We are delighted to welcome author Victoria Williamson to our blog today. Victoria’s new book Hag Storm (available here) is out now and is a spooky, historical adventure with a supernatural twist.
A lifelong storyteller and daydreamer, Victoria is a children’s author and teacher. Her previous novels, The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle (2018, Floris Books), and The Boy with the Butterfly Mind (2019, Floris Books) were based on her experiences of teaching children with diverse backgrounds and have been shortlisted for a number of awards – as well as being featured in our own booklists for topics like anti-bullying, refugees and neurodiverse characters. Victoria divides her time between writing, visiting schools and speaking at festivals to encourage children of all ages to write their own stories and exercise their imaginations.
Victoria stopped by our blog this week to reflect on the joy of letters and shares some brilliant initiatives to encourage children to take up the lost art of letter writing…
Guest Post – The Joy of Letters
by Victoria Williamson, author of Hag Storm (available here)
When I was a young teenager, back in the Stone Age before we had the internet, I used to love writing letters. In the early nineties, the only people who had mobile phones were the ‘yuppies’ that were parodied on sitcoms, and without email or iPhones, the only way to connect with someone abroad and avoid a landline bill of hundreds of pounds for one phone call was to write them a letter.
Through the International Youth Service (IYS) I connected with pen pals all over the world, and regularly wrote to new-found friends in Europe, South America, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia and North America. In the days of twice-daily postal deliveries – one in the early morning at breakfast time and one at noon – there was nothing more exciting than waiting for the sound of the letterbox opening while I was eating my cornflakes before school or my sandwiches at lunchtime.
Everything about those letters from abroad seemed special, from their colourful stamps and exotic postmarks on the envelopes, to the handwritten letters inside that people had taken the time to write just to me. Sometimes there would even be a little gift enclosed – a locally-produced chocolate bar or packet of sweets, a handcrafted purse or bracelet, or a mix-tape of Bollywood songs or African music. The photographs were what I treasured the most – little glimpses of worlds full of tropical beaches, palm trees and crowded markets I could only dream of visiting while I attended my humdrum secondary school in Glasgow every day.
I learned a lot about the world from my pen pals’ letters as a teenager, including about the war in Sierra Leone from a pen pal who had to flee his village when a rebel group attacked, and about different cultural traditions, including arranged marriages, from a pen pal who entered an arranged marriage in Pakistan at eighteen. My pen pals and I swapped photos, drawings, recipes, music tapes, school worries, and celebrity gossip as well as information about our own countries and cultures.
Those letters played a big part in inspiring me to embark on my own adventures abroad when I left university, and I spent years travelling, working and studying across the world from Cameroon, Malawi, Zambia, China, Malaysia, Australia, Europe and America. My love of letter writing served me well, as some of the places I worked in didn’t have phone networks and weren’t connected to the internet!
Nowadays, like most people, I mostly connect with other people over the internet. Why bother writing a letter, when I can share pictures and updates over social media, connect with friends in China over Skype, and chat with former roommates in America on Zoom? If I want to know what food is popular in Sri Lanka, what music is on the radio in Jamaica, or what festivals are celebrated in Madagascar, instead of asking pen pals by snail mail and waiting weeks or months for an answer, I simply have to Google it or watch a Youtube video. But comparing that experience to the excitement of waiting for the handwritten letters to drop onto my doormat, I can’t help feeling that something is missing when all of our interactions take place over the internet. At times, the personal connection can be missed. After all, why write to friends and family individually, when you can just post on Twitter or Facebook for everyone to read? Why send someone a picture you’ve taken just for them, when you can send it round a WhatsApp group or post it on Instagram for more people to see? At times it can feel like everyone online is talking over each other, rather than talking to each other, and the lockdowns of the Covid pandemic seem to have exacerbated this problem.
Fortunately, there are still programs out there that aim to help children brought up in the age of the internet to discover the joys of letter writing for themselves. The Book Pen Pals project, run by author Kate Scott and web developer Sara O’Conner, helps to connect schools with authors and illustrators who exchange postcards and often also letters, pictures and book reviews. It’s a great way to get children writing, and I’ve had lovely experiences of exchanging writing tips and book recommendations with schools, and receiving handwritten postcards and letters in return.
This autumn I’m also running a series of workshops for the Renfrewshire Council Pen Pals project. This programme is funded by The New Scots Grant, and aims to connect children from Renfrewshire’s School of African Cultures and children from ethnic and refugee communities across Renfrewshire and the West of Scotland.
I’m looking forward to the opportunity to pass on my own love of letter writing, and helping the children to share their hopes, dreams, and details of their everyday lives in writing and in picture form with their pen pals.
I still have the collection of all of the letters that my pen pals sent me over the years, each one a little glimpse into a life that was different from mine, from people who were just as eager as I was to connect with others and learn about their cultures. In our impersonal digital age, when everything is available at the click of a button, these personal connections are more important than ever. Next time you want to send a message to a friend, whether it’s a birthday greeting, an update on what’s going on in your life, or just a check-in to see how they’re getting on, why not take the time to handwrite them a letter? Who knows – you might even get a letter back!
Some useful websites for letter writing:
Book Pen Pals: https://www.bookpenpals.com/
Letters Fae the Locals: https://www.refuweegee.co.uk/your-words
Post Pals: https://www.postpals.co.uk/
My Dear New Friend project; https://literacytrust.org.uk/resources/my-dear-new-friend/
Many thanks to Victoria for visiting our blog and sharing her love of letters. Victoria’s new book, Hag Storm, is available to purchase here.
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