Showing posts with label blog tour. Show all posts
Showing posts with label blog tour. Show all posts

Monday, 10 June 2019

Empathy: A Superpower by Sita Brahmachari

"Reading helps young minds to imagine lives beyond their own: how they would cope in a crisis, if they were a refugee, or had just lost someone they loved. Books are scientifically proven to help us develop empathy.

Empathy Day is catching fire because in these divided times, our partners share our belief that empathy is a beacon of hope. Story-based strategies offer a concrete way of helping us understand each other better."

- Miranda McKearney OBE, founder of EmpathyLab

Now here's Sita Brahmachari to tell us more about her experience of Empathy Day and of writing books which develop empathy in their readers: 

For Empathy Lab last year I worked in Sheffield Libraries and met families at Empathy cafés. We read from my stories 'Worry Angels' (Barrington Stoke) and 'Tender Earth' (Macmillan Children’s Books) and I held Empathy workshops with young people including those from Beck School in Sheffield.

We explored joining hands together, meeting new people and building empathy within the community. Many wonderful interactions were formed and afterwards a young family sent me a letter (left). When I first met Tanisha and Nawzad and their mother the girls had silky hair down to their calves. At the second meeting the girls had cut their hair and sent it to children with cancer who needed children’s downy hair for their wigs. They said after the workshop they wanted to do something that meant a lot to them. They were so proud of their empathetic action telling me that their hair would grow and they were happy to think that a child they would never meet would find some comfort from their healthy hair.

As with all truly empathetic actions their kindness and generosity moved me. In my forthcoming story ‘Where The River Runs Gold’ (Orion Books) Shifa (meaning healing in Arabic) cuts her hair too in an act of empathy towards her family. Feelings of empathy once seeded grow more empathy.

Empathy is the golden treasure to be discovered in fiction and in life and I think of it as the superpower that can be quietly ignited in the minds and hearts of readers as they discover characters in worlds they may not yet have travelled to, or indeed may never, in reality, have access to. I believe that stories can open children’s empathy portals and offer them a life-long exploration of what it is to be human.

At a recent event at Shropshire Book Award with wonderful authors and human rights activists Liz Laird and Beverly Naidoo a student asked a question that was hard to answer: How do you write such humane books?

It set me thinking that it’s often hard for authors to talk about their process because to do so there is a temptation to make writing in empathy ink seem much neater and tidier than it ever is. Communication is complex; to truly meet another human being requires time, care and space. As Amy May in ‘Worry Angels’ says: ‘If you have a friend and you don’t share much of the same language you have to put spaces between things when you talk to each other. … I like that space when you can rest. I think if I could have that space with everyone, no matter what language they speak , where I have time to read people’s body language and look in their eyes and time to take in their words, then I wouldn’t worry so much.’ ( p77 ‘Worry Angels’)

In this story Amy May makes friends with Rima who has recently arrived from Syria with her family. Through play, art and observing each other closely Amy May and Rima discover that they have much in common though they come from very different worlds. Amy May discovers something truly precious: ‘When I sit with Rima I understand that most of the things we want to build in the sand are the same’ (p75)

Through my work with Jane Ray at Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants in London I know this to be true and when presented with stories that open the empathy portal in them, children recognise it too.

When I think of Amy May’s and Rima’s interaction the words of the late MP Jo Cox are never far from my mind and heart. Amy May’s words echo Jo Cox’s call for unity in a time in which we are seeing unprecedented racially motivated attacks.

Taneisha’s and Nawzad’s empathetic action of hair cutting seems to me to be deeply connected to what writing for young people is all about.

The question How do you write such humane stories? can only be answered when I think of a book in the hands of young readers: the circuit of empathy is only completed when the reader roams in the space that Amy May speaks of and feels deeply enough to allow the story to impact on their lives and interactions.

As I return to Sheffield to spend the day with the children of Beck School on World Empathy Day 2019 I feel the importance of this work in our world today. In a whole school empathy focused day we plan to create a river of golden empathetic words on an art wall at the school… as well as an empathy ‘Graffitree’ like the trees artists paint across a dystopian city where children’s imaginations and storytelling is under threat in ‘Where The River Runs Gold’.

 The narratives we share with young people matter deeply. Golden words hold within them the power to open empathy portals in children’s imaginations and impact on their lives and communities. I’m so happy to be part of Empathy Lab’s children’s book community who understand the need to nurture this golden empathy river.

Although many of Sita's books are suitable for older primary aged children, her book Car Wash Wish is featured in Empathy Lab's 2019 Read For Empathy Guide for young people aged 11-16 which can be accessed here. Click here for the Read For Empathy Guide for primary aged children.

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Cross-Curricular Links in 'The Longest Night Of Charlie Noon' (Blog Post by Christopher Edge)

One of the joys of writing for children is seeing the inspiration that young readers take from a story you have written. I’m often contacted by teachers via Twitter showing me the amazing creations their classes have produced after reading one of my novels and when I visit schools I get to see this inspirational work first-hand, from Möbius strip sculptures inspired by 'The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day' to playground rocket launches straight out of 'The Jamie Drake Equation' and fabulous creative writing where young authors have taken Albie Bright into many more exciting new worlds.

The 'Longest Night of Charlie Noon' is a story about three children who get lost in the woods, and at its heart it’s a mystery story. As Charlie, Dizzy and Johnny make their way through the woods they find strange dangers and impossible puzzles lurking in the shadows, and I hope the excitement and intrigue readers will find in the story will get them reading closely to find the clues they need to solve the mystery. As readers, they can make inference and predictions as they follow Charlie’s path through the woods, with the twists and turns of the story also maybe challenging assumptions they might make and showing them the rewards of close reading.

The puzzles in the story can also be used to help develop children’s problem solving skills. From decoding ciphers to building circuits to create their own Morse code keys, 'The Longest Night of Charlie Noon' shows how stories can be used to connect subjects across the school curriculum. As Charlie tries to use the stars to find a way out of the woods, links can be made to the topic of ‘Earth and Space’ in the science curriculum and the movement of stars across the night sky, whilst other science topics such as the life cycles of trees, plants and flowers and how fossils are formed are also touched on in the story. Connections could be made to Geography too, with children learning about changing environments and carrying out nature audits in their own local area, whilst there are also links to History too.

As someone who’s never been much of an outdoor type, writing 'The Longest Night of Charlie Noon' has helped me to connect to the natural world in a way that has fed my imagination. From mentions of 'The Wind in the Willows' to echoes of 'Brendon Chase' by ‘B B’, there are opportunities to make connections with classic works of children’s fiction and nature writing. A vocabulary of the natural world is woven through the story and I hope that young readers take these words and make them their own, enriching their vocabularies and using this wild inspiration to create their own art and stories.

Teaching resources for 'The Longest Night of Charlie Noon' are available from my website (https://www.christopheredge.co.uk/resources) and if you read the book with your class, I’d love to hear about the inspiration they find in the story. And please tell them to keep reading and change the world.

Thursday, 26 April 2018

Guest Post: Vasilisa the Beautiful (on ambiguous villains) by Sophie Anderson

In which Sophie Anderson, author of the wonderful 'The House With Chicken Legs' (read my review here), writes about how in some stories, particularly where villains and heroes are concerned, things might not always be as they seem. In children's books I think it is particularly important that the concept of 3-dimensional characters and events are explored in this way, especially as it is more true to life. I'll let Sophie explain it better, with the help of a Russian fairy tale:

‘In a certain kingdom there lived a merchant …’

In this Russian fairy tale, collected and published by Alexander Afanasyev in 1855, a merchant has one daughter, Vasilisa the Beautiful.

When she is eight-years-old Vasilisa’s mother gives her a magic doll and says,

‘Remember and heed my words. I am dying, and together with my maternal blessing I leave you this doll. Always keep it with you and do not show it to anyone; if you get into trouble, give the doll food, and ask its advice.’

Then Vasilisa’s mother kisses her and dies. After some time, Vasilisa’s father remarries – a widow with two daughters of her own. Vasilisa’s stepmother and stepsisters are jealous of her beauty. They torment her and give her endless work to do. But, Vasilisa’s magic doll comforts her and helps her do the work.

Then one day, the merchant leaves on business and Vasilisa’s stepmother and stepsisters plot to get rid of Vasilisa. They snuff out all the candles in the house and send Vasilisa to Baba Yaga’s hut to ask for a light.

Vasilisa is scared that Baba Yaga will eat her, but the magic doll says it will keep her safe. So, Vasilisa travels through the forest to Baba Yaga’s hut, which is surrounded by a fence of skulls and bones.

Baba Yaga agrees to give Vasilisa a light on the condition she stays and works for her – and threatens to eat her if she does not. Then Baba Yaga makes Vasilisa serve her an enormous meal, and goes to bed, leaving Vasilisa with a seemingly impossible number of chores to do; including sorting a bushel of wheat.

Vasilisa feeds her doll a few crumbs and explains her troubles. The doll replies,

‘Fear not, Vasilisa the Beautiful! Eat your supper, say your prayers, and go to sleep; the morning is wiser than the evening.’

And in the morning, all the work is done. The next day, Baba Yaga gives Vasilisa another seemingly impossible number of chores to do; including sorting poppy seeds from dust. Once again, Vasilisa’s doll does the work for her.

Baba Yaga asks Vasilisa how she managed to do all this work, and Vasilisa replies, ‘I am helped by the blessing of my mother.’

‘So that is what it is,’ shrieks Baba Yaga. ‘Get you gone, blessed daughter! I want no blessed ones in my house!’ And Baba Yaga send Vasilisa on her way – but before she leaves she gives her a skull with burning eyes from her fence, saying, ‘Here is the light for your stepsisters.’

Vasilisa returns home, and is about to throw away the skull, thinking her stepfamily will not need it anymore, but a voice from the skull says, ‘Do not throw me away, take me to your stepmother.’ Inside the house, the skull stares at the stepmother and stepdaughters and burns them. They try to hide but the eyes follow them, and by morning they are burned to ashes.

The tale continues with Vasilisa moving to town, completing more difficult tasks with the help of her doll, and eventually marrying the tsar, but Baba Yaga does not feature again.

I love the Baba Yaga in this tale, as it is one of the first times I glimpsed the wise woman behind the evil old crone archetype. Baba Yaga’s role in this story is ambiguous, as she could be considered a villain, or a helper.

Although Baba Yaga gives Vasilisa seemingly impossible tasks to do and threatens to eat her if she does not complete them, ultimately Baba Yaga gives Vasilisa the burning skull that frees her from her evil stepfamily – the real villains in the tale.

In ‘Women Who Run With The Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype’ by Clarissa Pinkola Estés there is a thorough and fascinating analysis of this tale, which Estés believes is rich in symbolism and metaphor.

Estés writes Vasilisa is ‘about the realization that most things are not as they seem’ and that ‘Vasilisa is a story of handing down the blessing on women’s power of intuition from mother to daughter.’

Estés describes how Vasilisa’s journey takes her from subservience to strength and independence, through facing fear and by learning from Baba Yaga, who represents the wild feminine nature.

This tale was the start of a long journey for me, which began with the realisation that Baba Yaga is not just the cannibalistic villain she is so often depicted as. She is a fascinating, complex character; a wild woman of folklore, fierce and formidable, watchful and wise. She can be a maternal benefactress or a dangerous witch and decides on a case by case basis how she will treat the visitors to her hut.

Her origins are ancient; linked to Pagan Goddesses associated with life, death, the forest and Earth itself; and the history of her portrayal reflects societies’ attitudes to woman and paganism. I am still fascinated by Baba Yaga and have found no matter how much I read, there is always more to learn about her, and from her.


Vasilisa the Beautiful and Baba Yaga, written by Alexander Afanasyev, is available in a gorgeous edition with Ivan Bilibin’s iconic illustrations from 1899, published by The Planet.

There is also a beautiful picture book of this tale, Vasilisa the Beautiful, written by Anthea Bell and illustrated by Anna Morgunova, published by Minedition.

The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson publishes in paperback, 3 May, £6.99 from Usborne. Cover art by Melissa Castrillón and inside black and white illustrations by Elisa Paganelli.