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Buy The Phoenix of Persia

Sally Pomme Clayton

The magical Phoenix of Persia has taken flight! We spoke to it author, the amazing storyteller Sally Pomme Clayton, to get her insights into this beautiful picture book.

Why should people pick up a copy of The Phoenix of Persia?

The book is exquisitely beautiful. I am so proud of it! There is so much for a reader to enjoy. It has  lush and radiant illustrations that have been done using a very interesting technique of scratching into the paint. This gives them a very interesting texture and depth. The story is ancient but timeless, and is fuelled by passionate emotions such as anger, courage, regret, forgiveness and acceptance. But the book has hidden secrets. The QR code inside lets you download a 30 minute track of me telling the story set to music that evokes each of the characters in the story. This can be enjoyed while you read the book or look at the pictures or even on its own.

How does it feel now that your beautiful book is out in the world?

It is always exciting when a book comes out! Something you have imagine and dreamt about and plotted and planned is born and then has a separate life from you! It goes off into the world and makes its own story. But this book really is special and it feel like a privilege to have worked on it. Many many people have been involved in this book, and many organisations too. From editor Sophie Hallam’s dedicated hard work, to the musicians composing original music to the students at City University recording the music and story, to Soosan Lolavar producing and editing the track, to the teachers writing the amazing teachers pack and Delaram collecting objects from Iran for the story boxes. This book is based on part of an Iranian epic and it the project itself is on an epic scale.

Can you tell us about the background of the story?

Shahnameh, means Book of Kings, and it is a medieval epic written down in Iran by the 11th century poet Ferdowsi. He based it on all kinds of oral stories – bits of history, myths, fairytales, folktales, legends that storytellers and families had been passing on for generations. It then became the tradition that each King commissioned a new illustrator to illustrate a new copy of the book. So there are many rare and beautiful illustrated manuscripts of the epic in libraries in different parts of the world. Some are in The British Library.  I feel that our book is part of this tradition. Shahnameh is huge – bigger than The Odyssey.  One Iranian friend said to me that he knew an Iranian proverb which was  ‘Shakespeare got all his best ideas from Ferdowsi.’ I believe this! The story is filled with families feuding, Romeo and Juliet type situations, father killing son, demons taking over, doomed kings, love and magic. Epics travelled as storytellers carried them across the world. Shakespeare, like Ferdowsi, based all his work on these old myths and fairytales, recreating them anew, like all the best storytellers!

Why is it so important that children experience stories from other cultures?

Stories are every child’s heritage. They need to know them! Stories help you learn about the world, about how different people live and have lived. But there are so many parallels between stories, they also make you wonder how stories travel, and how we are all the same. Humans seem to struggle with the same emotions and situations and this appears in myths and fairytales. Listening to and reading stories helps you learn about the patterns that are fundamental to stories and this in turn helps your own storytelling, play, reading and writing. Ultimately stories teach you about yourself and this is why they are essential. For me, stories help me live.

What’s the best way for families to enjoy the book at home? 

Read it aloud together. I like writing in a way that makes it easy to read aloud. Then the reader can actually become the storyteller. This is a book about storytelling as well as a story! So you can use the pictures to tell the story yourself, just like the storytellers in Iran do – they often use a painted scroll to illustrate the story.

Why do you think this book is a great resource for schools?

The book has a teachers’ pack which is incredible. It is full of ideas of practical and creative projects that teachers can do with their class across all aspects of the curriculum from storytelling, to drawing, to geography, to ancient history, and creative writing. There is also a box of artefacts they can borrow to explore the story in more depth and create a display in the classroom. The links across the curriculum  are so varied and wide — it is a rich resource.

What makes this story perfect for being performed aloud?

I am a storyteller and I have been all my life. That has been my profession for more than 30 years. I like to write in a dynamic way. I believe that good storytelling needs dialogue so I incorporate lots of dialogue in my writing, I think this brings the characters to life. So the reader can become the characters and find their individual voices and this will give the story excitement and drama. I tried to build the tension with each page turn, so that you want to know what happens next and keep turning the pages. This is an important part of a successful performance too.

What do you think makes this story so universal?

The story has parallels to some familiar fairytales. It has elements of Snow White – where a child is sent into the forest to die for not looking right — in the case of The Phoenix of Persia – for having white hair.  The child is helped by a magical creature: the Simorgh. It has firebird folklore – there are stories about the mystical firebird all over the world. And here the bird saves a baby and brings it up in her nest!

As a storyteller, you always encourage children to become storytellers themselves. How does this increase their enjoyment of a book?

I think they can enter the book and it helps it to come alive. This is what I always wanted to do as a child. I acted out stories, they became a world all around me, and then from that I started making my own versions of stories. It never stops — it should never stop!

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