Interfaith couples often face the daunting prospect of choosing what belief system – or systems – to pass on to their children. But there’s a simple solution, writes the mixed-heritage author and mother-of-two Sibel Beadle: let kids decide for themselves.
By Sibel Beadle
I grew up in a half-Christian, half-Muslim family. Unlike many youngsters, I had the rare privilege of choosing my own belief system. I’m extraordinarily grateful to my parents for this choice.
I have duly given my own children the same freedom; my two daughters have and remain at liberty to choose their own religion. Since they were little, I have frequently reminded them that they can be Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, or any other religion. By definition, they’re also at liberty to shun religion entirely should they so wish.
I am also half-Swiss and half-Turkish, but also do not expect them to associate themselves with my ethnic background. My kids are free to call themselves British and to take on British values, or to describe their heritage in any way they see fit.
But whilst choice is a wonderful thing, it can (and invariably will) pose its own unique challenges.
Mixed relationships can bring about many uncertainties in children about their loyalties, their ethnic identity, their religious identity, what group to choose, their beliefs and many other confusions. The most important thing in helping a child deal with these issues is, in my experience, to open a dialogue with them at a young age. However, many kids would struggle to start a discussion about these complex issues without help.
I find it easier to talk to children about these complex issues when you can give them an example. My style of discussing these topics with my children has been through my stories. I created a series of children’s books called Witchy Travel Tales in which one of the characters, Mimi, is half-cat and half-human.
In my latest book “Nessie’s Husband”, Mimi is struggling to fit in school and she suffers from an identity crisis. She is struggling with being half-cat. She wants to become invisible and hide from the school bullies. Her mother, Miranda, is a witch and takes her on a magical trip to Scotland to look for the Loch Ness Monster – the master of remaining invisible. It’s on this adventure where they end up finding Nessie’s Husband. The story is fun, but touches on many difficult subjects about a child’s feelings. Whenever I read this book to children in primary school, we end up having a lovely discussion afterwards about Mimi, her experience, her identity and how she sees herself and how others see her. Once the discussion is going many kids start volunteering to talk about their own experiences, their own problems, their identity, their issues with other kids, occasions where they wished to be invisible. Talking about Mimi and discussing her problems opens the way for them to think and talk about themselves.
Getting a child to talk is the first part of the equation. However, I believe that there is an important second part, too: the attitude of the parent. In my book, Mimi is having an identity crisis and opens up and tells her mother that she wishes to be like the other kids and secretly wishes for her mother and her sisters to be invisible. Miranda is a very kind and understanding mother. She doesn’t get at all upset about her daughter’s statement, she laughs it off and tells her that “All children at some point in their life wish for their mother to disappear.”
The one big issue in having a dialogue with a child is unfortunately that a parent might not like what they hear. Worse, some parents might even get angry. Parents of different religions or different ethnicity deep inside might prefer that the child associates with their own background rather than their partner’s background. Or an immigrant family’s children who are growing up in Britain may choose to be British. Some migrant families might find hard if the child wants to take on the values of the host country.
The important thing to remember is that a child’s choice is not a rejection of you as a person. Therefore, if parents decide to give their children this intellectual freedom, they must work on their own emotions and sensitivities in order to ensure that they do not overreact to a child, to ensure that a child from a mix background can explore his or her own identity without having to walk on eggshells and choose their own path and identity with confidence.
Witchy Travel Tales 4: Nessie’s Husband is available now from Amazon.co.uk, priced £6.99 in paperback and £4 in Kindle edition. For further information about the series, go to www.witchytraveltales.com.
This Week’s Q&A… Sibel Beadle
SWNS grabs five minutes with the children’s author Sibel Beadle to chat more about Nessie’s Husband, her new book and the inspiration behind it.
Q: Nessie’s Husband (out now) stresses the importance of discussing problems rather than bottling them up. How do you hope your book can help parents/carers work through any issues that their child might be having?
A: I am a firm believer that having an open dialogue with your children is an important ingredient of their emotional health. It is not always easy to get a child to talk. I often used my stories to start a dialogue with my own kids. When my kids were young, I found that my kids found it easier to talk about someone else’s problems and once we discussed the story, this eased the way to a conversation about their own problems. Nessie’s husband touches a lot of sensitive subjects. Parents could start a discussion by talking about Mimi and once the conversation is going explore their own child’s thoughts.
Q: One of the themes of your latest book is that of being a ‘good father’. Why was this theme important to you and would you say that this would be a good book for fathers to read with their children?
A: Being a good parent is important to me. I often ask my own kids about my parenting style and ask them what they like or dislike about me as a parent. I also ask them to give me examples of things other parents do well, and they would like me to replicate or things they want me to change about myself. I believe this is a very healthy conversation for a parent to have with their children. Nessie’s husband gives the perfect opportunity for a dad who is reading the book to his child, to open a conversation about parenting and what their child expects from them. You might be surprised what great feedback you will receive. And don’t be afraid to volunteer areas where you think you didn’t do so well. It will just help your child to open up and confess to you their deeper emotions. Sometimes my children tell me things I did wrong. I listen to them carefully and make sure they tell me every detail so that I understand exactly what the problem was. When they finish, I apologise, and I make a great effort not to repeat the mistake. If a similar situation arises, I remind them of our conversation and ask if I did better on this occasion. I believe that it is important for a parent to apologize. No matter how hard we try, we all make mistakes. If we make a mistake with an adult we apologize, I think it is equally important to apologize from a child.
Q: Do you think the Witchy Travel Tales series has a unisex appeal, despite the all-female cast of central characters?
A: I have been to hundreds of schools to read my books and when I read my stories boys seem to love them as much as girls do. In my observation, boys tend to like the half-cat, half-human daughter of the witch, because she is exciting. They also like Kai, the animal lover and animal healer. In addition, they tend to like Richard, the magical bunny in the story. I think it sometime the parents who think that boys need books with boys as main characters, I do not think and haven’t observed that young children have such a bias.
Q: The travel element is an important theme to the books – do you visit all the places in the stories before writing about them, and are there any dream destinations that you would like to visit for inspiration?
I love travelling and I don’t think I will live long enough to see all the beautiful places in the world I would love to see.
Regarding the setting of the first four books, these are all in England: the Seven Sister Cliffs, Stonehenge, the Lake District, and Loch Lomond. It wasn’t difficult to pick these four, since they are absolutely magical places. I visit places when my kids are with their dad, in order to overcome the emptiness when they are not around. If I fall in love with a place, I take my kids and go on a road trips with them to these magical places. My kids love going on road trips and if I can I also take one of their friends with us to make it even more special for them. So far, I have visited every place I have written about. However, in my fifth book (forthcoming) I am writing about the redwood forest in America, a place I would love to visit but never been. I watched a lot of documentaries about the place in order to be able to visualize the setting.
Q: The illustrations featured in your Witchy Travel Tales series seem the perfect fit for the books. Was it hard to find the right illustrator for the stories, and how much input do you have into the artwork?
A: Fernando and I work seamlessly together and for each illustration I do write notes on how I see things or send him photos of things that would help him. The beauty is though that Fernando can see the world through my eyes. When we first started working together, I invited him several times to my home, to help him understand my world and once we went on a road trip together with my two daughters. We went to the Lake District because, because I wanted him to see the Lake District through my eyes, before illustrating it for my 3rd book “The Golden Bunny of the Lake District.”
Finding the right illustrator was extremely difficult. I had this vision that I wanted a very stylish book, with illustrations that looked like German expressionist art. I wanted very few colours. I wanted ideally just one colour per book. I strongly disliked Disney illustrations and was searching for something completely new. I searched via the internet for about 6 months. Contacted hundreds of illustrators and didn’t like any of the samples they draw for me. One day, while I was still working as a banker, my best friend at work suggested that we walk to Spitalfields market and Brick Lane over lunch break and ask every artsy person we encounter whether they could recommend us an illustrator. We started searching and talked to many people, asking them to email me sample illustrations. It started raining and I didn’t really think we will manage to find anybody, so I told my friend that I needed to get back to the office. My friend said, he will search on behalf of me a bit longer. After I left, he apparently went into an art supply shop and asked the young man working there if he knows any children’s book illustrators. The young man, a Spanish artist called Fernando Arias, told him that he could give it a shot and took down my email address. I received Fernando’s email and told him the scene I want him to illustrate. We agreed to meet two weeks later for me to see the sample and when Fernando pulled out his black and white illustration I instantly fell in love with his style.
Q: Miranda the witch and her children are an immigrant family. Why was as it important to you to tell the stories from the perspective of ‘outsiders’?
A: There are many immigrants everywhere in the world and I do not think they are many books that tell a story from their perspective. I wanted to close that gap.
Q: Have the characters and stories in the books been influenced by your own children and their experiences?
A: Yes, of course. I take a lot of inspiration of my environment and my children.
Q: What other children’s authors do you admire, and for what reasons?
A: I admire J.K Rowling, because I love her stories.
Q: What does 2019 have in store for you and the Witchy Travel Tales series?
A: I am working on my fifth story, titled “The Magical Tree”. It is about one of the witch’s daughters who becomes sick and spends time in the hospital. Her sisters want to help her, and they learn about a magical tree that can help a child to meditate. The book is playful story with elves and magic and adventure, but in the heart of the story it tries to inspire children to meditate to overcome difficult times. The story is set in the redwood forest in America.
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