Bren MacDibble and Bijal Vachharajani discuss their childrens books, set at sea and on land.
Bijal: Sometimes the clichés just become the truth. I had an early morning meeting the next day, but there was Neoma making her way in the most perilous of journeys to the Valley of the Sun, and that’s it, I spent most of my night reading Bren MacDibble’s Across the Risen Sea.
Like the waterbody it’s set in, this middle grade book is full of unexpected twists and turns, joy and darkness, depth and frothiness, and the uncanny ability to sit in the present while looking towards a future shaped by the before-times. Here the before-times is where climate change turned farmlands into ‘salty swamps’ and cyclones destroyed many homes and the sea took everything everyone owned. Now Neoma and Jag’s families live gentle lives on high ground enveloped by the risen sea. Their lives change even more when strangers from the mysterious Valley of the Sun arrive and Neoma has to cross this sea to help her best friend and her community. A sweeping story of the climate crisis, social justice, fast friendships, and what home means in a changed world.
Bren: I hope you got your eyelids closed for a couple of moments before that early morning meeting! Savi and the Memory Keeper is a book I found enchanting on so many levels especially the major themes: connection and loss.
A little background: It’s a story about a girl who loses her father and they move to his childhood home to take over a family apartment. She loses not only her father, but the only home she’s ever known, her friends and her school. Savi’s sister and her mother are processing grief in very personal ways so she’s struggling to process her grief alone. She’s the only one up to caring for all the plants they bring with them that were her father’s. Savi feels a connection to him when she starts out but suddenly every plant she touches stirs up vivid magical memories of her father. This extends into her new school where an ancient tree grows. Then the tree shows her other visions and it becomes clear this tree and the whole city need her help. Initially, she keeps her visions to herself but other people are aware of her gift, those who want to help and those who want to stop her and it’s very hard for Savi to navigate them and this bizarre gift she definitely does not want, but one that also connects her to her dead father.
Bijal: I have to ask! You are an expert on being a kid on the land. How did you write such an immersive sea book?
Bren: I’ve always loved being near the sea, in the sea. Growing up in New Zealand, the sea was never too far away. I guess it’s a Kiwi thing? Childhoods spent digging toes in the sand for pippi! I have only been sailing a few times but I live right on the sea.
There’s so many moments of loss in Savi and the Memory Keeper, not only of Savi’s father, but also the connection with her remaining family, as well as the dwindling biodiversity and the loss of mild weather and clean air. This is a loss that we feel all around the world with dwindling ecosystems and wild weather events causing more devastation. Also in a COVID world, a lot more people are feeling the loss of a loved one and that loss can overwhelm our environmental losses as it does with Savi when she first moves to Shajarpur.
Was it a conscious decision on your part to entwine these two losses and have Savi bounce back and forth between them? Is this a reflection of something we’re all doing right now?
Bijal: Savi and Tree’s story comes from many places, from the day I stepped out a few weeks after a deeply personal loss, of the changing planet and the grief that comes from it, and the isolation of the COVID-changed world in which so many of us turned to our windows for comfort. I started drawing parallels between different kinds of grief as I turned to the clouds outside my balcony, and the trees around me for conversation. While I was forgetting the keys outside my door in my grief fugue, I began thinking about this environmental generational amnesia that we are facing collectively. It just happened that I started writing about all of this, reluctantly. Just trying to make sense of this strange new world, and also the familiarity and recuperative power of all things green and magical became Savi and the Memory Keeper.
How did Across the Risen Sea come about?
Bren: I was travelling Australia in a bus and I loved how many features in the landscapes were carved out by the great inland seas of the past, but I saw how coastal erosion was affecting small towns. I felt like the inland seas were returning. I was also following the plight of many Pasifika nations and Jakarta dealing with water inundation and it all seemed suddenly very close. Jakarta draws up massive amounts of groundwater that destabilise the land under the city. Parts of Jakarta have sunk two metres in the last ten years. Sea level rising has only got more mentions in the news since, so I feel like I’m writing real fears into survival scenarios.
My friend Gabi Wang pointed out a while ago, it feels like children’s writers are all writing our childhood selves over and over as if we can repair ourselves. Has the loss of family or of environment affected you personally the way it affects Savi in your book? What are you repairing?
Bijal: I so resonate with your friend, I was completely bewildered by the world as a child, lost in one of my own making – from making up stories to even an imaginary dog. Maybe hat’s why my protagonists– whether it’s the children of A Cloud Called Bhura or Savi –seek refuge in books, animals and trees. Yet, they are very unlike me, because in fiction I can give them a lot more agency than what I had. I always wanted to do things, like try out for a play or raise my hand in class, but no, it just did not happen. (I lost my partner three years ago, and the only way I center myself is by writing. Even though I am a reluctant writer.)
The jerky-walking crab baby is going to haunt me a long time. Could you tell us more about our present and how it becomes Neoma and Jag’s before-times?
Bren: Ha! This is where our books cross over the most. Tree loss and soil degradation is a major player in sea level rising. A land full of living roots and water ways lined with trees can hold so much more water mostly due to the actions of the mycorrhizal fungi mentioned in your book and their secretions of sticky substances that allow water to go deep into the soil. Also, of course, global warming accelerated by us continuing to cling to fossil fuels is speeding the melting of the poles and glaciers. We’re entering a period of wilder weather which brings coastal erosion. I mention a particularly bad summer of cyclones in Across the Risen Sea as a major contributor to the flooding.
Speaking of mycorrizal fungi, the connectivity of the trees was an amazing feature of Savi and the Memory Keeper and a topic we’re all becoming increasingly familiar with and love to hear about. You’ve shown that the trees are sentient and connected but you’ve given them a kind of royal tree that is magically sentient, talks to Savi and the other trees and tries to protect all the trees in the city of Sharjarpur. I loved that it made them all flower and enrapture people at once! How much are trees actually connected and sentient in real life? How important are trees to our environment?
Bijal: I read about the Wood Wide Web and Dr Suzanne Simard’s research, and it just blew my mind. I researched non-stop, read books and watched videos, went on walks and spoke to naturalists, and that’s how Tree came into being, inspired by the mother trees. It’s amazing how forest trees communicate, there’s drama in the underland, how they share nutrients, sunlight, information. And yet, the mycorrhizal network that makes this magic happen is also vulnerable to climate change. Without trees, there’s no us. Forests are home to our water resources and our food systems, apart from being home to so many species. They are our keepers of soil and regulators of climate. Also, it would be very boring and horridly concrete without them.
Your books bring together the climate crisis and the human and wild world. What keeps you writing these powerful themes with such heart-warming prose, in the face of all the apocalyptical things that we are surrounded by now.
Bren: I feel like the climate news is overwhelming. Humans are not good with overwhelming, we tend to turn away, but if we stop talking about these issues nothing will change so what I try to do is say it could look really bad, but also, here are people surviving and thriving anyway. They have love and family and purpose and morals. They have everything they need to be good humans even though they have lost so much. And I hope that’s empowering for young readers and that talking about Across the Risen Sea and Neoma’s world is a safe space for examining sea level rising and keeping the conversation going. Children don’t deserve to be overwhelmed.
And you, top marks for the addition of a wise bossy cat and the pot plant overwatering. Seems very covid lockdown adjacent. I like that Savi is a typical teenager, both smart and tough but also lost and emotional and sometimes feeling foolish and defensive.
I especially like the language that’s full of Indian words and food and is very modern and easy for me to enjoy. I love the energy of it, there are times that seem full of teenagers just making noise as they do. I love to see English mutated for people’s own use. It’s a perfect language for that. But rather than butchering it like I do in my books, you’ve used it much more eloquently.
Is this true to Indian teens, and what time do you envisage this story is set? You mention Covid-19 at one point which is now a great scar on the timeline of humans so it must be now or slightly in the future? Who’s your main audience?
Bijal: Savi’s story is set somewhere just in the hopeful future, where we think that we’d have decided to ‘look up’ like the recent film, and yet no one does. Except the children, and well, some grown-ups.
I do write like I talk and think, and like a lot of multilingual Indians, I pepper my writing with a lot of Indian words, much to my autocorrect’s annoyance. And food is pretty much a constant preoccupation, plus there are such different regional words that we use for them – like I say pauva for beaten rice, my friend says avalakki, and my partner said pohe. All of that just goes in pretty subconsciously.
A teacher recently told me that she felt I gave children a voice with my books, and that’s all I can hope for. I think I write for them, children who love books and who like my childhood self, find companionship in these stories.
Neoma’s just one of my favourite protagonists, she’s spirited and amazingly loyal, but Jag has my heart with his torn shorts and his courage in the face of daunting events. In fact, the friendships in the book are really the anchors of the story, and their banter and little fights and anecdotes. To me this is really a story of different relationships, of friends, of relationship with the sea, with strangers, with shifting realities. Take us a little behind the scenes of how you built this compelling world?
Bren: I like when friendships are formed even though kids are so different. Girls at 8-12 are often more physical than boys and in a culture where people don’t teach girls to be quiet and tidy this would be true. She’s very sure they are living good environmentally-friendly lives and I think there’s power in that. I have an island which used to be a hill, and all the human detritus the sea can wash in, so houses are made from old vehicle bodies.
Furniture, utensils, tools and clothing are foraged from abandoned apartment buildings now surrounded by sea. Solar panels run ovens, a sea wall is built from old car chassis. We have so much stuff in the world now, we’re probably set for any future! The sea may be claiming the land, but it can also give food and transport.
Other elements of connectivity in Savi and the Memory Keeper were the house plants and bonsai plant in the boardroom of the corporate greedy Uncles and Aunties (yes, I saw that subtle little spy tree – well done), the people from Savi’s father’s past, the connection to the land his people had belonged to since early history, and the sharing of grief amongst Savi’s new friends.
Savi has to figure out all these connections and how they affect her, but it’s beautiful to watch it all coming together. Her growing awareness. You continually mention the distractions, social media, shiny things, luxury things and how they lull people into a false sense that the economy and nice things are what we should be paying attention to which lets greed push aside the natural world. The messages contained in this book are very clear. Don’t sell out the environment!
India is a country of great philosophers and landscapes but also a country of amazing human history and new technological and scientific advances. How do you feel it’s coping with this surge in technological advancement? Is there an awareness of the importance of environment?
Bijal: I am lucky, I know amazing people who champion the environment in the work they do –teachers, activists, filmmakers, bookmakers. I acknowledge that I end up being in a bubble of like-minded wonderful people, at the same time, I get to witness what we are fighting for. I go to classrooms with my books, that’s really when I get to meet children and listen to them –students who are keen defenders of the environment and have trivia at the tip of their fingers, children who have never heard the term climate change, despite environment studies being part of the curriculum; kids who are curious about the world once we begin talking. I think we have a long way to go when it comes to making environment a priority in decision making at all levels, across industries and while making policies. It again comes from us perceiving the natural world as different, seeing our place separate from the environment.
The crocodile! Genius. I co-interviewed Romulus Whitaker for my book 10 Indian Champions Who Are Fighting To Change The Planet. He has worked for many years with crocodiles and came away with a feeling of awe for these prehistoric reptiles. You do that as well, and you make us see the natural history side of this animal and also a very compassionate side. How did you decide to bring in this amazing twist in the tail (tale)?
Bren: A little girl out on the risen sea all alone in a sail boat? She really needed back up. A crocodile isn’t such a good back up because you can never trust a hungry crocodile, but I feel like they had some mutual respect, and it did keep other people away from her boat. Also its a children’s novel, there should be a few things that push the line of the absurd just because it’s fun.
You’ve written a lot of non-fiction and picture books for children about the environment. What’s one thing kids can realistically do to help save our environment? And where can they turn for more advice?
Bijal: Whenever I work with children, I always come back overwhelmed. Children care, so much. They want to be part of the change making process, they still have that inherent sense of wonder Rachel Carson wrote about. I truly believe for anyone, children or adults, who want to save the environment, we need to first get them to fall in love with it. We protect what we love, and I think we need to create more opportunities for children to engage with trees, spiders, fungi, the natural world around them. After that it’s easy, protecting that bush which is home to ten caterpillars, or starting an anti-plastic drive in their school, voting for green policy makers when they grow up, all of that comes naturally to them. They need wild spaces to meander in, to fuel their imagination, and well-meaning adults who can walk with them on these nature trails for a bit at least.
Could you share with us a little bit about the amazing cover and working with Jo Hunt, and also working with your editor on Across the Risen Sea?
Bren: This is the third book cover Jo Hunt has done for me, and I adore them. She reads the books and creates the art just perfectly. Input from me would be irrelevant. She’s the expert. I love the two-tone layered images. Internally, she has little black outline images for chapter ends as well.
You also have amazing cover illustrations and chapter header illustrations. So gorgeous! I love the hugging of the ancient tree and its roots reaching down into the city and above all the hornbill perched in the tree. I spent three days trekking in a jungle in Malaysia with just four packets of two-minute noodles trying to see a hornbill, so to me this is a very rare and exotic bird that just lives at Savi’s school! Amazing! Who made them for you?
Bijal: Rajiv Eipe’s a genius! He worked very closely with Nimmy Chacko, my editor, on the cover. He made tonnes of iterations – Tree’s many avatars in purple and pink, and yellow, and green, 42 plants and Bekku the cat, a wasp singing Figaro to the ficus. For me, the cover represents the way end up othering green spaces especially in cities, yet offering hope in the form of Tree and their companions. I love the symbiotic chapter headers, where Rajiv gives voice to tree rings, wasps and earthworms in his own wondrous way.
Like me, you won’t be able to put Bren’s book down, and really no regrets on being a little late for that meeting the next day.
Bren: Thanks Bijal! I always feel like scientists can talk about how important trees are but for people to really comprehend what it means, we need to put it into story, show how it affects individuals. Stories have been handed down and kept humans safe since the beginning of time. We are the descendants of people who listened to story-tellers and I thank you for this story of Savi and the Memory Keeper.
Bren MacDibble lives in a national park right on the beautiful Indian Ocean in Western Australia. Her adventure novels for children set in futures affected by environmental issues have won multiple awards, including Across the Risen Sea and her next book, The Raven Song, written with Zana Fraillon, which will be published in Aus/NZ/UK late in 2022. Bren also writes for young adults as Cally Black.
When Bijal Vachharajani is not reading a children’s book, she is writing or editing one. Her books are about all things green and blue, including Savi and the Memory Keeper and A Cloud Called Bhura, which won the AutHer award in 2020. She is usually found talking to a tree or worrying about the climate crisis.