In our first pairing for the literary exchange, we look at secret green places of childhood setting off bold adventures.
Twitch has three pet chickens, four pigeons, swallows nesting in his bedroom and a passion for birdwatching. On the first day of the summer holidays he arrives at his secret hide to find police everywhere. A convicted robber has broken out of prison and is hiding in Aves Wood. Can Twitch use his talents for birdwatching in the hunt for the dangerous prisoner and find the missing loot?
Cosy Castle is a boxy, grey building where children walk on tippy toes from fear of the dreadful ‘dragon’ and the crotchety ‘crone’. With Nivi Mallik’s arrival, the rules start to change. The bimbli trees become the hang-out spot for two giggly girls and the driveway is a permanent cricket pitch for the boys. But the happy times are soon ended by the ‘dragon’ and the ‘crone’, who gang up against the children and declare war on the bimbli trees…
Meet the Students
This month we have Suvradeep (Subhi) from Ashoka joining Rebecca, Charli and Sarah from Bath Spa for a conversation on our book pairing for the month.
Suvradeep B. (Subhi) is a graduate student at Ashoka University looking into how non-human lives function and influence literary narratives which deal with the global warming crisis. She has her personal interests in poetry writing, cooking and travelling.
Rebecca Franks loves playing with words and diving deep into stories, both as an arts journalist and now, on her dream MA course, as a children’s fiction writer.
Charli Haynes chased stories through the lands of children’s publishing, Comic Con and the film industry. She’s finally writing her own story on the MA Writing for Young People.
Sarah Dyer studies writing for young people. Previously she taught in a middle school classroom. She loves spending time outdoors and reading.
The panel talk about Shabnam Minwalla’s The Six Spellmakers of Dorabji Street, MG Leonard’s Twitch and how the books speak to the imagination and sense of justice in young readers, in a conversation with the Greenlitfest’s Meghaa Gupta.
Q. Was this the first time you were looking at writing for young people by an author from India/UK, and what were your first thoughts about the reading experience?
Rebecca: This is, I think, one of the first children’s books I’ve read by an Indian author from India, although I previously did read a book called Asha and the Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan, who I believe was born in India, but grew up in the UK.
Charli: This was my first Indian authored children’s book set in India. It gave a little sneak peek into life in Mumbai. I loved the colour that came through literally in the opening chapter. It was like diving into the culture. Like I was there. I could smell it. I could hear it. I was fully involved in it. I thought the way that Cosy Castle was used to create such a community of a bigger macrocosm in a very microenvironment was really well done – a great, digestible introduction to a whole wonderful world.
Sarah: I’ve read Haroon and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie, but this was my first environmental story taking place in India.
Subhi: This was my first book by an UK author, as I’ve previously mostly read American authors. I definitely enjoyed it. Discussions on the environment often acquire a certain negative connotation because of the problems associated with climate change. So I liked that this book didn’t have a pessimistic perspective.
What was also refreshing for me was that even though Twitch is set in the UK where you supposedly have this binary between developed versus developing countries and East versus West, you have a character like Amita, who goes beyond the differences and tells you that differences can be something positive that brings people together.
Q. Was there anything in particular that you picked up on, in terms of cultural nuances – something that you perhaps didn’t know about?
Sarah: Something I picked up on that I thought was key to the story – I don’t know if it’s unique only to India or Mumbai – was the community of people living together in a building. How the children came together and thrived on their friendship, and with the adults, and how they influenced and supported each other. The community was the cultural aspect I took from the book.
Subhi: I did pick up on the bully culture that comes into the novel. It is something that has always disturbed me and I was like, ‘Okay, this is something that’s very much there in school life in the UK.’ But MG Leonard has worked with the bully culture to also say that, ‘you know bullying is an act that can disturb any life form, not just human,’ because we see a pigeon getting subjected to it.
What also interested me was that when the necessity arose, people came together – all the children, bully, non-bully, good people, bad people… It was a happy ending definitely, but more than that it allowed for fresh thinking wherein, while bullying can be part and parcel of student life, it’s not necessarily all there is to it.
Q. Both the novels are set in very different geographies. Twitch is set in a small town in the UK while The Six Spellmakers of Dorabji Street is set in a megapolis, Mumbai. How are the protagonists engaging with the natural world in these very different geographies?
Rebecca: I found that really fascinating in Six Spellmakers… because we’re obviously in this big urban environment and the children are living in an apartment block in close quarters, and they’re playing cricket on this strip of cement that becomes this amazing playground for them, so you’re kind of really aware of that urban environment, yet you’re also asked to look at the small details, the bits where nature comes through, in the way the author points out the potted plants outside each of the flats, for instance. She weaves in these natural metaphors so you kind of get the sense that there is the urban and the natural world working in sync and then obviously you have this garden which occupies this really important place for the children. It’s a place of comfort, safety and friendship that really matters to them. It might not be a big space and it might not seem much to other people, but to them it’s hugely important and I think the way that’s written made me feel very connected to it.
I was thinking, especially, about recent times. We’ve been through the pandemic and people, particularly in urban environments, were very confined to their spaces, and yet I know for me personally finding the natural world was the thing that really helped. So even though this book was written before, there was something in it that’s very relatable now for children – that even if you are growing up in an urban environment you can still find small patches of nature and this book explored that really well.
Charli: Rebecca’s really hit the nail on the head. I think the wider discussion around the environment feels huge. Like, ‘Oh my gosh, how do we save an ocean? How do we save a forest?’ It feels so big and what’s so brilliant about Six Spellmakers is that it can literally start at home and it can start with two trees in a communal space that is a precious thing to be protected.
Sarah: The only thing to add for me was how when Nivi and Sarita climbed the bimbli trees, time almost stood still. It gave permission for imagination, and I thought that was relatable to me and nature, my children and nature, and students I have taught and nature.
Subhi: The setting in Twitch very relatable because my hometown Durgapur is a very small geography within the big state of West Bengal. So I knew how it feels to be living in a small town, where you know your neighbours, the aunt next door, the newspaper guy. Where you know this park that you can always go to for a sunset view or for bird watching. Interestingly, the park we have in Durgapur is more for snake-watching! When we focus on any small geography, every person becomes so very important, so very close. The place itself keeps coming back into the narrative. There is something about the place that keeps Twitch grounded. Aves wood is a location that Twitch keeps going into, that brought him closer to Jack. It’s where we see most of the novel playing out.
Q. Both the novels have this idea of nature as a refuge worth protecting, running through them. How convincingly has this been plotted?
Sarah: I thought they both did it in two different ways. So thinking about Twitch, the bird watching runs through it because Twitch is always learning from the birds, and he uses how he understands birds to understand people, to understand motives. He uses bird calls to help get Jack out of a tight spot. The ending with a murmuration. Whereas in the Six Spellmakers it’s part of the plot. The children’s activism and their coming together to save the trees was the adventure.
Rebecca: It was interesting how the author kind of wove that almost fairy tale element into the narrative, which I wasn’t expecting for some reason, even though the title Six Spellmakers obviously suggests magic. But the fairy tale element becomes a metaphor for the magic of the garden and the magic of that space, the refuge. I think that was really interestingly done.
Charli: The magic of writing with Six Spellmakers is that the children are doing very practical magic. The objects they collect are all connected to the building and it feels very tangible. It’s magic but also it’s something that a young reader could actively do, like send an email or write to a newspaper, which gives it power. It’s not like this was magic and fairies did this, it was like, ‘no actually it was the children who are very active in creating and saving the space, with the fantasy element sort of inspiring that. So I thought that was really cleverly done.
Subhi: When I’m thinking of nature as a refuge, I am wondering if this is something to do with the old idea that there is this unchanged nature we can go back to, because Twitch knows Aves Wood through and through. It’s not nature that’s exotic but something that he relates to. Twitch knows nature as something that is always wild, that is not in human control but rather something from which humans can learn, grow and develop. Like Sarah said earlier, he learns from the birds and applies those learnings in his own life. The most interesting part was his secret hideaway. In his imagination he is the bird inside this nest and that’s very interesting. It definitely gave me ideas for some interior designing but it’s also fascinating that it’s something outdoors that gave him a sense of safety and refuge. And you know you need human friends but Twitch is very okay with his feathered friends and the fact that sometimes friends come in different forms. This fluid connotation of refuge in the form of a home and in the form of a friend was what the novel evoked in me.
Q. Do you think young people in your part of the world would be able to relate to these stories? Would they find anything unusual?
Sarah: I think children would relate to both books because they speak to hobbies like bird watching, cricket and climbing trees. They both have intergenerational friendships which I think is really realistic for young people. In my classroom I used to talk about books that we read as mirrors because they reflect what we know and books that we read as windows because they show us something we don’t know. To my young self The Six Spellmakers would have been a window, but even then I would have related to Nivi’s reading. I loved climbing trees as a young person. Nature’s really important to me, and I would have stood up for it, for trees getting cut down. So I saw moments of mirrors in it even though it’s a different culture and different place than I grew up in as an American.
Rebecca: I totally agree with what Sarah said. One thing I really liked about both books was that sense of justice. Children have a really strong sense of what’s right and what’s fair and they want to stand up. They don’t want to see adults doing stupid things like cutting down trees and I think that’s really relatable for children all over the world. In Twitch, one of the things I really liked was that he is willing to be seen as a little bit of an eccentric, in a way he thinks people think he’s a bit odd because he wants to do the things that he really cares about and I think that’s a really relatable thing because growing up it’s all about learning about yourself and what matters to you, but then also how that relates to your wider world and that can be a really difficult thing to negotiate. So I thought Twitch was a great role model for children everywhere. People might think you’re odd because you love birds, but you love birds and that’s amazing and maybe because you love them so much you might convince other people to love them too. So, I think there are some wider themes in both books that were definitely relatable, whatever culture you come from.
Charli: I really agree with that. Twitch almost becomes the coolest one, like ‘Oh! I want to know all the stuff that Twitch knows’. That is so exciting. And what’s so lovely is that even if you know nothing about birds, that’s not a barrier. Twitch is very much like, ‘Come and learn it if you’re interested. Let’s learn it together’ and I thought that was really well done.
I grew up in Birmingham. I’ve very been in an environment that’s quite big city. I now live on the outskirts of London but, echoing what Rebecca said earlier, you can still find special green spaces. When I was in Birmingham, there was a park called Pigeon Park and I would spend every day there. It was just a stretch of green and me and my mates would collect there and that was where we hung out. So I hope children can find special places that mean something to them. I think as a kid you have such a joyous perspective of spaces and the outside world and I think we can bring friends into that. It builds up memories that you keep with you as a grown-up and that’s reflected in The Six Spellmakers and in Twitch. If you spoke to a grown-up Twitch he’d still love Aves Wood and if you spoke to Nivi she would still remember the bimbli trees.
Subhi: One might get concerned that Twitch is set in a different country, a different environment, but it is very accessible. The narrative brings that place into your study room, into your bedroom, where you are just sitting in a cocoon, reading the book.
I have taken care of so many of my nephews and niece who read these kind of books where there is this one character who would be in a corner, who would not want to socialise as much, but then ends up being in the limelight and that figure relates really well to my nephews and niece because some of them are really into what they like. They don’t know what to do with the people out there and I think these kind of behaviours are not something that is country specific.
Like Sarah said, it allows a certain window to open so that different cultures, different children can talk to each other. Twitch, as a child living within a certain narrative location in the UK can speak to a child in India or for that matter any other country.
Q. Do you think the way these novels are being told relates to commonly held notions of environmental literature, and how do you think they contribute to one’s understanding of the Anthropocene?
Subhi: So I did mark a certain section in the last chapter in Twitch, where Tara and Pamela are having this argument over whether or not to join Twitch’s club, and Pamela says, ‘Climate campaigning is cool. Bird watching is for geeks… I was fine with the solving a crime thing, because it got my photo in the papers and I earned so many new followers, but that doesn’t mean I’m about to sit in the ditches staring at birds with you guys. No way.’
I read this part because every time I deal with the question of the Anthropocene, it becomes so very serious, so very academic. So coming to Twitch was very refreshing because you see that the children are aware that there is something wrong, that the environment needs attention, but they are also aware that they are children and that awareness that, ‘we are a small bunch of children and we are getting together to take care of our birds’ was a refreshing perspective on this humongous problem of the Anthropocene. That a child not only understands climate change but has the potential for a positive response against these forces of environmental exploitation is something new and hope-inducing for me. It’s not stereotypical environmental literature. It’s not a book that’s talking about facts, that certain birds need attention. It’s text that speaks to the imagination of a child.
Charli: Six Spellmakers has a similar thing of giving the power to children because I think in the narrative of the environment and climate change, every child is aware and they’re all quite frightened because it feels huge. Across the whole world we see its effects and the conversation’s always going on and it feels scary. With both Twitch and Six Spellmakers, the characters make making a change accessible. There is that element of hope and the tiny change that you can make to add to the bigger changes that need to happen and it gives me hope because children reading these books will be the ones that change the world. They will be the ones that will take that agency. The authors are obviously very active in spreading this message. We as grown-up readers are like, ‘This is brilliant. Please read it.’ And then all this comes together as a greater whole to sort of hold the hands of children and say, ‘Yeah! Let’s come together and move forward.’
Q. Book recommendations from your countries that you think that others in other geographies should know about.
The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline
The author is an indigenous writer from the Georgian Bay Métis community in Canada, and this is a dystopian apocalyptic story where people have learned how to harvest dreams from bone marrow. It’s beautifully told and is a story of hope even though it’s dystopic.
October, October by Katya Balen
It’s the story of a girl who lives in the woods with her father. They live this very unique kind of life compared to lots of children growing up in cities, but when her father has an accident she has to move to the city with her mother and it’s about her trying to recapture the magic of the natural world in this urban environment. So it very much speaks to some of the themes that we’ve been discussing. It’s for middle grade readers and is just so beautifully written with wonderful descriptions of what it is to be wild.
Bone Music by David Almond
It is for slightly older readers and explores the concept of rewilding and rewilding ourselves.
The Explorer by Katherine Rundell
It’s an adventure in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, where children come face to face with this incredible environment. I know the author visited the Amazon and you can really tell, with all these amazing descriptions of the flora and the fauna and the beauty and the danger of it. It’s an incredibly precious environment.
Asha and the Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan
For the richness of the landscape descriptions. I found it really immersive and I felt very transported.
Stolen by Lucy Christopher
It’s a kind of psychological YA thriller exploring Stockholm Syndrome that’s set in the Australian outback and filled with incredible descriptions of the landscape, which kind of becomes its own character and that really stuck with me although it’s not necessarily environmental literature.
The Golden Mole by Katherine Rundell
This is a beautiful book exploring the amazing lives of some of the world’s most endangered animals.
The Hurting by Lucy van Smit
It’s quite a dark YA, a Nordic Noir and the scenes of the mountains are just stunning. The environment just stays in your mind. The starkness of the mountains and how remote and removed the main character is, really add to character and so you’re feeling the emotions through the mountains.
The Triumph of the Snake Goddess by Kaiser Haq
It is an English translation of the legend of Mansa Devi, which is very popular in northern India. The legend was recited orally. Later it was written down in the form of poetry.
Shifting Lands and Moving People by Samantak Das, Gautam Gupta, Sugata Hazra
The book talks about the ecosystem of Sunderbans – the people, the tigers, how they co-exist and the impact of climate change. It can be read by a young adult, an adult or an adolescent.
Hunchprose by Ranjit Hoskote
It is a collection of poems. Hoskote knows that we are faced with a kind of war against climate change and there is so much negativity around it, but then you sit with these small, lyrical pieces of poetry that are so refreshing and positive.