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stories behind 'the new neighbours'

My upcoming picture book, The New Neighbours, is set in a tower block. Tower blocks make for great drama in stories; everyone's living close together and has to get along... or not.

Pre-order a limited bookplate hardcover or paperback edition here!

In the block of flats where I live in London, we've had people living here who have come from all over the world: Portugal, Nigeria, Cameroon, China, Italy, Brazil, Germany, Ireland, Poland, South Africa, the United States (that's me). As a fellow immigrant, I love to find out where people used to live and hear their stories. But in the current anti-immigrant/Brexit climate, it's getting harder and harder to ask people, 'Where do you come from?' because people worry I might be judging them, or think I'm implying they don't belong here in Britain.

I remember a few years back in our hallway, hearing new neighbours speaking a foreign language and trying to pinpoint it. (I studied Russian, and I'm fascinated by the sounds of different languages.) When I asked them where they'd come from, they looked very uncomfortable and, at last, said "Romania". Happy that I now could identify the language, I said something like, "Oh, that's cool!" and the woman looked surprised. "People don't usually say that when we say we're Romanian," she said. "They think we're going to steal things." I felt gutted for her. (And they turned out to be good neighbours.) I had a British friend once tell me that when he hears an American accent, he immediately thinks the person must be at least 10% less intelligent than he did before they opened their mouth. That hurt.

The New Neighbours was inspired by this sort of encounter, although it's set in a world populated by animals, not people. In the story, the animals live in a seven-storey tower block and most of them know each other fairly well (and have had adventures together in an earlier comic book I made called Vern and Lettuce).

The picture book story kicks off when a pigeon brings news to the bunnies playing on the roof that new neighbours are moving in: rats! The bunnies are excited by anything new - perhaps new playmates! They hop their news downstairs to their big sister, Lettuce, who thinks they ought to go welcome the new arrivals. The bunnies and Lettuce go downstairs to share the news with their friend Vern (a bachelor sheep):

Vern's very fastidious and house-proud, and worries that rats might be untidy. So he's ready to give the new arrivals a polite little orientation session. But as they keep going downstairs and the news spreads about the new neighbours, it takes a darker and darker turn as neighbours add new worries. And as you can see from what the pigs say, there's a bit of hypocrisy going on, too.

By the time they've picked up everyone in the block of flats, the animals are filled with panic about the havoc they imagine these rats are going to bring: "RATS! BIG, DIRTY, SMELLY, THIEVING, DANGEROUS RATS have moved in downstairs and they are going to make the whole building collapse and bury us alive in RAT POO!". By the time they knock on the new neighbours' door, they've practically become a lynch mob. Do the rats turn out to be the scary monsters they've been built up to be? Well, that would mean spoilers, but I can say that the animals have let their imaginations run a bit wild.

Another inspiration for the book was a game I used to play as a child called 'Telephone'. We'd sit in a circle and someone would whisper a long-ish sentence into the ear of the person beside them. They'd need to turn to the person on their other side and whisper the same message to them, and so on, sending the message around the circle. The last person would tell us what they'd heard, and we'd all bust out laughing as the message had usually changed considerably. As I grew up, I saw how gossip could change a piece of news as it travelled from one person to the next; people so often jump on their favourite bits of the news item and exaggerate for dramatic effect, or people forget important bits, or they combine it with their own fears and interests to come up with something subtly different.

A third inspiration for The New Neighbours: my family had a big album of Norman Rockwell paintings and I used to spend ages staring at this 1948 picture called The Gossips. I was fascinated by everyone's expressions, how they took the news so differently: everything from outrage and anger to titillation and hilarity.

And the final inspiration was a pet rat that my babysitter neighbour gave my sister and me when we were kids, named Miss T. It was the sweetest little thing to hold, with a twitchy little nose and clean whiskers, and when we took it home, my dad went ballistic because he hates rats, and made us take it right back. We felt this was very unjust, because it wasn't any messier than, say, a hamster, which he might have let us keep. Growing up, I was fascinated by stories about clever rats, such as Mrs Frisby and The Rats of NIMH, and Flowers for Algernon. The animals in my book aren't direct parallels with people, of course; I'm not calling anyone a polar bear, a pig or a rat. It's just more fun for kids to imagine animal characters in human settings, and hopefully it makes the book a little funnier (seeing a sheep who likes to vacuum, a polar bear in a kitchen apron, yaks in bathrobes, etc).

I'm keeping my fingers crossed that kids will like this book just because it's about a bumbling group of animals all living together in an apartment block. But perhaps they will also think about prejudice, jumping to conclusions about people before they've met them or tried to get to know them. It's a story ultimately about healthy community and getting along, and the last picture in the book is one of hope and repaired relations. I hope this can happen on a wider scale in our country, too.

I've dedicated the book to a couple who live in our block of flats (they're German and English), and through years of living next to Stuart and me, have become great friends.

Okay, now the book part: Did you know that pre-orders really, really help me and booksellers? If lots of people pre-order a book, it boosts the numbers on the first day of sale, sends the book up in the sales chart figures, and gives the book a MUCH greater chance of being stocked by more shops and being a success. I'm hoping you'll order it from a bookshop! One independent bookshop in particular, Page 45 in Nottingham, has been incredibly supportive, making a whole special page for the book that I can link to. Its owner, Stephen Holland, told me that it's so much easier for them to gauge how many books to stock on publication day if people order them in advance. Plus, he's commissioned from me an exclusive bookplate(!) that he'll include with the first 100 pre-ordered copies of the book (hardcover or paperback). So if you think you might get this book, we'd be so grateful if you'd pre-order, before it comes out in the UK on 1 March! (Page 45 ship internationally.) You can also ask your library to stock it!

Pre-order the HARDCOVER book here - pre-order the PAPERBACK book here!

**EDIT: The book's out now! But the pre-order links still work** :)

'The New Neighbours', published by David Fickling Books, written & illustrated by me, edited by Alice Corrie, designed by Ness Wood, publicised by Sabina Maharjan, out 1 March 2018

International editions update!
Danish (De Nye Naboer) - Forlaget Flachs - translated by Trine Bech
Simplified Chinese - Beijing Tianlue Books Co.
Spanish (Los Nuevos Vecinos) - Ediciones Fortuna - translated by Jamie Valero Martínez
German - Magellan (July 2018)
North America - Penguin Workshop, part of Penguin Books USA (Autumn 2018)

Newly arrived: Spanish and Danish editions!


Jan. 24th, 2018 07:45 am (UTC)
Great article, Sarah. So interesting to hear all the inspiration behind the book. I'm the editor and I didn't know all that!

I can't wait for this book to get out there in the world. My three year old daughter is already a BIG fan.


Jan. 24th, 2018 09:06 am (UTC)
Hi, Alice! Thanks so much for all your work on the book, it's been ace! We should have a Berlin launch for the German edition. :D xx


Sarah McIntyre

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