Gillian Cross was this month named as winner of the 2014 Little Rebels Award. She couldn’t be at the ceremony, held as part of the London Radical Bookfair, to collect her prize however. The event coincided with a big community weekend in her village, in which Gillian and her husband Martin were very
actively involved. In fact, as news of her win for After Tomorrow was announced, they were leading a group of walkers across the South Downs as part of those local celebrations.
This feels very right somehow: local community action, ordinary people bringing about change or making things happen, are common themes in her books. Though the Little Rebels Award, for books that ‘promote social justice’, is only in its second year, Gillian points out that many of her books could have qualified had it existed then. ‘One of my first books was about a strike in a clothing factory; The Crazy Shoe Shuffle, where teachers become children, could have been eligible; Save Our School is another; and The Demon Headmaster is actually very rebellious, it’s all about authority, and not conforming.’
‘We really need books that connect with the real world’
Gillian is full of enthusiasm for the Little Rebels Award. ‘It’s such a good idea. We really need books that connect with the real world. When I first began to write, John Rowe Townsend had not long written Grumble’s Yard, books were allowed to be about real things. The pendulum has swung the other way now. I’m really keen that books shouldn’t be preachy, but young people are really concerned with the real world and fantasy, though it can do all sorts of things, doesn’t offer that connection.’ She’s quick to point out that she’s not knocking fantasy at all – and highlights Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy as exceptionally fine – ‘but that connection with the real world is part of what it is to be a person.’
There could be said to be elements of fantasy about After Tomorrow, which is set in a Britain of the near future where the pound has collapsed, food prices have soared, and there are riots in every city. But much of the storyline is horribly plausible, and Gillian has blogged about how, while she was writing some of the scenes in the book, they suddenly seemed scarily close to reality.
The book’s central characters Matt and his little brother Taco become refugees, fleeing the UK for France, and their experiences are vividly and accurately depicted. Gillian explains, ‘I’ve always been involved with refugees, and have worked with refugee charities, but I’d always felt I could write about them: I couldn’t not get it right, and yet I couldn’t do the level of research that would be necessary to make sure it was. Recently though I’ve been working with the charity CORD in Leamington Spa, putting together a resource pack about the
lives of Sudanese refugees. That had provided me with all sorts of intimate details about how people live in the camps. The idea for the book sprang out of that experience: I started thinking what if it was an English boy in that situation. I was very concerned that it be authentic, so there are episodes in the book that are not violent, but unsparing. I wanted it to be true.’
After Tomorrow is uncompromising. The ending offers no easy answers, and no way out for the central characters. ‘I thought about the ending very hard,’ says Gillian. The story has to have some resolution, but it wouldn’t be authentic if everything ended well. That’s not what happens for refugees. I made it as happy as I could.’
‘I’m quite a serious person.’
Does Gillian feel a responsibility to write about serious things? ‘As a children’s writer, I’ve often found people who don’t have much to do with children’s books expect you to have a message, to be teaching – in my opinion that’s a recipe for bad books. As I’ve said, I feel very strongly that I don’t want to be preachy. But, as a person, you need to give it your best shot, and not avoid serious things.’ She pauses for a moment, and adds ‘I’m quite a serious person.’
After Tomorrow is published by Oxford Children’s Books in paperback at £6.99.
You can read also read the Books for Keeps Authorgraph interview with Gillian Cross.