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The Right to Write

Posted on 16th September 2016 by Sally Campbell
Amnesty International's Here I Stand anthology unites twenty-five unique voices on the theme of human rights under threat. The book is a searing, eye-opening collection of drawings, stories and poems by some of the world’s best-loved writers and illustrators. Here, Walker Books' Commissioning Editor Emma Lidbury explains how the project and the stellar line-up fell so completely into place.

Image: An illustration from Here I Stand (c) Chris Riddell 2016

Teen anthology Here I Stand hopes to raise young people’s awareness of human rights – the ones we have, the ones we need and the ones we might lose. Walker Books and Amnesty International consulted with law firm Bindmans LLC to identify the human rights issues with which teenagers would most identify, and to help them realise that these don’t just exist in foreign dictatorships, but all around: at home, at school, in the workplace. Many contributors have written on topics about which they do not have direct experience, but all of them are passionate about human rights – and they have a wealth of experience of telling other people’s stories and provoking empathy and understanding in their readers.

Children’s author Bali Rai lives in multicultural Leicester, and regularly performs author events in schools across the city. These have shown him that race, and ideas about prejudice in general, are important to young people. Bali is no stranger to racial prejudice, and has memories of being spat at by neo-Nazi skinheads in Leicester Market as a young child, as well as regular vocal abuse in his own neighbourhood. These events shaped him, and gave him the desire to explore the concept of race and identity. His story was inspired by the tragic death of Liverpool teenager Anthony Walker in 2005 at the hand of racists. It is a re-imagination of the facts, an attempt to explore the emotions of the victim. Bali believes that empathy is the first line of defence against hatred.

Graphic novelists Mary and Bryan Talbot and Kate Charlesworth recently published Sally Heathcote, Suffragette, an account of the Edwardian struggle over civil liberties. Mary, an academic, specializes in feminist history and gender politics, so for her the link was an obvious one. The trio relished the opportunity to create something new about the suffragette cause for a teen readership. Mary researched and wrote the script while her husband Bryan storyboarded and Kate Charlesworth produced the finished artwork. Ideas from all three were integral to the process, and for them, collaboration was key.

For Costa-winning children’s novelist Frances Hardinge, collaboration was also essential. Frances decided to base her story – on the issue of torture – around the historic witch trials. But on learning from Amnesty that children in the UK are still tortured as witches today, she knew she had to write something more contemporary. Award-winning journalist Ronke Phillips informed Frances about existing “exorcism” cases, and she was particularly haunted by the story of Kevani Kanda, whose relatives subjected her to horrific abuse between the ages of six and ten. Like Izzy in Frances’s story, Kevani would resort to stealing packed lunches from her schoolmates because nobody had fed her; she believed the adults who told her she was a witch, and regarded their behaviour towards her as normal. Kevani now campaigns to raise awareness of such abuse so that other children do not have to suffer, and she was generous in allowing Frances to use elements of her ordeal in her story – which is all the more powerful as a result.

Sita Brahmachari begins every story by considering a question, an observation or worry that plays on her mind. This leads her to more questioning and inevitably to research – from which point she takes the flight from reality to fiction. The idea for her short story Stay Home came when Sita was waiting in a school reception and a girl aged around thirteen arrived late for school. She told the receptionist she had been taking her mum to a medical appointment, and when the receptionist said she would call home and check, the girl explained that her mother never answered the phone because she was not confident with her English. The number of children caring for family members in Britain today has never been greater: 700,000 children struggle to balance school with taking care of their households – and all while still trying to experience a childhood. Sita spoke to The Child Carer’s Trust and a human rights lawyer who represents children, and it quickly became apparent that two issues in particular are common among young carers. Sita wove these into her story, and as a result, Niya, her protagonist, translates for her grieving mother and hides from doctors, teachers and friends the fact that she looks after her.

Long-time children’s author Elizabeth Laird has lived all over the world, and her novels frequently tackle modern issues in the Middle East and Africa. Meeting a group of young boys in Pakistan who had been trafficked to the Gulf States to become camel jockeys in the lucrative camel racing industry opened her eyes to the issue of human trafficking, and inspired her novel Lost Riders, which went on to be shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal. Like Frances, Elizabeth has brought her piece for this collection close to home. School of Life is about a young Eastern European girl called Katya who is sent into sexual slavery in Britain, and Elizabeth was helped in her research by the knowledgeable and committed lawyers at the organization Hope for Justice, who sketched out a picture of what is happening so that she could paint it into a story. Her character Katya is all her own, however – and could be any disillusioned and unhappy teenager so tempted by the promise of a new life that she could follow a relative stranger into an unknown future.

These are just some of the stories behind the stories. Additionally, Scots Makar Jackie Kay spent time with refugees in Glasgow; US novelist Ryan Gattis flew to visit a prisoner on Death Row; renowned US author Neil Gaiman and UK children’s laureate Chris Riddell were both so appalled by the Charlie Hebdo massacre that within days they had collaborated on a cartoon for the national press. And so on. Each of the contributors desire to be participants in change, and in many cases this has meant walking in another’s shoes. They hope their readers will increase in understanding as they walk alongside them – and that in so doing, they, in turn, will be inspired to take a stand and make a difference.

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