Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Ten books which inspired me

 Candy Gourlay, wonderful author of Tall Story (what do you mean you haven't read it yet? Buy it now!) has written a fascinating post about the books which inspired her on her journey to becoming a children's author, a theme picked up by Nicky Schmidt and Kathryn Evans .
Thinking about what books I might choose brought on feelings of unworthiness. I had hardly read a contemporary YA book before I started to write one. I feel as though I've been on a big catch up in my reading ever since I got my publishing deal, but there are so many books I have still to read.
But still, there were books which encouraged, inspired and influenced me. Here are ten.

 Three books from childhood

I was always a big fan of Noel Streatfeild's books, but Wintle's Wonders (now retitled Dancing Shoes) was my favourite. Not only did it have a great setting - a dancing school which trained children to take part in musical shows, but also a main character Rachel whose  fierce love of her sister and loyalty to her dead mother were consistently misunderstood by the adults around her. I always felt misunderstood and I completely identified with Rachel. And I also loved the little glimpses of adult relationships given by the author, especially the seemingly mismatched artistic Uncle Tom and brassy Aunt Cora. Real people, real emotions, this book set my taste in fiction.

I've written elsewhere about my love of the books of Antonia Forest. The Marlow family series is my favourite series ever written and The Ready-Made Family  my pick of the series. I still can't read it without amazed admiration of how much Forest does in one book - juggling lots of characters, a thrilling plot, intriguing relationships and  making you believe you're reading about real people.

 S E Hinton's The Outsiders was probably the first book I read about boys fighting each other. Loved it then, love it now. It was a million miles away from my staid Home Counties upbringing, and yet I felt it was a book about me. I'm still not sure why.

Dutch literature

I've been a journalist for my entire adult life, and I'm very confident about writing as a journalist. But somehow I'd got a notion into my head that writing a novel would be somewhat different, that I would have to write in a poetic, complicated way to be taken seriously as a novelist. Then I went to live in the Netherlands, and started to read as much Dutch literature in translation as I could. Much of it was sparse and unfussy compared to the British literary fiction I'd been reading - partly because Dutch is a very unfrilly language. It gave me the confidence to think that I could write my own kind of literary fiction, that short sentences and apparent simplicity could be enormously effective. Probably the Dutch book that made the most impact on me was The Assault by Harry Mulisch, a devastating tale of  Holland in the Second World War. Harry Mulisch used to drink coffee in the cafe opposite our flat in Amsterdam, a tiny white-haired man with great style. He died in October 2010. Truly an inspiration.

Books by 'normal' people

How to put this? It was very helpful to read books that had been written by people whom I knew to be not so very different from me. It meant I couldn't hide behind  the feeling/excuse I nurtured that novelists are somehow different...
First of all, the very talented Melissa Nathan. Melissa's brother is married to my sister. Melissa, like me, was a journalist. She became an immensely successful writer of books which are very funny and satisfyingly romantic. My favourite is The Waitress, because it's about a girl who doesn't know what to do with her life, a common state that doesn't get much attention. Melissa wrote The Waitress while she was having treatment for the cancer which cruelly killed her at just 37. I can't write about her without being gripped by sheer disbelief that she was taken so young. She wrote her last book knowing that she was unlikely to see it published. It's as bouncy and fun, hopeful and life-enhancing as the others. Melissa inspired me in many ways, but most of all for her pure professional stamina.

Amanda Swift was my tutor when I did an evening course in writing for children at City University, and she was my mentor and guide as I wrote When I Was Joe (and still is now). As part of the course she shared with us the process she'd been through in writing her book Anna/Bella -  from outline to synopsis and beyond. She also worked with me on the original plot-planning exercise that became When I Was Joe and kindly donated her disabled athlete character who eventually became Ellie.  It was only much, much later that it occurred to me that Anna/Bella is about a girl who swaps between names and identities -  not so unlike When I was Joe as one might imagine, looking at the cover. Another teacher might have mentioned the overlap -  Amanda never did.

Books which made me brave.

 I knew I wanted to write about a boy. I wasn't sure I could do it. After all, I'd never been a boy. Then I thought 'What if JK Rowling hadn't written Harry Potter for the same reason? If she can write a boy, so can I.' And so I did. 

I read Stephenie Meyer's Twilight  in the spirit of enquiry, trying to find out what had captivated so many readers. I didn't like the writing style, the colourless heroine or the snickering hero. But I admired the feeling that Meyer had written from her heart, that she'd fearlessly poured her own emotions into her writing. I think that's what readers connect to.  A  better example of that kind of abandon is Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, which I devoured at the age of 13 and still love. I read a lot of books which are clever and beautifully written, but  there's something missing unless I get a sense that the author is somehow in love with the story she or he is telling. These books made me brave enough to try and do the same.

The ultimate book

I suppose we all have a book which we'd love to have written. Mine is Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist. Virtually every line makes me want to laugh and cry at the same time.  She takes the most difficult subject - how bereaved parents go on living after their only son is murdered -  and makes it into something constantly unexpected yet utterly true. And funny -  it's so funny.
  I don't think I could ever write anything one-millionth as good. But I'll go on trying.


Thursday, 23 December 2010


I'm sure Michael Gove, Britain's Education Secretary doesn't want to be known as the Booksnatcher.
Teaching Michael Gove about reading
I'm sure he passionately believes in  supporting children and encouraging them to love books - regardless of family background or wealth. He's just got a strange way of showing it.
Unfortunately Mr Gove is part of a government which believes that huge spending cuts are the best way to assure this country's economic future. These cuts mean that local schools and councils are contemplating how to save millions from their budgets. Libraries are particularly vulnerable to these cuts, as they are seen as 'soft' targets. So libraries are closing, school and public librarians are sacked, and children lose a source of free books, the chance to spend time in a place dedicated to reading, the chance to meet and learn from people who know about books.
 Michael Gove assures us that he does care about reading. He is spending our money to devise a new test for Y1 pupils, a phonics based test which will identify children who cannot 'decode' words at the level they are expected to. Mr Gove says: 'Parents want to know how their children are reading and this will tell them.'
No, Mr Gove, a phonics test will not tell parents very much. It will not tell them if their children understand the words they read. Still less will it tell them if they enjoy reading, if they pick up a book out of interest, if they care about stories. It may even be that being drilled in phonics might be stressful for some children, and it may put actually them off reading.  One of the 12-year-old boys I help as a volunteer reading helper is great at sounding out difficult words -  but he hasn't a clue what they mean, and the pronounciation isn't usually correct, despite his painstaking effort, because English doesn't work phonetically.
Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister says:'There is more to reading than phonics – but there is also a weight of evidence that systematic synthetic phonics, taught in the first years of a child’s education, gives children key building blocks they need to understand words, underpins children’s attainment of a good standard of reading and can inspire a lifetime love of reading.
 'The Government is determined to raise the standard of reading in the first years of primary school so that children can master the basic decoding skills of reading early and then spend the rest of primary school reading to learn.
 'The fact is that alternative methods have left too many young people with poor literacy levels, especially among children of more disadvantaged families, and we are determined that every child can read to their full potential.'
 Well, leaving aside the question of how anyone can possibly say what a child's full reading potential is, one of the alternative methods the government seem to have decided is worthless, is the Booktrust's book giving scheme. Bookstart is a national programme that gives a free pack of books to babies, and guidance materials to parents and carers. Booktime promotes reading aloud with children, and Booked Up aims to give a free book to every child starting secondary school in England.£13million of government money is used to generate £56 million-worth of private sponsorship. Mr Gove didn't just decide to half the grant, or discuss the scheme's future with Booktrust. No, he informed Booktrust with no warning, just before Christmas, season of giving, that the government funding would entirely cease.
Ed Miliband.the new Labour leader, accused the Conservative government of 'knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.' I think the current government is truly only interested in things they can measure. In this they follow Labour's lead -  but in a far more brutal and philistine fashion.
Discussing this on Facebook this week, the writer Ellen Renner said:'They all view teaching children as some sort of factory system; managerialism gone mad .'  It's not just managerialism gone mad -  it's bad managerialism gone mad. It takes joy and pleasure and creativity out of learning and replaces it with decoding. It's a mindset which says that the humanities are useless and unworthy of funding. It makes 'culture' into something for a rich elite. It's profoundly un-British, I believe, and I don't think the government has a mandate to change our society like this.
Mr Gove might argue that the universality of the bookgiving scheme was wasteful -  that children whose families could afford to buy them books end up with free ones. But he should listen to author MG Harris, whose book Invisible City was part of the Booked Up scheme this year. She met children in Derry and said :
'The universality was the appeal to many, who don't want to feel they are being singled out for being 'poor' or 'low achieving'. When I did the Booked Up launch event in Derry I had kids from posh grammars and from comprehensives in poor estates in the audience.But they all got excited about the free books.'
And he should listen to this little girl, reading her Bookstart book.  The excitement in her voice isn't something that can be measured in a phonics test. But if I were her parent it would tell me what I needed to know.
What can we do about this decision? Get those squillionaire novelists to bridge the gap, is one suggestion I've seen, although I'd suggest that they do that by paying their taxes. It maybe that the enterprising people at Booktrust can find alternative funding. But why shouldn't taxes support a scheme like this? You can blog and tweet about the decision, using #bookgifting and @booktrust and @savebookstart. You can email Booktrust on bookgifting@booktrust.org.uk to support their efforts to keep the scheme going. You can write to Mr Gove and to your local MP.
Michael Gove has already had to make a significant  U-turn when he threatened school sport funding. Perhaps he can be persuaded to think a little more about books.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Five books

This is the time of year when newspapers are full of ‘Books of the Year’ round ups, generally derided as being full of the usual suspects, and old mates bigging each other up.
I can see the problemfrom the other side now. As a writer, one does acquire quite a lot of writerly mates, and they do write remarkably good books.
So I’m not even going to try to pick my books of the year (and to be completely honest, for 2010, I wrote my books of the year). Instead, here are some recent highlights.
Two YA books I loved so much that I reread them immediately.
Taking Flight by Sheena Wilkinson. Liam’s an under-achieving troubled teen from the backstreets of Belfast, his show-jumping cousin Vicky is spoiled and snobbish. When Liam has to go and stay with Vicky and her mum, and discovers a talent for and a love of horses, Vicky isn’t too pleased. I loved everything about this book, the people are so real and the story immensely satisfying. I loved the idea of splicing two genres – gritty crime and a pony book – and kudos to Sheena Wilkinson for the way she makes it work. It’s dramatic and funny, heart-warming and sad. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.
Firebrand by Gillian Philip. So, I’m Gillian Philip's biggest squeeingest fangirl anyway, and now she’s written a book so fab that everyone is raving about it and saying it’s the fantasy book of the year and it’s going to be the next big thing. And they are completely correct, because Firebrand is wonderful (and I don’t even especially like fantasy. So it must be good.) Set in the world of the Sidhe, Scottish faeries separated from the human word by a Veil, living for hundreds of years, Firebrand has a moody and irresistible anti-hero, the glorious Seth; a kind and noble hero, his half-brother Conal, and a story which is so compelling that I hardly stopped reading to breathe. First in a series, buy it for everyone.

Two sequels that are even better than the books they follow.

There are three of us who had very similar years last year. Ellen Renner, Tamsyn Murray and I all brought out our first books at the beginning of the year and the sequels in August/September. I loved their first two books and I thought both sequels were even better(I think  Almost True is better than When I Was Joe as well, maybe there's something about sequels that give new authors a boost of confidence).

Tamsyn’s My So-called Haunting (a sequel to My So-Called Afterlife) is a sweet and funny romantic comedy, set in a world of ghosts, with a new main character, Skye, a teenage girl who has enough to worry about - new home, new school - without the additional complication of seeing the dead. And then there’s Nico, the tall, dark, handsome mysterious boy at school who definitely has something of the night about him. Tamsyn deftly blends comedy, suspense and romance,and there’s an especially funny ghost called Mary whose admonition ‘Thou resembleth a strumpet’ has become one of my catchphrases of the year.
Ellen Renner’s City of Thieves is a follow up to Castle of Shadows, set in an imagined nineteenth century almost-England, with a feisty young queen Charlie and a dastardly (but rather attractive) Prime Minister. In City of Thieves the focus shifts to Charlie’s ally and friend Tobias who suffers terrible trials, physical and emotional as he seeks to right a wrong, but is kidnapped by a family of thieves. Tobias, brave, defiant and impetuous, is just my sort of boy, and I loved Ellen’s positively Dickensian imagining of a thieves’ den complete with climbing wall and evil uncle. And that twisted, fascinating Alistair Windlass is back too.

And a great book for adults:

Dog Boy by Eva Hornung knocked me out. It’s about a six year old Russian boy who is adopted by a pack of feral dogs, it’s entirely believable, horrific and touching and upsetting. You think you're learning about the nature of dogs, and then you realise that Eva Hornung is teaching you about humans. It's extraordinary and deeply troubling.  Anyone who’s into fluffy werewolf tales should read this for a reality check about pack life. Stunning.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Crime and punishment

David Cameron with Brooke Kinsella, knife crime campaigner
Right at the end of When I Was Joe, Ty watches a television programme about knife crime. He sees a politician 'a posh one. The one my mum likes - he talks a lot of sense, she says.' A man with a 'smooth, certain face' who says that everyone who carries a knife should be locked up.
This makes Ty laugh out loud, as he imagines the hundreds and hundreds of prisons that would be needed. It was pretty much the response I had, when I heard David Cameron -  yes, it was he -  make this particular suggestion, which turned into an election pledge.
Anyway, now David Cameron is Prime Minister, thanks in part to people like Ty's mum (although thanks even more to Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg) and Ken Clarke is his  Justice Secretary. And Ken Clarke has just been on the BBC news explaining that prison doesn't work, and it creates repeat offenders, and there needs to be other ways of punishing offenders.  The BBC showed him debating the matter with prisoners, who thoroughly agreed with him. His green paper on sentencing is due to be published tomorrow.
In the last few years since I wrote When I Was Joe  I've watched different policies used to try and counter knife crime in London. My daughter has come home from school telling me about films and speakers -  the mother of a murdered boy, a police officer. All of the anti-knife education they have had has been underpinned by a strong message that carrying a knife is enough to put you in jail. Now it seems that message is far from the truth.
I'm not a supporter of the current government, but I agree with most of what Ken Clarke has to say about prisons. I believe prison sentences should address future offending, and try and help offenders reflect on their actions and prepare for a better life, an expensive over-crowded system isn't going to make this happen.  Attempts to help addicted and mentally ill offenders make perfect sense.
But I wonder how I'd feel if a child of mine had been killed by a stupid boy armed with a knife? If I was part of the Kinsella family, whose son Ben was murdered by thugs for nothing, and who have campigned for knife  attacks to be treated as seriously as gun crimes. I wonder if this new policy -  coupled with savage cuts to policing - will make us feel safer? And why didn't the BBC suggest that Ken Clarke put his ideas to victims and their families?
I'm like Ty, I don't have any answers. Just a feeling of cynical confusion. And quite a lot of fear.
Update: Had Ken Clarke been filmed with the families of victims of crime, this is what he might have been told

Friday, 3 December 2010

Who uses libraries?

People who are poor.
People who are rich
and people in the middle, squeezed or not

People without computers, who don't know what the internet is,
People with laptops and wiis and Playstations and ipods.
People without homes.
People with second homes.
People without many books.
People with shelves overspilling.
People with lots of time and
too little time
with not much quiet
or too much quiet.
People whose homes are chilly
and lonely
and dull.

Parents and carers and babies and toddlers.
Children who don't know what books are.
Children, magically turning letters into words and words into stories.
Children who want to read every book a particular author ever wrote. Because she wrote it just for them.
Or there's just one book they read again and again and again.
(I still remember my special book, the one that I read week after week after week, till it became part of who I am now and then and forever)

Children and adults who don't find it easy to learn by jumping
from website to website.
Children who want to find out what and why and how and when and who.
And read the ideas of others for real...
not bite-sized and  bullet-pointed on websites and worksheets.
Teenagers with homework to do
Teenagers with nothing to do
Teenagers whose home is empty
Teenagers with no home at all

People who like to browse among books
People who like to discover new writers. Even if those writers were new years ago.
People who want the latest must-read best-selling hit.
Dan Brown, Jacqueline Wilson, the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
People who want something else
Something obscure and unpopular and - gasp - uncommercial.
People who don't like Horrid Henry
or horror
or Horowitz, and who don't find much else
 in WH Smith.

People who hate vampires, werewolves and angels
People who dream
of a dark, dangerous stranger
with a loving, tortured soul
a strange, sweet scent
and gleaming, pointed, uncontrollable

People who don't trust the internet
Who don't have a kindle, an iphone, an ipad.
Who like the feel and smell of a book, the print on the page, the pages turning
the pictures glowing.
People who want help
and advice
and recommendations from experts
(not volunteers, however well-meaning)
and company,
and education
and someone to notice that they're alive that day. Everyday.
Writing groups and
reading groups and
story-telling sessions and
slimming clubs and
visiting authors and
community noticeboards offering music and cleaning and clubs and anything you need.

Writers who can't work in a cafe, even though J K Rowling did.
Writers without a Room of their Own.
People who like to think.

Labour voters and
Conservative voters
Liberal Democrats
and people who don't know who the hell to vote for
 because they're all as bad as each other.

People with a sense
of history
and the future,
of community
of a shared culture
of equality and opportunity hand in hand
of a Big-hearted Society -
where a homeless kid has the same access
to books and warmth, internet  and silence as they do at
(just a random comparison there).
People who complain and mutter and might write a letter or two,
but don't riot.
Not about libraries.
Not about books.

But then there are
Government ministers who won't protect libraries
and local councillors trying to cut budgets
Because budgets are easier to cut than bankers' bonuses. And it's getting a bit fuzzy, isn't it? About who was to blame. For the mess we're all in together.
That's all of us.
But especially some of us.

And those who think that libraries are a soft target
and out-dated
and unpopular
and could easily be run by volunteers
 - because, after all, there will be lots of people with time on their hands -
 - not to mention the workshy -
 -  and the fake disabled, don't forget them.

And  after all, libraries don't need to buy more books
because everything's available on the internet
and books are so cheap nowadays
and  how much do you have to pay to rent books from a library anyway?
and where is the local library?
and why isn't it open when I need it to be open?
and why are there so few books?
and isn't it disgraceful how children leave school unable to read?
What they need are Phonics and Literacy and Extracts and
testing testing testing
testing testing testing
because the economy demands literate workers
who've studied relevant subjects
so they can earn money and pay
graduate taxes
because that's what  Britain needs
Isn't it?

This is happening now.
Libraries are being closed and cut
Librarians are being sacked
In shires and cities and towns

If we allow it.

For more information  see here  and here  and most importantly Alan Gibbons' Campaign for the Book here

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Confessions of a Slut

The fetishist and the slut
I’m not really a slut. No, I’m a happily married middle-aged mum living a life of blameless domesticity (if you’re a teenage boy reader of my books, then discount that, I’m 19 and as sluttish as you care to imagine).
However, in one arena, I have declared myself a total slut. At the SCBWI conference Candy Gourlay, Sarah McIntyre and I presented a session on social media networking for writers. Planning it over coffee beforehand we got a little giggly and decided to label ourselves ‘the experimentalist’ – Candy, because she tries everything – ‘the fetishist’ – Sarah, who has a distinctly weird preference for LiveJournal, and 'the slut'. And I’m proud to be that slut. But I thought perhaps I should explain my sluttish behaviour, and how you can be a happy slut too.
I’m promiscuous. On the internet that is. I blog, I facebook, I tweet. I do it a lot and I do it with a lot of people. I’m a whole lot less fussy about whom I friend and whom I follow and whom I have (social) intercourse with on the internet than I would be otherwise. I do it with strangers. I do it with acquaintances. I do it with distant relatives and old flames.
I’ve got a bit of a reputation. I became a slut in order to get that reputation. Just under two years ago I got a book deal and I realised that it'd help my publishers' sales team if I was a little bit visible. And also that it'd help me too. Sometimes I might say or do silly things, but mostly I think my reputation's a good thing. It's better than being utterly ladylike but completely invisible.
As for the actual (social) intercourse - it’s not serious and it’s not long-term and I don’t worry about it too much. I have to admit that I don’t take a huge amount of time writing blog posts or composing witty tweets. You take me as you find me. Hopefully you find me entertaining enough to want to read more. Even better, you might want to spend money getting to know me better.
I’m too subtle (just about)  to be a total whore. I try very hard not to jump up and down shouting ‘Buy the books! Buy the books!’ I hope I know when enough is enough. I’ll repeat a compliment - a nice review, say, or a nomination – but not so often that it starts to grate. And  I’m a lot nicer on the internet than I am in person. I spend a lot of time shouting about other people’s successes, telling my internet pals how wonderful everyone else is. I’m an internet tart with a heart of gold.
I know quite a few people who find the whole concept of internet slutdom distasteful and just too revealing . I used to feel like that too. But, now I’ve got used to it, I love it. I’ve made lots and lots of new friends - real friends, people I’ve met and like a lot and care about (that goes for some of the new friends I haven’t met yet as well).  I never feel lonely. And I’m prepared to bet I’ve sold a fair number of books too.
There is a drawback with internet sluttiness. It’s time-consuming. It’s addictive. It can get in the way of serious long-term relationships, such as books to be written and children to be attended to. So at times I have to put aside my social media gladrags, and stay home with the boy(book)friend. But now – with Lia’s Guide to the Lottery written and edited, and new projects just getting started – is not that time. Let’s party!

Monday, 15 November 2010

Ten Things I learned at the SCBWI Conference

The British bit of SCBWI celebrated its tenth birthday in Winchester this weekend, and a meme has sprung up -  ten things I learned at SCBWI conference. You can read others here, here and here.
So..here are mine.

1. Those little avatars on Twitter? Those grinning boxes on Facebook? Real live three-dimensional people, I tell you. It is true. Although I was disappointed that @PoodlePowered had no poodles.
That's me...and me....

2. Such are the powers of persuasion of Candy Gourlay and Sarah McIntyre that I allowed myself to be branded an Internet Slut for our debate on Social Marketing – Curse or Blessing. So creative and prolific are they on the internet, that after we’d all introduced ourselves, we were left with three minutes for debating.

3. If you want to get published you should go to SCBWI conference. It is one of the best places for writers to meet and hear from people in the publishing industry. If you are published, or have no interest in being published -  you should still go to SCBWI conference. There's something about being with so many creative people that just feels great.

4. If you tell a room of writers to dress ‘smart casual’ 98 per cent will wear black, blue or purple.

5. If you gather together three or four writers, hand them two newspaper cuttings and give them less than ten minutes discussion time, they can weave them together into perfectly plausible plots...even when they’re looking at the wrong side of the bit of newspaper.

6. If you are lucky enough to be chairing a panel on which the fab publisher David Fickling appears, sit him at the far end of the table so he can gesture enthusiastically without danger of knocking your glasses off. His natual projection means he won’t need a microphone either. He will enliven the entire debate, which covered industry matters such as gender stereotyping, government spending cuts, discounting, digital books and trends.

7. David Blanch, editor of Carousel children’s book review magazine thinks that crime might be the Next Big Thing. Hear that, vampires and angels? Crime. Oh hang on, my next book does feature vampires and angels.  Damn.

8. ‘If you haven’t got a notebook for ideas - you’re not an author.’ Marcus Sedgewick. Hmmm. May have to visit Paperchase. Or the Ideas Shop.

9. Jon Mayhew , author of the fantastically creepy Mortlock, works four days a week, has four children, writes books and works tirelessly to promote his books at schools, shops, folk festivals. I haven’t met her, but my total respect to Mrs M.

10. SCBWI conference is an incredibly uplifting experience, full of the loveliest people.  For me, Marcus Sedgewick's presentation on writing about places was the highlight of the weekend.  You can join SCBWI here. (Don't worry if it looks all American, you'll join and then discover the British bit )

Sunday, 14 November 2010

The Icing on the Cake

You write a book and people publish it, buy it, read it. That's the cake.
You get nominated for some awards * and you think, that's the icing on the cake.
 But you're wrong. Because this is the icing on the cake. Literally.

This magnificent cake -  not so much a cake as a work of art -  was created for the tenth birthday party of  the British Isles chapter of the Society of Children's Books Writers and Illustrators in Winchester this weekend. At the party 17 books published by members in 2010 were celebrated. How did my book get to be immortalised (temporarily) in cake? The lovely organisers of the party picked two books to feature on the cake by pulling names out of a hat (the other is gorgous picture book Vern and Lettuce by Sarah McIntyre).
The party also honoured Margaret Carey, my cousin-in-law, for being a stalwart volunteer who has done so much to make SCWBI the fantastic organisation it is today. Hurray for Margaret!  I'm new to SCWBI, and I'd recommend it to anyone who writes or makes art for children.
So...thank you SCWBI for the beautiful book cake! That was the best surprise in the world. I will blog about the rest of the conference later in the week.
*I don't like to show off, so I'm writing this small. In recent weeks,When I Was Joe has been nominated for the Carnegie Medal in the UK and for the William C Morris Award in the USA. It's also been nominated to be included on the  American Library Association 2011 list of Best Fiction for Young Adults. It's shortlisted for the North East Teen Book Award and  the Coventry Inspiration Awards,   (votes and coments much appreciated) and long-listed for the Redbridge Book Awards, and the UK Literacy Association Book Award.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010


In today's paper..how to stop homophobia in schools.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Saving lives with their stories

Which word provokes the most agonised soul-searching when I’m writing teen fiction? Which subject worries me the most?

Dan Savage (right) and his partner Terry
It’s not a swear-word, nothing to do with violence, drugs, crime, self-harming or lying. Just one little word, yet it provoked heated debate in my writing group. It’s one of the biggest themes of When I Was Joe, yet no reviewer has picked up on it.
The word is ‘gay’.
In When I Was Joe (spoiler alert) Ty’s friend Arron bullies him, by calling him ‘gay’ and ‘pretty boy’. Ty worries about his own sexuality, although he can never quite bear to articulate his doubts and concerns. When he is with girls he is relieved to discover that he is  -  as he thinks - definitely not gay – yet his thoughts invariably turn to Arron. Gay thoughts and feelings are perceived by Arron and Ty as something to fear and hate, something that can be bullied out of existence. Arron maintains control over Ty by labelling all sorts of things as gay - foreign languages, for example. To become a man, according to Arron, all things gay must be reviled and avoided.
Now, in writing this I was reasonably sure that I was accurately portraying the harsh world of many teenagers, and the confusion that many boys feel about their own innermost feelings and sensations as they change from boys to men. I worried, however, that in reflecting this I would make gay teens feel worse.
In Lia’s Guide to Winning the Lottery, which I've just about finished, there’s a boy who is different. The question of whether he might be gay is again a subject for negative speculation (you'll have to wait until the summer to find out if he is or not) In reflecting the homophobia that I believe often exists amongst teens, could I make things worse?
I honestly don’t know the answer, but  I hope that the books I write make readers think and reflect about these matters,  as I do when I write. In the meantime I am moved beyond measure by the It Gets Better project. What a simple and clever idea – in response to the suicides of several gay teenagers in the US, writer Dan Savage set up a website where people can reassure bullied teens that their lives will change, that things will improve. The hope is that their stories willprevent other suicides, will bring hope and solace to scared and isolated teens.
The site contains moving testimony from adult survivors of bullying. Some are gay, some are lesbian. Some are bisexual or transgendered. Others are heterosexual, but they have been bullied themselves or know that their words will help and inspire. Barack Obama has made a video, so has Hillary Clinton. Ben Cohen, the English rugby player is big, butch and beautiful – he’s not gay himself, but he’s very happy to have a gay following, and he’s made his video for them. Dan Savage and his partner Terry talk on their video about being bullied at school, and how their families came to accept them. It’s a website with incredible power and beauty. It could and should change and save lives.
I know how it feels to be bullied by the culture. When I was growing up, ‘spastic’ was a playground term of abuse, thrown around thoughtlessly and regularly. Every time I heard it it was as though a knife had sliced through me. My brother - my sweet, clever, friendly, earnest, brave brother -  suffers from cerebal palsy, and in those days people like him were called spastics. Today the phrase isn’t so common, but the bullying of the disabled is still part of the culture. There have been some horrendous cases reported recently of families with disabled members subject to abuse, some of which have culminated in murder or suicide.
And I’d go as far as to say that some of the actions of the current government in the name of saving money have institutionalised the bullying of disabled people. How can we reverse this? How can we create a society which accepts and supports every one of us?
It gets better. You have to believe it. And the more people who understand why it needs to get better, the better it will get.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Catching up...party report

This blog has not died - I hope – but it has been slightly comatose, thanks to a killer combination of last minute rewrites (Lia the lottery girl is proving annoyingly difficult to nail down) and the hideously confusing process of viewing secondary schools in north London for the boy.

Anyway Lia is nearly finished - unfortunately every time I think it's done something occurs to me which will be a massive improvement but which involves vast amounts of unravelling and re-knitting the story. One last bit to stitch together over the weekend, And the school choices are made. So, before an entire month goes past, I must tell you about the launch party for Almost True.

As with all the best parties, it’s a bit of a blur …so many great people to talk to…so here are just a few highlights. Gush alert -  you have been warned. The following list is not for diabetics.
1. The sheer variety of people there. Some had come a long way ( thank you again Ann from Amsterdam, Anne from Jersey, Jonny from Manchester, Linet from Oxford…and more of you, I know…), others were locals. You came from almost every bit of my past and present, you were Facebook unleashed, Twitter made flesh. Family, friends, neighbours, writers, publishers, agents  and many people who blurred every category going. It was incredible, amazing, confusing, frustrating (so many people to talk to! So little time! Who is that woman?) and completely wonderful. And Ruth managed to avoid giving birth, even though she was only days away from her due date.

2. The people who’d helped - and that’s not just Corinne from Waterstone’s Islington and everyone from Frances Lincoln who organised the party....not to mention publishing the book. There was Tony, my former flatmate and legal adviser, chatting to Jeremy, brother in law and source of all knowledge about medical matters. Here was Karen, my old school friend, whose 25 years as a police officer was invaluable to the last few chapters. And of course my writing group colleagues who’d read every chapter…through several drafts, and deserved a medal for endurance reading.

3. The readers. Teenagers who’d read and enjoyed one or both books, who wanted their books to be signed and asked if there might be another book about Ty. I got a big lump in my throat when I looked at one boy’s well-thumbed copy of Almost True - owned for less than a month and already read three times. ‘Thank you for getting my brother to read,’ said his sister.

4. My publicist, the very wonderful Nicky Potter (she knows everyone) suggested that I found a teenage boy to do some readings. Tom Hilton was the perfect person. First, he read brilliantly. It’s quite something to hear a voice that you’ve created come to life, and when Tom read that’s what happened. I wanted to sit him down and make him read every word of both books (anyone out there want to make an audio book?).

But there were other reasons why Tom was the best man for the job. His mum, the writer Amanda Swift was the tutor who ran the Writing for Children course at City University where When I Was Joe was first developed and written. Amanda’s contribution to both books has been enormous. And Tom was the first teenage boy to sample chapters as I wrote them. When Amanda told me each week that he’d approved, it meant more than any other reader’s response (apart from my daughter’s of course, still my sternest critic).

And going back to 1947, Amanda’s mother, Mary, and my father, Joseph, were classmates at the Manchester Institute of Science and Technology studying textile chemistry. Theirs was a small group – no more than eight - and they were good friends. What are the odds that sixty years later, Mary’s daughter would be teaching Joseph’s daughter in a university classroom? And that Mary’s grandson would read from Joseph’s daughter’s book at its launch? Sadly, Mary passed away some years ago,and my dad had a bad cold and wasn’t able to be there. But it still felt like a magically special coincidence.

5. Islington. Neither book is set in Islington - Ty’s from nearby Hackney. But it felt just right that Waterstone’s Islington was the venue. It's not just that City University is in Islington,and so is the library where my writing group meets. The nearest tube is Angel, and when my great-grandfather arrived in this country from the Ukraine in the early years of the twentieth century (he went off to Argentina for a while, but that's another story), he set up a metal-plating business in Torrens Street, just behind the station. The family business is no more, but the building is still there,and still has the original sign over the door - a big, dark, Victorian relict amid the glossy office blocks and trendy restaurants that dominate the area. It’s a little bit of London’s past that overlaps with my family history, and I find it touching that my life was changed at the City University, so near to where my grandfather, great-grandfather, great-uncle, uncle and cousins earned their living by transforming base metal into something shiny and new.
Update:  After posting this, I did a little googling and I discovered that the Islington Metal Works is now a fabulous party venue with its own Facebook page  and that before my great-grandfather bought it, it was a stables, three storeys high. I'm now desperate to have a party there..

6. The writers. I didn’t  know many writers before I become one (I mean writers of fiction, not journalists of course) and it was a giddy experience to look around the room and realise how many talented writers had become friends. This is in no small part due to the very lovely Fiona Dunbar, who has kindly made it her business to introduce me to the north London children’s world…and revealed that my neighbour, Kaye, whom I knew as a nice lady to smile at on the street was actually Kaye Umansky, creator of the classic witch Pongwiffy. At the party Kaye knew all our neighbours, and most of the writers, and many of the publishing people, and she pounced on the Frances Lincoln editorial director, Maurice Lyon, with memories of working together twenty years before.

7. Maurice himself is not one to grab the limelight, and it was great fun to read other accounts of the party and enjoy his great press.  As Anna of the Chocolate Keyboard wrote, Maurice ‘looks gratifyingly like what part of my inner soul feels a publisher should look like.’. Karen Ball’s verdict was that Maurice is ‘one of those rare jewels in publishing: an editor who cares deeply and is genuinely vested in developing Keren as an author.’ What they said! Yes!

8. And then there's my family. Possibly the most special moment of the whole evening was spotting the look on my husband's face as I made my speech.  Other people claimed to have seen looks of joy and pride on the faces of my kids - something they strenuously denied afterwards.'Everyone asked us the same thing,' they complained, 'Are you proud of your mum?'  Well, I, as nearly always, was extremely proud of them.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Written in the Stars

Tinie Tempah
It's not often you find children's authors getting a namecheck in a hit song - and its not often that music videos celebrate writing as a pastime.
So hurray for the great Tinie Tempah, currently the UK's number 1 with Written in the Stars, which not only mentions Malorie Blackman ('Look I'm just a writer from the ghetto like Malorie Blackman/Where the hell's all the sanity at, damn/I used to be the kid that no one cared about/That's why you have to keep screaming til they hear you out) but also has a video which shows a beautiful kid (a boy, I think) coping with a troubled life by writing in a notebook. His mother's a prostitute, he's bullied and laughed at, but writing offers an escape and the  hope that one day his voice will be heard (Everyone's a kid that no-one cares about/You just have to keep screaming until they hear you out.) You can see the video here.
Now there's a lot more to Malorie Blackman as a writer than the colour of her skin (her latest, Boys Don't Cry about a teenage father left holding the baby; and his gay brother is out soon and it sounds brilliant) but Tinie's mention shows that colour and ethnicity does matter, that Malorie gives younger black writers a role model and a feeling that someone understands and reflects their experience.
I wrote about my own take on this on Norm Geras's blog recently -  about loving the character Miranda West in Antonia Forest's Marlow books, because she, like me, was English and Jewish. All the other Jewish characters that I read about in children's books were foreign and persecuted, something that made me anxious and annoyed.Strangely enough that hasn't much changed in British children's books (and I'm aware that I've done nothing yet to transform things). If you're looking for contemporary Jewish teenagers in YA fiction they'll most likely be American. Or invisible.
Diversity matters in children's books. Giving a voice to all sorts of people. Giving every young person role models. Showing them their own lives reflected in books. Opening their eyes to the experiences of others. It's how we learn, it's how we show children that everyone matters, it's how -  as Tinie puts it - minorities send 'a message to the main.'
My publishers, Frances Lincoln, have long been supporters of diversity in children's books, and every year they give  new writers a great chance to get published with the Diverse Voices Award, set up in memory of Frances Lincoln to promote diversity in children's literature. The winner gets £1,500 and the chance to be published -  it's an unusual prize in that it supports books which are not yet published. The 2009 winner was Cristy Burne, whose Takeshita Demons  -  first of a trilogy - is a thrilling horror adventure based on Japanese mythology; and in 2010 the winner was Tom Avery whose book Too Much Trouble  is coming out next summer.
So, if you're a children's writer trying to get published with a manuscript that Tinie would approve of, get it in shape for the Diverse Voices competition. The closing date for entries is February 25th 2011; and you can get an entry form and more details here . Your chance to be written in the stars.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Almost True - the launch

Just to let you lovely blog followers know that Almost True, the book is being launched at Waterstones, Islington Green on Thursday at 6.30pm. All welcome, come and have a glass of wine and listen to a couple of extracts read by a real live teenage boy. I might make a little speechette as well.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

A third book?

So, several people have read Almost True and asked me a difficult question.
Will there be a third book about Ty?
I have a few answers, which all add up to one thing: I really don’t know.
When I finished writing Almost True I felt emotionally drained. So many things had happened to Ty, and I felt as though I’d been there at his side. I needed a break! I was also worried about being labelled as a writer who wrote dark, grim and serious books about dark, grim and serious subjects (although I happen to think that neither Joe nor True are particularly grim or miserable) And so the next idea I came up with was supposedly lighter and more upbeat - although it’s amazing how much angst, sex and death one can work into a story about winning loads of money. (Of course, Lia is just a draft at the moment and may lighten-up considerably once my editors have seen it)
To write a third book about Ty my agent and publishers have to be sure that it’s commercially viable - that there are enough readers out there who’ve enjoyed When I Was Joe and Almost True and would want to buy another copy.
And then I need to think up a plot that will take the story on in a satisfying way. I have a few ideas kicking around, but I need to think about whether they’d be enough for a whole book. I wouldn’t want to fizzle out after a few chapters.
In a funny sort of way I feel bad about making Ty suffer any more. Most of my plot ideas are quite tough on him, and after two books I’m rather fond of the boy. Maybe I should just leave him alone.
One of the hard things about writing my next book, Lia’s Guide to Winning the Lottery, has been leaving Ty’s voice behind and moving on. So I have to make sure that a third Ty book wouldn’t feel like a step backwards. One possibility,I suppose, would be to continue Ty's story with another narrator and a different focus-Archie, say or even Claire.
I never planned to write a sequel in the first place. When I started writing When I Was Joe I recklessly killed off Ty's dad in the second chapter (a motorcycle accident when Ty was two) My friend Anna suggested that I should resurrect him, in case I ever fancied writing a sequel. How I scoffed. But I brought him back to life - albeit totally absent from Ty's life - and once I'd finished the first book and was querying agents, I got a bit bored. I had nothing to write. Then the first line of Almost True occurred to me..and the last line of chapter four (I think it's four. When someone's sitting on Ty's bed). And I could see how to get from one sentence to the other and I was off. And when I'd found and agent and a publisher, the fifteen chapters I had written of Almost True was enough to secure a two-book deal,for which I am ever grateful.
Funnily enough I think I have a first sentence for book three. Now, just the rest to think up.
So, that’s why I say I don’t know. I’ll talk to my agent and my publishers, and we’ll see. In the meantime, if you’ve read Almost True,I’d love to know what you think. Are you satisfied with two books, or dying for more? Please leave a comment below - spoilers are fine, we’ll assume that everyone reading the comments has read both books.

Monday, 23 August 2010

The bit that got away

Some things just can't be squeezed into a book. However much you want to fit them in,they just fall out in the editing process.
Almost True is about to be published - September 2 is the official launch date,although some bookshops and online booksellers have it already,so I thought I'd introduce it with a few posts - and in this first one,tell you about the bit that got away.
It came from my brother Alun(he's very clever and exceptionally well-read) who, after I'd told him the title of the book, said 'Of course! I didn't realise you were quoting Philip Larkin.'
Of course I didn't realise either. But once I'd read the poem,I was determined to fit the last two verses in somehow. Unfortunately I never found a convincing way to do it. Ty and poetry didn't seem to mix. So,reluctantly,I left them out.
The poem is about two stone effigies of medieval figures,found at Chichester Cathedral, lying hand in hand. Larkin found them 'extremely affecting' and wrote An Arundel Tomb about mortality and love - asking what is left behind when we die. Typically, Larkin's 'almost instinct' that love survives us is only 'almost true'. Strangely,it turns out that the stone statues he admired were replaced in the nineteenth century,and the grasped hands were a Victorian addition. So the poem gained another layer of 'almost truth'.
I'm just going to quote the last two verses in isolation,because they work so well with When I was Joe and Almost True. So many words - identity, helpless, hollow, unarmorial,smoke, untruth, attitude, fidelity - resonate with my books. Even 'scrap of history' is not a bad way of summing up fiction which borrows from fact. I get a lump in my throat every time I read these lines.

Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

You can read An Arundel Grave here

Friday, 20 August 2010

Figment of the imagination

One of the best thing about writing for teens is meeting lots of teens who love to write. And my goodness, they are talented - from published authors like Hannah Moskowitz and Steph Bowe, to the many others who are pretty sure to be published sometime soon (Hey, Amna. And Hannah. And Joe)
Anyway, in the States there's a new website being set up for teens who love to write and read and share all this stuff. It's called figment.com and you can sign up for the beta site here.
I wrote a piece for their blog - all about why I wasn't a teenage writer (well, I was really, but I was a teenage reporter which is subtly different.You can read it here.
They make fab videos at figment(checkout their version of Breaking Dawn) and in honour of When I was Joe they've made one about Britishisms. Naturally I don't understand a word.
Most excitingly of all they are running a writing competition based on the theme of Witnessing Secrets,which I'm going to judge. Sign up to enter.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Advice from an A level failure

I screwed up my A levels quite spectacularly. In fact my results were so unbelievably bad that I couldn't quite take them in. I remember blankly looking at the paper - 29 years later I still can't bring myself to tell you just how bad they were - and then trying to get back to sleep, in the vain hope that it was all a horrible dream.

A levels have changed a great deal over the last 29 years, but they are still the main measurement tool used to judge whether British school-leavers will make it to university, which one and which course. Today's the day that pupils get their results - in a climate in which the odds are stacked against them. 'Who'd be 18 today?' asked a newspaper headline earlier this week, and with universities cutting budgets and course places, tutorial and living costs rising and jobs being cut everywhere, it's hard to disagree. Even good grades are no guarantee of a university place and career success nowadays.

When the news that I'd failed my A levels sank in, when I realised I wasn't going to take up my place at university, I felt like my life had ended. But, you know what, it hadn't. I got through it, and it worked out. I got a job as a messenger girl on a newspaper and that turned into a successful career as a journalist. Failing my A levels undoubtedly sharpened my elbows.

But there are a few things I wish someone had told me at the time.
- Exam results do not define you. Your success or failure in life cannot be measured by grades. From now on, you set your own goals, and you gauge your own success.
- You can learn from poor results. Maybe you picked the wrong subjects, were at the wrong school, had poor teachers or had insufficient study skills. Perhaps deeper emotional factors held you back. Take a bit of time to think and talk these things through. Take failure seriously, but view it as an accident that can be avoided in the future, not a life sentence.
- Don't dismiss other opportunities. It may seem so shattering to fail to get into the university of your choice to study the subject of your dreams, that every other option seems tainted by that bitter feeling. But there may be plenty of excellent options available. Consider vocational training or part time study. Look at what's available through clearing. Alternative does not mean second-best. One friend of mine accepted a place through clearing, had a blast at college, went on to post-graduate study and a high-flying career as an economist. She ddn't let dropping grades at A level and not getting her first choice course stand in her way.
- Consider the Open University. The courses are well designed, the tutors are excellent, there are study centres, day schools, residential courses. You can study part time, you can take gap years, you can build a multi-disciplinary degree. More and more young people are studying through the Open University, combining it with working.
- Think about volunteering or working overseas. You're young, you're free, you can do anything. If Britain's short on opportunities, try elsewhere.
- You can still succeed at exams. Just because you didn't do well at these exams, does not mean you have to avoid all exams, or you will automatically fail everything. A few years ago I sat an Open University exam and achieved 93%. This is not because I am some sort of genius, or worked especially hard. It was completely down to a truly outstandingly excellent tutor, who in the course of a day school in Brussels taught us exactly how to revise for that particular exam.
- Many many areas of life have nothing to do with A levels. They don't measure your success in friendship or love. They don't measure your creativity, adaptability, ambition or business ability. It may be that slipping off your planned path will help you discover your other strengths.
- Don't envy your friends who are going off to uni. They will not learn as much about themselves as you will right now (hard to accept, I know, but true).
- No one will remember. The only people who remember that you had to change course or retake or whatever are the ones who never achieve much after their A levels.
- It's never too late. I picked up my studies with the Open University in my mid thirties. I've had to put them on hold for the last few years. I'm definitely going to get my degree though, even though I might be 60 by the time it's complete.
- Keep a diary. One day you'll look back on your current despair and wonder what you were worried about.
- Ignore the critics. Older people are very disrespectful towards today's teenagers, often suggesting that academic standards have dropped. They rarely understand how courses have changed and why. Pay them no attention.
- Stay calm Really the best advice I have ever had. During life's stresses and catastrophes, fretting and panicking just makes things worse. Yes, feel disappointed, yes, get angry and upset. But try not to worry. Things have a way of working out.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Books for the boys

Are the right YA books out there for boy readers? How can writers engage with boys, and get them to read more? Is it true that boy readers feel excluded by writers and publishers?
This debate has been rumbling in the blogosphere for some time. First the immensely talented US writer Hannah Moskowitz wrote a post suggesting that too many male characters in YA are stereotypes. ‘Boys don't read YA,’ she said, suggesting that older teen boys pass straight onto adult and non fiction. She suggests that boys in YA books have been stereotyped and sanitised, ‘stripped of substance’ in order to empower girl readers. Her solution is to ‘Write, publish, and promote books with real boys….three dimensional and relatable.’ Science fiction and fantasy, in particular.
Then US fantasy writer Tamora Pierce responded, pointing out the large number of male American YA writers and defending her choice of strong female characters. ‘There are still more books for guys out there than there are for girls. It's fine that people write guy heroes. But please don't knock those of us who know that being a girl, and a woman, is a lifelong fight, on the shelves and off.’
And now British writer Rhiannon Lassiter has posted a very thoughtful response, pointing out that the problem is more about reading vs non-reading than perceived gender difference. ‘The accepted wisdom in publishing as I’ve experienced it is that girls and women are enthusiastic readers, regardless of the gender of the protagonist; boys and men are reluctant readers who are only willing to read books about boys and men having adventures. My own experience suggests that contempt for reading in teenagers is much more a construct of exaggerated gender roles in society than any gendered antipathy. Both women and men can fall into the trap of wanting to appear anti-intellectual.’

As someone who’s written two books from a male point of view and just finished (yay!) the first draft of a third written with a girl narrator, here’s my take on the subject.

- Creating truly realistic three dimensional teenage characters is difficult if you want them to be sympathetic. The real master of this is Melvin Burgess, his Doing It is the best representation I’ve ever come across of real live teenage boys, and many teenage girls (and indeed some boys) would find their casual sexism totally repulsive. Equally, creating a real teenage girl – sometimes selfish and unreasonable, prone to mood swings and tantrums - comes across as demented and obnoxious on the page. So complete three dimensional realism may need to be somewhat watered down unless you wish to alienate your readers.

- In the UK there’s less of a distinction between ‘middle grade’ books for younger teens and YA books for older ones. Everyone tends to be lumped together as 12 plus. Many bookshops shelve their teenage books next to the picture books. What self-respecting teenage boy is going to be seen browsing there? Not many, I suspect. No wonder teens turn to adult and non-fiction books. Why not shelve older teen books alongside the adult books. Then older readers might buy them too. I’ve seen this done - at Deansgate Waterstones in Manchester, for example.

- Booksellers, librarians, publishers, writers – please stop thinking that books must divide into boys’ and girls’ books. Aim to attract readers, not put them off.

- I get more direct emails from girls than boys. I got more comments from the mothers of boys than girls, thanking me for getting their son reading. Booksellers tend to categorise my books as ‘boys’ books, because the main character is a boy and because there is blood on the cover. The girls tend to mention the love story element of the book...and several have said that they picked up the book because of the gorgeous boy on the cover. Not one boy reader on hearing that the next book is about a girl has said ‘I won’t be reading that.’ Of course they may be being polite. But I tend to think that readers who enjoy character-driven books like mine, don’t give a toss about gender.

- There’s a lot of competition for teen readers’ attention. Computers, television, gameing, sport. Plus in the UK older teens now have three years on the trot of important life-changing exams, plus essential on-going coursework as well. Teenagers’ lives do not have a lot of space for reading, and the national curriculum mostly ignores the potential of reading for pleasure. So anything is helpful which challenges the current culture and reminds teens that reading can be fun, interesting, comforting, helpful and mind-expanding. Reading groups in and out of school. Author visits to schools. Teachers and librarians who read contemporary YA literature and enthuse about it. Parents who take an interest too - without telling kids what they ‘should’ be reading. All of this helps the non-readers, whether boys or girls.

All this and more was up for discussion at an event I took part in last week at Piccadilly Waterstones, discussing life after vampires with fellow authors Tabitha Suzuma and L A Weatherley. Tabitha’s powerful story of consensual incest Forbidden has just been published (powerful is hardly the word, the book is so intensely affecting that I took days to recover). Lee’s new paranormal romance Angel is out in October, sounds fab and is being tipped as the next big thing. She made the point that the current craze for 'dark romance' has helped give books like hers a platform - something to remember when those of us who don't write paranormal romances are whingeing about the shelf space and marketing spend they get in the wake of the Twilight phenomena.

The audience was packed with publishing folk and booksellers – taking part in a new children’s book forum set up by Piccadilly’s own Nicole Burstein, a bookseller full of the kind of intelligent enthusiasm that warms an author’s heart. Any teenage boy who thinks they don’t like to read should immediately be marched down to Piccadilly and presented to Nicole, who will doubtless find him a hundred books starring both boys and girl characters.

Some books we discussed were the immensely successful Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins - a dystopian tale with a strong female main character Katniss, and two somewhat idealised male love interests - Gale (strong, dark, silent, moody, good at hunting) and Peeta (blond, sensitive, loving, artistic, long lush eyelashes and good at making cakes). Catching Fire, the second in the series was marketed in the UK with dual covers - one with a quote from Stephen King, another with a quote from Stephenie Meyer. It’s worked - Mockingjay, third and last in the trilogy is the YA publishing event of the month and I’m among the millions of readers who can’t wait for get my hands on it.

Is that because of the marketing, or the gender of the characters? I think it’s just a good read. But what do boy readers think? I'd love to know.

Friday, 13 August 2010

The smashed lamp

Today's guest post is written by my husband and the managing director of a hotel in north-west England.

Dear Guest Services Manager

I stayed in one of your apartments last week.
I had a pleasant stay - unfortunately shortly after I arrived, I
accidentally knocked over a bedside lamp which fell to the floor and
smashed. I accept that I should be liable for the cost of replacing it,
providing that's a reasonable amount.
I was astonished to be informed by your reception staff that I would be
liable for a £40 replacement charge
I have the same lamp at home, so I know that it's an Ikea Kroby lamp. I
checked the IKEA website and found that its current cost is £11.95. This
means that you are charging me an additional £28.05 over and above the cost
of replacement - a mark up of approximately 250%.
I can understand your charging a few pounds to cover additional costs, but
250% of the cost of the item is wholly unreasonable and excessive.
I paid the £40 before I left on Sunday - I'm asking you to refund that
amount (less the £11.95 cost of the lamp plus, say £5, to cover your
administrative expenses).
I'm a regular visitor to XXX and it's likely that I'd stay at XXX on future occasions. However, as I've said, I was shocked by this
punitive and disproportionate breakage charge. If we were unable to settle
this matter amicably, I would not feel inclined to make a reservation with
you again.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Kind regards

Dear Mr XXX

Thank you for your email which has been forwarded to me for a prompt response. I am glad you enjoyed your stay in XXX and welcome your comments.

The charge of £40 for the lamp covers both the lamp itself and the costs associated with replacing it, the charges are clearly displayed in the guest directory in all of my apartments. In addition to the lamp cost, one of my team also need to spend their time going to Ikea to purchase the replacement with a round trip time of at least two hours and associated fuel costs. The apartment also would have been out of action until the damaged lamp was replaced, again bringing with it an associated cost of between £79 - £299 / night.

I appreciate that the damage to the lamp was an accident and thank you for your honesty is reporting the incident, however I am afraid that the £40 standard charge stands and will not be refunded.

Kind regards,

Dear Mr XXX

Thanks for your prompt reply.

I'm afraid that none of the reasons that you give for a breakage charge of 250% over and above the replacement cost of the lamp are valid.

I arrived at the apartment on Friday evening. I knocked over the lamp shortly after I arrived and immediately reported the damage to your reception. One of your maintenance staff knocked at our door at 9.30am on Saturday morning having brought a replacement lamp with him. As IKEA XXX does not open until 9am, we can perhaps agree that a special trip was not necessary.

I'd imagine that you have replacement lamps available on the premises for just this eventuality. I'm not surprised by that as I'd expect any well run property to plan for a certain level of wear and tear and accidental breakages.

I checked out on Sunday morning so the apartment was not, at any time, 'out of action' and your company did not incur any loss of rental.

Given these particular cirumstances, I'd ask you to reconsider your decision. I'd be sorry if you were unable to do that, as I'd like to be able to stay at XXX again. I wouldn't feel able to do that if you insist upon a charge which, given the specific factors I've described, is not proportionate to the loss incurred by you and which I therefore consider to be wholly unreasonable.

I look forward to receiving your response.

Kind regards

Dear Mr XXX

I would very much appreciate a response to my mail below.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Kind regards

Dear Mr XXX

The matter is closed and the published charge for damage charged stands.

Kind regards,

Dear Mr XXX

I am sorry to hear that.

I can only tell you that I consider the egregious breakage charge made by your company to be a form of theft.

I will never stay in one of your properties again and I will advise my family and friends to do likewise. I will also review my recent stay with Trip Advisor and similar websites making clear my dissatisfaction.

I provided you with a detailed explanation of why this charge was unjustified,. You have responded in a discourteous and unreasonable manner, The damage to your company's reputation and loss of future revenue will be greater than the cost of rectifying your error of judgement.

Kind regards

Dear Mr XXX

Your email is rude and threatening – remember it is you who damaged my property not vice verce.

You damaged hotel property. You have been charged the published fee for this damage.

Please do not sink to the depths of threatening me with reviews – as you are aware we are one of the highest rated aparthotels in the country, and were actually recently presented with an award for being one of the top 500 hotels worldwide based on guests feedback and reviews. Please also remember that all review sites have a right of reply / management response facility. I will happily pass your emails onto the review sites to support my case following your damage along with photographs of the damaged property.

Having reviewed your guest history, I can see that you also threatened my staff during a previous stay and insisted on a refund for parking charges. It therefore seems clear that you habitually seek areas for complaint to facilitate refunds. I have to say that out of the 80,000 guests I have staying in my hotels every year you are one of the most unreasonable.

May I recommend Travelodge or Premier Inn for your future hotel needs as I understand they offer a full money back “Satisfaction Guarantee” as I am sure you will wish to take advantage of this.

Your email address has been removed from our offers database, you have been marked as barred from all of my hotels.

Kind regards,

Dear Mr xxx

I'm somewhat surprised by your intemperate outburst. You claim thousands of delighted customers, yet you feel threatened by the prospect of one poor review. There appears to be some inconsistency there.

Your comments are offensive and slanderous. I have never,on any occasion, threatened your staff. I did politely request a parking refund in 2008 because all the spaces in your car park were filled and I had to pay for parking elsewhere. Your staff were happy to sort that out and the matter was settled perfectly amicably. I've always found your staff to be helpful and I have no complaint about them.

My only problem has been with the extortionate amount charged for a broken bedside lamp as well as your rude and deeply unpleasant behaviour when asked to justify an unreasonable charge comprising 350% of the replacement cost of the item.

Being barred from your hotels is no problem for me. In fact, I'd be grateful if you'd send me a full listing of your apartments and hotels. I'd like to ensure that I avoid, even inadvertently, ever setting foot in any of them.

I've travelled extensively for business and leisure for the past 25 years. I've stayed in many different hotels and apartments. During that time, I've never before encountered a hotelier who feels that it's acceptable to treat customers with aggression and contempt. There's clearly a first time for everything.

I very much hope that our paths never cross again.

Kind regards

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

A book for Ramadan

My last post was about learning about other cultures through books, and the book that I've learned most from in recent months has been Boy vs Girl by Na'ima B Robert.
Na'ima's book wasn't teaching me about far-away countries though, but about people I see every day, British Muslims.
One of the things that has shocked me about returning to live in the UK has been the amount of blatant Islamophobia expressed in the media. Just in the last week I've read snide comments about halal meat being on offer in London schools, seen an item on television in which white Christian school children were completely negative about sharing a classroom with Muslim teens, and then there was this article in the Independent, in which the writer's rhetoric was breathtakingly, unashamedly offensive. I wrote a response in the Jewish Chronicle here.
So, in these bigoted and ignorant times, hurray for a writer who reaches out and portrays a faith and a culture as well as Na'ima does. Boy vs Girl is set around the Islamic Ramadan period of fasting and prayer - a period that is just about to begin - and it focusses on a girl's spiritual journey as much as her romantic life - a slant that is so unusual in teen fiction that it made me think a lot about the narratives that we writers offer young women.
As I was reading it I noticed so many similarities with my Jewish family, and I learned a great deal about Islam and Pakistani culture, but never felt that the story was overtaken by the message. Na'ima has a way with description that makes you feel as though you are right there in the kitchen, school or mosque with her characters.
Most of all I was struck by the strong female characters, particularly the niqab-wearing auntie who, I suspect, may well have a great deal in common with Na'ima herself. In an age when wearing the hijab and niqab are so often portrayed as demeaning to women, it was challenging and fascinating to read about a girl deciding whether to embrace modesty, as a step towards self-determination.
I asked Na'ima to write about this aspect of her book for my blog, and I'm so happy that she agreed - at what must be very busy time for her. Thanks Na'ima!

I am delighted to have been invited by Keren to contribute to her fantastic blog. Let me just say something right now: I am a serial failed blogger.I have tried and tried, without any kind of sustained success, to maintain a blog that will connect me to my readers, explore the process of writing a book and discuss the books that my readers and I like. My attempts have been, in a word, pathetic. So, I have decided to accept that regular, faithful, monogamous blogging is not for me - and have decided to be a carefree, swinging blogger instead, writing several guest posts for other 'real' bloggers who make the YA blogosphere what it is. Bless their typing fingers. :)

Onto the subject of this post, which Keren has kindly allowed me to write about: my new book Boy vs. Girl. In a nutshell, Boy vs. Girl' tells the story of a twin brother and sister from a Pakistani family who are about to embark on their first true Ramadan - but find that their old lives, friends and enemies, won't let go so easily.

But Boy vs. Girl is about a lot more than that. There's inter-generational strife, communal prayers, graffiti artists, a forbidden romance, gangs, fights, drugs and loads of Indian/ Pakistani food too!

Keren and I had good fun comparing notes on Muslim and Jewish culture, interfering aunties and different levels of religious covering. Because religion, identity, covering and the idea of female empowerment (and where such empowerment originates) are central to the issues that 'Boy vs. Girl' covers.

There's Farhana, a gorgeous, popular 'A' student who's had her heart broken and is inspired to make this Ramadan really mean something - to fast, pray, be a better Muslim and wear the hijab, the headscarf. Because, contrary to popular belief, Ramadan is not just about fasting, not eating from sunrise to sunset: it is a time for spiritual growth, purification and reflection. Not typical YA fare, I know, but stay with me here.

One of Farhana's biggest influences is her Auntie Naj, a nose ring-wearing, Mini Cooper-driving, university educated 'niqabi' (someone who wears the face veil). But Auntie Naj is not what she seems either - does dressing as she does make her a conformist? Or a rebel? A chequered past and an unusual choice of husband may provide clues to that question.

Then there is Farhana's mother, traditional, conservative, but totally opposed to the hijab and niqab. The standards she has set her her daughter involve plenty of restrictions and talk of an arranged marriage, but she is not willing to accept her daughter's more orthodox interpretation of their shared Islamic faith.

Are Farhana and Auntie Naj those much sought-after 'strong female characters'? I think they are, albeit not in the traditional sense.

These are women who engage with their principles and religious faith on their own terms, who are prepared to risk censure and ridicule to practise it as they see fit, who won't be put off by peers or authority figures, not even the words 'I love you' from a gorgeous guy with a voice like melted chocolate.

In a world of bare-all starlets, boy bands and Botox, maybe a story in which the female characters are not obsessed with make-up, making out and choosing between a vampire and a werewolf might just prove to be a breath of fresh air ...

Find out more about Naima on her website
See the Boy vs Girl trailer here
Check out her first YA book here
And you can buy Boy vs Girl here