There are more ways of communicating than by using the spoken word. In my latest book, which is published on Children’s Day, the four central characters all have other ways to talk to each other and make themselves understood.
In Dahlia’s pet detectives (Dalia si micii detectivi) Dahlia is shy and rarely speaks, except to her best friends: a cat called Onyx, Gossip the crow, and Ciprian, the boy next door.
Chip became deaf after an accident, so although he can’t hear any more, he can speak, he can lipread a bit, and he uses sign language. He’s also a talented drummer.
The cat and the crow both have quite a vocabulary, but Dahlia has to watch their body language and learn what each tone and sound means to understand them. And vice versa.
Kids at school think Dahlia is crazy to have a crow and a black cat as pets – everyone knows that both are bad luck… And no-one can quite work out the cool boy from Bucharest who hangs out with the weirdo girl and her little black friends.
The odd quartet begin to solve mysteries in their mountain village; mysteries too trivial for the police, but annoying, even life-threatening to neighbours and visitors: these are cases for the unorthodox Village Detective Agency.
This is a gentle story set in much the same entrancing mountain landscape as the one outside my window. A village like mine is a handy microcosm of the world, a different perspective around each bend in the road, up every slope and through each patch of trees. You find all sorts in the village, from the misfit Mr Wazzock to the sweet Granny Florica.
At a writing workshop earlier this month, ten-year old Andreea asked me why I liked writing for kids. Truth is I don’t really write for kids. I write stories about kids rather than for them. Children are just young (not stupid), with less experience and uncluttered heads, but their emotions are as strong as adults’ – if not stronger; their perceptions are often clearer, and they’re more straightforward. There’s less pretence, more honesty. I try to be careful of the language I use, keeping it fairly simple and clear – but that’s not a bad strategy for grown-up stories too.
How do I know how it feels to be a kid? Another question from a young reader at a book fair. Answer: I’m still the child I was, just wrapped in more layers, carrying more baggage. We learn, with age, to damp down our feelings, but they’re all still there, even if some get muddled by adult illogic.
‘Why do you feel you must write about a deaf boy? And about animals?’ asked Cristina. Why not? I asked her back. Characters who are different are interesting. And I’m quite keen to inject a little diversity into each book, to introduce readers to novelties, strangers, oddities – to challenge a few superstitions or the occasional prejudice. Overturning the status quo is pushing it, for a little story, but at least I can poke it a bit.
If my stories prompt kids to ask questions, that’s good. Curiosity might be dangerous for unwary cats, but it’s very healthy for growing children.
Extract from Dahlia’s Pet Detectives
Dahlia looks up from her drawing pad. The crow is there, tapping at the glass, so Dahlia opens the window and climbs out on to the wide ledge outside.
‘Hi, Gossip,’ she says softly.
‘Craaaa!’ The crow caws, his head bobbing. Dahlia holds out one finger and the crow nibbles at it gently.
‘Hungry?’ Dahlia asks him.
‘Gllgurrrrr…!’ says the crow, softly.
Dahlia reaches in through the window and grabs a plastic packet from her bedside table. It’s a treat for cats, but the crow loves it too. Crows eat everything. Dahlia likes buying treats. A packet costs her five lei, which is quite a lot when you’re nine, but her friends love them.
The crow hops from foot to foot, gurgling and cawing, and tries to grab the smelly stick of dried meat as Dahlia pulls it from the packet. His pointy beak stabs her by mistake.
‘Oi! That was my finger, you greedy bird!’
Dahlia shakes her hand at him and the crow steps back, and caws.
Dahlia breaks off a piece and the bird snatches it from her hand, his neck feathers fluffing out with pleasure.
There’s a rustle of leaves from the tree close to the house, and a black kitten leaps from the nearest branch, down on to the window ledge, miaowing loudly, showing white teeth in her pink mouth, green eyes wide open.
‘Hey, Onyx! Where have you been?’ The girl holds out a piece of the treat and the young cat closes her jaws around it. She looks eager for more and gives little purring yowls.
The girl knows exactly what the cat is saying. ‘I love you…! Give me another! More!’
The cat and the crow look up at Dahlia with such expressions that she giggles.
‘Who needs words?’ she thinks to herself. ‘You’d have to be pretty stupid not to understand what they’re saying. You only have to listen, and watch.’
‘Hey!’ a voice yells up at them. It scares the crow and the cat; feathers flutter and fur stands on end. Dahlia giggles. ‘It’s only Chip,’ she whispers, putting out her hands to stroke her two friends.
Chip is her neighbour and her best friend apart from the cat and the crow. ‘Hi, Dahlia!’ he calls again. ‘Can I come up?’
Dahlia nods her head and smiles, waving at him.
Sixty seconds later, Chip pushes her bedroom door open and strides in. He’s tall for eleven, much taller than Dahlia.
As Chip comes over to the window, the crow flaps off and the black cat leaps into the tree. ‘Ohhh!’ says Chip. ‘Come back!’
Arabella’s book Dalia si micii detectivi (Dahlia’s pet detectives) is published on 1st June at Bookfest in Bucharest. There is a launch event at noon on Friday 1st and Saturday 2nd June at the Booklet Fiction stand.