School visits: bonus time


September 18, 2014 by Lydia Syson

There’s something particularly satisfying about reading creative work that’s been produced by students after a school visit.  Last summer I went to talk to a group of Year 9 girls at Streatham and Clapham High School, who were – most impressively – finding out about the Spanish Civil War in Spanish.  I thought it was such an imaginative approach to learning a language, and it was fantastic to meet students so engaged with the history and culture of Spain.  Fortunately for me, I didn’t have to give my talk in Spanish. Even better, the project led to some wonderful pieces of writing in English, the best of which – by Anna and Lulu – you can read below.  Congratulations to both writers!

I’ll be back at the school soon, taking part in STREAM 2014, the new South London Book Festival, which Malorie Blackman opens on Saturday 8th November.  It’s an unmissable opportunity, open to all, to come and see a truly unbelievable range of great authors, including many of my fellow CWISL writers and illustrators, with something for readers and writers of every age. Best of all, nearly all the sessions are free. But you do need to book, and the sooner the better.  I’ll be taking part in a panel event from 1-2pm: Fiction, War and Conflict, with Anna Perera (Guantanamo Boy and The Glass Collector) and David Massey (Taken and Torn), hosted by Guardian journalist, Ian Cobain. 


Anna and Lulu’s evocative diary entries imagine life immediately after the end of the Spanish Civil War. The elected Republican government had been defeated by Nationalist rebels, and the country was under the repressive dictatorship of General Franco.  Interestingly, both young writers have chosen the perspective of teenagers living in regions which have continued to seek autonomy from Spain ever since.  Anna’s story is set in the Basque country; Lulu’s in Catalonia. I think their writing shows a real grasp of the impact of the war on ordinary families, so many of whom were left divided for generations, and are still trying to find out the truth about what happened to relatives who died during the war.

This postcard shows the Basque town of Elorrio as it was in the early 1930s, before the outbreak of the war.

This postcard shows the Basque town of Elorrio as it was in the early 1930s, before the outbreak of the war.

El diez de mayo, 1939

The Civil War is finally over! My family and I were able to return to Elorrio from where we had fled during the war. However, we still cannot speak our language or eat our delicacies; Franco is determined to make sure we are Spanish; just Spanish. It is like being rid of our identities. But my father does not believe in Franco’s ideals. We have friends who own the panadería and carnicería and they smuggle food to us.  Every Friday night we have a Basque dinner and speak our own language. We cannot tell anyone though; I’m not even allowed to tell my friends, Pa says Franco has spies everywhere.

Our small town seems even smaller now. Some will never return; they are still in hiding somewhere in the south, some fled to Switzerland and France. But Pa says we are safest here; with our families. My grandma says a storm is coming, that the Germans are plotting a war, but nobody really listens to her. I cannot imagine another war, not after the one that has just passed. At night I pray for those who remain in Guernica, we had cousins living there; I had never met them but my father wept the night the news spread around the town, I didn’t have to ask whether they made it or not. It was the first time I had seen him cry since Ma.

Now we have to continue with our lives, the same as before. But I don’t think it will ever be the same, at least not in my lifetime. Maybe one day people here will be happy, children skipping in the streets and talking in Basque. I can only pray that for the people of Elorrio.  Of course I am relieved the war is over, too many of our people died, too many of our friends… however, in some ways, it feels as though it will never stop: the discrimination, the rules, and the secrets…the fear.


Bomb damage in Barcelona, 1938

Bomb damage in Barcelona, 1938


1st April 1939

Dear diary,

I cannot believe that Franco has won the war, this is tragic. He leads a dictatorship which means that there are no elections and we have little freedom. I wish to flee Barcelona and go to England. My family has been torn apart, my family and my mother’s family were part of ‘el frente popular’ against Franco but my dad’s family were supporting ‘el frente nacional’ with Franco.

Before the war started there were disagreements in my family between who supported who but never arguments. However, now my family won’t speak to my father’s family or even mention any of their names. I am so upset my grandma on my dad’s side was so nice and caring but when war broke out her character changed completely now she is very strict and mean but I guess it doesn’t matter now because I will probably never see her again.

My best friend Maria’s family support Franco so I have not seen her since the war started. I am so upset, I cry every night. My whole world has been destroyed. School has turned from a friendly and safe place to a place I dread going to every morning. All the teachers who were against Franco have been fired and new teachers have been employed who are mean and strict.

If I had a chance I would escape Spain but there is no chance in that happening because the borders are monitored very carefully. If I was caught trying to escape Spain I would probably be sent to prison.

Tomorrow is my cousin’s funeral from my mum’s side; he died fighting against Franco, so my dad’s family will not be attending. He does not get a proper funeral at the church because the church was with Franco, so they will not permit any opposing soldiers to have a funeral there which is very sad. We are going to visit the hospital were his body is to pay our respects, but then his body has to be taken away; my aunt and uncle are distraught.


Find out more about my school visits here, and do contact me (lydia.syson@hotkeybooks.comif you’d like to book me to come to your school or any other event.



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“A mesmerising portrait of a family unravelling” THE TIMES (Best historical fiction in 2018)

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“This tense, evocative, richly-imagined novel conjures the voices of a strange time and place, and makes them universal” EMMA DARWIN

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