who meet on a street and become friends, speaking with only monosyllabic words. It’s a story that has happened to all of us at one time or another. The book was a 1994 Caldecott Honor book (i.e., a runner-up to the Medal winner) for best illustrations in a book for children. Inflection is fundamental in this story and it’s something babies are attuned to even before they know words- all babies are born with the ability to make every sound in every language so childhood is sadly a process of forgetting as well as learning. The story is meant for an older (pre-school) audience, but the fun-with-language aspect of this book makes it great for even the smallest of babies.
The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
This classic picture book, published in 1963, was the first to feature a young black hero — a small boy enjoying his urban neighborhood. No book has captured the magic and sense of possibility of the first snowfall better. Universal in its appeal, the story has become a favorite of millions, as it reveals a child’s wonder at a new world, and the hope of capturing and keeping that wonder forever. The author Keats grew up in Brooklyn and changed his name from Katz to Keats after World War II. Because of the discrimination he faced, he became the first American picture book maker to give a black child a major role in children’s books and literature.
Keats was inspired to write this book and develop the central character of Peter (a boy in this book about four) because he had become spellbound by a photograph of a small boy in Life magazine. He cut out these pictures and pinned them on his studio walls. This boy in the magazine developed into Keat’s character named Peter who would go on to become the main character in six more books until he was portrayed as a young adolescent in “Pet Show”.
This is a lovely book which has Peter waking up to a “world of snowy white” delighted with the new snow and his day of playing with snowballs, making snowmen and angels and dreaming of another new day (although he feared that the snow would have melted over night). To Peter’s delight, he woke up on the second day to even more new snow. The book is delightful. I loved the part where Peter, just being filled with the joy of being a little boy, tried to capture the day and the snow by putting it in his pocket so that he could take it inside when he has to go into his house. In this way, Peter learns about the power of the moment and impermanence.
Ruby’s Wish by Shirin Yim Bridges
Ruby is determined to go to university, just like her brothers. But in turn-of-the-century China, this is an unprecedented move, something pretty much beyond the experience of Ruby’s family. This story reveals Ruby’s tenacity, passion and dedication as she works her way toward an education. It is a beautiful book in every way, from its vibrant illustrations to its messages of respect — for oneself, for one’s elders, for one’s culture and for the never-ending gift of learning. As hard as Ruby works, she is aware that tradition will soon force her to give up her studies and marry. When her grandfather becomes aware of her unhappiness and asks her to explain, he listens but says nothing. What will happen next may not be a surprise, but the twist at the end is sure to bring a smile to the face of every reader.
My Name is Yoon by Helen Recorvits
Immigrant kids recognize that hesitation during the calling of the morning register when a new teacher gets to their name but the experience depends on how adults handle these confrontations with what is unfamiliar to them. If only all teachers (and immigrant parents) were as wise and compassionate as the ones in this book. Recorvits’ poetic, lyrical, spare text and Swiatkowska’s imaginative paintings explore this part of feeling “foreign” — an immigrant child’s name. In a new language and a new alphabet, Yoon’s beautiful Korean name seems foreign even to herself. Are you still “Yoon” when people outside the family pronounce your name differently? When they don’t know that it means “shining wisdom?” For a child to feel at home in a new country, she needs a non judgemental group of teachers, parents, and classmates, as well as self belief and courage.
Day of Tears by Julius Lester
On March 2 and 3, 1859, the largest auction of slaves in the history of America was held in Savannah, Georgia with over 400 slaves being traded. On the first day of the auction, the skies darkened and torrential rain began falling. The rain continued throughout the two days and ended as the slave sale stopped. These simultaneous events- of the rain storm and the auction led to these two days being called “the weeping time.” Storyteller Julius Lester has taken this footnote of history and written this upsetting and incredible young adults book. Julius Lester tells the story of several characters including Emma, a slave owned by Pierce Butler and caretaker of his two daughters, and Pierce, a man with an ever growing gambling debt and household to watch over. Emma wants to teach his daughters-one who opposes slavery and one who supports it-to have kind hearts. Meanwhile, in a bid to survive, Pierce decides to take advantage of his “assets” and host the largest slave auction in American history. And on that day, the skies open up and weep endlessly on the proceedings below in a powerful masterclass on the use of the pathetic fallacy in fiction. Using the multiple voices of enslaved Africans and their owners, Julius Lester has taken a little-known, all-true event in American history and transformed it into a heartbreaking and powerfully dramatic pronouncement on slavery, and the struggle to regain ones humanity in the midst of it.
Global Babies by the Global Fund for Children
Appealing photos of babies from seventeen cultures around the globe are woven together by simple narration. GLOBAL BABIES presents children in their cultural contexts. Diverse settings highlight specific differences in clothing, daily life, and traditions, as well as demonstrate that babies around the world are nurtured by the love, caring, and joy that surround them. What our babies will love the most is the focus upon the faces, the often bright colours and the simple presentation of the images. They adore looking at photos of other babies, are drawn to them (heck I haven’t grown out of looking at photos of babies!) and this is a wonderful book.
Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke
Anna Hibiscus lives in the continent of Africa with her mother, her father, her baby twin brothers, and lots and lots of her family. Join her as she splashes in the sea, prepares for a party, sells oranges, and hopes to see sweet, sweet snow. This is a lovely, simple book that does what it does very well ideed and engages readers immediately. The four chapters stand alone as stories of a child’s life too so it can be used as a chapter book also. It is not exactly easy to find English-language children’s stories set in Africa that avoid treating it as something exotic but this is funny, sweet, and interesting whilst normalising the story and existence of the characters. What would improve it? Naming within it, a more specific African location to challenge the oft held idea of Africa as one amorphous blob of a place where national boundaries, individual cultures and differences tend to be skated over or eliminated entirely.
Zomo the Rabbit: A Trickster Tale from West Africa
Zomo the rabbit, a trickster from West Africa, wants wisdom. But he must accomplish three apparently impossible tasks before Sky God will give him what he wants. Is he clever enough to do as Sky God asks? The tale moves along with the swift concision of a good joke, right down to its satisfying punch line and the repeating of ‘Zomo, Zomo, Zomo’ is very satisfying to parent and child when read aloud. “Wildly exuberant, full of slapstick and mischief, this version of an enduring Nigerian trickster tale, featuring a clever rabbit, is a storyteller’s delight.”–Booklist. With vivid and detailed illustrations including Zomo the Rabbit whose cultural heritage can be seen in his garb, from his dashiki (brightly colored shirt) to his kufi (hat), even very young children will be drawn to this book.
Biblioburro- a True Story from Colombia by Jeannette Winter
Luis loves to read, but soon his house in Colombia is so full of books there’s barely room for the family. What to do? Then he comes up with the perfect solution–a traveling library! He buys two donkeys–Alfa and Beto–and travels with them throughout the land, bringing books and reading to the children in faraway villages. Beautiful! Based upon the life of Luis Soriana who is still delivering his books via Donkey transport, we are told his story-A Columbian school teacher that loved to read. He traveled with two burros (mules) to deliver his extra books to children high up in the mountains of Columbia. Monica Brown uses vivid detail that is strong but also simple enough for children to read and understand. An example of this is when Brown writes, ” “Deep in the jungles of Colombia, there lives a man who loves books. His name is Luis. As soon as he reads one book, he brings home another. Soon the house is filled with books. His wife, Diana, grumbles.” The language is so strong, but is clean and simple for children. The story is so much fun and it is great for children to read and begin to understand other people’s cultures and lifestyles.
When I Close My Eyes by Ty Allan Jackson
This picture book is about a little girl named Dot with a vivid imagination which takes her away to faraway places. Filled with vivid colored pictures and wonderful rhyming words that will make children and adult smile making this is a great daytime or bedtime story for children from 2-6 years old. The message? Imagination is the key that unlocks the door to unlimited possibilities.
Big Moon Tortilla by Joy Cowley
I’m afraid Anglo children too often learn a part of our culture that says ‘Do something, even if it’s wrong.’ Of course, we too often do the wrong thing. For many USA residing Southwestern Indians, chldren are taught patience as a prime virtue, even as a way of solving problems. Big Moon Tortilla illustrates in an exemplary way for non-Indian children this alternate way to face a problem. A contemporary child gets help from an old story in this bright picture book set in a small desert village on the Papago reservation in southern Arizona near the Mexican border. Marta Enos’ day is ruined when the wind blows her papers out the window and the dogs chew her homework into trash; then she trips and breaks her glasses. Grandmother comforts Marta Enos, repairs the glasses, bakes her some warm tortillas, and tells her a traditional tale about how to deal with a problem. Sometimes it is good to be a tree and look all ways at once; sometimes it is best to be a rock or a fierce mountain lion; but Marta Enos chooses to be an eagle, who can fly high and see how small the problem is. Strongbow’s watercolor paintings set the story in wide desert landscapes as the sun sets and the full moon rises, and warm portraits show the loving bond across generations.
The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf
So what happens when you don’t want to go along with the flow? What happens when you don’t approve of something that is very important in your cultural background? A true classic with a timeless message, The Story of Ferdinand has enchanted readers since it was first published in 1936. All the other bulls would run and jump and butt their heads together. But Ferdinand would rather sit and smell the flowers. So what will happen when our pacifist hero is picked for the bullfights in Madrid? Capturing the spirit of Spain perfectly we also have gentle humour, from Ferdinands rampaging after he is stung by a beel to his placid, under the tree sitting. The realization that even small events and our reactions to them can have a huge impact on our lives, and everything else that surrounds us in this world, is beautifully presented in this story. How Ferdinand chooses to deal with his plight at being taken away to fight is, of course, the heart and significance of this tale. His choice of poetic action is a pitch perfect and non moralising morality tale and provides the lasting appeal for this book.
The Goggle Eyed Goats by Stephen Davies
Children love a kindred naughty spirit and in Old Al Haji Amadu’s five extremely naughty and very hungry goats, they have plenty of them. These goats gobble and gulp through whatever they find in a typical goat fashion from pumpkins to mats. Al Haji’s seven children adore the goats but to keep his wives happy he takes the goats to sell at the market but this proves to be less simple than he thought. This vibrant tongue twister of a read aloud book is joyous.
Tales from India by Jamila Gavin.
Imagination unbounded in these tales of magic, mystery and creation from the elephant-headed Ganesha and monkey god Hanuman to the blue-skinned Krishna.Lessons are taught lightly about love and respect for the world, framed in the context of centuries old stories that allow the natural leap and range of a child’s minds eye. How can you churn an ocean with a snake? How can Parvati make a real baby out of mud? Glorious illustrations make this a book to hand down and treasure.
Over the Hills and Far Away By Elizabeth Hammill
Illustrated by over 77 artists, this stunning collection of 150 rhymes from all over the world includes rhymes from First Nation people, Inuit and Maori, Great Britain, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ghana, South Africa and the Caribbean. The collection contains best-loved nursery rhymes, but also newer discoveries in a lively, dip in and out of book.
Ramadan Moon By Na’ima B. Robert, illustrated by Shirin Adl
Ramadan, the month of fasting, Doesn’t begin all at once. It begins with a whisper And a prayer And a wish. Muslims all over the world celebrate Ramadan and the joyful days of Eid-ul-Fitr at the end of the month of fasting as the most special time of year. This lyrical and inspiring picture book captures the wonder and joy of this great annual event, from the perspective of a child. Accompanied by Iranian inspired illustrations, the story follows the waxing of the moon from the first new crescent to full moon and waning until Eid is heralded by the first sighting of the second new moon. Written and illustrated by Muslims, this is a book for all children who celebrate Ramadan and those in the wider communities who want to understand why this is such a special experience for Muslims.
Tiger Boy by Mitali Perkins
One of the new tiger cubs has escaped from the reserve!” This brand new book is set on an isolated West Bengali island,taking readers to a setting far removed from their own.
When a tiger cub escapes from a nature reserve near Neel’s island village, the rangers and villagers hurry to find her before the cub’s anxious mother follows suit and endangers them all. Mr. Gupta, a rich newcomer to the island, is also searching–he wants to sell the cub’s body parts on the black market. Neel and his sister, Rupa, resolve to find the cub first and bring her back to the reserve where she belongs.
The hunt for the cub interrupts Neel’s preparations for an exam to win a prestigious scholarship at a boarding school far from home. Neel doesn’t mind–he dreads the exam and would rather stay on his beloved island with his family and friends. But through his encounter with the cub, Neil learns that sometimes you have to take risks to preserve what you love. And sometimes you have to sacrifice the present for the chance to improve the future. Ages 7+.
Juneteeneth for Mazie by Floyd Cooper
Published in February 2015 to coincide with Black History Month, this book by Coretta Scott King award winning illustrator, Floyd Cooper celebrates the Emancipation Proclamation via Mazie, who is ready to commemorate liberty and the day her ancestors were no longer slaves. Mazie remembers the struggles and the triumph, as she gets ready to celebrate Juneteenth.This beautiful story by award-winning author and illustrator Floyd Cooper will captivate both children and adults.
For ages 6-9.
Anywhere but Paradise by Anne Bustard
Covering a rarely encountered topic, the issue of racial diversity, native origins and exclusion from a Hawaiian/White perspective, Peggy Sue Moves from Texas to Hawaii in 1960 and faces a difficult transition when she is bulled as one of the fewhaole (white) students in her school.
Her cat, Howdy, is stuck in animal quarantine, and she’s baffled by Hawaiian customs and words. Worst of all, eighth grader Kiki Kahana targets Peggy Sue because she is haole–white–warning her that unless she does what Kiki wants, she will be a victim on “killhaole day,” the last day of school. Peggy Sue’s home ec teacher insists that she help Kiki with her sewing project or risk failing and life looks bleak until Peggy Sue meets Malina, whose mother gives hula lessons. But when her parents take a trip to Hilo, leaving Peggy Sue at Malina’s, life takes an unexpected twist in the form of a tsunami. Peggy Sue is knocked unconscious and wakes to learn that her parents safety and whereabouts are unknown. Peggy Sue has to summon all her courage to have hope that they will return safely.
Ages 10 & up.
Not my Girl by Christy Jordan-Fenton, Margaret Pokiak-Fenton and Gabrielle Grimard
Margaret can’t wait to see her family, but her homecoming is not what she expected.
Addressing cultural identity, the influence of the outside world upon indigenous cultures and the pressures involved in bridging these, this is a poignant and inspiring book about Margaret’s struggle to belong. Two years ago, Margaret left her Arctic home for the outsiders’ school. Now she has returned and can barely contain her excitement as she rushes towards her waiting family — but her mother stands still as a stone. This strange, skinny child, with her hair cropped short, can’t be her daughter. “Not my girl!” she says angrily.
Margaret’s years at school have changed her. Now ten years old, she has forgotten her language and the skills to hunt and fish. She can’t even stomach her mother’s food. Her only comfort is in the books she learned to read at school. Gradually, Margaret relearns the words and ways of her people. With time, she earns her father’s trust enough to be given a dogsled of her own. As her family watches with pride, Margaret knows she has found her place once more.
Based on the true story of Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, and complemented by evocative illustrations,Not My Girl makes the original, award-winning memoir, A Stranger at Home, accessible to younger children. It is also a sequel to the picture book When I Was Eight.
Schooldays Around the World by Margriet Ruurs
As a child I was absolutely fascinated by the idea of children all over the world getting up and going off to school and curious about what form that schooling took. Author Margriet Ruurs begins this engaging informational picture book by posing an intriguing question: “What is a school? Is it a building with classrooms? Or can it be any place where children learn?” The fascinating stories that follow will expand how young readers think of school, as they learn about the experiences of real children in thirteen different countries around the world. From Marta in Azezo, Ethiopia, and Luciano in M?rida, Venezuela, to Alina in Taraz, Kazakhstan, and Lu in Shanghai, China, the children who are profiled live in places that truly span the globe. Alice Feagan’s charming cut-paper collage artwork further enhances the idea of a global community by featuring smiling, enthusiastic children’s faces, which are equally joyous and filled with life in every situation. As with all the titles in the popular Around the World series, using a familiar concept such as going to school is a perfect way to introduce children to other cultures and places.
A world map at the beginning of the book shows the location of each of the countries, and a glossary contains definitions of the foreign words. These, along with a table of contents, make useful tools for familiarizing young readers with book navigation.
The Red Bicycle- the Extraordinary Story of One Bicycle by Jude Isabella
In this unique nonfiction picture book, the main character is a bicycle that starts its life like so many bicycles in North America, being owned and ridden by a young boy. The boy, Leo, treasures his bicycle so much he gives it a name — Big Red. But eventually Leo outgrows Big Red, and this is where the bicycle’s story takes a turn from the everyday, because Leo decides to donate it to an organization that ships bicycles to Africa. Big Red is sent to Burkina Faso, in West Africa, where it finds a home with Alisetta, who uses it to gain quicker access to her family’s sorghum field and to the market. Then, over time, it finds its way to a young woman named Haridata, who has a new purpose for the bicycle — renamed Le Grand Rouge — delivering medications and bringing sick people to the hospital. This book makes an excellent choice for cultural studies classes; author Jude Isabella has provided several terrific suggestions in the back of the book for projects large and small, while a map shows the distance the bicycle traveled across the Atlantic Ocean. Award-winning illustrator Simone Shin’s digitally composed artwork includes evocative depictions of Alisetta’s and Haridata’s communities in rural Africa, creating vivid comparisons between Leo’s life and their lives. Youngsters will learn how different the world is for those who rely on bicycles as a mode of transportation, and how one ordinary bicycle — and a child’s desire to make a difference — can change lives across the world.
Fly Eagle Fly! By Christopher Gregorowski
With a foreword by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, this is a tale of fulfilment and freedom shown through the parable of the baby eagle who is reared with chickens after being blown out of his nest and discovered by a local farmer. This simply told yet dramatic story from Africa will delight children everywhere and encourage them to “lift off and soar” in expressive, evocatively illustrated pages by Niki Daly, an internationally known artist.
Boy Overboard by Morris Gleitzman
“Sometimes to save the people you love, you have to go overboard”
“‘Overboard,’ says Yusuf’s grandfather, ‘is an English word meaning to do something that is bold, wild, dangerous and crazy.’” Jamal’s decision to ‘go overboard’ stems from his experiences growing up in a war-torn land. He wants to change the world, his world anyway, and he has a grand plan. His passion for soccer will be the means to turn around his government, his country, and life for his family. But Jamal is about to embark upon an adventure more ‘bold, wild, dangerous and crazy’ than he could ever imagine that entails a journey from their homeland, Afghanistan where their family has upset the authorities, and a lengthy voyage overseas.
Jamal’s narration of the tale highlights his incredible strength – be it drawn from his knowledge of his ancestors or his belief in the ‘secret of soccer’ – ‘Never give up, even when things are looking hopeless’. Optimism, perseverance, courage and tenacity are the tools of survival for Jamal, his feisty younger sister Bibi and the friends they make on their journey, Rashida and Omar. These things, together with a rich fantasy life focussed on soccer and how great Australia is going to be, sustain Jamal through horrendous and heart-breaking experiences.
One question Morris Gleitzman leaves unanswered is whether Jamal’s faith and hope will be rewarded. After all Jamal and his family go through, will they be recognised and welcomed? Just how ‘overboard’ does a boy have to go?
(Un)arranged Marriage by By Bali Rai
Unusual in its point of view- that of a Punjabi boy called Manny who doesn’t want to go through with the marriage that his father has arranged for him, we explore the issue of arranged or forced marriages from his unique perspective . Set in present day England and partly in the Punjab, it follows Manny from the age of 13 as he tries to balance the demands of his family with his own desires for his future.
An exploration of generation conflict, culture clash and the universal theme of teenagers rebelling against their parents, this book incorporates issues such as inter ethnic racism, peer pressure, violence and lighter issues around school and first love. An important book and a powerful voice that reminds us that whilst the position of women in arranged or forced marriages remains the less empowered, this doesn’t mean that the men aren’t sometimes victims too.
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson is a unique autobiographical poetry book where Woodson shares true stories of her childhood — growing up as an African American during the Civil Rights movement — in mesmerizing verse. Woodson shares emotionally charged yet accessible snapshots of growing up in both South Carolina and New York, sensing remnants of Jim Crow laws. This book won the 2014 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.
In her debut novel ‘Elizabeth is missing’, author Emma Healey subverts the commonly held tenet of writing – ‘Write about what you know’ because the central theme of her book, Dementia, is unknowable to all except the person living with it. The condition all too often renders a person unable to adequately express their lived experiences and the essential mystery that lies within the heart of every human becomes ever more so.
Beautiful, painful and rich, ‘Elizabeth is Missing’ defies easy categorisation based as it is on Maud, an older woman with a fading memory who is convinced that her friend has gone missing and whose concerns are not taken seriously. Echoes of the long unsolved disappearance of Maud’s sister seventy years ago soon merge with the present as Maud refuses to be thwarted in her search for answers and we move back and forth in time alongside her.
At just twenty nine years of age, Emma’s ability to capture the essence of dementia is haunting and masterful, even more so for this reader, having had experience of working with people affected by the disease and its patterns of thought and behaviour; the restless searching, dislocution and their polar opposites- a determined fixation upon things or places or events that are all vividly captured along with the awful awareness that something is wrong but the person knows not what.
“I loved writing from the point of view of an older person” says Emma. “I have been writing since I was young but I never finished any of it and it felt boring – writing about my age and experiences. Writing about Maud was freeing because it isn’t about my life or my experiences but I am exploring and seeing her life from my point of view alongside the reader” The original idea of the book grew from a car journey on an ordinary sort of day when Emma ‘s own grandmother expressed a fear that her friend had gone missing. Emma’s gran has Multi Infarct Dementia and at that point was able to be mollified by the reassurances of her granddaughter and retain the information that her friend was only staying with her daughter- “I thought about this over the next year as Gran deteriorated- what would happen if and when a person couldn’t retain an explanation and I looked for ways to explain this condition; it was an excuse to explore it and then my other Grandmother died. She had been the family story teller and before she died I wrote down all the stories of her life. And they went into Maud’s story.”
Initially the idea of writing about something as intimate and painful as this might appear to be a form of catharsis but the end results proved to be more complex than that- “I thought it would be cathartic, there is a lot of Dementia in my family but I have found it quite frightening; ‘It will be my fate’ and it can be quite terrifying. The misconceptions about the illness upset me more than anything, the idea that you can be less than pleasant to somebody with Dementia ‘because they won’t remember’ whereas in fact the feelings evoked are residual. They know something is wrong, that something bad has happened and they don’t always forget that”
For Emma, part of the process of trying to understand her Grandmothers condition involved learning about it, reading textbooks, dry journals, going to visit her gran and the relative of another friend in hospital and it was then that the dearth of variety in writing about it became obvious- “A lot of the textbooks were quite boring and didn’t really give any feeling for what it might be like to live with the condition. What it is like for family and for everyone around and this is where fiction is important. Giving the feeling that people with dementia, the elderly, are part of the community and books can reflect that”
The otherness of getting old, of confronting the changes and failings of the body, of having dementia is beautifully depicted. We see a variety of reactions to Maud from the cruel, dismissive mickey taking of the police officer who deals with Maud every time she comes to the station to try to report the disappearance of her friend (and forgets she has been there already) to the kindness of the receptionist at the local paper who tries to help Maud fill out a missing person notice, mistakenly believes a cat is missing, releases she has misunderstood and shows humanity in her attempts to normalise Maud’s forgetfulness and her own attempts to decipher what Maud wants. The scene is amusing at times through Mauds own bewilderment at the receptionists apparent confusion -“She asks if Elizabeth has a collar and it seems like an odd question” but they get there in the end. The over riding impression is that we all need to be more patient, to be familiar with the small acts of kindness that help make the world less confusing and stressful for many of us, let alone a person with cognitive problems. “People blame the person for not being able to remember” Emma says ” although there is humour in life and I wanted to reflect that people with Dementia use that humour too. It mustn’t be left out but I didn’t want the humour to be related to Maud’s distress, about that distress. I didn’t want people laughing at her and i didn’t want it to be cruel.”
Much is left for the reader to surmise, often in retrospect too. Maud forgot that she had made multiple trips to the police station in her attempts to discover Elizabeth’s whereabouts, making this far more effective a surprise to us because the reader isn’t aware of these visits as they happen. We think ‘oh’ when the officer cruelly points out the truth and we see where his frustration comes from and then recoil from his scathing humour. It is NOT funny. We never lose our place on Maud’s side but we can also empathise with Maud’s daughter, Helen as she tries so hard to retain her patience as she retrieves her mother from yet another wandering off or muddled and failed mission to find Elizabeth. Rich with the imagery of ageing- events and things obscured, buried and obfuscated, becoming faded and dulled but then what was lost returning slowly to the surface.
From the discovery of her sisters buried compact to the memories in her own mind, Maud nonetheless lives a rich sensory life with senses still sharp and the ability to feel emotions connected to smell, feel and sounds. From the vividly tactile description of Maud trailing her fingers along a moss covered wall. peeling away clots of moss to the collections of objects Maud accumulates- seeds, discarded fingernail clippings, stones and feathers and the way the smell of nylon evokes memories of her younger days, we are given a real insight into the world of Maud and a great way in; a way of relating.
Responding to the underlying feelings as opposed to what is being said or done can help relatives and carers to cope with some of the more challenging aspects of the persons behaviour. Maud gets ‘grumpy’ as Emma describes it but we never lose sympathy for her. We see what has gone into building Maud throughout her life and as Maud loses the ability to explain herself and as her personality starts to shatter, we see Maud distilled through her senses. “I am a sensory person, I have always kept a diary of the senses, I suppose you could call it, rather than a day to day diary of what has happened in my life” said Emma. “You can add more meaning to a scene if you add sensory detail, the motives and character can be explained in this way. It is so easy to be pulled out of a book as a reader when much is going on around us. Adding this detail, these little descriptions helps to pull people back in again” Maud is anchored in the natural world and we are anchored too, especially when the reader feels distress and adrift in empathy with Maud. Emma herself is a bit of a gatherer too, describing her collection of ‘bits and bobs’ from her grandmothers’- seeds that are too old to germinate but she is loathe to throw away, bits of costume jewellery, pebbles from beaches and little photos slotted away of nothing in particular.
Realising how Emma shares some of these traits and her previous studies in book art (Emma read for a degree in book arts) we wondered how hard it was for her to hand over creative control to her publishers with regards to the books design and the editing process overall- ” I didn’t have a lot of input with the cover and design. Because of my book binding studies, I knew that a book has to be filled with good content and it is not enough to just produce something that looks beautiful. I couldn’t just adopt a ‘let’s get the plot done’ attitude, it had to be vivid and rich and I had that to get on with”
Publishers were justified in their attempts to win Emma’s heart (and signature on a book contract). From the would be publisher who filled a room with Forget- me -Nots, played Maud’s music and posted ‘Elizabeth is Missing’ posters all over their building to the eventual victor, Penguin who gave her hand-written notes from staff members who had read and loved her book, a fierce bidding war led to a good contract and a very bemused and modestly appreciative Emma who hadn’t quite factored in this level of interest.
What made her choose Penguin? “Karolina Sutton (my editor) had a vision of the book that lay closest to mine. I needed someone who would be strict with me especially during the final draft when I couldn’t see the book anymore. Karolina’s feelings about the book mirror my own” The television rights have already been sold and we predict no end of interest should it get made- Maud is a dream of a role for any actor and the other characters are as finely drawn as she is. As women and men choose to have their own families later in life, we will see more and more parents having to simultaneously cope with children still at home and the needs of ageing and maybe infirm parents. A book and programme that reflects this is of immense value.
What would be Emma’s dream cast and how does she think she will react to a dramatisation of her book? “That is SO difficult to answer when you have lived with the characters for so long. It is hard to imagine your characters embodied in another persons ideas about how they might look or be and even harder to imagine Maud on screen. So much of her is within her own head, showing her from the inside, whereas television is much more about the external, not the inner life and it shows that from the outside in”
Emma will be appearing at Jarrold’s book department in Norwich on Tuesday, June 17 at 6pm. Tickets are £3, including a glass of wine, with £3 redeemable off purchases of her book and at the Festival read at Literary Ipswich on Monday 30th June between 7-9 pm at Waterstones in Ipswich. Lesley Dolphin, the BBC Radio Suffolk presenter will be joining in the discussion and featuring ‘Elizabeth is Missing’ in her afternoon book club, BBC Radio Suffolk, 30 June Thank you so much to Emma Healey for this interview and to Lija Kresowaty at Penguin for arranging it. Find Emma’s Website here