Category Archives: Essays

When We Become Ours

A groundbreaking and must-read young adult fiction anthology written by adoptees of all backgrounds, for adoptees, that inclusively represents diverse experiences of youth adoptees, edited by award-winning authors Shannon Gibney and Nicole Chung. Includes a letter from the editors as well as a foreword by Rebecca Carroll and an afterword by JaeRan Kim.

Two teens take the stage and find their voice . . .

A girl learns about her heritage and begins to find her community . . .

A sister is haunted by the ghosts of loved ones lost . . .

There is no universal adoption experience, and no two adoptees have the same story. This anthology for teens edited by Shannon Gibney and Nicole Chung contains a wide range of powerful, poignant, and evocative stories in a variety of genres.

These tales from fifteen bestselling, acclaimed, and emerging adoptee authors genuinely and authentically reflect the complexity, breadth, and depth of adoptee experiences.

This groundbreaking collection centers what it’s like growing up as an adoptee. These are stories by adoptees, for adoptees, reclaiming their own narratives. 

With stories by: Kelley Baker, Nicole Chung, Shannon Gibney, Mark Oshiro, MeMe Collier, Susan Harness, Meredith Ireland, Mariama J. Lockington, Lisa Nopachai, Stefany Valentine, Matthew Salesses, Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom, Eric Smith, Jenny Heijun Wills, Sun Yung Shin.

Foreword by Rebecca Carroll. Afterword by Jae Ran Kim, MSW, PhD

Harper Teen

Today we have a guest post from one of the editors of this new anthology, Shannon Gibney:

It is a very strange thing to never see yourself represented, and then when you do, to
not even recognize yourself.

And yet, this is often the experience of the more than five million American adoptees,
and millions more around the globe.

Don’t get me wrong: adoptees and “orphans” are well-represented in American popular
culture – especially in KidLit. From Harry Potter to Loki to Peter Parker, adoptees are
imbued with magic powers, enact elaborate schemes to seek revenge, and generally
misunderstood by all the “normal” non-orphans and non-adoptees around them. Our
lack of an origin story is seen as a mysterious advantage, something that not only sets
us apart from mundane others, but also conveys a sense of specialness, an ethos that
something else of consequence (not just to us, but the world) is buried and waiting to be
uncovered.

In real life, of course, things are different.

We feel strange in a culture that so deeply values at least the appearance of a
seamless individual or family history, not having any. And as a result of this condition,
we are unable to prepare for or even acknowledge any troubling health issues (such as
breast cancer in my family) that may be hereditary.

If we are transracially adopted, that is, a BIPOC child adopted into a white family, we
may keenly feel the loss of not just our first family and community, but also our culture
and racial identity.

All of these losses are rarely if ever present in mainstream narratives of adoption –
whether they are imaginary or real. Adoption is presented as an uncomplicated and
beneficent act on the part of the adopters, and the positives that adoptees gain
(economic mobility, educational stability, etc.) are seen to eclipse any possible
negatives.

And of course, this is because the vast majority of these stories are written by non-
adoptees. They are written by people who have never felt strange in their own bodies
because they don’t look like anyone in their family/school/town. They are penned by
people who never had to process the loss of a first mother’s embrace as a baby, the
lack of that primary first attachment present in every cell of their body.

Historically, these stories have been written by white adoptive parents, either
intentionally or not intentionally putting forth a very different view of the adoptee
experience, occupying a very different location in the adoption triad. But lately, many of
these stories are being written by non-adopted BIPOC writers, many of whom use
troubling tropes of adoption as shorthand (this character is mentally ill because of
adoption; due to her blackness in this white family, this secondary character
demonstrates the cluelessness of the white protagonists; etc.).

When this is the territory of adoptee stories, as it has been for generations, it becomes
clear why it is absolutely necessary for adoptees to write our own. And why a book like
When We Become Ours, the first anthology of stories by adoptees about adoptees, is
resonating so deeply with adoptee readers and allies.

Edited by myself and Nicole Chung, this collection features sci-fi, fantasy, horror,
straight literary, and even graphic stories from fifteen of the best adoptee writers today.
Our writers are straight and queer; youngish, oldish, and middleish; cis-gender and
gender queer; Black, Korean American, mixed, Latina, Chinese American, Taiwanese
American, and Native American; and hail from all over North America and the world (we
have one contributor who is Canadian, and another who lives in New Zealand). Their
stories are as broad and inclusive as their experiences. And as adoptees, they each
have an embodied understanding of living as an adoptee in a world that has little idea
what this is actually like.

All of this turns out to be very important, in terms of how readers engage with the
stories. Although the book has only been out for two months, the response from
adoptee communities has been overwhelming. I had one Chinese American adoptee tell
me she never expected to see herself in her favorite genre: sci-fi. She called the
experience, “mind-blowing.” A group of transracial adoptees at the same event told me
that although they appreciated the honesty and craftsmanship of many adoptee
memoirs, the emotional rawness of this genre was just too close. But in the imaginative
realms of short stories by and about adoptees, they could confront some difficult truths
of their lives far more easily.

We are in an era of incredible adoptee-authored cultural output, and I am here for all of
it. Adoptees telling our own stories, on our own terms, in our own voices is transforming
inner and outer landscapes: our own, and those of the people we love.

Adoption — the institution, and the stories we tell about it – will never be the same.

Shannon Gibney is a writer, educator, and activist in Minneapolis. Her newest book is
When We Become Ours: A YA Adoptee Anthology (HarperTeen, 2023), co-edited with
Nicole Chung.

On December 7th a Librarian died in Gaza. 

Doaa al-Masri and her family were killed in an Israeli airstrike on December 7th 2023. 

Doaa receives a group of schoolgirls at the Edward Said Library in Gaza

Why have I focused on Doaa you may ask. Well, we shared a profession and belief in public service, and it is hard to get one’s head around the scale of the tragedy and loss of life that has been unfolding in the Middle East; from the 1,139 Israeli lives lost in the Hamas attacks on October 7th to the sheer brutality of their response across Gaza.

To paraphrase a statement allegedly made by Stalin: 20,000 deaths is a statistic, one death is a tragedy. 

It is not easier to acknowledge a single death that 20,000 but it is less numbing. Each of the thousands of lives lost to this violence will have a ripple effect on thousands more, but their faces blur and get lost in the scale of this tragedy and they become numbers, rather than individuals.

In their tribute to her memory, the Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA) captured in part her spirit and dedication to her community: 

…Doaa Al-Masri was killed with her family on Thursday night. Doaa was the librarian at the Edward Said Public Library in Gaza. She was a kind and energetic young woman who organized many activities for children and youth at the library including reading groups, classes, and field trips for schools. 

Doaa was also a volunteer in many other projects. During each Israeli attack on Gaza, she joined her colleagues at MECA partner Youth Vision Society in procuring, packing, and delivering emergency aid to children and families. Just last week, in the midst of intense Israeli attacks, she joined two other  volunteers to provide warm clothes to children in northern Gaza. 

We mourn the loss of Doaa, a loss for MECA, for the many children whose lives she touched, and for Palestine. We will miss her smile and her radiant energy. Doaa is one of tens of thousands of people killed in Gaza over the last 64 days. Each one is a terrible loss to those who knew and loved them. 

Let’s be honest, when one thinks of Gaza and the West Bank, Libraries are not the first thing that pop into your mind. No matter who they are or where they live people enjoy reading and need to find information – and those are two of the core functions of public libraries. 

The Gaza Municipal Library and the Rashad al-Shawa Cultural Center that was the home of the Diana Tamari Sabbagh Library  that contained more than 100.000 books and was founded by Haseeb Sabbagh in the memory of his wife Diana Tamari, have both been razed by Israeli forces. There is currently no news on the current condition of the Edward Said Public Library in North Gaza. 

The bombed-out remains of the Gaza Municipal Library
The remains of the Gaza Municipal Library

The Gaza Municipality has alleged that the destruction of libraries by Israeli forces during the conflict has been a deliberate act and has called on the United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to intervene and protect cultural centers and condemn the occupation’s targeting of these humanitarian facilities protected under international humanitarian law.

Public Libraries form one of the cornerstones of a society that nurtures and cares for the people that comprise its individual parts. Apart from educating and entertaining their users, libraries function as repositories of history and cultural knowledge. To destroy a society first you wipe out the commonalities that bind them together, their shared history, their art, anything that ties them together and the fastest way to do that is to start with destroying their libraries and those that care for them.

When Libraries in Sarajevo were bombed people stood up and protested, when al Qaeda attacked the library in Timbuktu there was eventually a book celebrating those who stood up to save priceless, ancient manuscripts, when Russia invaded Ukraine there was a massive outpouring of support for Ukrainian Libraries and Library workers. In Gaza there is proof of libraries being destroyed and one confirmed report of a Librarian (& her family) being killed in an aerial attack and nothing – where is the outrage?

Understand me when I write that I unequivocally condemn Hamas for their bloodthirsty action on October 7th, but the heavy-handed response by the Israeli War Cabinet and the IDF is just as reprehensible!

Articles 6, 7 & 8 of The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court specifically outlaw Genocide, Crimes Against Humanity & War Crimes.

Article 33 of the fourth Geneva Convention specifically outlaws collective penalties, pillage & reprisals:

No protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited.

Pillage is prohibited.

Reprisals against protected persons* and their property are prohibited.

* The term “protected person” means any person entitled to protection under one or more of the Geneva Conventions, including civilians not taking an active part in hostilities, military personnel placed out of combat by sickness, wounds, or detention, and military medical or religious personnel.

Do the actions of Hamas and the IDF rise to these levels of criminal wrong-doing? I think they do, but untrained as I am in international jurisprudence I may be wrong; I do however know that the murder unarmed civilians is wrong, no matter who does it!

Links:

Founding the First English-Language Library in Gaza by Mosab Abu Toha

Libraries in Gaza: Between Despair and Hope by Mosab Abu Toha

Articles by Mosab Abu Toha

How girls built a library in the Gaza Strip by Mohammed Abu Sulaiman, with Chris Niles

Gaza’s main public library has been destroyed by Israeli bombing. by Dan Sheehan

Gazans mourn loss of their libraries: Cultural beacons and communal spaces by Mohamad El Chamaa

Middle East Children’s Alliance

Youth Vision Association

Youth Vision Association: Edward Said Public Library

Edward Said Public Libraries in Gaza

Librarians and Archivists with Palestine

When Shadows Fall

Kai, Orla and Zak grew up together, their days spent on the patch of wilderness in between their homes, a small green space in a sprawling grey city. Music, laughter and friendship bind them together and they have big plans for their future – until Kai’s family suffers a huge loss.

Trying to cope with his own grief, as well as watching it tear his family apart, Kai is drawn into a new and more dangerous crowd, until his dreams for the future are a distant memory. Excluded from school and retreating from his loved ones, it seems as though his path is set, his story foretold. Orla, Zak and new classmate Om are determined to help him find his way back. But are they too late?

Little Tiger

I am a big fan of everything that Sita Brahmachari has written, and interviewed her last year for When Secrets Set Sail, so I was expecting WHEN SHADOWS FALL to be good but I didn’t realise it would be a beautiful object as well! Told in prose and verse and annotation, with the illustrations by Natalie Sirett an integral part of telling the story.

Illustrations (c), Natalie Sirett (2021), from When Shadows Fall by Sita Brahmachari,
published by Little Tiger, 11 November 2021 (Hardback, £12.99, 9781788953160)

There is a formal blog tour starting on the 15th November (details at the bottom of the page), but I snuck under the radar and got an exclusive piece from Sita about the background to creating the book:

‘Let me tell you a story’….

So began a play I worked on called Lyrical MC some years ago for Tamasha Theatre Company. Myself and the director worked with a group of young people exploring Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ in the contexts of their own lives. It ended up being a play that was about living in an island culture in the middle of an urban city. It explored the sounds of the city for them and how it felt to be negotiating life today at school and at home. It was a piece of theatre that enjoyed the musicality and interplay of the young people’s voices as they mediated each other’s realities, histories and identities in a fluid interplay.

I have never seen a great fissure between my community theatre work and writing novels for young people. When I set out to write When Shadow’s Fall I remembered a young woman I met in a unit for excluded teenagers in Ladbroke Grove. She was a fantastic young actress and storyteller but already completely switched off reading and education at the age of fourteen. It wasn’t until she started to write her own script and saw other actors reading it and paying attention to her words that reading became interesting to her. Another young actor reading out her words asked if he could change something and she became agitated saying, No! I put a lot of thinking into those words. You have to work at them to find the meaning!

Kai is the author sitting on the Green Hill writing his story – ‘When Shadows Fall’ – even he seems surprised that this is what he has done… that he, who was excluded from school, could become the author of his own story and yet this is what he finds himself doing.

Over the years, I have mentored many young people to help them with their writing. The process of finding your voice (in writing as Kai does) In art (as Omid does) and in speaking out (as Orla does) is a powerful one.

When readers open When Shadows Fall I hope the creative form of the book with its annotations, poetry, prose and art portfolio and testimony will lead readers and aspiring writers to take up the pen, charcoal or paintbrush and begin their own story.

When Shadows Fall is out now! Thank you Little Tiger for the review copy, Nina Douglas for organising the piece for TeenLibrarian, and Sita for writing it!

Allies

This book is for everyone. Because we can all be allies.

As an ally you use your power-no matter how big or small-to support others. You learn, and try, and mess up, and try harder. In this collection of true stories, 17 critically acclaimed and bestselling YA authors get real about being an ally, needing an ally, and showing up for friends and strangers.

From raw stories of racism and invisible disability to powerful moments of passing the mic, these authors share their truths. They invite you to think about your own experiences and choices and how to be a better ally.

There are no easy answers, but this book helps you ask better questions. Self-reflection prompts, resources, journaling ideas, and further reading suggestions help you find out what you can do. Because we’re all in this together. And we all need allies.

A donation of 5% net sales in the UK will be donated to The Black Curriculum

DK

By coincidence, I received a copy of this title in the same week as I read a post by Dr Muna Abdi about the term “allies” and its limitations, so had that in mind when I started reading…and the very first chapter, DANA’S ABSOLOUTELY PERFECT FAIL-SAFE NO MISTAKES GUARANTEED WAY TO BE AN ALLY by Dana Alison Levy addresses the same issues in brilliant fashion. The collection of essays is wide ranging, eye opening, and thought provoking, including contributions from Shakirah Bourne (co-editor alongside Dana Alison Levy), Derick Brooks, Sharan Dhaliwal, Naomi and Natalie Evans, I. W. Gregorio, Lizzie Huxley-Jones, Adiba Jaigirdar, Brendan Kiely, Dana Alison Levy, Cam Montgomery, Andrea L. Rogers, Aida Salazar, A. J. Sass, Eric Smith, Kayla Whaley, and Marietta B. Zacker. The stories they share are both personal and powerful and will encourage readers to think critically about what allyship means to them. The authors are from all across the globe, with uniquely personal essays, and include UK based Lizzie Huxley-Jones, to whom I put some questions!

What do you think of the term ‘ally’?

I think ally as a phrase is useful in terms of reminding people who aren’t part of marginalised groups that they should care about the struggles of people within those marginalisations, literally to ally their aims and work to the community’s own aims. As with all language, it evolves really quickly and we will drop certain words over time (and some people have suggested moving on from allyship to solidarity), but I think the overarching concept of allyship, or solidarity, is really important! We cannot be complacent within our role as supporters, and over identifying *as* something without doing the work to *be* something is always a danger when we’re talking about stepping out of our comfort and privileges. Every day must be a learning day.

Have you read the other contributions? If so, did any particularly strike you?

I was lucky enough to get a proof of the US edition this week which I just finished reading. Each essay was really brilliant and made me think a lot. Naomi & Natalie Evans’ essay about being an ally in a racist situation made me think a lot about how easy it is for people to be bystanders – this is something I touch upon in my essay – and Eric Smith’s piece about finding a chosen family and his culture was beautiful. I think Dana’s essay that sets the tone of the book is really great, and Adiba Jaigirdar’s piece about racism in feminist ‘safe spaces’ really resonated with me. Basically, everything is extremely well written, interesting and important. I’m so honoured to be a part of such a key activist text.

The essays are very personal, did you find it difficult to write yours or did it come easily *because* it is so personal?

I’ve had seizures for basically my entire adult life, and have been on Twitter pretty much since then. When I was having video telemetry (a fun process where you live in a tiny room wired up to scanners for a few days to see if you have any seizures) I turned to Twitter for comfort and friendship but to talk about my experiences – this was back in like 2008. I think because I’ve been openly and frankly speaking about  my seizures for a long time, that confessional aspect wasn’t too hard. It was strange to write about during the pandemic, though. And I really did start to worry about what it’d be like as things started opening up, whether people would help more or less. I think that was the hardest part, really.

You have edited your own anthology, Stim, of stories by autistic authors, what, do you think, is the appeal of anthologies?

I think there’s a few things – the opportunity to access a lot of different voices in a small book, plus the focus on a particular topic but from multiple viewpoints. I personally also love mixed anthologies, so you’ll read something, not entirely sure if it’s an essay or fiction – sometimes that blur can make it really interesting when, for instance, a selkie turns up like in Robert Shepherd’s story in Stim. They’re just a really great way to explore a topic, I think, and a good anthology can keep you interested for a long time. I also really like that you might not enjoy every part of an anthology, though I know not everyone feels that way, as to me that’s part of the process of coming across different voices. I also edited 3 anthologies at 3 of Cups Press, On Anxiety, On Bodies and On Relationships, so I’m a big antho fan, haha!

You’ve also written a non-fiction children’s title about David Attenborough. Do you favour any particular style of writing?

I’m really a fiction writer at heart! Nothing definite I can talk about now, but hopefully in the future you’ll see some fiction from me on the shelves. I do love essay writing though, so I think Allies has spurred me to think about writing more of those in the future.

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

I just finished All Our Hidden Gifts by Caroline O’Donoghue which is a The Craft esque modern witch tale about a girl who discovers a lost set of tarot cards. What struck me about it is that it’s also very much about modern Ireland and the pushback against queerness we are seeing all around us from fundamentalists and transphobes, particularly against trans people. The love interest, Roe, is a non-binary femme who I completely love. I’d recommend it to fans of Moira Fowley-Doyle and Deirdre Sullivan. The next YA book on my pile is Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé, which I’m so excited about. It’s Gossip Girl meets Get Out. Outside of YA, I’m listening to a lot of memoirs that touch on disability and are laced with humour. I’ve really been loving Samantha Irby’s three books of essays, and right now I’m in love with Keah Brown’s The Pretty One.

What will we see from you next?

Hopefully, some fiction, but you’ll just have to wait and see!

Lizzie (Hux) Huxley-Jones is an autistic author and editor based in London. They are the editor of Stim, an anthology of autistic authors and artists, which was published by Unbound in April 2020 to coincide with World Autism Awareness Week. They are also the author of the children’s biography Sir David Attenborough: A Life Story (2020) and a contributor to the anthology Allies: Real Talk About Showing Up, Screwing Up, And Trying Again (2021). They are an editor at independent micropublisher 3 of Cups Press, and also advise writers as a freelance sensitivity reader and editorial consultant. In their past career lives, they have been a research diver, a children’s bookseller and digital communications specialist. They tweet too much at @littlehux, taking breaks to walk their dog Nerys. They are represented by Abi Fellows of The Good Literary Agency.

ALLIES was published in the UK on 29th July 2021. Thanks to DK for sending a review copy and Antonia Wilkinson for organising the interview.

Love Your Body

What if every young girl loved her body? Love Your Body encourages you to admire and celebrate your body for all the amazing things it can do (like laugh, cry, hug, and feel) and to help you see that you are so much more than your body.

Bodies come in all different forms and abilities. All these bodies are different and all these bodies are good bodies. There is no size, ability, or color that is perfect. What makes you different makes you, you—and you are amazing!Love Your Body introduces the language of self-love and self-care to help build resilience, while representing and celebrating diverse bodies, encouraging you to appreciate your uniqueness.

This book was written for every girl, regardless of how you view your body. All girls deserve to be equipped with the tools to navigate an image-obsessed world.

Freedom is loving your body with all its “imperfections” and being the perfectly imperfect you!

Quarto
Love your Body is illustrated by Carol Rossetti

Love Your Body is a refreshingly honest look at how varied bodies are. It can be given to teens to help them think about a new way of looking at themselves, or shared with younger girls to talk about the message that they are amazing!

I really appreciated that, in the authors note, Jessica states “This book is written for girls, and those who identify as girls. However, the language used is not gendered and the overarching message is universal. Negative body image can affect anyone, regardless of gender, race or sexual orientation.”.

She has written an extra piece for TeenLibrarian:

When I catch the train to work each morning, I look around me and no one person looks the same. The only thing we have in common is our difference.

Despite difference being the only thing that unites us, from about the age of 8 we want nothing more than to fit in, to meet this illusion of ‘normal’. It might have been a comment from a classmate or one of the parents at pick up, and suddenly you are aware that you are ‘short’, ‘tall’, ‘big’ or ‘skinny’. All of a sudden you realise that your body is being observed by others, and that you are something other than ‘normal’. Ever since that moment that you realised you were too tall, too short, too something, you developed a negative body image. 

Negative body image is often treated as a superficial issue, and something that is inevitable. When it is actuality, a negative body image can change the course of a young person’s life. In particular, a young women’s life, because our society tells girls and women that the most important thing about them is their appearance. 

When girls are worried about how their bodies look:

8 in 10 will avoid seeing friends or family, or trying out for a team or club.

7 in 10 will stop themselves from eating.

7 in 10 will not be assertive in their opinion or stick to their decision.

They even perform worse in maths, reading and comprehension. 

I am yet to meet a woman who hasn’t experienced a negative body image – it’s a feminist issue. It’s holding girls and women back. It’s the thief of our precious energy, and our joy.

We have to stop valuing bodies for how they look and start appreciating them for what they do for us. Because our bodies are incredible; they allow us to experience every good and wonderful thing this world has to offer. They are our homes. 

I wrote Love Your Body for my childhood self who hated being tall and just wanted so desperately to be ‘normal’. And because I was so sick of hearing people tell me ‘this is just how it is for girls’. We were not born despising our bodies, we were taught to, and we can make a decision to teach each other how to love our bodies again. 

Love Your Body by Jessica Sanders, illustrated by Carol Rossetti, publishing 3 March in hardback from Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, £10.99. (Read alone 8-12 year-olds / Read together 6+).

Thanks to Fritha for sending me a review copy!

Mother Tongue by Patricia Forde

MOTHER TONGUE is the standalone follow-up to the award-winning and critically acclaimed THE WORDSMITH (published in North America as THE LIST) by Galway native Patricia Forde.
After global warming came the Melting. Then came Ark.
The new dictator of Ark wants to silence speech for ever. But Letta is the wordsmith, tasked with keeping words alive. Out in the woods, she and the rebels secretly teach children language, music and art.
Now there are rumours that babies are going missing. When Letta makes a horrifying discovery, she has to find a way to save the children of Ark – even if it is at the cost of her own life.

Little Island
Mother Tongue by Patricia Forde, cover illustration by Elissa Webb

Little Island have been publishing some great books, unfortunately all ineligible for CKG because they don’t have offices outside of Eire, but definitely worth reading! Mother Tongue, and predecessor The Wordsmith, are both brilliantly devised stories based in a society founded at the end of the world, after flood waters have risen. Noah, the founder of Ark, has decreed that words were to blame for the situation people find themselves in – empty promises and lies of people in power, words instead of action – so all except the most functional 500 words are banned from use. The Wordsmith may store unused words until people can be trusted with them again (but will they ever?). Obviously the idea of storing words appealed to me greatly, so I jumped at the chance of being on the blog tour. The author Patricia Forde wrote a piece about Words for us:

The Need to Keep Words Alive.

I love dictionaries.
As a child, I was often to be found reading those impressive tomes looking for new words, big words, words to impress. Nowadays, as a writer, I still use dictionaries but now to look for smaller words, simpler words, words that are precise.
But what if we start to lose words?
If we don’t have a word for something can we conceive of it? Can we imagine it? And maybe, more importantly, do we still value that which it represents?
There was a thundering brouhaha some years ago when the Oxford Junior Dictionary removed words like kingfisher, acorn and cowslip from its list and replaced them with words like broadband, blog and voice mail. The dictionary is aimed at seven year olds. People felt that the dictionary was adding to the problem of children being alienated from nature. It seemed that the dictionary didn’t value the thrush, the weasel or the wren as much as it valued the grey world of bureaucracy. Committee, common sense and bullet points all had a place while much of the natural world was sent packing.

But, the dictionary argued, the words they chose to include were the words children were using. They had tracked contemporary usage and reflected their findings in their list of words.

How sad that is. As adults, we have to tolerate a diet of grey sludge when it comes to language. We have to talk about Brexit and hard drives and listen to people going on about journeys they’ve made that aren’t journeys at all, and hear them going forward with this that and the other thing and telling us all about it in bullet points. But children?

Their language should reflect the sacred time that we call childhood. I believe that it should be full of beavers and liquorice and droves of dwarves, elves and goblins. We need to keep those words alive because we need to keep that sense of wonder and awe alive.

Many of the words removed from the Oxford Junior Dictionary had to do with nature. In this time of environmental crisis surely we need to make children more aware of nature and their natural habitat. It should concern us that if children no longer speak about bluebells or brambles it may be because children are becoming increasingly solitary and urban.

Every word in every language represents an entire archaeology and a history of what has gone before. I shudder to imagine a world like the one I created for The Wordsmith and Mother Tongue. A world where people have access to only five hundred words. Letta, my protagonist, says at one stage:

How can we dream if we don’t have words?

I would also ask how can we think? Words give us precision. In this chaotic world we’ve never needed clear thinking more than we do now. We need our leaders to use language like a laser rather than a slurry spreader. We need to cut through the noise, refuse to accept philosophy that can be written as a tweet because it has no complexity, and build a longer list of words – a list that includes all ideas, all languages, all dictionaries.
Let’s make a thundering brouhaha about that!

Patricia Forde

Words Taken Out of The Oxford Junior Dictionary:

Coronation, duchess, duke, emperor, empire, monarch, decade, carol, cracker, holly, ivy, mistletoe, dwarf, elf, goblin, abbey, aisle, altar, bishop, chapel, christen, disciple, minister, monastery, monk, nun, nunnery, parish, pew, psalm, pulpit, saint, sin, devil, vicar.

Adder, ass, beaver, boar, budgerigar, bullock, cheetah, colt, corgi, cygnet, doe, drake, ferret, gerbil, goldfish, guinea pig, hamster, heron, herring, kingfisher, lark, leopard, lobster, magpie, minnow, mussel, newt, otter, ox, oyster, panther, pelican, piglet, plaice, poodle, porcupine, porpoise, raven, spaniel, starling, stoat, stork, terrapin, thrush, weasel, wren.

Acorn, allotment, almond, apricot, ash, bacon, beech, beetroot, blackberry,
blacksmith, bloom, bluebell, bramble, bran, bray, bridle, brook, buttercup, canary, canter, carnation, catkin, cauliflower, chestnut, clover, conker, county, cowslip, crocus, dandelion, diesel, fern, fungus, gooseberry, gorse, hazel, hazelnut, heather, holly, horse chestnut, ivy, lavender, leek, liquorice, manger, marzipan, melon, minnow, mint, nectar, nectarine, oats, pansy, parsnip, pasture, poppy, porridge, poultry, primrose, prune, radish, rhubarb, sheaf, spinach, sycamore, tulip, turnip, vine, violet, walnut, willow

Words put in:

Blog, broadband, MP3 player, voicemail, attachment, database, export, chatroom, bullet point, cut and paste, analogue.

Celebrity, tolerant, vandalism, negotiate, interdependent, creep, citizenship, childhood, conflict, common sense, debate, EU, drought, brainy, boisterous, cautionary tale, bilingual, bungee jumping, committee, compulsory, cope, democratic, allergic, biodegradable, emotion, dyslexic, donate, endangered, Euro.

Apparatus, food chain, incisor, square number, trapezium, alliteration, colloquial, idiom, curriculum, classify, chronological, block graph.

Mother Tongue, the sequel to The Wordsmith, has just been published by Little Island and they are both available from their website (thankyou for sending me copies of both!). Founded by Ireland’s first Children’s Laureate, Siobhán Parkinson, Little Island Books has been publishing books for children and teenagers since 2010. They specialise in publishing new Irish writers and illustrators, and also have a commitment to publishing books in translation.

For a sneak peek of Mother Tongue, download this free sample:

Bearmouth

“Time down here is a diffrent thing see. Lyke on the other side you sees seesons change, leeves grow bold an grene an fayde to gold an red, then drop off and kirl up and disappear into snoe. But Bearmouth is black. Black an warm an dark an wet an full o coal. All days all weeks all year. Forever and ever. Amen. “

Newt has been living and working in Bearmouth from a tender age. Daily life in the mine is full of strict routine and a quiet acceptance of how things are – until, that is, Devlin arrives and starts to ask questions. Newt fears any unrest will bring heightened oppression from the Master and his overseers. Life is hard enough and there is no choice about that. Or is there? Newt is soon looking at Bearmouth with a fresh perspective – one that does more than whisper about change: one that is looking for a way out. 

Liz Hyder’s extraordinary debut novel draws on her research into the working conditions of children in Victorian mines and shows a young person daring to challenge the status quo. In Bearmouth, she has created an imagined world with its own dialect, riven with social injustice and populated by characters who don’t simply accept things because they are told they must.

Pushkin Press
Bearmouth by Liz Hyder, cover design by Yeti Lambregts

Bearmouth is Liz Hyder‘s debut novel, told through the voice of a young child trapped working in a mine, barely remembering life outside. It is both literally and figuratively dark, really dark, with some quite harrowing scenes, but also gripping, hopeful, and thought provoking. I read it in one sitting, taking a while to get used to the voice (Newt is writing it, with letters lessons slowly improving the spelling throughout) but then racing through to see what lies ahead for these wonderful (and wonderfully awful) characters. The conditions are terrible but also not unrealistic, the writing really does create the oppressive atmosphere of the tunnels and relentlessness of the workers’ lives, and the doubt sparked by the appearance of a new boy spirals quickly. Newt begins to question the way things are, whether it is actually blasphemous to want conditions to improve, whether it isn’t really the wishes of The Mayker that keep them underground…

Liz has written this piece for Teen Librarian, about the importance of rebellion and asking questions

My nan, my mum’s mum, who died when I was little, was famous for asking ‘who says?’ A tall, formidable woman with a mischievous grin and a fondness for doing impressions, she looks back at me like a mirror image from old photos. I strongly resemble her on the outside but I also think I’m like her on the inside too. Asking questions is always important and more so than ever in our era of fake news and auto-generated bots. ‘Who says?’ encourages us to ask why someone is saying something, what they might hope to get out of it and what vested interest they might have.

Newt, in my debut novel Bearmouth, is an asker of questions. Set down a Victorian-esque working coal mine in which the workers not only toil away in the dark but also live down there, Bearmouth is a world of danger. As Newt learns to read and write, the curiosity within also rises and Newt starts asking more questions. Why are things this way? Why, even if it has always been this way, should things continue like this? ‘Who says?’

The act of asking a question can, in itself, be an act of rebellion and is scattered throughout fairy tales and fiction as such. From the child in the crowd who asks why the Emperor is wearing no clothes to Oliver Twist asking for more, questions are, in themselves, powerful things and no-one uses questions more keenly than children and young people. Their thirst for knowledge, their willingness and desire to push at the edges of what is and isn’t allowed, what is and isn’t acceptable, is something that we as adults should perhaps look to a little more often.

Books open up other worlds. Whether they be real or fantastical, they allow us to explore ideas and themes through their pages. They allow us to travel across time and space, encountering characters that live and breathe, lingering on in our memories long after we’ve turned that last page. Books can inspire and enlighten us, make us snort with laughter, move us to tears and even fill us with courage. The books I read as a child and as a teenager – from Hunter Davies’s Flossie Teacake series and Michael Rosen’s Quick, Let’s Get Out of Here, to pretty much all of Paula Danziger’s witty novels featuring awkward teens – made me feel that I wasn’t alone, whether that was in my clumsiness or my creativity, in my sense of humour or in the way I viewed the world. Books encouraged me to be braver in myself, to think that I might be a person who could camp out in the wilds like in the Lone Pine adventures or have the bravery to stand up to sinister forces like in The Dark is Rising series. Books shaped my world, made me look at things around me differently, when I looked up from the page, my own world had tilted on its axis. The impossible became just a little bit more possible.

I hope that Bearmouth will make readers look at the world a little differently, to remember the real children that worked away for long hours in the Victorian mines, to remember that there are children right now working in mines in other countries around the world. Just because something is not visible does not mean that it does not exist…

I hope readers will come to view Newt as someone who, with courage, has the ability to inspire and to change things. I hope it helps readers realise they can make a difference themselves, they too can push for and encourage change. When I first started writing the novel, I hadn’t heard of Greta Thunberg but there is a line in the novel, the line that ended up on the front cover, in Newt’s somewhat unconventional spelling, that reoccurs and resonates throughout the story – ‘it only taykes one person to start a revolushun.’ It is an empowering thought and one that I hope will inspire those who read the book.

Liz Hyder, author of Bearmouth

Bearmouth by Liz Hyder is published in hardback by Pushkin Children’s Books on 19 September at £12.99

(thank you for sending Teen Librarian a copy for review!)

Mythologica – Greek Gods, Heroes and Monsters

An illustrated encyclopedia of Greek mythology like no other, Mythologica features startlingly beautiful and exquisitely otherworldly portraits of mythological characters in eye-popping colour from artist Victoria Topping and authoritative text from Classics scholar and Greek mythology expert Dr Stephen Kershaw. Uncover the colourful lives of 50 powerful gods and goddesses, earth-dwelling mortals and terrifying monsters as you journey back in time to ancient Greece.

Wide Eyed Editions

This book is absolutely stunning. Victoria Topping combines photography, painting and cut-paper collage to create fantastical images. Listed alphabetically, the 50 figures from Greek mythology are presented with a striking image and a page of information, while interspersed with the profiles are summaries of famous mythological tales and historical events, like the Odyssey, the Trojan War and the story of the Argonauts. The writing is wonderfully clear and concise (although perhaps sometimes a little small – but so much to fit in!), and if it is a young person’s first encouter with these legends then they will definitely want to read more…

Aphrodite, in Mythologica, illustrated by Victoria Topping

The author, Dr Steve Kershaw, wrote a piece for TeenLibrarian about how his fascination developed, and who remain his favourite Gods, Heroes and Monsters!

To me as a Classicist, spending lots of my life in the world of dead languages and the people who don’t speak them anymore, receiving the fantastic opportunity to collaborate on Mythologica was a dream come true. I now teach Greek mythology for Oxford University, but I’ve loved the stories ever since I was a kid myself. Here was a chance to go back to the powerful gods and goddesses, fascinating earth-dwelling mortals, and terrifying monsters who had fired my enthusiasm in the first place.

I become gripped by the world of the Greek myths at the lovely Salterhebble County Primary School in Halifax in Yorkshire. There, our teachers would read to us from wonderful books for the last 20 minutes of each day. This was enchanting and inspiring. Then one day a new young teacher appeared – a Classics graduate doing teaching practice, I think – and he read to us from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. I thought this was totally amazing! Gods, monsters, heroes, fighting, astonishing adventures… I was completely smitten!

It was a turning point in my life. I don’t remember doing it, but I must have gone home and enthused about these story-readings to my Mum and Dad, because my Grandpa bought me a copy of the Iliad. Like a good ten-year-old should, I read it with my torch under the bedclothes, and was completely drawn into the world of ‘Swift-footed’ Achilles, Polydamas ‘of the Stout Ashen Spear’, Thetis ‘of the Silver Feet’, ‘Lovely-ankled ‘Nymphs, and all the other brilliant characters. They became my friends, my enemies, my role-models, and my warnings.

Then I followed ‘Wily’ Odysseus on his incredible journey home from Troy in the Odyssey, marvelling at the grisly one-eyed cannibal Cyclops, imagining the song of the Sirens, and loving the cunning tricks that Odysseus played. From there I moved on to Virgil’s Aeneid, travelling with Trojan prince Aeneas and his band of refugees, and listening to his moving account of the fall of Troy, watching him break lovely Queen Dido’s heart, and accompanying him on his visit down into the Underworld.

In real life, I then went to Heath Grammar School in Halifax, an excellent institution where they made us learn Latin, and lots of grammar. But I was ready for it! I loved it, and when they offered me the chance to do Ancient Greek, I grabbed it with both hands. Now I could read about my heroes in their own language, and I did a lot of that when I studied Classics at University, before gravitating to Oxford, where I’ve been a Classics tutor for over 30 years, travelling in the world of the Ancient Greeks, both physically and intellectually.

So who are my favourite mythological god(desse)s, monsters and humans? Well, making a choice between any of the twelve Olympians is just impossible. Should I choose Zeus, who, can blast even the most awesome of giants into oblivion with his thunderbolts? Athena, his daughter, born from his head, with her mesmerising grey-eyed beauty and fearsome intelligence? The blacksmith Hephaestus, who, even though he was severely disabled, was still physically powerful, not to mention married to Aphrodite, the most beautiful female in the universe? Or someone else? They all command the utmost respect, but they can also be extremely jealous: if I were to show favouritism to any one of them, the others would simply ruin my life in the most horrible mythological way imaginable. So I love them all!

The mortal options bring people with amazing stories, staggering achievements, and brilliant skills that excite admiration, fear, love, hate, laughter, and/or pity. They can do things that we ordinary humans could never dream of – face unimaginable dangers, make terrible mistakes, and possibly win eternal glory. However, my favourite has to be Trojan Hector ‘of the Shining Helmet’. He was a mighty, noble, good-looking, horse-taming, godlike warrior, but he wasn’t a mindless fighting machine. He was certainly a badass on the battlefield, although in the end he was no match for the younger, stronger, and more violent Achilles, but Hector was also a good son and a loving husband and father, who gave everything for his family and city, sharing tender moments with his wife and their baby son, cuddling the boy when he was terrified by the horse-hair crest on his helmet, and caressing his spouse as he told her that he would rather be die than hear her being dragged away into captivity. Knowingly fighting against hopeless odds, he really embodies true heroism.

When it comes to choosing a monster we have the biggest, baddest, weirdest, wildest, snakiest, fire-breathingest, flesh-eatingest, turn-you-to-stone-est, set of colourful, hybrid creatures that we possibly imagine. As a dog lover – our English Springer Spaniel is called Hero, a girl-dog, named after the heroine Hero rather than any male hero – I’ve always been captivated by the ‘Death-Demon of the Darkness’, Cerberus, the multi-headed guard-dog of the Underworld. This terrifying, shameless, greedy canine monstrosity was so massive that he had a cave for his kennel; his tail was like a serpent; his hackles bristled with snake heads; and his triple throated barks of frenzied rage terrified even the ghosts of the dead. He would wag his tail and both his ears for anyone going down into Hades, but eat anyone who tried to get out. His favourite food was raw flesh, after all, although you could sedate him with treats made out of wheat and honey laced with soporific medicine.

I’m the end, I’m so grateful to those inspiring teachers and those magical books for letting me meet the wild and beautiful goddess Artemis and her brother Phoebus (‘Shiny’) Apollo, sail with the brave and bold Jason on his journey to capture the Golden Fleece, and wrestle with the Nemean Lion. They gave me the opportunity to read, write and teach about them, and because of them the world of Greek mythology is still very much alive, at least in my world.

Orpheus, in Mythologica, illustrated by Victoria Topping

MYTHOLOGICA: An encyclopedia of gods, monsters and mortals from ancient Greek
Dr Steve Kershaw (B.A. (Hons.); Ph.D.) with illustrations from Victoria Topping

Publishing 3 September in hardback from Wide Eyed Editions, £20. For 8+ readers and all who love Greek mythology.

Thank you to Wide Eyed Editions for a review copy!

Gloves Off – Why We’re Falling in Love with The Verse Novel

Lily’s only sixteen, but she already feels like she’s losing at life.  Victimised at school, she won’t lay her unhappiness at her parents’ door – they have problems of their own  – and  so Lily feels utterly trapped and alone.
When the kids at school finally go too far, Lily has to decide if she’s going to fight back. But is her new-found confidence simply about getting revenge on those who hurt her? Or about taking charge of her own life for once and for all?
Gloves Off is the stunning story of a girl taking on the world, about body-image and bullying, and above all, about making every moment worth fighting for.

Guppy Books

I was completely overwhelmed when I read Gloves Off, Louisa Reid’s debut #UKYA novel for the new independent publisher, Guppy Books. I sat down to start it and then just didn’t get up again until I’d finished. Part one is absolutely heartbreaking, and hearing the voices of both Lily and her mother gives you so much to think about. It talks of body image and self worth and bullying and family and love, all in faultless verse.

Louisa is an English teacher by day, and wrote us a piece about why she thinks teens (and adults) are embracing verse novels.

Why We’re Falling in Love with The Verse Novel

In the age of tl;dr, of Netflix marathons, of fast-paced snapchatting and Instagrammable moments, I think verse novels are the perfect way to bring stories to readers who might otherwise be switched off by denser works of fiction. They appeal also, of course, to the poets, and the actors, to the curious and the creative, to so-called readers and non-readers alike. Eminently bingeable, pacey, immersive, these books are an exciting way of experiencing intensely internal stories, whilst being a hybrid form that is perfect for our times.

When I sat down to write Gloves Off, I began in prose. But I have a really vivid memory of sitting at my laptop, reading back over what I’d written, fists clenched in frustration, and just knowing that these sentences and paragraphs were wrong. Nothing sang, nothing moved: the words felt dull and lifeless, the story too slow. It was clear that something was stopping me expressing the intensity of feeling that this story demanded, that I was cluttering the narrative with extraneous detail, and that’s when I decided to give writing in verse a go.

I had no idea if I could write a verse novel, so it was a total leap of faith to undertake the project. But as someone who had always loved poetry, who loves music and rhythm, I had nothing to lose. Appreciating the craft, its playfulness and immediacy, I knew writing my own novel in verse would be a challenge; it was not simply going to be a matter of chopping my paragraphs into short lines.

Before this, my own experience of reading verse novels had been very powerful, and was partly inspired by seeing my pupils’ appetite for this form (I work as an English teacher, and have done so for almost twenty years). Drawn into the intensely emotional experience that the verse novel offers its readers, I’d read the work of David Levithan, Sarah Crossan and Ellen Hopkins to mention just a few of the outstanding writers working in this field. It was easy to understand why so many of the girls I teach are big fans, especially of Sarah Crossan’s writing (although with the growing popularity of the genre, I’m sure they’ll be branching out to sample Kwame Alexander, Jason Reynolds and Elizabeth Acevedo, too – the school where I work is lucky to have an amazingly well-stocked library). When I’m teaching creative writing, we often look at moments pupils have found powerful in their own reading, and its always hugely enriching to explore extracts from verse novels – chosen by the students themselves – and to see them appreciate how the language sings, how it is so carefully condensed and crafted, and then to see this reflected in their own writing .

Another appealing aspect of this form, especially for the less confident, is the abundance of white space and that there are comparatively fewer words – the pages turn so quickly; I think the fact that these narratives move so fast is also very appealing for young adult readers who are used to a fast-moving culture and who can enjoy the sense of accomplishment as they finish a book in one big gulp: the experience becomes utterly immersive.

The form also incorporates and amalgamates aspects of drama, as well as poetry and the novel, to make a rich, but not an intimidating, reading experience. The polyphonic element of YA storytelling has always held a great appeal for me, and many verse novels use different voices to remarkable effect – Brian Conaghan and Sarah Crossan’s We Come Apart is a favourite – I love the distinctive contrast of voices in this book. Other verse novels may change speaker every poem, and this poses its own challenges for readers and makes big demands it terms of flexibility and comprehension. I also think that my students appreciate the form’s unflinching honesty; as we know, teenage readers are masterful at detecting anything insincere, and the verse novel tells a story in which there is no room to hide.

I’m so glad that this amazing, adaptable form is gaining popularity in the UK. Coincidentally I’ve observed a real appetite for the music of words in my classroom, as students give speeches on topics as diverse as school uniform, to racism, from LGBTQI rights to the environment in ways that make use of powerful poetic techniques, clearly influenced by the rhythms of the music they listen to, the books they’re reading, and showing their enjoyment of playing with language. It’s so exciting to see verse novels being read more widely and I’m trying to convert adult readers to this form, too. It’s definitely got something for everyone.

Louisa Reid

Thankyou so much to Louisa for the insight, and to Guppy Books for a proof copy to review. Gloves Off is out on 29th August.

The Deepest Breath

Stevie is eleven and loves reading and sea-creatures. She lives with her mum, and she’s been best friends with Andrew since forever. Stevie’s mum teases her that someday they’ll get married, but Stevie knows that won’t ever happen. There’s a girl at school that she likes more. A lot more. Actually, she’s a bit confused about how much she likes her. It’s nothing like the way she likes Andrew. It makes her fizz inside. That’s a new feeling, one she doesn’t understand. Stevie needs to find out if girls can like girls – love them, even – but it’s hard to get any information, and she’s too shy to ask out loud about it. But maybe she can find an answer in a book. With the help of a librarian, Stevie finds stories of girls loving girls, and builds up her courage to share the truth with her mum.

Little Island
The Deepest Breath

I adored this book. I made a note of pages with favourite quotes and cannot find my copy (thanks for sending it to me Nina) anywhere…I must have lent it to someone, I hope I get it back! Obviously my favourite quotes were about just how special the library and librarian are! But the whole book is just beautiful and lyrical and perfectly pitched for a middle grade audience.

Meg Grehan kindly wrote a piece for the blog:

On writing THE DEEPEST BREATH, and on queer representation in books and the media

About a year ago I wrote an article about how queer characters so often get stuck with sad endings. I tried my best to be inclusive in the language I used, I wrote at least five drafts and I spent hours researching the history of this trend to learn and share why it’s so pervasive. Within a couple hours of the article being posted it had over a hundred comments, almost all of them
negative. I tried my best to stay away, to convince myself not to read them, to just close the tab and walk away. But like a moth to a flame I just kept going back, refreshing and refreshing. I watched them flood in, most of them seemed like their writers hadn’t even read the article but just wanted to spread vitriol about the subject or the inclusive language I’d used in the title. But some of them, a surprisingly large number of them, said something along the lines of this: “I’m straight and I’ve never used a character in a book as instructions on how to behave.”

I hated these comments, I couldn’t help it, no matter how hard I tried to let them roll of my back they climbed up and latched on. The point of the article was to discuss the importance of happy endings, of positivity, and all it seemed to have accomplished was to give angry people another place to leave hateful words.

Queer representation in the media is something I’m passionate about, especially when it comes to books. I’m all about kindness and acceptance, with my books all I strive to do is to make a little space safe, to try to make life even the tiniest bit softer and easier for anyone who might find themselves between the pages. Seeing so many people disregard the importance of representation made me feel deflated. Seeing yourself in the books you read makes you feel validated, it helps you understand and accept yourself. It affirms your existence. So many of us need to see aspects of ourselves, especially those that make us different, to know that we aren’t
alone. It doesn’t mean we need instructions on to behave, on how to be gay or bi or however we identify. It means we need to feel less alone. To disregard this need because you don’t share it is cruel.

It is a privilege to never have to look for yourself, to have it be so entirely normalised that you needn’t notice or pay it any attention. To be the default.

A year on I still think about those comments sometimes, about what a strange overwhelming experience it all was. If I was to respond to those comments, which for the sake of my sanity I didn’t, I would ask their writers to have a little empathy. I would tell them that opening a book
and finding a character who identifies how I do was an experience I waited such a long time for, one that fundamentally changed how I viewed myself, how I treated myself. I would tell them that it made me stop thinking of myself as a weird, as someone who might always feel lonely. I would ask them to understand that just because they don’t need it doesn’t mean no one does.

Meg Grehan’s THE DEEPEST BREATH, a beautifully written, poetic, lyrical and insightful story of one girl’s coming into full awareness of who she is, and who she might want to love (Little Island), is out now.