Sunday, 29 January 2012

What do children own? – Michelle Lovric

Children have little claim on the material world. They own neither property nor cars. They do not hold mortgages. They can’t vote and they must live pretty much as their elders and would-be betters dictate.

Yet where’s the child who fails to make great claims on the universe? You see their imprint everywhere and most of all in the way in which they customize everything they touch.

I first started thinking about this idea a few years ago when our own lovely Catherine Johnson responded to my plea to be allowed to accompany an experienced writer on something that was new and terrifying to me – a school visit. At Bishop’s Hatfield Girls School, I watched thirty-odd girls at a time enter the library, take possession of the tables and begin to engage with ideas of writing. Catherine had them spellbound. I started to notice the girls’ pencil cases. Every child had a different one. Some were fluffy Hello Kitty, some were sleek Ted Baker; others had foxy tails or soft toys attached.

These girls were bound to wear the same uniforms but, where they could, they expressed their personalities abundantly and vibrantly.

I began to imagine what they did to their own bedrooms at home. In their own rooms, children express themselves, their tastes, their creativity, in every imaginable way. Even the music that fills the space; even the underwear scattered on the floor; even the Jurassic-period sandwich mouldering on a bookshelf; even the dried-out bottles of lurid nail varnish; even the desire to obliterate the light and paint the walls black.

And this gave me an idea for my new book, Talina in the Tower, in which a girl has everything taken away from her – her parents, her home, her neighbourhood, her freedom. Talina is an aspiring writer, and this is what she decides to do with her room in the lonely tower where she and her cat Drusilla are forced to live with a cold-hearted Guardian who writes morbid cautionary tales for children:
Talina’s huge bed was nothing more than a straw pallet supported on four piles of encyclopaedias. The counterpane was covered with books three layers deep. This left just a narrow channel in the middle, into which Talina inserted herself and Drusilla, like two letters in an envelope …
Much as she despised her Guardian’s books, Talina was determined to be a writer too. She’d been writing stories since she was five … Some of her most vivid ideas came from her dreams, especially since her parents had disappeared. She was so afraid to lose a brilliant thought in the night that she’d hung hundreds of pencils and pieces of paper from the roof’s beams on lengths of string. So, without even lighting a candle, she could always find a pencil with her fingers and make notes on the nearest scrap of paper. Some mornings, she woke up to find all the pieces of paper covered with scribbles. Sometimes she’d written ten different things one over the other on the same piece of paper, which was very irritating.

Later in the book, Talina escapes from her tower. At first she is relieved. But our fearless heroine is almost undone when she returns after many adventures to find that her cold-hearted Guardian has purged her room of every trace of her. Later, she tells him of the effect of this act on her feelings and her morale:
‘Great-Uncle Uberto, do you know what one of your worst deeds was? It was the way you emptied my room in your tower … Of course, I did not own that room – a child owns no place in the whole world, really. I knew it was yours, your tower, your walls, your everything – but I had made it mine, my refuge, the only way I could, with my little things, my pencils, my hanging books, my pictures. I’d hardly been gone a few days and you – you – you – expunged me, as if I were dead. As if I had never existed … What had I ever done to deserve that?’

Those pencil cases at Bishop’s Hatfield Girls School have a lot to answer for, as they also led me to look into other aspects of ownership in Talina in the Tower.

Can a human, for example, own an animal? I looked at our relationships with so-called domesticated creatures and those we deem wild. Who owns a city – the person who owns the land, those with a vision to build its wonders, or those who inhabit it with love?

As ever, Venice provided me with a perfect world in miniature on which to test my ideas. I watched the grannies of Quintavalle – a part of Venice where tourists are rarely seen – possessing their grandchildren in great waves of nagging and kissing. I saw monstrous cruise-liners subordinating Venice’s skyline. I saw arrogant tourists acting as if they owned the city by virtue of the money they had to spend. I saw the sponsors brutalizing the city by plastering cinema-screen-sized and tasteless photographs of their products over architecture whose remembered beauty burned their images right through the billboards. I saw children taking possession of Campo Santa Margherita and Campo Santo Stefano for their games. I watched my nephew climb a lamp-post and lord it over everyone.

I saw the other side of owning: being owned, and realized that, perversely, it is something most of us seek. We want to ‘belong’. But the bonds of good ownership are made not of money, power, or size. They are made of affection.

And this is something to which children may lay claim, and in extravagant portions.

Michelle Lovric’s website - see the new Talina web pages up now.
Talina in the Tower is published on February 2nd, 2012, by Orion Children’s Books
Michelle Lovric also blogs on the History Girls website


Liz Kessler said...

BEAUTIFUL post, Michelle. And now I am off to buy the equally sounding - and looking Talina in the Tower. Seems ABBA does sell books after all! :)

Linda said...

I was lucky enough to get an early copy of 'Talina in the Tower' to review, and I loved it! Talina is one of the most self-possessed, intriguing characters I've met in a while.

Susan Price said...

Fascinating, as ever, Michelle. I recently read your BOOK OF HUMAN SKIN and was bowled over by it. And here again is evidence your curious, observant, thoughtful mind.