The Sunday Post (Newcastle)
WELL BOOKIE HERE!
Ten brilliant new reads for children.
IT was an argument in a classroom that set the wheels in motion for teacher Victoria Williamson’s debut novel.
Two six-year-olds, a boy and a girl, were locked in a dispute over a wizard’s cape.
Victoria recalls: “The little boy was from Sudan. He yelled that she couldn’t be Harry Potter because she was a girl, and she yelled back, ‘ Well you can’t be Harry Potter either – you’re black!’
“They had already decided what roles they could play in life because of the books they were reading and the films they were watching.
“I realised that in the books I wrote, I wanted to reflect a wider range of children’s voices.
“I had worked abroad a lot and saw the same problems of children looking at books that weren’t really reflecting their life experiences.”
Victoria hopes to change that with The Fox Girl And The White Gazelle.
Inspired by her time teaching asylum seekers in Glasgow, the book tells the story of 12-year-old Reema who has fled Syria for a new life.
Her unlikely but blossoming friendship with Glaswegian classmate Caylin breaks down barriers – something Victoria hopes the novel will do for its 10-12-year-old readership.
She says: “It is about growing empathy. On the face of it, the girls seem really different and don’t seem to have anything in common.
“They don’t have a culture in common, they don’t have language in common but they do have life experience in common.
“They have both lost family members that they loved and they begin to understand each other through the experience they have of sharing a family of foxes in the garden.
“They get to become friends.
“It is all about overcoming these kinds of cultural barriers and that is what I wanted to help children to see.”
The author carried out extensive research for the work, immersing herself in literature on Islam and refugees, as well reading the Koran and hearing and seeing firsthand the experience of refugees.
Victoria reveals: “I had a Muslim gentleman who did the sensitivity reading to make sure I had not made any mistakes with Islam.
“He said he was very moved by the book, it made him feel like a child again and some bits made him want to cry.
“He came to the book launch in Glasgow with his daughter. That was lovely.”
It is not difficult to see why. The Fox Girl And The White Gazelle is tipped as an important and timely read in today’s political climate.
Publishers say an estimated 2,000 refugees have resettled in Scotland over the last two years.
More than that, it is uplifting, heartfelt and full of hope. And 20% of its proceeds are going to the Scottish Refugee Council.
But the novel is also very much a product of the author’s own past.
She knows books – having already written a dozen which have yet to be published – and she knows diversity.
Originally from Anniesland where her debut is set, she grew up in Kirkintilloch. She recalls: “My mother read to me and my brothers every night and that’s how I got into stories.
“She put on all the voices for the characters and my father read all the time, so in our house we always felt that books were important.
“We went to the library pretty much every weekend.”
Surprisingly she later went on to graduate with a physics degree from Glasgow University, as well as gaining a degree in Mandarin Chinese while living and studying in China.
And she spent years teaching in Africa – both in Cameroon and Malawi.
Victoria says: “By the time I was in my thirties I realised that what I wanted to do more than anything was to be a writer.
“It is exhausting being a teacher and when you come home at the end of the day you have marking to do.
“Although some people can, I just couldn’t concentrate on anything else. I couldn’t focus on being a teacher and writer.
“I knew that if I wanted to be an author I would have to do it full time and that’s what I’m doing just now.”
Since publishing her book she has visited about 50 schools in Scotland to discuss the issues it raises.
She smiles: “I am hoping to visit more schools eventually and am more than happy to come anywhere in Scotland and speak to children about refugees.”