We adored Camilla Chester’s latest book, Call Me Lion. Camilla has a fantastic insight into the way in which children see the world, Sarah Broadley couldn’t wait to interview her…
Would you agree that it’s important for every child to see themselves in a book, to recognise themselves in characters created with their own unique voice.
I absolutely do agree. I’m currently writing a book that features a cat and went back to a story that I loved as a child called Carbonel for inspiration. I realised that the reason that I loved it was not just the cat, but the girl. She was just like me, and also had an absent father. Nobody had divorced par-ents when I was growing up and yet here I was in a book: it was like magic. When I thought about it further, I realised that’s why I loved The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. Lucy was the youngest of four, just like me, and Edmund was exactly like my older brother at that age. It’s so important to see yourself in what you’re reading at least once. Stories help us learn how to navigate our way through life. We empathise deeply with characters we can relate to and it’s totally unfair and isolating if there’s not proper representation. I hope I’m getting it right; I work hard to make sure I am and when I get quotes like this one from someone who’s opinion is very important, I feel moved to tears:
“I also love the fact that you’re writing books with characters that will make people feel more repre-sented (with both this book and Call Me Lion), because it can sometimes feel extremely isolating when you’re different to everyone else, in some way or another.”
Why are you the right person to write this story?
This may sound strange but I can’t fully explain why I chose to write Call Me Lion. I’m not religious or even particularly spiritual, but the voice of Leo was like a real boy inside my head, insisting I tell his story. I’ve never experienced anything like that before nor since. When I reached out for sensitivity readers I met Donna Redrup, who had lost her son James to Sudden Onset Leukaemia in his early twenties. James struggled with Selective Mutism throughout his childhood and adolescence, and had an obsession with lions. He died shortly before going to see The Lion King in London with his family which was to celebrate his birthday. Hearing Donna’s story and feeling the powerful connection be-tween the voice in my head and the life of James is the reason that the book is dedicated to his memory. Donna has been an incredible support throughout the process of bringing Call Me Lion to life. I know that the book will continue to work hard to raise awareness of the condition which is ex-actly what James intended to do with his own children’s book which he was writing when he died. I feel honoured to tell this story and hope that I’ve done it justice.
There is a social responsibility to engage with communities that are written about, what advice would you give to writers to ensure they make the right connections?
I don’t believe that you can write in isolation. Call Me Lion was definitely a collaborative process bringing together families living with Selective Mutism, experts in the condition, the writing communi-ty, friends, family, publishing professionals, the list is so long I couldn’t include everyone in my acknowledgements. Books are reflection of life – we don’t live in isolation so we shouldn’t write alone either. The advice I would give to writers is to talk to people – tell them what you’re writing, you’ll be amazed how connected the world is and who might be able to help and shape your book. If you’re writing outside of your experience then reach out into that community; find organisations and individ-uals, explain who you are and what you need. People love to help if they can, especially if it means they see themselves in your book. It’s win win because you’ll create an authentic book which already has support before it’s even found a publishing home. Good luck and enjoy the process!
It’s a privilege to write and publish children’s books, what are your takeaways from writing and publishing Call Me Lion
The longer I am in the world of writing for children the more I realise my privilege. Although I had al-ways written and wanted to be a published children’s author I don’t think I truly understood what re-sponsibilities that would mean. I just wanted to write good stories but now I believe that published children’s authors have a social responsibility to get it right. It’s a privileged platform of influence and children believe what they read. We need to make sure the stories we create are not only entertain-ing, but inclusive.
Children are impressionable and authors have a responsibility to ensure that we are raising the next generation to be accepting, tolerant, kind and empathetic towards one another. So how do we do that? Well, when we write we need to do it sensitively, with understanding and compassion. We all know what it is like to be human and share common experiences across cultures and communities – this is what unites us and this is what we need to let shine through in our books.
Children need to see characters like themselves that they can relate to experiencing the same di-lemmas and difficulties that they do. They may learn to navigate their own world that little bit better by reading but only if what they read connects with them. We don’t need to be heavy-handed or sanctimonious about this. Call Me Lion is an uplifting story filled with joy which I hope will be read for pleasure as much as anything else.
Have you had any feedback or contact from schools regarding Call Me Lion and its inclu-sion as a classroom read?
When I was writing the book I talked to a few teachers who all said they’d known at least one child with a diagnosis of Selective Mutism or very quiet children in their career. All said they were keen for a book such as Call Me Lion to be available in their school library. This was very encouraging.
In addition, I’ve had fantastic feedback from people like Susmita Roy who works with children like Leo, to say that the book is a resource that is badly needed within UK schools.
I’ve been really encouraged by Jo Cotterill’s support for Call Me Lion as I’m a huge admirer of her books. She predicts that Call Me Lion will “make waves in primary schools” and is promoting it as a useful resource.
The book covers a lot of themes beyond the central issue of Selective Mutism, such as friendship, empathy, family dynamics, exclusion, literacy and dance, that can all be discussion and/or subject topics. I hope it’ll be picked up and used in classrooms in the UK and throughout the world. To help with this I’ve written a School Resource Pack which is free to download from both my and Firefly Press websites. It is to be used in conjunction with the book. The activities are all curriculum based and have been checked and endorsed by teachers. I’d like to add here that Call Me Lion is a joyful story about friendship and reading for pleasure is reason enough for it to be chosen as a classroom read.
Hopefully this is the tip of the iceberg and just the beginning of Lion’s journey into the world
Camilla Chester is a dog walker who writes. She’s been a finalist in two national children’s writing competitions, for the National Literacy Trust and Mslexia. Call Me Lion is her first traditionally published novel. You can find out more about Camilla and her writing by visiting her website: www.camillachester.com