I wrote East of the Sun, West of the Moon a few years ago now. It took a while to find a publisher. It had many rejections. All the rejections were very positive, like the one below. I became disheartened and put it away in a draw, until it nagged its way out and I took it to Janetta at Frances Lincoln and last Thursday it was born onto the shelves of bookshops and out into the wide wild world.
So, I guess this is why one of the roots of the story became lost in my mind and only now has re-surfaced because of a review on Amazon.co.uk
In her review ‘Sylvie’ states “I chose this book for a class of bright nine year olds as the first paragraph was such lovely inspiring prose and it is a well known traditional tale. It is a lovely picture book that just seemed perfect for this age group…until I got to the second page and the casual talk of drug pushers and prostitutes! Surely it is possible to conjure up the seedy side of a city without talking of prostitutes! Why on earth would you, for no real reason, put such references in a book for children?”
Well, indeed. I can’t imagine that a writer would put anything in to a book for no reason. Writing isn’t an accidental process, but a thought filled process. Each word and phrase is written with mindfulness to tell a story in a certain way. So, these are my reasons and this is my reply.
It wasn’t written as a children’s book. Just a book. And it was written at a time when I was working at a school at the edge of Birmingham for a few days. The school was brilliant, but many of the children came from very fractured homes, broken by both drug addiction and prostitution. One of those places where pimps hang around the school gates waiting to pick off the uncared for ones. So, I wanted a story that would reflect something of the reality for a part of society seldom seen by many, as we prefer it to be invisible. For some of these children they would not need a teacher to explain to them what a prostitute is, nor about drugs and pushers or pimps.
The story travels away from this. It escapes from that world.
At that school on the edge of Birmingham over 50% of the children attending lived with someone who was not direct family. Mothers and fathers were in prison, for drug use, prostitution and other crimes. Some lived with grandparents, some with siblings, some were carers for their younger siblings. One child who was there on the day I visited often missed days in school because he was locked in his room when he got home while parents when out on the lash. Sometimes he made it to school, more times he didn’t. The school was brilliant and struggling. The people, both children and parents, were assigned to a part of society that many would rather remained invisible. I would rather it didn’t. Because if it remains invisible it remains unchallenged and these children become condemned to a cycle of repeat behaviour. So, I guess this is partly for them that I wrote this book, though few will get to read it.
The teachers were remarkable. There was a curious list of things on the staff room wall. On it, sheets, pans, cutlery, single beds etc. I asked them what this was for. Turned out that many of the children came from families of asylum seekers. They arrived with nothing into a hostile land that treated them with suspicion and dislike. The teachers collected together clothes and other things to help them. I guess these are also the people this book is for. Time goes by. I forgot the passion I felt on my return from this school that I visited for only 2 days and told the children stories and drew them pictures.
So, these are my reasons for putting “such references in a book for children”. But these words are there also because it is not a book for children, but a book for people, of all ages. The part of the story is so small, just the first couple of pages. It roots a magical story that has survived for thousands of years in a modern urban setting, reflecting the lives of many today. And I am thankful to Sylvie for reminding me that this was one of the many roots that ran into the telling of East of the Sun, West of the Moon.
Here are the first 2 pages. Click on the images to enlarge and read.
And now I wonder what the homeless girl did with the cup of gold she was gifted by the polar bear.