The Boy Behind the Wall

What would you risk for a friend you’ve never met . . . ?

In 1960s Berlin the Wall is everywhere. It cuts through streets, parks, even houses. Teenagers Harry and Jakob live either side of the divide.

In West Berlin, American Harry witnesses the brutal shooting of a boy trying to escape over the Wall into the West, and decides to emulate his comic book heroes and help those in the East however he can.

On the other side in East Berlin, Jakob is the adopted son of a high up Stasi officer, feeling suffocated by the rules of a strictly regimented society and desperate to find his real family.

When Jakob finds a message that Harry has sent over the Wall, he grasps the opportunity. The boys begin a secret friendship, evading the authorities using lemon juice as invisible ink to share hidden messages.

They soon realise that a bold plot to carve a tunnel under the wall is the only way out for Jakob – and it’s time to put their friendship to the test. Just how much are they prepared to risk for each other – and for freedom?

The Boy Behind the Wall is a gripping historical tale about two boys living either side of the Berlin Wall, told in alternating chapters and both of the voices are well realised. I was interested that, as part of the pitch for the book, Welbeck Flame included the fact that Maximillian Jones is in fact a group of people writing in a similar manner to those in a script room, at Tibor Jones Studio. Because of this, when I was asked if I’d like to be part of the tour, I said I’d love to have a piece of writing from the team about this collaborative process!

THE BOY BEHIND THE WALL – origin story

Tibor Jones Studio is a writer’s collective that gives creative writing opportunities to aspiring novelists so they can learn on the job while dreaming of having their own works published in the future. By using the TV writer’s room model, a concept is created with a spark document, then developed by the book’s creative editor and then two co-writers. From time to time, a third writer may be brought in to help elevate the material.

Kevin Conroy Scott, the founder of the studio, was thinking about the wealth of children’s books inspired by the holocaust, in particular the success of THE BOOK THIEF and THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS. How could such a terrible event generate such moving fiction for children? And why hasn’t the Cold War, another terrible historical event, been covered in a similar way?

After revisiting iconic adult stories like John Le Carre’s classic novel, THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD and the German film THE LIVES OF OTHERS, Kevin visited the infamous Stasi museum in Berlin, where so many innocent, hard-working residents of East Berlin were being monitored, or in some cases, interrogated and incarcerated by the East German secret police. It was there that the idea for the book originated. What if an American boy, living in the American sector, sent a balloon up for a class project and it floated over the wall and was shot down by the border guards? What if, a week later, a boy around the same age wrote back and asked for help getting out to the West? How can two boys overcome such a barrier, with such a powerful adversary in the Stasi standing in their way?

The writing process took almost five years. We started with the simple premise, then we needed to build out the characters, the world, the sub-plots and the shape of the narrative. The outline served as posts that we let the horses of our imagination roam between as the story took shape. We used a two-writer system, and once the outline felt robust enough, each writer would write a chapter in either Henry or Jakob’s voice, and build until a first draft was reached, getting feedback from our in-house editor with each tranche delivered. Then each full draft of the novel would be shared with our brain trust (in a nod to the way Pixar works) and then we would start the next draft. After four drafts, we felt we had something special, but there was more work needed. That’s when we brought in a third writer to bring some new energy and a fresh perspective into the mix. Then our publisher, Welbeck Flame, came on board to help polish it further and we enlisted the expertise of two different German editors for their comments. It was an exciting and fascinating deep dive into the Cold War and the terrible destruction a wall built through a vibrant city can do to so many lives. It felt like we were exploring dystopian fiction before it even existed.

Do take a look at the previous stops on the blog tour and read the book, which is out now!

About Caroline Fielding

Chartered School Librarian, CILIP YLG London Chair, Bea-keeper

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