Words by Smiley Team
Sita Brahmachari’s work has a truly positive impact on our society.
The young protagonists in her books are full of empathy – they ask the big questions we face in our world and help readers seek answers themselves.
Her latest book, When Shadows Fall, illustrated by Natalie Sirett, was published in November 2021. It was chosen as a Times and Guardian Book of the Year and was Michael Rosen’s top pick on BBC Front Row. It has recently been published to great acclaim in paperback in May 2022.
The book begins as 18-year-old Kai’s journal, as he looks back at his childhood from nursery until the point of him leaving his patch of wilderness. But during the story his family goes through a trauma – and Kai can no longer tell his narrative.
Kai becomes disconnected, and is excluded from school, but soon connects with Omid, who comes from Syria to his school in Year 8. He helps Kai understand his trauma.
“I began writing the story a long time ago,” Sita tells Smiley News. “I worked in a People Referral Unit for children excluded from school, and felt I wanted to write a story questioning how it’s possible that children so young can be excluded. Natalie Sirett illustrator and I have been exploring this story for many years.”
Throughout her career, Sita has also worked with refugee children and adults. “I tend to write the stories of what happens when displaced people arrive in a new land," she says. "I am in awe of how people establish their lives again. These are stories about deep friendship bonds and the power of community to welcome."
When her latest book was published, Sita knew – from the very beginning – that she wanted the story to get through the systems to the children who are most vulnerable – including excluded, displaced and newly-arrived refugee children. “All my experience in the refugee sector comes into this book,” she says, “so I wanted it to reach out in the world in as many ways as possible.”
The book has been an important basis to explore the themes with children in schools, through discussions and workshops. Sita makes her school visits memorable for children through creative activities, such as giving them charcoal and encouraging them to draw their thoughts about the book on paper. “The whole selves of young people are not always nurtured in schools,” says Sita, “and those who suffer most are those who need outlets to express themselves the most. Omid for example uses art as his means to rebuild his life and at times when Kai loses the power to speak, it’s Omid’s healing powers of navigating through art that help Kai’s spirit lift from the shadowlands”.
The story of When Shadows Fall really is breaking through. Sita and illustrator, Natalie Sirett, are curating an exhibition over the period of a year to be opened in Refugee Week 2023 by CounterPoint Arts.
Information about the book will feature in Refugee Week, where the theme this year is ‘Healing.’ Resources on the book are being created by English and Media Centre, Little Tiger, Schools for Sanctuary and Get Islington Reading for the National Literacy Trust. And Sita is also working with Love Ssega – a musician and environmental activist (formerly of Clean Bandit) – who is discussing writing a song for Omid.
Multimedia artists and illustrator Natalie and Sita launched the art and storytelling extravaganza ‘Raven Treasure’ in May 2022, which will be taken up to the Edinburgh Festival. It’ll feature a raven treasure box – where, as it is unfolded, they’ll share their collaborative creative process. Ravens are integral to When Shadows Fall – where the young people in the story feel as if they’re on the outside, like ravens often are. At moments, Kai’s voice splits into the poetry of raven-song.
And there is film interest, too. “We’re getting the book out there,” says Sita. “It’s a creative catalyst.”
Libraries have been buying the book to be able to share the story with children who visit, and Sita’s aim is to get it through as many agencies as possible.
“It’s about organisations who work with vulnerable young people making the book accessible,” she says. “We’ve done quite a few school events and festival events. The more this art and writing is being generated, the more it becomes a project where everyone is invited to get involved with the book and the regeneration of their communities.”
BUY THE BOOK: When Shadows Fall by Sita Brahmachari, illustrated by Natalie Sirett, edited by Mattie Whitehead, is published by Little Tiger. It is endorsed by Amnesty International and is available to buy in bookshops and online.
GET INVOLVED: Refugee Week runs from 20-26 June – and there are many ways you can get involved in the growing global movement.