Category Archives: Interviews

Homebody

‘An uplifting, hopeful, empowering memoir that celebrates self-discovery and self-love’ – Alice Oseman, author of the bestselling Heartstopper series

An unmissable graphic novel perfect for fans of the global hit Heartstopper and Juno Dawson’s What’s the T?

Hello! I’m Theo. I like cats, Dungeons & Dragons . . . and I’m trans and non-binary.

Ever since I was young, I’ve been on a journey to explore who I am. To discover the things that make me . . . me.

Sometimes it can feel like the world is trying to fit you into a box, to label you one way or another, but there is nothing more wonderful than finding your true authentic self, whoever you are. Whether you are transgender or cisgender, we are all searching for ways to make our houses feel like homes . . .

In Homebody, Theo tells the heartwarming story of discovering how to live life on their own terms through beautiful illustrations and lyrical text.

Macmillan

The way Theo looks back on their life so far is so honest and eloquent, figuring out how they feel about themselves as well as how to present themselves to the world on their own terms, and could really help teens and adults not only empathise but reflect on their own path and the journey they’re still on. I absolutely *adored* this book and wish everyone that has “concerns” about trans youth would read it to really think about what it means to be comfortable in yourself, something that many people take for granted especially as they get further away from the growing pains of their teen years. Some people will know themselves and hardly change, others will go through lots of different outward expressions before they feel that the world’s view of them matches their own, some are scared to express themselves honestly, while others still will think that they know themselves until they come across something new to them that opens their eyes to an aspect of themselves they’d neglected.

So much of it resonated with me: When I was a teenager I was frequently mistaken for a boy because of my short hair and baggy clothes and I had conversations with family and friends (not all, but enough) about how no one would ever love me if I didn’t change the way I looked…all the thoughts about what girls and boys should like and not fitting in and knowing that it *shouldn’t* matter what your hobbies are or what you wear wear or how you style your hair but that society will tell you that you’re getting it wrong because for some reason it *does* matter. I keep going back to the book because there are so many beautiful, insightful pages. Anyway, a boy did (does) love me, short hair and all, so listen to Theo’s advice below.

I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to share some pages from the book, and also ask Theo a few questions:

Tell us about your new graphic novel 

Homebody is an uplifting and affirming graphic memoir about life outside of the gender binary. An honest and heartwarming look at the joy and beauty of finding yourself and the positive impact of living as your authentic self. Homebody speaks to a universal experience of exploring what makes us who we are, how we express that to the world and of the relationship we all have between our minds and bodies. Whether you are transgender, cisgender or still figuring it out, we are all searching for ways to make our houses feel like homes, and to come to a place of ease within ourselves.

Which advice would you pass on to your younger self?

Find the people who love and accept you for who you are, exactly as you are, you don’t have to change anything about yourself to be liked. Instead of trying to figure out what other people want or expect you to be, focus on being the person that you want to be and the rest will fall into place.

Homebody is such a unique book, but do you have any titles you could recommend for teens that devour your story?

I have a long list of graphic novels I love! But my top picks for teens who enjoyed Homebody would be: ‘The Girl From the Sea’ by Molly Knox Ostertag- a sweet coming of age sapphic romance with a sprinkle of fantasy.
‘Deadendia’ by Hamish Steele – a funny and imaginative series set in a theme park that’s connected to demonic realms, with a trans protagonist and great LGBTQ+ and neurodivergent representation.
‘Welcome to St Hell’ – a hilarious, honest and relatable autobiography from trans creator Lewis Hancox about his time at high school and figuring out his trans identity. 

Have you any other projects on the go that are developing into full books? After such a personal debut, what would you most like to write about?

I am currently working on my second graphic novel, which is going to be another fairly personal book actually! It’s based on my experiences of moving through the world as neurodivergent but not realising that until much later in life. Beyond that I would love to write fantasy as it’s one of my favourite genres to read.

Homebody is published today by Macmillan, aimed at age 14+

Trigger

An unflinching verse novel about a teenage boy who is sexually assaulted in an attack he struggles to remember.

Jay wakes in a park, beaten and bruised. He can’t remember what happened the night before. But he has suspicions.

Jay realises he has been raped — and that his ex-boyfriend may have been involved.

Counselling sessions cause Jay to question everything. His new friend Rain encourages his pursuit of justice. Jay wants answers, but his search will lead him down a perilous path.

Warning: sexual assault 

Little Island

TRIGGER is not an easy read by any means, definitely YA+, I read it in one sitting with my heart in my mouth. It is definitely one to spark conversations but also definitely one that requires talking about because it could bring up a lot of feelings for some readers. It ends with hope but isn’t unrealistic about how such a traumatic event affects a victim’s life in an ongoing way. If you’re feeling up to an emotional rollercoaster in verse, it is a gripping read!

I was given the opportunity to ask the author, C.G. Moore, a few questions:

Your very first novel was prose and then your second was verse, as is TRIGGER. What prompted you to try verse? How different is the process?

Both TRIGGER and GUT FEELINGS are deeply personal novels. When I was having a relaxing weekend in the Lake District, everything clicked into place and I started to write GUT FEELINGS it in verse. It was all very natural. Initially, I tried to write TRIGGER in prose but as someone who was a victim of sexual assault, I often felt like I couldn’t talk about it and there was shame attached to my experience (like I had brought it upon myself which is obviously not the case). I couldn’t find my voice in the moment so when approaching TRIGGER, it became clear that it needed to be in verse with each word carefully weighted. Writing in free verse is a massive challenge and it has its limitations but it makes you hyperaware of the words on the page and how they contribute to the plot, characterisation and narrative of the story.

Do you think you’ll only write in verse now or does it depend on what you’re writing about?

I have no plans to write in verse going forward although I am sure I’ll return to it at some point. With that said, I have a lot of ideas that play with form so we’ll see. For now though, I’m focused on prose.

TRIGGER is, unsurprisingly given the title, about a very emotive subject. How did you balance writing an impactful story with the potential for sensationalising or downplaying the ongoing impact of rape on the victim?

There are also different ways to approach subjects like this but I think that inferring the rape was more important than showing it and making it somewhat gratuitous. I wanted consent to be one of the key focuses of the story, and for the book to facilitate discussion and engagement around this. The main character’s – Jay’s – experiences are not my experiences. It was definitely a challenge tapping into the emotions of my past without letting those memories and experiences seep into my writing. One of the key messages I wanted readers to take away was to think about what consent means and how it might apply to them in their own lives. I was also conscious of the audience I was writing for and ensuring the reading experience allowed them to explore some issues that are often considered taboo, but doing so in a way that was sensitive and considered.

In your author’s note you mention that you had similar experiences yourself. Do you think that made it harder or easier to write this?

I think it was easier to write than GUT FEELINGS in some ways. I’d already written a verse novel and although I won the KPMG Children’s Books Ireland Book of the Year Award, I didn’t feel any pressure or concern in being compared to GUT FEELINGS. I had a clear idea of Jay’s experience, what happened and how the story would turn out which made it easier to write.

Was the ending different when you first wrote it or did you know what you wanted to happen (if you can answer that without spoilers)?

The ending was always the same but I wrote Jay as having a gun but agents found it a bit sensationalist and unrealistic, and I agreed.

Who, do you think, is the target audience of TRIGGER?

I would say readers aged 13+ but although it’s considered Young Adult, it shouldn’t stop adults picking it up. I wrote in a way that could bridge that gap and appeal to both audiences without patronising teenage readers.

What are you working on at the moment?

I can’t say too much about it but it will definitely be told in prose. It’s a YA “coming out” story with a massive twist.

C.G. Moore

C. G. (or Chris) Moore is the published author of three books. His second book – Gut Feelings – explored his own experiences living with chronic illness and was nominated for the Yoto Carnegie Medal and won the KPMG Children’s Books Ireland Book of the Year Award 2022. His new book – Trigger – is inspired by his own experiences of sexual assault and looks at consent. Chris has also contributed a poem to Our Rights – an anthology endorsed by Amnesty International. He previously taught on the BA and MA in Publishing programmes at the University of Central Lancashire. When Chris isn’t writing, he can be found walking his Jack Tzu, Lola, baking or caffeinating at his local coffee shop.

Interview with Rhonda Roumani author of Tagging Freedom

Hi Rhonda, welcome to TeenLibrarian and thank you for taking the time to answer some questions about Tagging Freedom!

Can you please introduce yourself to readers of TL?

I am the daughter of Syrian immigrants to the United States. I am a journalist and have written about Islam and the Arab world for many years. I started writing children’s literature in 2017. The war in Syria was raging and I was very frustrated with adults and how little they understood what was happening or what had happened in Syria. I wanted children to hear our stories earlier so that when they grow up, they’ll do a better job making sense of the world around them.

Would you be able to give a short elevator pitch to us to introduce Tagging Freedom?

Tagging Freedom is about two cousins – a Syrian boy named Kareem and his Syrian American cousin named Samira – who, through graffiti and artivism, learn to make sense of the revolution taking place in Syria and discover what they stand for in the process and what their role might be even when they’re far away.

My next question is going to go a bit wide, but it does tie in to the book – do you know how things in Syria are going at the moment? (Most of the news about the war in Syria has been overshadowed by Ukraine and now the Gaza conflict). Are there any trustworthy sources of news you could recommend for anyone wanting to find out more?

In English, I recommend reading the Guardian and Al Jazeera English for news about the Arab world. I also follow Middle East Eye, Al-Monitor. The New Arab, The Public Source, and the BBC. I always check information. I want to know who owns the news source and what their spin might be. No news is completely unbiased. These days, I always check where the journalist is reporting from and I’m always asking who their sources are and checking facts with other sources or reports.

There is still fighting in certain parts of Syria– there was even an uprising a few months ago in Idlib. But much of the country has quieted down. People in Syria are struggling financially. During the summer, the electricity is cut for most of the day. And the cost of food has skyrocketed. The entire region is really struggling right now.

As an immigrant myself I am always interested in finding out more about other communities, is there a large Syrian/Syrian-American community in the US?

I grew up in a Syrian community in Los Angeles. It wasn’t huge, but it was sizeable. We started off surrounded mostly by Syrians, but I think as we grew older and as my parents got used to being in the U.S., we naturally branched out to different groups. We ended up in different Muslim and Arab groups comprised mostly of Syrians, Lebanese, Egyptians, Iraqis and Palestinians. As we started asking more questions about our identity as Syrians and Arabs and Muslims, it was only natural that we branched out. They also came from a generation that centered around Arabism, I think. You do have large groups of Arabs in Los Angeles, as well as in other large U.S. cities like New York City, Boston, and various mid-western cities like Toledo, Dearborn, Patterson and other cities in New Jersey and even in cities like New Orleans. There’s even a large Jewish Syrian population in New York.

Young people have always formed an integral part of any uprising/protest against brutal regimes and abuses of power – how true to life were Kareem’s experiences in Syria?

I actually wasn’t in Syria during the uprising in 2011. But I was there in 2002-2006, when the opposition movement was taking shape in Syria, during a time that was dubbed the Damascus Spring. Young people were definitely interested and young people were integral to the revolution in Syria. I based Kareem on different people that I had read about and people that I remembered from my time there. He is a compilation of characters, really. The fact that the revolution was ignited by a small act of resistance, by a group of kids who graffitied on a wall outside their school makes it so much about young people. But the revolution involved people of all ages really. The scene where Kareem is experiencing his first protest is an important one. Most kids would have seen or been a part of pro-government rallies. But to see people of all ages, coming out to protest the government, to demand freedom – on this level – that was new. So that is very much based on reality. Also, I worked for an organization that brought Syrian students to the U.S. and Canada to complete their education, and many of those students became activists or voices for freedom in the U.S. So I definitely based Kareem on some of those students.

When reading fiction works based on fact, I always enjoy an author’s afterword and factual vignettes that tie in to the narrative (when they are included) and your work was no exception. Can you recommend other books or articles for anyone (me) who is interested in learning more about the Arab Spring in general and Syria in particular?

There’s the graphic novel Muhammad Najem: War Reporter. I can’t think of a book that would explain the entire revolution, along with the conflict– for teens. Maybe that needs to be written. Some of the best journalists during the war were women. I especially loved the reporting of Rania Abouzeid, Anne Bernard, and Lina Sinjab. Rania wrote a book called No Turning Back: Life, Loss and Hope in Wartime Syria. She also wrote a Middle Grade/ YA book based on that book called Sisters of War. I would definitely recommend reading anything she wrote! Sisters of War would be a good start.

The themes of speaking up in the face of inequality and social justice are woven throughout Tagging Freedom. Do you have any recommendations for young readers who may wish to do the same but are not sure where or how to start?

History is constantly being rewritten as different groups are able to tell their own stories. Watching what is happening in Palestine right now speaks to that. As Arabs, as Syrians, the story of what happened in Palestine has always been close to our hearts because we know people who have been displaced, people who have lost their homes. We know people from Gaza. They are our best friends. So, I would say that the first thing we need to do is ask questions. Look at stories from different points of views. Even stories that you have grown up with. Then, as you learn more, you will naturally find others who are interested, others who want to know more. And it will build. With time, you will find your people who care about the same issues that you care about. Whether it’s the environment, or what is happening in your city or schools, or anything that you’re interested in. First learn as much as you can about what has happened. The more knowledge you have, the more you can contribute to the narrative that exists about that subject. It will grow organically– finding others who care about the same subject, others who want to take action.

There is a small (but growing) group of Muslim authors writing books for younger readers in the US, are you able to recommend any personal favorites you may have?

I have so many!! I think if you’re talking about picture books, I absolutely love Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow (YOUR NAME IS A SONG and ABDUL’S STORY), Hannah Moushabeck (Homeland: My Father Dreams of Palestine), and Aya Khalil (THE ARABIC QUILT and THE NIGHT BEFORE EID). For Middle Grade, there’s Reem Faruqi’s novels in verse. I absolutely love her work. And for YA, there’s Huda Fahmy, of course! Huda F Cares? and Huda F Are YOU? and Malaka Gharib (graphic novels), Zoulfa Katouh and Reem Shukairy. It’s so hard to mention only a few. The Kidlit space for Muslims is very exciting right now!

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions! I really enjoyed Tagging Freedom and was wondering if you had any plans for a follow up novel or sequel?

I do not have plans for a sequel, but I do have two picture books coming out this year. One is called Insha’Allah, No, Maybe So (Holiday House) and another is called Umm Kulthum, Star of the East (Interlink Publishing.) I’m also working on a new Middle Grade but prefer to keep that a secret for now! Thank you for your questions!

Tagging Freedom is published by Union Square Kids, it is available now in the US and is published in the UK on Thursday February 22nd.

You can find out more about Rhonda and her work on her website: https://www.rhondaroumani.com/

Babushka

‘A little babushka is made when you’re young and something happens to you that leaves a scar…’

Cerys Williams has swapped her village in the Welsh Valleys for art college in London and the spare room in glamorous Auntie Wyn’s flat. Cerys knows there’s more out there for her in the world; it’s the year 2000 – she definitely doesn’t have to just get married and have babies and wear beige and cook stews for the rest of her life, even if Mam thinks she should.

But Cerys’s London is not glossy or cool or sophisticated, despite what Adept, her favourite magazine, has told her. It’s lonely and overwhelming and confusing. Until, that is, she meets him

The prequel to Toxic. A coming-of-age novel about love – the love you think you know and the love you never realised you had, all along.

UCLan Publishing

I’m reading BABUSHKA at the moment and am feeling very emotional about the concept of us having babushkas inside us like nesting dolls, reacting to events of today in your subconscious in different ways because of personal experiences and traumas. I was also a 90s teen (went to uni in 2000) so a lot of it is very familiar, I’d love to hear what modern teens make of it. Natasha Devon is a proving to be a great writer of thoughtful and thought provoking YA. Another brilliant YA author, Kate Weston (you must read MURDER ON A SCHOOL NIGHT, it is a hilarious and gripping and maddening all at once thriller), did a Q&A with her for a Waterstones event and I’m very happy to be able to share that with your here:

What was the inspiration behind Babushka?

Babushka is the prequel to my previous novel Toxic. My protagonist Cerys is the mother of Llewella, who is the protagonist in Toxic. At some point it occurred to me that Cerys and I would have been teenagers at the same time – the turn of the century. I wanted to write what about life was like for young women at the millennium, when we’d lived through the kind of inch-deep, Spice Girls inspired feminism of the 90s but were still contending with things like lads’ mags and celebrity magazines which put big red rings around women’s ‘flaws’. I wanted to make the point that some of the things Cerys grapples with – like consent, victim blaming and misogyny weren’t invented by social media. Sure, these problems have shapeshifted for the modern era but they were just as prevalent in the lives of women throughout the ages.

Where did the title come from?

Right at the beginning of the novel, someone says to Cerys that we all have previous versions of ourselves that live inside us, like Russian dolls. In Russia, these are called matryoshka dolls but elsewhere in the world people call them Babushka dolls. I went with Babushka as the title because it’s also the name of a track by Kate Bush, and what with ‘Toxic’ being a Britney track, I thought it would be fun if both my novels had titles which were songs by iconic women.

When during the process of writing and planning Toxic or after that, did you realise that you wanted to write about Loo’s mum’s story?

When people first read Toxic, some said they were surprised by how ‘hands off’ Cerys apparently was as a parent. It’s obvious Cerys really cares about her daughter, but she doesn’t try to micromanage her life in the way that another mother might. I wanted to explore why Cerys became that way and in my head it was all to do with how her mother was (the polar opposite – always interfering and nagging, or at least that’s how Cerys sees it). That’s how the idea for Babushka originally took root.

What’s your process when you’re writing? Do you plot or do you let your characters grow as you go?

Babushka was a very different writing process from Toxic. With Toxic, even though it’s also a character-driven novel, I already had a really strong idea of how the plot was going to play out. With Babushka, I had fleshed Cerys out almost entirely in my head before I even put pen to paper (or finger to keypad, technically), so the story really evolved through the prism of her. It’s fitting, really, because at one point Cerys tells another character that she’s never felt that she didn’t know who she was, just that she was in the wrong place.

You absolutely nailed the vibe or the women’s magazine in 2000 – especially with things like the circle of shame around someone’s cellulite – do you think that culture is in anyway improved? Or has it just moved on to a different format? 

Misogyny shapeshifts as patriarchy uses the considerable resources at its disposal to protect itself. Some of the things that used to happen in media at the millennium would be considered unacceptable now, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t found a different way to do the same thing (straightforward fat-or-skinny shaming has now become ‘concern for health’ for example. Pointing out someone’s flaws just for the hell of it has become ‘aren’t they brave for going out like that?’).

What I do think is great is how much more of a breadth of content young women have to choose from, now. There are truly revolutionary content creators, TV series and magazine-style articles that you can get at the click of a button. There also isn’t the sense of ‘everyone’ watching the same thing and therefore absorbing the same beauty paradigms and life advice that we had with, say, Friends or Sex & The City. 

There’s a conversation around page 40 between Wyn and Cerys where they discuss whether you would want to be remembered as you are or with certain perceived imperfections changed or “improvements” made. I liked how the conversation focused on “the real you” but avoided mentioning anything about a person’s personality, focusing solely on looks. I imagine this was on purpose because this was very much how things were perceived back then but do you think in 2023 that we’ve moved on from that? Or do you think looks still form the basis of how we’re remembered as a person.

That conversation is based on a thought I have all the time – Does a painting or a sculpture capture the essence of a person better – because artists can draw out certain otherwise intangible qualities – or is a photograph more accurate? And is even a photograph a ‘real’ representation of you when it can’t show how you move, what you sound like or how you smell?

I think in 2023 we’re all David Bowie (bear with me on this one). He talked about how there was a version of him he had curated and sent out into the world and that was what his fans were responding to, not the real him. So there’s a lack of actual connection, there. I think in the age of social media we all do that. We create an avatar of who we wished we were and send it out into the internet to interact with other people on our behalf. And that’s part of the reason there’s been an epidemic of loneliness because in order to truly connect with someone they need to see the whole you, perceived ‘imperfections’ and all.

How do you think the beauty industry has changed since 2001 and what impact do you think that’s having on young people?

Again, the answer is different depending on what end of the telescope you are looking at. On the one hand, we’re seeing more diversity in media and advertising and a greater breadth to the understanding of what it means to be beautiful than ever before and that’s to be celebrated. On the other, the beauty industry has continued to create areas of the face and body for women to feel apologetic about. When I was young the message was ‘be as thin as possible’, which was problematic for a number of reasons and left many people in my generation with eating disorders and other enduring issues. But now there are all these obscure beauty trends dictating exactly what shape and size every single millimetre of your body should be.

We’re also seeing the resurgence of hellish fashion trends we endured in the early 2000s like low rise jeans (just no), so-called ‘heroin chic’ and really thin eyebrows. Although not strictly relevant I do just want to mention to any young person reading this that is thinking of overplucking their eyebrows that, unless you are in the small percentage of people who are genetically blessed, THEY DO NOT GROW BACK.

Do you think that things can get better in terms of the way that the media and society views women and the things that are expected? Or do you think the list of things that we’re disapproved of for will just get longer?

You have to believe it can get better or you’ll just go and live in a hole in the mud somewhere and cry.

I have noticed two things about the women in their early twenties I work with at LBC that are very different from my generation. 1. They’re not afraid to take up space. Nothing about their body language suggests they are trying to make themselves smaller. And 2. They’re so supportive of one another. When I was in my twenties the message to women was ‘there’s a limited slice of the pie for you so every other woman who might have her eye on it is a threat’. A lot of us ended up very ‘pick me’ as a result (and I include myself in this – I’m a Pick Me Girl in recovery). Young women now seem to be all about celebrating each other and raising each other up, which is wonderful.

I want to talk about Darsh a bit without any spoilers. It feels like it would have been really easy to make him into a complete bastard but there’s far more subtle things that he does that are in the guise of protecting her or ‘loving’ her. How did you come up with his character?

I’ve learned through experience that the people who are going to treat us badly in life don’t announce themselves with a giant neon sign saying ‘HEY! I’M REALLY TOXIC AND I’M GOING TO MAKE YOUR LIFE UNBEARABLE!’. If they did it would be really easy to avoid them. The red flags are much subtler, in reality, and therefore easy to miss or overlook. It also had to be believable that someone as clever and independent minded as Cerys would fall for Darsh. Like most f**kboys, Darsh is really charming, exciting, handsome and a little bit mysterious.

I also learned writing Toxic (which is also features a dysfunctional relationship, albeit a platonic one) that creating a good story means it would make sense if told from the perspective of any of the characters. People aren’t generally badly behaved or mean for no reason – There’s always a journey that’s brought them to that point. 

What’s next? Are you working on anything you can share with us at the moment?

I’m in the very early ideas stages for another novel but I have no idea if it’ll ever see the light of shelves at this moment. In the meantime, I’m doing my ‘day’ job of visiting three schools a week delivering talks and conducting research on mental health, writing my columns for Teach Secondary and doing my weekly radio show on LBC.

You Could Be So Pretty

BEAUTY COMES AT A PRICE. AND GIRLS MUST PAY.

In Belle and Joni’s world there are two options for girls:

One, follow the rules of the Doctrine like Belle: apply your Mask, work hard to be crowned at the Ceremony, be a Pretty.

Or two, fight the rules like Joni: leave your face bare, work hard to escape to the Education, be an Objectionable.

But maybe there is a third option…
Change the rules. Reclaim your power. If you can…

What would you choose?

Warning – this novel deals with issues that some readers may find upsetting, including references to pornography and sexual assault.

Usborne Books

This book made me angry. Proper, impotent rage at how horrifyingly possible this scenario is. I don’t think words could do it justice, you just need to read it, and then hand it to every teen you know.

I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to ask Holly Bourne some questions!

I feel like this is essential reading for teens, if only we could put it in the hands of everyone in a UK secondary school. What would you say to encourage boys to pick it up as well?

I do think this book would help male readers have a sense of enormous empathy for just what girls put themselves through each day in order to look like a girl. I can imagine it’s quite shocking to know the extent of the pressures their female friends are under, and how they probably respond to that pressure invisibly and effortlessly as they create their faces each morning. Beauty standards are a vital part of feminism to understand because they stunt girls’ confidence to fight for a better world, so any boy wanting to be an ally needs to have a grasp on what they are, and how they serve those in power. The book also looks at the more toxic ideas around what masculinity is too, and would hopefully give them food for thought in their own lives too.

Which character came to you most easily? Was it always from the dual POV?

I definitely found Belle easier to write because I was a slave to beauty standards for most of my life, and still struggle to show my ‘raw’ face to the world. Even just a decade ago, I used to spend almost two works just getting ready for work each morning – applying a full face of makeup, GHDing my hair into ringlets, mashing my feet into heels which has caused lasting podiatric damage. Since I found feminism in my late-twenties, I’ve definitely eased up on myself and read so much about the contradictions and confusions of feminism and the concept of ‘beauty’ – but I’m still nowhere as near as brave as Joni. I loved writing Joni’s parts, and feel I’m braver as a result, and go out looking like myself more often.  

Did you know from the beginning that it would have to end as it did (no spoilers)?

I’d say the book has a typically ‘Holly Bourne’ ending – in that it’s not the ending you want, but it’s the ending my readers need. I always knew what the afterword would be and say, though I still sobbed while writing it.

Have you thought about what Belle and Joni do next? Would you write a sequel?

I’m very excited for what they’d do next and feel the world of The Doctrine certainly needs to watch out. However, their adventures are likely to remain off page for now. I’m currently writing a new YA, away from the world of The Doctrine, and don’t think I’ll return for a while. I always welcome fan-fic though!

All of your books are fiercely feminist and pretty rage-inducing. I imagine that while you’re writing it could be quite emotionally overwhelming, how do you enable yourself to switch off and calm down?

Weirdly, I calm down by consuming ridiculously trashy and problematic media that goes against all the messages of my books. For some reason, I’m able to hold my feminist ideals and bring myself to the brink of sanity writing about the wrongs of this world and how rage-inducing they are…and then I’m quite happy to curl up on the sofa and watch some horrendous reality TV show. 

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

I’m just finishing I’m A Fan by Sheena Patel and I’m absolutely loving it – although I’m not sure that’s the right word for that book. It’s a very claustrophobic funny, dark, and lyrical exploration of parasocial relationships and I’m wincing with each page. The narrator is deranged but I kind of love her. Her takes on social media and inauthenticity and race and abusive power dynamics are just gaspingly insightful. 

An Interview with Sarwat Chadda

1. How did you get involved in writing for Rick Riordan Presents and how did it feel to be asked?

I’ve been with Disney-Hyperion since 2008, and Stephenie Lurie has been my editor through all that time. She’s also Rick’s editor. So I was given a heads up when RRP was starting, that she and Rick would love me to be involved. But the pitch I sent didn’t really work, so I didn’t get involved till a couple of years later, basically I needed the right idea. Then I wrote up a partial (first few chapters, outline) of CITY OF THE PLAGUE GOD and sent that to Steph. She took it to Rick and the rest of the team, we got the thumbs up and we were off!

2. As a very white guy raised in a western/Christian milieu it was a delight to read a book that was steeped in Muslim values and a story based in Mesopotamian mythology, do you have more stories planned that pull on these influences? I know that City of the Plague God was supposed to be a one-off but after Fury of the Dragon Goddess I am hoping for more stories of Sikander and his friends.

Oh, I have SUCH PLANS! I am literally waiting for the publisher to give the okay to go public. So much of publishing is waiting…

3. For readers that enthralled by the Mesopotamian influences in your Sikander stories what books would you recommend that they discover more?

I mainly used the works of Stephanie Dalley and Andrew George. Look at their translations of the Epic of Gilgamesh and Myths of Mesopotamia. Plenty of great history books covering that period too. Ancient Iraq by Georges Roux was brilliant.

4. I cheered during the British Museum scenes in Fury of the Dragon Goddess and am sure that some people will get hot under the collar at the criticism of the British Imperialism method of collection development. Do you have any suggestions on where people can find out more information about repatriation of museum collections and ethical museums?

I think the key thing is supporting local museums. They don’t need to be in Iraq! This is a HUGE topic, the fallout of colonialism. It won’t be sorted out in our time, but the signs of the shift are already there. The recent unrest in Niger is rooted in its colonial past, and those same pressures created much of the modern Middle East and we’re seeing how native Hawaiians are bringing their stories of American colonialism to the fore with their recent eco-disasters. Our problem us thinking that colonialism is in the past. It isn’t. The old colonial powers still wield great power (most to their advantage) over their former colonies. We are in for a rough time, but we must keep an open mind with regard to whose narrative we are being fed.

5. One of the early quotes in City of the Plague God is one that has stayed with me since I first read it (& it is in the pages that I read whenever I am asked to give book recommendation talks in schools):
Daoud laughed. “Guys like us don’t get to be heroes. You know that.”
“Why? Cause you’re an Arab, or ‘cause you’re a Muslim?”
“Take your pick, cuz. Take your pick.”
Can you recommend any books (for readers of all ages) that have positive representations of Arabs and Muslims?

Pick a book written by a Muslim and/or Arab! I’ll recommend the following authors off the top of my head but there are more: Sufiya AhmedSF SaidIrfan MasterSaadia Faruqi.

6. I recall seeing a tweet (RIP twitter) from you a while ago wherein you mentioned that Ash Mistry had been optioned, can you share any details about that?

Ah, it’s with LIGHTHOUSE, a production company. It is a slow, slow process but there’s a young British-born Asian director involved and writing the pilot, so I feel it’s in safe hands.

7. What are you currently reading?

Just finished 1984, which was brilliant. A masterclass in writing Third Person Perspective as well as (almost goes without saying) incredibly powerful about the manipulation of the masses. Always current, always essential reading. Not sure quite what to start next. Got the Three Musketeers ready as my big holiday read.

8. I am aware that you are an avid collector of tabletop role playing games, do you have any plans to create or work on a RPG?

Too lazy to create one of my own, tbh! I just love running games, leaving all the hard design work to better gamers than me. Just wrapped up a 2 and a half year campaign we ran online throughout covid. Really helped me get through the lockdowns having that to look forward to every week. Now running a few short mini-campaigns. Star Trek (TOS), some JUDGE DREDD and now STORMBRINGER, set in the world of Elric of Melnibone. It all, one way or another, feeds into my writing, keeping my story cells refreshed. If you want to become a writer, start running an rpg.

You Think You Know Me by Ayaan Mohamud

People like me are devils before we are angels.
Hanan has always been good and quiet. She accepts her role as her school’s perfect Muslim poster girl. She ignores the racist bullies.
A closed mouth is gold – it helps you get home in one piece.
Then her friend is murdered and every Muslim is to blame.
The world is angry at us again.
How can she stay silent while her family is ripped apart? It’s time for Hanan to stop being the quiet, good girl. It’s time for her to stand up and shout.

Usborne

YOU THINK YOU KNOW ME is one of those books that will have you raging at the sheer awfulness of people, but also smiling at the warmth of relationships. The characters are so well imagined and real, and although it is an “issues” book: taking head on Islamaphobia, bullying (including “by-standers” and the harm they cause), and racism; the insight into Somali culture and Hanan’s reflections on religion are also wonderfully written. I asked debut author Ayaan Mohamud a few questions:

The core friendship group in YOU THINK YOU KNOW ME is great, the relationships felt real, were any of the characters inspired by real people?

I loved writing about Hanan’s friendship group in the book. Each of her four friends – Andrea, Nasra, Lily and Isha – come from very different walks of life but I loved showing that friendship isn’t always about similarities and some relationships just work!

The essence of their friendship was definitely inspired by the close friends I had (and still have) in school. The kind of banter the girls share, the growth they experience individually and together, and the way they come together during more serious moments – these were all aspects of their friendship that felt very easy to write because of my own experiences.

I imagine it wasn’t an easy book to write. What did you do, when not writing, to keep you grounded and not constantly enraged about the very real issues?

What has always kept me grounded is family. I am so lucky to share an amazing connection with my parents and sisters. When the writing got tough, they were only ever a room away and I would often float across to them to give myself a breather if I felt I needed it. That meant I never overwhelmed myself and, honestly, my writing was a lot better for it as I was writing from a clearer mind and perspective.

It is a book that needs to be talked about, it is brilliant that it is a World Book Night title to get it into lots of hands, what is your one sentence pitch to get a reluctant reader to give it a go?

You Think You Know Me: you won’t know anything about this story until you read it!*

*Disclaimer: I am terrible at writing pitches.

Publishers one sentence pitch:

A stunning debut about finding the strength to speak up against hate and fear, for fans of The Hate U Give.

What kind of events would you like to do with the book?

With the kind of themes, the book explores, I would say school events. I love engaging with teenagers and discussing stories (mostly because I still feel like one myself!), but also because I believe it’s so important to encourage them in thinking critically about real life social issues. School events offer the best opportunity for that.

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

I’m just about to finish Bloodmarked by Tracy Deonn. I love engrossing fantasy and her stories really are fantasy at its best. She writes beautifully and alongside the supernatural and fantastical, I really appreciate the sobering exploration of generational trauma. I would recommend it to anyone looking for some magical escapism.

Will we see more YA from you?

Yes! I have recently finished my second YA contemporary novel. This one is all about complex and messy family dynamics, with fabulous female friendships and a little sprinkle of awkward, young love. I can’t wait for it to be out.

YOU THINK YOU KNOW ME is out now from Usborne.

Thanks to Fritha and Usborne for organising a review copy and Q&A opportunity.

Glow Up Lara Bloom

MY NAME IS LARA BLOOM AND THIS IS MY LIFE . . . Meet Lara Bloom – the best friend you never knew you needed. This is her diary . . . When Lara meets super-cute new boy Caiden, she begins to think that the way to his heart is to give herself a glow up. But her friends are not impressed. You should never glow up for a boy, only for yourself! As Lara and her friends embark on their project of empowerment and self-love, Lara shares her innermost thoughts with her online journal. How can she keep her hair under control when she’s playing football? Why is she so fast on the pitch yet so uncoordinated off it? And how will she ever convince Caiden to take an interest in her? With her worries safely locked in her top-secret journal, Lara is on track to unlock the glow-up of her dreams. Surely nothing could possibly go wrong . . .?! A heart-warming story of friendship, crushes and learning to love yourself. Perfect for fans of GEEK GIRL, Louise Rennison and Alesha Dixon.

Published by Hot Key Books Teens
Cover art by Amanda

Glow Up Lara Bloom is a great teen novel from debut author Dee Benson, publishing this week by Hot Key Books. It is lots of fun but also contains some strong messages for teen girls about self worth and friendship. I asked Dee a few questions:

Were you a big journaller at school?

I wasn’t. I only journaled occasionally, even though I wanted to journal more, because I was terrified that someone might read what I’d written. I’m really into journaling now, though. And I do it all on my laptop for security 😊

The conversations about body positivity and natural hair are great, it could easily have become preachy, did it take a lot of redrafts to sound natural?

I don’t think any redrafts were done on those particular aspects of the book apart from adding more positivity around natural hair. I was actually a bit too subtle about it in my first draft and had to emphasize it further.

I think I managed to avoid preachiness because Lara, the main character, is an ‘everygirl’ who is just like you and me and has insecurities. We see her learning about body positivity and starting to embrace her natural hair, and it’s usually easier to identify with a learner than a master, so to speak. There are a few characters in the book with strong opinions that could have felt preachy, but their views are always contrasted with Lara’s uncertainty so I think that helps to balance things out.

What kind of events would you like to do for the book (dream event and realistic, if they differ)?

Ooh, I love this question. My dream event would involve Oprah and an audience filled with schoolgirls, and they’d all get a free copy of the book along with a glow-up kit packed with beauty products 😁

My realistic event would be speaking at a school either about body-positivity and self-esteem or going after your dreams.

Have you had much feedback from young readers?

Not yet—except for my two daughters who are 12 and 9. I read them the first three chapters and they loved it. My 9 year old has even started writing her own teen diary novel as a result!

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

I’m currently reading Bloodmarked by Tracy Deonn. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoyed the first book in that series (Legendborn) and anyone who likes YA Fantasy. I’m still at the beginning, but it’s already so epic.

Will we hear more from Lara or do you have anything else planned?

Yes, definitely. There’ll be a second Lara Bloom book coming out in 2024.

Dee Benson
https://twitter.com/HotKeyBooksTeen/status/1579865978434830337

This Book Kills

There’s a murderer on the loose in an elite boarding school… But who is going to be next? This Book Kills is the YA thriller of 2023, perfect for fans of Holly Jackson and Karen McManus.

“I’ll make it clear from the start: I did not kill Hugh Henry Van Boren.
I didn’t even help. Well, not intentionally.”

When Hugh Henry Van Boren, one of the most popular and richest kids in Jess Choudhary’s school, is found dead, the student body is left reeling and wondering who the murderer could be… Jess, a student under strict instructions to keep her record clean or risk losing her scholarship, finds herself at the centre of the investigation when it’s revealed that Hugh died in the exact same way as a character in a short story she wrote.

And then Jess receives an anonymous text thanking her for the inspiration.

With time running out, Jess knows if she doesn’t solve this mystery she’ll finally have something in common with Hugh Henry.

She’ll be dead too.

Usborne

This Book Kills is a debut UKYA and bound to be one of the most gripping crime thrillers of 2023. I had the opportunity to ask the author, Ravena Guron, a few questions!

When you thought of a story inspiring a murder, did the murder come to you first or the school setting?

The school setting came first – I wanted to write a book set in a confined space, and the boarding school surroundings were perfect for that. The boarding school also fit in well with the themes of privilege and confidence that I wanted to explore in the book. The set-up for the murder, with the main character, Jess, writing a short story that is brought to life by the killer, came quite quickly after that. Inspiration was sparked by the school setting, because I started thinking about the classes Jess might be having, and how it would be quite easy for her to be assigned a short story to write… And what might happen if that piece of homework took a deadlier turn…

Were you a big writer at school?

I was! I was a massive bookworm, and that translated into wanting to write my own stories. I was very lucky to be taught by some really encouraging English teachers, who told me about short story competitions I could enter. As well as that, I also took part in First Story, which is a charity initiative that brings published authors into schools to work with teenagers from underrepresented communities. It was an incredible opportunity that I’m really grateful for and sparked lots of creativity in me.

Did you do any research into real boarding schools?

Yes! I wanted Heybuckle, the boarding school in This Book Kills, to feel really authentic. Luckily, I had a few friends who had gone to boarding school, or worked in a boarding school, and were willing to let me pick their brains. There were some elements where I knew I would need to use some creative license in order to make the story work, but I wanted things like the timetable to feel realistic, or what the students might be served for dinner… Just day-to-day aspects to make it feel like an actual school.

What kind of events would you like to do for the book (dream event and realistic, if they differ)?

I’d love to go to book festivals – like Edinburgh International Book Festival, and Hay Festival – they always look so incredible! And I went to YALC last year for the first time and had the most amazing day meeting other YA authors and readers – it would be an absolute dream to do a panel. I’d also love to do events at bookshops and libraries all around the country – explore different areas and meet readers all over. I’d love to do all the events!

Have you had much feedback from young readers?

Not yet, but now that I’m published I’m so incredibly excited for This Book Kills to find its way to teenagers!

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

I’ve just finished reading Daughter of Darkness by Katherine and Elizabeth Corr, which is a YA fantasy – it’s inspired by Greek mythology, and it’s super original. I’d recommend it to readers looking for a fast-paced and twisty read.

Can we expect more murders from you?

Yes you can! I’m currently working on my second book – I can’t say too much about it, but there’s murder galore and I’ve had so much fun writing in all the twists…

This Book Kills is out now in the UK from Usborne Books

Speak Up by Rebecca Burgess

Twelve-year-old Mia is just trying to navigate a world that doesn’t understand her true autistic self. While she wishes she could stand up to her bullies, she’s always been able to express her feelings through singing and songwriting, even more so with her best friend, Charlie, who is nonbinary, putting together the best beats for her. Together, they’ve taken the internet by storm; little do Mia’s classmates know that she’s the viral singer Elle-Q! But while the chance to perform live for a local talent show has Charlie excited, Mia isn’t so sure. She’ll have to decide whether she’ll let her worries about what other people think get in the way of not only her friendship with Charlie, but also showing everyone, including the bullies, who she is and what she has to say.

Harper Collins

Rebecca Burgess draws comics about their experience of autism and sexuality (check out HOW TO BE ACE as well), honestly and unpatronisingly for younger readers. There’s also a sharable comic available on their contact page called UNDERSTANDING THE SPECTRUM that should be read by any adult that works with autistic young people. I asked a few questions about SPEAK UP!

Are you as passionate about music as Mia?

I do really enjoy singing, I take part in a local show choir every week! I also, similarly to Mia, use music and headphones to get through noisy situations, such as travelling or shopping.

Mia’s Mum has found the worst kind of “advice” online and her telling Mia to, for example, hide her stimming, made me very sad & angry. I hope plenty of parents like her read this book, but have you any advice for young readers on how to respond with that (wrong) approach?

I think the first response is to really, not let any shaming from others get to you. Be proud of yourself, and if something is making you feel calm and happy then it is a good thing, no matter how much an adult might try to convince you it’s not. On a more practical level, if a younger reader is able to communicate their own feelings about something, I think they should try and share with a caregiver about how they’re feeling- most parents use behavioural therapy because they’ve been told by others its helpful. If they knew it was making their child unhappy I think most wouldn’t use it. If a young reader is not taken seriously or cannot communicate very well, trying to find other voices that can communicate what you want to say- such as books or articles from autistic adults might be helpful.

Have you had any feedback from young readers or done any live events?

I haven’t had any direct feedback from younger readers, but I’ve had lots of happy parents telling me that their kids are loving the book and reading it all in one sitting, which is amazing to hear! I’m hearing especially good feedback from parents of autistic kids (this has been my experience with all of my books and my web comic). I think other autistic people probably feel the same as me, and so barely see our own personal feelings in a story, that when we do see something we genuinely relate to we just end up becoming obsessed with it!

What do you want neurotypical readers to take from the book?

There’s a lot of stereotypes around autism, and also a general belief that our lives are somehow ‘sadder’ than other people’s and that our lives need to be ‘fixed’. I want neurotypical readers to get a broader idea about the autistic experience, and also have a chance to read a happy fun story about being autistic rather than a sad serious one!

Will we meet Mia & Charlie again?

Yes! I’m currently writing and sketching out the second book, which will explore more issues around being an autistic teenager and just a teenager in general! It’s scheduled to be published in 2024.

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

I normally have several books on the go at once haha! Right now I’m reading ‘Neveda’ by Imogen Binnie, ‘Tokyo Revengers’ by Ken Wakui, and just read last night ‘Margaret’s Unicorn’ by Briony May Smith.

Neveda is a very inward looking drama about being a trans woman, I think I’d recommend to anyone wanting a very personal, honest sharing on some more common experiences within the trans community, or if you are just looking for very clever writing!

Tokyo Revengers has all the key storytelling elements that makes Japanese comics so popular and influential the world over, and I would recommend it to anyone wanting an insight into this specific style. Its pacing and art is cinematic, the story is a page turning thriller, and the characters are full of heightened emotion. I keep gasping out loud in dread/anticipation at the end of each volume and then immediately ordering the next volume, which is essentially what all good Japanese comics are hoping you will do.

Margaret’s Unicorn is a beautiful picture book. I love everything by this author/artist and can’t get enough of her work. I recommend this to anyone who wants to cultivate in their kids a love and appreciation of nature and the British countryside, or just wants to stare at some beautiful art for hours on end!

Thank you Rebecca for answering some questions for TeenLibrarian.

SPEAK UP! is out now from HarperCollins.