We have a particular fondness for what we like to think of as 'lightbulb' children's books. That is, powerfully written stories that open a reader's eyes to the challenges faced by others. For readers of about 10-13 in particular, just emerging from the somewhat self-focused chrysalis of childhood, these books can literally be life changing to read, opening them up to a deeper level of empathy, compassion and understanding. As a bookseller, librarian, parent or teacher, you can watch these readers grow emotionally in front of your eyes!
One all-time favourite 'lightbulb' book is Parvana, the story of a girl under Taliban rule who must disguise herself as a boy to become the breadwinner for her family. All she wants is to attend school again, and for someone else to put dinner on the table. The effect of this book on children - when they discover that many norms of Australian life are actually huge privileges not shared by everyone - has been profound.
Likewise the outstanding novel Out of My Mind, chronicling the life of Melody, a girl blessed with huge intelligence, but unable to walk or speak due to her cerebal palsy. Readers of all ages have adored this book. How many of us forget to appreciate our own amazing abilities to see and hear, walk and talk?
So we are especially excited to have our very own 'homegrown' lightbulb book, One Thousand Hills by accomplished Hazelbrook author James Roy, written in collaboration with Noel Zihabamwe. Pascal's story is set in Rwanda in 1994. He's just a regular kid, with a loyal best friend, a secret crush on his pretty teacher, an annoying older brother and an irritating little sister. Regular life is pretty good, until the night life in Rwanda changes forever...
How did the collaboration between you and Noel come about?
I was at an Australia Day lunch of a mutual friend, and Noel was there with his family. We started chatting, and the idea started to grow immediately. Here was this charming, balanced guy with an extraordinary story.
Did you know much about the Rwandan genocide prior to writing the novel? What sort of research did you do, and how challenging was it to paint an authentic picture of a place you hadn't been?
That was really Noel's main contribution, since this story isn't his per se, but a story about a boy around the same age as he was in 1994. So Noel's main job in the collaboration was to provide texture and detail to things like setting, culture and the political climate that led to the tragedy. Like most people, I knew a little about Rwanda from movies like "Hotel Rwanda" and the far superior (in my view) "Shooting Dogs". I also remembered the blurry news images of the time, and recalled with embarrassment how the western world basically put it down to some inconsequential tribal squabble.
Have you had feedback from any readers of Rwandan heritage since the book's release? What was their response to the novel?
A little, but not a lot. What I have heard has been positive. I go to the Rwandan National Day celebrations in Granville each year, and what is noteworthy is the uniformity of the speeches. Everyone who speaks makes the point that before 1994, no one in the West knew anything about Rwanda - its amazing food, culture, music, landscape. Now it's synonymous with machetes and murder. They are keen to shake off that perception. In a slightly counterintuitive kind of way, I hope that this book helps to do that, by humanising the conflict.
Are there hopes/plans for One Thousand Hills to be published internationally?
Of course, and a major film starring Edris Elba, Viola Davis and Denzel Washington. Wait, that last bit is a fantasy, but even so... Hopefully Scholastic's International Rights department can do its magic...
What do you hope the experience of young readers of the book will be?
I think that a book for young readers needs a moment where the reader can put themselves in the place of the character, and ask themselves how they'd behave if it were them. You could argue that that's true of all stories. So that means the writer has to make the character relatable in some way, before kicking that idea away. So in the case of this book, I didn't want that "kicking away" moment to be when we learn that Pascal lives in a mud brick house with a clay floor, or that he sleeps on a pile of mats on the floor, or that he only has full-strength milk at breakfast on Sundays. I needed his life to be relatable for the young Australian reader: he fights with his brother, he thinks his sister is spoilt, he gets into mischief with his friends, he has a crush on his teacher, he forgets to do his chores, and so on. The "punch in the guts" comes when he comes home and finds his family gone without trace. At that point I want the young Australian reader to go "Whoa, what if that was what I came home to find?"
So their experience? Hopefully it is one of understanding, empathy, and a reconsideration of how some people need to survive, particularly in the case of many of our refugees. They're not tyre-kickers looking for a free ride - they're real people with real families running from really dire situations.
One Thousand Hills is now available from Megalong Books