Extract from Rafi Brown and the Candy Floss Kid: A Novel for 9-12 Year Olds
Overview: Rafi Brown, a dyslexic but gifted cartoonist, finally escapes his vindictive Year Six teacher, ‘Horrible Hegarty' and bunks off school with the Candy Floss Kid, a mysterious girl he's met in Didsbury Park. On the second day of their adventures, she takes him to the Manchester People's History Museum, to meet her ‘friend', the suffragette, Hannah Mitchell, but Rafi is drawn to the newly opened exhibition: Origins of the Russian Revolution .
She's talking to a model, I thought. How can this be her friend? Is she really dippy? Suddenly, the penny dropped. The people I drew in my cartoons were just as real to me as Hannah Mitchell was to her.
‘Hi,' I said, ‘pleased to meet you.'
‘She's glad you came. You marching to the town hall with a petition today, Hannah?'
Leaning closer, Candy Floss turned her head as if she was listening to someone talking, then she pointed to a folded piece of paper on another chair.
‘There's a hundred signatures on that paper from all the women who live round here.' She stood up straight, clenched her fist, lifting it in the air and shouted, ‘Votes for Women.'
‘Sh...sh,' I said, as someone walked past with two little kids, staring goggle-eyed, ‘everyone will hear you.'
‘They should be glad,' Candy Floss cried. ‘Glad I care about it.' Keeping her eyes on Hannah Mitchell, she lowered her voice, ‘Rafi, I've something private to ask Hannah. Do you think you could go to that exhibition or whatever, and I'll meet you later?'
Now I was really curious. But I couldn't hang about if she didn't want me there, so I said, ‘OK, see you at the Russian Revolution.'
I ran up the stairs to the Russian Revolution and swung open the door. Awesome! Pictures, photographs, displays filled the walls. The noise was stupendous- shouting, talking, even singing in Russian. But the far wall was transformed into a screen with an old black white film playing. I stared at it, mesmerized . Hundreds of people marched along a road, singing loudly and carrying flags and banners, but slamming straight into a load of Russian soldiers on horseback. Guns cracked, people screamed – then they keeled over, dead.
It happened again and again.
Wow. This was seriously heavy stuff and I knew only what Grandpa had told us at the weekend. Starting at the beginning, I looked at the wall on my left, and you wouldn't believe what I saw - that picture he'd given me of the Moscow printers on strike. Beneath was a yellowy photo of two kids, a boy with a flat black hat and a girl, wearing a long skirt, both holding small blocks in their hands. Their feet were bare and there was snow on the ground. They were stringy thin and I bet they hardly got any money.
It said : Apprentice printers: Ivan, 12 Elisaveta, 11 Moscow, 1905
It could have been me and Candy Floss. I knew about kids in factories; I didn't realise there'd been people all over the world, only eleven and twelve, all workers just like them . Maybe there were kids working like this right now. What were Elisaveta and Ivan holding? Was it a Russian letter? No, it had to be a comma, or a question mark.
Punctuation marks, I thought, sitting down on a bench, they were seriously bad news for kids. If you forgot them, like me, you were in deep trouble. If you used them in your work and didn't get paid, you had to strike, and that was incredibly dangerous. 309
Maybe I'd understand it better, if I went round the rest of the exhibition? The Tsar was up there, incredibly rich and powerful, killing anyone he didn't like. Like Grandpa had said, there were serfs, billions of them and their lives were terrible. But there were also people trying to change all that, which seemed OK to me. Except loads and loads were imprisoned, or stuck in dungeons, or died in Siberian mines. The Russian Revolution didn't happen until ages after Elisaveta and Ivan were grown up. So it didn't help them.
What could I do?
I knew. Back on the bench, I took out my diary and began to draw a new story where everything would be all right. First, a boy and a girl, Ivan and Elisaveta. The bubble from his mouth said: we work for ours and ours . The bubble from hers said , Im hungry.
Next, a giant question mark with a beaky nose, zooming from Ivan's hand, with a bubble saying, why didnt they py you for us? Then, an enormous full stop, with buttons eyes, bursting from Elisaveta's hands and the bubble saying: they dont py for everthing, onl leters
‘ Cool,' said a voice behind me. ‘Even fantastically cool.'
Candy Floss sat next to me and pointed to the diary, ‘Is it full of drawings like this?'
‘A few,' I said.
I drew Elisaveta and Ivan marching along a road. Question marks, full stops, and commas, all with arms and legs, marched too.
‘What's going to happen?'
‘Not sure yet,' I said. ‘But it's going to be better – hugely, awesomely better...
I wrote Rafi Brown and the Candy Floss Kid, for an MA in Writing Children's Fiction at MMU (2005). Since then, I've radically altered the plot and done innumerable editorial rewrites, but this pivotal chapter in which Rafi and Candy Floss visit the People's History Museum has remained unchanged.
Having discovered Jacqueline's Wilson's wonderful books at MMU, I wanted to write about a boy with reading and writing problems, who has creative abilities unrecognized by teachers. I've known lots of boys who hate school but love history, and sports, and drawing cartoons, so Rafi was there immediately. Candy Floss ‘appeared' in Didsbury Park, and wouldn't go away. The experience of child carers has always intrigued me, perhaps because I've had a child with profound disabilities. Candy Floss also provides an energy and balance needed in a children's book.
On reflection, I see that the museum chapter evokes my childhood in Manchester, and my family history - grandparents, Russian, Jewish anarchists, parents, committed socialists, sometime fellow travellers. It recalls Labour Party meetings held in our front room; Left Book Club books filling our revolving bookcase, particularly one called, The Town that was Murdered, (about Jarrow), terrifying and mysterious to an eight year old. I see our annual visit to The Daily Worker Bazaar at the Free Trade Hall where we buy books printed in Moscow, on thick whitish paper. I still hear that great voice rolling out, Nobody knows the Trouble I've seen at the 'Free Paul Robeson' meeting in the Lesser Free Trade Hall. Imbued with socialism, at thirteen I become a member of Manchester Unity Theatre, taking The Rochdale Pioneers even to T'owd Lane, the very place where it all started.
It isn't about nostalgia, however. In the end, I didn't become political like my family; I took a different direction - spiritual, religious, hopefully, creative. Rafi draws a fantastic cartoon story which helps him overcome dyslexia, but must return to school to face Horrible Hegarty, and actually ‘saves' her. Candy Floss can't find real support from a model. When the welfare officers threaten to prosecute her mother with M.E. it's Rafi and his mum who find solutions for them.
Yet my family story insists on being told! These themes had appeared in previous books: in Babyday , a concept novel for adults, as a search for identity; in Mayvli and the Mysterious Machine , a fantasy/historical novel for children, set in an East End sweat shop. Punctuation mark characters (!) help Mayvli save her brother, sent to Siberia for his part in the printer's strike, from the mines. I've been trying to write the story of my Russian grandmother for ten years. Tragic, even harrowing, as many family stories are, I couldn't contemplate it, until last year, I suddenly found a way in. Its first chapter will soon appear in Migration Stories , Crocus Press.