Sometimes my stories surprise me. WAGGLETAIL TED began as a celebration of a small dog with a big personality, but it grew. Originally aimed at KS1, it developed and could now be enjoyed by Y3 – Y6, because the vocabulary and sentence structure became more sophisticated as the content shifted. It’s still the story of Ted – and yes, it was inspired by a real dog – but I realised a few hundred words in that it was also going to be the story of a young Syrian boy called Jamal, and his family, who come to live next-door.
Why? Well, because refugees are never far from my mind. I’m a Trustee of People not Borders, after all, and I’ve met small children like Jamal in a camp in Dunkirk. I’m also proud to know more than one family like Jamal’s because I’m a member of Herts Welcomes Syrian Families. My first fundraising picture book for People not Borders, I AM ME, explores in very simple rhyming text the mixed emotions of a child arriving in the UK where everything is different; I AM ME 2 is about a child in a camp in Greece and features photographs by young Syrian Abdulazez Dukhan, whom I was very glad to meet earlier this year and who is a hugely inspiring human. So if Ted was going to have neighbours – and a story about ‘man’s best friend’ needs some two-legged characters too – I soon realised who they would be. I also decided that my author share and royalties from this book must be donated to People not Borders, to support children whose lives are harder than Jamal’s. Not that his is easy…
WAGGLETAIL TED became a book about fear and loss as well as friendship. Bumptious Ted is afraid of water, cats and children. Jamal misses his cat Koo, left behind in Syria, but is very afraid of dogs. At this point I should confess that I have been scared of dogs for as long as I can remember, thanks to an encounter with a big, bounding, barking animal on a chain when I was two – so the theme of fear was almost bound to present itself. But of course, for Jamal, much more traumatic fear has run through his young life in a war zone. He’s not only lost his mother but also his big brother and hero Hassan, who played the piano so beautifully in the house that used to be home. And now the children in his British school are not all kind. There’s a deep sadness underlying his story but it’s positive too. It’s about adapting to change, finding courage and trusting. And love that doesn’t die.
Once I knew Ted wouldn’t be the only animal in this story, I deliberately kept the identity of the cat in question ambiguous. If some readers, like Jamal, want to believe it’s Koo, they can. Stories can break the rules of real-world probability; if they didn’t there would be no magic. But the story remains rooted in the real world, where young readers may meet children like Jamal or his big sister, and I hope they’ll have the empathy to imagine what it must be like to leave one world because it’s too dangerous and frightening to stay, and begin a new life in another where everything and everyone is different, and the bad dreams have followed them along with bad memories. If children’s stories have a deep purpose, it must be to develop empathy. That doesn’t mean they must be serious through and through. They must, though, be truthful in spirit. They must help children understand others who may not appear to be just like them.
Ted is a spirited dog and the source of the fun in my story – and much of the adventure and drama. Like most fiction for children of ten and under, this one has a resolution in which challenges are overcome. Its happy ending has to be made by both Ted and Jamal with the kind of magic we can all work, and which we all need.