Category Archives: Reflecting Realities

The Third Degree with Justin A. Reynolds

From debut author Justin A. Reynolds comes Opposite of Always, a razor-sharp, hilarious and heartfelt novel about the choices we make, the people we choose and the moments that make life worth reliving.

When Jack and Kate meet at a party, he knows he’s falling – hard. Soon she’s meeting his best friends and Kate wins them over as easily as she did Jack.

But then Kate dies. And their story should end there.

Yet Kate’s death sends Jack back to the beginning, the moment they first meet, and Kate’s there again. Healthy, happy, and charming as ever. Jack isn’t sure if he’s losing his mind. Still, if he has a chance to prevent Kate’s death, he’ll take it. Even if that means believing in time travel. However, Jack will learn that his actions are not without consequences. And when one choice turns deadly for someone else close to him, he has to figure out what he’s willing to do to save the people he loves.

I was given a copy of OPPOSITE OF ALWAYS at the CILIP YLG London Macmillan event in January, it was one of the books they told us about that I loved the sound of, so when I was given the opportunity to ask Justin some questions for the blog I rushed it to the top of my TBR pile, and boy am I glad I did! It isn’t your classic YA love story, it isn’t your classic teen angst story, but it is your classic teenager trying to deal with what life throws at him. Jack is a great protagonist, making terrible decisions and bad jokes while his family and friends stick by his side through thick and thin (so refreshing). It is funny and moving and totally engrossing, and I finished it in a day.

Hi Justin, welcome to TeenLibrarian and thank you for giving up your time to undergo the third degree!

‘Opposite of Always’ is your debut novel, was it a long journey to publication or was it snapped up?

Great question. The answer is actually a combination of both. Opposite of Always is my third or fourth completed manuscript, after drafting my first back at university; so, yes, it’s been a long journey in that sense. In fact, at one point, right before beginning this draft, I’d considered giving up writing altogether. Of course, now I’m glad I kept going. Once my agent took the story out on submission with publishers, we had immediate interest the very next day, and it was a whirlwind from there. I was very fortunate.

Do you still have a day job? How have you managed writing time?

Currently, writing is my day job, which is something I’d always dreamed of—writing full time. I do often think of my former occupation, though, with a special fondness; I was a registered nurse and had the privilege of assisting so many awesome patients get back on their feet. It was a very different job than writing, but both revolve around stories, on shaping a narrative. And both require a great deal of humility and empathy.

What has been the best thing so far about being published?

The best thing has been the opportunity to meet so many fantastic people! The young adult book community, as it turns out, is smaller than I thought; which has been nice because it’s afforded me the chance to get to know other writers. They’ve shared their personal stories of perseverance with me and they’ve given me great advice throughout this entire journey; it’s been a tremendous (and unexpected) help!

You say in your introduction that it is your “refusal to say goodbye” to lost loved ones. Did you find yourself using any real memories in the story or is it all fictional?

So, I actually struggled with the idea of writing a story that stemmed from those personal losses. I wasn’t sure that I had the right to include those personal memories because they were no longer around to share their opinions; because of that, I did not use any specific memories in OPPOSITE OF ALWAYS. But the characters are certainly composites of people that I love; people that have loved me.

Jack has extremely supportive parents, something often missing in YA and very much missing from his friends’ lives, was that the case from the very first draft?

I love this question! The answer is yes! It was absolutely the case from the very first draft. There were a couple of things about this story that I knew from the beginning beginning—one was that Jack’s voice would be the focal point, and another was that he would have a very loving and dynamic support network—the center of which would be his parents. Not only was it important to me that their love for Jack be front and center, but that their love for his friends would feel the same. I think much of the parents’ instincts to love and support Jack (and company) stems from their deep (and sometimes super affectionate haha) love for each other.

You reference ‘Groundhog Day’, were there any other time travel influences that you’d recommend?

I love the movie ‘About Time’! If you haven’t seen it yet, please do yourself a favor and correct that immediately!

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

I just finished a great book called ‘Let Me Hear a Rhyme’ by Tiffany D. Jackson; at first glance it may appear to be a departure from her previous work—stories intent on drawing attention to the disregarded and giving voice to the overlooked—but at her newest novel’s core is the same heart and urgency present in all of her stories. I’d recommend it to anyone who loves music, values friendship, and enjoys superb storytelling.

Any plans to come to the UK?

I definitely want to visit the UK! Is this an invitation? 😀

I’m afraid we can’t stretch the budget to airfares, but I know a lot of librarians that would definitely love to meet you if you do come over!

OPPOSITE OF ALWAYS is out in the UK on the 4th April 2019.

High Rise Mystery by Sharna Jackson

If you think finding a body is a fun adventure, you’re 33% right.

fantastic cover art by Wumzum


There has been a murder in THE TRI, the high-rise buildings where know-it-alls Nik and Norva live. Armed with curiosity, local knowledge and unlimited time – until the end of the summer holidays – the dogged and determined detective duo take it upon themselves to solve the complicated mystery.

Sharna Jackson’s debut novel for children is set in a tower block (surprisingly enough) on a SE London estate. Our detective duo are sisters Nik and Norva, aged 11 and 13, living with their dad on the estate. He is the caretaker of the block and, also, becomes the main suspect when the sisters find the body of their art teacher. Luckily they’ve been honing their detecting skills and are ready for a bigger mystery to solve!

It isn’t only brilliant because it is the first Black British children’s detective series for 9-12s, it is brilliant because it is one of the best children’s detective mysteries I have ever read.

I enjoyed reading this *so* much. It is pretty long for a “middle grade” book (I say MG, but it could easily be enjoyed by older teens as well…and indeed adult readers), but the pages flew by as the investigation continued. Really pleased that it is the first in a series, I want as many of these as there are Poirot novels please!

HIGH RISE MYSTERY is beginning to appear in shops now!

(huge thanks to Colour PR for asking me if I’d like a copy to review)

Kick the Moon by Muhammad Khan


Fifteen-year-old Ilyas is under pressure from everyone: GCSE’s are looming and his teachers just won’t let up, his dad wants him to join the family business and his mates don’t care about any of it. There’s no space in Ilyas’ life to just be a teenager.
Serving detention one day, Ilyas finds a kindred spirit in Kelly Matthews, who is fed up with being pigeonholed as the good girl, and their friendship blows the social strata of high school wide open. But when Kelly catches the eye of one of the local bad boys, Imran, he decides to seduce her for a bet – and Ilyas is faced with losing the only person who understands him. Standing up to Imran puts Ilyas’ family at risk, but it’s time for him to be the superhero he draws in his comic-books, and go kick the moon.

Waaay back in July 2018, I mentioned Muhammad Khan‘s debut novel in my review for The Muslims by Zanib Mian (soon to be republished by Hachette, with some tweaks including new illustrations by Nasaya Mafaridik, as Planet Omar), so feel I should give him his own space this time to explain why his second book is already looking to be one my my books of the year 2019!

Ilyas has to be one of my favourite characters in UKYA, full stop. He is a teenage boy who is committed to his Muslim faith, proud of his mother, loves comics and drawing, hates violence and misogyny, friend to Kelly, and (with her help) a burgeoning feminist. The inclusion of bits of comic strip drawn by Ilyas (actually by Amrit Birdi) is a brilliant hook, and his character Big Bad Waf is actually brilliant. His school is well imagined, the banter is honest, and his thought processes are totally believable as he tries to walk a path between what he wants, what his family wants, and what his ‘friends’ want. It is definitely one to have in every secondary library, and it covers so many “issues” in a non-preachy way that it is a great one to discuss with students.

Kick the Moon‘ is out now from Macmillan (thank you so much guys for hosting our January CILIP YLG London event and giving me a copy!)

Breaking New Ground

Today at the London Book Fair (one day I’ll go…), Speaking Volumes have been sharing BREAKING NEW GROUND, a new brochure of British BAME authors and illustrators for children, in advance of their partner BookTrust’s new project BookTrust Represents, officially launching in April.


This project will:
support and subsidise authors and illustrators of colour to promote their work and to reach more readers through events in bookshops, festivals and schools
offer training and mentoring
launch an online community to support the next generation of great authors and illustrators of colour

The brochure, part of a joint initiative also involving Pop Up Projects, includes articles and excerpts from a range of contributors, and I’m really looking forward to what comes next!

Glancing through the catalogue, it is a wonderful mixture of long published (contemporary) and yet-to-be published authors and illustrators, familiar names and unknown, with an indicator of the age of their target audience. Lots of overlap with the list Matt started here years ago (and we’ve both added to since) but each list has some that the other is missing…

Our list of British based BAME authors and illustrators

Jason Reynolds – event review

I wasn’t able to attend the event that Waterstones Piccadilly hosted on Friday 30th November but I told a colleague about it, having recommended his books to her, and she jumped at the chance to go, saying “I couldn’t get Michelle Obama tickets but this will do!”. I asked her if she’d write a few words about the event for us (thankyou Tracey!)

Attending this author event was very different to most I have been to because Jason Reynolds didn’t actually read from his book For Every One, but had a conversation with the audience and Mark Maciver who chaired the talk. He spoke about his journey as a writer, his mother, travelling around England and meeting a few unicorns (basically Black British people who were young and wrote poetry). It was very clear that he was soaking up cultures, conversations and experiences on his book tour and he was definitely reflecting on how important it is to be truthful. A very poignant moment was when he described how he didn’t enjoy classic literature and his mother had said who actually made that a classic? This led onto him to simply saying that if you don’t see yourself and your life reflected in literature how can you engage with something so different to your life. Rap music was so important to him as a young man and that was never part of the literary narrative of any character in a book, so to take an interest in Shakespeare was not on the agenda. Once you engage with stories that you get, then you are open to new experiences and able to appreciate what others may see. His honesty about not knowing things that authors are supposed to know, such as what are semi-colons for – which obviously made the audience laugh – was truly refreshing. For Every One is probably the best book by Jason Reynolds to read first if you are not familiar with his work, as it is beautiful, poetic, accessible, and very short.


His other title recently published in the UK, Long Way Down, is on the current nominations list for both the CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Awards – Carnegie for his writing and the Kate Greenaway for the wonderfully evocative illustrations by Chris Priestly. Knights Of will be publishing his 4 book middle grade series, The Run, next year.

‘Cultural Appropriation, Unconscious Bias and Colonial Aspects of Collections’ – YLG conference session

Anyone who has ever attended a professional conference knows that such events are a mix of the good (catching up with friends after one of you has moved on, being able to look round the room at other attendees and know that you share a passion for the same type of work, FREE STUFF), the bad (trying to sleep in an unfamiliar bed in a room next to the lifts, being reminded of the ever-increasing pressure of working in your field, endless queues for tea and coffee), and the ugly (a full buffet breakfast is inclusive but the packed schedule means you’ve no time to linger and enjoy the spread). Few aspects of the conference experience, however, are as dreaded as those two little words:

BREAKOUT SESSION.

The horror of potential interaction with our fellow attendees – being forced to participate in ice-breaker activities, being asked to share anecdotes, being close enough to the facilitator to make eye contact – nothing can make one break out into a cold sweat faster. Or maybe that’s just me?

It was, therefore, a relief to find that the first breakout session I attended at this year’s YLG Conference (Reading the Future, at the Mercure Manchester Piccadilly, 21-23 September 2018) required none of these things. Titled ‘Cultural Appropriation, Unconscious Bias and Colonial Aspects of Collections’, this session took the format of a panel discussion followed by a Q&A, introducing me to creators whose excellent work I had not previously encountered. Ably guided by academic Chloe Germaine Buckley, Senior Lecturer in English and Film at Manchester Metropolitan University, authors Candy Gourlay and Miriam Halahmy each introduced us to their most recent novels before engaging in a discussion of why and how, even nearly two decades into the 21st century, publishing and libraries still struggle to present readers with a choice of books that accurately reflect the enormous diversity and reality of the world in which we all live.

Buckley began the session by quoting some hard numbers, drawing from data collected and reported by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE): of the 9,115 children’s books published in the United Kingdom during 2017, a mere 391 – just four percent! – of these featured Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) characters. Even more shocking, over half of this paltry total were what is often referred to as ‘social issues’ books – giving the strong impression that BAME characters and lives aren’t thought of by many authors – and therefore, many readers – as ‘normal’, ‘mainstream’ or otherwise ‘unremarkable’, but rather disrupted by racism, violence, or other incidences of social disorder. After allowing a moment for the audience to fully absorb this information, Buckley introduced Miriam Halahmy, author of numerous books, poems and short stories for children, teens and adults.

Those who follow the Youth Libraries Group blog on the CILIP website may recall Halahmy’s recent opinion piece ‘What is on our Bookshelves’, in which she discussed her experience as Head of Special needs in a Camden secondary school during the period in the early 1980s when The Rampton Report ‘on the education of children from ethnic minorities’ was published. The recommendations of this report had far-reaching effects on, in particular, school libraries across the United Kingdom; librarians and teachers, horrified by the exaggerated and stereotyped depictions of children from non-Anglo backgrounds, discarded enormous numbers of books in their attempts to embrace a multicultural society, but often did not have the funds to adequately replace these castoffs with new books reflecting positive depictions of other cultures and peoples. Halahmy says that the question is often asked, is the lack of BAME representation today because ‘[her] generation of teachers threw them all away?’

Of course, the real answer is much more complicated; overcoming the current deficiency of representation will require the cooperation of authors, literary agents, publishers, media reviewers, readers and librarians. Halahmy is certainly doing her part: as a Jewish woman with four Polish grandparents, married to an Iraqi Jew, different languages and cultures (including Polish, Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian, and Arabic) have always been a part of her life – in her words, she ‘cannot help but write multicultural characters because this is the world I inhabit.’ Halahmy’s beliefs complement my own primary philosophy as a librarian – that all children deserve to be able to see themselves reflected in the pages of a book. Her newest book, Behind Closed Doors, is about two teenage girls on the verge of homelessness for very different reasons, and features a cast of characters from a range of backgrounds, including Black British schoolboy Dom and Japanese-American swimmer Jordan.

Next to speak was Filipino author Candy Gourlay, whose 2018 novel, Bone Talk, originated when the author was conducting research into Filipino immigration for a non-fiction book on the subject, and came across a photograph from the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri. This photo, depicting a woman dressed in the customary Edwardian fashion of the time, standing alongside a man naked but for a G-string, piqued her interest, for alongside the spectacular displays of scientific and technological progress – including the first electrical socket, incubator, x-ray machine and Ferris wheel – the sights advertised by the Fair’s organisers also included ‘exotic peoples’. Gourlay went on to explain how the subjects of these grotesque living exhibits included a number of displaced people; in this case, the man in the G-string was a Native Filipino, a member of a group of highland people known at the time as the Igorot – but better known to Americans as head-hunters. [Note: in my research for this piece, I learned that the exonym ‘Igorot’ is considered somewhat of a pejorative by the people whom it describes, and that the tribal people of the Cordillera region prefer a number of other terms; hereafter, I shall use the term ‘Cordillerans’.] A number of Cordillerans were brought to St Louis following the Philippine-American War (1899-1902), in anticipation of the World’s Fair; once there, the Native Filipinos duly reconstructed a mock village as part of the wildly popular ‘Philippine Exhibition’, in which they lived in plain view of gawking fairgoers, staging daily shows for the entertainment of their Western audiences.

Gourlay’s research into these people and how they came to be part of the 1904 World’s Fair took her from archives in St Louis all the way to the mountain provinces of the Philippines, where she made two important determinations. Firstly, the story of the Cordillerans was one she wanted to tell; secondly, although she herself is Filipino, this was not her story – and writing it as such would be cultural appropriation. Gourlay went on to clarify this point, saying that to an extent, ‘all fiction is cultural appropriation’; however, the problem with writing a story from the perspective of the Cordilleran people at the turn of the twentieth century is that no authentic record of their voices survives – only American versions. For this reason, although Bone Talk takes place amongst the Cordilleran community – specifically, the people of the Bontoc – it does so during the period of the Philippine-American War, thus enabling Gourlay to draw from those American chronicles of life amongst the Bontoc people at that time and thereafter as she constructed her work of fiction.

Gourlay’s mention of cultural appropriation reminded her audience of our reasons for attending this session in particular, and the subsequent discussion between the authors was fascinating, so much so that I must admit I rather abandoned my note-taking. Particular highlights, though, include:

  • Gourlay’s explanation of what she calls ‘The Lack’ – specifically, the something-that-is-missing at the beginning of every story, which is filled in over the course of the narrative – and how it is our job as librarians and authors to help promote authentic voices to fill that missing element;
  • Halahmy’s reminder that authors have to ‘murder [their] darlings’ – characters should have more purpose than just ‘representation’, and if not furthering the plot, they are just weighing it down; and
  • Gourlay’s discussion of how her writing critique group is made up of cisgender white people authors, and how she had to ‘knock back’ certain aspects of Bone Talk as a result.

Halahmy pointed out that ‘we are very much on the cusp of change’ in terms of elevating lesser-known voices within libraries and publishing, though there still exist ‘a lot of barriers to be broken down’. Gourlay concurred, going on to say that what will really help increase diversity is ‘not having diversity panels’ but instead making the effort to ‘move in the realms of the people you want to invite in’ to the conversation; Halahmy nodded in agreement, musing, ‘the number of book launches I go to where I’m the darkest person in the room…’ before declaring that ‘this is not a box-ticking exercise’, a statement that was met with applause, and brought the panel to a close.

I could not agree more with these sentiments. After nearly two decades of librarianship, I have learned that establishing diverse representation in my collections and avoiding (as much as possible) unconscious bias in my reading is only possible through hard work, constant education, and an open mind. As a white man – and an American one, at that! – stories about people like me have been front and centre for far too long; it is my responsibility to use the privileges afforded to me as a member of that demographic to elevate and promote the voices of those who may be overlooked, and who may struggle to find and connect with readers or books featuring people like themselves. I was still in grade school when Dr Rudine Sims Bishop, children’s literature scholar and Professor Emerita from The Ohio State University, published her seminal essay ‘Mirrors, Windows and Sliding Glass Doors‘ (Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom. Vol. 6, No. 3. Summer 1990), in which she introduced teachers, librarians and other educators to a framework with which we can build and foster multicultural literacy. Nearly three decades later, I firmly believe in Sims Bishop’s philosophy; our primary duty as librarians is to provide as many different mirrors and windows as possible, in order to enable all of our users to both see themselves reflected, and to learn about other cultures. Gauging by the number of my colleagues who attended this panel, I am not the only one.

As a first-year judge for the CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenaway Medals, I was especially gratified to see so many of my fellow judges in attendance; frequent readers will recall that CILIP has recently released the final report summarising the Independent Review of the CKG undertaken from June 2017 and has, or will shortly be, implementing a number of changes to the process as a result of these findings. I feel enormously lucky to have joined the judging panel at this point in time, as the various training opportunities made available to us will be of great use to me both personally and professionally; indeed, I can already identify a subtle shift in how I evaluate this year’s nominated titles against the awards criteria. (Time spent on said evaluations – and the sheer scale of the 2019 nominations list – may explain why this piece is being published some two months after the annual conference. Oops?) My heartfelt thanks to Chloe Buckley, Candy Gourlay and Miriam Halahmy for their time in presenting this panel, to all of the conference organisers for a fantastic experience, and to Caroline Fielding for the extremely late submission of this report….

Emerson Milford Dickson

Emerson is a secondary school librarian living and working in NE London. He represents London as a judge for the 2019/20 CKG Medals, and tweets about libraries, politics, cats and more at @microfichetaco

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed the ‘mirrors and windows’ theory to another individual, when in fact it is Dr Rudine Sims Bishop to whom we librarians owe a debt of gratitude for her lifetime of scholarship in the field of children’s literature. I wholeheartedly apologise for this error, which I hope will serve to remind all reading that no matter how much effort any of us may put into ‘getting it right’, our work is never truly done! – EMD 19/11/2018

You’re Snug With Me – picture book review

 


At the start of winter, two bear cubs are born, deep in their den in the frozen north. “Mama, what lies beyond here?” they ask. “‘Above us is a land of ice and snow.” “What lies beyond the ice and snow?” they ask. “The ocean, full of ice from long ago.” And as they learn the secrets of the earth and their place in it, Mama Bear whispers, “You’re snug with me.”

You’re Snug With Me is the second time Lantana have paired Chitra Soundar with Poonam Mistry, after You’re Safe With Me, and they are a fabulous team. It is not quite a sequel, but they are both environmentally minded and each have some factual science behind the lyrical stories. My favourite example of that from this book, is:

“As the snow fell harder, the cubs grew curious. “Will it always be dark?” they asked.

“It is dark because we are far from the sun during the winter months.”

The cubs trembled.

“Don’t be afraid,” said Mama Bear. “The Earth dances on her toes and when she tilts, our nights will get shorter and spring will return.”

While the style of drawing remains consistent between the two books, the minimal colour palette in this chilly tale is completely different to that of You’re Safe With Me:  blue, white, and yellow. It is perfect for the snow filled setting, just as green, red, and yellow was perfect for the rainforest setting of Safe. The illustrations are anything but minimal though, taking up all the space with beautiful patterns making up stylised animals in breathtaking scenes. The view changes depending on how close you are to the book, with so much detail to take in.

Although Lantana are small, their growing list of picture books is extremely impressive, some of my absolute favourite titles of recent years have come from them, so do take a look at their catalogue. They make a point of working with authors and illustrators from a wide range of cultures and nationalities to ensure that every child has a chance to see themselves in stories; ‘a publishing house with inclusivity at its heart’

Updated (but always incomplete) list of UK BAME authors and illustrators

Just a quick note to say that there are new names on the list but, as ever, let us know who’s missing!

An Updated (but still incomplete) List of British BAME Authors for Children & Young People

Stay a Little Longer by Bali Rai – Review

Aman’s dad is gone, leaving her feeling lost and alone. She struggles to talk about it, but it’s a fact and he isn’t coming back. It just seems to be her and mum against the world, even against their family. When a lovely man called Gurnam moves into her street, it looks like he might fill a little gap in her life. But Gurnam has his own sadness. One that’s far bigger than Aman can understand and it’s tearing his life apart…A touching and evocative tale of unlikely friendships and finding happiness in the hardest of times.

It is set in the outskirts of Leicester, Bali’s hometown, with a diverse and *real* cast of characters. Bullies try to intimidate Aman and Gurnam, who recently moved onto her street, comes to support her. Thus begins the friendship between him and her family. Aman and her mum aren’t religious but they go to the gurdwara for a friend’s blessing as well as celebrating Christmas both in their home and with their community in a new garden project. I don’t want to spoiler the story too much but the hard hitting emotional impact of this book comes from its sensitive portrayal of poor mental health and grief, as Aman tries to understand why Gurnam may have left his family and how she can make him realise that it is worth staying a little longer. There are some beautiful lines about loss and feeling sad, and some really heartbreaking scenes.

Bali Rai has written a number of titles for Barrington Stoke (you all know how much I love Barrington Stoke) since their inception, all of which are perfectly pitched at their target audience, as well as a number of engrossing YA and entertaining younger readers for other publishers. Stay a Little Longer is, I think, one of his best so far.

Peace and Me by Ali Winter and Mikael El Fathi – Review

 

What does peace mean to you? This illustrated collection of inspirational ideas about peace is based on the lives of Nobel Peace Prize Laureates of the 20th and 21st centuries, among them Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa and Malala Yousafzai. A must for anyone interested in exploring this essential issue of our times, this child-friendly exploration of what peace means to you and me is a book for every bookshelf.

Amnesty International endorses this book because it shows how standing up for other people makes the world a better, more peaceful place.

This book is Lantana Publishing‘s first foray into non-fiction, and is both interesting and beautiful. Twelve Nobel prize winners each have a double page spread with a brief but fascinating snippet about their life and achievements, written by Ali Winter. It is targeted at 7-11year olds but I honestly think older children (and adults) will get something out of it too, I certainly wasn’t aware of all the laureates chosen to be included, they are a really diverse selection of people from all over the world.
It is so colourful and eyecatching. The textures and layout of each page really make it stand out, but they fit together perfectly. Mikael El Fathi’s illustrations really give you a sense of what made/makes each person special.
Definitely one for every school library, and hopefully lots of homes too! It is being published next week on 21st September 2018, The International Day of Peace, very appropriate.