The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Jane Mitchell

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The Interview: Bookbag talks to Jane Mitchell

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Summary: Bookbag loved Jane Mitchell's novel Chalkline and was delighted to ask her some questions about it. It's a powerful story of a child soldier in Kashmir. It's beautifully written with great accuracy, doesn't flinch from its subject, but maintains a deeply affecting humanity.
Date: 21 July 2009
Interviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy

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Bookbag loved Jane Mitchell's novel Chalkline and was delighted to ask her some questions about it. It's a powerful story of a child soldier in Kashmir. It's beautifully written with great accuracy, doesn't flinch from its subject, but maintains a deeply affecting humanity.

  • Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

Jane Mitchell: When I'm writing, I actually don't imagine my readers at all, because I'm too caught up in the characters and in what's happening to them. I suspect that if I did lift my head and gaze around at expectant readers, I'd get such a fright that I'd be unable to write another word. Until a book is finished and ready to show the world, I prefer not to imagine anyone else reading it. I prefer to keep it secret and private until it's ready to let go – and then it's no longer mine anymore.

  • BB: We loved Chalkline, and particularly the way in which you dispensed with exposition in favour of allowing the political background to come through the eyes of the young protagonists. Do you think readers will be shocked by the story?

JM: While I didn't set out to shock readers, I know that Rafiq's story is shocking. I found some parts difficult to write because of what the characters were experiencing. But in order to have a realistic story about child soldiers, the truth had to be told – although it's hard-hitting. I wouldn't be doing justice to the plight of child soldiers if I softened their harrowing experiences to make the story more palatable. And I wouldn't be doing justice to readers if I told a story that wasn't as honest and candid as I could make it.

  • BB: It's often said that young people are increasingly more politically disaffected, despite citizenship on the school curriculum. Do you think fiction is better placed to incite topical debate amongst schoolchildren?

JM: While including Citizenship as a statutory subject in the school curriculum is commendable, there's a risk that it could be viewed by schoolchildren as yet another lesson to learn, another class to attend, in their already long school day. While I've not experienced a Citizenship class, getting passionate about something as nebulous as learning to be a responsible citizen sounds like hard work – and the success of any class depends hugely on the quality of the teaching and the enthusiasm of the teacher.

I think fiction can be a wonderful medium through which to generate debate and discussion about political situations, and to heighten awareness of issues about which children might not be aware. Young people are intelligent, intuitive and hungry for knowledge – when it's accessible and interesting for them. Personalising a situation through a fictional story brings alive the reality of a political situation. Fiction can bring important issues to life. It can be a spring-board to further exploration and investigation. It can make global issues accessible and real to young readers.

  • BB: How else can we spread awareness about child soldiers?

JM: Child soldiers are often only mentioned in passing. For example, the recent hostilities in the Swat Valley of Pakistan revealed the use of child soldiers between the ages of 7 and 15 years – yet it only got a brief mention in any news bulletins. Most people think of African countries in conflict, such as Sierra Leone and Liberia, when child soldiers are mentioned, yet it's a huge problem the world over. There are an estimated 250,000 to 300,000 children exploited and abused in this way, their childhoods stolen, their lives disrupted. These children are deprived of education, safety and security, and are often injured, or even killed. Countries such as Pakistan, India, Thailand and Nepal, among others, have a history of using children to fight wars.

People need to know that this is happening, today, in many countries. Awareness will only happen if concerned individuals ask questions and highlight the issues, if they seek more information and challenge the deplorable idea that arming children with weapons is acceptable.

  • BB: What would you say to a child who has read Chalkline and wants to do something about the issues raised?

JM: It would be great if any child wanted to do something about the issues raised in Chalkline. They could start off by exploring the area further, maybe by talking to their local librarian or teacher to find more information. There are some excellent websites, such as Amnesty.org and Child-Soldiers.org. Some have sections aimed specifically at children and schools, and most children's rights organisations welcome the involvement of young people passionate about the plight of child soldiers. They're happy to send out information packs, provide statistics and reports, or visit a school or youth organisation to discuss the issues. Children can be great motivators and can generate important action, and I would encourage any interested young person to investigate the issues further.

  • BB: What made you want to write for children?

JM: It seemed an obvious choice for me – not so much a conscious decision, but more a case of being drawn naturally to write for young people. I can't imagine writing for adults, although I know adults read my books.

Books for young readers get right into the story from the outset. They don't faff around with unnecessary stuff, and can be more challenging to write, and to read, as a result. There's little space for padding, which makes them cleaner and sharper, and young readers are refreshingly honest and critical – you're never left in any doubt about their views and they certainly won't tolerate messy plots and sloppy writing! That really makes me more attentive as a writer.

I also think that young readers read a book with open questioning minds, not jaded by excessive experience, but prepared to question and to challenge. That means they're prepared to tackle challenging subjects, and they're not afraid to take on something different.

  • BB: What would be your Desert Island book? You can only have one, sorry!

JM: Only one? Wow – that's a tough one. I'm hopeless at choosing this kind of thing. Maybe the biggest possible Guide to Desert Island Wildlife, then I'd know what plants and animals would be safe to eat, and which ones I'd have to avoid. Or else an enormous blank ledger with an endless supply of pens, so I could amuse myself by writing my own stories. Then I could create whatever world I wanted to escape into when I had enough of desert island life.

  • BB: You love to travel. If you had to stay put in one place for the rest of your life, where would it be?

JM: That's as difficult a question as the last one! I live in Ireland and love it here, but it's also because it's where I've grown up and where my family and friends are, so it would be very difficult to live elsewhere. But so many other places have things that appeal hugely to me and that aren't in Ireland. China is replete with lifestyles and cultures and foods that are radically different from anything else I've ever experienced. There's just so much to see there. Australia has loads of wildlife, an outdoor way of life and a wonderful sunny climate (We get waaaay too much rain in Ireland. The weather is a national obsession!). India has a deep richness and colour and heritage that I could spend years exploring. As for South America – don't even get me started on the vibrancy and diversity of Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador… No, sorry – just can't choose one place. And unless my entire circle of family and friends could be magically relocated, I guess I'll just be staying right where I am.

  • BB: If you weren't a writer, what would you be?

JM: Anything creative and dynamic, preferably involving children in some way. I used to be a teacher but found the formal structure of the classroom too stifling and limiting, yet I love working with children. I also get restless and bored easily, so I need lots of variety and diversity. Perhaps something involving young people playing and producing music – I play traditional and classical flute, and I love choral and orchestral work with children. Or something in the visual arts.

  • BB: What's next for Jane Mitchell?

JM: At the moment, I'm finishing up a book about children living under Israeli military occupation in the West Bank of the Palestinian Occupied Territories. I'm writing about the challenges they face as they try to get on with the difficult business of just growing up. I travelled to the West Bank in 2008 and this story came from the direct experiences of some of the Palestinian children I met. It's direct and challenging, and I'm finding some of it difficult to write.

  • BB: Thanks a lot, Jane - we can't wait to read the new book!

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