And this seemed relevant too – so many people trying to find time to write with children! I’m really looking forward to reading Jo’s book.
I really like this blog post – agree with what he says about the importance of theme. I recognise the process he describes, moving from suspicion to appreciation, very well.
On my first novel writing course we were asked what we liked in books. I said, ‘Where things happen and people have sex; but they don’t have to have sex as long as things happen.’ Recently, I was delighted to hear that a friend’s child had explained her love of Downton Abbey as, ‘It’s olden times, and things happen.’ Exactly!
What I disliked most was the idea of theme. It sounded so writerly and Hampstead. I was once in a bookshop where there was a reading being given by new novelists. The first stood up and said, ‘There are three themes to this novel.’ I left.
But recently I’ve been wrestling with trying to put some shape to a novel I’ve been writing on-and-off for about two years. There are lots of little mini-stories, a main character, and fairly decent set-up. But it all feels a bit amorphous. Mostly, I…
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There are the books that everyone remembers. Whole generations grew up on Narnia or Harry Potter.
And then there are the books that no-one remembers. Except you. And unless you happen to have held onto a copy, you might end up thinking that you just imagined them, that they never really existed.
Such a book is Peter and the Plaguey Blight.
I guess this was what cutting edge cover art looked like in 1980. How a child could resist, I do not know.
I wasn’t that into it at first. Something about the gangrene-esque quality of the cover put me off. But I ended up reading it a lot, because it was – for some reason – the only children’s book lying around at my Granny’s house, where we spent the long summer holidays. The nearest library was a good bus ride away, Amazon didn’t exist and we wouldn’t have had money for it if it did. This was the 80s. And so I read it again and again. It was about a boy called Peter, striving to overcome some kind of mutant mould – the Plaguey Blight. There was adventure, as I remember, and humour, and a building sense of menace. It wasn’t bad. I got used to it. I got to quite like it. It was pretty good. I don’t know if can exactly call it a favourite after all – but I’ve certainly never forgotten it. Unlike, it appears, the rest of the world.
So, what’s your favourite forgotten book? And does anyone else remember Peter and the Plaguey Blight?
I was nominated for this chain-blog-thingy by the inspirational Liz Broomfield, non-fiction author and real life neighbour. Like Liz, I don’t do these things often – but this one has good questions and you only have to nominate two other authors, so hooray. Also today, the brilliant writer Helen Grant is posting on the same subject – http://helengrantbooks.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/what-why-and-how-i-write.html .
“What are you working on?”
I’m about one-third of the way through Somerton Book 3. At Somerton is a publisher-led, YA series that I’m writing for Disney Hyperion, and which has so far sold to Hot Key in the UK and Springer Verlag in Germany. It’s a Downton-inspired soapy rollercoaster with lots of scandal, secrets, and upstairs/downstairs drama. I’ve been doing lots of research and reading some fascinating first hand accounts of the period, including Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain, and Horses don’t Fly, by Frank Libby, an American World War 1 ace. This book is called Emeralds and Ashes. New characters appear and some old ones surprise us with what they get up to!
I’m also writing a 9-12s book of my own, working title Wish. It’s about twin sisters who couldn’t be more different, and a birthday wish that goes horribly wrong. It’s a really challenging book to write, because I have an unreliable narrator who’s trying hard not to think about something very important all the way through (because it’s such a sad memory), and although there are supernatural goings-on it’s all really about the past coming unwound and weaving its tendrils into the twins’ present-day life… Very. very tricky to handle – all those layers of thinking and pretending and lying and wishing – but so much fun, for a writer. I’m not getting to spend as much time on it as I’d like, because of the pressing Somerton deadline, but I’m not losing enthusiasm for it, which I think is a good sign!
“How does your writing differ from others in its genre?”
That’s hard to answer about your own writing! My favourite reader review of Chips Beans and Limousines was ‘This book made me laugh but it also made me think.’ I like to think I’m very flexible, moving between genres happily but still keeping my own style. I’m most interested in writing for 9-12s, really. I love writing about that no man’s land when you’re about to turn a teenager, and everything is so complicated. I went to boarding school in another country when I was 11, and moved schools again when I was 13, so it’s an age that resonates for me. I write a lot of absent parents and am fascinated by unreliable narrators – narrators who don’t know the full story, or who lie to themselves unconsciously. And I write a lot of unhappy families. Not necessarily ‘issue’ stories, more families who mean well but just don’t get along, families that are a little flawed, parents and chidlren who don’t understand each other or themselves well enough to get along. My families are jigsaw puzzles that don’t quite fit. I think most people have felt that they’re in that kind of family, at one time or another, so people can recognize the feelings. Also, a lot of tension arises from these situations – and tension fuels story.
“Why do you write what you do?”
I love children’s literature, always have done. I continued reading and discovering great children’s books when I was a teenager, at the same time as I was reading and discovering great adults’ books. I’ve never felt that writing for children is a less worthy choice than writing for adults. I think it’s the most challenging form of literature, and the most important. ‘Give me a child until the age of seven and I will give you the man.’
“How does the writing process work for you?”
I used to write 10,000 words, lose enthusiasm, and stop. Then I forced myself to finish a novel. A barrier was broken (and a very bad novel was born). Then I learned about arc, shaping, structure. I started to plan and wrote well planned novels that didn’t quite work. I learned about theme. I returned to character. Now I plan from character and never let theme out of sight. And sometimes (as with Chips, Beans and Limousines) I’m just lucky that it all falls into place! I’ve had very useful feedback from beta readers, over the years, and have learned to listen to it with an intelligent ear. Teaching writing helps me learn to write better.
That’s it from me. I nominate 1) author extaordinaire Susie Day– if you’ve not read Big Woo do so now, such a fantastic voice! And 2) debut YA novelist Eve Ainsworth. We always knew she’d get published eventually and she has! Can’t wait to read Seven Days when it comes out.
We’ve set up a Facebook group for writers for children and teenagers who live in the Midlands. It doesn’t matter if you’re a total beginner or a published author, we’d love you to join us. We hope to use the group to set up meet-ups, write-ins, plus promote courses and workshops in writing for children, such as the ones run locally by Writing West Midlands or SCBWI.
This is a good article- and further to my last post, I think if you replace ‘boy’ with ‘white’ and ‘girl’ with ‘BME’ it works too.
Permission to write? My experience of being a British Asian reader, and writer, of children’s books.
The following is a blog post I wrote in 2008. I am re-posting it now because the other day I read this article by Walter Dean Myers,
plus the one by his son
and a reaction from Tanya Byrne:
I’m re-posting my blog because what Walter Dean Myers said rang so true to me, especially what he says about Sonny’s Blues giving him ‘a permission that I didn’t know I needed, the permission to write about my own landscape, my own map.’ I believe this element of experience –the sense of being left out of books – is common to many BME writers and readers, no matter how different their cultural backgrounds. I am sad to still be reading articles on this topic. I’m angry that things haven’t changed, or haven’t changed faster.
*Re-posted from 2008 (that blog went into administration :))*
!!! My excellent brother has found the original Verna Wilkins talk online: http://www.thebookseller.com/news/tamarind-more-multicultural-writing-needed.html !!!
AN ENTIRELY PERSONAL RESPONSE TO AN IMPORTANT TOPIC
I saw this report – very well worth reading –( http://www.thebookseller.com/news/tamarind-more-multicultural-writing-needed.html) about Tamarind Books’ founder, Verna Wilkins, who has received the 2008 Diversity Award from the British Book Industry Association. You can read the report to find out the background, but essentially Verna founded Tamarind Books 20 years ago to publish books to remedy the general lack of ethnic minority characters in British children’s literature. Reading her words made me think again about a fact which is never far from my mind: although I’m half Asian, half British, all my main characters are plain white.
Why is this? I ask myself. Why don’t I write characters who are like me? Why? Why? And there’s no point saying ‘they are like you, they reflect aspects of your character, what does their ethnicity matter?’ It does matter and it’s very important. Being colour-blind is something that only white people think is easy.
I know it’s important for children to read books that feature children who are like them. I know because I remember how as a child I was drawn to The Jungle Book because it featured a child who was Indian. I know how excited I was when I found my first ever book featuring a modern Asian child – My Mate Shofiq – and how disappointed I was when it turned out to be all about the usual things Asian children can expect in books: bullying and racism. What Verna Wilkins says about books featuring non-white children being all about issues rings so true. (And when she says books featuring non-white children were ‘painfully few’ she’s right again – it is painful to realise you are invisible in the book world you love).
In the books I read while growing up, being non-white was treated – well-meaningly, of course, and I do appreciate that these books were good and important in their way – as an issue, just like drug-taking or poverty. It led to Problems. White children could cavort happily in magical lands, through wardrobes and under lamp-posts, down rabbit-holes and across secret islands, without worrying that anyone would call them names based on the colour of their skin, or bar their parents from jobs, or refuse them entry to clubs, or simply let them know, without need even for speech, that they were, intrinsically, at an atomic level, Wrong.
Asian children in books, meanwhile, had to trudge morosely around council estates, waiting for skin-heads to call them Paki. This was not the stuff my semi-Asian dreams were made of. What I wanted to read about back then was Mohammed runs away to sea, Fahim on Kirrin Island, Halima’s pet dragon.
So now that I have the chance, now that I know I can write children’s books and with any luck get them published, why don’t I write main characters who are Asian, or British-Asian, or mixed-race, or mixed-culture? Why don’t I write Fatima in Wonderland? It upsets me, this question, because I feel I am failing the children like me who need to see themselves portrayed as normal in books.
Here, with no attempt at order or logic, at priorities, with no attempt at anything except to honestly set down what enters my mind, are some possible answers:
- Because whenever I think of writing about an Asian or part-Asian character, I feel instantly exhausted – beaten down hopeless somehow – at the thought of all the things I would have to explain to the reader.
- I couldn’t even begin writing a simple story without explaining what it’s like to not feel normal. I would have t explain the things I know – chapatis, saris, aunties, religion and the lack of it, control, culture, taking off your shoes when you go into a house, parties where the women sit in one room and the men in the other – and I’d have to explain the things I don’t know – Bengali, the Koran, cooking – and why I don’t know them, and before you know it, I’d be writing an issue novel, about how Terribly Difficult it is Not Being White But Not Being Particularly Anything Else Either. Which is exactly what I want to avoid.
- I don’t naturally come up with ideas featuring Asian children. When I think of characters, they tend to be white. Guess why? Because more than 99.9 % of the books I read as a child featured white main characters. When Europeans colonised the world, they colonised the world’s imagination too. Just like Verna’s little boy painting his self-portrait pink, I can’t help imagining the heroes in books to be white. Let’s have a look at those titles again: Mohammed runs away to sea, Fahim on Kirrin Island, Halima’s pet dragon. Just writing these ideas down, there’s something about them that I can’t take seriously. It’s the names. They read as if they’re taken from some worthy reading scheme that dutifully inserts multi-cultural names into every fifth book, with the aim of meeting a government target on equality . We all know no real children’s book would have a main character called Mohammed – oh, unless he was due to be forced into an arranged marriage, or possibly set up as a suicide bomber.
- After all, I’m 50 % white and 50% not. Can I write a believable 100% Asian character? I’m not sure at all that I can. But I don’t doubt my ability to write a 100% white character. Well, naturally, all my life I’ve lived in a context where white was normal, where it was the white sector that you defered to and tried to fit in with. So of course I’m better at pretending to be white than I am at pretending to be Asian. And I presumably write a more believable white character as a result. ( 2014 – I think I’m all confused here. I’m thinking like the publisher who told an Asian author that his characters were ‘not authentically Asian’. What is a ‘believable 100% Asian character’? That’s exactly why we need a plurality, diversity of voices, so we don’t fall into the trap of thinking that there’s only ‘one story’).
- Who wants to be the stroppy Asian when no-one wants to rock the boat? Publishing in general obviously doesn’t see the problem in the lack of non-white main characters, or if it does, doesn’t care enough to make a fuss. 20 years ago Verna Wilkins started Tamarind Books, and we’re still in the process of ‘redressing the balance in children’s books’. (and in 2014 Walter Dean Myers wonders if anyone even cares).
Go to a large, multi-ethnic British city like Birmingham. Look around you: how many non-white faces do you see? Now go to a big bookshop in the same city. Look along the bookshelves. How many non-Anglo-Saxon names do you find? How many books do you find that feature non-white children? (Consider chapter books too, not just picture books). While the adult fiction section is ablaze with writing from all around the world, the children’s section is sort of like Devon. You may even find that books with non-white characters – everything from Noughts and Crosses to books about celebrating Divali – are shelved together in a well-meaning little ghetto in the corner, under ‘Multicultural’ or some such. Why aren’t they shelved in with the other, normal books? Is it because not being white is still, in children’s book world, considered a sectionable offence? Do people imagine that children cannot possibly be interested in reading about children of any other skin colour or culture ? Children are brighter and better than that – or they can be, if we give them the chance to be.
I may or may not achieve anything of worth during my time on this planet, but at the very least, I’m glad of this: that my non-Anglo-Saxon name is on the spine of a few books in the children’s section, doing its tiny, passive bit to redress the imbalance. I’m glad that if a child with a name like mine wanders into the bookshop and glances along the books , they will find at least one name that will allow them the possibilty of thinking ‘Hey, maybe someone like me could write books like this too’. Maybe that child will grow up to write books for children. And maybe – let’s hope – he or she won’t feel the complexity and confusion that I feel about putting my face into my books.
So that was 2008. How have things changed? Well, I can now name more British BME writers than I could back then. Tanya Byrne, Sarwat Chadda, Sita Brahmachari, for starters. But I think most people would still struggle to name more Black British children’s writers than Malorie Blackman and Benjamin Zephaniah. I took my toddler to the library the other day and the only book I found on the shelves that featured Black British children as main protagonists in normal stories set in Britain (as opposed to traditional tales, or one of several children of different shades ) were Let’s Feed the Ducks and Let’s Have Fun by Pamela Venus. They are good books. My toddler was really engaged by them. He likes books with human characters doing things he does himself. BUT both books were published by Tamarind Press – why aren’t there more books like this? Why hasn’t Verna Wilkins’ example been followed by other publishers?
To be clear, I don’t think that there is some kind of ‘plot’ to keep BME writers off the shelves, characters out of books. I think the reasons behind the lack of both writers and characters are complex, but there’s no doubt that it’s a problem. As Walter Dean Myers says, children need to find themselves in books. They also need to find themselves as writers. They need to know, to see, that they have permission to write, to tell the world as they see it. It is not simply a matter of needing more representations of BME characters in children’s books. We need more BME authors of children’s books, because the voice that tells the story has the power.
I want to put a reading list of British BME authors (rather than characters) on this website. If you have authors to recommend, please do so, in the comments!
I thought this article by author Rosie Garland on her route to publication: http://booksbywomen.org/rosie-garland/ was brilliant. This is how it is. Publishing likes to concentrate on success, not struggle, and to writers seeking publication. that can make it seem as if everyone is getting there faster than you are. Stories like Rosie’s are more the rule than the exception, and I wish every writer knew it. Not to put them off, but so they know that they’ll get there eventually.