Publication Date: 14 April 2022
There was a single trail of footprints, the first I’d seen all morning. They were fresh tracks, I saw, the edges of the impressions in the snow quite hard. Small feet. Like mine. Someone my age.
Then they stopped.
When mysterious footprints appear in the Stockholm snow, ten-year-old Kara must discover where they’ve come from – and who they belong to. The trail of footprints leads Kara to Rebecca, a thirteen-year-old Jewish girl, and her younger brother Samuel. Kara realises they are refugees – from another time, World War Two – and are trying to find their way home.
The grief and loneliness that Rebecca and Samuel have endured is something Kara can relate to – feeling like you’re always on the outside looking in – and she finds herself compelled to help them escape. Through her eyes, we rediscover the magic that lies in the world around us, if only we have the courage to look for it.
Wrap up warm, because The Sky Over Rebecca will send chills through you with it’s heartbreakingly beautiful, atmospheric storytelling of a very different WWII tale set then and now in the biting cold of Stockholm in winter.
Kara is timid, unsure and achingly lonely when we meet her, taking far more notice of the natural world around her than people who could become friends. Set next to Lake Mälaren, snow and ice are constants as she investigates the peculiar sights she sees through her grandfather’s telescope, from snow angels to footsteps crossing tower block roofs.
As she tries to understand exactly what it is that is happening beyond the wild woods on the island in the lake we see that the relationships Kara has with both her mother and grandfather are open, honest and caring. I love that her mother respects a promise not to reveal all, but still offers practical help, and grandfather’s philosophical outlook offers much wisdom.
We see Kara grow in courage and confidence as the story progresses, finding her inner Viking in a way I wasn’t expecting as she comes to fully understand the harrowing existence of Jews trying to escape Nazi Germany.
Matthew makes what is in essence, complex time twisting, effortlessly simple and compelling reading. While there is much to tug at your emotions and think about beyond the book, the overwhelming feeling of hope for a brighter future lingers long after the final page.
Great for fans of:
The Q&A With Matthew Fox
Describe the story of The Sky Over Rebecca in 5 words
Girl meets time-travelling refugees…
What inspired you to write the book?
The Stockholm winter! That was the starting point: it’s snow and ice like I’ve never experienced. I began to think about footprints magically appearing and disappearing in the snow, and who might have made these footprints… And somehow this story became an emotional outlet for me – I’d moved to Sweden, and my daughter had been born, and my father died. So I found myself writing a story about a girl who loses her grandfather but crosses borders in time and space.
You live in Stockholm – how much did being in that part of the world influence your writing?
My first winter in Stockholm I realised this was not just another country but a whole other climate. The days were short, the snow fell and fell, and the lakes froze over.
One day, I saw footprints in the snow on the roof of the apartment building opposite ours. Except they weren’t footprints: they were just marks or scuffs left by birds or the wind. Still, I thought, what if the footprints were real? What if footprints began to appear in the oddest places? What if a snow angel materialised in a bank of snow? That was the jumping off point for the story.
Snow, I realised, is a wonderful place in which to explore a story. The stakes are high, because of all the things that can go wrong: you can freeze to death; the ice can break under your feet; you can be buried in an avalanche; you can be eaten by bears and wolves. And there’s no hiding place in the snow: everyone can see your tracks, and you can see everyone else’s, too.
I was on parental leave at the time, and as I walked around snowy Stockholm, pushing my daughter in her pram, I thought about all the different paths this story could take. And when she napped in the middle of the day, I wrote furiously, trying to get it all down before she woke up.
What came first- the characters or the story? Is there a character who is particularly dear to you?
Usually the story comes first: plots always seem to tumble out in a great big feverish rush for me. But sometimes that’s as far as I get, and I struggle, because I don’t know who the characters are. This time I knew who Kara was (she’s me, when I was her age), and I also knew who’d made the footprints in the snow: Rebecca, a refugee from another time.
I knew these characters were going to meet, and I knew what they were going to say to each other when they did, and I knew how they were going to feel about each other.
So I had Kara and Rebecca, and I built the other characters in relation to them.
Loneliness and friendship are strong themes, and you see how Kara is changed through her relationship with Rebecca. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Kara sees Rebecca’s footprints in the snow because she’s lonely, because she’s on her own a lot of the time, exploring the woods down by the lake. She spends more time with nature and books than she does with people, and that’s why she notices the things she does. She’s me, when I was her age, with all my hopes and fears and worries, and Rebecca is her opposite, her fated twin – someone who’s strong, and driven, and brave.
Rebecca’s needs are physical to begin with: she needs food, warmth, shelter. Kara’s are emotional: she needs friendship, direction, courage. They need each other, and complete each other. But Rebecca is the hero of the tale: she transforms Kara, rescuing her from loneliness, making her “even braver than before.”
There is a bit of genre-bending in the book, with historical, magical realism and some almost sci-fi elements – was this intentional?
Borders were very much on my mind when I was writing the book. Brexit had happened, and refugees were drowning trying to reach the UK… I gave myself the freedom in the book to cross any border, including the border of time, the border of death, and the border of genre. So Rebecca and Samuel travel in time and space, and at least one of the characters becomes a kind of ghost – a burst of starlight, floating through the universe.
I hope readers will forgive these border crossings, which others will rightly call ‘cheating’.
Would you like to write more in this genre, or try something new?
I’ve very happy working in this weird and wonderful mix of genres right now. The next book is even darker and more mysterious and deals, again, with border crossings – except this time it’s the border of life, death, and consciousness.
I think what I’m trying to do is to write serious, magical books for children: as serious as I can make them, and as magical as they can be.
What do you hope your young readers will take away from the book?
Every young reader is different, but I hope the book’s themes of empathy, loneliness and bullying will speak to many people. I hope it make readers think about borders, and the obligations we have to refugees.
At the same time, I’m aware that young people know far more about what’s going on in the world than I ever did. They know how to be activists, how to change the world – and I see Kara as part of that army. She’s brave as a rock by the end of the book.
Are there any other authors who particularly influenced or inspired you?
I am in awe of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In (for slightly older readers, I think), and Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden. There’s a dark magic at play in these stories that fascinates me, and yet they’re quite serious books about friendship, and growing up, and what is gained and what is lost.
What’s your writing process like – are you a morning writer, do you have any writing ‘quirks’?
I start as soon as I get back from the nursery drop-off, and then I try to put in the hours. The hours matter, because I’m really slow. If I’ve written or re-written a thousand words by the time I head out to do the nursery pick-up, that’s a good day. Anything beyond that is a spectacular day!
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
When I’m stuck, which is all the time, I try to remember to simplify. It’s all about clarity. “Prose like a window pane,” said George Orwell, and that’s what I aim for: step by simple step, both in terms of style and story, even if it’s obvious what’s going on.
As Philip Pullman says, “Don’t be afraid of the obvious!”
Huge thanks to Hachette for sending me an early proof copy, and inviting me to take part in the blog tour. Do make sure you check out all of the other stops.