One of my earliest memories was being in reception class and telling a lie in school. The teacher asked us how many children were in our family.
‘I’ve got 3 brothers,’ I said. I had. But the trouble was that I had promised my mum not to tell anyone about my severely disabled brother. If I was asked, my mum said, I was to say I had 2 brothers, as it was ‘none of anyone’s business’. So then I worried. I had been naughty. So I put my hand up again.
‘Please Miss. I haven’t got 3 brothers,’ I said. ‘I have 2.’ And now I had a new worry, about being a bad sister and lying to a teacher. Because that was a sin, and I was a five year old second generation Irish Catholic girl and really wanted to be good.
I was born 2 years after my youngest brother was taken into an institution. My family had really suffered, and I was born into a very sad story which continued throughout his and my childhood. Life is difficult for many children. They inherit narratives they had no part in making, they live with secrets, and pressures, and worries that really shouldn’t be theirs. They are stuck in impossible situations, and I believe, I know, as many writers do, that books can help.
Books can help because they give us another world to live in. When I went to the Nosy Crow Conference last Saturday Lucy Mangan expressed that beautifully in her opening speech. I read all the time. I read Enid Blyton, I read L.M. Montgomery, I read ‘Bunty’ and ‘Mandy’ and ‘Tammy’ comics. I read Helen Cresswell and Joan Aiken. I could not have coped with life without laughing at Paddington, and Jennings, and Just William and The Moomins . I longed to be part of the world of The Chalet School and Malory Towers and The Famous Five and The Secret Seven. I loved The Family from One End Street because the family were working class, like mine, but I also imagined flying with Prince Paul to The Secret Mountain, or taming tigers like Jimmy in Mr. Galliano’s Circus. Above all, I wanted to be a girl with a dog called Timmy, or Scamper, or Buster. Our house was too small, our circumstances not right to have one. But I could read about dogs and own one in my dreams. When I read I could not hear anyone talking to me. I could escape and be whoever I wanted to be, wherever and whenever I wanted to live. I took books on all our long treks to the hospital to visit my brother, I read them at home, in the sitting room when everyone else was watching the telly, in bed. Everywhere.
There was plenty of grit in my life. There was plenty of suffering. I don’t think I could have borne more in my books.
So how do we as writers deal with the responsibility of writing about hard things in fiction? My first published novel will be for 9-12 year olds. It is called ‘A Girl with a White Dog’, published by Catnip, and it will touch on, of all subjects, Nazi Germany. How can I justify this, when I know how much I needed to escape difficult things in my reading as a child?
I think it is because I want ‘A Girl with a White Dog’ to free children from fear, and one of the most pernicious fears there is, is fear of ‘the other’, so prevalent in our media today. I want my book to be a story that they can lose themselves in, and emerge from, with a new way of looking at the world and those who are ‘not like’ them. Children will always have limited power to change their circumstances, but I hope my book will teach them that they (like us all) can choose the stories they believe in, and ultimately that can help to change their – and our world.