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The Rock Boy

'I have visited the Mediterranean island of Malta ever since my parents moved there, some forty years ago. I love the island’s quirkiness, its rich history and buildings, its country walks, and swimming from rocks into the sea.

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The language is semitic, so even though the island is Catholic, God is ‘Alla’, pronounced as ‘Allah’. That’s because the island was first inhabited by Phoenicians who came from present-day Syria, and was later governed by the Arabs; and now Syrians are one of the largest groups of people fleeing their country because of war. Another large group of refugees is from Albania; they have been escaping since the 1990s; children are still today being trafficked into western Europe.

When I wrote The Rock Boy, many Albanians were fleeing their country, coming across the Mediterranean and landing in southern Italy and Malta. In The Rock Boy, I write about one boy called Artan, who is discovered washed up in a rocky cove by young Jo. He is battered and bruised and barely conscious. Jo, along with her friend Andreas, shelters him, feeds him – and hides him from her family, and from the police. Eventually, her family does find out. Fortunately, through sponsorship, he is allowed to stay.

I didn’t set out to write a book about boat refugees, but that’s how it turned out. As I started the story of Jo and her adventures, I was reading in the local paper about the refugees arriving in Malta by boat; I went to see the woman who had opened the refugee centre, and what I heard from her, and went on reading about, became the major part of Jo’s story. Malta is a small island and pretty crowded, and I was impressed by the Maltese kindness and generosity to the desperate people arriving on their shores from Albania, and now, more recently, also from Syria, Libya and Eritrea. I knew though that not everyone feels so welcoming, and that’s why Jo shelters a refugee in secret.

At the same time, in a British newspaper I read about two boys who escaped from political thugs in Kashmir by stowing away over the wheel casing of an aeroplane. When it landed at Cairo airport, the older one had frozen to death on top of his brother and had to be peeled off. But his protection had saved the life of his younger brother. Their story burrowed its way into my mind, too, and that younger brother somehow merged into an Albanian boy I call Artan. Whenever I read or hear of such stories, I think of the hospitality, always warm and generous, in the many countries in which I have lived and visited. I think of the kindness of strangers and hope that I, too, if called upon, would be as warm and welcoming as they.

Award-winning composer Camille van Lunen made a children's opera in Germany of the book. Der Felsenjunge, which was successfully perfomed in Frankfurt, Bonn and Munich. I was thrilled to be at one of its sell-out performances.

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