Bare Lit 2018 - Speaking of Morality in Young Fiction

By Candy Gourlay

I was so looking forward to sharing the stage with debut author Rutendo Tavengerwei (Hope is Our Only Wing) and the excellent Bali Rai (The Harder They Fall) at the Bare Lit Festival last Sunday. Our theme – Morality in YA and Children's Fiction – was a corker!

But it wasn't to be.

My vanishing panel

The first shocker was a message early in the morning that Rutendo would not be able to come, through no fault of her own. I don't think it's my place to explain what happened – suffice to say I was gutted I would not be able to meet her.

I frantically messaged lovely author friend Patrice Lawrence to find out if she was free to stand in. She wasn't.

Then, another message: Bali's train had been delayed and then now it was too late to get to London. He wasn't coming either.

I was having visions of sitting alone on a stage babbling nonsense for an hour and a half ... when festival director and co founder Mend Mariwany suddenly appeared with a relieved grin.

He'd managed to persuade Samantha Williams, inspirational multicultural bookseller, to become my fellow panellist, and writer and educator Darren Chetty  (who had come along to attend our talk) to become chair.

Here's a doodle of the three of us from illustrator Sarah McIntyre:

Darren Chetty, Candy Gourlay, Samantha Williams at Bare Lit 2018. Sketch by Sarah McIntyre


We had a quicky FIVE minutes to chat and prepare, and then we were on the stage!

I have to say my two new colleagues were superb. Samantha calls books "weapons of mass destruction" and earnestly believes that reading is key to a child's future wellbeing. Dismayed by the whiteness of books available to her own children, she has thrown herself into bookselling – with the aim to  "source, sell, encourage, self-publish and promote beautiful British multicultural children's books that celebrate diversity particularly children and families of Caribbean/African descent".

Samantha and her display of children's books at the Bare Lit Festival

Darren co-wrote this feature Why Diversity Should Start at Storytime with Karen Sands O'Connor, He and Karen also co-wrote this fascinating piece looking at the representation of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic voices in British chldren's fiction – read it!

This article is not a proper report of the event, though I do repeat some things that were said. It's more like my own take on the themes we explored.

Here is Darren's first question:

British kids lit grew out of a desire to educate and moralise. How do these factors impact your writing?

Darren and Samantha, with me in the middle (in full cultural appropriation mode wearing an Indian kurta and shoes in an African print). Photo by Heather Marks

Writing with an agenda

There is no doubt in my mind that any author writing a book would have an agenda.

Certainly, having once been a book-loving child who never saw herself in the books she devoured, inclusion is number one on my author agenda.

They say children's fictions should be like mirrors and windows, well for me, all the mirrors were broken or, worse, distorted like a carnival hall of mirrors.

This is the story I tell over and over again to white audiences at the diversity panels that have become a regular gig for me as a "diverse" writer.

Gazing across the majority brown faces in the Bare Lit audience, I realised it was not a story I needed to tell this audience. They already lived it.

Long ago I attended an Arvon Writing for Teenagers week with Melvin Burgess and Malorie Blackman. Tbh I was nervous about meeting Melvin, whose every book (Junk, about heroin use ... Doing It, about boys and sex) seemed to spark controversy. But meeting Melvin, I realised that his agenda was as sincere as mine – like me, he was holding up a mirror. To teenagers who didn't recognise the sanitised versions of themselves in books written for them.

"I realised nobody was writing stuff for real teenagers," Burgess said in a Guardian interview, about the seventies and eighties when he was one of a few authors who began to write for the demographic. "It's such a seminal part of your life, the point when you become who you are, and yet nobody made stuff for them."

It is said that the teenager was invented in the 1940s when American film-makers  realised that teenagers had money to spend – I wrote about it over on my writing blog, Notes from the Slushpile, headlined The Invention of the Teenager. Two decades after Burgess first shocked with his books, I can't help the feeling that there has been the same commercial awakening to the spending power of younger demographics. Even though every other movie or TV series seems to be a superhero blockbuster, there are many impressive books published today that marshal the same awareness, respect and sensitivity with which Burgess writes for his young readers.

Mirrors and windows

I couldn't take notes during the panel (because speaker 😳), so I cannot reproduce the words of my co-panellist Samantha Williams, who spoke passionately about the urgent need to put brown faces on the covers of books, about customers begging her for help because their children were desperate to become white and fair like the characters they saw in media.

Darren, as a primary school teacher, told a story that I can reproduce here courtesy of his blog:

A few years ago, I was teaching a Year 2 class in East London. We had been working on writing stories. When it came to sharing what they had written, one boy, who had recently arrived from Nigeria, was eager to read his work to the class.

As he read out his protagonist's name - I had suggested that children might use the names of people in their family - another boy, who was born in Britain and identified as Congolese, interrupted him.

"You can't do that! Stories have to be about white people," he said. This is not an isolated incident.

It is easy, attending a festival like Bare Lit, to rant on about books as mirrors and inclusion and representation. But as a child saved by books that didn't represent me, I want to put in a word for books as windows  – because windows are incredibly important to help a child imagine a bigger, better world in which to live in.

When I visit schools in the posh parts of London and tell the children that I am from the Philippines, the children become animated and tell me that their cook/nanny/cleaner is from the Philippines.

There was a ripple of indignation when I mentioned this anecdote, the audience were offended on my behalf. But why be offended by the truth? Eleven per cent of the Philippine population leave the country to work overseas, mostly in menial jobs. But by meeting me, the children see something outside their ordinary worlds. They realise that Filipinos are as diverse as they are. And hopefully, they will learn to give us permission to be whoever we want to be. Windows.

In 2015, I was invited to contribute to a round-up in the Guardian headlined Banned, burned, or simply life changing: what are the best dangerous books? where children's authors "share the books they probably weren't meant to read that either rocked their world or rocked the world".

My colleagues listed books such as The Color Purple by Alice Walker, Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath ... here was my response:

When I was growing up in the Philippines, there were very few locally published books for children and so everything I read was imported from America and the United Kingdom. When I think back, ALL the books I read as a child were dangerous. They took me out of the ordered rules of my cultural life and proposed that there were other choices out there.

I explored worlds that bore no resemblance to my own in my native Philippines. They made me disgruntled, discontented with my lot. Western characters seemed to travel everywhere, and as a little girl in Manila, I could not imagine ever being wealthy enough to even travel to any of the nearby countries in Southeast Asia. I puzzled over how characters spoke their minds. In my ordinary world, there were complex, unwritten ways of communicating, saying yes even if you mean no is an art embedded in many Asian cultures. 
It was not just culture clash either. Here were child characters who had eye-popping adventures, who ignored boundaries, who took their fates in their own hands. It was terrifying and unimaginable. And oh so delicious.

Whose morality?

So perhaps under the umbrella theme of 'Morality in Children's Fiction', we also need to ask whose morality? Morality, after all is in the eye of the beholder.

In the olden days when infant mortality was high, adults published books designed to save their souls. If you read Victorian fiction, there are plenty of idealised portraits of young orphans like Oliver Twist who are ultimately saved by discovering that they are wealthy after all –  which kind of makes sense when you take into account the materialism of the Industrial Revolution.

Growing up in the Philippines, colonised first by Spain then by America, I grew up with folk tales that I realised later had been repurposed with a racist colonial intent – like the story of the crow whose feathers used to be beautiful and white until he committed some misdemeanor for which his feathers turned black!

One of the first Filipino characters I encountered as a child was Juan Tamad (Lazy Johnny), who rather than climb the guava tree would lie under it, mouth open, waiting for the fruit to drop into his mouth. Again, here are the voices of our colonial masters calling from the past, reinforcing the lazy servant stereotype one can still hear still parroted today by the entitled classes.

Sadly, in the Philippines, one continues to witness toe-curling racism and racial self disgust. Skin whitening is big business and the silver screen is peopled only by fair-skinned actors. In our nonchalant celebration of whiteness, I can hear those colonial voices shouting down the centuries, reinforcing our staunch belief in our racial ugliness.

So yeah, we artists always seem to be engaged in correcting the imbalances of the societies we live in. In my book Tall Story, my loveable hero, Bernardo, has a thick accent because I have always hated the power politics behind accents in the Philippines. As a schoolgirl, I used to be one of the most robust and taller girls. Everyone else was petite – and I had to endure endless Hulk and Baby Huey barbs. So in Tall Story, Bernardo becomes a giant and I write him inside out so that people see who he is before they actually meet him.

Positive representation?

Here is Darren's second question to the panel:

Given the history of erasure and distortion of people of colour in kids lit, there are strong calls for positive representations of POC. There is also the need to tell great stories with morally complex characters. How do you work with these pressures?

So ... imagine what it must have been like when people saw themselves for the first time reflected in a mirror.

Now imagine what it would be like to see one's self in books for the first time.

While we call for representation, it will not be easy to see one's self represented. What do we really want to see? Do we want to see a better version of ourselves or do we want to see ourselves, warts and all? And what about all our secret doubts and insecurities? What about the unbeautiful parts of us, do we want those on display too?

And what is positive representation?

Does it mean characters who are people of colour always have to be the goody and never the baddy?

Does it mean never portraying a Filipino as a cleaning lady or a nurse or a caregiver? Or an African American as a drug-taking rap artist? Or an Indian or Pakistani character as a shopkeeper?

It took me a long time to commit to writing my forthcoming novel, Bone Talk. Watch this video I made to introduce it and you'll see why.

There aren't any novels written about the Bontoc people who are the heroes of my story, which is set in 1899 when the United States invaded the Philippines. When I visited the area, there was a reluctance amongst people I approached to discuss the animist cultural practices I was researching. "We are Christians now," one man told me, resisting my questions about death practices.

I trawled history books and diaries of anthropologists – but they were all written by Americans, portraying the Bontoc people – who were head-hunters –  in either racist or exotic terms. How do I represent them in an era that some of them would prefer not to remember?

Knowing that my readers are going to be children was another challenge. How do I write about a culture that so far removed from that of the modern child reader? How do I write in a way that would have my reader embrace my heroes instead of "othering" them?

The answer, I soon realised, was simple. Write well.

Writing well means writing characters in 3D – multidimensional, complex, with many shades of grey.

Writing well means allowing yourself the time it takes to discover the truth in your story.

Writing well means not settling for your first uncorrected first draft but taking the time to imagine and reimagine your story until it is at its best.

Writing well means your reader, whoever he may be, can see himself in your story.

Write well. It takes a lot of time. It hurts. But it's what we gotta do.

And then, of course, because of the lack of previous representation, we are pioneers. We have a LOT to make up, a LOT to say. All the issues, all the themes, all those things that had previously gone unsaid!

Which tbh would make for a boring read.

Children are true natives of this age of short attention spans and the florid author must be careful to observe the first commandment of writing for children: Thou shalt not be boring.

Sure, have an agenda. But story must always come first.

So my advice to the Bare Lit audience (I could tell that there were many writers by the way they took copious notes), was to remind them that writing is about craft. Craft your agenda into the hidden seams of your story. Craft it to enable your reader, not to educate her. Whatever your message, sew it in carefully and invisibly to serve plot and character  (I know aspiring writers are fed up with hearing it but SHOW DON'T TELL!).

For the sake of readers who might be bored by all this writing talk, may I direct writers to this article I wrote: Exposition: It's about Emotion not Information – which tackles the nitty gritty of building a case without the actual case.

Anything goes?

Here is Darren's final question:

What, if anything, can children NOT cope with in fiction? For example, must stories have a happy ending?

It is tempting to say that children of today can cope with anything. But that isn't true. I think for every child reader, there is a line that can be crossed. And so though I don't think authors should limit themselves in the themes they choose to write about, the books a child reads definitely benefits from the curation of an adult who knows them well.

The other day, I was asked on Woman's Hour what I thought about age banding (which hit the headlines back in 2008). I said I understood the commercial need for it but at the end of the day young readers need a curator, someone who understands how books are safe spaces for children to experience the life they have yet to live, someone who can identify the perfect book for the individual child. That curator – the librarian – is sadly fast becoming an endangered specie.

It is interesting though to note the breadth of "tricky" subjects that books for young people dare to cover today: death, sexuality, violence, abuse, drugs, war ...

I have just finished reading the heartbreaking Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes, which imagines the ghosts of black boys shot by American policemen roaming Chicago. Though it describes some of the deaths, these descriptions are sober, quietly painful, and never gratuitous.

On the other hand I've read Mal Peet's posthumous young adult novel, Beck, about a boy who is sexually abused in care homes. Another brilliant, Carnegie-nominated book from Peet, but I would certainly be very careful who I recommend it to as there is a grim hopelessness to the story.

Writing Bone Talk, I worked hard to keep my underlying themes of imperialism and identity covert. I just want readers to enjoy it as a ripping adventure.

The truth is young people have sensitive antennae to these underlying themes. Children are deeply moral creatures, with a strong sense of what's fair and unfair. Sit in any playground and inevitably you will hear the cry "That is so unfair!" 😄

In fact, young people can be quite black and white about right and wrong. The beauty of novels for young people is that it allows us to show them all the shades of grey in between.

Books of earlier times regarded children as unthinking, empty vessels that needed to be instructed on the ways of the world.

But now we live in times inundated by a such a relentless gush of information that I don't think our children need further instruction. What they do need is the wherewithal to make sense of it all.

Books are a safe place to learn how to do just that.

In the past children may have  been instructed to turn to books to find answers. My hope is that children will read my books and find, not answers, but questions that can set them on the path to understanding their world.

One of the things that differentiate children's books from books for adults is that no matter how dark the subject matter, books for young people will always offer hope.

Back in 2011, I attended a panel to hear Morris Gleitzman talk about his searing Holocaust novel Once.  Here is what he said about hope in children's books:

We are handing the world over to our children. The survival of the species depends on their capacity for optimism.

1. With thanks to Bare Lit, and to my lovely friends at Native Province, who recommended me to the organisers.
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3. If you are an author trying to make heads or tails of self promotion, you might want to read my recent post on Notes from the Slushpile: My Year of Launching Prodigiously
4. Hey, I've got a new picture book in the shops and here it is!

Obligatory EUGDPR (EU General Data Protection Regulation) Statement

Yes. This is about GDPR.


I will try to make this as simple and painless as possible!

The air is kerchinging with the gnashing of teeth over the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) rules. Please save your dentistry – this is how my website (and I as an author) will comply with the rules.

Who should read this? 

Anyone who has shared their email address with me. You might have done this in a multitude of ways including simply emailing me.

Why should you read this?

So that you know that I am not an evil data farmer who is stealing your data and selling it off to other evil entities who might evilly use it to serve Viagra advertising to your unwitting inbox.

What do you need to know?

• You need to know that I might have your email address in my Gmail contacts list. You need to know that when you email me, Gmail automatically saves your email to my address book.

• You need to know that if you subscribe to my blog, I will have the details you sign up with in a database (which will probably be bloody Mailchimp, who conveniently deleted my account without letting me know).

• You need to know that if ever I set up the online shop that I'd always dreamed of but never had the time to research, or the money to afford, I might collect your email and postal address to deliver products to you. What products you say? Signed copies of my books and perhaps, once I've practiced enough, artwork.

• You need to know that I will not share the information with anyone without your permission.

• You need to know that I will delete your data if you request it. Subscribers to my blog will be able to unsubscribe themselves without contacting me personally and hurting my feelings.

• You need to know that sometimes children do email me and I may reply to them if I don't realise they are children. If I realise they are children, I try to respond publicly through my blog or Facebook page.

• You need to know that I am really good at password-protecting my computer, Google, Mailchimp and other accounts where your data may be stored, with individual passwords that I change regularly. If these entities are ever compromised, I will try not to panic and take their advice on how to protect your data.

• You need to know that I am just a lonely author, sitting in a cave, procrastinating on Facebook, and there are no other people in the cave who have access to your data ... so I have appointed myself my own Data Protection Officer, as prescribed by the GDPR ... I would give myself a massive salary too but sadly will have to do the job for free or go bust.

Subscribe to my blog! ... and hey, did you know my very fist picture book just came out? Check it out!

Is it a Mermaid by Candy Gourlay and Francesca Chessa

How to Become a Picture Book Writer

By Candy Gourlay

Today I became the author of my first picture book.

Image by Francesca Chessa from Is it a Mermaid?

This is a journey that began when I was still embedded in the high energy world of small children (their high energy, not mine). I was skilled in the art of The Deal (‘I raise you five more minutes of TV for brocolli AND carrots’). I had eyes in the back of my head. I was the Mistress of Distraction (‘Don’t cry, sweetie ... oops, look! There’s a rabbit in my bag!’). I was unfazed by wee, poo and vomit. And, at bedtime, I transformed into, not just a reader, but a performer of picture books (which did not have a soporific effect on the audience, but I didn’t care).

Whatever Next, Peace at Last and Five Minutes Peace by Jill Murphy were firm favourites, as were Avocado Baby by John Burningham, The Cat in the Hat by Doctor Seuss, Gorilla by Anthony Browne, and the Mog books by Judith Kerr. In those days, some picture books had more complex narrative styles than what we see in the UK today – one son’s favourite was the story of a boy who is embarrassed that the trainers his mum buys for him lacks the right logo.

This Jill Murphy trio were definitely family favourites.

It is easy for an adult to open a picture book, notice the simplicity and brevity of words, and declare, ‘I can do better than that!’ Which is exactly what I rashly did, as my children and I worked our way through our growing library of best-beloved books.

I thought: I’m a journalist. I can write. I also used to be a cartoonist. I can draw.

Suddenly it was obvious to me that I was meant to write picture books. Fame and fortune were waiting just beyond the diaper pail.

I did my homework. Attended a few talks. Read up about picture books. Learned that you had to design it for 32 pages. Learned about making dummies (read this and this and this). Learned about page turns. Then made my first attempt.

The Baby Who Could Read was based on my baby daughter who used to sit up in bed reading aloud to herself. Except she couldn’t talk yet. My story riffed on a hyper intelligent baby trapped in her own baby talk. Money and glory, here I come!

Well. Publishers far and wide rejected my pithily composed query letter (following all the advice I had gathered on how to ‘hook’ a commissioning editor).

These being my very, very first rejections from the publishing world, the reason for this unexpected turn of events was clear: the world was not ready for my genius.

So I wrote another picture book.

And another. And another. And another.

But nobody wanted my stories. I soon gave up trying to draw them and focused on the words. To no avail.

As I failed, I continued to read about the picture book business. Apparently, all kinds of barriers lay in the way to publication. It could be that my humour was too foreign. It could be that my stories were too long. It could be that I was writing for an audience much older than the publishers wanted to market to. It could be that the publishers considered my stories unsellable to the rest of the world.

After a few years of trying, I put picture books aside and began writing novels for children. It was another long, hard road of rejection. All the knock-backs made me wiser to my own reasons for writing. I learned that writing was about story, not about getting published. I learned that it was me and not the world that was unready. I learned that for a story to live I had to live inside it. And I learned to keep at the job ... I learned how to finish a story.

It took a while, but I did get published. I did become an author ... but not of picture books. And despite the successes of my novels Tall Story and Shine, I continued to write my little picture book stories, yearning for the day that my unfulfilled dream could come true.

The Little Golden Book edition of Little Red Riding Hood, a discard from an American military family. Possibly my first experience of a picture book.

My own childhood in the Philippines of the sixties and seventies did not feature as many picture books as consumed so voraciously by my children. My siblings and I did have some Ladybird Books and those Readers Digest and Colliers Junior compilations that were offered as discounted side deals by the door-to-door encyclopaedia salesmen who my parents invited into our living room. We also had a Little Golden Book edition of Little Red Riding Hood that Mom bought at a PX Goods stall (PX Goods were second-hand American goods – chocolate, toys, what have you – sold outside American military bases in the Philippines).

Mom and Dad with my siblings come lately whose surprise arrival introduced me to nappy-changing ... and picture books.

In the mid seventies, when my parents surprised their teen children with two latecomer siblings, I discovered a profound delight in small children. Suddenly, my baby brothers became the centre of my universe and I found myself eagerly reading aloud to them from Doctor Seuss, Winnie the Pooh, and Noddy – all now available in local bookstores.

As the years have passed, my baby brothers and then my own children passed the age of picture book readerhood. But I didn’t. For me, the picture book continued to hold out that promise of enchantment. Despite my advancing age, I continue to pore over the picture book departments of bookshops, looking for that next hit of delight.

I wrote Is it a Mermaid? at a picture book retreat run by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. It was fascinating, having written the story – about a dugong (Asian sea cow) who is convinced she is a mermaid – to realise that I was exploring the same themes of identity and culture clash that run through my novels.

I think I may have known, when I finished writing it, that Is it a Mermaid? had a chance ... that it was going to be a contender. But having been down the path of rejection before, I hesitated for many long weeks, months, before I sent it to my agent, Hilary Delamere, to represent to publishers. We submitted to Janetta Otter-Barry, who had just left Frances Lincoln to run her own independent publishing company, Otter Barry Books.

It was a yes from Janetta, but a contract was not forthcoming until she had identified the perfect illustrator for my book. Long months passed before Janetta introduced me to Francesca Chessa, a veteran illustrator based in Italy well known in the UK for illustrating Elliot’s Arctic Surprise, written by Catherine Barr. More months crawled by as Francesca worked on the illustrations. For me, the book’s word-maker, it was an anxious time – would my vision, Francesca’s vision and Janetta’s vision gel into a coherent whole?

Gel they did. And today, I am proud to hold my debut picture book up to the world and say, ‘I did it! I’ve written a picture book at last!’ But of course it turns out that a picture book is not just about me. Picture books are a fusion of imaginations – the writer’s, the illustrator’s and the editor’s.
Perhaps being published as a novelist opened the door to me being published as a picture book author. Perhaps I needed that time writing in longer forms to learn about story structure. Perhaps the time I had spent learning about the kind of writer I am, about who I am as a writer, led me to the picture book story that would get me published.

I suppose the title of this essay is a bit misleading. Aspiring picture book writers looking for hardcore tips and lists of to-do’s may be disappointed (though there are plenty of tips if you look hard enough).

But please cut me some slack ... today is, after all, my first day as a picture book author.
This is the dream come true. And do you know what? It feels great.

Is it a Mermaid is out in the UK from today and will publish in the United States in May 2018.

This article was first published on my Facebook page.

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