WE ARE FAMILY: An interview with Oli Sykes

WE ARE FAMILY: An interview with Oli Sykes

We Are Family, a beautiful collection of poems by Oli Sykes, is one of my standout books of 2024. It’s a moving, funny, and touching tribute to Oli’s father, and is strikingly illustrated by Ian Morris. It’s a thrill to welcome Oli into The Reading Realm to talk about this book!

Before we sit down in The Reading Realm and talk about your new book, what’s your drink and snack of choice?

Thanks so much for having me in The Reading Realm. I can’t wait to get started! Before we begin, I’ll have a big cup of English breakfast tea (milk, no sugar!), and I think I’ll treat myself to a chocolate hobnob!

    Without giving too much away, can you tell us about We Are Family, which is illustrated by Ian Morris?

    We Are Family is a poetry adventure for kids, like no other!

    You’ll get to meet my five siblings, our amazing super-dad and me, as we work together to pick up the pieces after our mum leaves the family unit. 

    Dad doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing, so we’re in for a rough ride with his disgusting nettle soup, peculiar pancakes, horrible home haircuts, punishing press-ups and scum in the bathtub!

    BUT there’s also the joy of boxing lessons with Dad, fun family outings, jokes and pranks – and storytelling round the fire. Not to mention a homemade birthday cake like no other!

    This is my real-life childhood – rough, tough but happy – and it’s spectacularly bought to life with Ian Morris’ glorious illustrations.

    Buy here!

    How is this book similar to your debut children’s novella, Alfie’s First Fight? How is it different?

    Alfie’s First Fight is similar to We Are Family in lots of ways.

    When I came to create the character, Alfie, I wanted to create a character that had experienced things that I’ve experienced myself.

    Like me, Alfie has a mum who leaves and never comes back.

    Like me, Alfie has a super-dad.

    Alfie and I also share boxing as a hobby.

    It’s a story that is inspired by my own personal experiences.

    But it is a work of fiction.

    Whereas, We Are Family is all about my real-life childhood and my real-life family.

    There are 58 poems in total, and I like to think that each poem gives the reader a tiny slice of what life was really like for my family and me, back then.

    What was the writing process like for We Are Family? Were the poems written in order, for example?

    I can’t remember exactly how or when it all started. I was probably out for a run in the park when a funny idea or a good rhyming couplet fell from a tree or a cloud and lodged itself inside my head. That’s usually how ideas for poems come to me – without warning! – whilst doing anything but sitting down to write!

    I remember I began writing these poems for my partner, Gwen. It was early 2020, during Lockdown. She was working as a primary school teacher, looking after the children of fellow key workers, so these poems were a great way to relieve some stress, to be silly and to have some fun.

    After sharing the first 10 or so poems with her, and listening to her laugh at each one, I began to realise that themes and patterns were starting to emerge. I found that I was naturally drawn to my own childhood and that I had a knack for finding the funny side in some of the more difficult parts of it.

    That’s when I started to think of these poems as a collection for children today, which was a really big turning point. With austerity and the current cost of living crisis, unfortunately even larger numbers of children are experiencing the same financial hardships my family dealt with when my mum left.

    After I started thinking of these poems as a collection for children today, it gave me renewed focus and a greater urgency to create a collection that would make a difference to the lives of others. I hope that young readers will recognize something of their own lives in my poems, particularly children whose families may be struggling. I hope that in reading my poems they feel seen and less alone.

    There are some beautiful, moving poems in the book like ‘Strangers’ and ‘Forever Thankful’, but there are also some light-hearted, funny ones too. How difficult was it to find a balance between the lighter and darker moments in the story?

    Getting the balance between the lighter and darker moments in the story was more fun, than difficult. For me, it was just another part of the writing process.

    Having fun chapter headings (like ‘Meet The Family’ or ‘Dad’s Most Dangerous Dishes’) definitely helped because they allowed me to group the poems by theme.

    When it came to putting the poems in order from beginning to end, I read the collection over and over again, about 30 times, trying to put myself in the same frame of mind as a 7-11 year old reader, as well as trialling the order with test readers and audiences in schools and libraries.

    I’d make little notes for myself (i.e. is this bit too dark?, need another ‘Mum’ poem here, another funny poem needed?, etc.)

    Eventually, I sent my manuscript to Janetta Otter-Barry, who edited the collection thereafter. A few poems were dropped. New poems were written. It was a real team effort to get the order and the balance of the poems right, but I think we got there in the end.

    I thought the illustrations by Ian Morris were stunning! How did you feel when you saw them for the first time? Do you have a favourite one you can share with us?

    Whenever I see an illustration by Ian – whether it’s a rough sketch or a final piece of art – I feel the same way as you: stunned.

    Ian’s an incredible illustrator and a wonderful person, and I think we approach our work in the same way: with bags and bags of heart.

    My favourite illustration in the collection has got to be the one of my family all together on Pages 14-15. Seeing us all together like that really warms my heart.

    Your dad seems like a wonderful, strong, amazing man and that really shines through in the pages of this book. I wondered if he’d read We Are Family and what he thinks about it?

    Yes, my dad has read the book and he found it really touching.

    My amazing publicist, Sara Teiger, was keen to have Dad involved in the publicity campaign, so she sent him some questions (without me knowing)!

    Here are three questions, along with Dad’s answers, which I think give a good insight into how he feels about the whole thing:

    Q1) How does it feel to be called a Super-Dad?

    Oliver’s Dad: I’m not a Super-Dad, just a resilient, determined, tough man who wanted the very best for his children, as every parent should. A ‘providential-provider-Dad’ maybe?

    Q2) Looking back on that time, do you think you did something remarkable to take over the household and make it work, or did you just do what you had to do?

    Oliver’s Dad: I did my best to raise the children. I’m no Saint, but I am a devout Christian and my name is Christopher. And, like ‘Saint Christopher’ I just wanted to carry my children safely from ‘one side of the river to the other’, and ensure that they were well educated and self-reliant. 

    Q3) Do you think Oliver’s memories are ‘a bit off’ and it didn’t really happen like that? Is it artistic license? Or do you think it’s all pretty accurate? Did you really put baked beans in a cake?

    Oliver’s Dad: I reckon that the poems are quite factual on the whole. As regards the food, it was mainly rabbit stews, pancakes, and anything cheap I could ‘acquire’, usually food ‘going out of date.’ Cakes and deserts were a rarity in our household, but I think I once made a tortilla and ‘bulked it up’ with beans. I was adept at ‘cutting my cloth according to my material.’ 

    So, there you have it!

    What other children’s books have you enjoyed reading recently?

    Here are ten:

    • The Final Year by Matt Goodfellow
    • Stars With Flaming Tails by Valerie Bloom
    • When The Sky Falls by Phil Earle
    • Super-Dad’s Day Off by Phil Earle
    • The Truth of Things by Anthony McGowan
    • Lark by Anthony McGowan
    • Journey by Aaron Becker
    • A Long Walk To Water by Linda Sue Park
    • Funk Chickens by Benjamin Zephaniah
    • The Way of Dog by Zana Fraillon

    I’ve also just ordered my very own copy of Glitter Boy, and can’t wait to read it!

    Finally, can you describe We Are Family in three words?

    Hope. Joy. Love.

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