Category Archives: Reflecting Realities

Clouds Cannot Cover Us

Clouds Cannot Cover Us: Poems by Jay Hulme

October will bring us this really powerful collection of poetry for teenagers, by young transgender poet Jay Hulme. Troika asked him to create a semi-autobiographical narrative, and included are reworked poems he wrote while at high school. He has said that when considering what to include he realised that what he’d wanted as a teenager, and what he wanted to give to teenagers, was the truth, and devised a two part story.

Being trans means that my life does feel almost like it comes in two halves. I have lived in this world as two people: The person I was before; angry, confused, violent, trying to find out what was wrong, trying to find my place in a world that didn’t want me. And the person I am now; proud, confident, at peace with myself, trying to forge a future to be proud of. With that in mind, I divided the book into two parts. The first half is filled with problems, anger, and confusion, and the poems in turn are often filled with industrial and urban imagery, dark, and claustrophobic. The second half is filled with hope, change, and growth – the poems here are often filled with natural imagery, they are lighter, softer, quieter – kinder.

Jay Hulme

No issue is out of bounds, anything he thought of as a teenager is included, some induce anger, some tears, some snorts of recognition, some a smile…and some all of the above. If I had to pick one favourite from each part, the one that made me stop and stare without moving on for a few minutes was his response to the Islamophobic attack at Christchurch earlier this year. That is towards the end of part 1, which is full of rage and sadness and despair at injustice. In part 2, possibly verging on soppy (which is very not me and yet it had me crying happy tears on a bus) is ‘Just the Small Things’ about the every day things that make you happy. Bonus mention though for ‘The Meaning of Stories’, which may resonate with many a reader, particularly I’d think readers of this blog (thank you so much Jay for letting me post it in full here):

THE MEANING OF STORIES


Perhaps it is true that none of my heroes exist,
summed up on a list entitled “fictional characters”.
My life lessons come from the mouths
of people paid to pretend they are someone they’re not,
but I can’t forget what they have taught me.


Because when words mean something, they stay,
no matter where they came from.
So who cares if I live my life by a line
issued from the mouth of Gandalf the Grey, on a film set,
it doesn’t mean it’s worth less than something
said by someone who actually existed.
Because attribution is overshadowed by meaning,
and the fact that these words stay with me
means more than the circumstances
under which they were uttered.


So if fiction is the foundation
on which I build my life, I can promise you
that my turrets will reach the sky,
before yours reach my dungeons.
Because fiction holds within it
the promise of a better world;
and I believe,
not just because I can,
but because I have to.

Jay Hulme
Jay Hulme

Jay Hulme is an award winning poet and performer from Leicester, Winner of Slambassadors 2015, and finalist in the 2016 Roundhouse Poetry Slam. He has recently branched out into children’s poetry, and his work was Highly Commended in the 2018 CLiPPA Awards. He also works as an ambassador for Inclusive Minds, promoting inclusion and diversity in children’s publishing, and doing sensitivity reads to ensure depictions of trans people in books are both accurate and unoffensive.

Thank you Jay for the pdf of Clouds Cannot Cover Us, coming soon from Troika.

Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It

The problem with Wales, he thought, was that it was too far away.
But that was the point. To leave Southend behind. To get so far that no one would think to look for them there.

Max wants to be just like his dad – fun, loud and strong.
Instead, he always seems to be accidentally getting into fights and breaking things.
But when his dad starts bringing home mysterious boxes, even more mysterious wads of cash starts turning up.
Then Dad disappears. And it’s up to Max to look after his sisters until he comes home.
When they run away to a remote village in Wales, he’s convinced that no one will find them.
He’s Max Kowalski. Of course he can look after three kids with no grownups around!
Although, he can’t stop thinking about where Dad really went. And the whispers of a golden dragon, asleep under the Welsh mountains…

Puffin
Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It

Over on twitter last month, Louie Stowell wrote the review “If Jacqueline Wilson ganged up with Alan Garner and remixed A Monster Calls, with dragons. Powerful and deep.” and I was immediately sold. Brilliantly, Susie Day, the author of said book, then offered to send me one of her author copies and I bit off her hand! It was as brilliant as expected, with warmth and humour and fabulous characters in pretty dire but totally believable circumstances. After reading it, I asked Susie if she would answer some questions for the blog:

In your books you focus on “issues” that are relevant to lots of children but often missing from children’s fiction, always beautifully encased in a fabulous story. What prompted you to tackle toxic masculinity? ‘Issue books’ always sounds such a miserable label, doesn’t it? Like All Bran instead of Coco Pops. I hope my books are a blend of both (although less disgusting than that sounds). I’m always trying to write about children whose lives feel genuinely reflective of the world we live in – which means acknowledging the challenges of poverty, or grief, or homophobia. But it also means celebrating the ways we live through all that stuff: through daft jokes, and family, and love.
We’ve made big cultural strides in celebrating girls who want to do traditionally ‘masculine’ things, from playing pirates and getting muddy to careers in STEM. But boys choosing stereotypically ‘girly’ things – being creative or sensitive, or being open to emotional expression and relying on friends for support – remains a bigger sticking point. When I worked at a boarding school for teenagers we had some mental health training, which showed me some really shocking stats. Suicide is the #1 cause of death among men aged 20-49 in the UK. We’re letting all kids down if we don’t try to identify why that’s happening, and work to change it.

You generally have female protagonists, how different was your approach when writing Max? This question really made me think! Max is a character who often won’t admit what he really feels or thinks, and wants to put up a front. But I’ve written lots of girls like that too – like Sammie in The Secrets of Sam and Sam, or Clover in Pea’s Book of Holidays. Max has ideas that he associates that very strongly with being a boy. But Sammie or Billie Bright: they bump up against the ‘required’ behaviours of being a girl a lot too. It’s the same problem, but with different expectations.
The challenge Max has is that he thinks of himself in one way – big, tough, capable – and that doesn’t match his reality. The challenge for me as a writer is how to show that. But the characters I love to read about most are the ones who are figuring themselves out while we read them. I loved finding the visible symbols of that when he’s not a boy who would articulate it: the trainers he covets, buys, then throws away; the jumper his best friend’s mum lends him, that he keeps on wearing.

The scenes in the climbing centre were very convincing, did you have to do a lot of research or are you a climber? My girlfriend is laughing at this question. This book was written after we went on a walking holiday in Snowdonia together. She’s been walking there for years; I’m an experienced hiker but with a pretty emphatic fear of heights. She took me up a mountain called Glyder Fach, without mentioning it involved a scramble (sort of midway between a walk and a climb, where you need to use your hands but don’t need ropes). We got to the top – but I did cry on the way. That’s the mountain in the book, with a name change and a little geographical creativity.
She helped me out with understanding climbing technique, and I watched the climbers on the rocks alongside the road up to Pen Y Pass, the start of the main Snowdon route. But I will never be a climber!

Castell Y Gwynt on Glyder Fach in Snowdonia by Balochdesign

Have you had much feedback from children about the story? What do they pick up on the most? Max as a character: that’s what kids seem to connect with. A friend of mine’s son was running round the park being ‘brave’, because that’s what Max is. I think the rising stakes help turn the pages too.

What kind of events do you enjoy doing most with children/in schools? I love school visits, whether it’s a KS2 assembly or classroom workshops. Like most authors, I’ve also done festivals to a roomful of babies, surprise 13-year-olds, and three people who are asleep, which certainly hones the improvisational skills…
Assembly-style sessions are interactive, with live storytelling and games. I’m always – I mean this genuinely, I’ve never not had this experience – awed by the creativity that’s waiting to be uncapped. But I think it’s important that I’m not there as a teacher. An author visit can really support curriculum, and I often tailor sessions to particular objectives, like reading for pleasure or editing. But it should also inspire in ways that are bigger and broader: that can just celebrate why reading and writing matters, and why books are relevant for all of us.
I don’t offer CPD for staff, but you might find my books, and my presence, useful for SRE.

What are you reading at the moment and who would you recommend it to? I’ve just inhaled Louie Stowell’s The Dragon in the Library (7-9), which is all joy: clever, inclusive, highly-illustrated and a smart way to persuade non-readers they might like books after all. Gabby Hutchinson Crouch’s Darkwood is a pure Pratchett-for-kids fairytale: great for advanced middle- grade readers who like talking spiders and laughing out loud. And I’m in the middle of A Pocketful of Stars by Aisha Bushby, which is gently breaking my heart, while also making me really happy to see fiction about gaming. More please.

What’s next for you? Something I can’t talk about yet, sorry!
I’ve also written a short story for a new Doctor Who anthology called The Target Storybook, about the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) from the classic series. Every book I’ve written has a Doctor Who reference, so it was pretty sweet not having to find a place to fit that in for once. The book’s out in October, and I can’t wait to read the other stories.

Susie Day

Huge thanks to Susie for the copy of the book and the responses for the blog!

Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It is out now!

That Asian Kid

Despite his hard work and brains, Jeevan, is doing badly in his GCSE English literature class. His teacher, Mrs Greaves, dislikes him intensely and Jeevan is convinced that he is the victim of racial prejudice. Can he stand up for what’s right? When he comes upon her in the woods outisde school in a compromising situation with another teacher, Jeevan can’t help but film the scene on his phone. With this secret new ammunition at his fingertips – dare he upload it to social media?

That Asian Kid will make you cross. Livid. Spluttering with indignation on Jeevan’s behalf. Despairing that adults could even behave this way but knowing full well that it isn’t that unusual. Jeevan and his friends are great characters, all “good” kids doing well at school, from a wonderfully portrayed mix of backgrounds, and their interactions are so believable I could see them in any playground. I really enjoyed his relationship with his parents, and grandmother, so concerned for him and never doubting him, even if they do begin by think he should have kept his head down and not cause any trouble. I was really pleased to be invited to be part of the blog tour, and to get to ask Savita some questions!

Hi Savita!

Thanks so much for inviting me on the blog today. It’s such an exciting time when a new book is published and getting to talk about it on a blog tour with amazing bloggers is such a treat!

That Asian Kid is a stunningly blunt title, it really packs a punch and is perfect for setting the tone. Did you have it in mind from the beginning or did it come to you as the story evolved?

Strangely, it was a very hard book to find the right title for. I had a list of about thirty titles, and everyone I asked liked a different one. That Asian Kid wasn’t among the list, which is odd because it was staring me in the face. When it suddenly came to me I knew instantly that it was the right one to go with. However, it does seem to be a bit of a marmite title – you either love it or hate it! But whichever side you fall on – it is intriguing.

I imagine an unfortunate number of teens will recognise the situation as something that is happening to them. What would your advice be to them?

It’s very sad and infuriating, and I have no doubt that some teens will recognise this situation. I recognise it all too well from Primary School where I was bullied by a group of girls and pushed and punched to the ground. I kicked out from the ground and when the teacher saw me kicking, I got the blame for provoking the other girls. My form teacher put me in the Dunces Corner, telling me I was a stupid and nasty girl. She made me sit there for the rest of the year. I was eight years old. It was a traumatic experience and it scarred me for a very long time. So my advice would be to tell your parents, and if you cannot tell your parents, then tell another adult you trust. Let them help and support you, and fight the battle for you.

Have you had much opportunity to talk to teens about it yet?

I’ve talked about my book with my teen reading group and they’re all really excited about reading it. I got the opportunity to talk about it at the SLA/YLG conference earlier this year too, and all the librarians at my talk were very keen to get their hands on a copy of the books! I’m really looking forward to going into schools and talking about the book. The moral dilemma that Jeevan faces in the book is one that, I think, will prompt many interesting discussions!

If you go into schools, what kind of event do you most like to do?

I love running creative writing workshops. As a child, although I wrote stories, I had no confidence in my creative writing ability. I think lots of kids feel the same – particularly as the English curriculum is so prescriptive about how to write. What’s happened is that the freedom to explore ideas in stories and to write them the way you want to write them has been eroded. So I run creative writing workshops that show kids a variety of story formats and then allows them the freedom to write what they want to write, and how they want to write it. I also love doing author talks and Q and A’s with kids. Most schools I visit are ethnically mixed – and most of the non-white kids have often said to me that they have never seen a BAME author before, or read a book by a BAME author. That’s sad to hear. So anything I can do to inspire kids to write, to be what they want to be, to see possibilities in their future they may not have seen, is time well spent.

I love Jeevan’s grandmother & her snacks. What’s your favourite of her comfort foods?

Indian grandmothers love to have something sweet with a cup of tea! You cannot beat a chocolate digestive and a cup of tea. A close second would be sukkapare, which are sweet, or matya, which are savoury but equally delicious – but they have to be homemade!

How much did you know about video editing before you wrote this book?

I actually knew very little. I have a friend who makes TV programmes, so I had a chat with him. And not surprisingly, lots of teens seem to know a fair bit about how to edit a video they’ve taken on their phone…

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

I have a towering to-be-read pile of books! There are so many great books that have come out this year and it’s tough deciding which books go to the top of the pile! I have just finished Sita Brahmachari’s beautiful Middle Grade book Where the River Runs Gold, and Patrice Lawrence’s Rose, Interrupted. I highly recommend both books by these amazing writers. I have All the Things we Never Said by Yasmin Rahman to read next. It’s YA so it’s right up my street. I’ve been reading the Daevabad Trilogy by S A Chakraborty – The City of Brass and The Kingdom of Copper are the first two books – and they are brilliant if you like YA fantasy with a middle eastern twist and a great heroine! I’ve also got The Tatooist of Auschwitz to read, and then there is the new Marcus Zusak, Bridge of Clay. And then I have the Cemetery of Forgotten series by Carlos Ruiz Zafon to finish. The first book in the series, The Shadow of the Wind, is one of my all time favourite books, and suitable for teenagers and young adults. I think I should stop there as there are so many great books out there that I want to read!

Any hints of what we can expect from you next?

I’m not going to give much away at the moment! I’m working on a couple of quite different projects. Obviously there is another YA book that I’m working on, but I’m also working on two other projects – a younger teen book, and I’m researching another project too, but that’s top secret! If your readers would like to keep up to date with my news, they can find me on Twitter @savitakalhan or my website www.savitakalhan.com. I love to hear from my readers, so please tweet me or get in touch. I hope you all love That Asian Kid as much as I enjoyed writing it!

Thanks so much for having me on Teen Librarian blog!

Savita Kalhan

Savita Kalhan was born in India, but has lived in the UK most of her life. She graduated from Aberystwyth University with a degree in Politics and Philosophy. She was a Batik artist before going to live in the Middle East for several years where she taught English and began to write. Now living in North London, she spends her time writing, playing tennis, and growing vegetables and super-hot chillies on her allotment. Savita runs a very enthusiastic teen reading group at her local library in Finchley, who enjoy reading and talking about books as much as she does.

Her debut teen novel, The Long Weekend, was published by Andersen Press, and is a tense thriller about two boys who are abducted after school. It was short-listed for the Fabulous Book Award. Her YA novel The Girl in the Broken Mirror was published by Troika Books in 2018, and her next YA novel, That Asian Kid, was published on 29th August 2019. If you would like to know more about Savita, you’ll find her on Twitter @savitakalhan, or visit her website

Starting School!

Instead of a Back To School post for teens, here’s a First Time at School post on behalf of Bea, who is heading to Reception class next week! We didn’t intentionally read starting school stories but we snagged one from Walker (thanks Jo), were sent one by AlannaMax (thanks Fay), and picked a recently published Little Tiger title up at the library (thanks Stock Manager)!

Getting ready for school with The Pigeon, Lulu and Pirates!
The Pigeon Has to Go to School by Mo Willems

If you have never read one of Mo Willem’s Pigeon books then I envy the joy you will experience when you open one for the first time. I owned them all (that had been published so far obv.) before I even had a Bea, so imagine my excitement when I saw that this was being published at the most perfect time! I was at Walker for a YLG London evening and was allowed to snaffle it as an extra goody. Those of you who have read a Pigeon book might guess what mode of transport makes an appearance…

Lulu’s First Day by Anna McQuinn and Rosalind Beardshaw
(apologies for the terrible photo but I didn’t notice until after bedtime!)

Those of you who follow me on twitter may already know how much I love Lulu (and her little brother Zeki). This is a wonderful addition to the collection of stories about her life. It is simply a step by step account of how a first day goes, but with fantastic little touches that bring it to life and make it so much more than just a ‘first experiences’ book. The family is gorgeous and ordinary, and the children she meets at preschool are diverse and adorable.

Pirates Don’t Go To School by Alan MacDonald and Magda Brol

Pirates Don’t Go To School is a very silly but great fun tale of a young pirate who persuades his family that he should go to school. They’re worried for him because there are too many rotten rules and scary teachers and nothing piratical, and his day starts off pretty badly as he accidentally releases his ship’s parrot into school, but things end up ok!

A Pocketful of Stars

This place is magic . . . but it’s not the sort of magic that comes from wands and spells . . .
Can piecing together the past help you change the present?
Safiya and her mum have never seen eye to eye. Her mum doesn’t understand Safiya’s love of gaming and Safiya doesn’t think they have anything in common. As Safiya struggles to fit in at school she wonders if her mum wishes she was more like her confident best friend Elle. But then her mum falls into a coma and, when Safiya waits by her bedside, she finds herself in a strange and magical world that looks a bit like one of her games. And there’s a rebellious teenage girl, with a secret, who looks suspiciously familiar . . .

Egmont

A Pocketful of Stars is Aisha Bushy’s debut middle grade novel, which will fit very nicely in both primary and secondary school libraries, in which Safiya learns more about her mum, her friends, and herself. It is slightly heartbreaking but also very hopeful, a brilliant twist on the quest story, and a really good look at the way friendships change over time.

I asked Aisha a few questions!

I interviewed Yasmin Rahman, your fellow newbie in the Stripes ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ anthology, for her debut earlier this month. In your acknowledgments you say how important your support for one another has been, what was the next best thing about being part of it?

Having my short story featured in ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ was like attending a writer bootcamp. I got to see what it was like to edit a book, attend school visits and festivals, and deal with not-so-great feedback! By the time my own debut novel was published, I felt quite ready for what was to come, and I’m so thankful to everyone at Stripes for guiding us. 

Had you already started writing ‘A Pocketful of Stars’ when you wrote your short story, or was it still just a simmering idea?

It wasn’t even an idea. I was working in a very different novel at the time, one that I didn’t get very good feedback on. I thought of and drafted ‘A Pocketful of Stars’ in the months between being picked for ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ and the anthology’s publication.

Did the story start with the gaming idea or did it come to you as a way to make the “dreams” a more modern quest story?

It started off with Safiya witnessing her mother’s memories in a dream-like way, but as I continued to work on ‘A Pocketful of Stars’ I needed to give Safiya something to strive for. That was when the quest came in. And, as Safiya loves video games, it made sense for her to navigate this world in that way.

What is your favourite computer game?

I really love The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, because it is open-world, which means you can explore as much as you want without any limitations (unlike in ‘A Pocketful of Stars’ where the world crumbles when Safiya tries to leave the house). But when I was Safiya’s age my favourite games were Crash Bandicoot and Spyro. I played them both for hours.

Have you any thoughts on how teens might balance gaming as a hobby with “real life” relationships?

I don’t think they have to be mutually exclusive. Gaming is a very social hobby. When you play online you can create groups for your friends to join and play together; otherwise you can meet up and play in the same room. I see it as bringing friendships together through a shared interest, in the way it connects Safiya with her new friends in ‘A Pocketful of Stars’. 

What kind of event would you like to do if invited into schools?

I have two different events planned at the moment that I’ll be pitching to schools in September. The first is a scent-based workshop where I’ll ask students to pick and smell one of several pots filled with different scents. They are tasked with writing the opening of a story leading in with scent, whilst working in the other senses too. 

The second event I have planned can work in smaller groups or larger assemblies (and I’ll be running this one during my school tour). It’s about narrative gaming, and different ways of consuming stories. I will work collaboratively with students to create the basis for our very own video-game by picking a character, setting, and premise. 

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

I am reading lots of things at the moment, some I can talk about, some I can’t. Two books I am dying to talk about, both middle grade, are I, Cosmo by Carlie Sorosiak, written from the perspective of a dog. It is one of the most heart-warming books I have ever read and I’ve already cried twice whilst reading it. It was published at the beginning of August, so you can buy it right now (and I very much recommend that you do).

My second read is an advanced copy of a book out next year called The Girl Who Stole An Elephant by Nizrana Farook (what a great title). The book is packed with adventure and friendship, and the world is so fully realised that you really feel you are riding through the jungle on the back of an elephant you may or may not have stolen yourself…

Any hints of what we can expect from you next?

I can’t say much yet (mostly as I’m drafting it and I’m still learning what it’s going to become), but let’s just say there will be a new magical world to explore…

Aisha Bushby

A Pocketful of Stars is out now! Thank you to Egmont for a review copy

We Need Diverse Books

You might be aware of the American charity We Need Diverse Books, set up in 2014 by a group of children’s book lovers (mainly writers initially, rallied by Ellen Oh) with the mission to put more books featuring diverse characters into the hands of all children.

We recognize all diverse experiences, including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, Native, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities*, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.
*We subscribe to a broad definition of disability, which includes but is not limited to physical, sensory, cognitive, intellectual, or developmental disabilities, chronic conditions, and mental illnesses (this may also include addiction). Furthermore, we subscribe to a social model of disability, which presents disability as created by barriers in the social environment, due to lack of equal access, stereotyping, and other forms of marginalization.

WNDB

Last night Knights Of, a newish and brilliant UK based publisher who are working so hard to improve inclusivity and diversity in publishing, invited Dhonielle Clayton, WNDB co-founder and Chief Operating Officer (an entirely voluntary position) to speak about the feasibility of starting something similar in the UK. The meeting was attended by aspiring and established authors, owners of small independent publishers, people who worked for larger publishers in all stages of book production and promotion, Inclusive Minds ambassadors, and of course some librarians!

We Need Diverse Books pin

The meeting was over in a blink of an eye with so much to talk about. The projects that WNDB manage are amazing:

  • Publishing internship programmes with stipends and mentoring to help break into the “Big 5” American publishers, mainly based in New York.
  • Speaking to marginalised students about publishing as a potential career.
  • Grants/mentoring/retreats for writers.
  • Making it easy for teachers and librarians to find diverse stock for their schools and libraries (and parents/teens themselves to find new titles) by creating the Our Story app, which highlights good books with diverse content from marginalised creators and even provides resources for many of the titles for educators to use.
  • Starting a book award for new books by and about diverse people, The Walter Dean Myers Award for Outstanding Children’s Literature, getting thousands of copies of these titles into the hands of children and young people across the country.
  • Fundraising to pay for all of this!

There was lots of discussion about the differences between the US and UK education system, book suppliers, nurturing homegrown talent, the problem of volunteer burnout, how to decide what to target first, what is already being done and by whom, funding, and including everyone. Dhonielle made it clear that their first priority in the US has been to get people from marginalised backgrounds into the publishing industry and actually producing the books, closely followed by getting those books into the hands of children that need to see themselves as heroes in what they’re reading. Afterwards I asked her whether, when talking to students about going into publishing, they discuss also becoming a “gatekeeper”, ie librarian/bookseller, and she said they do but (but) there’s no point having those conversations if these children don’t yet have a passion for books and reading.

A twitter account appeared after the meeting and already has over 500 followers:

So if you think you have something to contribute or want to know more then do get in touch with them, this will be a really exciting project to get involved in!

Little Rebels Prize

The Alliance of Radical Booksellers (ARB) is delighted to announce that the winner of this year’s Little Rebels Children’s Book Award for Radical Fiction is Catherine Johnson for her book, Freedom (Scholastic 2018).

A short historical novel, Freedom tells the story of Nat, a young boy enslaved on a Jamaican plantation, brought over to England in the late eighteenth century. Hopeful that, once on UK soil, he will finally be free from bondage, Nat instead witnesses the pivotal role Britain played in building the slavery industry. Praising the winning title, the award judges commented:

“Freedom is radical in a number of ways. It tells a story of a young enslaved man in Britain. It explores the humanity of those whose humanity was denied through chattel slavery. It subtly examines the similarities and the differences between class oppression and a system of slavery rooted in racism. It tells a story of Britain that continues to be neglected. Johnson’s writing is a masterclass in the maxim ‘show don’t tell’ – through the point of view of her protagonist we are brought into his world and yet we are afforded space to emotionally engage with the story she offers us.”

Darren Chetty, Teaching Fellow at UCL and contributor to The Good Immigrant.

“Catherine Johnson brings the horrific history of slavery to life in this important piece of historical fiction for a middle grade audience. A brilliant adventure story that shines a much-needed spotlight on the UK’s role [and which also introduces us to] real life people who should be more famous than they are, including former slave turned author and abolitionist Olaudah Equiano and Shadrack Furman, the first black army Pensioner. A well deserved win from one of the UK’s most fabulous storytellers.”

Emily Drabble, head of children’s books promotion and prizes at BookTrust
2018 winner Zanib Mian congratulates Catherine Johnson after the announcement

The winner of the Little Rebels Children’s Book Award 2019 was announced at an event held in the CLPE (Centre for Literacy in Primary Education) Literacy Library on Wednesday July 10th by Zanib Mian, the 2018 winner for The Muslims (now Planet Omar). This followed on from a panel discussion with the other shortlisted authors (all except Sarah MacIntyre) and a chance to have a look around the beautiful CLPE library.

The Little Rebels Children’s Book Award is now in its 7th year. The Award recognises fiction for ages 0-12 which promotes or celebrates social justice and equality. It is run by booksellers Housmans Bookshop and Letterbox Library and is awarded by the Alliance of Radical Booksellers (ARB).

All the Things We Never Said

16-year-old Mehreen Miah’s anxiety and depression, or ‘Chaos’, as she calls it, has taken over her life, to the point where she can’t bear it any more. So she joins MementoMori, a website that matches people with partners and allocates them a date and method of death, ‘the pact’. Mehreen is paired with Cara Saunders and Olivia Castleton, two strangers dealing with their own serious issues.
As they secretly meet over the coming days, Mehreen develops a strong bond with Cara and Olivia, the only people who seem to understand what she’s going through. But ironically, the thing that brought them together to commit suicide has also created a mutually supportive friendship that makes them realise that, with the right help, life is worth living. It’s not long before all three want out of the pact. But in a terrifying twist of fate, the website won’t let them stop, and an increasingly sinister game begins, with MementoMori playing the girls off against each other.
A pact is a pact, after all.
In this powerful debut written in three points of view, Yasmin Rahman has created a moving, poignant novel celebrating life. ALL THE THINGS WE NEVER SAID is about friendship, strength and survival.

Hot Key Books

I read this book in one big gulp all the way back in April when the proof was sent to me, and it has stayed with me because of the strength of the voices, the originality of the plot, and the honesty of the writing. One of my favourite things about it is that one of the three protagonists is a devout Muslim that isn’t doubting her faith, and in fact her depression and anxiety just is, for no “reason” (not abused, not grieving, no family drama), it just exists. The other two have more obvious issues, but again their POVs are so nuanced and not simply “I’m sad because of what happened to me”.

It treads some very dark ground, definitely for a YA+ audience, but (slight spoiler) it is ultimately hopeful. Helpful resources for support regarding the issues included are listed in the back of the book.

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to ask Yasmin some questions…

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

Thank you so much for having me!

Your debut published work was a short story in the Stripes ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ anthology, had you already started writing ‘All the Things We Never Said’ at that point, or was it still just a simmering idea?

‘Fortune Favours the Bold’, my short story in ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ was actually a ridiculously early version of what eventually became ‘All The Things We Never Said’. I was trying to write a book about mental health with a Muslim protagonist, but was finding my way into HOW to tell the story at the time. I’d written about 5000 words of this original idea when I realised it wasn’t working and moved on. When I saw the call out for Changebook, I realised that beginning fit so well that I just turned it into a short story.

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

There have been so so many amazing things that have happened during this journey – from seeing an 8ft poster of my cover at London Book Fair to being able to record the author note for the audiobook. The best thing for me though is how it’s touching readers, particularly teenagers. I’ve had some lovely reviews where people have connected with my characters so much and that’s always lovely. I remember this one encounter I had with two young Muslim girls who said to me “you’re an inspiration”…and then I burst into tears of course. When I was a teen, there weren’t many people who were so visibly Muslim writing books, or on TV or whatever, so to be able to provide that to young people in a tiny way now is truly the best thing.

You’ve been so honest, in the publicity for the book, about your own mental health in your teen years. How has that been?

It was something I was really scared of at the beginning, baring myself to strangers. But it seems to be somehow a lot easier to talk about it to strangers than people you know! I think being open about it is important to me personally as it echoes the mentality of the book. Also, the fact that so many people can relate makes it a lot more manageable. It wasn’t too long ago that I felt scared of telling people “I struggle with anxiety and depression”, but now I feel less wary of talking about it as I’ve met so many people who have had the same or similar experiences, and if me talking about it openly can maybe help someone else understand their own mental health, then I feel it’s completely worth it.

Of the three girls, which story was hardest to write?

I had trouble at some point or another with each girl, but I think Olivia and Mehreen nudged ahead of Cara in terms of difficulty. I was drawing on a lot of my own emotions when writing Mehreen, which is always tough, and Olivia’s story just had some really really hard scenes to write. Her voice also took a long time to figure out.

Have you talked to many teenagers about the book? What kind of reaction have you had?

I haven’t yet had many readers of the book, since it’s not officially out as I’m writing this, but the brief conversations I’ve had with teens where I’ve spoken about it in vague terms have been very positive! I spoke to a few teenagers when doing research for the book, and received such lovely feedback about how exciting the story sounded, and what an important topic it was – I got very emotional!

What kind of event would you like to do if invited into schools?

There’s so many things covered in the book that would be great for discussion with students – mental health and the benefits of talking about it/seeking help, internet danger, grief, etc. But I think what I’d personally love to do is to talk about craft. When I was young I could never imagine that being an author was attainable, so would love to let teenagers know that it’s a viable career! Having studied two Masters degrees on Creative Writing, it would be great to be able to put those skills into a workshop format and teach students how to go about writing a novel.

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

I am in such a reading slump! And have been for a REALLY long time! The last thing I remember reading was an extract of Sarah Juckes’ WIP. Sarah wrote the YA novel ‘Outside’ which was published by Penguin in January 2019, and I just know her next book is going to be just as amazing. We have very similar brains, and a love for dark YA, so I think anyone who enjoys All The Things We Never Said would probably like her writing!

Any hints of what we can expect from you next?

I don’t want to mention anything specific about book 2, because anything can change at this point! But one thing I’m sure about is that there will be a Muslim protagonist – that’s something I’d like to carry on in everything I write.

Yasmin Rahman, author of All the Things We Never Said

All the Things We Never Said is OUT NOW! Thanks to Hot Key Books for sending me a proof copy all those months ago.

“I Will Not be Erased” gal-dem

Fourteen joyous, funny and life-affirming essays from gal-dem, the award-winning magazine created by young women and non-binary people of colour.
gal-dem, the award-winning online and print magazine, is created by women and non-binary people of colour. In this thought-provoking and moving collection of fourteen essays, gal-dem’s writers use raw material from their teenage years – diaries, poems and chat histories – to give advice to their younger selves and those growing up today. gal-dem have been praised by the Guardian for being “the agents of change we need”, and these essays tackle important subjects including race, gender, mental health and activism, making this essential reading for any young person.

Walker Books

The introduction to this book says “There is something in each of these essays that will speak to anyone who has ever wondered what they might say to their younger self…But it is our hope that these essays will especially speak to those of us from marginalised backgrounds…”. It really does cover every conceivable aspect of the teenage years, I want every 6th former in the country to read this book because they will recognise themselves in it (for me, it was Grace Holliday’s “The Uncool Girl’s Manifesto” in particular) and be inspired by the adults the contributors have become. They’re not saying their lives are all perfect, but that they want readers to “learn from our adventures, mistakes and heartbreaks so you feel less alone in your struggles and more at home in your joy.” The presentation of the essays is really smart, with illustrations by Jess Nash peppered throughout, and they are all really distinct and eloquent voices.

Jess Nash’s illustration for Niellah Arboine’s story “You Speak Well for a Black Girl”.

They made a fabulous short video, in this embedded tweet, and in amongst all the business made time to answer a few questions for us!

gal-dem started as a magazine, can you give us a bit of background as to how the book came about?

gal-dem magazine started when we were (almost) teenagers ourselves – we were in our very early twenties and feeling isolated at university and at the beginning of our careers. Much like with the book itself, we wanted to create something for our peers and for those younger than us, to make them feel less alone in their experiences. We are still a magazine which produces an annual print issue and online articles, but we also have ventured into the realm of events, takeovers and now books!

Can you share any favourite (recent or not) children’s or YA books?

YA is probably still my favourite ‘genre’, if you can call it that! Growing up I read everything from Philip Pullman to Jacqueline Wilson – The Hunger Games, Harry Potter and The Magicians Trilogy. Two of my recent faves have been The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi.

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

At the moment I’m re-reading Beloved by Toni Morrison and I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to understand the legacy and trauma of slavery, who believes in good and bad magic, and who just loves a beautifully told story.

What’s next from gal-dem?

At the moment we’re planning some really exciting events for over summer around sport! We’re relaunching our website and redesigning our print magazine. Big things ahead and always looking for more people to get involved and do some paid writing for us. Pitching details can be found here.

“I will not be erased” is out now from Walker Books (thank you for sending me a copy)

The Third Degree with Zanib Mian

Planet Omar: Accidental Trouble Magnet, with illustrations by Nasaya Mafaridik

You might recognise Omar, he was originally published as The Muslims by small, independent publishing house Sweet Apple, and I wrote a post about how much I loved it (not long after it won the Little Rebels Prize). Now, with new illustrations, Hachette are taking him to the mainstream into his own series of books. I enjoyed reading the proof copy I was sent (thanks Hachette) and noticed that although the story has changed slightly, the humour and everyday touches that I loved remain, and I was very happy to be able to ask author Zanib Mian a few questions about it:

Hi Zanib, thank you for agreeing to undergo the Third Degree!

You’ve written a number of picture books but this is your first book for older readers, what prompted you to write a longer story?

My writing is often inspired by my own children, so when they were younger, I wrote a lot of picture book stories. When I started writing the book that is now Planet Omar, my son was nine years old. He was growing up, which meant there were so many more dimensions to his often hilarious personality. I was compelled to write a character like him! But I wasn’t quite sure what kind of story I would write, until I began to notice how much young children were suddenly politically aware – discussing Trump in the playground and often overhearing adults discussing the news (usually involving Muslims!). The NSPCC reported a surge in faith-based bullying in playgrounds. Primary aged children were being called ‘terrorists.’ This was all very upsetting and the inspiration behind the book. I thought it was time that the world met a regular Muslim family, like Omar’s.

Why do you feel that it was important to include so many details about the everyday actions of practicing Muslims?

I feel that prejudice arises from a lack of awareness. People may not understand our reasons for doing certain things – they are completely alien to them. For those people who don’t have any Muslim friends and are reluctant to ask questions, the book gives a nice insight into why we do things like fast during Ramadan, or wear hijab. It also includes lots of comical situations that go on in Muslim households that are related to our practices.

I loved Science Sundays! What made you decide that both his parents should be scientists?

That was easy! I am a Molecular Cell Biologist, who loves all things Science. I thought it would be a great way to inspire children towards the subject and show them how ‘cool’ and fun it can be. Making both Mum and Dad Scientists meant that I could really trickle it through the pages, as with Science Sundays, which I very much enjoyed doing!

‘Planet Omar’ was first published as ‘The Muslims’ by Sweet Apple publishers. When you were re-editing it for a larger publishing house did the process feel very different?

Yes, it did. It was the first time I worked with a larger publishing house, so it was very a very different, but hugely positive experience to when I publish books under Sweet Apple. My editor, Kate Agar, wanted to expand the book in areas where I had already felt needed more work, so I was happy to jump on it. Her suggestions and prompts were very inspiring, allowing me to imagine more scenes (just like Omar imagines!) and bringing out the best in my writing.

How did you feel about the illustrations being replaced? Were there any parts you weren’t happy with and asked to be redone?

The illustrations were actually the hardest part of the transition, at first. That’s because, as the book had had a life of its own, I had images in my mind of the characters as they were in The Muslims. Especially for Omar. Seeing him change completely was a bit of an adjustment! The creative team at Hachette were wonderful about getting my input and thoughts. I really have enjoyed working with the whole team there and was really touched by how much they valued my opinion on the artwork and cover. I asked them to make Omar’s face cheekier and the Mum a bit more quirky. They came back with more drafts until I was happy and now I’m in love with the end result!

Do you enjoy visiting schools to talk about Omar?

Oh yes, visiting schools around the publication of Planet Omar. I love seeing the children giggle in complete relation to Omar and his family antics. They seem to be very intrigued and inspired by Omar’s imagination, which is fabulous! One of the schools I visited had already read the book, so their line of questions at the end was very specific. I was extremely warmed by their concern that I might have written the book because I had myself been bullied or suffered a nasty neighbour. I reassured them that it wasn’t the case!

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

I am reading Charlie Changes into a Chicken by Sam Copeland, because I want to read all the awesome books by my author friends. It’s hilarious. I’d recommend it to any kid who wants to have a laugh and likes poo jokes. For some adult reading, I’ve dug into Jonas Jonnason’s Hitman Anders and the Meaning of It All – I love this author’s unique writing style. Makes me smile all the way through.

What’s next for Omar, and what’s next for you?!

Planet Omar is a series! Book 2 will be out in Febuary 2020, where you can read about more of his shenanigans! I’ve loved writing for middle grade and had a blast writing Planet Omar book 2.

Zanib Mian

Planet Omar: Accidental Trouble Magnet is out now!