What, Why and How I Write

leila The brilliant Leila Rasheed tagged me into this blog tour thingumajig when she posted her own What, Why and How I Write last week. She’s the author of the proper dead funny Chips, Beans and Limousines, and her At Somerton books sound a riot, but personally I cannot wait for her to finish Wish. (Twins! Birthday wishes! These things are my catnip.)

(If you missed it, you should definitely also read Leila’s post Permission to write? My experience of being a British Asian reader, and writer, of children’s books – powerful, honest stuff.)

This week my fellow taggee, YA novelist Eve Ainsworth, has posted her own what/why/how for her 2015 debut Seven Days.

Here’s my own peek behind the scenes…

What am I working on?

Pea's Book of HolidaysWorking title: Sam’s Book of Secrets. The fourth and last book in the Pea’s Book series comes out 5th June 2014, and the only reason I’m not rending my garments and wailing is that I’m writing a series of spin-offs, starting with the family next door. The Paget-Skidelskys are two mums and two Sams (plus a dog), and they’ve been a lovely, secure background presence in all four Pea books. Sam’s the one Pea looks to when she needs help, and he’s always very straightforwardly reassuring. I’m absolutely loving making him the centre of his own story, with a problem of his own to resolve: the impending terror of the school residential trip to Treetops Activity Centre. Sam’s the sort of boy who never worries much about anything, so he doesn’t know how to deal with a real obstacle at all.

How does my work differ from others in the genre?

balletshoesMy aim with the Pea’s Book series was to keep all the warmth, charm and storytelling of classic family stories (I grew up on Streatfeild, Ransome, CS Lewis and Blyton) but from a fiercely contemporary perspective. I want my books to be entertaining and sweet, but also inclusive and diverse, and to reflect the world the UK’s kids live in now.

My books are a little longer than a lot of stories for 8+, too, and that’s because a) I can’t help it, they just come out that way and b) they’re jam-packed with lots of extra ‘for you to think about later’ stuff. Pea’s Book of Big Dreams is about a sleepy tortoise, a poorly hamster, panicking about a mean new teacher at school - and also about how much what you do defines who you are, and the meaning of art. Pea’s Book of Holidays is about tents and ice-cream and ghost-hunting – and how we cope with ambivalence, and responsibility.

Oh, and all my books contain a reference to Doctor Who.

Why do I write what I do?

Doctor Who Fifth DoctorBecause I really like Doctor Who!

OK, ridiculous telly-referencing aside: I don’t think ‘issues’ should be kept in a separate box from funny books or cosy, comforting reads – because ‘issues’ means ‘things that affect people’ and I write about people. So Pea’s Book of Holidays is a daft adventure/mystery story, which also touches on casual racism and includes a character with a disability. I’m sure there’ll be those who groan at that description, as if I’m ticking off boxes on a checklist. But it’s 2014. That’s not a world where the only people who get to go on daft adventures in kids’ books are white, straight, able people.

In the same vein, ‘light’, girl-centred, happy-ending books don’t have to be facile: they can and do ask big questions too.

I suppose I write the books I wish already existed.

How does my writing process work?



I’m an outstanding procrastinator (current timesuck: Doctor Who 2048 – I can only apologise for leading you astray, dear reader), and my ‘process’ is more of a how-not-to than anything else, but here it is.

I’m not a big planner, but I need a bit of faffing time to think about the tentpole bits that are going to hold the whole thing up: characters, opening scene, inciting incident, a big event or two, the ending – plus some vague idea of what it’s about (which I will then forget and repeatedly write down in my notes as if it is some epic late-night revelation, only to discover I knew that already). In first draft mode, I try to do 1000+ words a day. Once I hit the second draft I’m usually feeling some deadline pressure, at which point I switch to three working sessions per day (morning/afternoon/evening) and go a bit peculiar. Third draft is where I put the jokes in, and realise it’s actually all going to be ok after all. Third draft is what goes to my editor (unless she’s very unlucky), and then there’s another round (often several) of taking it apart and putting it back together again more interestingly, like lego.

I keep expecting it to get easier, but every book is, at some point, heartbreakingly impossible in a wholly new way. And then you work out how to do it and suddenly everything is wonderful again.


I’m tagging:

RiotSarah Mussi

She’s the author of the The Door of No Return (older MG) and Last of the Warrior Kings (YA), which if you haven’t read I cannot recommend highly enough; edgy paranormal YA Angel Dust; and last year’s shockingly dark near-contemporary thriller Siege. Her next book is Riot, another gritty thriller set in the heart of London. Sarah’s also a full-time teacher, and gives fantastic courses on narrative drive to children’s authors via SCWBI. I guarantee her ‘writing process’ will put us all to shame: she gets up so early I’m not sure she actually goes to sleep at all…

Looking at the Stars by Jo Cotterill book coverJo Cotterill

She’s the author of the remarkably powerful Looking at the Stars (older MG), and the 6-book Sweet Hearts series – not to mention excellent edgy, unflinching YA fiction such as Red Tears and Screwed under the name Joanna Kenrick. She seems to be writing at least ten books at any one moment, so she’ll probably put you to shame too – but I’m hoping she’ll let on how she does it…

Read their What, Why and How blogs on Monday 14th April.

Beyond Gay Penguins: LGBTQ children’s and YA books, past, present and future

Sometimes a book event coincides so exactly with what you need to think harder about right. that. second. that you wonder if you’ve invented it.

arethekidsallrightHappily, ‘Are the Kids All Right? Representations of LGBTQ Characters in Children’s and YA Literature’ with B.J. Epstein, Mark Jennett and Letterbox Library at Housman’s Radical Bookshop in King’s Cross on Saturday was not a figment of my hopeful imagination, but a fascinating examination of why LGBTQ kidlit matters, what the books we have already are doing right and wrong, and what needs to happen next – delivered in a passionate, frank and lively manner by the people at the very heart of that conversation.

BJ Epstein is the author of Are the Kids All Right?: the Representation of LGBTQ Characters in Children’s and Young Adult Lit, the first book-length study of its kind. Mark Jennett has worked extensively with the NUT and in schools, with a particular focus on challenging gender stereotypes and homophobia. Chairing was Fen Coles of Letterbox Library, which has been selling children’s books which celebrate equality and diversity for 30 years; she also announced the shortlist for the 2014 Little Rebels Award for Radical Children’s Fiction.

Tangopenguin The question of why these books matter was swiftly dealt with. All kids are entitled to see themselves and their families represented in books, and to discover a world wider than their own; LGBTQ people grow up and want to have children themselves; the Contact Hypothesis – whereby meeting any individual from an ‘othered’ group softens entrenched views and increases tolerance - implies that these books can be powerful tools for change. And as BJ put it, however much people fear that you’ll be telling a 2-year-old about the Kama Sutra, these books are not about sex. They’re about people. (And sometimes penguins.)

Boy Meets Boy coverHow they are actually used in practice is another matter. Mark spoke of educational contexts where the LGBTQ picture books are kept in a box in an office, beside the books about bereavement and divorce, to be taken out ‘if the issue comes up’; how sometimes he is asked to tackle homophobia in a school without mentioning gay people. BJ noted US libraries creating a distinct section for queer YA, labelled ‘Loud and Proud’ with a rainbow sticker; on one hand valuable for demonstrating that such content exists and is welcomed, on the other perhaps making it harder for a questioning teen (or indeed a straight one) to pick those books up, to take them home.

The same visibility question came up regarding ‘casual inclusion’ and ‘normalising’, current buzzwords in inclusive publishing. While all saw value in incidental everyday inclusion, Mark asked whether that same-sex couple holding hands in the background of a picture book is an intelligible symbol, and noted the limited, emphatically inoffensive way those characters tend to appear (in three layers of clothes performing healthy outdoor tasks; in YA as the witty gay best friend). Fen wondered if these modes of inclusion risk blandness, and a departure from the radical battles for visibility that have characterised queer culture.

10,000_DressesIf that all sounds intensely gloomy, the sort-of-a-light at the end of that tunnel is: it isn’t our fault. The LGBTQ books we have are a reflection of the society we live in now. As prevailing attitudes change, so the books we need and the books we write will change too. Since the panel took place on the same day as the first same-sex marriages in England and Wales, there’s reason to be optimistic.

It was a packed and pacy conversation – and doubtless much less dour than this write-up sounds; there were cheerful disagreements over favoured books, and refreshing honesty about well-intentioned stories which miss the mark.  As always, it was a pleasure to see picture books analysed and taken seriously. Although it was an open-ended discussion, keen to talk around the topic and share views rather than forming rigid conclusions, here are a few takeaways about what the panel felt we need from LGBTQ books now:

  • More volume - the way past the ‘issue book’ versus ‘casual inclusion’ dilemma (content and post-pub categorisation) is to have more LGBTQ books of all stripes
  • More credit to the audience - children encounter ‘new’ stuff all the time, and don’t find it frightening or confusing; often it’s the expectation of adults that this will hard for them to talk about which prevents these books being shared, perhaps commissioned in the first place
  • More intersectionality - BJ called for more narratives which stepped outside the safe white Christian able ‘attractive’ pattern; Fen noted that publishers often felt that a book could only have one ‘issue’ at a time
  • More Bi, Trans, Queer narratives - Mark noted that there were now strong PBs which support Trans boys, for example, while books centred on girls tend to focus on challenging gender stereotypes
  • More picture books which are universally inclusive and fun to read – many of the picture books the panel shared as brilliant examples of LGBTQ inclusion failed on other counts, by reiterating other stereotypes, or simply not being books that you might choose to read for pleasure regardless of the content

minimiaandherdarlinguncleThe question I wish I’d asked: what about middle grade/8-12 books? I’ve yet to do more than dip into BJ’s book and I see Jacqueline Wilson and Philip Pullman listed in the index – but the discussion focused firmly on picture books and YA. It made me curious about the numbers; if that quietness is because there’s a perception that audience needs these books less, or because there are so few books to be loud about.

8-12 is where I live right now: I’m writing a book about Sam and Sammie and Mum Gen and Mum K, the Paget-Skidelskys who live next door in the Pea’s Book series. It matters so much to get those two mums right. They aren’t just parents in a little book, somehow. Sometimes as I’m writing it feels as if they have worlds on their shoulders.

But something else I took away from that event came up in the questions. An aspiring author asked if, as a straight ally, she was ‘allowed’ to write an LGBTQ protagonist; if a fantasy YA novel could have an LGBTQ protagonist. I wanted to shout YES, YES PLEASE, YES PLEASE THANK YOU VERY MUCH very loudly. (Decorum prevailed and instead I shared furtive whispers with my neighbour about the examples that sprang to mind; about all the conversations within sci-fantasy circles about that very issue.) I hope she took that message away from the panel, regardless. But it struck me that I’ve absorbed that same desire for ‘permission’ to write about a gay couple with children (I’m the gay bit, but not the couple or the having children bit) – as if all the mums and families and kids I’ve written about before are somehow different. I’m putting my own book in that special box in the school office before I’ve even finished writing it.

It’s not that simple: Mum Gen and Mum K are different from other parents I’ve written, and that matters. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be yelling YES, YES PLEASE, YES PLEASE THANK YOU VERY MUCH in my own ear just as loudly.

Sometimes a book event coincides exactly with what you need to think harder about right. that. second. 



2013′s Little Rebels Award winner

The Alliance of Radical Booksellers’  Little Rebels Award for Radical Children’s Fiction is for radical fiction for children 0-12: books informed by inclusive/anti-discriminatory concerns, or those which promote social equality or social justice.

The 2014 judges are Kim Reynolds, Elizabeth Laird, and Wendy Cooling, and this year’s award will be presented May 10th at the London Radical Bookfair.

You can find the complete 2014 shortlist here.


Down The Rabbit Hole: let’s talk about books, baby

Children’s and YA makes up almost 25% of the UK book market. It receives one fortieth of the coverage that adult fiction does in mainstream media.

This is bonkers.

Instead of just shouting ‘This is bonkers!’ and putting her feet up (like me), the very wonderful Katherine Woodfine of Booktrust decided to do something about it. The result: Down The Rabbit Hole, a one-hour radio show on Resonance FM dedicated to children’s books. So what does an hour of kidlit radio mean, in practice?

The graphic novel I bought immediately after listening to the show.

The book I bought immediately after listening to the show.

A panel of authors to read and review 4 books – in this case fantastic YA author Tanya Byrne, Claude genius Alex T SmithDarcy Burdock‘s wrangler Laura Dockrill and Waterstones’ very own children’s book superhero Melissa Cox; tips on how to get an agent (and/or Antonio Banderas) from Louise Lamont at LBA; the ‘book I’d choose to give my ten-year-old self’ compendium from luminaries like Philip Ardagh and Liz Pichon; Nikesh Shuklar as a roving reporter chatting to the Etherington Brothers; an ‘inside publishing’ segment going behind the scenes at HotKey Books focusing on Matt Whyman’s new YA The Savages  – and, it must be said, an intriguing creaking noise for the first ten minutes, as if the entire conversation was haunted.

It was ACE.

Antonio Banderas has just heard that you want to submit you 'fictional novel' to an agent.

Antonio Banderas has just heard that you want to submit your ‘fictional novel’ to an agent.

Stuff that stuck out to me:

1) Hearing stories read aloud is brilliant, whatever age we are.

2) Picture books can work on radio. Truly. In fact, hearing people talk about picture books on radio makes me want to go and look at them even more.

3) Booktalk about books you have read is fascinating. Booktalk about books you haven’t read is fascinating.

4) Why the bloody flipping hey isn’t a show like this already a beloved fixture?

When the Costa shortlists were discussed on Radio 4′s Front Row, no one was embarrassed to acknowledge they knew nothing about the children’s category. The Telegraph’s announcement of the 2014 Carnegie and Greenaway Medals longlist contains so few reviewed books that the ones that are linked stick out, like bizarre coding errors.  But Down The Rabbit Hole‘s first show opened with a discussion nailing why this is so absurd. The books we read as children build us as readers, as people. They’re often read by adults (and not just YA, let’s face it: I’m not a mum but I’ve read a ton of Thomas the Tank Engine bedtime stories in my life and I’d gladly set fire to that smugfaced little git). Adults – parents, guardians, librarians, teachers – are the ones who buy them, and they need to feel confident sharing them with kids.

We are living through an era of phenomenal, vibrant, exciting children’s publishing in the UK . I know that because I’m within this industry – but it’s not meant to be a trade secret.

Kate Wilson from Nosy Crow tweeted this:

She’s right. Let’s make it not strange. Let’s do this every week.

(Please keep the creaky haunted noise.)

Listen to Down The Rabbit Hole on Soundcloud.