We are thrilled to welcome to the blog Sita Brahmachari, whose new story Swallow’s Kiss (illustrated by Jane Ray) will be published on 24th June in the 10 Stories to Make a Difference Collection. 10 Stories to Make a Difference is a collection of original illustrated stories published by non-profit children’s literature development agency Pop Up Projects, which has been bringing books, schools and communities together for 10 years.
Filled with light, love and birdsong, Swallow’s Kiss (available to pre-order here) is a wonderfully uplifting story that explores the common threads that connect our communities, inspired by writer and Amnesty Ambassador Sita Brahmachari’s and award-winning illustrator Jane Ray’s experiences as artists-in-residence at the Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants.
We asked Sita all about the new story, how it fits into the collection’s theme of ‘difference’ and how her work with Jane Ray on community projects helped to inspire aspects of the story…
with Sita Brahmachari, author of Swallow’s Kiss
Firstly, congratulations on Swallow’s Kiss, which is included in Pop Up Festival’s 10 Stories to Make a Difference collection. Could you tell us more about the idea behind the Ten Stories collection? Thank you. It’s a wonderful collection to be a part of. Jane Ray and I have been working in schools and community projects for Pop Up since it began ten years ago. In fact Jane and I really got to know each other through being out on the road at a Pop Up festival! Pop Up does vital work in reaching some of the most disenfranchised young people by working creatively with educators and in communities. Now they have launched their first publishing project featuring ten brand new illustrated children’s stories, all inspired by the theme of ‘difference’. The stories are exciting new collaborations between established and emerging writers and illustrators, giving platforms to bold new voices. This is a truly community spirited venture and volunteers from several major publishers have also contributed to the books e.g. Swallow’s Kiss has been beautifully designed by Elorine Grant from Harper Collins and edited by Dylan Calder the Director of Pop Up Festival.
What can we expect from your story with Jane Ray, Swallow’s Kiss?
Swallow’s Kiss is a story about the power of community, friendship and the curiosity of children to learn and inspire each other. There are a lot of beautiful birds in the story and I think each wing carries a message of kindness and empathy. These emotions and values fly through the pages of this story set in an unnamed city. It focuses on seven year old Blessing and her family as she discovers a bag of lost paper birds with wishes written in different languages on their wings. Blessing’s mother arrived in the city as a refugee from the Congo and every night she sings her daughter a beautiful Lingala lullaby but the paper birds bring songs and wishes in many languages. Blessing embarks on a quest to discover what is written on the wings of these paper birds and the refugee people who made them.
The theme for the collection is ‘difference’ – how did you interpret the theme and how important is it in your story?
Blessing is tuned into the complex and multi-lingual birdsong of the city and she loves the diverse songs that surround her. She wants to discover the song lyrics, the wishes, the cultures and heritages of all the birds and people she meets. When she discovers wishes written on the wings of birds in languages she can’t speak she reaches to learn who wrote these wishes…and makes her own.
Swallow’s Kiss is written as a free-verse poem. Can you tell us why you chose this format and about how the process of writing in verse differs from the style of your prose novels?
As a child, the first writing I did was in free-verse. In 2012 I wrote in free-verse for a stage adaptation of Shaun Tan’s epic graphic novel ‘The Arrival’. The form seemed to fit, reaching to an epic expression full of symbolism and written in fine brush strokes exploring the nuance of each word and the rhythm of each line. Another story Jane Ray and I worked on together ‘Corey’s Rock’ (Otter Barry Books) is also written largely in free verse. In 2021 I wrote a World Book Day story ‘The River Whale’ partly in free verse too because that is the way the words emerged at the underwater world or dreaming moments. For Swallow’s Kiss the whole story emerged in free verse. Dylan Calder (Pop Up Director and editor of Swallow’s Kiss) helped me to hone the text to its essence. Blessing and her mother love singing and as I wrote I could hear the internal rhythms of their voices. When writing in free-verse there is a joy of placing every word like a jewel on the page, to explore its shape, its power and meaning. Blessing is at an age where she is discovering the power and the beauty of words in different languages, words known and yet to discover, and the form of free-verse allowed me to give proper space to the weight of words and to celebrate their communication super powers.
This is not the first time that you have worked with artist and illustrator Jane Ray. Can you tell us about your process of working together, and also how having worked together on community projects feeds into your stories?
For the last eight years Jane Ray and I have worked together in the Art and Writing Class as writer and artist in residence at The Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants. It has been one the most wonderful creative collaborations of my writing life.
In our work in the art and writing class Jane and I collaborate as writer and illustrator do when working together. We carry this into our stories where word and image hold equal weight as they do in our class where people express themselves through art, conversation and writing.
Swallow’s Kiss is the third publishing project that Jane and I have worked on together. The first two stories are ‘Worry Angels’ (Barrington Stoke) and ‘Corey’s Rock.’ ( Otter Barry Books) . All three books are informed by our method of working together developed over the last eight years at Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants; a creative method that we also share in schools and with educators through Pop Up Festival.
In the story, the main character is Blessing, a girl of Congolese descent. How is Blessing’s cultural heritage important to the story, and how did you research this aspect?
In one of the classes we ran at Islington Centre we wrote a communal song based on people missing speaking in the Lingala language.
‘Lingala is the language that my heart first heard
Lingala is the language that my soul first spoke
Lingala is the language of my heart and soul
Oh Lingala, Lingala, Lingala’
The choir at the centre then sang this song in English and in Lingala at an exhibition at Amnesty International. Congolese members of the Art and Writing group told us that the Lingala language is spoken by approximately twenty million people. The Lingala words in the story and their translations were written in consultation with Lingala speakers at the centre. In our conversations around language, we discussed what a joy it would be if this generation could see and feel their culture, language and voices represented and welcomed in a children’s story. When trialling an early version in Islington Libraries a young Lingala speaker was delighted that her culture was recognised in the story… jumping up with her hand made wish bird she exclaimed with pride and delight, ‘I know these words. Lingala is my language.’ We shared the song that came from the centre and this young girl led the chorus.
Blessing and her mother’s love of singing in their Lingala language comes from the heart-felt experiences of refugee people.
In the story, Blessing finds a bag of paper birds (‘wish birds’) in her local cafe and follows a trail to the children who made them. This would make a lovely art project for children to try at home or school. Where did the idea come from, and what would you write on your own wish bird?
The idea for Swallow’s Kiss was hatched on a London bus when we were travelling from the refugee centre carrying a bag of bright and beautiful paper birds with wishes written on the wings by refugee people. The following week we were to return and continue to work on these paper birds but Jane and I both felt the responsibility of carrying them. That night I imagined a child discovering a lost bag of paper birds in a café under a table, the wishes in the wings of the birds contained so much feeling and the child empathised so deeply with the winged-wishes that the birds began to sing into her heart and the story of Swallow’s Kiss was born.
I started writing it and the words began to flow in Blessing’s voice. The next week I showed the first verses of a draft to Jane and in a call and response method, over a term Jane responded to the writing with illustrations. In this way this truly collaborative project took flight on a London bus!
In my own wish bird I would write….
I wish for everyone to be tuned into the beauty of bird-song and common humanity as Blessing is.
As refugee week approaches (14-20 June), what advice would you give to teachers and schools looking to develop children’s empathy and understanding of refugees in their local communities?
Children can feel overwhelmed by learning about or being a refugee survivor. Reading fiction is an immersive way to engage children’s hearts and minds while allowing them the creative space to explore. In caring for characters in stories and placing their wishes for them on the wings of birds readers can practice and increase their powers of empathy. When we meet characters in a story we love we feel as if we have met another human being and journeyed with them. Then when we face new experiences in life we draw on this empathy-well and act differently… we are able to engage.
Following this sort of engagement schools can connect with communities such as the Islington Centre and explore making a partnership as Blessing and her family do. This might include children making cakes or inviting speakers or a choir to school, or exploring befriending services. An important aspect of mental health in people across generations is understanding that each of us can do something to help, to increase our common humanity and learn from and about each other. In fact, the science explored by Empathy Lab UK proves that simple acts of kindness increase everyone’s happiness well!
Stories – just like art and community projects – can serve as a powerful vehicle for bringing people together and providing shared experiences that can make people feel less isolated, as they read about experiences similar to their own. As we emerge from the lockdown period, how important are free festivals like Pop Up Festival Presents in giving children the opportunity to access a diverse range of stories and to hear stories that might make them feel connected?
Stories hold the way in which we see, feel and imagine. In Swallow’s Kiss I felt a strong motivation to write a story for younger children because they have been so profoundly impacted by the isolation of this Global Pandemic. In particular, the literacy levels of children I have worked with over the years through Pop Up Festival will have been hugely, negatively impacted. There will be so much to do to redress the huge inequalities that Pop Up has always focused on changing through its engagement with authors and storytelling in schools and communities. We know how children’s life expectations and their health and well being is linked to literacy rates. Engaging children in a love of stories and providing access to books in which they belong and can find themselves is vital. I also look forward to all of these 10 stories to make a difference by releasing a beautiful festival of creative responses…because into the pages of each of these stories all the makers have placed their wishes for brighter and fairer futures for all our children.
Many thanks to Sita for answering our questions!
10 Stories to Make a Difference is a collection of original illustrated stories published by non-profit children’s literature development agency Pop Up Projects, which has been bringing books, schools and communities together for 10 years.
Sita Brahmachari, and Jane Ray, are taking part in the POP UP Festival Presents live-streamed festival 14-18th June.
Their event on 18th June, 10- 11 am will be Live from the National Maritime Museum and is suitable for KS1 and lower KS2.
More About Pop-Up Festival Presents
Pop-Up Festival Presents is FREE to all primary, secondary and special schools, in a week-long celebration of some of the best children’s literature.
The summer showcase will feature over 20 authors reading from their best-loved and newly released books, along with original and exclusive content, including interviews, performances, workshop activities and resources for use in classrooms and at home.
For free events with Julia Donaldson and Axel Sheffler, Konnie Huq, Karl Nova, Andy Stanton, Smriti Halls, Kate Wakeling, Jamila Gavin and Jacinta Read, A.M Dassu, Emily Gravett, Holly Sterling, James Mayhew, Ben Miller, Polly Ho-Yen, James Carter, Sarah Ardizzone, Nicky Singer, Christopher William Hill, Sophie Anderson, Jay Hulme and Sahar Haghgoo, Jane Ray and Sita Brahmachari and to watch the premiere of 3 brand new short films based on traditional tales from around the world, produced by the story museum.
Where next? >
Visit our Reading for Pleasure Hub
> Browse our Topic Booklists
> View our printable year group booklists.
> See our Books of the Month.