Author Archives: Caroline Fielding

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

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!

Fighting Fantasy

PART STORY, PART GAME – PURE ADVENTURE!

Youthe hero of this story, are a member of the Sky Watch keeping the floating archipelago of Pangaria safe. When the Nimbus isle suddenly crashes out of the sky into the Ocean of Tempests below, you must explore the remaining islands, and battle both storms and sea beasts in your mission to raise Nimbus from the deep. The brand new book in the FIGHTING FANTASY series – by the first ever female guest author!

Scholastic

I read a few Fighting Fantasy books when I was younger and am really pleased that some are being reissued as well as new stories being published. Scholastic very kindly sent me a copy of Crystal of Storms, the first in the franchise to be written by a female guest author: Rhianna Pratchett no less! I had a go and it was just as exciting as I remember – and I was as unlucky as I remember – hard to put down once you begin (unless you die…but then you try again)! They also gave me the opportunity to ask her, and the mind behind the original series, Ian Livingstone, a few questions.

Rhianna Pratchett

Did you read the original Fighting Fantasy books as a child?

Yes, I read a few when I was about 8 or 9 years old and really enjoyed them. I even got into trouble with my local library for holding onto them for so long.
 
How did you get involved in the reboot?

Ian Livingstone and I had known each other for many years and had also done press together as part of the Tomb Raider 2013 reboot. One day he just emailed me out of the blue and asked whether I’d be interested in giving it a go. I’d never done anything like it before, and it seemed a bit scary, so it
was clearly something I needed to do!
 
I imagine you’ve faced some opposition in the game industry, as a female creator. What advice would you give girls that are interested in working in the field?

I’ve been quite lucky that I’ve never faced too much discrimination for being a woman in games. In fact, I’ve had more problems working within narrative, because it’s an area of games development which is sometimes undervalued and not always well supported.
 
How different is writing a book to writing a game?

With a book you’re in complete control of the narrative and everything around it. Aside from a couple of editors, it’s usually just you and the blank page. With games, particular AAA games (the blockbusters of the game world) you are working with hundreds of people across multiple
departments. They will all have their own battles to fight and views on narrative, so you will need to be very flexible, accommodating, and thick skinned!
 
What are you reading at the moment and who would you recommend it to?

I’m reading Margaret Attwood’s The Testaments; which fans of The Handmaid’s Tale will definitely love. I’m particularly enjoying the fleshing out of Aunt Lydia, who is such a terrifying and complex character. I’m also reading Flora Curiosa, which is a collection of classic short stories in the rather niche genre of ‘Botany Gothic’. I’ve become obsessed with building out my plant collection during lockdown, so I’ve become fascinated with all things botanical.
 
What’s next from you?

I’m bringing some of the skills I developed whilst working on Crystal of Storms, to Bardsung (Steamforged Games) a tabletop cooperative dungeon explorer. I’ll be writing and narratively designing the project, which is a fantastic challenge. I’ve also working on a few film, TV and game projects, which are sadly still in the Vault of Secrecy at the moment.

Ian Livingstone

What do you think has prompted a renewed interest in Fighting Fantasy?

Being interactive, Fighting Fantasy books naturally resonate with today’s children. Part book, part game, the readers decide where the story goes which is empowering and more engaging than a traditional book. Set in worlds of monsters and magic adds a further layer of excitement to stimulate children’s imaginations. In parallel, there has also been a huge revival in Dungeons & Dragons, and Warhammer has never been more popular. 

Which is your favourite of the adventures?

That’s a bit like asking me who is my favourite child when I have four! So, I’m going to narrow it down to my favourite four books. They are The Warlock of Firetop Mountain because it was the first one, Forest of Doom, City of Thieves and Deathtrap Dungeon.

How much direction do you give guest authors contributing to the franchise?

We ask that guest authors stick within the Fighting Fantasy canon to maintain the look and feel of the world and characters we have created. We also require them to adhere to the game system we created using dice for combat and SKILL, STAMINA and LUCK attributes. But as far as story and plot goes, we give them pretty much free rein.

What kind of feedback do you get from readers?

Readers are pretty quick to let us know on social media what they think about new titles. There are fans of the books all over the world and a large community has built up around Fighting Fantasy over the years with dedicated Facebook groups. There are also suggestions and comments sent to us via fightingfantasy.com. All communications are gratefully received!

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

I’m currently re-reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? on which the film Blade Runner was based. It’s a classic by my favourite science fiction author Philip K Dick. I’d recommend it to anybody who has a thing about post-apocalyptic worlds and rogue androids!

Huge thanks to both the authors and Scholastic for the interview.

Lots of Fighting Fantasy books are available to buy now!

4 Reasons Verse Novels are Awesome, by Lucy Cuthew

Blood Moon is an extraordinary YA novel in verse about the online shaming of a teenage girl. During astronomy-lover Frankie’s first sexual experience with the quiet and lovely Benjamin, she gets her period. It’s only blood, they agree. But soon a graphic meme goes viral, turning an innocent, intimate afternoon into something disgusting, mortifying and damaging. As the online shaming takes on a horrifying life of its own, Frankie begins to wonder: is her real life over? Blood Moon is a punchy, vivid and funny story of first-time love, hormone-fuelled sexuality and intense female friendships – whilst addressing, head-on, the ongoing exploitation of young girls online and the horror of going viral. Both shocking and uplifting, it cuts to the heart of what it is to be a teenager today and shows the power of friendship to find joy in even the darkest skies.

Walker Books

Blood Moon is a truly outstanding (and pretty unique) UKYA by Lucy Cuthew, her debut, and I recommend getting a few copies for every KS4/5 library! It is one of what feels like a recent flurry of amazing novels in verse, and Lucy has shared with us some of her favourites!

4 Reasons Verse Novels are Awesome

and 4 Awesome Verse Novels to Read

by Lucy Cuthew

Have you ever read a novel in verse? If so, did you like it? I love them, and wanted to share some of my favourites. If you’ve never read one, here are some reasons I love them:

* Big feels – I love a story that makes me laugh/cry/feel big feelings. Poetry can do that, just like music can.

* A fast read – I absolutely love sitting down and reading a book in one/two sittings. I love verse novels that are intense and immersive.

* Visually interesting – verse novels, because of the way they are set out, are visually very lovely things. There is much more white space than in a prose novel (prose just means normal writing, not broken up in any rhythmic way), and the way the text is set out on the page is playful and interesting. Each page looks different.

* Rhythm – when I read, I read out loud in my head (I know you know what I mean), and I love how reading a verse novel can be like hearing song or rap lyrics.

TOP YA VERSE NOVELS

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

This is a great one to start with. It takes you right up close to the main character and into her world. It’s a really moving and interesting story, and the writing is amazing. Acevedo is a spoken word poet and you can hear it when you read this book.

Gloves Off by Louisa Reid

I absolutely devoured this book. The main character becomes a boxer alongside her mother facing her agoraphobia. You get fast-moving punch verse from both characters and reading from both of their perspectives is so interesting. Reid’s other verse novel, Wrecked, is also absolutely amazing – the whole thing takes place in a court room as a young couple go on trial and the story of who was driving when someone was hit unravels.

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

This story is extremely short and follows a young boy as he takes a lift down his apartment block, joined by a ghost on each of the 6 floors, to decide whether he’s going to kill the guy that killed his brother. It’s an absolutely gripping moral dilemma full of moments outside the lift which expand our understanding of his world and how complicated the decision he has to make is.

The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta

This is the story of a boy finding himself in a world of strict gender rules. The edition I read (borrowed and really need to give back, sorry Wibke) is illustrated, set out in the most deliciously creative way and is just a perfect book. The writing is superb, it flows, it is really moving and it deals with some difficult subjects with tenderness, nuance and bravery.

Lucy Cuthew is the author of Blood Moon, a YA novel-in-verse about periods, sex and online shaming, published by Walker YA. Available at Waterstones, Barnes and Noble (US), and Amazon. 

A Thousand Questions blog tour

Set against the backdrop of Karachi, Pakistan, Saadia Faruqi’s tender and honest middle grade novel tells the story of two girls navigating a summer of change and family upheaval with kind hearts, big dreams, and all the right questions.

Mimi is not thrilled to be spending her summer in Karachi, Pakistan, with grandparents she’s never met. Secretly, she wishes to find her long-absent father, and plans to write to him in her beautiful new journal.

The cook’s daughter, Sakina, still hasn’t told her parents that she’ll be accepted to school only if she can improve her English test score—but then, how could her family possibly afford to lose the money she earns working with her Abba in a rich family’s kitchen?

Although the girls seem totally incompatible at first, as the summer goes on, Sakina and Mimi realize that they have plenty in common—and that they each need the other to get what they want most.

This relatable and empathetic story about two friends coming to understand each other will resonate with readers who loved Other Words for Home and Front Desk.

HarperCollins

A THOUSAND QUESTIONS is a brilliant new middle grade novel by Saadia Faruqi. I really enjoyed reading from the two perspectives, as they realise that the differences in their upbringings don’t change the things that are really important. Saadia’s love of Karachi shines through in her portrayal of the city and its landmarks, at the same time though, she doesn’t shy away from showing the disparities between rich and poor and it could lead to some really interesting conversations if you’re reading it as a class novel or with a reading group (or with your own child).

For the blog tour I was pleased to have the opportunity to ask Saadia a few questions!

I believe your writing began in a local newspaper, followed by the Yasmin books for beginning readers, and now longer middle grade like your new book A THOUSAND QUESTIONS. Which audience do you prefer writing for?

Wow those newspaper columns were such a long time ago, I hardly remember them! Yes, that’s right, and I also wrote a nonfiction academic-style book, plus a short story collection for adults. However, it was only when I started writing for children that I found my true passion. Children’s
books are so fun to write, and even when the message is serious, the act of writing them isn’t. I enjoy crafting stories that give hope and entertain my readers, showing them the world in a way that’s authentic but also full of positive aspects. Whether I’m writing early readers like Yasmin or middle grade novels like A Thousand Questions, I approach them the same way. I’d be hard- pressed to chose which I enjoy more.

Why do you think it is so important to have Muslim characters starring in children’s stories?

It’s very important to have stories that center Muslim characters, families and countries. The fact is that a growing number of our young readers are Muslim, and they deserve to see their stories reflected in the books they read. This means positive stories, ones that show realistic people and situations rather than caricatures and stereotypes. It also means everyday stories about experiences all children face at school, at home and in their neighborhoods. Finally, it means making Muslim children the heroes of our fantasy, sci-fi and mystery books, the ones who solve the crime or save the day. All this is important because storytelling is part of community, and
readers from Muslim backgrounds should know that they’re an essential part of our communities. Readers from other backgrounds should also realize that their friends and neighbors, their classmates in school, can be the heroes of the books they read.

Your author note says you were inspired by your children’s reactions to visiting Karachi, where you grew up. What do you think is the biggest difference between your childhood and theirs (aside from technology!)?

It’s a world of a difference, specifically for immigrant families like mine. I grew up in Pakistan with one type of culture, traditions, lifestyle, and everything else. My children are growing up in the U.S. with another type of culture. As a parent, I try very hard to keep Muslim and South Asian traditions alive in my house, but when they step outside it’s a very different world for my children. I believe that the physical differences aren’t as vast, but the emotional and mental differences are huge. My children feel “other” in a way that I never did. They feel the stress of living in a country that’s their own, but not their parents’. They experience life with each of their
feet on a different continent. I can’t even imagine what they go through every day, not completely fitting in because of their skin color or their background. I never had anyone ask me “where are you from?” growing up, and that’s probably the biggest, most insurmountable difference.

In A THOUSAND QUESTIONS, Mimi and Sakina do a lot of sightseeing. Which of the spots that the girls visit is your favourite?

Hmmm that’s an interesting question because I put all my favorite spots in the book! I really wanted to showcase all the best places to visit in Karachi, so that even if you never travel there physically you can understand what a beautiful, complicated, incredible place it is! If I had to choose a favourite, I’d say the beach. I’ve loved the ocean since I was a child, and still do. Clifton Beach, where Mimi and Sakina visit in the book, is also very fun because of the swarm of people, the camels, the food, and everything else.

The divide between wealthy and poor is highlighted brilliantly by the girls’ friendship. How hard was it to strike a balance between harsh reality and a fun story?

I love writing about juxtapositions. It’s what I do best, bringing to life characters who are diametrically opposed to each other, so my readers can understand that we can find something in common with everyone we meet, even if they’re very different. Imagine how peaceful the world would be if we all found something in common with each other and focused on that
commonality? In the book, Mimi seems well off, and Sakina seems poor. But when they get to know each other, they realize that they are both rich in some ways, and poor in others. Life in Pakistan (and other poor nations) is often reduced to poverty, like it’s something horrible and insurmountable. It was really important for me to change that narrative and write about complex, beautiful life for all people, including those that are poor. It wasn’t hard to do once I had those goals in mind.

Have you done virtual events with children about your books?

Absolutely! I do a ton of virtual events with schools and libraries around the world. Since the pandemic started, I’ve actually increased this aspect of my author-life significantly, because it’s the only way I can reach my readers and give them an encouraging word. I schedule 3-5 virtual visits every day, and most of them are free of charge because of the budget difficulties everyone is going through at the moment. I love meeting readers, answering their questions and inspiring them to be writers. Anyone who wants to schedule a short virtual visit can visit my website and
contact me there.

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

I’ve been reading the Planet Omar series by Zanib Mian with my daughter and really enjoying it. I think it’s great for children in elementary school, but can also be used as a read aloud for younger children. However, I enjoyed it as an adult, so my recommendation would be for everyone to read this series!

What are you working on at the moment?

I have several books in the pipeline, some of which are still secret. Ah, the joys of publishing! Four new Yasmin books are releasing in 2021, as well as a couple of picture books and a new middle grade novel featuring a boy main character, white supremacists, and a twenty-year old journal. I’m really excited about all my upcoming projects, but more than that I’m excited about the future of children’s books with all the fantastic BAME authors putting out great books for young readers. I’m proud to be a part of this new wave of books!

Saadia Faruqi (photo credit: QZB Photography)

A THOUSAND QUESTIONS is out now!

Thank you to HarperCollins UK for sending me a review pdf and involving me in the blog tour, and thank you to Saadia for answering my questions so thoughtfully (and I love the Planet Omar series too)!

Hijab and Red Lipstick – blog tour

Being a teenager isn’t easy. All Sara wants to do is experiment with make-up and hang out with friends. It doesn’t help when you have a super-strict Egyptian dad who tells you that everything is “haram” a.k.a. forbidden. But when her family move to the Arabian Gulf, it feels like every door is being closed on Sara’s future. Can Sara find her voice again? Will she ever be free? 

Hashtag Press

HIJAB AND RED LIPSTICK is not an easy read, in the author’s note to the reader she mentions that it covers some upsetting subjects (TW: including discussions of rape, coercive behaviour, self-harm, domestic abuse and sexual abuse), so it is definitely a Young Adult title. We join Sara as she begins talking to a journalist about her childhood experiences, her early years in the UK and then moving to the Gulf because of her father’s job. I can’t say I enjoyed reading it, as we were warned she doesn’t have a particuarly happy time, but it was a glimpse into a different (for me) culture that really made me think about things we take for granted in the UK.

I had the opportunity to ask the author, Yousra Imran, some questions about writing:

Your note to the reader said you drew on your own experiences as well as those of others, was it difficult to write or was it cathartic?

It was both difficult writing about such painful topics, even if it was a fictional piece of work, but also cathartic, as I felt by giving a voice to stories based on real life experiences that I was almost giving myself the talking therapy I never got to have.

How different was your approach to writing a full length novel compared to pieces for publications?

Writing an article for a publication is very different to writing a novel. At the moment I write current affairs articles which are of course much shorter (usually 800-1500 words) and they usually require me talking to lots of people to collect views, witness statements and facts. When it comes to writing a novel, even if I am basing it off things I have seen, heard or experienced, and even if I carry out research, I have that leeway to completely make up the characters and the story’s events. I don’t feel under pressure writing a novel as there is no deadline, whereas there is usually a tight deadline for an article. I don’t tend to map everything out when it comes to a novel – I have an idea of the storyline and I map out the characters, but the story evolves as I write it. With articles I have to completely map them out before I write them.

Did you always intend for this to be for young adults?

I think it was always going to naturally be for young adults if the main character is a teenager/young adult and is talking as a teen/young adult. However, the novel can be read by any adult too – that’s what I love about most YA books today – they can be read by adults too!

What advice would you give to a young woman in similar circumstances to Sara’s teen years?

Sadly this is a very tough question to answer, as it really depends on which country the young woman is living in. If she was living in Europe, the UK, America, Canada, Australia or New Zealand, I’d be able to say here’s a list of organisations that can help you and provide you with support. It’s a completely different ball game in other countries like those in the Middle East. Without sounding pessimistic, in Middle Eastern countries the legal system is patriarchal in the literal sense, meaning your father literally owns you. My advice to a teen or young woman in the Middle East would be to study hard, try to get a qualification and become financially independent, as financial independence gives you choices.

If you could write extensively about only one of the various topics you mention on your blog, which would you choose?

If I could only write about one topic it would definitely be about women’s rights in the Middle East, no hesitation!

Are you planning more YA?

My next novel is adult fiction, however, I do have an idea for a novel after that which would fall under YA!

Have you had an opportunity to talk to young people about the book?

The publishers and I had been talking about school visits before the pandemic and unfortunately lockdown meant we have been unable to, however, I am definitely planning to do virtual school and college “visits” where I can engage with young people and talk about the book.

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

I am reading The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls, Mona El Tahawy’s feminist manifesto, which came out last year. It is hardcore feminism and I love it, and I would recommend it to everyone, regardless of gender. Reading it really puts the way world governments perceive and treat women, people of colour,  people with disabilities and the LGBTQ+ community into perspective. It’s also nice reading thoughts that I have had myself, thoughts which male family members said I was “weird” for having. I can’t be so weird if there are other women sharing the same exact thoughts!

HIJAB AND RED LIPSTICK is out now! Have a look at the rest of the blog tour (and thankyou to Hashtag Press and LitPR for including me):

A Really Short History of Nearly Everything

Adapted from A Short History of Nearly Everything, this stunningly illustrated book from the extraordinary Bill Bryson takes us from the Big Bang to the dawn of science, and everything in between.

Perfect for ages 8 to 80.

Ever wondered how we got from nothing to something?
Or thought about how we can weigh the earth?
Or wanted to reach the edge of the universe?

Uncover the mysteries of time, space and life on earth in this extraordinary book – a journey from the centre of the planet to the dawn of the dinosaurs, and everything in between.

And discover our own incredible journey, from single cell to civilisation, including the brilliant (and sometimes very bizarre) scientists who helped us find out the how and why.

Penguin

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson was published just as I was coming to the end of my Geological Sciences BSc and I *adored* it. So much so, I bought 3 copies to give to my best friends on the course. I’ve read a number of Bryson’s books for grown ups, he’s got this amazing skill to write on just about any subject and make it fascinating, funny, informative, and understandable without patronising readers. So I was really excited when I saw that he had rewritten this particular title for younger readers and begged Penguin for a copy. They very generously not only sent me a copy but also said I could host a competition for 3 TeenLibrarian readers to win a copy too*! Just comment with your email address if you would like to be in with a chance of winning one (comments will remain hidden).

I’m loving looking through this adaptation, it really does still contain nearly everything, this time brilliantly illustrated by Daniel Long, Dawn Cooper, Jesús Sotés, and Katie Ponder. The design of the book is really appealing and it is a wonderful introduction to just about every aspect of science and technology.

*UK only, I will contact winners on 1st December 2020

Youthquake!

A collection of inspiring stories about incredible young people who have shaped the world we live in!

No one is too small to start a YouthQuake! This is the story of fearless activists, brilliant inventors, champion athletes, gifted creators and inspiring leaders. It is the story of tremendous trailblazers who have influenced change with their passion, courage and determination, and whose inspirational actions and groundbreaking achievements have shaken the world…

Stunningly illustrated and wonderfully written, this incredible collection contains the true stories of 50 children and young people who shook the world. With wise words from each of the children, fascinating facts, beautiful photographs and gorgeous art, this powerful gift book will engage, entertain and inspire future change-makers everywhere.

List of children and young people featured: Greta Thunberg, William Kamkwamba, Ruth Lawrence, Mary Anning, Ann Makosinski, Blaise Pascal, Richard Turere, Boyan Slat, Reyhan Jamalova, Jordan Casey, Stevie Wonder, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Emma Watson, Pablo Picasso, Björk, Louis Braille, Clara Schumann, Skyler Grey, Shirley Temple, Wang Yani, Anne Frank, Nkosi Johnson, Gulwali Passarlay, Marley Dias, Malala Yousafzai, Momcilo Gavric, Michaela Mycroft, Calvin Graham, Mohamad Al Jounde, Hannah Taylor, Pelé, Laura Dekker, Ellie Simmonds, Jade Hameister, Sachin Tendulkar, Red Gerard, Bethany Hamilton, Temba Tsheri, Nadia Comaneci, Billy Monger, Pocahontas, Hector Pieterson, Samantha Smith, Claudette Colvin, Iqbal Masih, Thandiwe Chama, Kimmie Weeks, Mayra Avellar Neves, Neha Gupta, Emma González.

Other titles in the series include: HerStory and WildLives

Nosy Crow
Youthquake is brilliantly illustrated by Sarah Walsh

I really enjoyed this collection of short biographies of some fascinating young people. The range is brilliant, in terms of area of interest, the era the child lived/lives in, and geographically. I asked the author, Tom Adams, a few questions!

How did you begin researching the book? I thought a collection of stories about children that had done extraordinary things would be both appealing to readers, but also incredibly interesting to research and write. I started gathering ideas and as ever, as soon as you’re aware of something, possible subjects seem to pop up everywhere.
Once I realised there were plenty of incredible stories to tell, I started looking in earnest. A lot of basic research was done online but I found that whilst you got a hint of story, you didn’t always get the details that fleshed out characters. I spent quite a while at the British Library tracking down
specific books for extra background.

I’m sure there were lots of interesting characters that you didn’t have space for, how did you decide who made the cut? I put together a long list of possibilities with my editor at Nosy Crow, the brilliant Victoria English. We had a couple of meetings where we discussed each of the children and their stories and gradually began to build a list of 50. Victoria had the great idea of grouping them into chapters that focussed on different qualities – leadership, creativity and so on – which helped us make decisions whilst ensuring an even spread.
We were keen to have a mix of boys and girls, older and more modern stories and and stories that focussed on different cultures. And, importantly, they had to have a story we felt people would be interested in hearing about. We drew up a long list and slowly whittled it down to 50.
I did start work on a good half dozen or so other characters, but eventually felt their stories weren’t strong enough, were too politically driven or I found some skeletons in the closet that didn’t seem appropriate for a children’s book.

The design of the book, and Sarah Walsh’s illustrations, are a big part of why this is a great book. Were there lots of conversations about how it would look and what pictures would be used before you started writing, or during the writing process? Or did you write the words first and the rest fell in to place around them? Very much the latter. I’d seen Sarah’s work in HerStory and WildLives so knew I could expect some brilliant artwork with huge amounts of expression that would make the stories come alive. It was an interesting process, to see which parts of each story Sarah would gravitate to and decide to illustrate. It was one of the most enjoyable parts of putting the book together…waiting for her first roughs to come back to see how each page would look. I fed back very little – although I do remember explaining a little about how cricket works on the Tendulkar spread. Nadia Comaneci’s
backflips and Mayra Avellar Neves’s flower-filled portrait are two pieces of work that I really love.

If you could choose one of the featured children to write more about, who would it be? That’s a tough one! As Victoria knows, I often wrote a lot more than made the book. I find keeping to the word count very difficult. But, if I had to choose, it would probably be Iqbal Masih, a little boy from Pakistan. Shockingly, he was murdered when he was just 12-years old, but he was a boy with so much courage and determination. He had such a difficult start to life, essentially being a slave worker to a factory owner, and even when he escaped, his story didn’t end there. He fought the factory owners and that bravery eventually cost him his life.

Have you talked to children about the book? Would you/do you enjoy Zoom events about it? I’ve not talked to children about the book…other than my own. I’ve not done an author event before and the idea does slightly terrify me, but I think it’s good to get out there!

What are you reading at the moment and who would you recommend it to? I’ve usually got a couple of books on the go, often fiction and non-fiction. I’m currently reading Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell. It’s the story of a ‘60s band and their path to stardom. I play guitar in a band in my spare time so it’s making me wonder what might have been! I’m also reading
Citizens of London by Lynne Olson. It covers a period in Britain from after WW1 to the end of WW2 and looks at certain Americans who lived and worked in the UK and helped cement the relationship between Churchill and Roosevelt.
I also read a lot of children’s fiction and two books I recently enjoyed were The Other Alice by Michelle Harrison, a great story-within-a-story structure about the dangers of ‘writer’s block’, and The Dollmaker of Krakow by RM Romero. I thought this was a heartbreaking tale, beautifully written, that did a wonderful job of getting across the horrors of Nazism to young readers.

What is your next project? Might there be a Youthquake Volume 2?
I’m finishing off another book for Nosy Crow, working with Victoria again. It’s all about mysteries – everything from Bigfoot and the Yeti, to stones that move in the dead of night and ancient codes that can’t be cracked. I’m working with another great illustrator, Yaz Imamura, who can do ‘creepy’
so, so well! It’s looking amazing so far and I can’t wait until it’s finished.
Beyond that…I’m not sure. I’ve got some ideas that I’m working up, but I’d never say ‘no’ to a YouthQuake 2!

Nosy Crow very kindly let me share a couple of my favourite spreads with you: Mary Anning (some of you will know that I’m a geology fan) and Marley Dias (Books and #BlackGirlMagic!).

YOUTHQUAKE is out now! Thanks to Nosy Crow for sending me a copy.

When Secrets Set Sail

Usha is devastated when her grandmother Kali Ma passes away. Then straight-talking Imtiaz arrives – her new adoptive sister – and the two girls clash instantly. They both feel lost. That is until Kali Ma’s ghost appears…with a task for them.

Immy’s and Usha’s home is full of history and secrets. Many years ago it was The House of the Ayahs – for those nannies who couldn’t return to their Indian homeland – and Kali Ma made a promise she couldn’t keep. She can’t pass on to the other side until the girls fulfil it.

Today, Usha and Immy’s over-worked parents run the house as a home for refugees, but eviction threatens. The precious documents that could save them are lost. As the house slowly fills up with ghosts, that only Usha and Imtiaz can see, the girls realise they have more to save than just one grandmother’s ghost.

With help from their new friend Cosmo, Usha and Immy must set off on a quest through London, accompanied by two bickering ghosts, working together to find a series of objects that shine a magical light on their family’s past and hold the clues to securing their future.

If they can set the secrets of generations free, will they be in time to save their home?

Endorsed by Amnesty International

Hachette

Sita Brahmachari seems to be one of the hardest working children’s authors in the UK, and one of my favourites. I had the great pleasure of asking her some questions about her latest book WHEN SECRETS SET SAIL, and her answers are fabulous.

Your books always have “issues” at the heart of them and provoke the reader to discover a piece of history they might not know about, or consider impacts or viewpoints they might not have recognised before. How difficult is it to ensure that they are always exciting stories and not just didactic tomes?

First and foremost I’m fascinated by people’s lives and how the events in their lives, their actions or the things that happen to them impact on the world. I don’t think when people become refugees or are affected by climate change, face mental health challenges, are newly adopted, experience a death in the family or face homelessness or racism or child hunger that they experience these moments in life as ‘issues.’ I don’t shy away from some of the great challenges young people face today but as a writer I’m interested in nuance and getting beyond ‘issues’ to a multi-layered story. I feel that stories are superpower empathy portholes…and in these reactionary times that feels like a vital porthole to be able to open.

When I set out to write a story I might think I know what’s at the core of it, but my synopsis often bears little relation to the final book! The process of storytelling is an adventure for me. I always get taken by the characters into unexpected realms and it’s a real joy when these discoveries and unravellings are experienced and enjoyed by the reader.

It’s always finding characters, symbols and landscapes that really take me into the dreaming space of stories. The artichoke charm from my first story ‘ Artichoke Hearts’ is a guiding symbol for me; I’m constantly unpeeling the layers of characters and wanting to explore their sensibilities; their hopes, fears and dreams. This is what sparks my imagination and takes me into the heart of the story.  Often, as I write, it’s the characters I had thought were on the periphery that take centre stage because, as in life, it is fascinating to get to know people even when, or perhaps especially when, they may seem to be polar opposites to ourselves.

This is how I discovered characters like Themba and Luca in ‘Where the River Runs Gold’ and Imtiaz and Cosmo in ‘When Secrets Set Sail’. Originally ‘When Secrets Set Sail’ was written only from Usha’s point of view then Imtiaz made me see the error of my ways! And I’ve found that Imtiaz not done with me yet, she and Cosmo wanted their own adventure so they appear again in my World Book Day story next year ‘The River Whale.’

The subjects you include in your stories can be very upsetting, do you sometimes find it difficult to do the research?

I hope that my stories contain the gamut of human experience and although I’m not afraid to tackle the most complex of emotions, I always want my stories to scatter hope-seeds. They are inter-generational stories and one thing I’ve realised that no matter what dire situations the characters face there is always someone there to hold them.

I tend to do hands on research. My preference is to work with people. My work with refugee people since I began work in community theatre has informed my characters in many stories and plays. In art as in life once you take people to heart you don’t want to turn your back on them. So If I write about a difficult subject like someone I know or have worked with has faced then my main concern is to find the truth in that experience and to convey the empathy I feel for the characters that grow out of my research and engagements in community. I think engagement is everything and when you engage with people you are naturally moved by their stories, laughing as well as crying with them.

I often place a space in time between research and writing to allow the thoughts and feelings to distil and settle and to find the freedom to move from fact into fiction.

If I was to set out to write a novel at the stage that the research is on top of me I think there would be a real danger that the work would become didactic, something I would hate for my stories to be. An example of this is the experience of helping an elderly homeless woman bathe her feet in a refuge led me to create the character of Elder in ‘Red Leaves’ who is part bark-skinned homeless woman , part tree and ancient spirit of the ancient caring wood!

When children like Pari in ‘Tender Earth’ or Shifa and Themba in ‘Where The River Runs Gold’ are going hungry and needing to use food banks, as so many children are today, children and young people are feeling the discomfort of that sometimes in their own hunger pains, but when I write I think about creative narrative that both recognise the realities of that and offers hope seeds for transformation.

I think a lot about where children place these feelings that the real world ignites in them.  For me stories are magical empathy portholes… they allow us to dream of coming together to change the things that disempower us and to overcome what might seem insurmountable.

In writing fiction I need to know my story is grounded in truths I have discovered from research but then I need to immerse myself in the storytelling adventure and step into dream time.

Perhaps because of late the world, in Wordsworth words has been ‘too much with us’ in my recent novels I have wanted to explore the potential of magical transformations in relation to the realities the children in my stories face.

The idea of unheard stories and oral histories not being forgotten is huge and important, and  the author’s note at the end of WHEN SECRETS SET SAIL tells us the fascinating inspirations for the Ayahs’ story, but where did Imtiaz and Usha, and the idea of them becoming sisters, come from?

 In unravelling the story of the Ayahs – one of abandonment and care- I was looking for contemporary characters who in one way or another would deeply understand why the Ayah ghost ‘Lucky’ would need to set her spirit free by having her story told.

What moved me about the story of the Ayah nursemaids was the dual abandonment. Ayahs found themselves far from home and abandoned but the children they had cared for must have suffered so deeply too from being torn away from each other. That idea is what led me to grow the characters of Imtiaz and Usha.

I don’t think I realised when I set out how the story is as much about Imtiaz and Usha’s contemporary herstory as it is about the Ayahs… the waves of the colonial story from the Ayah’s time is literally in the bricks and mortar of the home they set aside their differences to save. As I wrote I realised that for contemporary readers the journey of these two very different girls to becoming loving sisters had to be central to their discovery of the history of their home.

I often write about family, friendship, belonging and community and have presented many different kinds of families in my stories. With Imtiaz my idea was to see how a looked after child with the most difficult of starts in the world, given the opportunity to feel secure and loved, might grow.

Usha doesn’t have to make an effort to belong but Imtiaz does. It seemed to me that in microcosm that is a theme that also links to the untold stories of the ayahs … if you know that your story is told you have assurance and ease of your place in it… if like the Ayahs and Imtiaz’s your story is hidden or ‘blocked’ (in the ear of the conch)… then there is effort involved to strive to be heard.

This tension between the girls gave me a lot. Here are two girls with shared migrant identities, but very different starts in life who can’t see each other’s ghosts or empathise with each other- but need to believe in each other if they are to stay sisters and save their home. They were, in many ways, the key to me releasing the Ayah’s story into the world.  I have often said stories are an act of communal making and I have to thank my insightful editor Tig Wallace for keeping the historical quest in this story grounded in the ups and downs of Imtiaz and Usha’s relationship!

I also found in their different early lives an interesting contrast. Between them they share wide diaspora birth families, crossing class, cultures, religions and oceans but who they identify with most strongly are those who care for them and love them. Their deep understanding of this gives them keen instincts to uncover the Ayah story.

I love that you found out about the campaign for a Blue Plaque for the Ayahs’ Home as you were finishing writing the book, the videos on the Hachette schools page are great, and I like the idea of encouraging children to make nominations for a blue plaque, have you thought of any yourself, and has it inspired more story ideas?

It was incredible to press send on my story and then discover this event. Some of the adult characters like Valini in ‘When Secrets Set Sail’ talk about ‘fate’ and ‘things being meant!’ but this really did feel like serendipity at its superpower best!

At this brilliant event at Hackney Libraries I met Rozina Visram whose research was central to discovering the Ayah story and I also met Farhanah Mamoojee a wonderful young historian and activist who has been campaigning for a Blue Plaque to recognise the Ayahs Home. Watch this space!

Sita Brahmachari with Farhanah Mamoojee, outside the Ayahs Home

It’s been a real joy to work together with Farhanah @ayahshome to sit on the steps of the real life houses where the Ayahs lived together and to share in the launch of this story into the world… in many ways I feel as if I have met a grown up Imtiaz!

If I could nominate a Blue Plaque to anyone it would be to

Elyse Dodgson (1945- 2018)

Adopted Londoner!

Visionary educator, international new writing director and enabler of young people’s talent the world over.  Some of her fierce equality seeking spirit and a little of her name has found its way into the character of Delyse in my story. Her first play created with students in her Vauxhall School ‘Motherland’ has been a lifelong inspiration to me.

Elyse gave my first job as a young person leaving university at The Royal Court Young People’s Theatre… as community theatre worker. She told me that my work first and foremost was to listen to the communities and ‘welcome them to storytelling’ so that they find their voice. I’ve never forgotten that.

https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2018/nov/02/elyse-dodgson-obituary

(I’m breaking the Blue Plaque rules that someone needs to be deceased for twenty years and I encourage young readers who want to take part in the project to do the same! If they want to nominate a quiet hero or heroine whose alive for this imaginary project – why not!)

Have you done any virtual events this year?

I’ve done quite a few virtual events in different formats this year. In the build up to publication it was wonderful to be invited to be part of the South Asian Literature Festival and to have such positive responses to that from people joining from around the world – a sort of virtual globe window – that’s a real positive.

The virtual launch with The Children’s Book Shop in Muswell Hill was perhaps my favourite because it was in a wonderful real life bookshop! I felt connected with the community.

Jane Ray and I have been continuing our work with refugee people running our art and writing class by gathering around what we’ve now named out ‘Virtual Hearth’ – no matter how hard it is – the connection is so worthwhile.

At this time teachers and librarians have been amazing in their resilience. In the face of so many day to day challenges they have kept the reading for pleasure banner flying high. Like so many authors I’ve been busy adapting and learning new zooming skills and doing virtual events… Dominic Kingston and Felicity Highett at Hachette has been a real support in helping me with this and also Pop Up Festival has offered excellent training… BUT… We’ve all discovered things about ourselves during this time and one of the things I realise is how much I love being in a reality-room/ hall with readers! Over the years I have visited many schools and it is here, in the direct and indirect engagements with readers that I have understood so much about writing. Very often, as I’m talking I will notice there is a child at the periphery of the room who is perhaps doodling and not obviously engaging. I’ll catch their eye and know that something I have written and am talking about has impacted them… I have a treasure hoard of letters and art from these children that often inspire me to write the next book.  

Your recent post for the YLG blog about Library Hearths was brilliant, such tremendous support for libraries and librarians. You talk about imagining pinpointing for your characters “who planted the seeds that make them grow into who they will become”, can you share any of your own influences?

Here are just three of my writer-potential-seed-planters….there are many!

I’ll start at home… with my dad who I believe taught me what a storytelling voice was all about. My little memory in ‘The Book of Hopes,’ envisioned by the wonderful Katherine Rundell during Lockdown, is dedicated to him. Jane Ray gifted this beautiful illustration to accompany my little vignette but readers of my work will have spied dad’s brave, adventurous, caring and good humoured spirit before in Granddad Bimal and in the man in the hat in my co-theatre adaptation of Shaun Tan’s sublime graphic novel ‘The Arrival’. 

Dad by Jane Ray

I had an English and Drama teacher who also acted as librarian who always told me I should be a writer and when I wrote ‘Artichoke Hearts’ and returned to my school Mrs Smith, then quite elderly, queued up for a signed copy. ‘You made me wait but told you so!’ she said! In truth this teacher was also an inspiration to Pat Print – the writing tutor in that story and she knew it!

Elyse Dodgson (whom I nominated a Blue Plaque for above) who took a punt on me… and even though I had little experience employed me as community theatre worker for The Royal Court Young People’s Theatre as my first job as a student straight out of university.

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

I’m reading a lot of new writing manuscripts for ‘The First Chapter Awards’ for the Scottish Book Trust at the moment so as contrast I’m dipping in and out of David Almond’s short stories ‘Counting Stars’ (2016 Hodder Children’s Books). For me voice is such an important aspect of being a writer and I love Almond’s storytelling voice. In these stories about David’s childhood in Tyneside I find so much connection, joy and awe at the natural world. I’m loving them because I have been exploring the universal in the global in my own work and I feel a deep connection to this idea especially now when so many people may feel isolated – These stories are a wonderful reminder that in the drift of a cloud or a river’s flow we are so deeply interconnected and I hear in them a heartening song to the power of children’s imaginations. I would recommend it to anyone who is or who has ever been a child!

What are you working on next?

I’ve been putting the finishing touches to my World Book Day story for next year ‘The River Whale’ illustrated by the wonderful Poonam Mistry in which readers will meet Immy again free-diving in prose and verse! I’ve loved writing it and discovering what a year of having access to fulfilling her dreams has brought her and the world!

On another track I’m working on an illustrated YA story (title not quite set yet!) that I began writing in 2008. It will be published in late 2020 by Stripes. In it my older teen characters are walking a high stakes tight rope between myth, dream and reality.

Thank you so much for your wonderful answers Sita! WHEN SECRETS SET SAIL is out now!