Mitch Johnson on writing his debut, Kick

Kick - the debut novel that has just scooped the Branford Boase Award 2018 - began life with the discovery of a piece of rubbish in a shoebox. In this blog, author Mitch Johnson tells us how his award-winning novel Kick (Usborne) came about:

'Kick began life with a piece of rubbish in a shoebox back in 2013. I was working in a sport shop when I found a discarded energy gel sachet - emblazoned with colourful, Asiatic branding - in a box of brand-new football boots.

Although I didn't know it at the time, I had just witnessed the birth of a superstar footballer named Kieran Wakefield, a ruthless gangster known as the Dragon, and Budi, a little boy from Jakarta with big dreams.

That discovery in a narrow, dimly-lit stockroom forced me to consider how and where things are made. I wanted to know who had consumed the energy gel, and why. Who had made these boots, and where? Were conditions really that exhausting? Were breaks so inadequate that a worker had to eat on the job? And what exactly is a sweatshop? I had encountered the term before Kick, but I'd never properly considered what it might conceal.

I started to research the garment industry, which, despite being worth trillions of dollars a year, was surprisingly difficult to do. Escaping the models, celebrities, and sports stars who advertise products might be hard to achieve, but catching a glimpse of the people who actually manufacture those products is even harder. The reason? Making clothes is not a glamorous business.

Through articles written by investigative journalists, reports compiled by charity workers, and footage shot by undercover filmmakers, I learned about the long hours and low pay that prevail in garment factories across Asia. The work is repetitive, tedious, and time pressured. Conditions are unpleasant and often unsafe. The use of child labour is not uncommon. And approximately 40 million people face this reality every day.

It is because of this bleak situation that hopes and dreams feature so prominently in Kick. Budi may spend ten hours a day making football boots, but he is preoccupied with his ambition of becoming a footballer. He is brave, determined, and optimistic because he has to be.

There is a lot at stake in Kick - a lifetime of grinding poverty if Budi fails to realize his dream - but he has spirit, and a fiercely loyal friend, and a storytelling grandmother capable of making reality disappear for a while. So perhaps he will make it.

Around the same time I found that piece of rubbish, the most lucrative football transfer of all time was being negotiated. I calculated how long it would take the footballer in question to earn a sweatshop worker's monthly wage.

When I first did the calculation, I was sure I'd made a mistake. I checked the numbers again. I checked I had included the right amount of zeros in the footballer's salary. I checked the currency conversion rate, because sweatshop workers are rarely paid in pounds or euros. They are paid in rupiah and taka and dong. But the answer remained the same: 100 seconds.

While I was researching Kick, I often felt overwhelmed by the scale of the problem. It is very easy to convince yourself that you can't change anything, that you are just one person against a multi-trillion dollar industry - especially when your form of activism is a lonely one like writing. But I kept reminding myself of all the stories that had broadened my horizons and changed my attitudes.

Books have extraordinary power. They are a safe way of exploring dangerous places. They make us care about people we will never meet. And they engage the imagination, which is perhaps the most powerful tool we have for reshaping the world into something better.

For some readers, Kick may be a book of firsts: the first time they encounter a novel set in Indonesia; or mingle with a cast of characters whose daily wage is almost impossible to believe; or are offered a glimpse into the murky world of how things are made.

But there will also be a lot that is recognizable, and by focusing on our inherent similarities, rather than the circumstantial differences that separate us, I hope we can start to dismantle the barriers that have been built between those who produce and those who consume.

Now more than ever, I believe children need characters like Budi who are filled with goodness and dreams and the desire for a better world. Characters who are incorruptible despite the precedents - despite everything - and who will keep kicking no matter what.

05/07/2018Mitch Johnson on writing his debut, Kick
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