Last year was a year of writing feverishly. I had four commissions, which together with other work seems to have taken up my whole year. The books are now coming in (love getting my author copies!) and I hope to pull a few blog posts and resources together around them.
The late 1960s, USA
First to come through the door were sample copies of Katherine Johnson: A Life Story. This is a 30,000 word biography of the Black American mathematician who – in an age when barriers for Black Americans and women in the USA were not only present, but often enshrined in law – nevertheless joined NASA, became crucial to the space race and played an essential part in getting men to the Moon. Aimed at 8 – 12 year olds, it also contains plenty of science activities to try at home, and even a playlist to take readers into a world of space dreams. Katherine Johnson’s amazing life and achievements have spanned the 20th century, and in particular, the biography focuses on the Moon landings of July, 1969.
The early 1800s, Egypt
Then just this morning, my author copies of The Smiling Stones arrived. This is a story I’ve wanted to write for ages, and Rising Star’s Reading Planet reading scheme gave me the chance to do that. I grew up in a country where astounding ruins of ancient civilisations were everywhere. But how would I have felt if someone – from a richer, more powerful country, with permission from the ruler himself – had come along, equipped to dig up the beautiful statues and awe-inspiring columns that were part of my home landscape, to ship them far away to a place where I would never see them again? That was what happened in the early 1800s, when the first Europeans began to explore and exploit Ancient Egyptian sites, and though I was brought up on Indiana Jones and the magic of exploration, I knew that as an adult, I couldn’t bear to write that sort of adventure story. So I decided to flip the story: make it about an Egyptian boy in the 1800s (and his very smart big sister) who manage, against all the odds, to outwit and outmanouvre the man who wants to take their ‘smiling stones’ away from them. It was a tough period to research, and I hope I got enough right.
Fantastic post by Patrice Lawrence, author of Orangeboy and Megaphone masterclass leader.
Born in Brighton to Caribbean parents, living in London, I have been writing since I could. I’ve run the gamut of painful rhyming couplets, existentialist teenage diaries and – er – true romance.
I’ve published some serious stuff, about equality and rights, as well as adult and children’s short stories through Hamish Hamilton, A and C Black and Pearsons, amongst others. I’m good at running workshops, talking to lots of people and training. I’m not good at seeing departure boards (or people I know) without my glasses or whistling. I’m represented by the Caroline Sheldon Literary Agency.
Understand. Support. Challenge.
by Patrice Lawrence
Ten years ago or so, I was at a conference about educational inequality. In 1985, the Swann Report tried to unpick why certain children, often those of Caribbean heritage, were not attaining the same results as their white peers. It is a conversation…
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So you might have seen that I’ve added a new page to the site, titled Megaphone. I’m delighted to say that I’ve been awarded funding by Arts Council England and by The Publishers Association Children’s Book Group in association with EQUIP, to deliver a new writer development scheme, based in Birmingham and aimed at Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority writers who want to write their first novel for children. There will be masterclasses from an absolutely superb line-up of children’s authors, top literary agent Julia Churchill of A M Heath, and feedback from the best editors working in the business of children’s publishing today. A dedicated website is coming in a couple of weeks, but till then please follow @MegaphoneWrite on Twitter to keep up to date.
There’s background to this – if you’d like to know more about why i feel a scheme like Megaphone is needed, check out this piece I wrote for book blog Vulpes Libris: https://vulpeslibris.wordpress.com/2015/09/28/childrens-literature-for-white-children-only/
I’ve felt more action towards diversity was needed for a very long time, and had the initial idea for Megaphone about two years ago, but it was a new departure for me (plus I have a toddler!) so everything took a long time to come together. I’m so pleased that it finally has, and look forward to discovering great new voices in British children’s literature!
So pleased to see Doughnuts mentioned in this news story: Congratulations to the winners and thanks to Karen King and Linda Bromyard for organising it!
Super useful post from Emma Darwin here – http://emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting/2014/10/making-a-living-from-writing-what-works-what-doesnt.html#
So I’m running this course with Writing West Midlands, for all aspiring children’s authors out there….
Short Course: Writing Children’s and Teenage Fiction
23 October – 4 December 2014 (excluding 13th November), Thursdays, 6 – 8pm
Moseley Exchange, 149-153 Alcester Road, Moseley, Birmingham. B13 8JP.
Would you like to write the next Horrid Henry, Harry Potter or Hunger Games? Join Leila Rasheed for this six week evening course which will use writing games and exercises to explore the exciting and diverse field of children’s literature, and literature for teenage readers. Topics covered will include: creating unforgettable characters, inventing original plots, shaping scenes and stories for maximum tension, using genre and busting genres, creating powerful story through point of view, finding your theme, understanding age ranges and writing ‘within hearing’ of children and teenagers. The course will also briefly cover market trends and issues in UK children’s publishing.
PLEASE NOTE: This course is for adults who would like to write fiction for children and teenagers. It does not cover picture books.
Leila Rasheed is the author of three books for ages 9 -12, published by Usborne, and several publisher-led novels for children and teenagers (8 published in 2 years!). She teaches Writing at the University of Warwick, where she gained a distinction in an MA in Writing. She also has an MA in Children’s Literature. Previously she was children’s bookseller for Waterstone’s in Brussels.
£99 for all six sessions.
BOOK: 0121 245 4455 / www.writingwestmidlands.org
I’m so pleased and excited to have Raj Lal’s response to re-reading Shanta on the blog. I’ve known Raj since she was on the MA in Writing at Warwick University, but met her again at a recent Writing West Midlands networking event. The Walter Dean Myers article had just come out and we were discussing the unfortunate fact that, even in 2014, hardly any children’s books in the UK and USA feature non-white protagonists. Raj told me about Shanta, and her words really resonated for me. It struck me that I rarely heard people speak about the impact that finding ‘someone like me’ in a book has had on them – but that perhaps if they did speak or write about it, its importance would be more widely understood. Above all, as a writer for children, I found it so encouraging to hear how a book can touch a reader deeply, stay in a heart and a mind, make a difference. Enough from me – here’s Raj, exploring her response, as an adult, to the book where she first found ‘someone like me.’ :
Re-reading Shanta 40+ Years On
I first read Shanta by Marie Thøger (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1961) in about 1970. There was magic for me in that book. Shanta, the protagonist, was only a few years older than me. It made me feel that someone, somewhere, had thought that India, and little Indian girls like me were important enough to write about when everyone around me seemed to think we were strange, smelly little creatures with oiled hair in pigtails who were expected not to speak English at all, never mind well.
For years, a copy of Shanta sat on my bookcase. I was scared to read it again, afraid that the book I had read as a young girl in junior school would disappoint me as an adult. Encouraged by Leila Rasheed to re-read it, I decided to see how the story had changed for me with age and experience.
My heart lurched halfway down the first page at the reference to a brown girl sitting in red dirt threading flowers onto a straw. But I read on, and was rewarded with a coming of age story about a young girl coming to terms with changes around her: old ways of living changed by modern thought and modern methods; and learning adult ways to prepare for marriage. Shanta faces tragedy and learns how to cope when life takes unforeseen paths.
There are some beautiful descriptions nestled in the pages: electric light helps to make the night shorter; the theories of how the mountains near the maharaja’s town came to be; the safety of Shanta’s village compared with the strangeness of the town and its people; the sharp contrast of caste status between town and village; and how the world becomes different when a child’s perspective begins to shift towards adulthood.
There were other things which did not sit so well: references to ‘dark’ people; the bus loaded with people inside and outside, a new sight but described as ‘typically Indian’; the drinking of milk straight from a coconut when it should be water because coconut milk does not occur naturally in the shell; girls are taught to obey and please their husbands; Shanta has no choice in the marriage which is arranged for her and seems to have no say in what happens in her life.
Even the blurb written by the Editor of Puffin Books, which I read last in case it contained plot spoilers, begins with generalisations which hint at all Indian children having to go hungry, carry water and do field work from an early age. While this may be true for some, it does not apply to everyone.
But the thing that made me feel most proud of having loved this book, and pleased to have read again, was that the young, naïve Shanta at the beginning of the book who had no control over her life, had grown to become a role model not just for other little girls but women too.
A few questions
Leila: The language you use in the review is so emotive – ‘proud’, ‘heart lurching.’ I absolutely know what you mean, I’ve felt that heart lurch feeling too, (unfortunately most recently when reading Rider Haggard and Jules Verne and coming across certain racist passages that stopped me reading any further). Do you think there’s a sense in which we don’t want to be let down by the books we loved as a child? Almost as if they were people –role models, in a way? Is that a feeling you recognise?
Raj: There’s definitely a sense of not wanting to be let down when revisiting old stories. That’s why it took me over forty years to re-read Shanta – and then only thanks to that final shove you gave me by encouraging me! It took me years to track down a copy of the book, and then I had years of picking it up to read but the sense of fear was so strong I’d put the book back on the shelf without even opening it. I thought the little girl who had inspired me was better as a figment of my imagination; too many years had passed for it to be regarded as a true memory. I didn’t want to lose that sense of ‘belonging’. I didn’t want to feel disappointed by discovering that Shanta was anything other than the role model I had clung to for most of my life.
Shanta had made me feel important, because a little Indian girl was important enough to be the main character in a book. I had only been living in England about two years when I read Shanta for the first time. I suppose there was also an element of familiarity because the book was set in India, the country of my birth, even though the India I had left behind was nothing like Shanta’s world: I grew up in the busiest bazaar in a town in the Punjab and attended an English Medium School (which means it taught in English). I came to England at a time when racism towards immigrants was overt. The white children at the junior school I attended would not think twice about pointing out our ‘otherness’: our colour, our smell, the way we wore our hair or whatever the taunt of each particular day happened to be. I could relate to Shanta simply because she was Indian. I felt that I didn’t need to explain myself to her. She would understand me because she was like me.
Leila: I said that I don’t hear people talking about the impact that finding ‘someone like me’ in a book has had on them, but maybe it’s because I’m not listening hard enough or am not in the right conversations! Is this something you speak to people about?
Raj: I don’t think it’s a question of not listening hard enough. I think there are many issues to consider here. Shanta was the only Asian character I came across until probably Meera Syal’s Meena in Anita and Me, and you said Mowgli was the only Asian character you’d found in a book. That doesn’t give non-‘white’ children many characters to relate to since the 1960s, does it? That’s probably why people are still not having conversations about the impact of finding ‘someone like me’. It’s because they can’t.
Perhaps people my age, who have older children, are in a reading void because there are not yet any grandchildren to read to. Sadly, with the findings of the Walter Dean Myers article, it seems that unless things change soon, there won’t be any characters my own grandchildren might be able to identify with. Also, I think maybe people are either not finding time to read, or are not reading a broad spectrum of books. I read books intended for any age, child or adult, and I don’t mind reading lots of different genres. Perhaps other readers are not doing the same and therefore don’t know which characters they might relate to are out there waiting to be discovered.
I’ll also confess to having issues after reading certain books recently. Despite being published by major publishing houses, the writing quality has been poor, or the story has been weak. As a writer, I’ve persevered with reading them to the end in order to learn how to avoid making similar mistakes. If I were reading them as a non-writer, I doubt I would have read them beyond the first few pages, or perhaps the first chapter or two. I certainly would not have wanted to read them to my children, despite them being set in India and containing Indian characters.
If we’re to have books which contain characters which non-white (or maybe non-white English) children can relate to, they need to be of good quality. Otherwise, it is an insult to us and our children to provide books for the sake of books rather than to provide good role models which children can relate to and which help to make them feel included, not excluded, in the world they inhabit. I’d like to see non-white characters to look up to as I looked up to Scout, Jem or Boo Radley in To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I don’t want my children or grandchildren to grow up thinking there are no characters who are ‘like them’.
Leila: As a mother, did you feel, as your children were growing up, that you could find children’s books that reflected them in the way you felt Shanta reflected you? If so, which titles were they? And if not, did that matter to you – and do you think it mattered to your children, do you think it had an impact?
Raj: First of all, as an older sister I encouraged my younger siblings to read ‘non-standard’ type books. I would hunt out bookswhich had non-white characters in them and would find books set in China, Africa, Asia, Australia – any place where the protagonists were not those like Peter and Jane and which did not feature the occasional golliwog or black doll as the token source of colour. I encouraged them to question what was wrong in the books (and films/TV programmes) where the only non-white characters were depicted as the bad guys or people who did not matter. I would also find books where the protagonist was a little different for other reasons, for example under-dogs such as the ugly duckling; any person, robot, animal facing adversity and prejudice or some form of oppression. I did the same with my own children.
Sadly, I can’t remember the titles or authors of many of the books I found. I do know there were lots of fairy tales where the girls, children or animals were strong, positive role models. They did things for themselves and didn’t hang around waiting for Princes, grownups or humans to rescue them. There were Arabian Nights stories, and folktales from around the world, and some of the stories I had heard from family members when I was a child. I remember buying a lot of Barefoot Books: tales about mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, how the week was made. For my daughter, there were lots of books about mermaids. I list some books or stories below which my children remembered reading and enjoying.
I think one can assume that this also means that there was a lack of role models or people to identify with in the ‘mainstream’ books which were available when my siblings were growing up, and even when my own children were young, but there were alternatives which could be found if you searched hard enough. I think this is part of the reason why I loved Barefoot Books for my children. The beautifully illustrated story books respected cultural diversity and told stories from around the world.
Some of the books my children remember:
Other books from Barefoot Books Limited by various authors included:
- Princesses by John Matthews and Olwyn Whelan (1997)
- Faeries by Tanya Robin Batt (2002)
- Stories from the Opera by Shahrukh Husain and James Mayhew (1999)
- Sun-Day, Moon-day: How the Week was Made by Cherry Gilchrist (1998)
Petey by Paul Shipton (Oxford: OUP, 2005)
The Firework Maker’s Daughter by Philip Pullman (London: Doubleday, 1995)
The Necklace by Guy de Maupassant (first published in 1884 in a daily newspaper called Le Gaulois)
Thank you so much to Raj for guesting. If you would like to write and/or be interviewed about ‘finding someone like me’ in books (you don’t have to be from an ethnic minority, or a writer) I’d love to hear from you, or would be happy to link to a piece on your own blog.
I’m really pleased to have Emma Pass guesting on my blog today. She’s the author of two dystopian YA novels, ACID, which has been picking up some excellent reviews, and THE FEARLESS – out just a couple of days ago! Here, she writes about one of the books that inspires her.
The Post Apocalyptic Novel I Wish I’d Written by Emma Pass
I am a prolific reader – my husband tells people I’ve got a ‘reading habit’ – and every time I finish a book I really love, I find myself thinking, ‘I wish I’d written that!’ So choosing just one book for this post has not been an easy task.
After a lot of thought, however, and some time spent perusing my bookshelves, I think I’ve found one – The Stand by Stephen King. If you’re not familiar with it, here’s the blurb from Amazon:
First came the days of the plague. Then came the dreams.
Dark dreams that warned of the coming of the dark man. The apostate of death, his worn-down boot heels tramping the night roads. The warlord of the charnel house and Prince of Evil.
His time is at hand. His empire grows in the west and the Apocalypse looms.
When a man crashes his car into a petrol station, he brings with him the foul corpses of his wife and daughter. He dies and it doesn’t take long for the plague which killed him to spread across America and the world.
The story then follows the lives of a group of people who’ve managed to survive the deadly ‘superflu’, with a huge and multi-plotted narrative that in the wrong hands could become hugely overcomplicated. But in King’s hands, it never does. Despite its complexity, the story flows seamlessly and unlike some books, I don’t need a character glossary to remind me who everyone is.
I’ve been a huge fan of Stephen King since I was thirteen years old, which was also the age I realised I wanted to be a writer. Often sneered at by the critics, he is an incredible storyteller who has had a huge influence on me, and I think The Stand is by far and away my favourite novel of his. I love dark, ‘what if?’ scenarios – the more terrifying, the better, because you get to experience the horrors of these scenarios without, well, actually having to experience them (which needless to say, would not be fun at all).
Every time I read The Stand it makes me want to push myself ¬– to try harder and aim higher, and keep striving to improve my own writing. To me, that’s the sign of a truly great book!
I really like this blog post – agree with what he says about the importance of theme. I recognise the process he describes, moving from suspicion to appreciation, very well.
On my first novel writing course we were asked what we liked in books. I said, ‘Where things happen and people have sex; but they don’t have to have sex as long as things happen.’ Recently, I was delighted to hear that a friend’s child had explained her love of Downton Abbey as, ‘It’s olden times, and things happen.’ Exactly!
What I disliked most was the idea of theme. It sounded so writerly and Hampstead. I was once in a bookshop where there was a reading being given by new novelists. The first stood up and said, ‘There are three themes to this novel.’ I left.
But recently I’ve been wrestling with trying to put some shape to a novel I’ve been writing on-and-off for about two years. There are lots of little mini-stories, a main character, and fairly decent set-up. But it all feels a bit amorphous. Mostly, I…
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