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Passports to new, unknown worlds

WHEN I was 10 or 11 I wrote a novel for children called The Adventures of Francesca Darkward. It lay in a box until the year before last, when I brought it out to take to a school on an author visit, and I cringed. Had I really written that?

It wasn't the weak illustrations or the wrong spellings which caused me such pain: it was the sentiments and prejudices ex-pressed. I sent it round the classroom with other early manuscripts, and reminded myself that if anybody asked, I would have to come clean. I was a child bigot in romantic clothing and that's never a pretty sight, except in the mirror of self-regard.

Fran was a poor little Gypsy girl who ran away from cruel parents and was only saved by the intervention of a nice middle-class family. I think she even got a pony in the end. What she didn't get from me was the slightest respect for her background or any recognition of its validity. Her life, with a Gypsy caravan and horse, was nothing more than decorative background for me. I had used it to define who I was.

A lifetime later I'm publishing a new novel about almost the very same thing. Writing novels has always felt to me like balancing on razor blades and in this book the steel has been particularly sharp, but then I needed to be sensitive, when I'd made such a mess before.

I started The Girl in Red after spending a year in Kent during the arrival of families from the Romanian Gypsy communities and I followed the escalating protests against their presence with dismay.

Also in my mind, was that unforgettable contemporary phrase: "acting up". It was used by the mother of a young man accused of involvement in the murder of Stephen Lawrence. She was describing in a television interview how her young adult son "fooled around" and pretended to stab people, and I thought: that could have been me.

I was raised in the late 1950s with strongly racist attitudes. As a little child, taken up to the top of a double-decker bus, I was told not to turn round and stare, but that if I did, I could actually see a black man sitting on a seat. It was manners, not morals that was at stake.

A teacher at my church school, a former missionary, described the pedestrian crossings in South Africa. Apparently, black and white pople did not cross at the same place. I can remember listening with perplexity and disbelief, but I couldn't formulate the questions that needed to be asked and the teacher never suggested that there might be any.

Prejudice masquerading as uniformity was almost what was expected of us, in the way that we were all required to wear the same type of shoes. But it's not good enough, is it? And it never was. It stands us in poor stead and leads us, I believe, down the dark suburban street, step by fatal step, to "acting up" against people who are different.

It was the bus, and library tickets, that provided my route out. I went to the library on the bus by myself and selected my own books. This was part of what Saturday meant to me: the journey, the delicious pleasures of choice, and then the ride back. As I held the novels on my knees on the top of the bus, I knew that I could survive the next week. Books gave me then what they still give now: a unique chance to travel beyond where one actually is. Life, after some novels, is never the same again.

That's the thing about them, both the joy and the dread. It isn't just the reader who is changed, it's the author too. And it's not a case of one side telling another how to think. Novels must be read and are as unregarded as pebbles on a beach until a reader picks them up and turns them over in their hand. It's a joint enterprise, as interdependent as love.

I did the research for this book, yet I still found myself writing about something that I felt I didn't know: and then I realised that I did. I knew from my background about failing to understand. I knew about the drama of perceived difference and the blindness of fear.

And I know that the imagination can take readers on journeys which the limitations of their immediate surroundings may preclude. Young migrants, such as those from the Romanian Gypsy communities are in the most difficult position of all. It will rarely have been their decision to move, although their futures will almost certainly have been part of the motivation. It's a no-win situation, being a young servant to all. So let's encourage young readers to imagine how it might be.

The Girl in Red by Gaye Hicyilmaz is published by Orion, pound;4.99

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