Seven Books from the Decade that Made Me an Author

Dave Cousins
Dave Cousins, over at the Fifteen Days Without a Head blog, is listing his best reads for 2010. It's a great list, do have a look!

I've been working on another sort of book list - New Year's Eve will complete the first decade of the 21st century and it's a significant decade for me because it was during this time that I discovered a burning desire to become a children's author.

One of the odd things about becoming an author after years of trying is when you first do your taxes, you can claim expenses to do with trying to get published from seven years previous to publication.

Luckily, Amazon kindly kept a record of all the books I bought inAnd  the last decade ... and looking back on those receipts was a revelation.

This was the decade when I learned to write novels. my Amazon account follows me from the first niggling of wishful thinking (I'd like to write like that) to when idea bubbles began to pop up above my head (OH! That's how you do it!).

This is not so much a list of recommended reads as a list of ways to grow as a writer.

At the beginning of the decade, I read Holes, the Newbery winning novel by Louis Sachar which aligns the story of a boy accused of stealing a pair of basketball shoes and the story of the outlaw Kissin' Kate Barlow.

It was funny, touching and heart-warming - written so sparely and yet with a distinctive ba-dum-tish! comedy about it.

Oh, I thought, children's books can be like that?

Very soon afterwards, I read Walk Two Moons, another Newbery medal winner, written by Sharon Creech. Creech is one of those writers who grab you by the collar and keep you grabbed, and yet her style is quiet and evocative. There is something of a journey in the way she plots - and always, a sense of grief, loss and cultural identity that I was drawn to.

By the time I started reading Sharon Creech, I'd finished my first attempt at a novel. I called it Dead Cool -  about how a boy finds himself living the life that a dying man sees flashing before his eyes. One moment he's a kid in North London, the next, he's parachuting into World War II.

Cool idea I thought but an agent told me there was one big problem. It was set in the UK, with British characters. And how was an agent supposed to sell a British book written by a Filipino author? There's nothing of YOU in the book, she told me.

Well, the truth was, I didn't think any publisher would be interested in a book with Filipino characters.

And looking at all the white faces on the covers of books in the bookstore, I didn't think readers in the UK would be interested either. Until I read Hacker by Malorie Blackman.

Okay, so Hacker isn't the most famous of books by Malorie who is now practically a national treasure in the UK. But the reason I picked up the book at the library was because it was the only one in sight with a black child on the cover (note: I am deliberately posting the actual covers of the books when I read them back then. Interestingly, Hacker no longer has a face on the cover).

Hacker is an unputdownable thriller set in the early days of digital. And what struck me like a mallet on the head was that the characters' skin colour had nothing to do whatsoever with the story. They just happened to be black. Malorie has since become known for the revolutionary tables-turning Noughts and Crosses books - but I will always be grateful for Hacker - which gave me the permission to write about characters who were like me.

A Gathering Light by Jennifer Donnelly, published as A Northern Light in the US, was my first awareness of the new Young Adult genre.

It's about a girl with a passion for reading and writing who must overcome huge cultural obstacles to follow her heart. If ever there was a coming of age novel, this was it. At the time, I was writing a lot of feature articles about the immigration phenomenon in the Philippines. I even wrote and presented a radio programme on the BBC called Motherless Nation about the children left behind by immigration.

At its heart, A Gathering Light was about choices - or the lack of it. There was so much about the book that reminded me of the lives of women I'd met while working on those immigration features. Why do women leave the Philippines to work elsewhere? The answer lies in the choices that they think they have .

I wrote Volcano Child after Motherless Nation aired on Radio 4. Its plot can be summed up as A Gathering Light with a volcano - a young girl yearning for a mother who works on the other side of the world. And then she finds out that there is more to why her mother left than an empty wallet.

It was with Volcano Child, I began to receive rejection letters of a better quality from agents - with personal notes, and enthusiasm for my writing.

I was beginning to do some things right. But not quite enough to get an agent to sign me up.

I first heard about Scott Westerfeld when he gave a talk in Bologna about inventing slang for his fantasy novels for teenagers.  I promptly went out and acquired Uglies, his dystopian novel about a world where teenagers underwent mandatory cosmetic surgery at sixteen to be turned 'Pretty'. Naturally, teenagers being teenagers, some rebel and opt to remain Ugly.

Uglies is part of a trilogy (Uglies, Pretties, Specials) that became a quartet. My very favourite has to be Extras, the fourth of the set, which is set in a world modelled on social media before the word social media was invented.

I think it was Scott Westerfeld who made me realize what an amazing readership I was writing for. Visiting his blog,  I was struck by the number of comments he could muster - sometimes hundreds - from his teenage readers. I was also struck by his huge respect for young people and how they responded to that respect by become even more awesome.

I also learned about fantasy and world-building. It was probably no coincidence that the book I wrote after reading the Uglies books was called Ugly City  - about a city state in which parents must leave and children must stay - it's the law.

But no, it was not a rip-off of Uglies -  like Volcano Child, Ugly City was based on my reportage about immigration. I met some kids in Manila who had everything - Playstation, Gameboys, flatscreen TV - but their parents were working as cleaners abroad and they fended for themselves. I was struck by how these kids thought they were so lucky.

Ugly City went on to win the Undiscovered Voices anthology competition in 2008 which led to my signing with my agent.

I still carry The White Darkness around in my bag so that I can dip into it at will. The book by Geraldine McCaughrean is about a partially deaf girl who finds herself fighting for survival in Antartica with a long dead polar explorer as an imaginary friend.

What I love about it is the sheer virtuosity of the writing. Everytime I dip into it, I get ideas. Ah, this would be a great way to build a character. Here is how to write an ending. Here's how to set a scene.

McCaughrean's writing is sheer genius.

I read Skin Hunger by Kathleen Duey after meeting her in another conference in Bologna. In a keynote speech, Kathleen talked about minding where you shined your spotlight in every scene that you wrote, how exposition can drag the spotlight away from the dramatic point you are trying to make.

Skin Hunger and the second book of the trilogy, Sacred Scars, show how it is possible to build worlds without fat chunks of exposition. The Hornbook review of Sacred Scars describes it thus:
Duey doles clues with an eyedropper, keeping readers busily but happily engaged in connecting dots even as the horrors and triumphs of the unfolding story hold them spellbound. Read more
After reading Duey's books, I took a pair of virtual scissors to my writing, slashed away at exposition and armed myself with Duey's eyedropper.

Duey should be required reading for anybody struggling with exposition.

And that's it.

If I listed all the most inspiring books I've ever read here, it would be the longest blog post ever written.

But this is not that kind of list.

These books genuinely changed my writing.

What are your life-changing reads?

The conversation continues on these blogs:

Mrs Bung by Kathy Evans
Chaosmos by Vanessa Harbour
Absolute Vanilla by Nicky Schmidt
Almost True by Keren David
KM Lockwood by Philippa Francis