“You won’t find Murkaster on a map. Maps show rivers, mountains and cities. They don’t bother with clouds because clouds come and go. Except in Murkaster. The clouds came to Muskaster. They did not go away again. They sat there on the roofs and in the squares and streets and gardens, until it was wiped off the map.”
British screenwriter and novelist Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s Murkaster, from his eponymous short story, could well be New Delhi or London or New York where the children don’t come out to play any more, where forlorn silhouettes of empty schools hulk in the evening twilight and where dark clouds of dread and gloom linger over a pandemic-hit world.
But dark clouds lift eventually. At least, Katherine Rundell believes so. The award-winning children’s writer was at her home in Norfolk, working on her non-fiction book for adults on her favourite poet, John Donne, when the lockdown was announced in the UK over COVID-19 about a month ago. In those early days, she found herself “swamped in fear and sorrow” and desperately seeking hope. She missed her family and friends “so much it aches in my fingertips: I would pay many thousands of pounds to be able to hug my brother’s two tiny children,” she says, over an email interview.
It was then that she decided to reach out to fellow children’s writers and illustrators, people, she calls “professional hunters of hope”. “It seemed to me that one of the best places would be from children’s writers, because so many children’s books have hope, and the imagining of new possibilities, at their core. I wrote to about 50 or 60 people that first day: among them, Lauren Child, Onjali Rauf, Piers Torday, Frank Cottrell-Boyce, Sita Brahmachari, Jasbinder Bilan,” she says.
She had asked them to write “something very short, fiction or non-fiction, or draw something that would make the children reading it feel like possibility-ists: something that would make them laugh or wonder or snort or smile” and the response to her call affirmed her faith. From Cottrell-Boyce to Anthony Horowitz (creator of the beloved Alex Rider series) to Child (known for her classic Charlie and Lola series), to Michael Morpurgo (of War Horse fame) and illustrator Axel Scheffler (of Julia Donaldson’s The Gruffalo, among others), over 100 award-winning writers and illustrators from the children’s publishing community sent in their contributions, to create The Book of Hopes. Available to read for free at literacytrust.org.uk/bookofhopes, it is dedicated to frontline medical workers.
“It was such a joy to have the stories and essays and poems and art come flooding in. Every day, there were new stories in my inbox and every one of them like a vodka shot of hope. It was alchemic,” says the 32-year-old, whose book Rooftoppers (2013), about a secret rooftop world in Paris, won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize and the Blue Peter Award in 2014, and was nominated for the Carnegie Medal the same year. Her The Explorer (2017), about the adventures of a group of children whose plane crashes in the Amazon rainforest, won the Costa Children’s Book Award in 2018.
Thematically divided into sections such as “animals”, “kindnesses”, “nature”, “magic”, “things that grow”, The Book of Hopes is a romp of a read, that will be turned into a gift book published by Bloomsbury later this year. There are aliens, ghosts and cats; dragons and dung beetles, spells and revolting jokes. Hope arrives through songs and animals, through kindness and mindful acts. Or, as AF Harrold writes in his delightful poem, Say Something Nice, “…The world is sometimes grey/ and things go wrong but a kind word,/ and a smile,/ can turn it back around. Say something nice like: /That wasn’t a very good poem/ But I liked it when it stopped.”
It’s this appreciation for the little things in life — the small joys and unexpected kindnesses — that Rundell, who has been dipping into her own go-to children’s books — Paddington by Michael Bond and The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge — hopes to pass on to children now. For as long as she can remember, Rundell, who grew up in Zimbabwe, Belgium and the UK, has enjoyed looking down at the world from dizzying heights. Roof-walking has been a particular favourite, though aeroplanes — and flying them — comes a close second (“I’ve been learning to fly one for a few years now, just for the delight of it,” she says). “Tightrope walking, mountain climbing, flying trapeze, roof walking; anything that allows you to be up near the sky. Everything looks different from up above: it allows you to remember that we live in a world of such vast sweep and scope, that we are so lucky to dwell among immensity,” she says.
But, in her heart, she has never forgotten what it is like to be a child and to look at the world with both delight and apprehension. “Children deserve to know that they live in a world of vast complexity and beauty, danger and hope, both darkness and light, a world shot through with possibility. I think it’s urgently important not to talk down to children. A child’s heart is just as intricate and strange as an adult one, and I think we forget that at our peril,” she says.
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