Far From Home is a companion novel to Street Child, which was first published twenty years ago. Why did you decide to write this novel now?
Over the years I’ve had thousands of letters from children about Street Child, and one of the questions they always ask is – ‘Will you write a sequel?’ My answer has always been ‘No. The sequel is in your head.’ And I believed myself! However, when HarperCollins approached me last year with a request for a companion book, I surprised myself by agreeing immediately!
Were you nervous about writing a sequel or follow-up to Jim’s story? Why did you choose to make his sisters the central characters?
Yes, I was nervous, and still am. I have been very lucky in that Street Child has been a very popular book. However, this also means that children have very firm ideas about what might happen to Jim. And, of course, they’re all different! Another frequently asked question from children is ‘What happened to Emily and Lizzie?’ In accepting the HarperCollins invitation to write a sequel I was clear that I wouldn’t write about Jim again, but would take a very different route and follow the sisters. This was a challenge, and that’s always exciting for a writer. I needed to open my mind and I also needed to embark on some research. So, I was nervous, but I was also fired up.
What sort of research did you do for this book?
Well, I read Street Child! I needed to find myself back in the period, the story, the characters and the writing voice. I began my proper research by browsing through Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, 1851, which is a riveting and entertaining account of street life in Victorian England. However, I soon decided to take the girls out of London and up to Derbyshire to work in a mill, and discovered A Memoir of Robert Blincoe, published in 1832. This is a true account of a mill-workers life, written up and perhaps enhanced by John Brown from Blincoe’s own words, and was extremely disturbing and helpful.
You’ve written a number of historical novels for children as well as novels set in the recent past. What do you like most about writing this kind of fiction?
I’m not an historian, so writing books that are set in the past takes me on a journey of discovery, which I always enjoy. I like the challenge of trying to make the past as vivid to young readers as their own life is, and of trying to help them by description to imagine that past, and themselves in it.
Why do you think Jim’s story appeals so much to modern children?
Children unlike many adults, empathise with children in trouble and in need. I think the fact that a boy like themselves can be alone in the world, totally destitute, really makes them care about what happens to him.
Far From Home is set in Derbyshire, near where you live, and there are also scenes in the Wirral, where you grew up. How important is a sense of place to this story?
Very, but I think it’s important to every story. Readers need to be able to find their way round the geography of a book, and the author has to make that possible for them. I usually set my stories in places that are familiar to me, as a way of making the reader feel that they know where they are. In Far From Home I wanted a complete contrast to London and found it in the wild landscape of a lonely valley, and later in the sheltered peninsula of the Wirral coast.
You don’t underplay the hardships and harsh treatment the children experience working in the mill, but are careful too to show that the mill owner can be kind, and that the mill is important to the workers. Was that particularly important to you?
Yes. Blincoe’s descriptions of working in a mill show a life of unremitting harshness, but there are of course enlightened and naturally sympathetic people and it’s important to the healthy balance of a piece of fiction to introduce a degree of hope and dignity. Because of what happens in the story the mill owner grows to a new level of understanding, and the realisation that his employees need him as much as he needs them.
Families and family relationships are often at the heart of your novels. How much is this the story
of a family?
Very much. Emily and Lizzie have lost their parents and their brother, so it’s very important to them to stay together, in spite of the events that drive them apart. They never lose their memory of Jim, and he is almost a ghost sibling, ever-present in their thoughts. They find themselves living in the family of apprentices, and the new mother is the unpredictable Mrs Cleggins. The other family is the Blackthorn family, mill owners, each of them with different needs and ambitions. As with Jim, Emily and Lizzie desperately need the love and care of a secure home and some form of family life.
What do you hope children will take from Far From Home?
I very much hope they enjoy the story, and feel it’s a suitable companion to Street Child. I hope they understand the appalling situation that children working in mills and factories found themselves in during the Industrial Revolution, and from there I would hope they become aware of the fact that such conditions remain today in many parts of the world. To our great shame there continue to be children living in the streets, and there continues to be child exploitation.
Might you be tempted to return to the story of the Jarvis family in another book?
Oh, who knows? Many questions deliberately remain unanswered – after all, the sequel is in the reader’s head!