You’ve had an amazing and varied career, including supporting Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, what brought you to writing for children?
My inspiration to write my middle-grade novel, Songbird, came from the courage and resilience I saw in my Iraqi and Syrian students. Since 2013, I have been working at an intensive English language school for kids who have recently arrived in Australia since 2013. Most of my students come from refugee backgrounds.
Jamila, the main character in Songbird, came to me fully formed – her experiences reflect many of the same struggles as my students who, alongside their family members, have been forced to leave their home countries. I have been stunned by their warmth and hope and buoyancy, despite the challenges they face and the experiences they have had. I wanted to write a story that these children and others like them could connect to.
Why did you feel it was important to tell the story of Jamila and her family?
Jamila’s character and story kept popping up in my head insistently, so I set aside the adult novel I was working on at the time and focused completely on writing Songbird.
My teaching experience has given me the unique opportunity to build relationships with young people who have experienced trauma and who are adapting to unfamiliar circumstances. I’ve spent time with each of my students individually, helping them to edit and re-draft their life stories which focus on why and how they came to Australia, saying goodbye to their families and homes, and what their lives are like now. My students are amazing and I wanted to share their voices with the wider world.
What do you hope that young readers will take away from Songbird?
I hope readers of Songbird will better understand the challenges faced by children from refugee backgrounds. I also hope that Jamila’s story will teach young children to be tolerant and kind to people with different backgrounds from their own. With this book, I wanted to share the message that the bravest and smartest thing you can do is to be kind. Always, be kind.
I also wanted to write a book for younger readers who have faced similar experiences to Jamila. I hope when they pick up Songbird, they feel as though they’re not alone in the challenges they face.
Songbird is a book about family, community and belonging. What do these things mean to you?
I am very fortunate to be part of a rich and varied community, made up of old and new friends, fellow authors, teaching colleagues, my publishing team, neighbours and the friendly staff at my local café.
Feeling like I belong in my community means everything to me, especially as I am such a people person. I need to talk and laugh with other people every day to feel connected.
My immediate family is pivotal to my daily life. I have my husband and daughter, my mum, my beloved brothers, my dad and my hilarious stepmother.
Parents are always asking us for book recommendations, can you share with us some of the children’s books that have made an impact on your life?
Of course! Zana Fraillon’s The Bone Sparrow is incredible. I adore Morris Gleitzman, especially his Once, Then, Now, After, Soon series. Other favourites include Fish Boy by Chloe Daykin, Molly and Pim and the Millions of Stars by Martine Murray, Lenny’s Book of Everything by Karen Foxlee and Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead.
Ingrid Laguna is a writer, teacher and musician. She lives in Melbourne and teaches English to children and adults from all over the world, many of whom have refugee backgrounds. Songbird is her first book for children.