Re-reading Tom Sawyer

Recently, I opened a blog post with this:
Growing up, books were my windows to other places, other people, and other ways of life. I travelled to the Swiss Alps with Heidi by Joanna Spyri, swam in the Mississippi with Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain, wandered in snowy Narnia with Lucy in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C S Lewis, was lost in the Cave of Wonders with Aladdin ...
An acquaintance called me out, suggesting that I should not have mentioned The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, with its liberal use of the N word and its awful attitude towards Native Americans.

Tom Sawyer occupied 'favourite book' status for a long time in my childhood. It was one of the first novels I read, alongside HeidiLittle Women, and other books from that bygone era. In the decade I've been an author, I have often mentioned it as one of the books that made me write.

And I had not given any thought to how its 1875 attitudes might impact contemporary young readers.

Frontispiece of my childhood copy. The illustrator of the beautiful pen and ink pictures throughout is not credited.

My acquaintance was right. I had been uncritical in including Tom Sawyer.

The focus of that piece had been the idea that books can transport a reader to other places, other worlds. I may have honestly been listing the books that had done this for me as a child in Manila – but as a children's author, book advocacy is a huge responsibility.

It was uncomfortable to be called out, and I spent hours soul searching and reading, trying to understand what was wrong with mentioning this book that had been beloved to me for so long ... and how I could do better.


As a young reader, I had adored Mark Twain's droll voice; the helpless warmth of characters like Aunt Polly, Tom's foster parent, Tom's irreverence towards church and school (so exciting for a child in a conservative Catholic community); the scary scenes with Injun Joe; the temptations of Huckleberry Finn's outlaw life the boys running away then attending their own funeral; and that final adventure, with Tom and Becky lost in a cave.

I did not question the portrayal of Tom Sawyer's community where black characters were ever present but excluded from the unfolding adventure. Nor did I worry about the negative portrayal of Native Americans. I saw the same on TV and in the movies.

Indeed, the setting was not dissimilar to Manila of the period, where light-skinned mestizos were regarded as superior to darker complexioned morenos. There was also a big social divide. Families of middle class professionals were meant to stay away from the bakya crowd – bakya being the cheap wooden clogs worn by the poor.

Seeing white people look down on brown people on our screens and in our books no doubt contributes to our (Filipino) self-consciousness about flat noses and dark skin (skin whitening is big business in the Philippines) – a self consciousness that borders on self hatred.

[The Philippines was a colony of the United States for 50 years, and  before that, of Spain for 300 – America only granted us independence on the fourth of July in 1946.]

A scene in which Tom and his friends play Indian. I was shocked and fascinated by the nakedness!

So as a child reader of my time, I accepted the N word, the demonising of Native Americans, and the exclusion of black characters, as a given. It was as normal as the fact that I had never met a Filipino character in the books I loved.

That was just what books were like.


I have the actual crumbly, yellowing copy that I had read as a child, part of a collection of children's classics my father bought from a door to door salesman in the 1960s. About ten years ago, I rescued it from my mother's termite-infested book case in Manila, lugging the whole set of classics back to London in my cabin baggage, along with the rest of the collection.

It had been 30 years since I had read a line from the book, but as soon as I began I was transported back to my childhood when I lay sprawled in my bed, with the electric fan turned on high, laughing and wishing I could be Tom Sawyer.

All the things I loved about the book came flooding back  – how Tom Sawyer tricked his mates into whitewashing a fence for him; the bartering of dead cats; his outsider best friend Huckleberry Finn; Tom briskly trading tickets at Sunday School to undeservedly win a bible only to draw the attention of a visitor who asks him the names of the first two disciples (after much blushing and tugging at his buttonhole, Tom finally replies, "DAVID AND GOLIATH!") ...

But reading it now, as an adult who has experienced racism and intolerance, as someone whose world had expanded beyond Manila, I cringe at lines I had read without question as a child, especially the ones in which Injun Joe's vileness is attributed to his race. 'The Injun blood ain't in me for nothing,' Injun Joe says to justify his misdeeds.

Reading it again, there's no denying Twain's antipathy towards Native Americans. Twain's baddy is the conniving, betraying and murderous Injun Joe; Indians are referred to as vicious, devilish, savage; and Tom and his cohorts war whoop, pretend scalp each other then smoke peace pipes. Do read this thorough review by Debbie Reese.

Rereading Tom Sawyer also sparked a long ago memory: of wishing that girls too could have adventures like Tom Sawyer.

Girls didn't get to participate in all the antics and fun enjoyed by Tom and his pals. They were portrayed as pretty creatures, gullible (like Aunt Polly) to Tom's clever manipulations. When Tom is lost with his crush Becky in the caves, Becky is described as "frail" and cries so much that Tom's "encouragements were grown threadbare with use and sounded like sarcasms".

The cave scene. A few coloured plates intersperse the pages, and inexplicably they are credited (to illustrator Edward F. Cortese) though the black and white illustrations have no credit.

[I realised that I too had written a lost-in-a-cave scene in my novel Bone Talk – except my girl character, Luki, is just as feisty as the boy, Samkad –maybe even feistier – and constantly challenging the gendered expectations of her headhunting mountain village. Perhaps I had unconsciously written a homage to that unforgettable sequence from Tom Sawyer.]


In a PBS video, author Grace Lin (Where the Mountain Meets the Moon) says: "Do you have an old children's book you love? One of those classic books you read with your kids because your parents read it with you? Well. There's a good chance it might be racist."

But how does that work? Wasn't Mark Twain simply representing the reality of 1800s? Wasn't that what made the book special in the first place? Does that mean all these classic books should be discarded because their old fashioned prejudices would not pass muster against our contemporary sensibilities?

Here's what Grace says in case you can't watch the video:
Sometimes, good people, people you love, aren't always right.

And that is how I feel about these classic books. I'm not saying we should ban them. I'm saying we should treat them like out-of-touch relatives. We all have that aunt or uncle, or maybe even a parent, who believes in things you don't agree with.

You can still love that relative, and you can still let them be a part of your child's life. But because you know they might say something you don't like, don't you try to keep an extra ear open, in case they say something in front of your child? And then, don't you explain afterwards?

That's what I'm saying about these classic children's books. Read them, share them, even love them, but make sure you talk to your kids about them, too.

I love Tom Sawyer because I can still remember how it took me away from my boring, mundane life in Manila. I love Tom Sawyer because of Mark Twain's crackling storytelling voice. I love Tom Sawyer because it so vividly captures life in Missouri in another century.

I love the realism of Twain's style but I do not love the reality he was representing.

Yes, I believe that Tom Sawyer should be read by young people today – but I agree with Grace Lin, it cannot be read without context because it has the power to do harm.


I recently finished writing a children's biography of the explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who is credited with leading the first expedition to circumnavigate the world. The other thing he did though was participate in Portugal's conquest of the Indian Ocean.

Reading other biographies for children, the conquest is always skimmed over, and presented as a kind of glorious training ground for Magellan's future achievements (one of which was to "discover" the Philippines). But there was nothing glorious about the pillaging and genocide the Europeans committed in 16th century Africa and India.

I couldn't help wondering how an African or an Indian child would feel reading my story ... and found myself writing with extra care for those future readers.

Mark Twain is quoted as saying that he didn't write The Adventures of Tom Sawyer for children. Well, he didn't write it for black and Native American readers either.

I was once asked what literary figure from the past would I most like to have dinner with. Mark Twain was my immediate answer – because he would be a witty and funny dinner guest, I admired his writing, and I admired him (most of all) for being one of the few voices at the turn of the 21st century to speak out when the U.S. invaded the Philippines. Here's what he said:

I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem ... It should, it seems to me, be our pleasure and duty to make those people free, and let them deal with their own domestic questions in their own way. And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.

And yet I discover now that he while he could expound on the plight of faraway Filipinos, he didn't feel the same about the plight of Native Americans.

"He could denounce imperialism abroad while mostly ignoring it at home," writes Kerry Driscoll in Mark Twain among the Indians and Other Indigenous Peoples.
While Twain's view on blacks . . . [demonstrate] unequivocal growth away from the racism of his origins in the antebellum South, his representations of Indians do not follow a similarly redemptive arc. They are instead vexingly erratic and paradoxical, commingling antipathy and sympathy, fascination and visceral repugnance ...

Knowing this, it's hard to imagine myself trading witticisms with Samuel Clemens across a dining table.

Reflecting on Tom Sawyer today, and how reading hundreds of books in my childhood I accepted that the absence of people like me and the prejudice against African Americans and Native Americans was just "how books are" ... it is inspiring to know that bookish folk are pushing back with hashtags like #WeNeedDiverseBooks, #ReadtheOnePercent, #Representation Matters, and #ReflectingRealities.

Books – beloved or not – have been part of our systemic inequalities for so long, and it feels like change may be coming at last.

But at the same time, isn't it tragic that 144 years after the publication of Tom Sawyer we are still struggling?

Back in 2015, the Guardian invited me to share my favourite Dangerous Book as part of an author round-up. Here's what I said:

When I think back, ALL the books I read as a child were dangerous. They took me out of the ordered rules of my cultural life and proposed that there were other choices out there.

Yes. Books really are powerful. And that is why, in future, I will not mention The Adventures of Tom Sawyer without giving it its proper context.

I am currently the Writer in Residence at Booktrust. Do visit and see my latest post, about some empathy epiphanies I had during my busy, busy March of book tours!

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The Hong Kong Young Readers Literary Festival

I have been through Hong Kong many times but always on the way to somewhere else or stopping quickly for a meeting. I've never really spent any proper time there so I was pleased to accept an invitation to appear in the schools programme of the Hong Kong Young Readers Festival.

Photo: HK Young Readers Festival (Michael Perini)

Here is my Twitter diary of the festival, compiled in a Twitter Moment (if you can't see it below, visit it here)!

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Bone Talk has been shortlisted for the Carnegie 2019

Greetings from the Philippines where I have been launching the Filipino editions of Is It a Mermaid (Sirena ba Yan?) and Bone Talk. It was incredibly busy and hectic ... then this happened:

When I was a little girl, the sight of that gold label on a book sent my heart racing. How incredible to be shortlisted! Thank you so much to librarians UK wide who nominated my book, and the judging panel who shortlisted it ... what an incredible honour!

Here is the Carnegie medal shortlist (alphabetical by author surname):

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (Electric Monkey)

Rebound by Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Dawud Anyabwile (Andersen Press)

The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson, illustrated by Elisa Paganelli (Usborne Books)

Bone Talk by Candy Gourlay (David Fickling Books

A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge (Macmillan Children's Books)

Things A Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nicholls (Andersen Press)

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds, illustrated by Chris Priestley (Faber & Faber)

The Land of Neverendings by Kate Saunders (Faber & Faber)

And here is the Kate Greenaway Award shortlist:

The Day War Came illustrated by Rebecca Cobb, written by Nicola Davies (Walker Books)

Ocean Meets Sky illustrated and written by Eric Fan and Terry Fan (Lincoln Children’s Books)

Beyond the Fence illustrated and written by Maria Gulemetova (Child's Play Library)

The Wolf, the Duck and the Mouse illustrated by Jon Klassen, written by Mac Barnett (Walker Books)

Julian is a Mermaid illustrated and written by Jessica Love (Walker Books)

You're Safe With Me illustrated by Poonam Mistry, written by Chitra Soundar (Lantana Publishing)

The Lost Words illustrated by Jackie Morris, written by Robert Macfarlane (Hamish Hamilton)

Suffragette: The Battle for Equality illustrated and written by David Roberts (Two Hoots)

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The Bone Talk Book Tour

By Candy Gourlay

With children from Telford Priory School in Telford. Thanks to the TPS photographer.

Last week, I went on my first-ever book tour to promote Bone Talk. Over the years I have watched with envy as author friends go off on their book tours, so I was thrilled when my publisher David Fickling Books organised one via Authors Aloud, an organisation that facilitates author visits to schools.

The numbers were pretty daunting for a first timer:

1 author
2 presentations a day
3,525 children
22 schools
9 venues
8 towns
5 days
8 trains
9 taxis
6 lifts
5 Premier Inn hotels

Of course I wanted to keep a record so I tweeted a diary-thread everyday. I've embedded it below if you'd like to to check it out later, or click here.

Meeting children from (clockwise from top left) Kent, Hertfordshire, Sussex, Worcester. Thanks to the schools who tweeted these photos.

I performed in a breathtaking variety of schools – grand, ancient, worn, new, private, state, huge, small, diverse, middle class, every class – many rainbows of hope and aspiration. In the signing queues after every presentation, the children were always a little bit excited, a little bit shy, their eyes sliding everywhere, not knowing where to look, delighted with every tiny sign of interest from me. The names I dedicated the books to were a gamut! So many Madisons in Kent, Harrys, many spellings of Natasha, Sophies, a Wojtek, and many others of far away provenances.

Speaking to 500 Year 7s and 8s at Weald of Kent Grammar School in Tonbridge. Photo: Sophie Quinnell

I met four Filipino children only though I am told there were plenty more in the Catholic school I was visiting. I wondered how they felt to hear stories about children like them, to see an author wrapped in the same skin as theirs, and to hear me talk about the Philippines, the faraway home that they have not spent much time in. My heart beat faster when one girl confided that she too was writing novels.

It was a week full of librarians – indeed my first two days were spent in the care of Authors Aloud co-founder and librarian Annie Everall, who put together my itinerary. The librarians were all juggling many balls at once, meeting and greeting (sometimes also feeding) me, sorting out my tech, making sure the bookseller had arrived, inviting neighbouring schools to join the audience, and herding, always, herding. During the pauses, there were many good conversations – about the transformation a child goes through between Year 7 and Year 8, about reading for pleasure,  about library resources or the lack of it, and yes, deliciously, inevitably, about beloved books. Librarians can't help talking about books (and neither can we authors).

A big thank you to my booky hosts: Howard Aukland and Jo Davies (Telford),  Gareth Davies (Wolverhampton), Annabel Jeffery (Worcester), Rebecca Darbyshire (St Albans), Clare Woollard (Ware), Katy Day and Megan Silver (Sittingbourne), Sophie Quinnell (Tonbridge), Simon Homer (Burgess Hill) and Emily Holland (Hove).

Then there were the booksellers. There were booksellers with premises – The Book Nook in Hove, Pengwern Books in Shrewsbury, H&H Spalding Books in Barton under Needwood, Watersones in Worcester, Nickel Books in Sittingbourne ... and then there are booksellers without shopfronts, who supply directly to schools and events, like Elaine Penrose in Ware, Brenda Parkhouse in Herfordshire and Caroline Anderson in Kent.

At the beginning I wondered how effective a book tour was as a marketing tool. What was all this about, really? Was this about numbers – selling books, big audiences, number of schools? Some of the schools regularly invited authors to speak, some had to wait for tours like mine for the opportunity.

I was moved by the enthusiasm and generosity of the teachers and librarians. Over and over again, they thanked me for coming.

But at the end of the day, it seemed to me that I was the person who benefited most from the tour. In coming face to face with the young people I write my books for, I have seen all the things that my books can be, should be  – a way to escape, to seek the truth, a reason to hope, a reason to dream, a bridge to take them over gaps, a door to other worlds.

It is such a huge responsibility. And such a huge blessing.

Thank you, all, for having me.

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A Video for Readers of the Filipino Edition of Bone Talk

By Candy Gourlay

The Pinoy edition of Bone Talk is out in the Philippines, published by Anvil Publishing! My artist-editor-writer friend Joy Watford and I made this video in our native Taglish, for all who are discovering the book back home. If you've already read the book and have a lot of questions, this video might have the answers. If you're a teacher or a parent wondering how talk about the book with your children, you might get a lot of valuable insight from this video.

If there's anything else about the book you're curious about, do leave questions in the comments and I'll try to respond in a future video!

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Goodbye, Facebook. Am I Ready?

By Candy Gourlay

I am leaving Facebook. I have decided. I have said it out loud. I have begun the process.

There's a lot to do before I close shop and so I am still seeing my Facebook feed, and I'm already missing all the buzz, all my friends, knowing what's going on.

And yes, I am hesitating.

Marketing guru Seth Godin, in the first episode of his podcast Akimbo, describes the constant 'pressure to hesitate, to hold back, not to launch ... (because) if you can't have a home run, you probably shouldn't even try.'

Seth cites some examples of people who committed to their dreams, despite unfavourable conditions.
Gutenberg, pioneer of movable type, launched the book when there were no bookstores, and when no one knew how to read, and when reading glasses were required but hadn't been invented yet ... The Grand Opening, Akimbo by Seth Godin 

If I had invented moveable type in an age when nobody knew how to read, would I plunge on?

Seth also cited the example of Carl Benz, who launched a car in a Germany where it was against the law to drive a car, there were no passable roads, and there were no gas stations.

It feels a little bit like that at the moment.

I am abandoning a successful Facebook profile, with almost 3,000 friends, and an author page that gets thousands of hits a day. And I'm scared. How can I replace all that? Especially in a world where everybody wants instant access to people in the public sphere, even children's authors like me.

But even apart from the ethical concerns I outlined in my recent blog post I was beginning to question the value of what I was doing on Facebook.

So much time spent in multiple, micro-performances, for a huge, amorphous audience. And so little time spent doing the things I enjoy – writing, drawing, making ...

By forcing myself to leave Facebook, I hope I can make more time to be of real value to my readers. I can do this in my own space, on my website. I will have more time to create useful content for librarians and teachers who would like to share my book with their students. I will have more time to answer the questions of young people reading my book. And most importantly of all, make real time for real friends in real spaces. (Do stay in touch by subscribing to my updates or following me on Twitter).

But of course it's hard, and of course I'm hesitating. Can I really commit to a Facebook-less life?

Then it occurs to me that I do this everyday. I hesitate before I commit.

I have a chronic skin condition that only improves if I go through a tedious routine of applying moisturisers and ointments and protective bandages everyday. And everyday, I hesitate. Do I really have to? And then I commit. I do it. And at the end of the day, I feel better for it.

Everyday, I need to walk up a steep hill near my home. It's exercise before spending the rest of the day in front of my laptop. But that moment before I put on my coat and walk out my front door is the hardest. Do I really have to? And halfway there, when the hill is at its steepest, and I feel like jumping on a bus, the doubt becomes even more intense. But I do it. And I feel better for it.

Everyday, I have to write. Just enough words to get my novel closer to The End. But it's hard. There are so many other things I would rather do. But everyday I sigh and open my laptop. And then months, sometimes years later, it's done. I've written a novel. And I feel better for it.

I hesitate, then I commit, and I'm always glad I did.

I know I will be glad I left Facebook. I am excited about the change of routine but most of all about the creative challenge of finding other ways to achieve what I have previously been reliant on Facebook to deliver.

Seth says the alternative to a huge platform is to engage with people who want to hear you.

Says Seth:
"You put an idea in the world. Not to everyone in the world, just to people who want to hear it. And then maybe it spreads. And if it spreads it grows. And if it grows you get to do it again ... The goal is to go the people who care. To invite them in and to tell them something they didn't know before ... Not with a grand opening but with a whisper. Here, I made this. That's our work."
Here I am at Adarna Books in Manila. Adarna has just published a Filipino translation of my first picture book, Is It a Mermaid, which in Filipino is SIRENA BA YAN?

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A video to celebrate Bone Talk's shortlisting for the Costa Children's Book Award

By Candy Gourlay

I am so pleased and proud to let you know that Bone Talk has been shortlisted for the Costa Book Award in the Children's Category. My friend, Sarah Towle, and I made this video to celebrate!

Here is the incredible shortlist, from more than a hundred entries.

The shortlist was chosen by broadcaster Rick O'Shea, bookseller Fleur Sinclair and children's book critic Imogen Russell Williams.

The winner will be announced on 7 January 2019. Wish me luck!

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Born Today! Meet BONE TALK

By Candy Gourlay

My third novel, Bone Talk, hits the shops today! Copies have been spotted in Japan and some bookstores have already shipped books out, though Amazon Kindle has been steadfast in refusing to allow downloads until today.

Me, I'm just glad it's out in the wild at last. I am so grateful for the relentless support of friends and strangers who've been talking up a storm about Bone Talk these past few days. Thank you, guys! And thank you, David Fickling Books, for publishing it!

A few weeks ago, I made this video to introduce the book ...

It might not have escaped your notice that for most of the video, I talked about the book I didn't write! Here's me in WRD Magazine talking about the book that I actually wrote:

On this auspicious day, here are some fun facts about the book and its making!

1 The Cover

... is illustrated by a Filipino artist named Kerby Rosanes. I first heard about Kerby Rosanes when I appeared at the Emirates Literary Festival in Dubai. His sketchbooks look like this ...

A page from Kerby Rosanes' sketchbook. View more at Kerby's website

... and his glorious colouring books have made it to the New York Times bestselling lists!

 I emailed the team at my publisher DFB, hinting strongly that Bone Talk should be fully illustrated by Kerby. When it turned out that they'd commissioned Kerby to do the cover, I was over the moon!

The first I knew that Kerby was doing the cover was when my editors sent me the rough on the left! The final version is on the right.

 2 The Title

For a long time, the working title of the book was The Tree of Bones, which somehow didn't feel right. I was relieved and happy when my agent and I thought up Bone Talk. It makes sense in terms of the narrative, but it's also a secret joke for Filipinos.

The setting of my story is a village in a place called Bontoc, in the highlands of the Philippines. Bontoc is not an easy word for the Western tongue to wrap around and  invading Americans pronounced it "Bone Talk" !

When I announced the title on social media, my fellow Filipinos got the joke immediately! Librarian Matt Imrie smelled the rat too. You can't hide things from a good librarian!

3 The Dedication

When my children first opened early proofs of the book, they exclaimed, "You dedicated it to YOUR DOG???"

Well ... yeah ... but FYI, I also dedicated it to my dad, and Dad's name came first!
( I dedicated my picture book Is It a Mermaid, which was published in April, to my children so they really shouldn't complain!) 

In Bone Talk, the dog  character named Chuka was inspired by three dogs:

• the real Chuka - who was the soppiest dog alive but became a growling, teeth baring monster when she met the man who became my husband. She knew he was going to take me away forever. 

• Harvey,  bookshop dog at Jo De Guia's Victoria Park Books, sadly now closed. We borrowed him for a few days one Christmas and it seriously hurt so much when we had to hand him back. 

Harvey. Photo by Mia Gourlay.

• Kunig (who gets a mention in the Acknowledgements), a mountain dog I met in Bontoc while researching the book. Kunig had a herding instinct and herded us along the narrow trails of the paddy fields.

Kunig the mountain dog, herding my husband on the trails of the rice terraces. Photo: Candy Gourlay

4 The Setting

Me posing next to a sacred tree at the Maligcong Rice Terraces. Photo: Richard Gourlay

From faraway London, I used Google Earth, old maps and the diaries of turn of the century travellers to research the place. I also read a lot of Filipino travel blogs to see if I could get a more vivid picture of how the region looked now.

I noticed that two travel blogs kept mentioning Maligcong, a quiet village off the tourist trail. It sounded like the perfect location for my story. The blogs were  Lagalog by Oggie Ramos and Ironwulf  by Ferdz Decena.

Soon after I finished a first draft, I finally visited Maligcong and ... surprise! Oggie and Ferdz were staying at my homestay! Turned out the reason they were constantly mentioning Maligcong was because they had a real passion for the place.

Being physically there was wonderful. I realised that I had been exclusively visual in describing the setting. In fact, at the Maligcong rice terraces there is a constant rushing noise of water around the rice paddies, the farmers tilling the terraces chat and banter, the water buffalos snort in the mud and there are small fishes and crabs in the paddy water.

5 The Igorots

My characters are a headhunting people that lived high up in the Philippine Cordillera. They are called Igorots, a name coined by Spanish settlers who came to colonise the Philippines in the 16th century. But I do not use the word Igorot in Bone Talk, which might initially surprise or even disappoint Igorots, who take great pride in their heritage.

In 1899, the year of my story, Igorot would have been a word used by outsiders, not by the mountain people themselves.

London-based Igorots proudly display their banner in front of the School of Oriental and Asian Studies during the recent Cordillera Conference, where I launched Bone Talk. Photo: Candy Gourlay

The word 'Igorot' has a fraught history. In the early 16th and 17th centuries, it was simply a general term to refer to mountain dwellers, whatever their cultural group – of which there were many, many diverse communities up and down the Cordilleras, each with their own languages, belief systems and cultural practices.

Spanish colonisers soon exerted dominion over most of the Philippines – but they failed to conquer the people of the Cordillera mountains, who resisted their every effort to conquer them.

There would be brief interludes when a small community might pay tribute to Spain and allow a garrison to be built amongst them. But such times did not last long. The mountain people soon pulled up stakes, melting deep into the mountain jungles. The Spanish never grew their own food so they dared not give chase and stray too far from supply lines from the lowlands.

The Spanish become frustrated and embittered by the failure to conquer the mountain people. Their dispatches to Madrid disparaged the Igorot with more and more vehemence, and soon the word 'Igorot' became derogatory, with connotations of impurity, savagery and backwardness.

Sadly, Spanish badmouthing was absorbed by other Filipinos and Igorots have for years endured discrimination from their compatriots in the lowlands.

In the past few decades however, Cordillerans have chosen to appropriate the word and proudly identify themselves as Igorot – though a few groups still resist the word.

There is a myth that the Spanish failed to conquer the Cordilleras because of the terrain and isolation of its peoples. But historical records reveal a lively interaction and trade between mountain folk and the lowlands.

The truth is: the Spanish failed to conquer the Cordilleras because the people of the mountain didn't allow themselves to be conquered.

My book launch was part of a two day conference on the Cordilleras at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) – I took this video of UK-based Igorots in native dress performing at the conference.

6 Headhunting

So yeah, my characters are a headhunting people. Fact. But would this be off-putting to my readers?

Worse, would it be offensive to the people of the Cordillera themselves who, during my research trips, gave me the impression that they wanted to put headhunting firmly into the distant past.

Whenever I tried to ask anyone about headhunting in the Cordillera, I was gently reminded that headhunting had been outlawed back in the American occupation.  When I visited the Bontoc Museum in search of headhunting artifacts, I found them displayed in the bottom shelf of a glass cabinet in a remote corner of the museum.

The message I got was this: headhunting is something that savages do, and we are not savages - understandable when you consider that Igorots have endured being belittled as primitives for centuries.

But I needed to understand what the practice meant so that I could find a truthful yet sympathetic way of representing it in my story.

When I read Severed by Frances Larson, I heaved a sigh of relief.

Turns out, unshoed corners of the world do not have a monopoly on head chopping.

Britain, the book reminded me, has had a long tradition of severing heads. One famous head, Oliver Cromwell's, became an attraction at small freak shows. It deteriorated down the centuries, losing an ear here and the tip of its nose there, before ending up in private hands. It wasn't until 1960 that it occurred to someone to give Cromwell's head a break. It was buried in Cambridge.

During World War II,  Allied soldiers in the Pacific arena made a sport of taking the heads of Japanese dead, causing a scandal. According to Larson's book, 60 per cent of Japanese dead repatriated from the Mariana Islands in 1984 were missing their heads.

Headhunting and headhunters conjure notions of savagery and "the moral limitations of 'savage society'".

"The vision of headhunting informed a much deeper dichotomy that flourished in the late nineteenth century, between 'wild' people and the more 'refined' viewing public who gazed upon them. A profound and derogatory prejudice has shaped the display of foreign cultures in Europe and America for centuries, and it allowed those who visited fairs and museums to define themselves in opposition to those people they came to see." SEVERED by Frances Larson

I realised that if I were to represent headhunters fairly,  it would be important to dig deep and understand the logic of headhunting culture.

And yes, there is logic to it. The more I explored the belief systems of the pre-Christian Igorots, the more it became clear to me that headhunting was not the act of an unthinking savage, but a deeply moral and rational practice.

7 America the Invader

Bone Talk is set in late 1899, when American troops were rampaging across the Philippines to secure it as part of a package of entitlements after the United States won the Spanish American War. That victory – and the end of the Spanish empire – was sealed by the sinking of the Spanish Pacific Squadron by Commodore George Dewey in the Manila Bay.

Growing up in the Philippines, we were taught the facts of history in isolation. There was no wider context. It was all about memorising dates and titles which I just about managed. But it felt like  nothing to do with me, apart from the grade I had to achieve.

Researching this story, for the first I woke up to the context of America's imperial ambitions. It felt like a giant OMG suddenly appeared above my head and stayed there, hovering for the duration of my research.

How the Spanish American War was sold to Americans. Illustrator: Louis Dalrymple. Public Domain image.

The big picture: when Spain lost the Spanish-American war, it handed over its colonies: Cuba, the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico. The United States designated these countries "unincorporated territories". The Philippines became a republic after the second world war ... but Puerto Rico continues to be unincorporated territory of the United States. One empire crumbled and a new one rose to take its place.

The small picture: Inconveniently for the United States, the Filipinos were still in fighting mode and despite all their arrangements with Spain, America found itself fighting another war which, despite the fact that their Filipino enemy lagged behind in fighting know how and firepower, lasted until 1902 (with serious pockets of resistance continuing through till 1905). It is said that almost a quarter of the population was killed – something that should be examined and remembered.

My use of the word "invasion" to describe this period may rattle some people. Our history books don’t tend to talk about America’s incursion as an invasion. But that is what it was. And it changed us, as a people, forever.

Last year, I was invited to appear at the Pune International Literary Festival in Pune, India. My British husband came along and we had a wonderful time hanging out with Indian authors at the festival. At one point, sitting around the table, the conversation turned to the unsavory history of British colonialism in India.

Our Indian friends knew the story of their colonial relationship with Britain, every cruel twist and turn of it ... and were not shy to recount details to my husband.

'What should I do?' my husband asked them. 'How do I react?'

'There is nothing you can do, really.' our Indian friends said. 'Except be aware.'

Bone Talk is fiction, but its historical backdrop is something we Filipinos will always share with  our American friends. It is what it is. We cannot change what happened but we must be aware of what happened and how it changed us.

I like to tell audiences that books do not provide answers but help us ask questions. I hope Bone Talk will awaken a questioning in all of us. There are still many things about that era we need to be curious about.


The Sunday Times Children's Book of the Week, Nicolette Jones
Rich in the customs of the Bontok culture, with its paddy fields, sacrifices to ancestral spirits, and hunting and fighting with spears and axes, this fully imagines a way of life for which the records are sketchy. It also shows us a moment of change, as two worlds meet, and that it takes more than a ceremony to make a man.

Young Adult Books of the Month, The Observer, Fiona Noble
The culture and the landscape are vividly drawn, a mesmerising world of soulful ritual and community, rendering the impact of the American invasion all the more devastating.

Books for Keeps, Ferelith Hordon
Gourlay is an accomplished novelist who looks to explore different challenges in every book, all springing from her own background. Here she boldly takes her readers into a very different world, a past that is both specific yet universal. This is a book to recommend – accessible, exciting and challenging. 

Booktrust Books We Love, Emily Drabble
Samkad’s story is told so sensitively, so lightly and so truthfully that you are completely transported (heart in mouth) to another time and world – until Samkad’s concerns are your concerns and you’re with him every step of the way. An exciting, fascinating and beautifully written book.”

My Book Corner, Sarah Broadley
Candy Gourlay's prose takes the reader by the hand beckoning them on Samkad's journey. They will feel every stone under their feet, every whisper from the trees and every laughter and tear shed as they delve deeper and deeper into the book. Only once the last page has been read will they come up for air, wondering how they will ever read anything quite like it again.

Bookbag, Jill Murphy
A writer in the full flow of their talent. Highly recommended.

Sita Brahmachari

Utterly engrossing. This sumptuously realised, age-old story of colonisation transports in time, culture, landscape and history. It will lodge deep in the bone long after these pages have been turned.

Elizabeth Laird

A wonderful novel that brings to life with passionate clarity the moment when an ancient culture comes head to head with a brutal colonial invasion. Samkad and Luki are characters who leap from the page, and will stay with me for a long time.

Catherine Johnson
A wonderful read. 

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Bare Lit 2018 - Speaking of Morality in Young Fiction

By Candy Gourlay

I was so looking forward to sharing the stage with debut author Rutendo Tavengerwei (Hope is Our Only Wing) and the excellent Bali Rai (The Harder They Fall) at the Bare Lit Festival last Sunday. Our theme – Morality in YA and Children's Fiction – was a corker!

But it wasn't to be.

My vanishing panel

The first shocker was a message early in the morning that Rutendo would not be able to come, through no fault of her own. I don't think it's my place to explain what happened – suffice to say I was gutted I would not be able to meet her.

I frantically messaged lovely author friend Patrice Lawrence to find out if she was free to stand in. She wasn't.

Then, another message: Bali's train had been delayed and then now it was too late to get to London. He wasn't coming either.

I was having visions of sitting alone on a stage babbling nonsense for an hour and a half ... when festival director and co founder Mend Mariwany suddenly appeared with a relieved grin.

He'd managed to persuade Samantha Williams, inspirational multicultural bookseller, to become my fellow panellist, and writer and educator Darren Chetty  (who had come along to attend our talk) to become chair.

Here's a doodle of the three of us from illustrator Sarah McIntyre:

Darren Chetty, Candy Gourlay, Samantha Williams at Bare Lit 2018. Sketch by Sarah McIntyre


We had a quicky FIVE minutes to chat and prepare, and then we were on the stage!

I have to say my two new colleagues were superb. Samantha calls books "weapons of mass destruction" and earnestly believes that reading is key to a child's future wellbeing. Dismayed by the whiteness of books available to her own children, she has thrown herself into bookselling – with the aim to  "source, sell, encourage, self-publish and promote beautiful British multicultural children's books that celebrate diversity particularly children and families of Caribbean/African descent".

Samantha and her display of children's books at the Bare Lit Festival

Darren co-wrote this feature Why Diversity Should Start at Storytime with Karen Sands O'Connor, He and Karen also co-wrote this fascinating piece looking at the representation of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic voices in British chldren's fiction – read it!

This article is not a proper report of the event, though I do repeat some things that were said. It's more like my own take on the themes we explored.

Here is Darren's first question:

British kids lit grew out of a desire to educate and moralise. How do these factors impact your writing?

Darren and Samantha, with me in the middle (in full cultural appropriation mode wearing an Indian kurta and shoes in an African print). Photo by Heather Marks

Writing with an agenda

There is no doubt in my mind that any author writing a book would have an agenda.

Certainly, having once been a book-loving child who never saw herself in the books she devoured, inclusion is number one on my author agenda.

They say children's fictions should be like mirrors and windows, well for me, all the mirrors were broken or, worse, distorted like a carnival hall of mirrors.

This is the story I tell over and over again to white audiences at the diversity panels that have become a regular gig for me as a "diverse" writer.

Gazing across the majority brown faces in the Bare Lit audience, I realised it was not a story I needed to tell this audience. They already lived it.

Long ago I attended an Arvon Writing for Teenagers week with Melvin Burgess and Malorie Blackman. Tbh I was nervous about meeting Melvin, whose every book (Junk, about heroin use ... Doing It, about boys and sex) seemed to spark controversy. But meeting Melvin, I realised that his agenda was as sincere as mine – like me, he was holding up a mirror. To teenagers who didn't recognise the sanitised versions of themselves in books written for them.

"I realised nobody was writing stuff for real teenagers," Burgess said in a Guardian interview, about the seventies and eighties when he was one of a few authors who began to write for the demographic. "It's such a seminal part of your life, the point when you become who you are, and yet nobody made stuff for them."

It is said that the teenager was invented in the 1940s when American film-makers  realised that teenagers had money to spend – I wrote about it over on my writing blog, Notes from the Slushpile, headlined The Invention of the Teenager. Two decades after Burgess first shocked with his books, I can't help the feeling that there has been the same commercial awakening to the spending power of younger demographics. Even though every other movie or TV series seems to be a superhero blockbuster, there are many impressive books published today that marshal the same awareness, respect and sensitivity with which Burgess writes for his young readers.

Mirrors and windows

I couldn't take notes during the panel (because speaker 😳), so I cannot reproduce the words of my co-panellist Samantha Williams, who spoke passionately about the urgent need to put brown faces on the covers of books, about customers begging her for help because their children were desperate to become white and fair like the characters they saw in media.

Darren, as a primary school teacher, told a story that I can reproduce here courtesy of his blog:

A few years ago, I was teaching a Year 2 class in East London. We had been working on writing stories. When it came to sharing what they had written, one boy, who had recently arrived from Nigeria, was eager to read his work to the class.

As he read out his protagonist's name - I had suggested that children might use the names of people in their family - another boy, who was born in Britain and identified as Congolese, interrupted him.

"You can't do that! Stories have to be about white people," he said. This is not an isolated incident.

It is easy, attending a festival like Bare Lit, to rant on about books as mirrors and inclusion and representation. But as a child saved by books that didn't represent me, I want to put in a word for books as windows  – because windows are incredibly important to help a child imagine a bigger, better world in which to live in.

When I visit schools in the posh parts of London and tell the children that I am from the Philippines, the children become animated and tell me that their cook/nanny/cleaner is from the Philippines.

There was a ripple of indignation when I mentioned this anecdote, the audience were offended on my behalf. But why be offended by the truth? Eleven per cent of the Philippine population leave the country to work overseas, mostly in menial jobs. But by meeting me, the children see something outside their ordinary worlds. They realise that Filipinos are as diverse as they are. And hopefully, they will learn to give us permission to be whoever we want to be. Windows.

In 2015, I was invited to contribute to a round-up in the Guardian headlined Banned, burned, or simply life changing: what are the best dangerous books? where children's authors "share the books they probably weren't meant to read that either rocked their world or rocked the world".

My colleagues listed books such as The Color Purple by Alice Walker, Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath ... here was my response:

When I was growing up in the Philippines, there were very few locally published books for children and so everything I read was imported from America and the United Kingdom. When I think back, ALL the books I read as a child were dangerous. They took me out of the ordered rules of my cultural life and proposed that there were other choices out there.

I explored worlds that bore no resemblance to my own in my native Philippines. They made me disgruntled, discontented with my lot. Western characters seemed to travel everywhere, and as a little girl in Manila, I could not imagine ever being wealthy enough to even travel to any of the nearby countries in Southeast Asia. I puzzled over how characters spoke their minds. In my ordinary world, there were complex, unwritten ways of communicating, saying yes even if you mean no is an art embedded in many Asian cultures. 
It was not just culture clash either. Here were child characters who had eye-popping adventures, who ignored boundaries, who took their fates in their own hands. It was terrifying and unimaginable. And oh so delicious.

Whose morality?

So perhaps under the umbrella theme of 'Morality in Children's Fiction', we also need to ask whose morality? Morality, after all is in the eye of the beholder.

In the olden days when infant mortality was high, adults published books designed to save their souls. If you read Victorian fiction, there are plenty of idealised portraits of young orphans like Oliver Twist who are ultimately saved by discovering that they are wealthy after all –  which kind of makes sense when you take into account the materialism of the Industrial Revolution.

Growing up in the Philippines, colonised first by Spain then by America, I grew up with folk tales that I realised later had been repurposed with a racist colonial intent – like the story of the crow whose feathers used to be beautiful and white until he committed some misdemeanor for which his feathers turned black!

One of the first Filipino characters I encountered as a child was Juan Tamad (Lazy Johnny), who rather than climb the guava tree would lie under it, mouth open, waiting for the fruit to drop into his mouth. Again, here are the voices of our colonial masters calling from the past, reinforcing the lazy servant stereotype one can still hear still parroted today by the entitled classes.

Sadly, in the Philippines, one continues to witness toe-curling racism and racial self disgust. Skin whitening is big business and the silver screen is peopled only by fair-skinned actors. In our nonchalant celebration of whiteness, I can hear those colonial voices shouting down the centuries, reinforcing our staunch belief in our racial ugliness.

So yeah, we artists always seem to be engaged in correcting the imbalances of the societies we live in. In my book Tall Story, my loveable hero, Bernardo, has a thick accent because I have always hated the power politics behind accents in the Philippines. As a schoolgirl, I used to be one of the most robust and taller girls. Everyone else was petite – and I had to endure endless Hulk and Baby Huey barbs. So in Tall Story, Bernardo becomes a giant and I write him inside out so that people see who he is before they actually meet him.

Positive representation?

Here is Darren's second question to the panel:

Given the history of erasure and distortion of people of colour in kids lit, there are strong calls for positive representations of POC. There is also the need to tell great stories with morally complex characters. How do you work with these pressures?

So ... imagine what it must have been like when people saw themselves for the first time reflected in a mirror.

Now imagine what it would be like to see one's self in books for the first time.

While we call for representation, it will not be easy to see one's self represented. What do we really want to see? Do we want to see a better version of ourselves or do we want to see ourselves, warts and all? And what about all our secret doubts and insecurities? What about the unbeautiful parts of us, do we want those on display too?

And what is positive representation?

Does it mean characters who are people of colour always have to be the goody and never the baddy?

Does it mean never portraying a Filipino as a cleaning lady or a nurse or a caregiver? Or an African American as a drug-taking rap artist? Or an Indian or Pakistani character as a shopkeeper?

It took me a long time to commit to writing my forthcoming novel, Bone Talk. Watch this video I made to introduce it and you'll see why.

There aren't any novels written about the Bontoc people who are the heroes of my story, which is set in 1899 when the United States invaded the Philippines. When I visited the area, there was a reluctance amongst people I approached to discuss the animist cultural practices I was researching. "We are Christians now," one man told me, resisting my questions about death practices.

I trawled history books and diaries of anthropologists – but they were all written by Americans, portraying the Bontoc people – who were head-hunters –  in either racist or exotic terms. How do I represent them in an era that some of them would prefer not to remember?

Knowing that my readers are going to be children was another challenge. How do I write about a culture that so far removed from that of the modern child reader? How do I write in a way that would have my reader embrace my heroes instead of "othering" them?

The answer, I soon realised, was simple. Write well.

Writing well means writing characters in 3D – multidimensional, complex, with many shades of grey.

Writing well means allowing yourself the time it takes to discover the truth in your story.

Writing well means not settling for your first uncorrected first draft but taking the time to imagine and reimagine your story until it is at its best.

Writing well means your reader, whoever he may be, can see himself in your story.

Write well. It takes a lot of time. It hurts. But it's what we gotta do.

And then, of course, because of the lack of previous representation, we are pioneers. We have a LOT to make up, a LOT to say. All the issues, all the themes, all those things that had previously gone unsaid!

Which tbh would make for a boring read.

Children are true natives of this age of short attention spans and the florid author must be careful to observe the first commandment of writing for children: Thou shalt not be boring.

Sure, have an agenda. But story must always come first.

So my advice to the Bare Lit audience (I could tell that there were many writers by the way they took copious notes), was to remind them that writing is about craft. Craft your agenda into the hidden seams of your story. Craft it to enable your reader, not to educate her. Whatever your message, sew it in carefully and invisibly to serve plot and character  (I know aspiring writers are fed up with hearing it but SHOW DON'T TELL!).

For the sake of readers who might be bored by all this writing talk, may I direct writers to this article I wrote: Exposition: It's about Emotion not Information – which tackles the nitty gritty of building a case without the actual case.

Anything goes?

Here is Darren's final question:

What, if anything, can children NOT cope with in fiction? For example, must stories have a happy ending?

It is tempting to say that children of today can cope with anything. But that isn't true. I think for every child reader, there is a line that can be crossed. And so though I don't think authors should limit themselves in the themes they choose to write about, the books a child reads definitely benefits from the curation of an adult who knows them well.

The other day, I was asked on Woman's Hour what I thought about age banding (which hit the headlines back in 2008). I said I understood the commercial need for it but at the end of the day young readers need a curator, someone who understands how books are safe spaces for children to experience the life they have yet to live, someone who can identify the perfect book for the individual child. That curator – the librarian – is sadly fast becoming an endangered specie.

It is interesting though to note the breadth of "tricky" subjects that books for young people dare to cover today: death, sexuality, violence, abuse, drugs, war ...

I have just finished reading the heartbreaking Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes, which imagines the ghosts of black boys shot by American policemen roaming Chicago. Though it describes some of the deaths, these descriptions are sober, quietly painful, and never gratuitous.

On the other hand I've read Mal Peet's posthumous young adult novel, Beck, about a boy who is sexually abused in care homes. Another brilliant, Carnegie-nominated book from Peet, but I would certainly be very careful who I recommend it to as there is a grim hopelessness to the story.

Writing Bone Talk, I worked hard to keep my underlying themes of imperialism and identity covert. I just want readers to enjoy it as a ripping adventure.

The truth is young people have sensitive antennae to these underlying themes. Children are deeply moral creatures, with a strong sense of what's fair and unfair. Sit in any playground and inevitably you will hear the cry "That is so unfair!" 😄

In fact, young people can be quite black and white about right and wrong. The beauty of novels for young people is that it allows us to show them all the shades of grey in between.

Books of earlier times regarded children as unthinking, empty vessels that needed to be instructed on the ways of the world.

But now we live in times inundated by a such a relentless gush of information that I don't think our children need further instruction. What they do need is the wherewithal to make sense of it all.

Books are a safe place to learn how to do just that.

In the past children may have  been instructed to turn to books to find answers. My hope is that children will read my books and find, not answers, but questions that can set them on the path to understanding their world.

One of the things that differentiate children's books from books for adults is that no matter how dark the subject matter, books for young people will always offer hope.

Back in 2011, I attended a panel to hear Morris Gleitzman talk about his searing Holocaust novel Once.  Here is what he said about hope in children's books:

We are handing the world over to our children. The survival of the species depends on their capacity for optimism.

1. With thanks to Bare Lit, and to my lovely friends at Native Province, who recommended me to the organisers.
2. Like what you see? Click here to subscribe to email updates
3. If you are an author trying to make heads or tails of self promotion, you might want to read my recent post on Notes from the Slushpile: My Year of Launching Prodigiously
4. Hey, I've got a new picture book in the shops and here it is!