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The Houses That Look Like Ours: An Essay by Lesley Parr

Posted on 6th January 2021 by Mark Skinner

Lesley Parr wrote The Valley of Lost Secrets to reflect the values and environments of her working-class childhood in South Wales. In this exclusive piece, the author of the Waterstones Children's Book of the Month for January picks her favourite children's books that feature working-class children and communities.

The Houses That Look Like Ours 

I grew up in a terraced house at the bottom of a Welsh valley, surrounded by mountains and very close to the river. In a village which once produced copper, iron and tin, and a town which makes steel to this day. I didn’t know about class, all I knew was that my parents met in a factory, and they continued to work very hard in blue-collar jobs. We weren’t rich, but we weren’t poor, either.

The books I read as a child didn’t have children like me in them. And, as an adult, I found myself writing similar types of stories at first. My ideas didn’t really come to life until I left those middle-class characters behind, and wrote from my own heart.

We know how important it is for children to see their lives reflected back to them in the books they read. A teacher working with her class on The Valley of Lost Secrets told me that, after looking at the cover, one child asked, ‘Who lives in the houses that look like ours?’ These pupils are from an ex-mining community in a Welsh valley, and it gives me so much joy to know that they’re more intrigued to read my book because of that connection – it’s not a coincidence. So often adventures happen in castles or old manor houses or boarding schools – and hoorah for them – there’s room for it all, but I want to make those places budge over a bit, make room for books where ‘rows of terraced houses lead off the hill on both sides. Each street looks the same and each house has a front step that meets the pavement.’

Douglas Stuart, author of Shuggie Bain (winner of this year’s Booker Prize) said Glasgow and its people put its roots into his soul and made him want to keep writing about it. And that’s how I feel about South Wales. No matter how I live or what I do, that will always be who I am. It’s in my bones. The roots of the green, green grass of home are in my soul.

People often say ‘write what you know’, and, even though I’ve never been a 12-year-old English boy, evacuated in 1939, The Valley of Lost Secrets is me through and through. Because it’s about working-class people. My people. The books I’ve chosen below include characters who wander through a Tyneside town, fly through space, toil in a mine, and swim with killer fish, but I connect with them because they’re my people, too.

The Colour of the Sun by David Almond

I probably think about this book once every few days – that’s how much it lives under my skin. For me, it rivals Skellig in its genius and beauty. It tells of a young boy called Davie on one summer day as he walks up to the hills above his Tyneside town. Reading it, I was both in Almond’s Felling and my Cwmafan at the same time. I was a child again. I saw my own village – the streets and the fields and the people – in this story because the working-class experience is a shared experience. Places differ, people are the same. For me, this story feels like home.

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The author of Skellig delivers a complex and subtle evocation of working class Tyneside and the sinister mysteries and hidden lyricism that envelop young Davie one hot summer morning.
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Cosmic by Frank Cottrell-Boyce

I read this as an adult and noted that it was the first time I can recall seeing a character in a children’s book who had the same job as my father; driving a taxi. If it connected me to the story, what could it do for a child reader? Liam is an ordinary boy – whatever ordinary means – who has the most extraordinary experience, namely pretending to be the father of his classmate (the wonderfully named Florida Kirby), and going into space. I love it when a funny book delivers and this one had tears of laughter running down my face, but it also has pathos – the best comedy always does.

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Interstellar shenanigans from the inspired pen of the great Frank Cottrell-Boyce, Cosmic tells the side-splitting story of long-legged Liam and his quest to be the first child in space.
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Bearmouth by Liz Hyder

This is an astonishing and powerful book, with characters who feel instantly real in a world of injustice and hard physical labour. The lowest in society are so low down they’re deep underground, never allowed to see sunlight. Their bosses – the ones who reap all the rewards – are physically above them. But the strength in this story comes from the workers; when they recognise their own power and strive to rise, quite literally, to a better life.

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In a subterranean society, a young labourer begins to question the system in this claustrophobic yet invigorating dystopia from debut novelist Liz Hyder.
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The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas by David Almond

Another one from this author (there could have been more, this is my version of restraint). The opening chapters speak a thousand truths about dying industries in working-class places. And, again, Almond weaves a tale of wonder and joy at the small things in life; loving a pet, going to the fair, or eating a baked potato straight out of a campfire for the very first time.

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A wonderfully feel-good story of fish, fame and family, The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas paints an endearing portrait of a close-knit community and a young boy’s journey of self-discovery.
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