by Linda Sarah and Fiona Lumbers
Interview with Linda Sarah and Fiona Lumbers, the team behind The Secret Sky Garden (Simon & Shuster). An edited version of this interview appeared in our regular Power of Reading members' newsletter, November 2019.
Linda Sarah is an author and artist. She has written various books for children including On Sudden Hill and Mi and Museum City. Fiona Lumbers is an illustrator and has illustrated various picture books including Luna Loves Library Day, by Joseph Coelho, I Like Bees, I Don’t Like Honey by Sam Bishop and The Hairdo that Got Away by Joseph Coelho .
Their picturebook, The Secret Sky Garden (Simona & Schuster) was selected this year to join the Power Of Reading 2019-2020 book pack. We interviewed them about the book for our Power of Reading Newsletter, and to find out what inspires them, their influences and the contribution of picture books and illustration to children’s love of reading.
What inspired you in writing/illustrating The Secret Sky Garden?
Linda: I've always had a love of derelict places – and the idea of this lonely, young person, who you never see in a cosy home, or in parks, maybe she's shy, or anxious around others. And I loved the idea of this being her magical place to be free, but then to make it even more beautiful. Service stations, airports, old, sad, abandoned places hold many, many stories – so Funni created her own, in the least likely place. I want and try to write stories that all children can relate to, whatever their background – and often barely mention parents to heighten this. It is their very own story, thoughts and feelings.
Fiona: I loved the poetic, lyrical text immediately - Linda writes so beautifully and I was so thrilled to be asked to illustrate it. The more I read it, the more it revealed to me. I felt a real affinity to the character of Funni and it was very important to me to create the right setting for her and the story.
I have a Fine Art background, and colour has always been a very important part of my practice. I felt very strongly that the colour palette should develop and build gradually as the story unfolds and the carpark is transformed. I love Brutalist architecture and I was really excited to incorporate this into the setting of the story. I wanted the structure of Funni's surroundings to be strong and solid to offset the fragility of the beautiful garden that was going to bloom there, creating a harmonious balance between the man-made and nature.
Which books had a lasting impact on you as a child and why?
Linda: Ohhhhh! So many. Books were my love, survival, way of learning that other worlds existed with characters that were carefree, compassionate, silly, funny. The biggest impact, I think, was Tove Jansson's books, the Moomins: especially Snufkin, the little creature who lives as a nomad, playing music, enjoying the flowers, woods, streams; and the kindness and love of Moominmama, always making everyone feel welcome and lovely, just as they are. I got lost in these worlds. There are so many others: Astrid Lindgren; Dr Seuss; Richard Scarry and Mrs Pepperpot too, by Alf Prøysen. I discovered from a Norwegian friend that he was adored as a children's singer/song-writer, as well as an author. One song describes tomorrow's sky being like a fresh sheet of paper, to draw new stories and pictures on. He was amazing! Books were my everything, as I felt different to everyone else, but safe and at home with these magical creatures and their stories. And, like Fiona, I also used to read secretly at night with a red, plastic film projector – books just had to be read!
Fiona: Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans was the first book I remember choosing from the Library - I fell in love with the story and the illustrations and dreamt of moving to Paris! It's still my all time favourite picture book and it was where my love of visual storytelling began. I loved reading my sisters collection of Roald Dahl books - I would read them by torchlight under my bedcovers and be transported to new worlds. His use of language was so exciting and so different from anything else I'd read and his characterisation was mind-blowing. Alongside fiction, I also had a real thirst for facts and I would devour my Grandparents encyclopaedias.
How do you think picture books and illustration shape children’s reading pleasure and imagination?
Linda: Oh, in so many ways – and ironically, as a writer, I find it tricky to put into words! Picture books and their magnificent illustrations, such as Fiona Lumber's are potentially life-changing for young people, allowing them to be transported into many different worlds, experience feelings, some new, watch how empathy unfolds, or discover what makes them giggle uncontrollably. It also sparks their own (even more astonishing) imaginations and wish to create new worlds and characters – and maybe, most importantly, know that there is hope, if they feel a little hopeless – and magic, if life feels dull and too ordered. Also that we can shape our own destinies, create paths, inventions – and play around with self-identity, enjoying imagining being a wizard, or a tiny piglet, or even a friendly spider, like in Charlotte's Web.
Fiona: I think the shared experience of a picture book is fundamental in a childs development. Even before a child can read, they are able to formulate stories from the illustrations. Picture books are their first introduction to literature, to the experience of storytelling, of being read to and of reading to others. They spark curiosity and they are windows into new worlds and experiences. I have always loved sharing picture books with my own children - of reading to them and being read to.
How do you think a reading programme like the Power of Reading works in schools?
Linda: I think it's a very beautiful and magical way of taking this book, this one story – and then opening it up so it can be seen from many different perspectives, encouraging questions, thoughts, ideas, that from reading the book alone, may not have occurred. It also, I think, superbly encourages creative writing in young people – how just a word, or a phrase, a character crying, laughing, can change the whole shape of a story instantly. In a world where young people are small and powerless, it gives them a voice to express their own treasure box of feelings and ideas for stories, pictures, music, films...an amazing pathway to wonderful new sights and sounds – and invites them to create and shape their own experiences.
I think it must be massively valuable to teachers, often with little free time, to have beautifully thought-out ideas and suggestions for exploring a book that might otherwise have been missed. The project is fun, thought-provoking and I can imagine would lead to lively and inventive discussions.
Also, just sharing work created with others, that sense that each of us has our own incredible way of seeing and understanding things, then expressing them can encourage friendships and empathy.
Fiona: I think programmes like the Power of Reading are invaluable resources for schools. They increase and improve the quality of reading and writing within schools and are so expertly and comprehensively formulated. It's so important for children to develop a love of reading and writing and learning from quality texts and programmes like Power of Reading provide expert guidance to do this.
What is your experience of being involved with the Power of Reading programme?
Linda: Brilliant! I feel so lucky to have been involved. The best, best, best part is seeing creations by young people who have worked with a book in the Power of Reading programme – ideas I wouldn't have dreamed of! Tangents and directions leading to a host of magnificent new artworks, stories, hand-made delightful creations! It has been an absolute joy and something I value so much. It has also given me new ideas about possible activities and projects that could happen, maybe with author/illustrators and young people. It is mind-expanding, inspirational and incredibly valuable for young people (and older ones, like me), to discover so many new things about both themselves – and the world around them.