The mixed heritage children’s author Sibel Beadle believes in the power of storybooks to challenge racism, prejudice and bullying – and is changing young people’s lives in the process, writes Lucy Bryson.
Children and parents alike will be moved by this original story of a confused, bullied little cat-girl who sets out to find the Loch Ness Monster and learns to resolve her playground problems in the process.
Author Sibel Beadle tackles the delicate issues of bullying, racism and parenthood with a sensitive touch in this beautifully-illustrated (by Fernando Arias) fourth book in her immensely popular Witchy Travel Tales series.
The books, which are based around the adventures of good witch Miranda and her seven unique daughters, aim to help children aged five and upwards learn about personal and social issues in a gentle, lecture-free fashion and this lovely little book focuses on Mimi – half cat, half human – who is being bullied at school by her fully-human friends and, bottling up her feelings, is struggling to deal with the situation alone: “Mimi started crying. She loved her mum and she loved her sisters and she wished that she didn’t wish these horrible things. but when the girls in her class called her names and made fun of her, she just simply wished she was like them. With a normal mum, a normal family and maybe an annoying little brother instead of a herd of sisters. She wished she looked normal and wasn’t half-cat half-human. but all these feelings made her feel terribly guilty.”
Beadle weaves together a tale of real substance – a magical world of fog-shrouded Scottish lochs, frog daddies and the Loch Ness Monster’s invisible husband and kids – as Mimi embarks on a voyage of discovery about herself and the world around her.
There’s a strong anti-bullying message to the tale, as well as subtle underlying lessons about racial acceptance and the importance of talking problems through rather than suffering in silence. For this reason alone, Beadle should be praised.
The book’s central theme, bullying, is dealt with in a fashion that truly tugs at the heart strings: poor Mimi, taunted about her differences by her fully-human classmates, shuts herself away and attempts to shave off all her fur in an unsuccessful bid to fit in at school.
Her mother Miranda helps the child to seek solace in the world of books: “Miranda sat silently next to Mimi for a while and thought about what to do. She wasn’t the kind of mother who would force Mimi to speak, but she also didn’t want to sit in silence. That’s why she did what she did best and started telling Mimi a story…. When she finally finished, Mimi smiled at her and asked: “Can you tell me another one, please?”
It’s here where Mimi’s journey of self-discovery begins. The fantastical story of Nector – the invisible half-frog, half-salamander hybrid husband of the more famous Nessie – strikes a chord with Mimi who, enticed by the idea of becoming invisible herself, sets off to Scotland to find him.
The story that follows effortlessly blends adventure and humorous high jinks (Mimi is not sure what to make of the caber-throwing ‘men in skirts’ at the Highland Games), with scientific titbits to spark an interest in the natural world, while supporting the book’s underlying message about the important roles fathers can play in raising children. “The poison dart frog daddy worries a lot about the little ones, and in the rainforest the lakes are full of predators who eat the little tadpoles. Therefore, the daddy carries the tadpoles to safety on top of trees, where there are no fish other predators,” Miranda explains.
Mimi herself is a solitary character, who declares that she ‘doesn’t need friends’ but soon learns the importance of a support network. In this way, the book also teaches introverted children that, while it’s good to be happy in one’s own company (she introduces the pleasing concept of ‘parallel lives’, whereby each member of the family can sink into a book or other private hobby while still in company of other family members…) it’s also important to have friends with whom life’s rotten woes can be shared.
Talking through her problems with her mother and her more confident sisters, Mimi realises that she can approach the seemingly impossible task of forging friendships by taking small, manageable steps.
Like others in the series, the book is also rich in detail about the magical road trip and the real places visited, and there’s even a sketched map of Nessie and Nector’s home in Scotland for children who find themselves itching to see this part of Great Britain for themselves.
Competent readers of age around six or seven-years-old will be able to read the book alone – it is 75 pages, with lots of dreamy, swirling black and white illustrations. For parents of younger children, it works perfectly as a bedtime story, and reading the tale aloud to a little one provides an ideal opportunity to talk through the issues involved. It provides a gentle way to encourage children to talk through their problems: “No more secrets, no more silent tears”, thinks Mimi at the close of the book, feeling ‘loved and understood’ as she drifts off to sleep.
The author is herself of Swiss-Turkish heritage and of mixed religious background, and her sensitivity in introducing children to the very real pain of feeling like an ‘outcast’ is one of many aspects that make this book so admirable. Packed with adventure and never preachy in tone, it’s a fun, whimsical read that parents and children are likely to return to time and time again.
Witchy Travel Tales 4: Nessie’s Husband is available now from Amazon.co.uk, priced £6.99 in paperback and £4 in Kindle edition. For further information about the series, go to www.witchytraveltales.com.
Meet the Author: Sibel Beadle
Sibel Beadle’s popular series of children’s books have attracted widespread acclaim, but her route to literary success took a remarkable – and unusual – path.
She was born and raised in Istanbul, Turkey, to a Muslim, Turkish father and a Swiss, Christian mother. As a child, she split her time between schooling in Turkey and holidaying in Switzerland; in neither place did she feel at home: “I didn’t fit into either Turkish or Swiss society,” she explains. “I felt like a cultural and religious outcast”.
In her late teens, Beadle moved to Switzerland where she gained a degree in economics at the University of St. Gallen. Within a few years, she emigrated to the United States where she obtained a PhD in economics from the University of Chicago – a prestigious institution where she was taught by and gained inspiration from four Nobel laureates. It was here, in the States, where she would meet her ex-husband.
Beadle went on to work at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as an economist and later as a senior banker at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) – a position she held for 12 years. Her work required extensive international travel – to Europe and the Balkan countries, and to Nepal, Mongolia, Japan, Thailand, Singapore, Egypt and other far-flung destinations. She is, perhaps unsurprisingly, fluent in German, Turkish and English.
Having relocated to the UK, Beadle’s marriage broke down. It was here, at this impossibly desperate time in 2016, that her life took an unexpected turn. Her two daughters, Vie and Kei, were going on holiday with their father and Beadle was intent on keeping in touch. She bought her eldest daughter a mobile telephone and texted her a few paragraphs of a made-up story each night at bedtime. Little did Beadle know that this bedtime tale would later form the basis of ‘Sleepless in Stonehenge’, her first story (which from a publication point of view became her second book in the Witchy Travel Tales series).
The feedback she received from her children led to two of the biggest decisions of her life: to leave her job in banking and to become a children’s author. Her Witchy Travel Tales series of children’s books have since received widespread acclaim from parents and children alike. [The fourth instalment, Nessie’s Husband (out now in paperback and ebook through Grosvenor House Publishing), which deals with anti-bullying and racism themes and which explores the topics of what it means to be a good parent, is reviewed above].
Today, Beadle and her two daughters are based in Essex. She works part-time at the London School of Economics as a research officer and also teaches economics at the University of Essex. She dedicates her remaining time to her books. For more information, visit www.witchytraveltales.com or connect with Beadle on Twitter via @witchytales1
Q&A with Children’s Author Sibel Beadle
We sit down with the acclaimed children’s author, Sibel Beadle, to discuss her new book and her own, fascinating literary journey.
Q: As a mother of two yourself, how have books and stories helped you and your children through difficult moments?
A: I went through a very difficult divorce and calling my kids was an issue early on in our split. My kids were five and seven when we split and one day while they were overseas with their dad, my daughter asked me to tell them a story. I had bought them an iPhone and taught them how to use WhatsApp in order to be able to stay in touch. I texted them paragraphs of a story and my kids loved it. These text messages helped me to build a bridge with my children while they were away. Both my kids and I enjoyed this so much that it became a habit and I started texting them paragraphs of a story every day while they were away. These text messages became later the storyline for my first children’s book. I got into the habit of writing a story for them each time they went away. In addition, I also used my books to give important messages to my kids. They seemed to understand better, when I told the message via a story and discussed the messages in the context of the story.
Q: The Witchy Travel Tales series is based around a mother witch and her seven daughters – do you think this makes the books more appealing to girls than boys?
A: I have been to hundreds of schools to read my books and when I read my stories boys seem to love them as much as girls do. In my observation, boys tend to like the half-cat, half-human daughter of the witch, because she is exciting. They also like Kai, the animal lover and animal healer daughter. In addition, they tend to like Richard, the magical bunny in the story. I think it sometime the parents who think that boys need books with boys as main characters, I do not think and haven’t observed that young children have such a bias.
Q: Is Nessie’s Husband a suitable book for young solo readers, or is it best for a parent to read the book with their child and discuss the issues with them?
A: Yes, the book is suitable for young solo readers (Year 3 – 6), however, it is a lot of fun to read the book as a parent or teacher to that age group because it sparks a very interesting discussion about many complex topics. Younger kids enjoy the book as well, but it would be best to read it to them.
Q: The central characters are essentially immigrants, and Nessie’s Husband looks at Mimi’s struggles to deal with life as an ‘outsider’. Coming from a mixed religious background yourself, why was it important to tell the story from this perspective?
A: I do not know many books written about immigrants and I enjoyed helping to close that gap. In addition, I think kids with a mixed background can face a lot of difficulties, such as identity struggles, or problems to fit in and I wanted to give these kids a voice through my character Mimi.
Q: Nessie’s Husband tackles some serious issues, and Mimi’s refusal to eat, and shutting herself away to shave her fur, has some suggestion of self-harm and anorexia. Was this an intentional way of encouraging young readers to consider these problems?
A: When I read my book in schools, the kids do not focus on that aspect. They rather focus on the main message of the book, which is encouraging children to talk to a trusted adult when they face issues or difficulties.
Q: Have any other children’s authors been influential on your own style of storytelling?
A: When I am writing, I purposefully stay away from reading any other book, since I do not want my style to be influenced.
Q: The book’s illustrations are superb. How hard was it to find the right illustrator for the stories?
A: Finding the right illustrator was extremely difficult. I had this vision that I wanted a very stylish book, with illustrations that looked like German expressionist art. I wanted very few colours. I wanted ideally either black and white or just one colour per book. I strongly disliked Disney illustrations and was searching for something completely new. I searched via the internet for about six months. Contacted hundreds of illustrators and didn’t like any of the samples they draw for me. One day, while I was still working as a banker, my best friend at work suggested that we walk to Spitalfields market and Brick Lane over lunch break and ask every artsy person we encounter whether they could recommend us an illustrator. We started searching and talked to many people, asking them to email me sample illustrations. It started raining and I didn’t really think we will manage to find anybody, so I told my friend that I needed to get back to the office. My friend said, he will search on behalf of me a bit longer. After I left, he apparently went into an art supply shop and asked the young man working there if he knows any children’s book illustrators. The young man, a Spanish artist called Fernando Arias, told him that he could give it a shot and took down my email address. I received Fernando’s email and told him the scene I want him to illustrate. We agreed to meet two weeks later for me to see the sample and when Fernando pulled out his black and white illustration I instantly fell in love with his style. We worked very closely on the illustrations and became friends. I also invited him to my home and on one occasion I invited him to come to a road trip with me and my kids, in order to learn how I see the world. We went together to the Lake District and this is where we stayed in a cottage for one week. I finished writing my third book, The Golden Bunny of the Lake District while we were there and Fernando, did many sketches and experimented on the colours for the 3rd book.
Q: Another theme to this book is that of being a ‘good father’. What messages about fatherhood do you hope young children will take away from this book?
A: I think it is more about being a good parent. I often ask my kids about my parenting style and ask them what they like or dislike about me as a parent. I ask them to give me examples of things other parents do well, and they would like me to replicate or things they want me to change about myself. I believe this is a very healthy conversation for a parent to have with their children. Nessie’s husband gives the perfect opportunity for a dad who is reading the book to his child, to open a conversation about parenting and what their child expects from them. You might be surprised what great feedback you will receive. And don’t be afraid to volunteer areas where you think you didn’t do so well. It will just help your child to open up and confess to you their deeper emotions. Sometimes my children tell me things I did wrong. I listen to them carefully and make sure they tell me every detail so that I understand exactly what the problem was. When they finish, I apologise, and I make a great effort not to repeat the mistake. If a similar situation arises, I remind them of our conversation and ask if I did better. I believe that it is important for a parent to apologize. No matter how hard we try, we all make mistakes. If we make a mistake with an adult we apologize, I think it is equally important to apologize from a child.
Q: Would you recommend that children and parents read the previous books in the Witchy Travel Tales series first, or can they jump straight into the series with Nessie’s Husband?
A: It is not a problem at all to jump straight to Nessie’s Husband. Nessie’s Husband can be read as a standalone piece and if your child likes the story, you might buy the earlier books.
Q: The details about the Scottish landscape, food and culture are an integral part of the story, and you are clearly well-travelled yourself. Do you hope your books will inspire wanderlust in young readers (and possibly their parents!)?
A: It was very much my intention to inspire my own kids and other young readers to travel to the places I describe in my stories. I am a big fan of the English landscape and wanted my kids to have wanderlust and come with me to these beautiful places. My kids absolutely love it, when I tell them that we will do a road trip because I am working on a new story. All my books are set in beautiful places, you can visit with your kids. The first book takes place on the Seven Sisters Cliffs, the second book is a magical trip to Stonehenge, the third book is set in the Lake District and the fourth book is about Scotland and Loch Lomond. I very much hope that every child asks to visit these magical places after reading my stories.