Guest blog: Mixing Fact and Fiction by Jane Clarke

I’m delighted to welcome Jane Clarke to the blog today, author of Al’s Awesome Science: Egg-speriments, a brilliant new series of science-based adventures for younger readers.  Whether they are budding scientists or maybe are just curious about how the world works, this series is sure to entertain them. Full of great characters (I particularly love Einstein the dog!), wonderful illustrations by James Brown and of course, super science experiments that can easily be tried at home, Al’s Awesome Science is a fantastic blend of fact and fiction. Jane, an award winning author of over 80 children’s books, is sharing today how she achieves this.  Welcome to the blog Jane!

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“In the Al’s Awesome Science books, I aim to write a great story, filled with fun science facts and experiments, that’s an entertaining read regardless of how much the reader knows about the subject. Continue reading

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Bookchat: Adam Hargreaves

 

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I am so very excited to say that Adam Hargreaves is on the blog today! I think if someone had told me when I was young that one day I’d be talking to one of the creators of the Mr Men, I would never have believed them!

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Adam is the son of original Mr Men creator, Roger Hargreaves.  Not only has he continued the work of his father, Adam is also a painter, creating beautiful oil on canvas landscapes.  I was delighted to be invited to interview Adam following the publication of his first book from his very own series, Molly Mischief: My Perfect Pet!  The adventures of Molly are bound to delight young and old alike. I read the story aloud with my five year old niece who laughed out loud and announced that Molly was exactly like her!

Molly is a wonderful character – full of life, mischief and mayhem – exactly what an inquisitive little girl should be.  Her first adventure centres on a trip to the zoo, where Molly becomes inspired to find a pet more perfect than her own little mouse, Polka.  The antics that follow as Molly tries to find her ‘perfect’ pet are very funny and utterly endearing.  Try as she might, none of the animals she ‘borrows’ from the zoo quite fit at home, from a hippo to a giraffe to an elephant.  Eventually she realises that maybe her pet mouse, Polka, is more perfect than anything else – much to the relief of her family (except maybe her brother…!).  Molly Mischief: My Perfect Pet is exactly what a children’s story should be – funny, full of imagination, with a valuable lesson to be learned. And perfect for sharing!

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Welcome to the blog Adam and congratulations on the publication of Molly Mischief!  I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed it – as did my five year old niece who said ‘Molly reminds me of me!”. It’s a wonderful story and feels like an absolute classic. Can you tell us about your inspiration for writing it? The inspiration for Molly comes from the wonderful ability that children have to imagine something and for that to also be real for them. I particularly remember this when my kids were young. My son Jacob would dress up as Batman and then we would have these surreal conversations about what Jacob was doing in another room in the house. I wanted to capture this power of imagination in a character. Molly can be or do anything she wishes.

This is your first children’s book outside of the Mr Men. Was creating Molly a very different experience from working on the Mr MenThe creation of the idea for Molly Mischief was obviously quite different, but writing and illustrating Mr Men books has given me a lot of experience which I have been able to apply to writing Molly. Over the years I have developed a sort of process that fits to anything I am trying to write.

Can you tell us about the creative process behind Molly? I hand draw everything and then scan the black line drawing into my computer where I colour the illustration as I like the flat finish I can achieve that way. I have a pretty good idea of the page layouts from the start, so don’t often need to make any major changes to composition later on. It took a while and a few variations to pin down exactly who I wanted Molly to be (and she went through various name changes before Molly Mischief, but now she is a Molly I can’t think of her in any other way), but once I had given her a mischievous nature then everything fell into place. Strangely, even for lots of different versions of drawing her, she has always had the same outfit.

When I was young, my sister and I would literally spend hours drawing the Mr Men; some drawings were more successful than others!  Molly Mischief is wonderfully drawn and I particularly love her mischievous expressions. What advice would you give to aspiring illustrators and artists to help them develop their creative talent – particularly when it comes to storytelling? The more you draw the better you get, so keep practising and then, as you get better, the more fun it becomes. Drawing is all about observation, so it is important to look at things very hard when you are trying to draw them.

What adventures can we expect from Molly in the future? I am writing a second story about Molly which explores the advantages and pitfalls of being a superhero. And her superpowers, of course, involve a lot of chaos and mayhem for her family.

Thank you very much for taking the time to answer these questions. I’m looking forward to reading Molly’s next adventure (and so is my niece!)

Adam Hargreaves will be introducing Molly Mischief, including a live draw-along, at the Bath Festival of Children’s Literature. Sunday 1stOctober, 1.30pm.

For more information visit www.pavilionbooks.com.  With thanks to Pavilion Books for sending me a copy of this wonderful book.

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Bookchat: Jane Mitchell

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Some months back I read A Dangerous Crossing, by Jane Mitchell, a moving story about a Syrian family fleeing conflict in their home country (you can read my review here). I found that when I watched the news at the time, which was full of refugee-related headlines, I felt even more empathy for the people forced to flee their homes. News stories create a spotlight on issues around the globe, but when the media turn their attention elsewhere, it can seem as though that particular ‘issue’ has resolved or is forgotten. This is, of course, far from true and for me, that’s why books like A Dangerous Crossing (endorsed by Amnesty International) are so important providing a more permanent reminder of the humanitarian crisis caused by conflict.

So I’m really pleased to welcome Jane Mitchell to the blog today for a bookchat about her novel A Dangerous Crossing. Thank you for joining us Jane!

A Dangerous Crossing gives a completely new meaning to the images we have seen on the news over the last few years. Why did you decide to write this story and how did you go about researching it? My publisher Little Island Books wanted a book about the Syrian refugee crisis, to bring it to life for young readers, and invited me to write a story about a young refugee. It was something that was very important to me. The crisis has galvanised me over the last few years and I was hugely interested in proving a glimpse into what it must be like for one boy, one family, caught up in this war. I undertook research in a range of areas:

  • I follow the Syrian Network for Human Rights on social media. An independent, non-partisan, non-governmental, non-profit organisation, it is registered in the UK and USA. Its mission is to work to protect the human and civil rights of Syrian citizens, regardless of their ethnicity and affiliations. It documents violations against the Syrian people—including the names of people killed in the war—on a daily This is where I obtained all the names and ages of the children.
  • I met with a Syrian family who moved to Ireland before the outbreak of the Syrian war. They told me about pre-war Syria, and provided great insight into routine life for Syrian children when their country was at peace, including education, food and life-styles.
  • I read travel books about Syria and Turkey, studied the geography, layout, and means of travel through the two countries by public and private transport. I traced out routes followed by many Syrian refugees today.
  • I read up on personal stories and experiences of refugees crossing Turkey and the sea to Greece, including reports and accounts from Amnesty International and Médecins Sans Frontières, and researched the towns and cafés along the Turkish coast where smugglers meet with refugees seeking to get to Europe. I also read about how Turks arrange illegal crossings to Greece.
  • Finally, I volunteered in the Jungle Camp in Calais. In this unofficial camp, I saw first-hand the conditions in which illegal refugees survive, with bad sanitation, inadequate shelter, little medical support, and no washing facilities. I met and spent time with refugees from Syria, Eritrea, Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Apart entirely from the poor physical conditions at the camp, people there are socially isolated from mainstream society, with no access to education or employment opportunities, and no means of economic support. I was at the camp when French police launched a tear gas attack in response to a rush by the refugees to trucks stopped on the bridge leading to the port. These frequent attacks cause widespread panic, distress and anger, as well as physical discomfort and pain—an experience I recreate for Ghalib.

The story is so well-imagined and there are some heart wrenching moments. Did you find it difficult to write some of the more emotional scenes? It is always tough to write about something that’s emotionally distressing, particularly when the character is a child and someone I care about. I try to put myself into the character’s head and to imagine how they might feel, to make it as real as possible for the reader. As a result, I find it tiring and demanding to write emotional scenes and often find the scene replaying in my head long after I have written it.

The names of all the characters are real Syrian refugee children. What made you decide to use these names? I was looking for authentic Syrian names for my story, and I also wanted some way to remember the hundreds of children whose lives have been needlessly cut short by the war in Syria. Early on in my research, I found on the Syrian Network for Human Rights the names of children who had been killed in the war, and this seemed a fitting tribute to these lost children.

A Dangerous Crossing will, I am sure, generate empathy and sympathy for the refugees fleeing Syria. What would you say to children who would like to do something to help the refugee situation but are limited to what they can do because of their age? The age of young readers doesn’t mean that they can’t still do something positive or take important action to help the desperate plight of refugees fleeing Syria.

  • Young people can organise collections of clothing and other items to help refugees, through their schools and/or local communities. Essential goods can then be dropped off at collection points for distribution to refugees in camps and centres.
  • They can hold cake sales or sponsored walks to raise money to donate to legitimate charities, such as Medécins Sans Frontiéres or Amnesty International.
  • They can attend rallies, days of action and marches to show their support for refugees and to raise awareness.
  • They can sign petitions, and email world leaders, MEPs and politicians to demand a more proactive response to the crisis and to pressure them to provide emergency funding.
  • They can read about and share stories of refugees so that others can learn more about them.
  • Young people can make a real effort to befriend and welcome refugees who are relocated to their schools and/or communities. Refugees have been through a tough time, and welcoming them or making them feel included in their new communities is an important gesture of friendship.

Why do you think it’s important that children’s fiction focus on stories like Ghalib’s? Children in Ireland and the UK need to understand the terrible things that are happening to Syrian children. I believe passionately that words have the power to create empathy, to engender understanding, and ultimately to provoke action. The more that young people learn about this crisis, the more they will understand its underlying causes.

It is often tempting to shield children from the harsher realities of life, such as death and war, but children have a remarkable capacity to empathise when something is presented to them in a way they can understand. With such broad media coverage of the civil war, they are very aware of the crisis, but perhaps don’t quite appreciate what it means. To this end, fiction can be a wonderful medium to explore difficult topics safely. An honest storyline that doesn’t shy away from the truth enables young readers to explore multiple perspectives and gain insight into complex issues. However, when writing a distressing story, I try to remain sensitive to the young minds absorbing the difficult narrative. I always try to include a note of optimism and hope, and even a touch of humour where possible to lighten the tone.

A Dangerous Crossing is endorsed by Amnesty International. How did this come about? My last book—Chalkline—was endorsed by Amnesty International as contributing to a better understanding of human rights and the values that underpin them. Such endorsement means a great deal to me: human rights are an important theme in my books and of personal importance to me. My publisher, Little Island Books, approached Amnesty International to ask them about the possibility of also endorsing A Dangerous Crossing and I am honoured that they agreed. Additionally, the Executive Director of Amnesty Ireland launched my book in Dublin.

This is your seventh novel; how did writing A Dangerous Crossing compare to your previous writing experiences? The topic of A Dangerous Crossing is such a current and burning issue that writing it was far more urgent and important for me that any other novel I have written. It is a highly political story compared to my previous works and as such, it has attracted a lot of attention. This can only be a positive thing for the desperate people in Syria as anything that brings attention to their ordeal can only be a catalyst for action.

And finally, what are your three best pieces of advice to aspiring writers? It is always great to hear of writers who aspire to write stories for publication and/or submission to publishers, and I would encourage them to keep at it. My three pieces of advice are as follows:

  • Finish your work. So many aspiring writers tell me about the work they have just started. Sometimes, when things get really tough, it is easier and tempting to put a manuscript aside and start again. The result is that lots of new writers have lots of works-in-progress, but never actually finish a complete manuscript. So my top advice is finish your work. There is a great sense of achievement in completing a manuscript.
  • Don’t send in your first draft. Editing and rewriting your work will make it so much stronger. When you rework your writing, you’ll see things that you never noticed first time around, such as plot errors, repetition, typos, and so on. It is always so much more professional to send in a polished and redrafted manuscript for consideration.
  • Be open to feedback and criticism—especially if it’s from an editor or agent. New writers can sometimes be a little precious about their work, but try to remember that it’s an editor/agent’s job to make your work as strong as possible. Be open to the feedback and look on it as a way to improve your work.

Thank you Jane for some wonderful insight into your work, amazing ideas for helping young reader’s (and indeed older readers) respond to the refugee crisis and great advice for aspiring writers.

A Dangerous Crossing is published by Little Island.  Find out more about Jane Mitchell at www.janemitchell.ie.

 

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Bookchat Roadshow. Just brilliant!

It’s a week ago today that we were busy welcoming parents to the Bookchat Roadshow at Harlands Primary in Haywards Heath.  This was a unique event, bringing together children’s authors, publishers, education specialists, along with local organisations and the Public Library Service to share ideas with parents and carers.  And being the second event I was possibly even more nervous than the first time round! The first event had gone so well, would this one be the same?  I can safely say it was even better, not least because after the main event, the authors ran workshops with 240 children at the host school!

“The atmosphere is positively buzzing” one parent said to me – and I couldn’t agree more. It really was exciting and I am so grateful to my brilliant fellow presenters, participating authors and the organisations who were exhibiting for helping to make it this way!  After a lovely introduction by the school’s Headteacher, Jane Goodlace, I spoke to parents about encouraging reading and the importance of reading for pleasure. It’s not easy to do this in such a short time – there is so much you could say!059_The-Book-Activist-Bookchat-Roadshow But the crux was how to help your child’s enjoyment of reading through helping them choose the right book for them, taking into account their interests. I truly believe parents can be the best reading role models a child can have but as parents we often worry about our children’s reading and this can sometimes remove the joy of the experience – for both parent and child.  If we can remove the stress from the situation and focus on what children want to read and get enjoyment from, the path to discovering the magic of stories is much smoother!

“It was really helpful to confirm I am doing the right thing and to give me new ideas” Parent feedback

I was followed by Jane Walker from Barrington Stoke, who spoke brilliantly about reluctant readers and making reading accessible. It was fascinating to hear how Barrington Stoke produce books that are so readable on a practical level and also really helpful to hear how whether your child can’t read or won’t read, there are ways to support them. “Reading is for everyone” Jane said.

Moving on from this, author Nikki Sheehan was totally inspiring on how to encourage children’s creative writing, with brilliant and achievable ideas that all parents – and of course their children – could benefit from.  Her final comment was ‘be their inspiration’ – what better advice could you get?!  I was delighted that both Kate Manning and Clementine McMillan-Scott from Scoop Magazine joined the line-up and shared the story behind Scoop.  Their presentation focused on the importance of celebrating all kinds of stories, sharing that every reader is different and how we can all play a part in encouraging all types of reading and writing.

“Congratulations on delivering such an inspiring and positive event!” Parent feedback

On that note, the coffee break arrived, and the celebrating continued with attendees having the chance to peruse the exhibition.  Parents had the opportunity to ask advice from organisations including local education service Discover & Be, dyslexia specialists Helen Arkell, Inkpots Writing Workshops and Nature Nuture Sussex. Even the Schools Library Service and the Public Library Service were represented with parents able to join up if they weren’t already members and find out about the Summer Reading Challenge!  With a bookstall provided by Waterstones Haywards Heath, and Usborne books it was a hive of activity!

“Attendance should be compulsory; it was inspirational!” Parent feedback

The grand finale of the morning was the fantastic author panel Bookchat featuring four award winning children’s authors; Nikki Sheehan, Jamie Thomson, A F Harrold and Jenny McLachlan which I was very excited to be chairing.  There is something magical about authors sharing their ideas – they create the worlds we inhabit when we read and I like to think some of the magic rubs off on those who hear them!

A lively chat ensued with questions from the audience and the authors shared their best tips for getting children into reading and writing and why stories are so important. As a parent myself I am eager to encourage my children’s reading and hearing the author’s childhood experiences of books and stories was just brilliant!  It was the perfect consolidation of all the wonderful ideas and advice heard throughout the morning, but with the extra inspiration everybody needs.

“It was a fabulous morning with excellent presentations and entertaining authors” Parent feedback

After a quick lunch break, it was back to work for the authors who ran workshops with pupils in years three to six at the host school as well as signing lots of books!  On visiting each classroom, I can’t tell you how incredible it was to see the look at the children’s faces as each author brought their stories to life and inspired them with ideas for getting into reading and writing.

Jenny McLachlan talking to Year 6

Jenny McLachlan reading an extract from Stargazing for Beginners

Nikki Sheehan talking to Year 4

Nikki Sheehan working her creative magic

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Jamie Thomson aka The Dark Lord!

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A F Harrold performing poetry

Schools don’t often have the opportunity to benefit from one author visit, let alone four, so this was a real achievement! As you may know this Roadshow was supported with funding from West Sussex County Council and I am truly grateful to them for recognising the value of the Roadshow and the importance of empowering parents and carers to support their children.   

The Roadshow was a great success… The combination of authors, publishers and specialists provided a focus for everyone in the audience… The workshops went down incredibly well with teachers and especially the children.” 

Jane Goodlace, Headteacher of Harlands 

I am so pleased we had fantastic photographer, Adam Hollingworth, to help capture some of the magic of the Roadshow! Feedback for the whole event has been even more positive than I could have hoped for and I’d like to say a HUGE thank you to EVERYONE who supported the event and made it so special.  Bring on the next one!

All photographs courtesy of Adam Hollingworth Photography.

If you would like to get involved please contact thebookactivist@gmail.com.

With thanks to our funding partner:

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For more information about the Bookchat Roadshow visit www.thebookactivist.com.

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Making reading accessible at the Bookchat Roadshow!

It’s really important we ensure all children can access reading, whatever their ability. And supporting dyslexic readers is a cause close to my heart – my 14 year old son is dyslexic so I am well aware of the struggles this can cause.  We want to make sure the Bookchat Roadshow supports parents and carers of children of all ages and all reading abilities.
BS_button_whtSo I can’t tell you how pleased I am that Jane Walker from Barrington Stoke will be speaking to parents at the Bookchat Roadshow on 20th July. Jane says:
“At Barrington Stoke we are all about cracking reading. We have nearly twenty years experience of publishing fiction particularly for the reluctant, struggling and dyslexic young reader and I will be talking about how we remove the barriers so that everyone can access and enjoy a good book. I look forward to meeting families and being part of this excellent initiative. “
Jane will be sharing tips and interesting facts around ‘readability’ and reading for pleasure and a very brief overview of what Barrington Stoke can do to support readers of all ages.
We also have the brilliant organisation Helen Arkell exhibiting at the event and on hand to give advice to parents and carers. Helen Arkell Logo Online
Helen Arkell offer dyslexia support and advice to anyone who may need it, whether they think they have dyslexia or care for someone who may have dyslexia. They support children and adults alike through assessments, training, consultations and offer a variety of courses on dyslexia and related topics. Their aim is to “inspire people to believe in themselves, achieve their goals and succeed on their own terms”.  

You can register for FREE to attend the Bookchat Roadshow, which takes place on 20th July 2017 at Harlands Primary School, Haywards Heath, West Sussex.   The Roadshow brings together authors, industry experts and people passionate about children’s reading and writing for pleasure.  With inspirational talks and an author panel bookchat, plus a selection of exhibitors, we give a huge range of ideas to help support children’s creativity. Speakers include author Nikki Sheehan and also the team behind Scoop Magazine. Register online now!

For more information please visit www.thebookactivist.com.

 

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Discover creativity at the Bookchat Roadshow!

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The Bookchat Roadshow is an event for parents and carers with children of ALL ages. We want to inspire and encourage those attending with practical advice and ideas to support children’s development as readers and writers from birth right through to teens!  So we’re delighted Discover & Be will be on hand to chat to parents and carers about any Early Years concerns and advise about general teaching and learning worries for primary school age children.

Discover and Be logoDiscover & Be is an exciting educational service providing hands-on, creative experiences for children. As well as weekly multi-sensory messy play sessions for 0-4 year olds, they also offer academic and music tuition.

Rhiannon and Sheila, the co-founders of Discover & Be, share a passion for hands on, creative learning experiences. Their goal is simply to make learning meaningful and inspiring for children.  As the word ‘educate’, from the Latin educare, ‘to lead out’, suggests, Discover and Be aims to focus on not what is put into the child, but what can be led out of each individual. Sheila says:

“We are passionate about reading and sharing stories with children of all ages (even grown up ones).  The Roadshow provides a great platform for parents, teachers, authors and reading experts, to get together to share ideas and experience.”

Discover & Be also has a team of qualified, experienced and passionate tutors who provide bespoke 1 to 1 private tuition across Sussex.  Their tutors champion creative hands-on learning, with the primary goal of engaging the child’s interest to help pupils of all ages reach their potential.  This approach not only achieves fantastic results, but ensures that lessons are fun and meaningful for the child.

“Reading really is the gateway to the curriculum so making it fun and interactive is the best way to get children excited about it.  We love teaching phonics as these sounds are the building blocks that form reading. Empowering children with phonetical skills and watching them build sounds into words is amazing.”

Discover & Be’s weekly messy play sessions are themed, sometimes around a topic such as transport or the rainforest, for example, or often exploring a particular book. Rhiannon and Sheila feel it is important for all sessions to include a shared story with interactive aspects, thereby helping a story come to life. By engaging both the children and parents/carers in this way, reading for pleasure is encouraged and different approaches to sharing stories are explored.

“We feel it is important to access all learning styles and engage all abilities in this way, in order for each child to develop holistically and achieve the most out of each learning experience. We hope that our name ‘Discover & Be’ reflects this philosophy.”

Sheila will be joining us at the BookChat Roadshow on Thursday 20th July so do bring along any questions you have about making learning fun!

“The Bookchat Roadshow gives everyone the chance to come and chat about reading, phonics and writing too. This is definitely something we are proud to support. No matter how old you are, what could better than discovering a new exciting book that you can’t put down???……Chatting about it with your friends of course!!! So what are you waiting for? Get reading books and getting chatting about them.”

Parents and carers in the Sussex area with children of all ages can register for FREE to attend the Bookchat Roadshow, an event bringing together authors, industry experts and people passionate about children’s reading and writing for pleasure.  With inspirational talks and an author panel bookchat, plus a selection of exhibitors, we give parents and carers a huge range of ideas to help them support their children’s creativity. Speakers include author Nikki Sheehan and also the team behind Scoop Magazine. The next event takes place on 20th July 2017 at Harlands Primary School, Haywards Heath, West Sussex.  

For more information please visit www.thebookactivist.com.

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Author Interview: Sarah Matthias

A Berlin Love Song by Sarah Matthias is definitely one of my favourite reads so far this year so I’m delighted to welcome Sarah to the blog today! The story is rich in historical detail and features characters who are so believable you can hear their voices. Read on to find out Sarah’s inspiration for writing the book, the creative process behind it and some truly wonderful insight into the work of an author writing historical fiction.

berlin-love-song_3A Berlin Love Song has romance and love at its heart; was this what you always intended when you started writing the book? When I first started researching the Porrajmos, as the Romanies call the genocide of their people during WW2, The Great Devouring, I had no preconceived idea about what sort of novel I was going to write. I knew I wanted to shine a light on this ‘forgotten holocaust’ but the idea of a romance between a Romani trapeze artist and a member of the Hitler Youth came to me gradually as I went about my research. I always read widely around a subject before I begin to write. As my knowledge of the period and the people caught up in the events of WW2 grew, ideas for a plot started to form in my mind. Other writers might disagree, but for me, I can’t have an idea for a historical novel and then try to squeeze my plot into the historical events. The real events form the skeleton, and any plot must fit into this reality. I believe that this approach means that my plot will be more likely to feel realistic. As I researched the historical background to the period I began to imagine a situation where two very different cultures could feasibly collide and it was then that the idea of a romance was born!  So by the time I started writing the book, A Berlin Love Song was definitely going to be a love story – although I didn’t know at the beginning how it would end!

The story you have created is so real as are the characters you portray.  How did the idea for Max and Lili come about?   Were they based on real people?  Max: I have always been interested in the Hitler Youth movement. When I was a child my father had a German Pastor friend, Pastor Knott. He’d been a Chaplain to the German prisoners of war in a northern town during the war and he and my father were involved together in a reconciliation project after the war was over. Pastor Knott was a frequent visitor to our home. He’d been a member of Hitler Youth in the 1930s. He came from a devout Lutheran family of anti-Nazis in Darmstadt, Germany. His parents had been opposed to him joining the movement but he had been forced into it in 1939 when membership finally became compulsory. Consequently, I had heard a great deal about what it was like to be a member of HY and the way in which many German children had been troubled about where their loyalties should lie. He told me stories of being bullied by National Socialist teachers at school for not conforming and joining the movement. When creating Max, I was able to think back to those conversations with Pastor Knott about how it really felt to grow up in Nazi Germany with all those conflicting pressures. In addition to this, I listened to hours of recordings of ex members of Hitler Youth from archive material I discovered in the Imperial War Museum – old men looking back and explaining what it was like to be a member of Hitler Youth and how they’d been attracted and repelled at the same time. They also talked about how they felt after the war when they discovered the consequences of what they had believed in so fervently. I think this background research helped me to create the character of Max with an authentic voice.

Lili: I first had the idea for the character of Lili when I visited Auschwitz. There is a very moving museum on the site of the main Auschwitz camp, Auschwitz I, where you can see lots of photographs and artefacts from the time – the piles of hair, shoes, suitcases etc. confiscated by the SS guards from the prisoners on their arrival at the concentration camp; the uniforms that were worn etc. It was here that I first saw the portrait of a Romani girl in a blue headscarf who came in my mind to be Lili Petalo. There were a series of paintings on display in this museum by a Czech artist who was a Jewish prisoner in Auschwitz. She’d been an art student in Prague before being sent to the Terezin ghetto and thence to Auschwitz, and when the infamous Dr Mengele found out that she could paint, he employed her to paint portraits of the Roma in Auschwitz for a book he was writing on genetic research. I bought a book about this called Roma in Auschwitz on the day that I visited the museum. I read all about the artist and her Lilli petaloencounters with Romani prisoners and in particular her encounter with the girl in the blue headscarf.  I learned from this book that many of the prisoners in the Gypsy Family Camp in Auschwitz had been entertainers and musicians and that there was always music in the camp. It was this discovery that led me to research the Romanies as entertainers and to create the whole Petalo family and their circus. There is no record of the name of the unknown girl in the blue headscarf – but for me, her name was Lili.

There is so much wonderful detail about the Romani people and the time period in general. Tell us about the research process for a novel like this. It must be lengthy! It took me several years to research the book. There were so many aspects to look at. Firstly I decided that the novel should span the entire war so I had to make sure that I had a sound knowledge of the progress of the war for the 6 years, almost, that it lasted. I’m really pernickety about my research as I am aware that a novel about a historical period might be the only thing someone will ever read. There’s nothing wrong with that. Not everyone likes reading history books but it makes me feel that I have a responsibility to be as accurate as I can, always bearing in mind of course that history books are never entirely objective! After that I had to embark on detailed research in a number of areas – the Hitler Youth movement, air raids, clothes and food rationing, tank warfare, propaganda and films, the circus in Germany and Romani involvement in it, and of course the Romani community itself. There are a number of scholarly works written about the Romani Holocaust so I read all of those I could get my hands on. It was harder to find first-hand accounts written by Romanies about their wartime experiences and their suffering in the death camps. There is so much written from the Jewish perspective, largely because the Jews are such a literate and literary culture. The Romanies are less organised as a community, and theirs is not a written linguistic tradition. Their culture is hugely rich in oral tradition, music and folklore but not much is committed to writing. However, I did find a handful of first-hand accounts written by Romanies and those I found I read avidly, drinking in the atmosphere and the language they used to express their suffering. I wanted the novel to celebrate the Romani culture and to shine a light on the culture of a people who are still one of the most disliked and vilified minorities in Europe. I read collections of Romani folk tales and listened with delight and a certain obsession to their wonderful music. The Romani people are often celebrated for their musical heritage, which has influenced jazz, bolero and flamenco music as well as classical composers including Franz Liszt. I tried to incorporate as much Romani language, traditions and folklore in the novel as the plot would carry.

I can’t imagine some of the accounts you must have had to read in order to illustrate what the characters in the book went through in the prison camps. This must have been very difficult – how did you cope with this? It was very difficult. Sometimes I felt so sickened by what I read that I felt I couldn’t carry on with the research, especially when I came to the detailed research about Auschwitz. My research certainly kept me awake at night. I suppose the way I coped with it was always to try to find the good people amidst the despair and horror of it all – the Jewish prisoner doctors who worked tirelessly to help their fellow prisoners and the few SS who tried to help people get on the transports out of the camp. Alongside the many accounts of inhumanity and degradation that I read, there were so many stories of bravery and selflessness to counterbalance the despair that I sometimes felt. I tried to concentrate on the uplifting and nourishing stories of people who risked their lives to protect others. Many, many people collaborated with the Nazis, but there were also many in Germany who actively assisted victims by purchasing food for households to whom shops were closed, providing false identity papers for those at risk of arrest, and sheltering those who evaded capture. I hope that A Berlin Love Song ends with a message of hope.

The fate of the Romani people in WW2 has been called the ‘forgotten holocaust’. Why do you think it’s important that we don’t forget what happened to them? Many people have little or no knowledge that the Roma were targeted by the Nazi regime. The genocide of the Romani people is an under-taught and under-recognised topic. Despite Helmut Schmidt’s belated recognition in 1982 of the racial nature of the persecution of the Roma and Sinti, and the welcome opening of the beautiful memorial in Berlin’s Tiergarten by Angela Merkel in 2012, today the Romani community remains one of the most disliked and least tolerated minorities in Europe. And alarmingly, anti-Romani hostility is on the increase, aggravated by growing far-right extremism. The Roma are still scapegoats, frequently victims of prejudice and racially motivated attacks, hate speech and hate crime, and facing marginalization and discrimination in nearly every country where they live. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many Roma avoid assimilation into the society of the host nation, a legacy, perhaps, of centuries of persecution. And yet because of their isolation, many Roma children don’t attend school. Families often lack access to stable jobs, affordable housing, social services and health care. As a result, poverty, disease, substance abuse and crime afflict many Roma communities.

I believe that now more than ever we must stand up against prejudice and hatred when we see them in our own communities. The Holocaust all happened a long time ago, and yet millions of men, women and children have been murdered since in genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. In today’s world, racial abuse and hate crime is still very much in the news so it is more important than ever, as the people who witnessed the Holocaust during WW2 are growing older and dying, to keep the memory alive of what can happen when prejudice and hatred are left unchallenged.

The story also reflects on what happened to normal German families at the time and the difficulties they faced. Was it important to include this perspective? Since A Berlin Love Song is set entirely in Germany and about Germans, I felt it was essential to make sure that the story was told exclusively from the German point of view. I was very careful not to read anything about the home front in England to make sure that my characters had an authentic German feel. There is so much written about the home front in England that it would have been very easy for me to rely on those sorts of books for things like how it felt to be bombed or how to manage with rationing, but I was very careful not to be tempted. It wasn’t too difficult as there are lots of diaries and memoirs written by Germans who lived through the war years and many of them are published in translation. I read every diary and memoir written by Germans living in Berlin that I could find and in that way I began to see that war through the eyes of ordinary Germans caught up in events – how they were bombarded with propaganda and how they were afraid to speak their minds for fear of being denounced and betrayed to the Gestapo, even by their own family. I have schoolgirl German but I was very relieved I could read them in English. I did have to tangle with a couple of books in German that I couldn’t find in translation and it was very time consuming! One of these books was the only book I could find, in the world it seems, about the Romani circus. I just had to read it or I couldn’t have found out what I needed to know. The dictionary was on fire!

A Berlin Love Song is full of colourful characters. When you were creating the wider cast of characters did this come naturally or were you quite specific in terms of who you included? I don’t really find it difficult to create characters. I’m a nosey ‘people-watcher’ by nature and I store up characters in my head and on paper for future use. My husband and I recently went on a small cruise around the Isle of Mull on a fishing vessel that could only accommodate 12. We were stuck on a boat for 6 days in terrible weather with ten people we had never met before – a rich source of characters!  I kept running back to my cabin to write things down – snatches of conversation and things people did. They probably thought I was pretty eccentric too! One of my favourite authors is Charles Dickens. He’s brilliant at characterisation and I never tire of reading his novels. Maybe a tiny bit of his skill has rubbed off on me since I’ve read everything he has written. I have certainly learned a great deal from studying his writing, thinking about how he has created such a wealth of sparkling characters in just a few lines of prose. One of the things I do in my spare time is help run a community choir in Islington where I live.  I’m the Membership Secretary. Our choir chairman suggested that I should write a novel about our choir as it’s full of ‘interesting’ characters – but I told her that I didn’t want to end up in court!

You’ve written several historical novels – what would your advice be for anyone embarking on writing a historical novel? Gosh – that’s a hard one. I think the most important thing is to try to know your subject inside out. I think you can never know too much about a historical period when you’re writing. The more you know the more confident your narrative will seem. However, the drawback of doing the amount of historical research I did is that when you come to writing you are overwhelmed with the amount of material you’ve gathered. What to include and what to leave out? I have a pet hate which is historical novelists whose writing feels like they’ve ‘swallowed a history book’ and are determined to tell you everything they know about a subject. This can be very boring and destroy the flow of the story. But I fully understand the temptation. It’s so tempting to include everything you know, especially if the research has taken a long time and been very painstaking.  You have to ‘kill your darlings’ as they say and leave lots out. It’s as much about what you don’t include as what you do. The bottom line is that I see myself as primarily a storyteller, not a history teacher. So, although I am meticulous in my research, even down to the weather on a particular day of a particular year, I nonetheless feel that the historical research must be secondary to the story.

So my advice would be to read as much as you can about the era you are writing about, especially original sources and accounts of the past written by people who were actually there and try to immerse yourself in the atmosphere of the time. Try to take your 21st century spectacles off and immerse yourself in what it would have been like to have been alive then. But beware of using all the details you know just because you know them. Only use what you need to tell your story and create the atmosphere.  Less is always more!

Thank you SO much for sharing such wonderful, personal insight and detail about your amazing novel.  Some incredible advice and inspiration for anyone writing a novel especially those involved in historical research. 

Read my review of A Berlin Love Song here. For more information about Sarah and her work visit www.sarahmatthias.co.uk.