Author Archives: Caroline Fielding

Chartered School Librarian, CILIP YLG London Chair, Bea-keeper

The Fountains of Silence

A haunting and romantic novel set in post-war Spain by Ruta Sepetys – winner of the Carnegie Medal 2017.

Madrid, 1957.

Daniel, young, wealthy and unsure of his place in the world, views the city through the lens of his camera.

Ana, a hotel maid whose family is suffering under the fascist dictatorship of General Franco.

Lives and hearts collide as they unite to uncover the hidden darkness within the city.

A darkness that could engulf them all . . .

Master storyteller Ruta Sepetys once again shines light into one of history’s darkest corners in this epic, heart-wrenching novel about identity, unforgettable love and the hidden violence of silence.

Penguin

I was lucky enough to be invited to join a small Q&A session with Ruta Sepetys on zoom last month, to discuss her latest title THE FOUNTAINS OF SILENCE. It was an absolutely fascinating conversation between her and Carmen McCullough (editorial director at Puffin), followed by some questions from the invited bloggers. Do read all the other blogs to discover her answers to some really interesting questions about the research behind her writing as well as the writing itself and its reception.

Ruta talked about building narratives from what you know (and assume) about a person, and how important it is to give a voice to unheard stories to maybe change opinions and open up minds. It was amazing hearing about the lengths she went to in researching details to include that would immerse the readers in a sensory experience – to the extent that she owns a key to a room in the hotel that her American family stayed in, brochures they would have seen in the foyer, a spoon they would have used!

When it was my turn to ask some questions, mine weren’t really about FOUNTAINS at all (although it was relevant as it had recently been announced that it had been longlisted for this year’s Carnegie AND NOW SHORTLISTED!!!), but rather about her experience being nominated for and winning the Carnegie medal:

On your website it says your “books have won or been shortlisted for over forty book prizes”, but the Carnegie is the only one specifically mentioned, why is the medal so special?

Ruta’s answer to this question blew me away:

One of the oldest, most enduring prizes that is recognised world-wide…When I began writing…many of the true witnesses would say “don’t bother, no one’s interested, the world has forgotten us”, and to be recognised on a longlist for an award like this…is restoring a bit of dignity to these people…The true survivors feel honoured by the award, and that is really powerful. It brings history out of the dark.

Is it just a nice thing to win an award, or do you think they are important for bigger reasons?

Ruta made some great points about the Carnegie promoting a culture of reading, being a reading community, and bringing people together around one story. Reading is a creative partnership between the author and the reader:

…the author provides the text and the reader brings the character to life, the setting, amplifies the emotion…walks by their side for 300pages feeling their fear…Awards acknowledge that empathy, I think that’s the most important part.

Thank you so much to Ruta for the really thoughtful answers.

THE FOUNTAINS OF SILENCE is out in paperback now!

CKG21 Shortlists Announced!

The shortlists of the prestigious CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals, the UK’s oldest and best-loved book awards for children and young people, were announced today for 2021.

I’ve still got to read two of the Carnegie shortlist before I think about my personal winner, they’re so varied that I can only imagine the conversations the judges will have trying to pin down a winner, I’ve honestly loved all of those that I’ve read so far.

Again, two books I haven’t seen the inside of on the Greenaway list, but I’ve ordered them to shadow at school, really looking forward to sharing them with students! Fascinating fact on the announcement blog – this is the first shortlist ever that are all author-illustrator creations!

The winners will be announced on Wednesday 16th June, so get reading…

First Story Young Writers virtual festival

The Young Writers festival, the highlight of the First Story Young Writers programme, kicks off on 24 March 2021. This festival provides a unique opportunity for hundreds of young people from less advantaged backgrounds to engage with a literature festival , often for the first time. Pre-pandemic, staged annually (at Cambridge University), the festival is an inspiring day-long event featuring acclaimed speakers, book signings, readings and writing workshopsFor 2021, the festival will become predominantly a free and open access festival online, in a pandemic-necessitated change. From hundreds of students previously attending the festival in Cambridge, this move enables thousands of young writers and readers to access the festival from across the UK and beyond.“We are amazed how many schools have welcomed the festival and registered this year; a day of stimulating creative activity is clearly very welcome at the end of a long challenging term’” said Antonia Byatt, CEO First Story.

First Story partner schools will all take part in live writing workshops with First Story Writers, streamed into their classrooms.

The festival events open to the public are as follows:

24 March Angie Thomas  – access will be open until 23 April 2021 

24  March Young Writers Showcase, chaired by Dean Atta

From 24 March, all Craft and Technique Resource short events will also be available to watch at any time.

All events can be accessed via the festival site here: https://firststory.org.uk/festival/

Sign up early as a school to the Angie Thomas event and receive free copies of THE HATE YOU GIVE:  https://firststory.org.uk/festival/#angie

A limited number of workshops, and a CPD event are for First Story members only. 

Show Us Who You Are

When Cora’s brother drags her along to his boss’s house, she doesn’t expect to strike up a friendship with Adrien, son of the intimidating CEO of Pomegranate Technologies. As she becomes part of Adrien’s life, she is also drawn into the mysterious projects at Pomegranate.

At first, she’s intrigued by them – Pomegranate is using AI to recreate real people in hologram form. As she digs deeper, however, she uncovers darker secrets…

Cora knows she must unravel their plans, but can she fight to make her voice heard, whilst never losing sight of herself?

Knights Of
Cover design by Kay Wilson

A Kind of Spark was one of my top 5 books of 2020, an outstanding debut, so I was anxious to not have too high expectations of Show Us Who You Are…but I worried for nothing because it is completely different but equally brilliant! I asked the author, Elle McNicoll, a few questions (which she answered brilliantly):

In SHOW US WHO YOU ARE, artificial intelligence is not shown in a particularly positive light. Did you do a lot of research into the technology or did a piece of tech news spark the idea?

I think it’s the humans controlling the AI that are not shown in a particularly positive light, but I’ll leave that to readers. A lot of AI stories are about AI vs humans and a sentient new being rising up to take over the world. I think that’s a fear that powerful people have about the marginalised–that they will rise up if granted humanity. An interesting fear that says a lot, but not what my AI Grams do. It’s not something that happens in Show Us Who You Are. The AI are very innocent and reactive and the uprising happens elsewhere. The idea was sparked by Prince’s death, when people said they wanted to show a hologram of him performing at concerts. I thought it was a revolting idea.

It feels like SHOW US WHO YOU ARE came extremely quickly after your debut! Had you started writing the idea before A KIND OF SPARK was published or did it come to you all of a sudden?

I was writing it from March 2020, so it was something to get me through the first lockdown. I had Covid and was stuck in my room, feeling horrid and wanting to write about a future with no virus and lots of adventure. I was deep into Show Us Who You Are when A Kind of Spark came out, so 2020 was a very eventful year. 

Both of your protagonists are autistic, and wonderfully different, were you thinking about stereotypes that you wanted to challenge or did you simply want to create representative characters?

I think the latter. I always want to create dynamic neurodivergent heroines who are full of brains and heart and have complete agency over their story. 

In both your books, a growing friendship plays a really important part in the story. Why does it matter so much, do you think, to include such relationships?

Being general here, but a lot of neurodivergent children experience extreme isolation and loneliness. I had a very difficult childhood when it came to making and maintaining friendships and I was bullied a lot for being different. So, that need for connection and being understood is very strong in my work. Adrien and Cora sort of save each other by becoming best friends. They’re kindred spirits and I think it’s essential for ND readers to know that they can find their people someday, and that they deserve to be celebrated. Not just tolerated.

Publishing two books in lockdown has…not been ideal, but have you found remote events a positive thing?

I’m grateful for virtual events, they’ve been wonderful. Doing virtual school visits has been fantastic. But it’s deeply frustrating to have fallen into two lockdown periods. I’ve never been able to walk into a bookshop on publication day. Never met a reader in the flesh. It’s really demoralising and makes it harder to go home and write uplifting things. I’m so grateful to Twitter for allowing me a way to speak to readers. 

When things are “back to normal”, have you thought about what kind of events you might enjoy doing with readers?

I’m desperate to do physical events where I can talk for more than ten minutes about my work and why neurodivergent representation matters. I wrote a middle grade so that I could have these important conversations with young people. Awards have been lovely, but I need to be able to speak to readers and young people about why these books are needed. So I’d love to do more events with booksellers, schools and libraries. That’s the dream.

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

I’m about to start Crater Lake: Evolution by Jennifer Killick. If you love comedic horror, she’s for you. I’m looking forward to seeing her fab characters again.

What’s next for you?

I am writing two books I’m really passionate about at the moment. One is a YA, so will need to go out into the world and find its home. I’m the only one that believes in it right now, but I have the same feeling that I did with A Kind of Spark. So, I’m following it.

Show Us Who You Are by Elle McNicoll is published 4th March by Knights Of in paperback original (thank you Ed PR for sending me a copy and organising the interview).

The Deep-Sea Duke

When Hugo and Ada travel to their friend Dorian’s planet for the holidays, Hugo is anxious about being accepted by Dorian’s powerful family. But when they arrive on Hydrox, there are more pressing things to worry about, as the planet has become a temporary home for refugee butterflies. Displaced from their home by climate change, the butterflies have been offered sanctuary by Dorian’s parents, but they’re quickly running out of space. Meanwhile, beneath the seas, a strange creature is wreaking all kinds of havoc … Can Hugo, Dorian and Ada step in before the crisis gets out of control?

Barrington Stoke
cover design: Helen Crawford-White

You all know how much I love the extra-readable YA from Barrington Stoke (and everything else they publish, but anyway…) so I’m always excited when I get the chance to review one of their titles. I was especially excited to see The Deep Sea Duke arrive, as The Starlight Watchmaker introduced some utterly amazing characters and I wanted to join them in another adventure. I also got a chance to follow up with the author, Lauren James:

When I interviewed you for TeenLibrarian around the publication of The Starlight Watchmaker, you mentioned that you had plans to write a sequel on Dorian’s planet because there was still a lot more story to tell about Dorian and Hugo’s relationship. I’ve loved to see that come true (and was really pleased to see my favourite character, Ada, still plays a large part – pun intended). Is the final version much different to what you had planned 18 months ago?

Not much, really! I’ve always had a really clear vision for these books, and one of the joys of writing short novellas (each book is around 20,000 words long) is that the edits tend to be quite low-key. Not much changes, unlike my novels, which are torn to bits before I’m through with them. But I’ve always been able to see exactly where Hugo and Dorian’s story is going, and it’s so nice to see it come together. 

There is a definite focus on climate change (and the causes) in this novella, did you find yourself doing a lot of research before (or during) the world building?

I’m very interested in climate politics in general, so a lot of the content in the book was stuff I was already aware of. I read a lot of newsletters about climate change, and reading articles helped me establish what I wanted to say with the novella.

What is your main piece of advice for a teen concerned about climate change, and how they can do anything about it?

So many of the climate fiction books I read focus on the effect that individuals can have on the planet, with the message that we all need to be more responsible, greener consumers. I wanted to look at how industry and businesses are causing pollution, to make it clear to my young, scared readers that it’s not their responsibility to fix climate change. No amount of careful consumption can fix an industry-wide problem.

However, there are some things people can do to help! My biggest tips are: 

  • Vote in all political elections you are able to, and make sure your representatives are aware that your vote is based on their climate policy views
  • Replace garden lawns with wildflower meadows
  • Switch to LED lightbulbs
  • Don’t fly – and pay for carbon offsetting for any flights you are required to take
  • Make sure your savings and pensions schemes are not invested in companies contributing to climate change. Ask your company to divest from their harmful default options
  • Avoid eating beef, and transition to dairy alternatives
  • Buy in-season food, grown locally (avoiding hot-house produce grown out of season)
  • Change to a renewable energy utility supplier
  • Buy electric cars – but only once your current car is absolutely unable to be fixed. Keep current cars on the road for as long as possible, to keep manufacturing emissions low
  • Install solar panels or solar roof tiles
  • Air dry clothing instead of tumble drying
  • Avoid disposable, cheap fashion and invest in long-term, quality pieces that can be worn for many years

And, of course, plant trees wherever you can. They truly are the lungs of our planet. Depleted forests, savannahs, peatlands, mangroves and wetlands have the ability to grow back quickly, but we need to give them the opportunity to do that. 

How did the Climate Fiction Writers League come about?

The idea was inspired by a similar writing collective, the Women Writers Suffrage League, formed in 1908 by activists, who said, “A body of writers working for a common cause cannot fail to influence public opinion.” They encouraged professional writers to create work about the suffrage movement working to give women the vote. These books were written and published before women got the vote – when they had no idea whether their activism would be successful. 

The comparison between the suffragettes and modern Extinction Rebellion activists is something I’d been thinking about a lot while writing my own climate fiction novel – it’s one of the big questions of our time, I think. Is political protest enough for something as urgent as the climate crisis? Should activists be taking direct action, similar to those taken by the suffragettes? 

I’ve been trying to answer that question for myself while writing my novel, and the Women Writers Suffrage League was mentioned in some non-fiction about the suffragettes. Immediately, I wanted to join a similar movement for climate fiction writers – but I couldn’t find any when I googled it. In fact, I couldn’t really find any comprehensive resources about climate fiction at all. It seemed like something that would be really useful to a lot of people, so I decided to set one up. 

The group has really taken on its own life beyond what I ever imagined, with over 100 authors on board now, and lots of essays and interviews to read: https://climatefictionwritersleague.substack.com/ 

I will always ask: what are you reading at the moment and who would you recommend it to?

I just read an early copy of A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers, which is a really lovely far-future look at a world where humans have worked to stop climate change – and succeeded! I think there’s a desperate need for futures which aren’t dystopian, to encourage people to keep trying to save the planet and not give up – and this does that really well. I also really enjoyed Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell, a nice space opera romance.

What are you working on at the moment?

My next novel continues the climate change theme with Green Rising, set in a future where teenagers can grow plants, and use it to rewild the planet. I’m also working on the novel adaptation of my internet murder mystery An Unauthorised Fan Treatise, which I posted online at https://gottiewrites.wordpress.com/ So lots of stuff in the pipeline!

Huge thanks to Lauren for her wonderful answers and to Barrington Stoke for sending me a review copy. The Deep Sea Duke is out now!

Lauren James is the twice Carnegie-nominated British author of many Young Adult novels, including The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker, The Loneliest Girl in the Universe and The Quiet at the End of the World. She is also a Creative Writing lecturer, freelance editor, screenwriter, and the founder of the Climate Fiction Writers League. Her upcoming release is Green Rising, a climate change thriller.

Her books have sold over a hundred thousand copies worldwide, been translated into five languages and shortlisted for the YA Book Prize and STEAM Children’s Book Award.

Her other novels include The Next Together series, the dyslexia-friendly novella series The Watchmaker and the Duke and serialised online novel An Unauthorised Fan Treatise.

She was born in 1992, and has a Masters degree from the University of Nottingham, UK, where she studied Chemistry and Physics. Lauren is a passionate advocate of STEM further education, and many of her books feature female scientists in prominent roles. She sold the rights to her first novel when she was 21, whilst she was still at university.

Her writing has been described as ‘gripping romantic sci-fi’ by the Wall Street Journal and ‘a strange, witty, compulsively unpredictable read which blows most of its new YA-suspense brethren out of the water’ by Entertainment Weekly. The Last Beginning was named one of the best LGBT-inclusive works for young adults by the Independent.

Lauren lives in the West Midlands and is an Arts Council grant recipient.  She has written articles for numerous publications, including the Guardian, Buzzfeed, Den of Geek, The Toast, and the Children’s Writers and Artist’s Yearbook 2021. She teaches creative writing for Coventry University, WriteMentor, and Writing West Midlands, providing creative writing courses to children through the Spark Young Writers programme.

Bad Water by N.M. Browne

Ollu is a barger; a trader living and working on her mother’s matriarchal boat, The Ark. When they lose all their trade goods in a storm and her Mum gets sick, the only way to save her mother’s life and the life of her baby siblings is to make the most dangerous trade of her life. Ollu has to venture into forbidden waters, Bad Water, and she must go alone.

With her old allies under attack, she finds herself reluctantly welcoming two escaped slaves on board The Ark. Buzz is a genetically enhanced stranger from across the sea, while Ratter is a boy prophet, a spy from the old City. The Ark is forbidden to males but she has to accept their help. How many rules will she break to save her mother? Is she prepared to risk everything?

In a world reshaped by floods and the loss of technology, Ollu must make a perilous journey. She is pitted against gang leaders, slavers and violent machete-men. Only her courage, unexpected friendships and rediscovered technologies can save her mother’s life – and her family’s honour.

Nicky came to my previous school, many moons ago, to talk about her (then) new book, Warriors of Alavna (it is a great historical fantasy, look it up if you’ve not read it). She’s written a few (!) novels since and her latest is for a tiny press called Kristall Ink, BAD WATER: a dystopian thriller for ages 11+ with two great protagonists (I say, having only read 3 chapters so far…), Buzz and Ollu. Because there’s no chance of school visits at the moment, she’s filmed a 30minute WBD lesson that could be used for part of a 60+minute lesson:

She’s also interviewed herself in a much shorter clip as a taster!

Thanks for sending me a copy of Bad Water, Nicky (out now)!

Proud of Me

Becky and Josh are almost-twins, with two mums and the same anonymous donor dad.

Josh can’t wait until he’s eighteen, the legal age when he can finally contact his donor, and he’ll do anything to find out more ­­­- even if it involves lying.

Becky can’t stop thinking about her new friend, Carli. Could her feelings for Carli be a sign of something more?

Becky and Josh both want their parents to be proud of them…but right now, they’re struggling to even accept themselves.

Usborne

I loved Sarah Hagger-Holt’s debut MG novel, NOTHING EVER HAPPENS HERE and was lucky enough to have the chance to interview her, read it here, so I was really pleased to be asked to be on the tour for PROUD OF ME.

A Pride group is being set up at school, run by older students but our protagonists get involved (if you like the group scenes, I’d recommend Alex Gino’s RICK as well, for an American version). Friendships play an important role in this story – both brilliant friendships and less satisfying ones – and the feelings Josh and Becky have about their friends are wonderfully described, everything feels very true. In the meantime, Josh and Becky both find themselves keeping very different secrets as he investigates their donor father and she realises she might have feelings for a new friend.

Becky’s best friend Archie is a great character. Openly gay, he (rather than their Mums) is why Becky and Josh both initially go along to the Pride group, and he has some very interesting things to say, for example:

“…Look, if someone else puts a label on you and uses that to define you or put you in a box or to treat you like dirt, then of course that’s bad. But when people say that they’re not into labels, it’s probably because they’ve bought the whole idea that being LGBTQ or whatever is bad, so they don’t want to be associated with it. But labels can be good if you reclaim them, then you can share who you are with other people and be stronger together.”

but he also got into my bad books with this one, which will have every librarian shaking their head in despair, hah:

“Wow, did you know he even has his books in height order? Is your brother for real? Perhaps he’s not really a teenager at all, but a librarian disguised in a teenager’s body?” 

Josh’s secret investigations show him trying to find his place, and his uncertainty around friendships is brilliantly portrayed. It is a really positive book. Their Mums’ fears for them are genuine, remembering how different and difficult it was to “come out” 30 years ago, with the reactions of adults and children in the story really shining a light on how inclusive and safe (hopefully) schools today can be. The children are supporting one another and turning around the attitudes of surrounding adults with positivity!

Do take a look at the other sites for the rest of the tour, and thanks to Usborne for the review copy!

Forever Ends on Friday

What if you could bring your best friend back to life – but only for a short time?

Jamal’s best friend, Q, doesn’t know that he died, and that he’s about to die . . . again. He doesn’t know that Jamal tried to save him. And that the reason they haven’t been friends for two years is because Jamal blames Q for the accident that killed his parents.

But what if Jamal could have a second chance? A new technology allows Q to be reanimated for a few weeks before he dies . . . permanently. And Q’s mom is not about to let anyone ruin this miracle by telling Q about his impending death. So how can Jamal fix everything if he can’t tell Q the truth?

Forever Ends on Friday weaves together loss, grief, friendship, and love to form a wholly unique homage to the bonds that bring people together for life – and beyond.

Macmillan Kids

Published in the US as EARLY DEPARTURES, FOREVER ENDS ON FRIDAY is the second YA novel by Justin A. Reynolds. I interviewed him around the publication date of OPPOSITE OF ALWAYS and his answers were great, do have a look (and read that book if you haven’t yet)! The synopsis for FOREVER actually really reminded me of OPPOSITE, with the idea of doing things right the second time around, so I was a little worried that it might feel samey…thank goodness I was wrong! Although the idea of second chances is important in both books, it was a refreshingly different read. Family, again, is huge in the story, it is about the importance of family and relationships of all sorts. I loved the humour, brightening even the darkest moments but without spoiling them, and the warmth in the relationships. Jamal’s voice is just great. The premise is so interesting and plays out believably, leaving the reader with lots to ponder over: Do you think it is a good idea to have a second chance to say goodbye?

My last interview with Justin was one of my favourite for the blog, so when Amber at Macmillan asked if I’d like to be part of the blog tour for this second book I took the opportunity to ask just a few more questions…

What is it about the idea of second chances that sparks your imagination?

Great question! I think it probably has to do with my overanalyzing brain, ha. I tend to replay moments and episodes in a loop, turning over a situation on all sides, trying to grasp either what went right or wrong, what I could’ve done better or just differently. The idea of having the time and space to fix the things we stubbornly broke out of frustration, anxiety, or hurt feelings I think will forever remain intriguing to me. We’re so tragically flawed as people, all of us—and yet, most of us believe in redemption, myself included; and I believe it’s love that makes such healing possible.

Love, in its most honest form, is such a powerful experience; it’s like we’re being remade from the inside out—like remodeling for the soul. You are forever changed. And once you’ve had it, it’s crushing to be without it. For me, the reason we’re here on this planet is to form meaningful, interpersonal relationships, which only happens when we reciprocate vulnerability—but with such openness, we expose ourselves to pain, betrayal, and apathy. It’s not a question of if we’ll be hurt, but when, even at the hands of those who truly love us. I suppose all of my stories stem from this: I so desperately want to believe in humanity; I need to believe that, given the opportunity, we’ll do what’s right by each other. But I also appreciate that sometimes that requires a second chance.

I love the banter between the friends. Do you listen to a lot of teenagers chatting in real life for inspiration?

Thank you. I’m so happy you enjoy it because dialogue is probably the thing I enjoy most about writing—or maybe it’s the thing that I’ve always had the easiest time with, ha. I’m lucky that I get to visit schools all over the country and meet and listen to lots of young people talking about their experiences, the things that matter to them. I think listening is the most important part of writing, other than being a good reader. There’s a rhythm to language, to our conversations, whether those be internal or with our family and friends—and for me there are few greater writerly feelings than when you successfully tap into that sound. Another kinda weird thing I do is I watch movies and television with the subtitles (captions) on—which I know drives some people crazy, haha. But there’s something about seeing the words as they’re being spoken that I find both beautiful and instructive. The fact that there are so many ways to say the same thing to someone else, I love that.

Have you had much opportunity to engage with readers in these…interesting times?

I’m fortunate in that I’ve gotten to do quite a few virtual events, including book festivals and conferences and interviews. I’ve also done several virtual school visits, which are always fun. We also had our second annual Cleveland Reads (#CLEReads) Book Festival this year, also via a virtual platform, and that was such a thrilling experience, connecting with awesome readers, young and old, all over the world.

I will always ask: what are you reading at the moment and who would you recommend it to?

I always love this question because I love talking about other people’s books! So Bryan Washington’s MEMORIAL is amazing; any story highlighting “found family” is already going to be high on my list but then Bryan’s inventive language and his unique POV is absolutely electric. I should mention I believe this is formally categorized as an adult title.

Also, I’m reading and loving Danielle Evans’s new short story collection, THE OFFICE OF HISTORICAL CORRECTIONS. I don’t know if there’s a short story writer I enjoy and admire more; what she manages to convey in such small spaces detonates fireworks in my brain. Every Evans story makes me green with envy; she’s a master.

I also want to say thank you so much for having me; it’s always such a pleasure talking with you!

Thank you so much for your wonderful answers, it is my pleasure to read your books and have a chance to ask a few nosy questions!

Huge thanks to Macmillan Kids for sending me a review copy and inviting me to be part of the blog tour for another awesome Justin A. Reynolds!

The book is out now!

The Humiliations of Welton Blake

Welton Blake has done it – he’s asked out Carmella McKenzie, the best-looking girl in school, and she’s only gone and said yes!

But just as he thinks his luck, and life, is starting to change, Welton’s phone breaks, kickstarting a series of unfortunate and humiliating events. With bullies to avoid, girls ready to knock him out and all the drama with his mum and dad, life for Welton is about to go very, very wrong …

Barrington Stoke
The Humiliations of Welton Blake – Cover artwork by Ali Ardington

I really enjoyed this new Barrington Stoke novella by Alex Wheatle. For those of you who don’t know, they publish books with dyslexic readers in mind – short, engaging, and set out carefully to be as readable as possible – written by loads of the best authors of the moment. Alex already had one under his belt, Kerb Stain Boys, a YA story set on his Crongton Estate, but this is for a younger teen audience. Those just starting to think about asking a girl to go to the cinema with them, or worrying about having the latest phone and trainers. Welton, our protagonist, is a great voice, he’d be one of the students that is always in trouble at school but secretly a teacher’s favourite. I asked Alex Wheatle some questions before publication:

How different is the process, writing a book for Barrington Stoke versus a longer novel?

The writing process for a shorter novel remains the same but before I write the first paragraph, I spend more time in my head on the plot and in the writing I try to be more concise.

After writing for adults then young adults and older teens, this is your youngest protagonist. Did that change your approach?

Writing about a young protagonist didn’t really change my approach.  I still invested the same care and attention as I would do for any other character I have created.

What is special about Crongton Estate?

The North Crongton and South Crongton estates are really references to the many council estates I have visited throughout the UK and beyond. What’s special about Crongton is that it is a fictional place. I’m not tied to Brixton, South London or anywhere else so I can freely create my characters and geography how I see fit. I can also populate Crongton the way I want to.

Cane Warriors (which is spectacular btw) is very different to anything else you’ve published for children and teens, what prompted you to write it, and might you write something from that era for Barrington Stoke?

Cane Warriors was a labour of love. Since I read CLR James’ Black Jacobins in the early 1980s, I’ve always wanted to write Jamaican historical narratives. My mother, who grew up very close to the plantation sites where the 1760 slave revolt occurred, heard her elders occasionally mention Tacky’s War. I felt as I was really documenting my ancestors’ history.

Have you done many virtual events? How does it compare to in-person?

I always prefer to do in-person events and I struggled a bit at first to do virtual events. Hopefully, I’m improving but I yearn to get in front of audiences again and do my thing!

What are you reading and who would you recommend it to?

At the moment, I am enjoying A.M Dassu’s Boy, Everywhere and I recommend it to anyone at any age.

What was the most exciting thing for you to come out of 2020?

The most exciting thing for me to come out in 2020 was the Black Lives Matter marches around the world and the different shades who all walked together.

What’s next?

I really enjoyed myself writing my The Humiliations of Welton Blake, so I hope I can produce more of the same for middle-grade readers.

You can read the first chapter on the Barrington Stoke website, and if you want more: the book is out now!

Huge thanks to Barrington Stoke for a proof copy to review, and to Alex Wheatle for answering my questions.

The Awesome Power of Sleep

The essential guide to sleep from award-winning teenage well-being expert Nicola Morgan, author of bestselling Blame My BrainThe Teenage Guide to Stress and The Teenage Guide to Friends.

Late nights, addictive technology and minds racing with exam stress and friendship worries: it’s no wonder the teenage stereotype is tired eyes and sleeping through the weekend. Just like adults, teenagers are sleeping less now than ever before, yet sleep is crucial to our health and well-being. Internationally renowned expert on the teenage brain, Nicola Morgan, tackles this essential subject – asking why teenagers so desperately need a good night’s sleep, exploring what a lack of sleep does to their developing brains, and explaining how to have the best sleep possible. Authoritative, accessible and informed by the latest scientific evidence, Nicola Morgan writes a fascinating and helpful guide for both teenagers and adults alike.

Walker Books

Nicola Morgan has written extensively about the teenage brain and mental health, and this, her latest book, focusses on the science of sleep. Now, I go through life feeling tired, thinking that there’s nothing I can do about it as it is all down to being woken up most nights by a restless child, but THE AWESOME POWER OF SLEEP reminded me that there are so many things I can do about it…and I’m trying! Less screens in the evening (she typed, on a screen, just before bedtime…), less alcohol and caffeine, more deep breathing and stretches – I really do think everyone could get something out of reading this book.

Nicola wrote this piece for Teen Librarian (any similarities to persons living or dead are purely coincidental):

In which I become a little bit bossy (to adults) about sleep

While I was writing THE AWESOME POWER OF SLEEP, this was a common scenario when I arrived at a school to talk to teenagers about some aspect of their wellbeing.

The librarian and someone in the Senior Leadership Team – let’s call them Matt and Caroline, just for fun – greet me and we walk towards the staffroom. “What are you working on at the moment?” Matt asks, conversationally.

“Sleep,” I say. Two pairs of ears prick up. They ask for some tips.

On questioning, I discover that Caroline arrives home exhausted after work, eats some biscuits (because sugar), collapses on the sofa and falls asleep with the TV on, wakes an hour later feeling groggy, cooks a meal, has wine, does some work, goes on social media, has another glass of wine “to help me sleep” and then settles down to finish her work and answer emails before going to bed.

Matt is similar except that he isn’t allowed to fall asleep on the sofa because the house is cacophonous with family members at various stages of homework or emotional meltdown and he can’t do his emails and work until he’s in bed and everyone else is asleep. He has strong coffee to keep him awake enough to do the work. The wine still features, though. Thank goodness, he thinks. Because wine helps you sleep, doesn’t it?

Matt and Caroline have only done one thing right: created a routine. And, yes, I recommend a routine. But not like this! These are terrible routines which will wreck their sleep length and quality.

The main mistakes are:

  • Having a nap late afternoon or early evening. It’s OK (though not practical on a workday) to nap earlier but a nap after work hinders the important night sleep.
  • The second glass of wine. (Possibly the first, too, but I won’t take all your pleasures away!) Alcohol raises heartrate and we need a lower heartrate to get the benefits of deep sleep. More deep sleep happens in the first half of the night while the alcohol is still in your blood, so a huge proportion of restorative sleep is damaged.
  • Answering emails (or doing anything on screen) in the late evening – because of the light and because emails are almost never relaxing…
  • Working late at night, because it wakes your brain with adrenaline and dopamine while still making you tired. So, you are tired but alert.
  • Caffeine – but you know that.

I don’t blame Matt and Caroline for any of this! These are very natural habits for over-worked people. They are so focused on getting through the work and life stuff, thinking about the young people in their care, never having enough time to look after themselves, that they have done what busy people tend to do: take the easiest paths down the hill.

Matt and Caroline are not getting enough sleep. This negatively affects their:

  • Concentration
  • Mood
  • Appetite and food choices – sleep deprived people are hungrier and more drawn towards fatty, sugary and salty foods
  • Self-control and resistance to temptation
  • Controlling words and actions in response to emotions
  • Memory and retention of information
  • Hormones
  • Immune system
  • Mental and physical health and wellbeing in pretty much every way

Matt and Caroline need to read The Awesome Power of Sleep before a teenager gets their hands on it and starts telling them off! But what I really care about is that everyone gets better sleep because when we have better sleep we feel better and when we feel better we function better. Matt and Caroline, by looking after themselves will be better able to look after the people they care about.

So, if I seem to be critical, I’m really not. I just need to be a little bit bossy because I care! I also know what it feels like not to have enough sleep: I’ve had my baby grandson living with us for the last six months. Now, there’s a boy who’s going to need The Awesome Power of Sleep as soon as he can read!

The good news is that habits are not so difficult to break. You might need a bit of help, though, and that’s where I come in. You’ll find all the tips and explanations in my book and on my website. The main one is to create a healthy routine in the winding-down period towards sleep, avoiding the things that hinder sleep: alcohol, caffeine, stress, work, and the lights and notifications from screens.

2020 was hard on many people’s night-time rest because anxiety is one of the worst enemies of sleep. But as we enter 2021 and really need to take care of ourselves, I hope Matt and Caroline, and all the other adults working or living with young people, will sleep well: but not on the sofa after work!

Nicola Morgan, The Teenage Brain Woman, is a multi-award-winning author whose work on young brains, psychology and mental health is loved by teenagers, schools and families around the world. For someone whose last school science report said, ‘Nicola has no aptitude for science subjects’, she’s written a lot of science-based books and gained the respect of real scientists. She has been a YA novelist, English teacher and dyslexia specialist and the mother of two teenage (now grown-up) daughters. Now, when not writing and dreaming in a garden office over a valley, she keeps herself physically and mentally healthy as a passionate vegetable gardener, decent cook and determined runner.

Nicola does talks, online or in-person, for conferences, schools, parents and public audiences. She has created unique teaching materials, including videos: terrific value for schools, bringing all the benefits of repeated visits at a fraction of the cost of one!

Website: www.nicolamorgan.com

Twitter: NicolaMorgan

Insta: NicolaMorgansBrain

The Awesome Power of Sleep is out now!