This interview was first published on the Book Trust website http://www.booktrust.org.uk
I talked to author Hayley Long about her Costa-shortlisted book What’s Up with Jody Barton? and her approach to writing for teens (warning – contains plot spoilers!)
‘Some books for teenagers don’t seem to have a point. I don’t want to sound like a teacher – even though I am one – but for me, I need more going on in a book than just “I fancy a boy”.’
Author Hayley Long is chatting to me about her latest novel What’s Up with Jody Barton? over a plate of chips in a South London pub. The book, which is one of four titles on this year’s prestigious Costa Children’s Book shortlist, is the story of teenage Jody and twin sister Jolene growing up above their Dad’s lively North London cafe. The two share everything, until a good-looking boy comes between them.
With a pink doodled cover and a humorous first-person narrative, at first sight it may seem like an archetypal teenage girl story of family, friends and first romance – but (and here comes the spoiler alert) Jody’s story has an unexpected twist. 100 pages in, the reader discovers that Jody isn’t a teenage girl as they will probably have assumed, but in fact a teenage boy, who has a crush on the same boy his sister likes, and is struggling to deal with what this means for his own sexuality and identity.
‘I didn’t want to write a book that was defined by that particular issue,’ says Hayley, whilst acknowledging that there are still very few books for teenagers that explore gay and lesbian relationships. ‘It wasn’t something I particularly felt I had to do. But the first book I wrote for teens was Lottie Biggs is (Not) Mad, and I wrote that in part because I’d been teaching in a high school in Cardiff, and I noticed that one of the few areas where there was a real taboo, where kids could be really cruel to each other, was mental health. There was a lot of name-calling and it wasn’t an uncommon experience to have kids that go off the register for a few weeks for depression. Similarly for younger teens, the lesbian and gay issue seemed to be the one thing they really couldn’t get over. Maybe they would be different individually, but in the group mentality of a classroom, it’s a sensitive issue, and it’s generally still really homophobic. I can remember at the time thinking about it, but thinking that I wouldn’t know how to go about approaching it, so I decided to focus on mental health.
‘After I wrote the Lottie Biggs books, I had to come up with something else. My editor said “think about your audience, think about the people who enjoyed Lottie, and write another girl character” but actually I felt quite drained because I’d put so much of myself, and what I could think of in terms of girl stories into Lottie. I didn’t want it to be a pale imitation of that. Then I thought “OK, right, let’s have twins who fancy the same boy” but I literally got to the end of page one, and I thought “this is boring”. How many other books must there be about girls who fancy the same boy?
‘Then I had this devilish little thought that really I wanted to write about a boy, and maybe I could to do it under the radar. But also, I wanted to write something that had some meaning.’
lthough it is about a young gay character, Hayley is keen to emphasise that What’s Up with Jody Barton? is also a broader story about growing up and identity. ‘A lot of reviewers haven’t mentioned the “g-word” in what they’ve written about the book, even though that’s essentially what the whole book is about – it’s a coming-of-age book and a coming out book. But I quite like that people are not talking about that, they are talking about Jody. Ultimately it’s just a book about a teenager.’
Making Jody’s gender a surprise that the reader wouldn’t discover until halfway through the book was a deliberate strategy. Hayley explains: ‘I thought about it, and I didn’t want teenagers to come to the book either with their own ideas of “I’m not reading that”, or deliberately picking it up because of the subject matter. I wanted them to read about the character, and hopefully get to like the character, and then have to deal with the twist.’
The idea of creating a story with an unexpected twist was particularly appealing to her. ‘I remember when I was about 14 I read Catcher in the Rye. It makes it clear at the beginning of the book that the main character is in hospital, but being 14 and reading it on my own, I missed that. I can remember reading all the way through thinking “this is boring – why does everyone go on about this book? It’s just all this minute detail of these three days in a boy’s life”. And then at the end it dawned on me that he’d had a breakdown. I had this feeling of “oh, that’s amazing” and the revelation made me want to go back and read the whole thing again with that knowledge. I hope that kids reading this will have something of the same feeling of, “oh, now I want to read it all again and see how that works”’.
Offering young readers something to surprise and challenge them is part of Hayley’s approach to writing. ‘Today there’s a massive amount of fiction for teens and young adults. If you wanted, you could read nothing else’ she says. ‘It’s great there are so many books, but it means that if you choose, you can be quite narrow in your reading tastes. Obviously I want to write to appeal to my audience, but also I want to challenge them a little bit.’
But creating a book which was structured around this revelation did present difficulties for Hayley as a writer. She explains: ‘The first half of the book was a challenge. There was a real sense of relief when it’s out and I could let that go. The first half of the book had to be much more restrained, but for the second half, there was a shift in the atmosphere – it was freer and faster and it felt much more like a “boys’ book”’
Hayley drew on her own adolescent experiences in writing the book, even making her own teen idols – River Phoenix and The Doors – also Jody’s heartthrobs. ‘Obviously I’ve never been a gay teenage boy, but I thought about how I could project the way your heart hurts because you’re so attracted to someone’ she explains.
The doodles and artwork that punctuate the text also help to create an authentic teenage voice and feel. ‘I like to have a visual,’ she says. ‘I did the Lottie Biggs drawings, and they are how I draw. I wanted these to look different, so for Jody it was about really carefully copying photographs. I like seeing something interesting as I turn the pages. I write what appeals to me, and I like visual things.’
The book is set in and around the Willesden High Road, where Hayley lived during her time in London. ‘The area really came to life for me,’ Hayley explains. ‘It’s not like there’s anything much to recommend it, but when you live there, it is the most interestingly eye-popping place.’ Trying to create an authentic setting also presented challenges though. ‘Beginning to write it was scary and awful. I was thinking “I haven’t lived in London for 10 years, I can’t hear these kids’ voices.” But what made it all click was the two girls in the café, modeled on girls I used to hear in London. I read one review which said I was using a kind of “mockney” voice, but it is actually how a lot of teenagers in North West London speak. They aren’t all middle class. In fact, I toned it down, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to understand them.’ Although she doesn’t plan to write any further books about Jody, she says ‘I’d like to maybe use that setting again and maybe have Jody’s family in the background’.
Talking about her influences, Hayley cites Louis Sachar and Frank Cottrell Boyce as contemporary authors she particularly admires. ‘Holes is genius. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything like it. The structure of it is so perfect. And Frank Cottrell Boyce is so funny. With Framed, there is really clever stuff going on. It’s talking about fine art and at the same time it’s suitable for 8 year olds. I admire books like that.’ Summing up (whilst graciously allowing me to finish the chips) Hayley thoughtfully concludes ‘I suppose I really think that as well as being funny, the whole point of books is to show you a different point of view.’
This blog post was originally published on the Book Trust website
I was delighted to be invited to take part in the Children’s Writers and Illustrators Joined up Reading Conference, organised by the Society of Authors, which took place this weekend.
I was there to talk about writers’ websites, alongside Sarah Benton, Sales and Marketing Manager for Hot Key Books, the Guardian’s Julia Eccleshare and author and History Girls’ blogger, Celia Rees. The session was chaired by author John Dougherty, who’s also part of a group of writers blogging at An Awfully Big Blog Adventure.
Check out illustrator Sarah McIntyre’s amazing illustration of our panel above – in which I look like I’m getting a bit overexcited!
Although it wasn’t perhaps quite as wild as Sarah’s illustration suggests, there’s no doubt that our session was quite a lively affair. There was lots to discuss and some great comments and input from the audience, who had plenty to contribute about their experience of developing their own websites and promoting their work online.
For those who weren’t there, here are some of the key areas we discussed – plus a few extra notes from me on some of the topics we didn’t have time to cover.
Authors do need a web presence
Everyone agreed that today, authors and illustrators are missing an opportunity if they don’t have a presence online. Whether it’s via a traditional author website, a blog, or a Facebook page, the web offers all kinds of ways to engage with your readers. As Hot Key’s Sarah Benton pointed out, by having your own website, you also keep control of the information about you and your books online. As a book reviewer, one of the first things I’ll do if I read a book I like by a new author is to Google them to find out more – so it’s important to make sure there’s up-to-date information about you and your books readily available.
Think about your audience
When planning what you want to do online, think about who you want to reach. If you write for teens or young adults, you might want to concentrate on content that will appeal to them. If you’re a picture book illustrator on the other hand, you might want to think more about ways to engage parents, teachers or librarians.
What platform is right for you?
Consider what sort of content you want to create, and how much time you have to commit. If you don’t think you’ll want to update your site often, you might want a more traditional ‘static’ site, which contains information about your work and how to contact you.
However, if you’re looking to build a relationship with your readers online, a blog might be a better option. You could use a simple, free web-based tool such as Blogger which is incredibly quick and easy to set up, or if you’d like a bit more control and flexibility over how your site works, you could explore WordPress, which offers you a range of different templates, some free or some which you’ll need to pay for.
There are other options too – if you’re an illustrator and want to share sketchbook pictures or images of work in progress, you might find a free platform such as Tumblr, which is specially designed for quickly and easily sharing images, would work well. Or maybe you’d like to share your visual inspirations for your books with your readers using Pinterest? Explore what’s out there and think about what would best suit your needs, as well as your audience’s.
Get help from your publisher
Don’t be afraid to ask your publisher for help or advice about setting up a blog or website. They may be able to offer helpful technical advice, whether it’s about how to get started with your own website, or how to use Twitter (all the publicists I know are expert users of social media!) They can also help promote your site by linking to you online and including it on any promotional material for your books.
Consider group blogging
If you don’t think you have time to blog regularly, but want to have a go, one approach would be to explore group blogging. Group blogs are a great way to share the work of maintaining a blog, whilst also widening your audience, helping new readers to discover you through the work of other authors in the group and vice-versa. There are some great collaborative blogs out there already, such as Girls Heart Books, Trapped by Monsters, Picture Book Den, Authors Electric, The Edge, The History Girls and The Awfully Big Blog Adventure,, some of which might be interested in a guest post. Alternatively you could set up your own group blog with some other authors or illustrators in your field.
Be personal – and be yourself
Your website or blog doesn’t have to be just about promoting your books and providing factual information. Readers tend to be bored by straight ‘self-promotion’, but from working on the Book Trust online writer in residence scheme, one thing that I’ve learned is that they are fascinated by the creative process. They love knowing all the details of how your work comes together, right down to what biscuits you’re eating or what music you’re listening to as you work (Book Trust’s current online writer in residence, Hannah Berry, shares her ‘song du jour’ in each of her blog posts). Aspiring writers and illustrators will love your tips and advice on how to get started too.
Don’t be afraid to be personal and have fun online. Having said that, as one of the writers in the audience pointed out, it can be difficult to know what your online ‘persona’ should be. If you write for younger readers, for example, filling your Twitter timeline with swearing might not go down well with some parents. Set some sensible guidelines that you feel comfortable with, and then just be yourself.
… But don’t allow your website to take over the real business at hand!
Let’s be honest, we all know how much of a distraction the internet can be, whether it’s discussing the line-up for Strictly on Twitter or looking at pictures of kittens. Lots of the authors and illustrators in our session were frank about how the web can become a procrastination tool which stopped them from getting on with the business of writing and illustrating. Our advice? Set yourself some boundaries and avoid spreading yourself too thin. Consider whether you really need to be on every social media platform, or update your blog every day – maybe once a week is enough. Remember you don’t need to write reams – research shows that people read differently online, and actually prefer lots of small pieces to huge blocks of text. You could just write a couple of paragraphs – or even share a photo instead.
For some different approaches to author blogging, check out Sarah McIntyre’s blog, check out Sarah McIntyre’s blog, which is full of photos and illustrations of her doings or Emma Chichester Clark’s illustrated blog written from the point of view of her dog, Plum. Hot Key’s Sarah Benton has also written up some useful tips from our discussion, which you can read here.
This post was first published at http://www.booktrust.org.uk
I was delighted to be invited to go along to the launch of a fantastic new book from Chicken House, The Wolf Princess by Cathryn Constable.
The Wolf Princess is an enchanting and magical story, in the style of classic children’s book authors such as Eva Ibbotson.Lonely schoolgirl Sophie has always had a strange yearning to visit Russia, but never expects her dreams to come true, until an encounter with a mysterious visitor to her humdrum boarding school leads to a chance for she and two of her friends to travel their on a school trip.
But on arrival in St Petersburg, the three friends find themselves alone on the wrong train, and are soon lost in an unknown wilderness. They are rescued by the beautiful Princess Anna Volkonskaya, who takes them away to her crumbling yet beautiful winter palace, and intrigues them with tales of lost diamonds and her family’s tragic past. But what is really going on at the winter palace? As wolves howl in the forests outside, Sophie finds herself drawn into a remarkable adventure.
What could be more appropriate then, than to celebrate the new book with a traditional Russian afternoon tea? The beautiful Mari Vanna restaurant in Knightsbridge made the perfect venue for the launch party, organised by Riot Communications.
The restaurant is richly decorated with a wealth of fascinating and idiosyncratic Russian artefacts, from framed photographs to china ornaments to elaborate samovars to beautifully patterned tiles. Chandeliers gleamed everywhere, and tables were spread with an enticing array of Russian delicacies, from tiny squares of black bread served with herring to perfect little honey cakes and fresh raspberry juice.
Tea with jam!
Barry Cunningham, Publisher of Chicken House, introduced the book and its author, describing The Wolf Princess as ‘a book you want to hug’. Cathryn Constable spoke briefly about what motivated her to write the book, citing her long-standing love of Russian folk-tales and literature as her inspiration, before reading a tantalising extract from the book itself, in which the girls first arrive at the winter palace and meet the mysterious Princess Anna Volkonskaya.
Afterwards we were all given the chance to try a Russian speciality – black tea served with jam to stir into it, just as Sophie and her friends drink it in the book!
Thanks Riot Communications and Chicken House for a wonderful celebration.
From a Monster Calls written by Patrick Ness and illustrated by Jim Kay
This interview was first published on the Book Trust website http://www.booktrust.org.uk
A Monster Calls, written by Patrick Ness and illustrated by Jim Kay, has become the first book ever to win both the CILIP Carnegie and CILIP Kate Greenaway Medals. I spoke to Patrick and Jim about how it feels to share this remarkable honour.
‘One of the defining books of its generation’ is how Rachel Levy, Children’s Library Services Manager for Sutton Libraries, and Chair of the 2012 CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway judging panels, has memorably described A Monster Calls – the first book ever to win both the Carnegie and Greenaway medals.
In winning the Carnegie this year, former Booktrust online writer in residence Patrick Ness also becomes the second author ever to win the award in two consecutive years: he also won the medal in 2011 for the third part of his acclaimed Chaos Walking trilogy, Monsters of Men.
‘Sharing the honour with Jim is great,’ says Patrick. ‘I never expected to win the Carnegie again, but I hoped they might give the Kate Greenaway medal to Jim this year. That was my best case scenario. I never thought they would give both medals to us, so it was a huge surprise.’
Remarkably A Monster Calls is only the second children’s book Jim Kay has illustrated: he credits it with ‘changing my life’. Of winning the prestigious Kate Greenaway Medal, he says: ‘It was great to even be shortlisted. To win the award was just fantastic and not at all expected. It’s a wonderful feeling and it still hasn’t really sunk in. For anyone in illustration, this is a big deal. The list of winners is like a “who’s who” in illustration and it’s fantastic to think my name will be on that list alongside people like Michael Foreman.’
Patrick also acknowledges the prestige of winning the Carnegie. ‘It’s the oldest prize. CS Lewis won it, Ransome won it. It has an incredibly august history.’ But for both Patrick and Jim, it’s ultimately the Carnegie and Greenaway judging processes that set these prizes apart. The judging is rooted in the professional expertise of librarians across the country, who nominate titles to be considered for the shortlist. Patrick explains: ‘Children’s librarians are the ones who are right on the frontline, talking to teenagers and children every day about books. They are the real experts.’
The CILIP Carnegie Greenaway shadowing scheme, which sees children and young people in book groups in schools and libraries all over the country read amd discuss the shortlisted books, is also key to the prize. Patrick says the scheme is ‘brilliant: it’s one of my favourite things in the whole world…. Yesterday I spoke to several shadowing groups in Berkshire and there were a couple of hundred kids there, who were all arguing about the books. They’ve read the books – they are are excited about them, they disagree about them. It’s fantastic.’
Jim adds: ‘We’ve spent hours going through the comments on the shadowing website. I don’t have that much direct contact with readers, and what’s really interesting to me is how well they understand the books. And they’re so honest! It’s fantastic to read their comments.’
One young reviewer from the shadowing scheme described A Monster Calls as a book that ‘not only has the ability to break your heart, but to heal it as well’, touching on the emotional power of a book that Rachel Levy has described as ‘outstanding in every way… a book that readers will remember and return to over and over again.’
But for both Jim and Patrick, it’s also the format and illustration of this beautifully-presented book that make A Monster Calls special. Patrick explains: ‘Books for teenagers and older readers rarely get illustrated – almost never. We thought: why not try to break those rules? Illustration isn’t just for picture books, though picture books are glorious things. Illustration is for everyone.’
Jim adds: ‘Walker didn’t limit us to plates… I was allowed to flow in and out of the text, and that’s a hugely liberating thing for an illustrator. It’s a very rare thing – you see it more in graphic novels.’ Both hope that the book will help to set a precedent, encouraging other publishers to be more adventirous with illustrated books for older readers. Jim comments: ‘I hope it does kickstart a bit more freedom in the way that we see illustrated books, and give illustrators the opportunity to do things differently.’
Of Jim’s illustrations, Patrick says: ‘I think the reason they work so well is that they are suggestive. You never see Conor, for example – you only see silhouettes. Jim’s illustrations give you space for imagination. They create an atmosphere but they don’t tell you how to read the book. Instead they provide a landscape in which you can read the book, and that’s an important difference.’
Jim adds: ‘The text gives you a certain degree of ambiguity and the description is quite sparse. It allows the reader to evolve the story in a very personal way. As an illustrator it was great because not every character is completely pinned down. It gives you that manouverability to build a stage set around the characters and that’s really what we were trying to do.’
The book is also particularly special in that Patrick created the story from the final idea of the late children’s writer Siobhan Dowd, who died in 2007, herself a Carnegie Medal winner (posthumously for Bog Child in 2009). Patrick is specific about how he sees the relationship between Siobhan’s original idea and the finished text:
‘I don’t want to suggest that I’m somehow a conduit for Siobhan. I always think of writing as secret. You have to create a really private space to be free to create, that can’t be seen by other people. For me, in the process of writing this book, it was about bringing Siobhan along to that secret place with me.
‘Even for the best reasons, you cannot write a book as tribute… The risk of that is that you write a bad story, which would be the worst tribute. But in the introduction to the book I talk about running with the baton, and I think that’s the spirit of it. I wasn’t trying to guess what Siobhan would do, but just to grow the story as she would have done. In the end, I hope it isn’t a final tribute but something better, because it keeps people talking about her. It keeps people going back to her other books and reading them; it keeps her name in discussion. It’s a living thing, not a memorial.’
One question that many people will now be asking is whether the two have any future plans to work together. Jim explains: ‘We don’t have any concrete plans yet but I would love for us to work together again in future. I would be delighted and honoured. ‘