It takes a borough to write a bookLeyton teacher Michael Mann on how Waltham Forest inspired his debut book, in bookstores today When I moved to Waltham Forest six years ago, I was a [...]
Leyton teacher Michael Mann on how Waltham Forest inspired his debut book, in bookstores today
When I moved to Waltham Forest six years ago, I was a primary school teacher first and foremost and more of an enthusiastic hobbyist when it came to writing. Little by little, however, as I wrote in my Leyton attic, it appears something of the drive and creativity of my new home started to rub off on me.
Ghostcloud, my debut novel for ages eight and up, hits bookstores today and is a story I couldn’t have written without the schoolchildren, green spaces and skyline of this borough.
It’s a teacherly cliche to say our students teach us just as much as we teach them but, when you want to write books for children, it becomes even more true. I’ve taught at two fantastic local primary schools – Newport Primary School in Leyton and St Mary’s CofE Primary School in Walthamstow – since moving here and my pupils were invaluable in showing me how to keep kids engaged.
More importantly though, it made me realise how few popular books for children, especially those with magic and adventure, feature heroes that reflect the diversity of our corner of London. Like myself and many of my students, my protagonist is mixed-race and can sometimes like he doesn’t quite belong. I wanted to make sure the children I owe so much to know they can be the hero too.
But it’s not just the human world of Waltham Forest that began to seep into the story I wrote. Whenever I felt stuck, I would walk or cycle through Walthamstow Marshes and along the canal because it felt like escaping from the city. I ended up setting Ghostcloud in an east London slightly different from our own, where the river has flooded, forcing people to live on boats just like those I rode past. It’s a more wet and wild version of London, overgrown with the ivy and bindweed I saw on canal paths, as if our marshes had eclipsed the urban sprawl.
Perhaps the story’s biggest debt, however, is owed to the Leyton skyline and the sunsets from the bridge over Leyton Tube station, some of the finest in the country. During the height of the pandemic, I was struck by how, no matter what we lost, nobody could ever take the sky away. Fantastic, vivid orange creations seem to cluster over the velodrome, contorting into weird and wonderful shapes, before fading into a dusky blue night. The central conceit of Ghostcloud is that such shapes are in fact ghosts, watching us back and, in the book, my hero Luke Smith-Sharma discovers this mysterious world above. The book’s scenes in the sky were some of my favourites to write and nearly all were inspired by those Leyton views.
My hope is that the children who read Ghostcloud will look at the sky a little differently. There’s a whole world up there, waiting to be discovered, provided you’re prepared to stop and look.
Ghostcloud can be purchased in local bookshops and online at Waterstones, Amazon and bookshop.org from 7th October. Signed copies with bookmarks can be found in Phlox on Francis Road Leyton, Waterstones in Walthamstow and Foyles in Stratford.
Find Michael on twitter @mikebmann, Instagram @mikemannwrites or his website www.michaelmann.co.uk