Wishyouwas: the tiny guardian of lost letters by Alexandra Page, illustrated by Penny Neville-Lee
“The Sorters live in the tunnels and rescue lost letters. They’re in terrible danger. You have to save them.” (Wishyouwas)
Wishyouwas is a lovely novel for children that conjures Christmas in 1950s snowy London. It is a charming, adventurous story written by Alexandra Page with black and white illustrations by Penny Neville-Lee (Bloomsbury Children’s Books).
Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Alexandra.
Where are you based and how did you become a published author?
I live in London with my husband and daughter. In 2019 Wishyouwas won a writing competition and was shortlisted for another in quick succession. Meanwhile, I’d signed with my wonderful agent Christabel McKinley, and we spent a year revising the story ready for submission, sending it out a whisker before Christmas in 2020. I’ll never forget the phone call a few weeks later when Christabel announced I’d received an offer from Bloomsbury Children’s!
What genre, and for what age group is your debut novel?
It’s a historical middle grade adventure which I hope readers aged 7-77 will enjoy!
How is Wishyouwas a Christmas tale?
Wishyouwas is set during 1952, when London was shrouded in a thick cloud of fumes known in history as ‘The Great Smog’. The King had recently died, sugary treats were still rationed and families were recovering from the war years. Christmas – and its special deliveries – was much needed that year. When Wishyouwas, Penny and the Sorters are hunted by Royal Mail rat catcher Stanley Scrawl, they must work together to rescue themselves and the Christmas post before disaster strikes.
Why have you titled your book ‘Wishyouwas’?
Wishyouwas’s name popped into my head during the very first moments of writing the story and I knew what his character was straight away. The little ungrammatical Gatherer, Second Class, has remained unchanged since then. He is so much at the heart of this story that it felt natural to title the book after him.
Please introduce some of your characters.
Penny Black is ten years old and staying with her uncle at the post office he runs. Her mother, an airmail pilot, is stranded in France and can’t fly home because of the smog. Penny is lonely, writing letters she cannot send, and longing for a friend when she meets…
Wishyouwas! At first Penny thinks he is a rat, but Wishyouwas quickly explains “I is NOT a rat! I is a Sorter. Second Class”. He might be ungrammatical, clumsy and distrusting at first, but he and Penny soon form a strong bond of friendship that changes everything for the Sorters. They are helped along by…
Thiswayup, an ancient, biscuit-obsessed Solver who has a few secrets up his furry sleeves. He loves inventing new gadgets and solves a tricky problem for Penny and Wishyouwas.
I love the names of the Sorters, such as ‘Handlewithcare’. Could you share some others here please, and also explain the different ranks and roles of the Sorters?
Thank you, they were a lot of fun! Fragile and his burly twin Handlewithcare guard the entrance to The Bureau, an abandoned section of the underground Post Office Railway where the Sorters live in hiding. Dearsir and Dearmadam are the prim and pompous rulers of The Bureau. I think the best way to explain the Sorters’ ranks is to quote elegant Felicitations, the Sorters’ headteacher, who explains it to Penny:
‘You see, we are all Sorters, but there are three different ranks: Gatherers, Solvers and Deliverers. Wishyouwas is a Gatherer …’
‘Second Class,’ interrupted Wishyouwas. ‘
Quite so,’ said Felicitations. ‘It is his duty to visit post offices on his route looking for letters’ … ‘Next there are the Solvers, who specialise in deciphering letters. Once they have worked out to whom and where a letter belongs, they pass it to a Deliverer to deliver it. Each rank also has different classes, from Third Class through to First Class.’
What is the dilemma or problem that kickstarts your plot?
Wishyouwas is caught in a rat trap at the post office, after Penny accidentally startles him one night while he is gathering. Penny must decide whether to treat this creature as a rat and a pest, like all the grown ups seem to do, or to look beyond appearances, take a risk and show it kindness.
What would you hope children appreciate about the spirit of Christmas from your book?
I hope the spirit of togetherness shines through when children read the story. For me, the most precious thing about this time of year is that we take more time for each other. Even if distance prevents us being together in person, sending a letter is a simple, special way of showing someone you wish you were with them.
What are you writing now or next?
I am really enjoying finishing the sequel to Wishyouwas, in which Wishyouwas and Penny are given a top secret, dangerous mission by the Royal Postmistress herself. There are lots of surprises in store for the Sorters which I’m looking forward to revealing!
What have you read recently that you would like to recommend?
I love historical fiction, and was lucky enough to read a proof of When the War Came Home by Lesley Parr which publishes in March. It’s also set during the years just after the first World War, and is a heart-warming tale that immerses you in the rural countryside of post-war Wales, whilst also touching on important themes.
Thank you very much for your responses, Alexandra and all the very best with Wishyouwas.