Readers Who Write

With girls from Clapton Girls Academy
at a recent event. Photo: Bob King
One of the perks of this job is that I have many encounters with young people who are clearly going to be the future of our culture.

These are children who don't just aspire to write and create but who are simply getting on with it.

The other day a young friend who's been showing me his writing since he was seven, wrote to tell me he's now acting on stage.

I was so pleased and proud to hear that the experience of theatre led him to experiment with other kinds of writing. He wrote:

I think my writing is developing, improving and maturing. My absolute favourite genre is still and always will be Fantasy and Myth but I have tried and experimented with other styles and have written other genres from play to stories and poems. I write lots of different things from drama, comedy, adventure, sci fi, horror, modern thrillers, and fantasy and magic. Hope all goes well. Good luck, see you soon!

Reading his email gave me such a tingle of excitement. Such ambition and creative drive!

There is so much moaning on social media about how technology and general laziness are creating generations of couch potatoes, but I think we are all underestimating the awesomeness of today's young people. Just you wait, world!


I've been having a lot of discussions with educators and young people about what age is the appropriate reader for my new novel Shine, which is nonlinear in storytelling and darker than Tall Story.

It's a tough call for me because I heartily believe that we must put no boundaries in the way of reading. But at the same time, I'm aware that it could be hugely off-putting to force a book upon anyone who is not ready for it. And yet, one of Shine's coolest reviews was by a ten year old -- Lilly Pettitt in National Geographic Kids!

Six stars out of five!!! Thanks, Lily!

Teachers will know best what they're pupils will enjoy. A week or so ago I had hugely enjoyable visits talking about Shine with Year 7s from Clapton Girls Academy and Year 8s at Our Lady's in Hackney, as part of Pop Up Education. It was the very first outing of my new talk focusing on Shine! (Interestingly, my very first presentation on Tall Story was also at Our Lady's!)

I learned a lot, girls, thank you so much! And your teachers were very well behaved, well done.

She loved it more than NANDO's??? A super compliment!

One of the girls had met me before at the Pop Up Festival
and gave me this hilarious card ...

... which I immediately pinned up on my messy board!

(Teachers, I'll be posting a new school visits flyer for 2014 soon, watch for it)

When librarians ask, I say Shine will probably be enjoyed by readers from Year Eight (12) and up. Tall Story works fabulously for readers from Year Six (10) and up. And it's great as a book to read aloud for Year Five too (there's a terrific audio book by Listening Library recorded in the Random House studios in Los Angeles - read alternately by a Filipino-American actor and a British actress).


Speaking of awesome young people, Veda Zabala, a twelve year old from the Philippines shared with me this essay she wrote on the importance of the baddy in fiction. The title of the essay was But We're All Human, Aren't We?

'What are antagonists?' Veda wrote. '"Oh, they're evil", "the bad dudes" - these are not exactly what everyone says but hey, it's pretty standard. But I'd say different. I'd say that they are the most important characters, bypassing the protagonist.'

I like that Veda's teacher uses green ink not red for writing comments in the margin.
Red ink always used to make me feel like a failure, even when it was saying nice things.
When I worked on a magazine my editor always used green ball point pens because she said
it kept us all calm.

She then expounded brilliantly on how an antagonist provides the dramatic backbone of any story. Veda has given me permission to share a chunk of her reasoning (and her insightful reading of Tall Story) below:  

Warning: if you haven't read Tall Story, spoilers will follow

Gabriela was introduced as a beautiful girl, but with an atrocious inside. Mean, arrogant, always gets what she wants, Gabriela owns Sacred Heart Academy. Maybe because her mother, Mad Nena, resident witch of San Andres, has control over their village ...

She and the protagonist, Bernardo Hipolito, have a hateful relationship. Well mostly on Bernardo's part. She just likes teasing him with the (wishing stone) ... Gabriela once scathingly and teasingly wished for Bernardo to become as tall as Bernardo Carpio, a Filipino myth. 

Without her, without the wish, the timeline will be altered. No abnormally tall Bernardo, no brain tumor, and Andi wouldn't see him as a freak. 

I am underlining the importance of villains. Tell me, if Voldemort had never been born, if there was an era of peace, what would Harry Potter and Neville Longbottom's lives be like? With magic and parents, but ultimately no conflict. It won't be enough for a book.

While cold and mean, at home Gabriela's a different story. So you'd think that her mother would love her? Yes, correct. If her mother could display affection? Wrong. While Mad Nena cared for Gabriela, it was a borderline abusive "tough love" relationship that they were nursing. Gabriela could act as tough as she could outside, but inside, at home, she's completely at her mother and her mother's whip's mercy.

Mad Nena really did care about Gabriela. In Gabriela's last moments, you could visualise her gaunt face, feel her pain and fear, hear her screams. And taht's when most people realize that she isn't just a ruthless girl, but a thinking, feeling person. 

She had dreams and hopes, like all of us. But we fail to see this until their vulnerable moments, because sometimes, our views on the world are tinted black and white. You could sense Mad Nena's regret. That Gabriela didn't deserve to die, or go to hell. Maybe because the power her mother held got to her head, and shaped her into who she was.

Or her home life, with the abuse made her an empty shell, putting on an act for the rest of the world. She's a cryptic character, and she will make you ask  so many questions, most left unanswered.

Just remember, if ever you think that there is a villain in your life, remember that they are human too. Analyze them, think and act carefully. Put yourself in their shoes. Then judge them.

I am told Veda has graduated from grade school and will soon be starting in secondary. Congratulations, Veda - and keep on writing. You probably have no idea how terrific a piece of writing - and thinking - this is.

I shall be visiting Mount Carmel Secondary School for Girls in Islington next. See you soon!