March whizzed by in a bit of a whirr for me – I’ve been working so hard to finish my latest book, provisionally titled This is Not a Love Story, a book about two London teenagers who end up taking their A levels in Amsterdam.
The first draft was due in January (gulp) but my angelic and kind editor agreed to one extension…and then another…and then I started restructuring the whole book round about the beginning of March. I handed it in on April 1, much to my relief, not to mention my editor. And then, quite soon, the rewriting will begin.
One of the great things about writing TINALS (why do my books have such long names?) was revisiting favourite bits of Amsterdam in my head, like the Rijksmuseum, home of one of my favourite picture Rembrandt’s Jewish Bride (except she’s not a bride). I love this picture so much – there’s is so much love in it, and the colours glow with warmth and splendour, One of the great perks of living in Amsterdam was being able to cycle up to the Rijksmuseum (we lived a little way south on basically the same street), pop in to see one or two pictures and then go home again.
I did two fascinating visits in March. The first was to the Creative Writing AS Group of the Lubavitch Girls High School in Stamford Hill. For those who have never heard of Lubavitch, it is a Chassidic, ultra-orthodox Jewish movement, but unlike many Chassidic groups it does not cut itself off from the outside world, instead going out into all corners of the world to work to try and make all kinds of Jewish people more religious. I like Lubavitch for its non-judgmental attitude, and also for the way that whenever I consider living anywhere vaguely exotic I can be sure that there will be a Lubavitch outpost there.
However I was a little bit nervous about talking to the girls, because I knew they’d have had a sheltered life and was not sure how much I could say about some of the more edgy content in my books.
I need not have worried. The girls were lovely, there was a lot to say, and their questions were those of all writers: What to do about writers block, how to chose between first and third person, do you edit as you go, how much do you plan beforehand.
Less than a week later I visited another enclosed community – Feltham Young Offenders Institution, just to the west of London. I was invited there by the Reading Agency which runs the six book challenge, issuing certificates to people who complete six books – often their first educational achievement. At Feltham I only got to speak to five inmates – all the rest who might have come had failed to get security clearance, which tells you a lot about the problems of the institution. The boys I met were great, listened avidly, asked good questions. Many of them were writers themselves, filling exercise books with stories, and their questions were similar to the Lubavitch girls – how do you deal with writers’ block, how many drafts do you write, how do you write good dialogue?
Lindsay, the librarian, showed me around the library, which is extremely well-used – there aren’t many other things for the boys to do, especially when privileges need to be earned and can be taken away. The Barrington Stoke books for people with reading difficulties are extremely popular, as are books about crime – fiction and non-fiction. There’s also a lot of comfort reading going on – Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Darren Shan.
Feltham is a difficult place for many, with self-harm rife. Some kids are moved to a hospital wing for their own protection – because of mental breakdown, or homophobia, or because their mental age is much younger than their physical age. Other boys though commit crimes on purpose to get a custodial sentence, because in prison they will get three meals a day and a roof over their heads. ‘It’s very easy to become institutionalised,’ Lindsay said.
The young men I talked to, all aged between 18 and 21, seemed hopeful about their futures. They talked about their criminal past being like spilt milk – you can’t just run away and leave it, you have to mop it up before you can move on. One had learned to read in the prison system, thanks to the support of patient volunteers. He’d moved from sounding out picture books, to devouring fiction. ‘It keeps me calm,’ he said, ‘and it passes the time.’
On the last day of March I went to a talk by Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education. Many thoughts about that – I think he’s going to get a post of his own. It was most interesting – and not a little depressing – that when I asked him about the role of school libraries, he answered without once using the word ‘librarian’.
One school librarian who definitely deserves to be celebrated, is Lesley Cheetham from Elizabeth Garrett Anderson school in Islington. Lesley and I met at Waterstones Islington way back in 2010 when my first book had just been published. Subsequently I’ve visited her school a few times and she was my pupil at City University when I taught the Writing for Children course (now in the very capable hands of Tamsyn Murray). Lesley took the decision to self-publish her books,and she’s gone about it with great professionalism. This month all her hard work was rewarded
when her first book, Her Sister’s Voice won the Islington Teen Read award – beating off competition including bestsellers David Walliams, Jeff Kinney and R L Palacio. Hurray for Lesley for this well-deserved win. She’s got a new book out this week, called Someone Like Me, check it out here.
Film of the month – a toss up between Starred (tough prison drama) and The Grand Hotel Budapest, but it goes to the latter because of the visual richness, the clever frame within a frame within a frame, the jokes and the sheer joy of Ralph Fiennes. Also I love, love, love the poster. Starred had a superb performance by Jack O’Connell, but I thought there was too much gratuitous violence, and not enough of the fascinating relationship between two cellmates.
Book of the month – not a great reading month, because I was writing so much. But I loved Banished by Liz de Jager, urban fantasy with dazzling action, vim, a great sense of humour and a sweet prince in need of rescuing.