Friday 14 July 2017

Home truths - writing about home and finding your way there

by Addy Farmer

A Place to call Home by the marvellous Alexis Deacon
I remember. I went to Italy when I was seventeen. I was going to learn Italian while I looked after two bambini for a Contessa in Turin. Let me tell you now, it was not all Prosecco and panini. I retain an impression of a thin and cavernous house. Inside it was all peeling wall paper and actual servants. The 'bambini' were 13 and 11 and HORRIBLE. I began to feel like one of Mary Poppin's predecessors i.e one of the rejected, loser nannies. The bambini hated me (dead rabbits outside my door/hateful little notes/a complete refusal to do anything I asked) and I loathed them back.
To cap it all the only Italian I completely got down was , 'Dove la Contessa?' 'cos I could never find her and she was always asking for me..
oh, how I longed for this!
I couldn't wait to leave home and get abroad for my big adventure before university but the reality did not live up to expectation. I did move on from that ghastly first house to another more settling place but that time was never going to be a shining memory; rather it introduced me to homesickness and that particular ACHE for the familiar.

So, what is home?

  • family and friends
  • the house
  • the climate
  • the surrounds
  • the sounds and smells
It's not one of these things but a mix of all. For me, in hot, unfamiliar Italy, I wanted my family and friends. I wanted the smell of the meadow near our house, the warm-ish, rainy unpredictable weather, the coffee shop on the High Street, the lane of shady trees, the sound of the trains at the station on the hill, the spooky old mausoleum. It was all part of my internal world and I missed it. 
But maybe most important of all was the sure and certain knowledge that there would be someone who wanted you there.

How important are stories about finding a way home?
One of our SCBWI-ers, Stephen Burgess, said, "As an ex-academic, I know there is a large sociological literature on the home that you might find interesting (one of my interests was in ideas of place), Think of how home is contrasted with away for Frodo in The Lord of the Rings."  
Frodo wants his settled, idyllic home in the Shires. Not for him the nomadic life. "I pity snails, and all that carry their homes on their backs." At the start Frodo is like his Uncle Bilbo when he says:
Bother burgling and everything to do with it! I wish I was at home in my nice hole by the fire, with the kettle just beginning to sing!”
Bilbo Baggins, The Hobbit, Roast Mutton
And yet, still Frodo manages to take his home within him on his great and dangerous adventure; he is able to conjure it up in adversity. Thoughts of the Shires and all it stands for give him the strength to fight for its existence.
Fight for the Shires, Frodo!
From the excellent Brainpickings comes this quote from Ursula Le Guin: 
Home, imagined, comes to be. It is real, realer than any other place, but you can’t get to it unless your people show you how to imagine it—whoever your people are. They may not be your relatives. They may never have spoken your language. They may have been dead for a thousand years. They may be nothing but words printed on paper, ghosts of voices, shadows of minds. But they can guide you home.
She goes on to say, 
All of us have to learn how to invent our lives, make them up, imagine them. We need to be taught these skills; we need guides to show us how. Without them, our lives get made up for us by other people.
This may speak more to the importance of story as a way of shaping a child's inner life and strength but it is also an insight into how we as story tellers can help children find their way home in a turbulent world. Our characters' homes can become our readers' second homes; a welcome refuge in an uncertain world. As a reader we can return to these second homes again and again. 
Wether you arrive by screen or book, you will always find a welcome at Hogwarts. J.K Rowling
How is home depicted in story?
It can be an actual place. It maybe a squash and a squeeze but it's your squash and squeeze - just right for you.
Here's Angelica O'Brien's suggestion 
In a similar vein, Alice Thorp says; "The Trip to Panama by Janosch. Love this one. They go on a big adventure to find the house of their dreams but (spoiler alert) it turns out to be their own home all along. But they discover more great things to bring to it eg a comfortable sofa."

No home should be without a comfy sofa
Home is the lost parents you have to get back to.

Beegu by Alexis Deacon - the ears say it all
When Beegu lands on Earth, she is lost and misses home. She is a friendly little creature, but the Earth People don't seem very welcoming at all. Her sadness is made better by the children she meets. It's all good - like me, she finds her way back home eventually. She returned to loving parents who missed her. Some characters don't have it so lucky.

There's the home you never knew but always searched for
Godric Hollow - the home Harry Potter never knew
For Harry Potter, home is a place of tumbling feelings. Godric's Hollow was where he had a family. It was in Godric’s Hollow that, but for Voldemort, he would have grown up and spent every school holiday. He could have invited friends to his house. . . . He might even have had brothers and sisters. . . . It would have been his mother who had made his seventeenth birthday cake. The life he had lost had hardly ever seemed so real to him as at this moment, when he knew he was about to see the place where it had been taken from him. 

For Harry, Hogwarts became his home because it was where he found friendship, familiarity and certainty (plus all those lovely meals but that's another blog post entirely, Paula Harrison!)
A blog post from me would be incomplete without a mention of the Moomins. So thanks to Pat Walsh for suggesting the delectable Moomin house as a truly wondrous home you don't have to live in in order to go to. And it's not just the reader but also all those wanderers and misfits who gravitate towards the Moomin house with its warm heart and never-ending welcome. 

"Once a year the Hattifatteners collect there before setting out again on their endless foraging expedition round the world. They come from all points of the compass, silent and serious with their small, white empty faces, and why they hold this yearly meeting it is difficult to say, as they can neither hear nor speak, and have no object in life but the distant goal of their journey's end. Perhaps they like to have a place where they feel at home and can rest a little and meet friends."
— Tove Jansson (Finn Family Moomintroll

Angelica O'Brien talks about Dustbin Baby: "great depiction of a foster child trying to figure out her 'home'. Wilson uses this theme a lot e.g. Suitcase Kid & Tracy Beaker, but Dustbin Baby nails it. This is what I think based on my own experiences as a third culture kid moving a lot."

Home as the family you will strive to bring together again

It's true that their mother has abandoned the four Tillerman children somewhere in the middle of Connecticut. It's still true they have to find their way, somehow, to Great-aunt Cilla's house in Bridgeport, which may be their only hope of staying together as a family.
Both Amelia Mansfield and Mary Hoffman mention Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt. Amelia says, "Homecoming is one of my favourites. What about The Secret Garden? Mandy by Julie Edwards on a similar theme. Goodnight Mr Tom? This is one of my favourite themes as well.

Home in a dystopian/alien world.
It can dictate the mood of the story as in Teri Terry's, Contagion,
"The setting in Contagion where Shay lives (Killin) is important to the mood of the story, and also from Shay's POV that how she feels about it has changed - her allegiance has shifted to this, as her new home."
Killin - Scotland - some places maybe easier to call home than others
Maybe this is an example of making a home wherever you are because you have to. It is a matter of survival; a Viking hangover, as suggested by Suzie Wilde:
"In researching the Vikings I realised that no one calls their own home anything but 'home'. (There may be several: I call my present house; my old house in Portsmouth; our ancient country, Wales, Home). Others call it what they choose, usually derogatory: Old Shithead's hut an actual example."
The Vikings were plain speakers, it's true. They also moved about a bit in order to find a place to survive and thrive; driven out of their homelands by hunger. Home as the place where the heart is, was no doubt a necessity for the Vikings. 

Today. we find others driven out of the homes by war.

The Refugee Experience
by Wendy Meddour - about missing home and finding your way into a new one
Wendy Meddour was prompted to write 'A Hen in the Wardrobe' because muslims were being very poorly represented in children's literature. She wanted to do something about it - with both humour and fun involved. It's a book about belonging, friendship, and the poignant but often funny trials of having a parent from another culture. 'Chapter: Under the Stars' is all about home. The Dad, Mr Ramadan, wants to stay in North Africa. The child, Ramzi, wants to go back to England. 
They both want the thing called 'home', but 'home' is also their relationship and wanting each other to be happy, so they have to work out what 'home' means for them. 
With refugees in mind, thanks to Katherine Edgar for suggesting, Judith Kerr's classic, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit 

And to Suzanne Afford for Watership Down by Richard Adams. A classic tale about animals forced to find a new home following human persecution.

Finding the right home for your story
So, you've found how you're going to deal with home and now you want to create that home for your reader. As writers we are going to create many homes, many families and we are going to have to know them pretty well to convince our readers that they are their families and their homes as well. So, be practical, make sure of where your story home is. 
Have that home ready with doors wide open for visitors. Know which rooms your hero loves, where the cat likes to be sick, where the ghost appears; you know the drill. Here's Kathy Evan's map of Teva's world in, More of Me.

She says, "The house where Teva lived was almost a character in More of Me - it was part prison/part sanctuary - I had a few issues with the physicality of it so I got on right move , found a house that fit the bill and printed of the floor plan so I could allocate the rooms. It's interesting how you can twist the idea of home to become something sinister but still beloved... "

Nicola Keller says, "As a one time architect, I found that Barefoot Book's 'Bear At Home' had a very unlikely room layout, but that's probably not the answer you wanted!" Hmm, not really Nicola but thanks anyway. So many thanks go to all of you lovely SCBWI-ers who were interested in the theme of home. Sorry, if I didn't mention your contribution but as usual, I'd left it to the last moment ...
Let's end on a song - thank you, Candy. Home is where we come to in the end. It is the place inside us, outside us, the place we yearn for and feel comfortable in and where we always, always find a welcome.


  1. Home is a comfort blanket at the end of a bad day. I love the idea of a book providing a second home, being that comfort to wrap around you. Wonderful post, Addy. Suzanne Afford x

  2. Alice Hemming Thorp14 July 2017 at 20:30

    Fab post, Addy. And relevant to any story as there is always a home or a longing for home. I really want to read Bear At Home now, just to check out his layout.

  3. This is such s wonderful post - really got me thinking too xxx

    1. Thanks, Kathy. I loved your map. I don't think I could manage a story without knowing the home at the heart of it.

  4. So many books I have yet to read! My grandma was rescued from a miserable experience but in Preston not Italy. She was treated very badly by the family but managed to sneak a letter out via a delivery boy and her dad rescued her. She was very pleased to get home!

    1. Ack! Poor Grandma! I'm so glad she was rescued! Oh, there's a story but she'd have to rescue herself ...


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