2019 has been quite a year for Jasbinder Bilan. Chicken House published her debut novel Asha and the Spirit Bird in February (it had won the Times Children’s Fiction Competition two years earlier) and last month it was announced that the book is on the shortlist for the prestigious Costa Children’s Book Award alongside books by Malorie Blackman and Jenny Downham no less. Jasbinder talked to Books for Keeps about her book, its journey into print and what the Costa shortlisting means.
It’s easy to see what the Costa judges admired about Asha and the Spirit Bird. For a start, it’s a thrilling adventure story which pitches its young protagonists into real danger. Asha’s father has left the family home in the foothills of the Himalayas to work hundreds of miles away. When his letters home, and the money he sends with them, suddenly stop the family are forced to turn to moneylenders, putting their home at risk. As Divali approaches – and with it the deadline for repaying the loan – Asha decides she will set off to find her father and bring him home. Her best friend Jeevan accompanies her and together they make a long and perilous journey facing hunger, wild animals and even violent gangmasters who force them into slave labour. Asha’s strength of spirit and love for her family sustains her but she is inspired too by a bird that seems to accompany them and which she believes is the spirit of her beloved grandma. It’s the kind of story of friendship, faith and adventure that children absolutely love and the setting, vividly brought to life, is as much a part of the appeal as the characters.
A Costa shortlisting is no mean feat but Jasbinder Bilan’s overnight success has been some years in the making. Writing was something she loved to do as a child and as she grew up she continued to write stories and poetry, though only for herself. She trained and worked as an English teacher so was immersed in the world of literature and children’s writing but it was only when she took a year out from teaching to complete the MA in creative writing at Bath Spa University that she was able to work on a novel. Asha’s story was her dissertation piece, featuring in the anthology produced to highlight students’ work and attracting attention from a number of agents. She is full of praise for the Bath course and what it did for her: ‘I can honestly say, if I hadn’t done the course, I wouldn’t have written the book, because I wouldn’t have had the confidence. The marvellous thing about doing a course like that is that it gives you opportunities to share your writing and for other people to say what they love about it and ways they think it could be better. It’s not about teaching you to write, but about you evolving as a writer.’ One of the agents who read the anthology suggested that her book, which was written in the past tense at that point, would work better in the present tense. She spent a year editing it – it is now in the present tense – and then submitted it for the Chicken House Times Competition Prize: ‘I was amazed when it won!’
Thinking about a story to write for her dissertation she was struck with an image of her grandmother in India playing by water, mountains in the background, and couldn’t shake it: ‘I felt really compelled to write a story that was about my grandma, or about me if I’d stayed in India’. Jasbinder was born in Northern Punjab moving with her family to England when she was very young. She describes the process of writing the book as ‘heartfelt’ and her connection to the world she is describing is part of what makes the book such vivid reading: ‘I drew on all the memories and stories my grandma had told me when I was growing up. We used to have lots of big family gatherings, and everyone talked about when we lived in India on the farm – really happy times. I’ve used all of that background to create my fictional story.’
She was very close to her grandma who was clearly an extraordinary woman: ‘My grandmother was a strong influence on me, and a very strong woman. My grandfather died when my father was about 12, so she had to bring up the whole family – she had five children – and manage the farm. The family had quite a high position within the village too which meant that everything she did was closely watched.’ Reincarnation is another one of those heartfelt themes in the book and at times of particular stress or danger Asha is reassured and indeed helped by the arrival of the bird she regards as the spirit of her grandma: ‘My grandma used to tell me that she would always be with me. I think that’s such a lovely idea for a child so I used it in the story; it felt very natural to me to include this as a message of hope.’ Asha’s female lineage come to the family’s rescue too in a very practical way with the discovery of a cache of their jewellery. ‘The sense of passing things on is so important’ says Jasbinder, ‘I wanted to show that when you wear something that belonged to somebody very close to you it can give you an inner strength’.
Asha’s Hindu faith sustains her throughout her search for her father. She and Jeevan interrupt their journey to visit a temple, where Asha prays for help, receiving a red pilgrim’s mark from the priest. Jasbinder describes her own family as ‘culturally religious’ but wanted to show that Asha’s beliefs give her strength and that completing the rituals at the temple gives her an impetus to finish her journey. Asha’s views are balanced by Jeevan, who is a scientist and looks for proof even in matters of faith.
Jasbinder is still working as a supply teacher and also doing lots of library and school visits, indeed, she’s just signed up to be Patron of Reading at her old primary school. She’s excited at young readers’ response to the book and proud too that her book is providing a window into another world for lots of readers, and a mirror for children of her background to see themselves. She hopes it will inspire children: ‘As a teacher you’re always in it for the kids and it would just be lovely if children reading the book think “there’s a child there like me” and see that writing is something they could do too.’
She is writing something new at the moment, another story set in the Himalayas with a magical element to it, and we finish our conversation talking about the challenges new writers face. ‘Persevere!’ is her message: ‘It’s really hard work to write a book, but don’t lose faith. Keep going because if you get disheartened and think it won’t happen to me, you won’t be ready when your moment arrives.’ She quotes her course tutor Steve Voake who reassures the students: ‘If it’s not your moment yet, it will be one day’. Congratulations again to Jasbinder on the book and her prize shortlisting, a very well-deserved moment if ever there was one.
Andrea Reece is managing editor of Books for Keeps.
Asha and the Spirit Bird is published by Chicken House, 978-1911490197, £6.99 pbk.