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.