STREAMS OF STORY by Nicola Davies
Like the journey taken by a river, the journey of a story through its author’s mind and life, to the pages of a book is long and winding, with many tributaries that join the main stream along its length.
One of the streams that flowed into the story of The Day War Came, TDWC, is a mining disaster that happened when I was eight. A heap of rubble slid down the side of a Welsh valley and engulfed the school, killing 116 children and 28 adults. I remember watching the news reports on TV as the tiny little bodies were pulled out and carried away. The faces of the stricken villagers imprinted on my mind, and came back to me when reports of the war in Syria showed collapsed buildings and grief stricken relatives. Aberfan had given me a way to feel closer to the experience of Syrians so far away.
Aberfan contributed another small stream to the story, when I watched a documentary on the 50th anniversary of the disaster. One of the survivors, at the time a boy of six, said that he had seen the wave of black coal slag coming towards the school, but had only become afraid when he saw the fear own his teachers face. In addition to giving me that telling detail of a child’s perspective, it got me thinking about the way that children’s experience of the world is mediated by the adults around them, and sent me back ‘upstream’ into my own childhood.
When I was little my mother was gravely ill. My father, older siblings and grandparents discussed Mum’s progress all the time, but as the youngest child by a decade I was never included in those conversations and gleaned information by stealth and accident. My family were trying to protect me but as a result when my mother’s condition had worsened so that it could not be concealed I was shocked and confused. Remembering those experiences that so shaped my early life I wondered how much parents in war zones tried to protect their kids not only physically but psychologically, and what happened when, at last, that became impossible.
My memories of my childhood and how I thought and felt are very clear; they contribute to many of my stories but they also motivate my writing in a particular way. I know that as a small child I was capable of understanding and processing emotional information far beyond my ability to articulate it. This has made me, as a writer, convinced that children, even very young children, can be included, in fact should be included, in conversations about anything that touches their lives, no matter how dark.
Sometimes adults avoid talking about life’s darkness because they think they can’t find the words to make difficult subject accessible to young children and sometimes, they are simply afraid of their own feelings. This is where picture books can help. Most people think of picture books as fluffy. Cutesy. And they can be. But they can be so much more. Working together, the words and images of a picture book can carry any message, and do it in a way that speaks to everyone, allowing conversations to open between adults and children, and adults and their own hearts.
The final tributary to the river came direct from a refugee camp; a BBC reporter talked to a lone refugee child who had been refused entry to a local school because there wasn’t a chair or desk for her. She returned the next day with a broken chair, found a rubbish tip and made her request again. I don’t know, if the little girl got into the school but it gave me the conclusion of my story and it provided a clear and powerful symbol, the empty chair.
Since TDWC took shape in my heart and head, and wrote itself in a morning, I have thought a lot about the power of the empty chair. It has so many meanings: empty because there is no one left to sit in it; empty because those who might use it are shut out ; or empty, only for the moment that it takes one of us to offer the spare chair at the table to someone who needs it, or to get up so that someone less able to stand, may rest.
The message of The Day War Came is so simple, as simple as empty chair: we need to be kind; we need to share. Because we could be next. Because every person matters. Because that’s what makes us truly human.
Nicola Davies is the author of more than 50 books for children, fiction, non fiction and poetry. Her work has been published in more than 10 different languages and has won major awards in the UK, US, France, Italy and Germany. Nicola trained as a zoologist, and her love of the natural world infuses much of her writing. She comes from a long line of miners, steelworkers and small holders, in South Wales, where she now lives. The Day War Came was published in the Guardian Newspaper in the UK https://www.theguardian.com/world/gallery/2016/may/11/your-3000-chairs-for-child-refugees-in-pictures and inspired a gallery of empty chairs, each one symbolising a desire to welcome and help lone child refugees.