The Nicest Girl

Sixth-former Anna Campbell is the go-to girl when anyone needs anything. Teachers, friends, random strangers… It never occurred to her that she could say no. After all, Anna Campbell’s always been too ‘nice’ to say no. But Anna is sick of being that girl, the nice girl, and she’s going to do something about it. Only, is she prepared to risk losing everything she cares about – even herself – along the way…?

Sophie Jo

THE NICEST GIRL is Sophie Jo’s debut UKYA and it is brilliantly put together, I felt every page of it! I asked the author a few questions:

How much of yourself is in the book, were you a “nice girl”?

There’s definitely some of me in the book – I’m a bit of a recovering people-pleaser and have felt the pain of being “the nice girl” many a time over the years, especially in my teens and early twenties.

When I started writing the book, I was really keen to hear from friends and acquaintances about their own experiences. It was sad but oddly freeing to learn that people I’d previously viewed as very assertive and “sorted” were struggling to turn down work shifts or stand up to friends or set boundaries in their dating life. I think a lot of us – especially women – are battling against this deep-rooted need to be seen as likeable and easy-going.

Trying not to include spoilers…there are tensions that build up & come to a head in totally believable ways. Did earlier drafts have anything more over-the-top that you decided to tone down?

The tension explosion and resolution has actually stayed pretty much the same throughout the editing process! I did wonder at one point if Anna would decide to cut one particular character out of her life (again, no spoilers…), but I’m glad she doesn’t, and I hope I did a good job at illustrating both points of view when things do erupt.

What would you most like readers to take away from the book?

I’d really love for readers to consider the middle-ground-complexities of the whole topic. You don’t have to turn into an unkind person to set boundaries – it isn’t about forgetting to be respectful or that other points of view exist. It’s about remembering that your feelings are as valid as anyone else’s and there for a reason.

I also hope it shows readers the value of honest, kind communication in friendships and other relationships. Sometimes you see stuff online that’s like, “you don’t owe anybody anything! Set boundaries! Immediately ghost people who don’t treat you right!” and while I am very much on board with anything that teaches people to stand up for themselves, I also think there’s space for most of us to better express expectations/wants/needs so our nearest and dearest at least have a chance to respond to those. Anna means very well and her struggles are relatable, but because she’s quite good at picking up on the emotions of those around her, she often expects them to mind-read in return – and they can’t.

Have you had much opportunity for feedback from teen/YA readers?

I was able to meet some amazing teen and YA readers at this year’s YALC – they’d picked up proofs from my publisher UCLan’s stand and were really excited to read. That was such a lovely experience for me, especially as someone so new to all this. It’s also been cool seeing initial reviews on Goodreads and NetGalley from people who’ve related to Anna and rooted for her throughout.

What would your ideal school visit to promote the book involve?

I would LOVE to sit down with a group of teens and talk about the concept of ‘niceness’ vs assertive communication. Maybe a lil quiz: Nice or Too Nice? A poetry-writing session? I have a million ideas; I’m going to start writing them down.

What are you reading at the moment and who would you recommend it to?

I’m enjoying THREE GIRLS by Katie Clapham, a fellow UCLan author. The voices she’s created for these characters are so strong, and there are these brilliant little drops of humour along the way. It’s quirky and interesting but never try-hard. Would recommend to: anyone who wants a really solid book about teen girl friendship.

I’ve also just finished a proof of GIRL FRIENDS by Holly Bourne, which is definitely one of my new favourites. She just gets women. Every time I read a Holly book I feel like she has crawled into the depths of my soul without judging me. Would recommend to: anyone who grew up reading 90s/00s Sugar magazine articles about How To Get Boys To Like You…

Have you any more stories bubbling away?

I’m currently writing draft one of book two. The main character is quite different to Anna – a lot more cynical and outspoken – so it’s been a real change to write, in a very fun way. I’m also trying out a dual narrative for the first time, which is a whole new challenge in itself. Hopefully we’ll be back talking about the finished book before too long!

THE NICEST GIRL was published by UCLan in August 2022. Thank you to Antonia Wilkinson for organising a review copy and the opportunity for a Q&A.

Ten Ways to Build a Brilliant Brain

A fun and practical guide to making your brain brilliant, from well-being expert Nicola Morgan.

Build a brilliant brain with this fun and practical guide for young people from award-winning well-being expert Nicola Morgan. From the benefits of the right food, sleep and exercise, to how to be creative, curious and resilient, discover the incredible science and top advice to make your brain the best it can be. Packed with fascinating facts and brain boosting activities, this illustrated guide gives you the power to build your brilliant brain!

Walker Books

Ten ways your brain is different from the person’s sitting next to you

By Nicola Morgan

One of the most important things a human has to learn is that everyone else is both the same as and different from them. Our brains are wired the same as every human’s for hundreds of thousands of years but we have different psychologies and personalities, influences and experiences, different biology, and so we will not always think, feel, behave or react the same as another person in the same situations. Knowing that is the basis of empathy and of how we make our way through our world.

What are ten specific differences to be aware of as you think about the person sitting next to you?

1. Genes

Our genetic make-up makes each of us literally unique, including in the detail of our brain. We don’t know exactly what the genetic effect is in a given situation but we know it’s there and for some things more strongly than others. For example, we know that dyslexia often has some genetic link.

2. Age

Age makes a difference. Obviously, if the person sitting next to you is two, or 102, and you’re 42, their brain is not the same as yours. And there are biological stages of development that make a typical 12-year-old teenage brain different from both a typical two-year-old brain or a typical 19-year-old or 40-year-old brain. There are some things that older brains can do better than younger brains and vice versa. And we all age differently, too, depending on genes and lifestyle, amongst other things.

3. Past experiences

Everything that happens stamps its mark on our brain and changes us in ways big or small. A significant, perhaps memorable, experience can directly affect how we act later. Someone praising us or not praising us can make a difference to our confidence – we might not remember the original moment but it will leave its mark. No two people have identical experiences.

4. Neuro-divergence

The person sitting next to you might have a neuro-divergence. It could be dyslexia or dyspraxia, ADHD or colour-blindness. Whatever it is, it makes their brain different from yours – even if you also have the same neuro-divergence. No two are really the same even if they have the same name!

5. How time has been spent

The brain of a person who has spent a lot of time playing the violin is physically different from the brain of someone who spent the same amount of time reading books. What we spend time on changes our brain.

6. Introversion/extroversion

Introversion/extroversion is widely regarded as a largely fixed personality trait. It’s a fascinating topic and when I give INSET talks in schools it’s usually the bit that teachers are most intrigued about as it impacts learning so much. It’s not about shyness but a biological level of sensitivity to stimuli, especially when people are the stimuli. Understanding the introverted nature of the people around you will really give you insight into their experience of the world.

7. Type A/B

Another personality aspect is to do with reaction to goals, ambition, success. Type A people are fiercely competitive and beat themselves up when they don’t come top; Type Bs are more laidback and are better at switching off. Their brains behave differently.

8. Support network and friendships

Our mental strength is very much affected and changed by support from the people around us. Do we have people who make us feel confident, people we can go to with a problem or doubt, who we can share success and excitement with? Each friend and connection is part of us and changes us – and therefore our brain.

9. Optimism

Optimism is not a fixed personality trait but more a mindset or learned behaviour. But how optimistic someone is (at the moment) will profoundly affect how they behave or react and whether they go for opportunities. And optimistic or pessimistic thoughts are formed in and by our brains. You can train your brain to think and behave more optimistically and in doing so change your neural pathways. Check out my ‘Pathways exercise’ on my website – or ask me to speak to your staff about building positive neural pathways.

10. Luck

There’s so much we can each control in our lives – and that’s what I focus on, teaching people of all ages that their brains can be ‘in their hands’. But there’s also a lot we can’t control. We should spend very little time thinking about that but it’s worth recognising that a lot that makes our brains how they are is down to luck. Knowing that helps us not be judgmental.

I don’t know who’s sitting next to you. I don’t know you. But I know that your two brains are different in fascinating ways. You could, if you wished and if it is appropriate, start to talk to them and get to know them. Then you’ll know a bit more about what is in their brains – you’ll find similarities and differences. You still won’t know exactly what is going on in their brain, but the endless quest to get closer and closer to the mind of another person is what connects us. It’s pretty much the whole meaning of life – not to feel alone but to be at peace with the brain inside our own head as well as the ones nearby.

Nicola Morgan, aka The Teenage Brain Woman, is an award-winning author and speaker on many areas of well-being and learning. Her best-selling examination of the teenage brain, Blame My Brain, was shortlisted for the Aventis Prize; the prize-winning Teenage Guide to Stress, along with The Teenage Guide to Friends, Positively Teenage, Life Online, Body Brilliant, The Awesome Power of Sleep and Be Resilient, underline Nicola’s unparalleled expertise. In 2018, she was awarded the SLA’s prestigious award for Outstanding Contribution to Information Books. She used to be a teenage novelist and one day will be again. Her new book is TEN WAYS TO BUILD A BRILLIANT BRAIN, published by Walker Books. www.nicolamorgan.com

The English GI: a Yorkshire Schoolboy’s Adventures in the United States and Europe

Jonathan Sandler chose to publish his grandfather’s personal memoir of his life from his schoolboy experiences in Yorkshire to life as a young ex-patriate in New York and being drafted into the US Army in the latter years of the Second World War as a graphic novel – this was a fantastic idea as it immediately opened up access of this work to a wider range of readers than a straightforward text memoir would have. Speaking personally I for one am glad that he did, it is rare to find first-hand stories of soldiers who served, as most (including my grandfather) did not enjoy talking about their experiences during the war.

Brian Bicknell’s art style melds perfectly with Bernard’s spare, unsentimental text, creating a work that is an enjoyable yet informative read allowing the reader a view into his experiences in a world that is now gone; from being footloose and fancy free in 1940’s New York, to basic training as a General Infantryman and his harrowing experiences as a member of the 26th Infantry in France. The vulnerability shown in Bernard’s words, specifically during the scenes in France are at odds with so many portrayals of soldiers today.

The copious notes in the afterword give a depth and context to many of Bernard’s experiences portrayed in the book, from life in New York, the fate of his Latvian family, to the stories of some of his friends he met during basic training as well as his post-war life (including a friendship with Roald Dahl that was cut short due to Dahl’s vile antisemitism).

The English GI was a joy to read and is a work that I will return to again to enjoy the company of Bernard and his adventures! It is highly recommended for all readers!

The English GI was published in April 2022 and is available now!

Johnny Recruit: Interview with Theo Houle Behe

Theo Houle Behe & Johnny Recruit
  • Hi Theo welcome to TeenLibrarian, can you introduce yourself to the audience please?

Hi, I’m a British-Canadian student Theo Behe. I live in London and love football, video games and reading action adventure novels. My favourite subjects are Biology, Spex and History – and I’ve been interested in WW2 and planes since seeing the Duxford airshow when I was two. One of my favourite shows ever is Band of Brothers (its follow-up Masters of the Air is being made in the UK now) and I love having lunch at the Eagle pub in Cambridge a few times per year – which is a historic RAF pilot drinking establishment. I also am particularly interested in the August 1942 Dieppe raid (also one of Johnny’s adventures) – which is now seen as Churchill’s “test-run” for the D-Day landings where over 900 Canadian troops were killed.

  • How would you describe Johnny Recruit to hook a potential reader?

You’re 14 years old – and you’ve just found out your uncle (and mentor) has been captured by NAZIS.  So what do you do? If you’re Big Johnny, you lie about your age and join the war to go RESCUE him.   Big Johnny might only be a young teenager but he’s the BIGGEST kid everyone knows.   An awesome bush pilot and an expert moose hunter, he’s also pretty dominant at ice hockey.   So when Johnny learns that his uncle Bert is being held by Germans across the ocean, he’s 100% sure there is only one person in the whole world who can save his best friend  – HIMSELF.   But when this pompous British pilot named Billy threatens to tell everyone his real age, Johnny faces big tough decisions no kid really should have to make.

  • What inspired the creation of Johnny Recruit?

In primary school, I created a comic book in a notepad about my great uncle, Bert Houle. He was a Canadian World War Two RAF ace who earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses – and he shot down 13½ Nazis.  In this short storyboard I told a little story about his time in Egypt. I was always amazed by what he did. I am very close to my family in Canada and stay all summer with my great uncle’s extended relatives in Northern Ontario every year, including Manitoulin (the world’s largest freshwater island), where the story begins. I also share his name – Houle is my middle name. So when I visited Juno Beach a few summers ago I saw the Dieppe memorial, and my family talked about about Uncle Bert and his heroics. After that it made sense to write an action hero book about him, World War Two, Dieppe, Canada, and Germany. 

  • At age 14 you are the youngest comics writer to ink a deal with publisher Markosia. How did this come about?

I had a football match against Norwich FC U13 Academy last summer. Harry [Markos], the publisher, lives only 40 minutes from the training ground, so we drove up after the game to his house to meet him. In his garden I told him about the idea and story arc – and my dad also helped sell the concept too. Harry’s place was very cool – he has tonnes of graphic novels all over the place. Markosia has published something like 400 titles.  After we signed the deal, I found out Markosia as a publisher has an agent in Los Angeles called World Builder Entertainment. This was very interesting to hear as they had made the Trolls films happen. Although they’re not my cup of tea, they’re a very successful set of movies. I guess that means I have an agent for Johnny Recruit in Hollywood!   We went back up again exactly one year later after another Norwich match, however this time we brought some treats to celebrate the book being released on May 30!  

  • How did you connect with comics artist Thomas Muzzell?

My dad knows lots about comics artists. He had a few in mind but we reviewed the websites of several illustrators in order to find an artistic collaborator who could bring the story to life on the page. We decided to contact Canadian illustrator Thomas Muzzell.  He is a scenic layout specialist so his style was perfect for what we were looking for. In an amazing coincidence, it turned out that Tom also had an ancestor named Bert (no relation to Bert Houle) who had been a captive of the Germans. I guess it was meant to be.

  • Can you let us know how long this project took – from initial concept to publication?

The project took about 18 months – it started with me bouncing ideas off my dad on car journeys to and from football practice. An office wall of random sticky notes was then converted into a storyboard that we shared online with artist Tom.  Next, my dad helped me create a page-scripting matrix template to write out character descriptions, scenic layout, and key actions. As I added details page by page, I also found photographs on the internet which helped show how Tom could imagine scenes, people, places, and objects on the page. Finally, I drew a rough sketch of each page to give Tom an idea of layout for penciling and inking. I was so happy seeing the pages come in – first the pencils (to make any minor changes) then the final inks. That is over 50 exciting emails to open with amazing artwork in each! The publishing bit took about 4 months and my dad covered that off. And now we are promoting the book so it’s definitely not over yet. My dad said I was very disciplined working through the creative process, and I think the final result is a good action story. At the same time it makes the point that things cannot really end happily for child soldiers.  

  • Did you do much research into the history of child soldiers and, underage combatants in WW2?

We researched everything about the book –  the story of Bert, key events in WW2 and small details for each page. As we learned more we realised that thousands of kids were child soldiers in WW2.  The name “Johnny Recruit” was a term used by seasoned troops in reference to soldiers new to the war – even Camel cigarettes ran a successful ad campaign around the term.  But the best marketers at that were brought in to create powerful WW2 propaganda posters.  The book’s double-page spread design are like the campaign posters and popular wartime comic covers – themselves often encouraging enlistment, war bonds purchase or blood donation drives. In the 40s Canadian, British and American “dime comics” featuring mainstream superheroes such as Superman and Wonder Woman battled Nazis, the Japanese – or sometimes just their leaders.   Such influential comics resulted in thousands of underaged kids signing up to fight in WW2, the youngest being Tom Dobney who became an RAF pilot at 14 – only caught out when his father saw a newspaper photo of him shaking hands with the King.  Big Johnny is an epic pilot, an expert shot and leader among his men – this is what many kids dream they might be from believing all the hype and stories of heroism.  I’m sure seeing all the cool war posters and comic covers with superheros leading the charge would make kids go wild about the war, and want to go fight and be the hero.  Even my great uncle Bert was used for the Allied conscription drive. After he was injured he traveled around the Commonwealth telling his war stories to encourage men to sign up to WW2.  But joining a war isn’t like this at all. It’s cold, brutal, painful and deadly.  And for many kids who join wars today such as in Africa, Columbia or the Ukraine –  once they’re in and find out what’s really going on, it’s too late to turn back.  

  • Are you a comics fan? If you are, can you recommend any titles for fans of Johnny Recruit?

I do like superhero comics – they are so well written and illustrated.  I’m not sure if people know the effort the artists put into pencils, ink and colouring each page – it’s so many hours. But I like novels. I used to read all the teen hero books like Alex Rider and Percy Jackson – but now it’s the military, action and history novels like Reacher and from Chris Ryan that I like the most.

  • What advice can you give other aspiring comics creators looking to break into the industry?

Writers should create something they like but will also teach people or other kids a lesson. Looking at the final book, maybe Johnny Recruit could be a good learning tool for the classroom. We talked about making these pages the opposite of “rapid-fire” social media streams. I think the book’s big double- page landscapes encourage people to calmly find the clues to piece the story together. And the reader can use their imagination to fill in the gaps between each page. This is all pretty good for comprehension and analysis.  Most of all I hope Johnny Recruit can show other kids they too can tell a story without being an expert artist or writer – they can work with others to bring it all to life.

  • Have you ever done any talks with teen library groups? If not, is this something you would consider doing in the future, to connect with other teens interested in creating comics?

I would love to do a talk. I handed my book to my school librarian last week and she has scheduled some talks with students – but that probably doesn’t count as I know nearly all of them. I’d be happy to speak to new people and encourage them to work on their projects and ideas. Most teens interested in comics will already have their favourite webcomics and some will have tried their own. Maybe some help working through a story plan and believing in their concepts could help take their own story where they want to go.

Johnny Recruit by Theo Houle Behe & Thomas Muzzell was published by Markosia on June 30th and is available now!

Like Dominoes, the Slow Collapse of Children’s Book Awards

Hot on the heels of the surprise news of the Costa Book Awards being scrapped after 50 years, it was announced today, that after 22 years, the Blue Peter Book Awards have been cancelled.

The 21st Century hast not been kind to book awards that recognize children’s literature.

The first to fall was The Nestlé Smarties Book Prize which ran from 1985 to 2007.

The Booktrust Teenage Prize ran from 2003 to 2010

The Roald Dahl Funny Prize ran from 2008 to 2013.

The Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize ran from 1967 to 2016.

I have been interested in the sponsorship deal for the Carnegie & Kate Greenaway Awards with Yoto that was announced in February and have been poking around finding more information since then. The collapse of the Costa and Blue Peter Awards shows how vital financial security for book awards is to futureproof awards against rising costs and other issues that will inevitable come up.

No matter how worthy and popular book awards are, the simple truth is that they are not cheap, and no matter the good intentions or with the best will in the world, if you cannot fund them adequately then they will fall.

Links

Zo and the Forest of Secrets

When Zo decides to run away from home, she isn’t scared; after all, she knows the island like the back of her hand. But, as she journeys through the once-familiar forest, terrifying creatures and warped visions begin to emerge. With a beast on her heels and a lost boy thrown into her path, could a mysterious abandoned facility hold answers? Zo must unravel the secrets of the forest before she is lost in them forever…

Knights Of

ZO AND THE FOREST OF SECRETS is a brilliantly pacey, thrilling middle grade adventure from children’s debut Alake Pilgrim (already an international award winner for her other writing). She is based in Trinidad and Tobago and Trinidad is the setting for this story, brilliantly brought to life as Zo loses herself in what she thought was familiar forest. I loved the mixture of tech and legends, imagination and realism, friendships and not knowing who to trust…plus the chatty spiders are some of my favourite side characters in a novel, ever.

There are some truly skin-crawlingly terrifying moments in this book, as unimaginable creatures hunt for Zo and her companion, but also some moments of reflection about family and honesty, as well as some pretty funny lines. Zo makes a lot of discoveries about herself as well as the mysterious zoo and Adri, the boy she saves from drowning, but we leave the forest with even more unanswered questions than we went in with, with twists upon turns leaving the reader (me) desperate for book 2!

Alake Pilgrim

Zo and the Forest of Secrets, published by Knights Of is out now, priced £7.99

Check out the rest of the blog tour!

Thank you to ED PR for getting me a review copy and including me on the blog tour.

If You Still Recognise Me

If you loved Heartstopper and need more feel-good LGBTQ+ romance – If You Still Recognise Me is the one for you!

Elsie has a crush on Ada, the only person in the world who truly understands her. Unfortunately, they’ve never met in real life and Ada lives an ocean away. But Elsie has decided it’s now or never to tell Ada how she feels. That is, until her long-lost best friend Joan walks back into her life.

In a summer of repairing broken connections and building surprising new ones, Elsie realises that she isn’t nearly as alone as she thought. But now she has a choice to make…

Little Tiger

This is the debut UKYA novel by Cynthia So, and they are definitely one to watch! Loved the enthusiasm & passion blended with uncertainty in protagonist, I knew where the story was going but it was *so* satisfying. And So Much +ve rep! I loved the queer people of all ages, the delight of teens sharing a fandom, intergenerational relationships & intricacies of family life & how people show love…& realising what *isn’t* love…it is a must read this Pride Month.

I was lucky enough to get the chance to ask Cynthia a few questions:

If You Still Recognise Me is your debut novel but you had a short story in the PROUD book, edited by Little Tiger, did you already have the idea of IYSRM? They’re very different, do you have more ideas for your phoenix?

I had started to write IYSRM by the time PROUD came out in March 2019, but I don’t think I had the idea for it when I first drafted my short story “The Phoenix’s Fault” back in March 2018. I didn’t really have any ideas for a novel at all back then! I’ve always adored YA contemporary, and I’ve also always loved fantasy, but something about writing a fantasy book is a little more daunting to me. I have trouble writing things longer than a short story, so I needed to push myself past that self-doubt of “I’ll never write a good novel” by starting with something that to me has a breezy, casual vibe, and IYSRM is what resulted. I was very self-indulgent while writing it. I just wanted to write my dream summer queer YA book, and to have as much fun as possible while doing it.

I don’t have more ideas for my phoenix. I think we left her and her humans in a good place. I could definitely write more queer stories in that universe though, based around different creatures in Chinese folklore and myth. The Legend of the White Snake for example!


The background to the comic, so that the fandom would make sense, feels like you have a whole story planned out! Have you written more that wasn’t included?

There were some little details that I included in earlier drafts that didn’t make it into the final version, but otherwise there’s not a lot in my head that isn’t on the page. I think this is a good lesson for any author, that you need just enough detail to suggest something bigger – you don’t need to have it completely fleshed out, which may be a waste of time if you don’t have a lot of time to dedicate to writing! Coming up with a few specific details goes a long way towards making something seem real.


While you were writing, did you share it with many people or wait until it was finished?

I didn’t share it with anyone while I was writing. I’m an intensely private person! Every author’s different, but for me, to share something with someone before I finish it would be to jinx it, somehow. I feel like I have to be alone with the story, to know that it is, for a time, mine and only mine, to learn to love it properly. The sort of relationship I have with a story changes once I start to share it with others, because I worry so much about what others think. By not sharing it until it’s done, I can hone in on my own vision for the story and honour it to the best of my ability.

And it also gives me the drive and motivation to complete it, because I know that unless I finish it, I’ll never be able to let anybody else read it, and that would be a huge shame after pouring months into trying to write it!


The comic book shop is wonderful, is it based on one that you’ve been to or is it wishful thinking?

It’s not based on any particular comic book shop, but I do love the vibe of any indie bookshop, including comic book shops. Gosh! Comics in Soho is such a lovely, cosy little place, and I also always think fondly of havens like Gay’s the Word. Indie bookshops are truly the best.


Have you had any reaction from teen readers yet? What would you like them to take away from the book?

I don’t think I’ve had any reaction from teen readers yet (that I know of), but there’s lots of things I would like them to take away from the book. Here are a few of those things:
1) I want queer teens who want romantic love to know that they will find that romantic love, even if it takes time, and it may take time. I worry that teens might look at YA romances and feel sad that they don’t have that romance in their lives right now, and believe that that means there’s something inadequate about themselves. Though my book is a YA romance, it also has lots of stories in it about queer people who find love much later on in life, and it’s no less wonderful or beautiful. One day, you will be loved for who you are, by someone who sees you. And you deserve that kind of love. Real love shouldn’t require you to make yourself smaller for it.
2) Coming out doesn’t have to be the end goal. I think when I was a teenager I felt so much angst about not feeling brave enough to come out to people other than a few of my friends. But not coming out to your family doesn’t mean you’re not brave enough. It doesn’t mean you’re ashamed. You can be proud of who you are, without coming out to lots of people.
3) It’s OK to change. It’s OK not to know exactly who you want to be yet. You have time to figure it out.


What are you reading at the moment and who would you recommend it to?

Just finished Gay Club! by Simon James Green – it’s funny and extremely readable like Simon’s books always are, and the characters are a delight, and there’s such a powerful message at the centre of it. I would recommend to all teens who are part of LGBTQ+ clubs at school, or those would like to start one. It’s also so incredible to me to think about the fact that some teens get to be part of LGBTQ+ clubs at school now, so if you’re an adult and you wish you had that kind of support and community as a teen this book is also totally for you.

I also finished I Kissed Shara Wheeler by Casey McQuiston not long ago, and oh my god. This is the queer book of my dreams. It’s all of my fave YA books I read when I was growing up, but QUEER, finally, queer! It’s such a dreamy, exhilarating romance set against the backdrop of a Christian high school between two academic rivals who are utterly obsessed with each other, and the scavenger hunt element is so fun. It’s a fantastically escapist summer read. I would recommend this to everyone who likes John Green, and also anyone growing up in a small town and/or with a religion that makes them feel complicated about their queerness. This book is really uplifting in that regard and full of shining defiance and hope.


What are you working on at the moment?

My second YA contemporary novel with Little Tiger. It’s going to be another queer romance, and it will involve lots of food, and lots of family, and lots of yearning, because those are some of my favourite things to write about. Other than that, I don’t want to say too much – you’ll have to wait and see! 🙂

Thank you so much Cynthia for answering my questions, and writing such a great book, and thanks to Little Tiger for a review copy and facilitating the q&a!

If You Still Recognise Me publishes on the 9th June 2022

The Boy Who Grew a Tree

Nature-loving Timi is unsettled by the arrival of a new sibling and turns to tending a tree growing in his local library. But there is something magical about the tree and it is growing FAST… and the library is going to close. Can Timi save the library and his tree, and maybe bring his community closer together along the way? A charming early reader for ages 5-8, filled with black-and-white illustrations.

Knights Of
Illustrated by Sojun Kim-McCarthy

I know this blog is called *Teen* Librarian, but I read a lot of books for younger reader as well, with Bea but also for the school that I work in…and when I saw what this book was about I just had to be part of the blog tour! It really is one of the best early readers I’ve come across, beautifully written and engaging with lovely illustrations, and could be enjoyed by and provoke discussion with readers of all ages. I asked the author, Polly Ho-Yen a few questions:

What is your fondest memory of using or working in a library?

This is a toughie because I have so many special memories being in libraries. I used to love running the baby bounce classes because the babies looked so amazed to be there and were (mostly) brimming with joy. I also helped out with a reading group where it felt like every week, the poem or story made a huge impact on all of us. I liked hearing the different thoughts of everyone there; in one session I’ve never forgotten, a blind man shared that he saw people as colours. A favourite memory from being a library user was overhearing a kid saying his imaginary friend was particularly powerful in the library because it got its strength from all the books.

How different was it writing for a younger audience? Was the idea for this story always for beginning readers or did it evolve that way?

I was pretty nervous before I began writing about whether I would be able to do it, to be honest! I knew how important every sentence, every word is – there’s no room to ride when writing for younger audiences. But once I put my worries aside and got started, I found the voice and finished it fairly quickly. And then I had a nervous wait to hear what my editor thought. I always find it useful to read my work aloud and this was even more important for this story.

I’ve had bits of this ideas floating around for a while but when I asked myself to think about a story for a younger audience, that’s when it really developed to become ‘The Boy Who Grew a Tree.’

What are you reading at the moment and who would you recommend it to?

I read more picture books than anything else at the moment because I have a book-obsessed two-year-old and so the last book I put down was ‘Where’s Lenny’ by Ken Wilson-Max. It’s a real favourite because it speaks so brilliantly to the games that are at the centre of a toddler’s world.

I’m also reading ‘The Ice Palace’ by Tarjei Vesaas which is such an intriguing read, with perfectly-drawn characters and a killer setting to boot. I’m only at the beginning but I’m recommending it to everyone, so far!

Will you be writing more early chapter books or have you more middle grade ideas?

I would like to write both because I have ideas for both and it’s a great challenge to write for different readerships. Also I know about myself by now that I get a bit overexcited about writing and creating and so writing across genres is a dream come true.

Polly Ho-Yen

The Boy Who Grew a Tree, written by Polly Ho-Yen, illustrated by Sojung Kim-McCarthy, published by Knights Of is out now, priced £5.99

Check out the rest of the tour! Thank you EDPR for organising

Fight Back!

Aaliyah is an ordinary thirteen-year-old living in the Midlands. She’s into books, shoes and her favourite K-pop boy band. She has always felt at home where she lives … until a terrorist attack at a concert in her area changes everything. As racial tension increases, Aaliyah is bullied, but instead of hiding who she is, she decides to speak up and wear a hijab. She’s proud of her identity, and wants to challenge people’s misconceptions. But when her right to wear a hijab at school is questioned and she is attacked and intimidated, she feels isolated. Aaliyah discovers she’s not alone and that other young people from different backgrounds are also discriminated against because of their identity, and feel scared and judged. Should she try to blend in – or can she find allies to help her fight back? Channelling all of her bravery, Aaliyah decides to speak out. Together, can Aaliyah and her friends halt the tide of hatred rippling through their community?

An essential read to encourage empathy, challenge stereotypes, explore prejudice, racism, Islamophobia and inspire positive action.

A story of hope, speaking up and the power of coming together in the face of hatred.

#FightBack #FindYourVoice #OurVoicesAreStrongerTogether

A. M. Dassu

Boy, Everywhere, was such an astonishingly good debut that I have to admit I was quite worried about how Az might follow it up. I had the absolute pleasure of reading an early version of Fight Back! and was totally blown away by how good it is, and now that it has been polished it is even better. I’m very proud to have my quote in there:

I asked a few questions of our esteemed author:

Your 2 novels (+1 short chapter book) have very different protagonists! Does the character come to you first or the plot? Yes, they are so different! I think the plot always comes first. Although Sami definitely came to me with a loose plot for him in mind. And Aaliyah formed in my head because this time I wanted an upbeat, feisty character who you’d connect to but also hopefully make you laugh through the way she observed things. But with both books, my characters had something they had to say and that needed to be more widely discussed.

I’m so impressed with how you’re able to include so many “issues”, helping young* (*& old…frankly everyone needs to read your books to bolster their empathy) readers to understand at the same time as keeping them engaged with a brilliant story. Is there anything you’ve really struggled with making accessible? Thank you! I thought Boy, Everywhere would be the hardest book I’d write, but actually I found writing Fight Back so hard because the themes are challenging and painful. Adults tend to think that young people don’t think about what’s happening in the news, but sadly the ripple effects of events in the news can be far reaching and when writing, I kept in mind that there are children all over the world experiencing the same prejudice Aaliyah does. And that was simultaneously a struggle but also motivating.

What advice would you give to a girl considering beginning to wear the hijab to school? Ooh! Hold your head high. Be proud to be different, be your best self and take each day as it comes.

You’ve written non-fiction as well, how different is your research and writing process? What do you prefer to write? Interestingly, the process is so similar. Of course writing fiction is much more fun but also in some ways more stressful as you don’t want to make things up about a character from a particular background that might stereotype them or harm them. It’s about finding a fine balance of a plot that is gripping that is still based on fact. I do a lot of research! With non-fiction I can check facts via books or websites and I can trust that references are sound, but with fiction I go beyond this and ask people for their views and experiences – it feels like a bigger responsibility and always lies heavy on my heart. And even though Fight Back is own voices, I still had to do the same amount of research as I did for Boy, Everywhere, which surprised me. Again, I wanted to ensure the story was nuanced, where readers would feel seen and also perhaps discover something and so my editing process meant I double checked my research and cried a lot (writing and editing makes writers cry, part of the job).

I know you’ve done a number of virtual school visits with ‘Boy, Everywhere’, have you thought about what you’d like to do with students in person for ‘Fight Back’? I have already planned them! In the Fight Back workshops I’ll ask students to engage in an activity exploring identity, and we will discuss how you can help someone being bullied/discriminated against because of their identity or because they’re different. We will explore what it means to be an ally and the importance of coming together in the face of discrimination and ways to support those that are being bullied/discriminated against. We might even look at the United Nations  Convention on the Rights of a Child  to express themselves.

As well as your own writing, you’re also a director of Inclusive Minds, how did you get involved with them? Inclusive Minds is a unique organisation for people who are passionate about inclusion, diversity, equality, and accessibility in children’s literature. We have a big network of Inclusion Ambassadors from across the country with diverse lived experiences of race, ethnicities, disability, neurodivergence, LGBTQIA+ etc. I connected with the founders a few years ago at a conference and soon became an ambassador. Then in 2019 they asked if I’d be interested in taking over from them and despite me just having signed my first book deal, I couldn’t say no. It was a brilliant opportunity to help amplify our ambassador’s voices at events, ensure they get paid and give them the chance to work with publishers to check if books being published are authentic and accurate.

What are you reading at the moment and who would you recommend it to? Oh my goodness, I picked up my proof of The Midnighters by Hana Tooke the other night and I am hooked. I’m only five chapters in but it is so sumptuously written I must finish it. I think it’ll be a classic! It’s perfect for middle grade and adults too (of course).

Are you working on anything that you can tell us about? I have some extremely exciting news that I can’t talk about but let’s just say you’ll all meet Sami and Ali again. The Boy, Everywhere spin off is going to happen in a number of ways!
I am also plotting my next standalone novel and this time it will be a dual narrative – two characters who couldn’t be more different, a girl and a boy. It’s nothing like anything I’ve written before and I am so excited to write it! Please just send me some time!

A. M. DASSU is the internationally acclaimed author of Boy, Everywhere, which has been listed for 25 awards, including the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, nominated for the Carnegie Medal, is the 2021 winner of The Little Rebels Award for Radical Fiction and is also an American Library Association Notable Book. A. M. Dassu writes books that challenge stereotypes, humanise the “other” and are full of empathy, hope and heart. Her latest novel, Fight Back has just been published by Scholastic and A. M. Dassu is currently touring the country signing as many copies in as many bookshops as she can!

Fight Back! is published in the UK this week by Scholastic

Read Between the Lies

Two very different boys, one new family, a shared struggle and a big secret.

Ryan didn’t want a new mum, let alone a new brother! But when his parents split up and his dad moves in with Naomi, she comes with Tommy – one year older, chucked out of his old school and now joining Ryan’s class. Great. Suddenly sharing a home and a classroom with a complete stranger is a bit much.

Flung together, the two boys clash, but gradually realise that they are more similar than they thought.

Zephyr

The dual perspectives of this story were brilliantly done, two distinct and realistic voices that wouldn’t have worked individually. I was gripped by the story, the way the relationship between the two boys developed, and the relationships with all the grownups. Tommy’s discovery of a secret (and what that secret was) kept my heart in my mouth for him. Also, the dyslexia friendly font is very readable!

Malcom Duffy has written a bit about the inspiration behind the story:

We all face challenges at some point in our lives. My parents divorced when I was a teenager. Many young people face struggles and I like to explore these in my stories, looking at how the drama unfolds, how different characters react to their problems, the mistakes they make along the way, and the solutions they find.

My latest teen novel, Read Between the Lines, is a story of dyslexia, drama and deceit. It tells the tale of 16 year old Ryan, and 17 year old Tommy, two teens who are from different parts of the country, with different backgrounds, and who go to different schools. But they have something in common– they’re both dyslexic. While Ryan has come to terms with his dyslexia and is succeeding at school, Tommy is in denial, and won’t seek support. Tommy’s issue comes to a head when he’s forced to face his greatest fear – reading in public. He turns to the one person he never thought he’d ask for help – Ryan.

The issue of lies also plays a big part in the story. We sometimes try to keep the truth hidden. This can be for many reasons – fear, shame, embarrassment, stubbornness. But lies can come back to haunt us. The novel explores how the truth, however painful, is always better than a lie.

So why did I pick on dyslexia as the theme for my new novel? My teenage daughter, Tallulah, has dyslexia, so I know first-hand about the issues involved, and the effects it can have. I also have experience in screenwriting and was fortunate enough to be asked to write a short film about dyslexia, called Mical. It tells the incredible real life story of Mike and Pat Jones, and how Pat helped her dyslexic son to read and write. Mike had been thrown out of various schools for being difficult, aggressive, and stupid. But his mum knew her son was bright, and that his behaviour was purely down to his learning difficulty. She developed her own teaching techniques to help Mike who went on to be a star pupil. Mike and Pat Jones then set up the online learning platform for dyslexics called Nessy. The film can be found on YouTube, where it’s had over 1.7 million views.

I thought dyslexia would make an unusual subject for a novel, as it’s very common, but often misunderstood. Some dyslexics don’t even know they have it. And it can have a  negative impact on lives unless it’s dealt with. I carried out a lot of research into the subject, with my daughter, other family members, as well as experts who have spent years dealing with dyslexia and its impact.

Huge numbers of young people battle with dyslexia. If left untreated it can lead to low self-esteem, behaviour problems, anxiety, aggression, withdrawal. While many get the help they need from parents, schools, specialists, many others don’t. I’d like dyslexics to realise there is help available, and that dyslexia is no barrier to leading a successful, fulfilling life. I’d like non-dyslexics to be more understanding of what it means to be dyslexic, to be kind, supportive, understanding.

I hope the book can achieve this and give the reader a story that is in turns, humorous and heart-warming.

 Malcolm Duffy

Malcolm Duffy (photo credit James W. Fortune)

Read Between the Lies by Malcolm Duffy is out now in hardback from Zephyr

Thank you to Fritha Lindqvist for organising a review copy and to Malcolm for his guest post