- Today on twitter I read this tweet.
Backlist love on the blog today for ‘Under the Skin’ by @CathyMacphail – lots to think about but not an ‘issues’ book
I haven’t read ‘Under the Skin’ but Cathy Macphail, along with Linda Strachan, was a wonderful tutor on the very first Arvon ‘Writing for Children’ course I went on, a week where I realised that I wanted to become a published children’s writer. I have read a number of Cathy’s books, and, thinking about her writing, I tweeted about an amazing book by her called ‘Roxy’s Baby’.
Reading and writing the tweets made me think about the whole subject of ‘issues’ in children’s books.
It’s now just over a week until my first book, ‘Girl with a White Dog’ is published. I can’t quite believe it.
There is a line on the back of my book which says
‘A Story to Change Hearts and Minds.’ I am proud that that line was suggested by the wonderful writer Non Pratt, who was one of my editors.
And I do want it to have that effect on anyone – child or adult – who has been taken in by stories which encourage hate or fear or prejudice.. So how have I avoided it being an ‘issues’ book?
The answer is, that I had help.
There is always a danger when you set out to present a different view of the world that the ‘worthy’ intention weakens the story and that the book does become one of those ‘issues books’ that Barrington Stoke mentioned in their tweet. I am sure that there are many wonderful self published books, but knowing my own tendency to get caught up with worrying about issues, I am so glad I am not self published. Earlier versions I wrote without an agent or editors had many narrative threads connected to people suffering prejudice because I had a fear that this would be the only book I would ever get published. I felt that I had to do justice to every type of person who suffered in Nazi Germany and today! It sounds ridiculous just reading that sentence back to myself – but it really is terribly easy to get delusions of grandeur if you are a writer – or at least if you are me! A writer creates worlds and it is tempting to take on the responsibilities of God – which, not surprisingly, are rather too much for a single human being and a book to bear! Luckily for me and for the book I have a great agent, Anne Clark, who saw the story under all the issues and thoroughly edited ‘Girl with a White Dog’ before she sent it out to publishers. I then had gifted editors at Catnip – Non Pratt and Liz Bankes, who did further pruning and asked me to write more story. Thanks to their help, I am very proud to call ‘Girl with a White Dog’ mine and I really hope that it will bring joy to people – that it will be a book they are glad that they have read and a story they are glad to have been told.
I was so glad that Patrick Ness http://www.patrickness.com made the speech he gave recently at the South Bank Centre available on his website for those of us who missed it. I found it very inspiring. I loved the bit he said when he says:
‘I think of what story I can tell that hasn’t been told before or told in my way before. What questions can I ask? How can I show a new world, a new future, and new possibilities to a young reader?’ ©Patrick Ness
We do need to tell stories. We do need especially to tell stories that aren’t being told, to counter other stories which are. We need good stories, and we need stories about Goodness and Love. And that is what really motivated ‘Girl with a White Dog’. Stories aren’t just found in books. There are too many stories around today in our country which encourage hate and judgementalism and prejudice , and children are exposed to them, when they read newspaper headlines in newsagents, put on the television or listen to the radio, or read certain comment threads or posts on the internet. They hear these stories repeated at the bus stop, at school and even sometimes in their own homes, told by people they love. Motivated by the fear these stories stir up, they sometimes tell them again to themselves to make sense of the world. This type of fear-based communal story telling has happened before, and always ends in tragedy. It needs ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ and these characteristics can be all too easily assigned. This is why the (gorgeous!) front cover (illustrator Serena Rocca, designer Philippa Johnson) bears the words ‘Is what happened then, happening now?’ I did worry about this. I did worry that this would make my book seem too political, too much an issues book.
But I think it is a question which needs to be asked.