Wishes for hope and happiness in a lyrical story about new beginnings, friendship and belonging

Who is it for?

Sharing at storytime or reading independently: 7-10 years 

Exploring through creative learning activities: 7-12 years

Adapt our activities to suit your children’s interests and abilities

About this book and why we've chosen it

Beautifully illustrated with jewel-bright colours and written in lyrical free verse that reads so naturally it feels effortless, this lovely picturebook weaves a special kind of magic and will inspire learning activities right across the curriculum. 

In the heart of a city far from the place she once called home, a girl called Blessing is living a new life with her Mama and her baby brother, Ely. Blessing’s Papa isn't with them: he was lost somewhere on the dusty road that brought the family to England, and they haven’t heard from him since. Blessing’s greatest wish is that Papa will find his way to them, and because she has a cleft lip – a gift brought by the swallows - her wishes carry special weight. But it seems that even a swallow’s kiss can’t find Papa. So how will a bag of paper birds change anything? 

Blessing sees the world through a poet’s eyes: the steamed-up windows in the cafe where her Mama works, the caged birds singing on the balcony below. But it’s the discovery of the paper birds that enables her story to take flight. They are gorgeously decorated and bear heartfelt wishes in many different languages, so Mama tells Blessing to return them. But when she sees a wish that matches hers, Blessing decides to keep that bird for herself. How this wrong is righted, and how Blessing’s actions lead to new opportunities and friendships, take the story to a surprising and heartwarming conclusion.

©Jane Ray for Pop Up Projects CIC

Sita Brahmachari and Jane Ray are artists-in-residence at the Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants, and were determined that families at the Centre should recognise aspects of their daily lives on the pages of this book. 

As Jane observes, Swallow’s Kiss “grew from the lived experiences of the refugee people who belong to the Centre community, and to Sita and I as artists who are privileged to work there. It’s a positive and joyful story about creativity and compassion amongst people whose lives are not easy. It’s about the positive contribution they make to society, and the idea of Community in its richest aspects.”

Joy and optimism may be shadowed by a hint of sadness in this book, but in acknowledging the longing for places and people left behind, this gentle, optimistic story allows the beauty of the city and the warmth of community to shine even more brightly.  SWALLOW'S KISS was commissioned and crowdfunded to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Pop Up, the nonprofit children’s book development agency, and is part of a collection designed to give a platform to untold stories and diverse new voices.To read a Cast of Thousands interview with Jane and Sita about how this book was created, click HERE

To read a Cast of Thousands blogpost about all ten Stories to Make a Difference from Pop Up Projects click HERE

To order SWALLOW'S KISS and other titles from Pop Up's website at pop-up.org.uk, click HERE

Sita and Jane worked closely together and shared notebooks and ideas at all stages of their creative process 

Themes in this book include

  • Home and belonging
  • Coming together to create new communities
  • Refugees and migration
  • Wishes for the future
  • Memories
  • Family life in the city
  • Friendship
  • Being observant
  • The power of language, art and music
  • Birds

Sharing and responding to this book

Help this book work its gentle magic by finding a quiet, relaxed time to read the whole story aloud and create a shared experience. Then re-read it slowly, pausing to look more closely at the artwork and discussing questions and responses. 

At this point, you could sit children in smaller groups, each with a copy of the book, so that they can see the artwork and text layout more clearly as you explore them in more detail. 

Here are some discussion ideas to get you started

  • Did this book remind you of anything?
  • What was the most surprising thing about it? 
  • What do you think will happen next? Will Blessing and Hani meet again?
  • What did people wish for in this story? What would you wish for?
  • What did you like best about this book? Was there anything you didn’t enjoy?
  • Is Blessing observant? Find examples to back up your answer. 
  • Blessing talks about her “imagination eye”. What does she mean by this? What does she imagine in this story, and what does she tell us about these ideas?
  • How do we know that Blessing and her Mama used to live elsewhere?
  • In what ways do Blessing and her Mama feel at home in this city? What do they miss?
  • Why did Blessing keep Hani’s wishbird? 
  • How does Blessing describe her cleft lip? What does this tell us about Blessing as a character? Are you facing any challenges or problems? How do you think about them or describe them? Could thinking about them or describing them differently change how you feel about these things? 
  • Which event or moment do you think has the biggest impact on this story? Use evidence from the book to make a case for your choice. 
  • Could the characters in this story have made different decisions? When and how? If they had acted differently, would this have changed the story? How? 
  • What did this book tell you about refugees and migrants? What questions does it raise? How or where could you find answers?
  • Describe the event pictured at the end of this story. Where are these people, and why have they gathered here? Have you ever been to an event like this, where there were different activities to try? Where did you go? What happened? How did you feel as you were taking part?
  • Who would you recommend this book to, and why? What would you tell them about it?
©Jane Ray for Pop Up Projects CIC

What next? Activities...

Collect coloured and patterned papers (or print and paint your own) and use to create cutout wishbirds like the ones in this story. Write your hopes and dreams on the reverse, then attach lolly-stick handles and take your birds on a Grand Parade around your school.

Alternatively, you could cut bird shapes from card and write your wishes on them, then tie them to a branch to create an indoor display (or attach them securely to a tree outdoors).
Invite other classes to visit your art installation - and don’t forget to take photographs before you untie your birds!

Wishbirds can also be made using squares of Japanese paper, origami-style. Write your wishes on the unpatterned side of the paper, then fold into a bird shape.

Or download Jane Ray's downloadable instructions for making a wish bird HERE

Your wishes could be themed, for example what we're doing to help the environment 

Extend by telling and/or writing a story that begins with the following words or image:

Slowly one by one, birds peek their way

out of the bag, flutter up

then come to settle on my bed.”

In pairs, work together like Jane and Sita to create an illustrated story.  Take it in turns to write part of the story before passing it to your partner, while you illustrate the text your partner wrote earlier. Take frequent breaks to discuss what’s happening in your text and pictures, and any ideas you have for developing the narrative or characters.

When you’ve finished, reflect on what you’ve done and how it felt to work this way.

  • What did each of you bring to the process?
  • How did your ideas change and evolve?
  • What difficulties or problems emerged, and how did you deal with them?
  • Did anything unexpected happen?
  • What was most interesting about working in this way?
  • What was most challenging?
A detail from the notebook shared by Jane Ray and Sita Brahmachari, who worked together to create Swallow's Kiss

This book is endorsed by Amnesty International because it “celebrates children’s rights to safety, equality and play.”

How does Swallow's Kiss celebrate these things? What messages about safety, equality and play do you notice in this book?

©Jane Ray for Pop Up Projects CIC

What do safety, equality and play mean to you? How are they present and important in your lives? What would your life be like without these things?

Why do you think children’s rights to these things need protecting? In what ways are children’s rights to safety, equality and play threatened around the world?

Find out about the International Declaration of Children’s Rights and the work of Amnesty International.

How would you describe Jane Ray’s artwork? Look closely at each illustration, talking about what you can see and how it makes you feel.

You might like to think about

  • whether you notice shade, or sources of light
  • the kind of lines and marks you notice (thick, thin, definite, sketchy…) and how they’re being used
  • the colours (how bright are they? Is there a lot of contrast? Is a particular palette being used?)
The bag of wishbirds ©Jane Ray for Pop Up Projects CIC

Jane Ray’s artwork is characterised by jewel-bright colours and collaged materials such as sweet wrappers and wrapping paper. Talk about the colours you observe in this book. Can you spot any collaged papers being used? Where, and how?

Use coloured inks, water and brushes of different thicknesses to create sheets of paper covered in lots of different patterns. 

On a sheet of card, use the inks to paint a bird. Cut feather-shapes from your patterned papers and collage them onto your bird’s wings. Add other found objects, if you wish, then write about how you made your bird.

People walking long rubble-roads

like Mama did

tiny boats crossing giant seas

like Mama did

people like shoals of fish riding waves

like Mama did

when she came."

What does this book tell us about refugees and migration? Read the text carefully to gather information. Do the pictures tell you anything that isn’t mentioned in the text?

What does do you know about these issues from first-hand experience, and via other sources? What are these other sources of information? Are all sources of information equally reliable? 

Discuss migration, refugees and asylum by agreeing ground rules (for example: listening carefully, speaking respectfully, recognising the difference between facts and opinions…) and working together to 

  • identify what you know about these issues
  • assemble your questions 
  • find answers

Which organisations in your area are supporting refugees and migrants as they create new homes and lives for themselves? What could you do to help?

Write a report about these issues and what you've been doing in your school to understand them.

©Jane Ray for Pop Up Projects CIC


According to Blessing, what is a swallow's kiss, and how did she receive it?

Find out about cleft lip and how it affects people born with the condition. What does Blessing believe about her swallow’s kiss, and how does she view it? What’s your evidence for thinking this?

Mama says it’s impossible, but Blessing remembers receiving her swallow’s kiss when she was a baby in a pram. What’s your earliest memory? Share your stories and discuss.

Talk about lyrical, poetic language, then re-read this text, listening for examples. How do these words and phrases make you feel? What images do they evoke? What do they add to Blessing’s story?

Choose a memory and write about it using lyrical, poetic language.

Or write a poem that begins “In my forever memory-eye…”

©Jane Ray for Pop Up Projects CIC

How many different languages are spoken or understood by children in your school? Invite friends and family members to visit your classroom and share words and phrases in the languages they speak. Can they teach you to describe your wishbirds in other languages? 

Blessing’s mama used to sing her a lullaby in Lingala, the language they spoke at home in Africa. Can you learn a song in another language and perform it?

©Jane Ray for Pop Up Projects CIC

When Blessing sees words written in other alphabets on the wishbirds, she thinks of them as “squiggle words… like secret code.” Find out about different ways of writing around the world. Can you write familiar words using these alphabets?

Have a go at making up a secret code that no-one else knows, then try cracking someone else’s! 

“I hear the coo-coo of pigeons

soft-throated sounds

alarm-clock geese and

long-throated swans..”

Blessing is very observant and notices the sounds and appearances of the birds around her in the city. What evidence can you find in the text and pictures for her interest in birds?

Go outside, close your eyes and listen to the sounds around you. Can you hear any birds? Use your voices to create a soundscape based on your observations, then add percussion instruments and/or noises made using found objects. Once you're happy with your soundscape, record it and share it with another class. Ask them to describe it. How does it make them feel? Can they guess what it represents?

Listen to the recorded songs of birds you might hear locally. How would Blessing describe them, do you think?


I hear the distant echo of papery song

feathery whispers under my pillow…”

What might the wishbirds talk about when they’re alone? As a class, collect words and phrases to describe them and their songs, then use your wordbank to help you write descriptively about feathery whispers and papery songs.

©Jane Ray for Pop Up Projects CIC


What does Blessing do when school is over for the day? Who looks after her, and where does she go? What does the text tell us about this? What do the pictures show?

©Jane Ray and Sita Brahmachari for Pop Up Projects CIC

Write and illustrate an account of your after-school routine. Where do you go, and what do you do?

Read your accounts aloud and discuss your experiences. Does everyone in your class do the same things? How do your experiences differ from Blessing’s? In what ways are they similar?

Design a questionnaire to collect information about this subject from other children in your school. Think carefully about what you want to know, and make sure you are asking the right questions to gather this information.
You might also need to think about the possible impact of your questions, and avoid asking about things that could be upsetting. It wouldn’t be a good idea to ask people how much money they spent after school, for example.

Once you’ve collected your data, you’ll need to analyse it in order to be able to draw conclusions. Try creating different types of graphs and charts to help you. Can you express some of your conclusions using percentages, or other mathematical ideas and language?

How would you improve after-school provision in your area? What kind of opportunities and experiences would you offer? Write about your vision.

Look at the city skyline depicted on pages 16 – 17 and describe what you can see. Then read what Blessing says: “over the church tower / the half-moon crescent of the mosque / the lines of houses and the shops…” 

Can you find the church and the mosque? What about the other buildings? What do you think they are? Who uses them, and for what purposes?

©Jane Ray for Pop Up Projects CIC

Visit a location where it’s possible to view your local skyline. Take photographs and make on-the-spot notes and sketches. If it’s safe to do so, draw the view carefully from life, using charcoal, pastels or graphite – or, if the location makes that difficult, use your photos and sketches to work up some finished drawings back in class.

Use Blessing’s example to craft three lines of text to capture the mood and appearance of your skyline. Write out your words in your best handwriting, decorate the borders with a design inspired by your skyline sketches, and display in your classroom next to your artwork.  

Sita’s text is written in free verse. Does reading free verse feel different from reading ordinary prose? How?

Identify some of the characteristics of free verse by examining the text in this book and reading it aloud together. 

  • What do you notice about its rhythms and the way it’s arranged on the page? 
  • Is it written in full sentences? 
  • What do you notice about the punctuation? 
  • What kind of words has Sita chosen? How do they make you feel?

Choose a passage of text to interrogate more closely.
For example, “over the church tower / the half-moon crescent of the mosque / the lines of houses and the shops..."

Investigate the numbers of syllables in each line (in this case, it's 6:8:8) and decide where the stress naturally falls.

Is it possible to stress different words as you read your chosen passage aloud? What impact does this have on the way it sounds? Does it change the meaning?

Try ordering Sita’s words differently (or leave a word out altogether) to discover the impact on the rhythm, meaning and mood/tone of your chosen passage: for example, the final 'the' before 'shops' 

What words or phrases would you have to add to turn Sita’s free verse into prose?

Use what you’ve discovered to explain – in your own words - the difference between prose and free verse.

Re-read a well-known story, such as a fairy tale, then have a go at rewriting part of it in free verse.

©Sita Brahmachari and Jane Ray for Pop Up Projects CIC

If you liked this, try...

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Online resources

Other featured books on Cast of Thousands with related themes include

The Matchbox Diary by Paul Fleischman and Bagram Ibatoulline, published by Walker Books - click HERE

The Arrival by Shaun Tan, published by Hodder - click HERE

Leaf by Sandra Dieckmann, published by Flying Eye - click HERE

To access Jane Ray’s downloadable instructions for making a wish bird, click HERE

To visit Sita Brahmachari’s website at sitabrahmachari.com click HERE

Find Sita on instagram @sita.brahmachari click HERE

To visit Jane Ray’s website at janeray.com click HERE

Find Jane on instagram @janerayillustration click HERE

Watch Sita Brahmachari and Michael Rosen talking to Sanchita Basu de Sarkar during Refugee Week 2021

Copyright: Cast of Thousands 2024 All rights reserved.
This article/information may be printed freely for use in schools and other learning settings but may not be reproduced in any other format without the permission of Cast of Thousands


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