Victoria Williamson is a primary school teacher with a Master’s degree in special needs education. She has worked as a science teacher and teacher trainer in Cameroon and Malawi, an English as a foreign language teacher in China, and as a special needs teacher in the UK.
Victoria has been writing fiction since she was a child, and now writes full time for Middle Grade and YA, with a particular focus on creating diverse characters reflecting the many cultural backgrounds and special needs she has encountered, both as a teacher and as a volunteer. Having worked with children in Africa, Asia and across the UK with additional support needs such as Autistic Spectrum Disorder, Down’s Syndrome, physical disabilities and behavioural problems, Victoria is passionate about creating inclusive worlds in her novels where all children can see a reflection of themselves in heroic roles.
Victoria’s experiences teaching young children in a school with many families seeking asylum inspired her debut novel, The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle, an uplifting tale of redemption and unlikely friendship between Glaswegian bully Caylin and Syrian refugee Reema.
SK: Thanks for agreeing to do an interview for Storgy Kids. Could you tell our readers a little about your new book The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle?
VW: After teaching abroad for a number of years, I began to see that children from many countries, despite their surface differences, shared a lot in common. In The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle, I chose to reflect these shared childhood experiences by creating a dual narrative centred around two characters who have very different cultural, family and language backgrounds, and yet who share more in common than they could possibly have imagined.
Twelve year old Reema is a Syrian Muslim refugee whose world has been turned upside down by war, and whose family has been given a new home in Scotland. Caylin is a Glaswegian school bully who is struggling as a young carer for her alcoholic mother. When they first meet, the girls can’t imagine spending even five minutes talking together, never mind becoming best friends.
Caylin has lost her grandparents, and with her mother’s depression turning to alcoholism, she resorts to bullying other children for money and stealing to keep food on the table. She longs for the past when her grandparents were alive and she was part of a loving family. Her grandmother was a talented athlete, and Caylin keeps her memory alive through her passion for running.
Reema runs to remember too. She’s lost everything in the Syrian war, including her older brother Jamal, and she’s struggling to fit in and feel safe so far from home. Her memories of running through the streets of Aleppo after school with Jamal are bound up in the headscarf he bought her, and she clings on tightly to this as a symbol of everything she has lost and hopes to recover.
The way I chose to unite these two very different girls and begin their story, was by creating a metaphor for them, in the form of an injured urban fox they care for and come to call Hurriyah – ‘Freedom’ in Arabic.
Despite their different cultural backgrounds, both girls have suffered loss and are searching for a sense of belonging. Hurriyah’s own sense of loss over her dead mate, destroyed den and injured leg which prevents her from running, hunting and caring for her vulnerable cubs mirrors the girls’ struggles to overcome their own sad experiences.
So Hurriyah begins their story for them, her poems woven through the narrative to remind the reader that the girls want to feel both the safety of a permanent, settled home life, and the freedom to be themselves.
Through working together Caylin and Reema see past their differences and find they share the same hopes, dreams and joys, and discover together that home isn’t a place, it’s the people you love.
SK: The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle was a really great read, a very powerful story about some difficult issues and people who often don’t have their voices reflected in fiction for children. So, thanks for writing it. Where did the idea for the novel come from and how did it grow?
VW: The initial seeds of a story centred round a child from a Glasgow council estate and a child recently arrived from another country were planted the year I spent teaching at a primary school in an area of Glasgow with a high number of families seeking asylum. Two children were arguing over a toy wizard cloak at playtime, and I overhead them yell at each other:
“You can’t be Harry Potter, you’re a girl!”
“Well you can’t be Harry Potter either, you’re black!”
The children were only six years old, and already they’d formed a firm idea of roles they thought they could aspire to. At the time, the lead characters in children’s books, films and tv were still overwhelmingly middle-class, white and male. Embarrassing though it is to admit, even though I’d taught for years in Africa and China, up until then it hadn’t occurred to me to represent a variety of voices in my own work. All of the lead characters I’d written in my early novels were middle class white boys too. Even my animal stories featured ninety per cent male characters, with a few minor female ones thrown in to make up the numbers. I realized that I’d been conditioned by the books I’d read and films I watched as a child to see white British and American boys as the driving force behind plot development, and the ones who got to go on exciting adventures. It took two small children arguing over a wizard cloak to make me see that unless I challenged this stereotype in my own writing, children who didn’t fit the accepted ‘hero’ mould would never see themselves reflected in my novel.
SK: Bullying, immigration and outsiders are all themes in your novel. Were these important things for you to write about?
Like many people who eventually become authors, I felt like an outsider during my school years, and so a lot of the experiences of the characters in my novels reflect this. My experiences of teaching children from many different backgrounds, particularly those whose families were seeking asylum, and also children with additional support needs, made me realize how important it was for me to write inclusive stories where all children can see a reflection of themselves in heroic roles. When the Syrian war began, the sheer scale of the humanitarian crisis that followed was overwhelming, and like many other people I felt powerless to do anything about it. It was then that I decided to write a story about a girl whose family has fled the fighting and are trying to build a new life, and little by little Reema’s character began to take shape
SK: Caylin’s character as a bully at the start of the book, was a very emotional journey for me. What was it like writing from the bully’s perspective? Why did you take that on?
VW: As a teacher, I’ve come across many children who initially seem like the ‘textbook bully’ – attention-seeking, loud-mouthed or just plain mean, but who are actually acting out or taking their frustrations out on other children due to difficult family circumstances. I think it’s important to show characters in novels who are flawed and not initially likeable and then slowly reveal their problems to readers, as this is a great opportunity to build up empathy and help children to realise that often what you initially see with people on the outside is not always the full story. If you dig a little deeper the story on the inside may be much more complex, and sometimes bullies may be in need of sympathy and understanding just as much as their victims.
SK: We’ve seen you on a big tour of schools promoting your novel. What has that been like?
VW: Busy! Between the end of April and the start of the summer holidays I’ve visited around fifty schools and talked to thousands of children about the refugee issues in The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle. It’s been great to see so many children engaging with these issues and hearing them discuss what they’ve seen on the news or even seen in real life. In the Glasgow area in particular there are lots of schools with children who are actually refugees themselves or whose families are seeking asylum, so children have been very keen to discuss their own experiences or those of their friends through the context of storytelling.
SK: What is the funniest or most unusual thing you were asked on the tour?
VW: I think most authors tend to get asked the same three questions regardless of which school they visit:
- Are you famous? (The answer is always ‘Oh yeah, totally…’)
- How much money do you make? (I try to deflect the depressing real answer to this one by asking if they had a million pounds what they would do with it.)
- Do you know JK Rowling/David Walliams? (We’re BFFs. Unquestionably. Despite the fact that neither of them have heard of me.)
SK: We’d love to ask you some questions not directly about your novel too if that’s okay? We heard you talk in a podcast that you had written 13 novels before The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle finally got published. What kept you writing? And are we now likely to see any of those other stories make it into print?
VW: Like many authors, writing isn’t just what I like to do, but something I need to do. It’s a fundamental part of who I am, regardless of whether the books I write end up in print or not. I do have a second middle grade book due out next year, so the rest of the books in my back-list will hopefully be seeing the light of day in the not-too-distant future!
SK: When did you know you were an author?
Before I even knew how to write! Nearly every writer as an avid reader, and my love of reading was kindled early by my parents. We spent nearly every weekend in our local library, and even now I can still remember the excitement of discovering the library had a Hardy Boys or Three Investigators book on the shelf that I hadn’t yet read. My mother read to me and my brothers every night for years, dramatizing The Chronicles of Narnia and The Hobbit with different voices for every character. It was like going to the theatre!
Although my father was very shy when it came to reading aloud, he did something equally important when we were children: he read voraciously himself, and talked to us about books at every opportunity. We learnt from him that stories weren’t just for children, they were for adults too, and subjects worthy of serious discussion. Without my parents’ encouragement, I would never have become a writer, so The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle owes as much to them as it does to the influence of my many school pupils whose voices are reflected in the story.
I wrote all of the time – stories, letters, comics, plays, diaries – and it was this constant practise from an early age that helped me shape my craft. Twenty years ago, it took me five years to complete my first novel. The first draft of the Fox Girl and the White Gazelle took me two months to complete, so it shows the difference that years of practise can make!
SK: You are a teacher as well as an author. So, when do you find time to write?
VW: I found it very difficult to combine the two, as teaching is an all-consuming job that requires your full attention and dedication, much like writing. In the end, after several failed attempts at early novels that lacked the energy required to bring them fully to life, I decided that writing was where my true passion lay, and I took the plunge into full time writing. Visiting schools as an author has given me the best of both worlds though, as I still get to interact with schools and pupils regularly and work with them on story-telling and writing, so my days as a teacher certainly aren’t over!
SK: We read in another interview you gave a brilliant answer for where you get your ideas from? Would you tell our readers as well?
VW: When I was six or seven, I stole all of my ideas. And not even subtly. There was no half-hearted attempt to disguise the plagiarised re-telling of books I’d read, tv shows I’d watched or films I’d seen. My early ‘books’ were made of pieces of paper stapled together and filled with scenes from my favourite cartoons. The first play I wrote and performed with some friends in my P3 class was a rewrite of the plot of The Worst Witch. I retold the stories that excited me, imagined myself going off on the adventures I read about and saw on the screen, and changed a few details here and there to make myself the hero of these tales.
And soon a funny thing happened. The adventures began to take on a life of their own. I was still writing stories about the Thundercats or dreaming up mysteries for Tintin to solve. But the plots were new, and all of my own making. Later, when I stepped through the magical wardrobe in my imagination, instead of finding Narnia on the other side, it would be a different world, peopled by characters I had invented, with stories all of their own I had never read before.
And like many authors, even as an adult I spend a ridiculous amount of time living in my head, in worlds peopled by characters from tv shows, films and books. Some of the best stories I’ve written in my head but never committed to paper are fan-fiction episodes of Game of Thrones, Doctor Who or Supernatural. Writing well requires constant practise, just the same as playing the piano proficiently or playing a great game of tennis. But just like practising the piano or tennis, there’s no need to do something new every time. Writing has its scales and service games to rehearse too, but they needn’t be a chore.
I often say to writers who are struggling to come up with ideas to go back to writing the way they did when they were very young, before the need to be original became a stifling requirement. Turn writing into a game and rediscover the excitement of slipping into the role of your favourite character, battling monsters or flying dragons in magical faraway lands that are already out there waiting for you. Soon you’ll be meeting unexpected characters and coming up with different plots along the way, and with a bit of luck and a lot of practise, some of those will turn into brand new stories that have never been told before.
SK: This leads on to some of our other questions about reading. Is there a book that changed your life or really influenced you as a kid?
VW: It wasn’t so much one book that influenced me growing up, but the type of books that I read. From an early age I was addicted to adventure stories, and devoured the Enid Blyton books, the Tintin and Asterix comics, the entire Three Investigators series, and all of the Hardy Boys books. As a teenager I moved on to fantasy and science fiction – The Hobbit, The Dragonlance Chronicles and the Tripods trilogy. It wasn’t until I was an adult writing books of my own that I realised that what all of these books had in common was that they all featured boys who went off and had adventures with their male friends. Even in The Famous Five, The Secret Seven and Narnia stories which featured both girls and boys, the boys were very clearly the leaders of the gang. George tries to join in the adventures on equal terms by pretending to be a boy, but it’s clearly Julian who calls the shots despite her best efforts. And worse, Susan gets kicked out of Narnia in The Last Battle for daring to like such girly things as lipstick, nylons and parties.
The message from all of the books I read as a child was clear: boys are the ones who get to be heroes and go off on exciting adventures, and sometimes they let girls come too as long as they know their place and don’t either try to take charge, or worse, admit to liking ‘girly’ things.
It’s not that there were no female characters worth reading about when I was growing up, but I just couldn’t get into books that were aimed primarily at girls in the same way. There was always something missing for me. Nancy Drew didn’t have a proper gang like The Three Investigators or an equal partner like The Hardy Boys. And the adventures the girls in the Mallory Towers and Chalet School books went on seemed a bit tame and humdrum compared to the dramatic and dangerous situations the boys always seemed to be getting themselves into.
This early experience of feeling like I wasn’t fully represented in the books I read growing up had a very strong influence on me as an author. The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle is my attempt to write the kind of book I wanted to read as a child but didn’t yet know it: a book about a meeting of cultures, a plot driven by the friendship between two girls, a shared secret leading to an adventure, and a female-centred animal story that forms the glue holding Caylin and Reema together.
There’s so much more diversity in the world of children’s fiction now than when I was growing up, and I’m looking forward to reading more of the brilliant books featuring characters from many different backgrounds that have been published in recent years, as well as hopefully writing a few of my own.
SK: Could you choose three books everyone has to read in order to save the world?
VW: I think what we need in order to create a better world is one magic ingredient – empathy, and so I would pick books that help to build empathy in readers, and help children see the world through the eyes of others.
For children who aren’t enthusiastic readers, or who prefer pictures as a storytelling medium, nothing can beat the power of Shaun Tan’s graphic novel The Arrival which tells an immigration story through the eyes of a father travelling to a strange new land to earn money to bring his family over to start a better life. It tells the stories of other immigrants through moving, evocative pictures, and I can’t recommend this highly enough for any age group of children.
Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper is another great story for building empathy, narrated by a girl with cerebral palsy who many people write off as too disabled to understand anything or learn until a determined carer helps her learn to communicate, and people begin to realise just how bright and able she really is. This still doesn’t stop her from experiencing prejudice, and it’s a really moving read.
For older readers, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini is a brilliant book of guilt, hope and redemption partly set in Afghanistan and America, and is a must read for anyone looking to understand different cultural experiences that reflect the common humanity we all share.
SK: If you could be a character in any book, who would they be and why?
VW: I know it’s a cliché, but I would be Hermione from the Harry Potter books, as the only difference between her and me when I was growing up was that she had a wand! I basically lived in the library and went through an early teenage phase of getting my hair permed, so I even had the matching frizzy hair!
SK: Thanks Victoria for the interview. It was great to talk. Could you let our readers know where they can find out more about you and your writing?
VW: Readers can find out all about me at http://www.strangelymagical.com
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