As Writer and Artist in Residence at the Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants, Sita Brahmachari and Jane Ray's creative partnership is happy and productive. Their beautiful little picturebook SWALLOW'S KISS is about to be published by Pop Up Projects, and like the workshops Jane and Sita run for families at the Centre, weaves a special kind of magic.
As Jane says, “the story quite literally 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. The choice of the yellow colours on the cover, and the colourful nature of the whole book is to celebrate this – it’s a book full of sunshine!”
The story in SWALLOW'S KISS unfolds in the heart of a city, where a girl called Blessing is living a new life with her Mama and her baby brother, far from the place she used to call home. Blessing has a cleft lip which she describes as a gift from the swallows, whose wings kissed her mouth when she was a baby, naming her “in a thousand sweet-songed tongues.” Like everything in this gentle, optimistic book, Blessing's lip is depicted in a respectful, life-affirming way, and has a special role to play in a story about celebrating the here-and-now as well as wishing for a better future.
Observing the city with a poet’s eyes, Blessing shows us her everyday life: the steamed-up windows in the cafe where her Mama works, the caged birds singing on the balcony below, her little brother’s podgy feet. But it’s the surprise discovery of a bag of paper birds that enables Blessing’s story to take flight. Gorgeously decorated and bearing heartfelt wishes in many different alphabets, they ought to be returned to their owners. But Blessing spots one sentence that jumps out at her. I wish to see my Daddy again, it says, and there’s a name: Hani. This wish is Blessing’s too, but even the swallows don’t know where her Papa is.
When the bag is returned to its owner, Blessing keeps Hani’s wishbird, although she knows she shouldn’t. How this wrong is righted, and how Blessing’s actions lead to new opportunities and friendship, take the story to a surprising and heartwarming conclusion.
Jane and Sita were determined that families at the Centre should recognise aspects of their daily lives on the pages of SWALLOW'S KISS. Joy and optimism are shadowed by a hint of sadness, but in acknowledging the longing for places and people left behind, the story allows the beauty of the city and the warmth of its community to shine even more brightly.
Sita’s evocative free-verse text reads so naturally that it feels effortless. But as she admitted during an event at this year’s Pop Up Festival for schools, SWALLOW'S KISS took a long time to write because every word was weighed so carefully and made to count. “Words are very precious,” she told children at the event, “and the words that people speak really matter….. We dropped these particular words and pictures into this book like tiny jewels, so if they fly into your hearts, that’s why.”
Stunningly illustrated with jewel-bright colours and decorative patterns, and featuring a host of gorgeous birds both real and imaginary on almost every spread, 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 order SWALLOW'S KISS and other titles from Pop Up's website, click HERE
Hi both of you, and thanks so much for joining us! Jane, I’d like to start by asking about your involvement with the Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants, and your role as Artist in Residence. What impact has the centre and its community had on SWALLOW'S KISS? I’ve been running art workshops at the Islington Centre since 2012, and Sita Brahmachari joined me a couple of years later. She brought her warmth and her brilliant writing to the class, which became known as the Art and Writing class. Our practice developed gradually towards the model we have now, and which we've managed to maintain throughout the Covid crisis by adapting to working online. In essence, we offer a community version of the best sort of author/illustrator relationship, with words stimulating pictures and pictures stimulating words.
The impact that working with clients at the Centre has on my work is immeasurable. It feeds into my own illustration practice, and vice versa, through the use of different materials and subject matter for sessions/illustrations, to the way that our students respond to stimuli in the classroom, and my approach to conveying emotion and information in my illustrations. The impact on SWALLOW'S KISS is the most direct connection of all - the story grew out of the lived experience of the refugee people we are working with, and the experiences Sita and I have had in being involved in that work.
The Islington Centre has had such a profound impact on this book. Sita, what were you consciously aware of including from the lived experiences of refugee families as you were writing it?
From the start, Jane and I knew that we needed to represent the global community at the Centre. Language is forefront for people having to start a new life in a new land, so we took great pleasure in researching the words like ‘home’ and ‘ friend’ in different languages used by people at the centre. Members also helped us with this research and we explored the context and nuance of words in translation.
We thought how wonderful it would be for a child with little English to find a word written in their mother tongue in this book. Jane and I trialled SWALLOW'S KISS with children in Islington Libraries and were overwhelmed when a young girl jumped up in excitement because her Lingala language and a lullaby was featured in the story. Just as Blessing’s Mama and her friend Hani have sought a safe place to call home, so too do many children look for a friendly welcome in stories. Finding and sharing a word in your home language can feel like a little piece of treasure.
Jane, how did you and Sita work together on this book? Did the story emerge collaboratively? What input did Sita (and others) have on your illustrations?
This story developed on a bus, which is something I’ve never done before!
Our journey to the class in Islington is sometimes a bit of a crawl through London traffic and there is plenty of time to discuss ideas for books, talk about our work and plan our teaching. In fact we refer to the bus as our office!
We had talked about creating a picture book based on the Centre, so Sita started writing ideas in her notebook. The following week she gave me the book and I added some drawings and scraps of visual ideas, which she then took home and responded to. The note book was passed between us week by week, each of us adding our responses to the others work, until we had enough information for Sita to write the story.
It went through several more changes, sometimes led by visual ideas from me, sometimes by story twists from Sita, until we had our book. So the creation of SWALLOW'S KISS is a perfect example of this collaborative journey time!
We have an ongoing joke about how much stuff we carry back and forth - bags of feathers and leaves, rolls of paper, paints, fruit and flowers on our way to the class, and the precious resulting work of our students on our return.
We have often worried that we are going to accidentally leave a bag of artwork on the bus or in a cafe and the responsibility weighs heavily! The idea of the bag of paper birds left under a table in Mr Miral's cafe is a real fear!
But it is the students themselves, who come to our class, who are the true inspiration. People's stories are often overwhelming, and time after time I am amazed at the way creativity 'lifts' and empowers them.
The process that Jane describes – of passing ideas (and a notebook!) back and forth – sounds exciting. Have you worked this way before, Sita? What did this process (and Jane’s input) add to the story, and your experience of writing it?The way that Jane and I work in the art and writing room reminds me of the collaborative way I’ve worked with designers in theatre. If one week on our bus journey Jane presented a sketch of an image in our notebook (like the glorious spread in the middle of the book where Blessing is in awe of her Wish Birds) I knew I could strip the words right back, so that they can be enjoyed as one with the picture.
It’s similar to the way in which you can create a picture on a stage, when it’s enough for the characters to communicate without words. I have always said (to Jane’s great embarrassment) that her illustrations have a powerful force of drawing you into the core of human emotion in such a true and direct way.
This deep connection between image and word feels really important in an offering of a story that is intended to be read by children with many diverse home languages. When the choir image speaks as it does so joyously at the end of the story, there is no need for a response in words at all. Whatever language you speak, you can read this picture together and imagine the glorious song.
I’m very intrigued by your art and writing class, Sita, it sounds wonderful. Do you have any favourite activities to share with Cast of Thousands readers? Or approaches that you’ve found to be particularly successful in engaging participants and empowering them to respond and create?
We generally begin with a theme (Trees, Gardens, Feathers) and then we create an inspiration table. If our theme is feathers, for example, we’ll have many different kinds of feathers as stimuli to inspire art and conversation.
Everyone introduces themselves (for example, My name is Sita and my favourite birds are swallows because….) and we start collecting a ‘ treasure hoard’ of language and knowledge around our feathery conversations. We might collect words related to a swallow in flight, for example, like ‘twirling, dipping, switching, diving’ which are featured in SWALLOW'S KISS.
After that, Jane usually demonstrates a technique (such as painting using feathers, or painting onto feathers) and as people paint, some choose words from the treasure hoard to build their own poems to go with the paintings.
Other people choose to paint or draw quietly, settling wholly into the meditation of painting, and show their work at the end in a mini exhibition.
From this exhibition of work, the precious treasure hoard of words is added to. Together we build all the treasure of ideas and connections across a global community into a communal poem.
At the end of each session there is a sense that we have held all the contributions of the group together and each person has contributed to a memorable creative work.
When people have lost so much this piece of communal work can be joyful. There is often laughter in the room and appreciation of each other’s work and insights.
You can find this work exhibited on the Islington Centre website at islingtoncentre.co.uk by clicking HERE
Thanks so much for sharing that! What were the biggest challenges of working on this book for you, Jane? The surprises? The rewards?For me as illustrator, the greatest challenge was to be true to the people we work with at the Centre, to ensure that people would identify with the ideas and representations in the book. The big final double page illustration at the end of the book is probably the most important image from this point of view - I was trying to get across the warmth, inclusion and camaraderie to be found there, and something familiar about the way the place looks.
Although the people I've drawn aren't portraits of individual clients, they are based on people we know, scenes that are familiar and emotions that are experienced behind that blue door.
Have you worked with Pop Up before, either independently or together? What was it about Ten Stories To Make a Difference that made you want to get involved?
(Jane says) I've been working with Pop Up for a long time and been involved in their wonderful nationwide book festivals, running workshops in school and at festivals. In fact, it is through Pop Up that Sita and I met and became friends.
When I heard about Pop Up's Ten Stories to Make a Difference project, I knew that it would have huge integrity and worth because that is simply how they do things!
My involvement with them has often been in areas of Special Educational Need, and Pop Up has been exemplary in making sure their festivals and projects are fully available in SEN settings, backing up their offering by providing specialist training to their authors and illustrators in these areas. This exemplifies the thoroughness of their approach - they follow through, and I knew their publishing projects would be as rigorous.
Ten Stories came along at exactly the right time for SWALLOW'S KISS. This book had been gestating for a couple of years, and was very dear to both Sita's and my hearts. We were looking for the perfect publishing home, and it was clear that we had found it with Pop Up.
(Sita says) It was a particularly wonderful experience publishing this story with Pop Up, an organisation with which Jane and I have done so much grassroots work from the beginning. In one of my stories BRACE MOUTH FALSE TEETH (with Barrington Stoke) the young protagonist realises that whatever she will do in life, it has to be ‘ heart-work.’ That’s what this project feels like. And married with the extraordinary generosity of working with the hugely talented and experienced Elorine Grant (who volunteer art-directed this book so beautifully) and Dylan Calder’s insightful editing of the text, together with Amanda Saawka-Mante’s incredible coordination and Txabi Jones’ design, it made opening the box of this book a deeply moving experience – like a beautiful communal chord of choir-song.
What are your hopes for the series, Sita, and SWALLOW'S KISS in particular?
In many ways SWALLOW'S KISS is our signature book together because it has grown out of our collaboration in a community that we are a part of, and where we also grew our friendship. Jane and I have written three stories together now (WORRY ANGELS for Barrington Stoke, COREY'S ROCK for Otter Barry Books and now SWALLOW'S KISS for Pop Up) and all of them have benefited from our process of working together at Islington Centre. But SWALLOW'S KISS grew out of the process we’ve developed with adults at the Centre and is our ode to that community. We’ve always felt that these processes could be empowering for young readers, too, so we’ve been exploring that idea by working with teachers at Pop Up’s Festival for schools.
Recently I took a stroll to see all ten Stories to Make a Difference on display at The Children’s Bookshop in Muswell Hill and they really do make a wonderful collection. They have beautiful spines! And just like the choir in SWALLOW'S KISS, their joy lies in their individuality, diversity, difference and their family of connection as a change-making collection.
Jane and I are planning a story trail for SWALLOW'S KISS for ‘Get Islington Reading’ for the National Literacy Trust in the summer, but there are so many possibilities of creativity and friendship-making in this book and we hope it will be a catalyst for many people. I don’t think we’ve even begun to see the responses or potential of these stories!
(Jane adds...) Pop Up has based their first venture into publishing on a strong framework of brilliant storytelling, exciting illustration and absolutely wonderful production and design values - classics of the future.
I hope these books will be on our shelves and in children's hands for a very long time to come and that our Swallow, in particular, continues to swoop and dart into hearts and minds everywhere.
The Islington Centre helps people to re-build their lives, and the freedom to express themselves in art and writing (and to learn to play again) is a vital part of that regeneration. Jane and I are very proud that SWALLOW'S KISS is endorsed by Amnesty International for celebrating children’s rights to safety, equality and play.
Recently one of our members, Sandra, read from SWALLOW'S KISS for a National Literacy Trust workshop. She also sang a Lingala lullaby with her child at her side, and we were deeply moved by her wish to contribute to this story. Time and again Jane and I see that those people who have helped and been welcomed with kindness are the first people to want to help others.
When people buy this book (or any of the 10 Stories to Make a Difference) they will be helping Pop Up to work in deprived and vulnerable communities and give opportunity to underrepresented voices, which feels like a perfect circle of reciprocal empathy.
To find out more about the Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants click HERE
To support the Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants, click HERE
To find out more about Pop Up's 10 Stories to Make a Difference collection, or to order SWALLOW'S KISS and other titles, click HERE
Sita Brahmachari is a writer of plays, short stories and novels for children and young adults. She won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize (2011) for her debut novel Artichoke Hearts, her novel Tender Earth was honoured by IBBY (2018), and she was a World Book Day 2021 author. Sita is an Amnesty International Ambassador and, working alongside Jane Ray, is writer-in-residence at the Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants.
Artichoke Hearts published by Macmillan
Where the River Runs Gold published by Orion
When Secrets Set Sail published by Orion
Corey’s Rock illustrated by Jane Ray, published by Otter-Barry Books
Worry Angels illustrated by Jane Ray, published by Barrington Stoke
Jasmine Skies published by Macmillan
Kite Spirit published by Macmillan
Red Leaves published by Macmillan
Jane Ray has illustrated over 50 picture books for children. She has been shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway Award six times and was the IBBY UK Illustration Nominee for the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 2018. Working alongside Sita Brahmachari, Jane is also an artist-in-residence at the Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants.
The Unicorn Prince written by Saviour Pirotta, published by Orchard Books
The Lost Happy Endings written by Carol Ann Duffy, published by Bloomsbury
Corey’s Rock written by Sita Brahmachari, published by Otter-Barry Books
Worry Angels written by Sita Brahmachari, published by Barrington Stoke
Hummingbird written by Nicola Davies, published by Walker Books
The Tempest retold by Georghia Ellinas, published by Walker Books
Ahmed and the Feather Girl published by Frances Lincoln
Can You Catch a Mermaid? published by Orchard Books
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