Books

Lemn Sissay: 'It has been a hard journey at times, but it has also been a great one'

The poet's beautiful new children's book, Don't Ask the Dragon, draws on themes from his own difficult past to create a story of hope, fortitude, and the search for home.

Photo: Camera Press /Nick Gregan

There are many strings to the bow of Lemn Sissay OBE. Poet, playwright, novelist, memoirist, radio broadcaster, documentary maker, public speaker, Chancellor of the University of Manchester. Now, as he approaches his 55th birthday, he’s added another: children’s writer.

His debut children’s book, Don’t Ask The Dragon, created in collaboration with rising illustration star Greg Stobbs, is a lovely read as we might expect. Across 15 beautifully illustrated pages, Sissay – not for the first time – explores themes of belonging, finding our place in the world, acceptance and concepts of home…

The Big Issue: Another string to your bow, Lemn?

Lemn Sissay: Most poets do lots of other things with the written word. Simon Armitage will have his poems on the sides of stones, Kae Tempest has poems in plays, poems with music, poems as themselves, poetry in novels. It is how we roll, you know? It’s the writers’ life. This is part of my body of work and I’m proud of it. And the fact it’s so late – I’ve been around for a while – shows how difficult it is.

I found the most difficult days to be my birthday and Christmas because they were a reminder of everything I never had

Lemn Sissay

And some of the themes remain the same…

Themes work across all the different forms – whether it’s a novel, a memoir, a play. And they are universal. My story may be very specific, but the themes of home, of search, of resolve, and the emotions entwined inside those themes and journeys that happen because of those themes are pretty universal. Which is a joy, actually. I’m connecting the dots – this is the first interview I’ve done for the book.

What made you want to write this book, for this audience, at this time?

I really wanted to write a book that was fun but that was honestly about a child who had an experience like I had. This is not going to help sell the book, but I’m going to tell you – it’s about a child who has no birthday or no family there on his birthday. 

Those could be quite heavy themes for young children.

So how do you still make it fun, still be a journey? I wanted to be able to say that actually, this experience is a beautiful one of finding what is important in life outside of family. Gosh, now I’m deconstructing it! But it is true. It is a boy, it is his birthday and he has got nowhere to go. Without being morbid, that is me. I found the most difficult days to be my birthday and Christmas because they were a reminder of everything I never had. And that was way into my adult life as well – so I am not just looking back and patronising my childhood. But I am ok. It has been a hard journey at times, but it has also been a great one. So how can I get this boy from lost to joy?

How did you and illustrator Greg Stobbs find each other?

We are good friends now. He was the illustrator for a show I did called Warrior Poets, and did one picture called Many Homes. I’m getting goose pimples thinking about it. When I saw it, I just thought: this is my area – kid in care, blah blah blah – and he knows. Whether he experienced it or not, he is a listener, an artist. I could not have imagined that image, but can never forget it now. The illustrator makes the magic happen. Sometimes I think the words get in the way of the poetry of the piece. 

I finally stopped smoking five weeks ago. My biggest fear was sitting down with young people and being a smoker. I didn’t want to be stinky poet.

Lemn Sissay

Are you excited to join the canon of children’s authors?

I think children’s authors are the most rock’n’roll of all of the writers. I’ve seen the poets – I have a series on Radio 4 at the moment about rebel poets. I’ve seen the serious-minded novelists who lock themselves away and only come out when the book’s published. And I’ve also seen children’s authors. I’m talking about Jacqueline Wilson, Michael Morpurgo, Michael Rosen, Mallory Blackman. They are changing ideas and introducing new ideas about what it is to be a child. The days of Enid Blyton are long gone – although I loved her books and read them all. They’re the real rock’n’roll stars of literature. 

Are you enjoying connecting with the young readers?

They are the hardest audience – they say what they think and they think what they say. And there is something beautiful about that. But brother, I gotta tell you this, my biggest fear was standing up in front of those young people or sitting down with those young people and being a smoker. It was something I was losing sleep over. So I finally stopped smoking five weeks ago. I’m so happy. I’d been smoking since I went into care at 11 years of age – and it’s all connected. They allowed us to smoke in the children’s homes. They encouraged us. I would have hated myself and felt like I would be doing a bad job for those young people if I was entering their school stinking of cigarettes. I genuinely did feel super self conscious. I didn’t want to be stinky poet! This is definitely it. And it feels good. Now I know I can walk confidently into that room.

So what’s next?

Roughs of this book are going to be exhibited at the Foundling Museum in London as part of an exhibition that I was the inspiration for called Comics, Origins and Superheroes. It will include illustrators from around the world who are adopted, orphaned or were in children’s homes. Because Superman was an adopted child himself. 

And I recently found out that they are going to continue the Lemn Sissay Law Bursary after I leave as chancellor of the University of Manchester in July. It’s about widening opportunity to people who otherwise wouldn’t have it, getting more Black people into law. They will become solicitors and barristers – and that will save lives. I’m so honoured to have my name on it – because Black Lawyers Matter.

You can buy Don’t Ask The Dragon from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach local your vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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