Author Aoife Walsh’s latest novel is all about a girl fighting to keep her local library open. Aoife tells us how important libraries were to her as a child, and how the idea for Lost for Words came about.
What was the initial spark for writing Lost for Words?
The library came first. I didn’t set out to write something overtly political, but I was hating watching what austerity was doing to libraries. I resented the fact that they were being treated as unimportant in the age of the Internet. I was deeply afraid for children who would have to grow up without them. And then this child character who feels out of step with what’s going on in the world sneaked into my head.
Lost for Words is about a girl fighting to keep her local library open – why are libraries so important to you?
Most of the very best books I read as a child I found in libraries – the local one and at school. We went on holiday to Ireland every summer and the library we visited there was one of the things I looked forward to most – a whole different selection of books. I might never have read Astrid Lindgren, Margaret Mahy, Tamora Pierce, Cynthia Voigt without those libraries; and as much as I love a lot of adult books, it’s the children’s ones which made me me.
Besides the personal, I’m acutely aware that libraries are vital for social justice. It is so obvious when you stop and think about it that they are a cornerstone of a free and civilised society – that all people of all ages must have free access to books and learning for anything at all to be bearably fair – that I can hardly believe anyone is ignorant enough to shut them down.
How did you come up with the character of Dallas and her family?
I didn’t really come up with any of them, they just sauntered in. But it took me a while to figure out the family – what defines it is essentially loss, and I didn’t realise that at first. Somebody is missing, and that’s what drives the characters and their decisions.
Dallas is the hero, and (being first and foremost a reader and a watcher) is probably the only character in the book who doesn’t see herself as hero material. She’s definitely an anomaly in her family. Her older brother thinks he’s practical and worldly but is in fact deeply melodramatic; her younger brother and stepsister are what you might call strong personalities and her aunt styles herself as outrageous. Only her stepmother is fairly calm and normal.
Lost for Words also deals with the theme of grief – what inspired this?
I knew the characters before I knew that they were grieving. The importance of the step-parent dynamic grew and grew, and gradually I realised that the birth parent was gone, and that was where the rivalries and jealousies and insecurities were coming from. Which makes it sound a lot more like Dynasty than it actually is.
There are lots of children and teenagers taking part in protests and campaigning – who inspires you in the news at the moment?
I think you would have to be very strange not to be inspired by Greta Thunberg. She and all the teenage protestors across the globe are doing incredible things, and they deserve to have an impact, even if they didn’t deserve to have a living planet to grow up on. I’m particularly stirred by her as two of my children (like Billy in Lost for Words) are autistic, so it’s brilliant to see neurodiverse people coming to save the world. I’m also always enthralled when I see children involved in library protests, as they were in Essex recently. Children who have been exposed to libraries know that they need them; and children who haven’t yet and who don’t know need them even more.
What was your favourite library as a child? Which library do you and your children use now?
I went to Twickenham Library every week when I was little. I normally took out a few books I’d read before (I still don’t like reading newer translations of Pippi Longstocking because the words just sound a bit wrong, like a loose guitar string) and a few new ones. My secondary school had a particularly good library which was thrilling; I found a lot of Noel Streatfeild books on those shelves and Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet which I never have got over.
My kids and I have spent a lot of time in various libraries around Oxford, starting with Cowley which had a great picture book section, including a lot of books in other languages. I remember trying hard to read the Gujurati text of Mr Magnolia with my son, and at the same time recall the English which naturally he knew off by heart and expected me to repeat perfectly. Then we moved to South Oxford and started using the Central Library, which is where a lot of Lost for Words was actually written – in 90-minute sessions while my youngest was at nursery.
What do you hope readers will feel when they’ve read Lost for Words?
I hope that they will feel satisfied, in the way you do when you’ve read something good. I hope if they haven’t had much to do with unusually-shaped families, that they might have picked up – ideally without noticing – that unusual doesn’t mean bad or lesser or undesirable. I hope that they will have been reminded, if they needed reminding, that libraries are wonderful and exceptional places; and that they will know that anybody can help effect change if they’re not too cool to try. And I hope they’ll miss the character.
Lost for Words will be released on 4th July 2019.