‘Vile and dangerous’: or, how to get our kids reading

Beware of the book road signCarnegie medal winner blasted as ‘vile and dangerous’. Could there be a better review for a YA author? Kevin Brookes (and his publishers) must be delighted.

Some background: on 23 June the Carnegie and Greenaway medals, the oldest and most prestigious awards given to children’s books, were announced. The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks won the Carnegie, and all power and congratulations to Kevin. I haven’t yet read the book, but even if I hadn’t already intended to that headline would send me straight to an online bookshop. As it will teenagers.

Oh Daily Telegraph, don’t you get it? Call a book for young adults (young adults, note, not young children) ‘vile and dangerous’ and every teenager in town will want to read it! It was ever thus: in 1997, Junk, Melvin Burgess’s story of teenage heroin addicts, won the Carnegie, and was predicted to herald an epidemic of copy-cat drug users. Back in my teenage day, Judy Blume’s Forever was banned by my school library from under-14s, presumably to prevent us from having sex. (What actually happened is that we got the older kids to take it out for us then passed it round the class, along with The Thorn Birds, Lace and James Herbert’s The Rats. Most of us didn’t have sex afterwards).

With all the brow-beating and hair-tearing going on in the UK at the moment about how to get our kids to read, why does our media get so hysterical about something that kids might want to read? Or should they only read what certain adults deem suitable for them to read? Young adults are exactly that – adults, who are young, and just like adults they can make choices and form opinions of their own. If they don’t like The Bunker Diary they’ll stop reading it, but, you know what Daily Telegraph? If you hadn’t branded it as unsuitable, more of them wouldn’t have bothered reading it in the first place.

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How to run a half marathon and stop faffing

I have spent a lot of time recently (and not so recently) faffing about instead of just getting on with my writing. When I was 18 and doing A levels, I would lock myself in my bedroom for hours on end ‘revising’. My parents were amazed and proud of my ability to work so hard. Except that  – ooo, at least half of those hours were spent faffing and distracting myself from the task in hand. I seem to remember my desk drawers always needed tidying, my nails were often in need of filing, and my old diaries made fascinating and essential reading. I still did ok in my A levels, but oh the A*s that could have been mine if I’d only stopped faffing!

Twenty plus years on, humankind’s apparent need to faff has been taken to professional levels. We don’t need to look for distractions any more – they find us. Children, and the metaphorical (and literal) detritus that surrounds them, Facebook, Twitter and email are my principal downfalls. And this blog. A friend asked me if it was the equivalent of filing nails when you should be doing history homework. My affronted answer was ‘No! It’s for my professional profile!’ The honest answer is – ‘um, erm, ahem’ and a muttered ‘kind of’.

So hurrah for the Guardian’s supplement ‘How to write a book in 30 days‘ which appeared in my paper the other day. Obviously the title is a bit of poetic licence (unless you’re a future Jonathan Franzen), but it has made me reconsider my faffiness. ‘Got an idea that just won’t go away?’ it asks. Well, yes, I have. It refuses to go away in fact, however much I try not to think about it. The Guardian is telling me to do something about it. It is my writer’s conscience.

I ran my first half marathon last weekend. I started training for it in July, running for 20 short minutes at a time, puffing up Northumbrian hills, gradually building my strength and training my muscles so that three months later I could run for 2 hours (ahem – 2.03.37 to be precise) without stopping. I did it because I had a great training programme which I stuck to, more or less. Interestingly, I never faffed over running, even when it was pouring with rain. So I’ve decided to treat my idea as my next half marathon, and ‘How to write a book in 30 days’ as the training programme. Perhaps the same psychology that stopped me faffing over running will stop me faffing over writing.

I’ll keep you posted on my progress. And if you have any top anti-faffing tips, they will be gratefully received!

‘Go. Run with it. Make trouble’.

So here it is: after months of consideration I have finally started a blog. I wish ‘consideration’ actually said ‘planning’, but the truth is I’ve not planned this at all. I’ve just thought about it, which is how I usually go about doing things. There is no plan to this blog, just thoughts.

What finally got me going was finishing A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. I finished it in tears in the bathroom this morning, locked away so the kids wouldn’t see me crying. What a wonderful book it is. An absolute modern classic. It deserves to be read by generations to come – I will certainly be giving it my kids when they’re (a lot) older.

I’ll be thinking about this book for a long time, but at the moment I’m pondering over what was the most powerful aspect – the writing (whose simplicity and directness only makes its impact greater), the illustrations (which literally took my breath away in places, and make the reading experience a very sensuous one – as in, it uses all the senses), or the three-way collaboration, between the author, the illustrator, and the originator of the story’s idea, who tragically died before she could start to write her novel. I felt the sense of responsibility the whole time I was reading – what an incredible trust was placed in Patrick Ness. And boy did he fulfil that trust (if that’s the right phrase – do you ‘fulfil trust’?)

In his introduction to the book Patrick says ‘Go. Run with it. Make trouble.’ I took your advice Patrick, and now look where it’s got me.