Candy Gourlay: Looking back as Writer in Residence and exploring worlds with BookTrust

Published on: 01 September 2019 Author: Candy Gourlay

Candy Gourlay bids farewell as BookTrust's Writer in Residence and reflects on her mission to get more children reading, and especially target some more diverse communities.

Gee, I can’t believe the summer is coming to an end… Which means my time as BookTrust Writer in Residence is also ending. 

At the beginning of my six-month residency, BookTrust asked me to set a theme. 

‘Books are windows and mirrors’ – people discussing inclusion in books mention the quote all the time. The idea was originated by Professor Rudine Sims Bishop in her 1990 article, Windows, Mirrors and Sliding Glass Doors. Bishop’s work has since inspired diversity movements and encouraged best practice for educators and the publishing industry at large – leading to a 2017 Coretta Scott King lifetime achievement award.

Here is the actual quote from Rudine Sims Bishop:

'Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of a larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.'

Read the whole article [PDF], it’s important!

A previous Writer in Residence, Sita Brahmachari, has explored points Bishop made about how a lack of diversity hurts young readers: those who see themselves misrepresented in books or not at all, and those who only ever see reflections of themselves, who grow up with a distorted sense of privilege.

As BookTrust Writer in Residence, I decided I wanted to home in on that moment that Bishop describes: 'when lighting conditions are just right'… When a window can also be a mirror.

Writing and drawing competiton

As part of my residency, I set a competition called Windows to Other Worlds. Here’s a video I made of top tips for the children who wanted to join in.

I have written that growing up in the Philippines, ‘Books were my world. And yet my world was not in my books.’ What worlds were children encountering in their books? And did they, like me, still see something of themselves in the stories?

You can read about the magnificent entries here.

Winner: Freddie Ferguson, Thelwall Community Infant School, Warrington

Tyler Judges-Smith, Fleetdown Primary School, Dartford

 Quin Thirsk from Latymer Prep School in Hammersmith

Speaking to young people

It seemed fortuitous that when BookTrust announced my residency in March, I was speaking at the Hong Kong Young Readers Festival; from there, I went to the Philippines to launch the local editions of my novel Bone Talk and picture book Is It a Mermaid. Later, as BookTrust Writer in Residence, I went along to the Barnes Literary Festival and the Hay Festival.

Photos from the Hong Kong Young Readers Festival. Photo by Mio Debnam

Speaking to so many audiences, I learned that we are still a long way from striking a balance of windows and mirrors, though it was heartening to see the hard work and passion that literacy advocates are dedicating to change the current monocultural default.

I also realised what a huge role adults play in enabling the love of reading and how so many of us (me included) struggle to do the thing which we promote. So I wrote a piece on how to fall back in love with books, followed by a feature on how we can help books find their way to the child

An event for Filipinos

Then Booktrust asked me to design an event – any event.

Since I became an author in 2010, I have performed in a gazillion events… And I can’t help noticing that Filipino children are rare sightings. Is it because they are not invited? Or perhaps they don’t know they are invited? Or do they feel like outsiders at these festivals and book talks?

I decided to design an event just for Filipino children in London. I wanted to design one that reached the parts that book events don’t normally reach.

Luckily, I met Mark Watan and Wendy Pooten, who both happen to identify as Bontoc, the tribe featured in my novel Bone Talk. They connected me with an audience: their close-knit community who call the setting of my novel "home". Do read my Twitter Thread of Delight about our event, StoryPinoy, which had us filling One Hoe Street in Waltham Forest with Filipino books, indigenous instruments and dancing to the rhythms of the Cordillera. It was AMAZING.

StoryPinoy event. Photo: Anna McKerrow

StoryPinoy: Photo: Anna McKerrow

Time to say goodbye

I don’t know what the weather will be like when this piece is posted on the BookTrust blog, but as I write, it’s sizzling in London! It reminds me that when I was growing up, summer happened in April, when the weather reaches boiling point in the Philippines.

Funnily enough, the hot weather used to make me obsess about its complete opposite: SNOW.

I thought I would end this piece by offering you a glimpse of my summers as a little girl in a hot country. These are a few frames of an unfinished comic I made featuring me and three of my siblings (eventually we had two more brothers, but that’s another story).

When it’s freezing cold in the UK, do YOU dream of living in a hot country?

From Winter Wonderland by Candy Gourlay (2015, unfinished)

More about Candy Gourlay's time as Writer in Residence

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