The YA Shot Blog Tour – Interview with JENNY DOWNHAM

When I was asked to take part in this year’s YA Shot Blog Tour, naturally I jumped at the chance – it’s always good fun to take part in community events like this. Then, when I was told the author I had been given I nearly exploded – JENNY DOWNHAM. JENNY FREAKING DOWNHAM. Author of the outstanding Unbecoming, You Against Me, and Before I Die, she’s one of the best YA novelists working in the UK today – if not the world. I was lucky enough to interview her, and you can read her answers below…

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1. Hello Jenny! Thank you so much for agreeing to do this little interview – I’m a massive fan of your books so it’s a huge honour to be talking with you. Maybe we could start with you telling us a little about your latest book, Unbecoming?

Katie is seventeen and in love with someone whose identity she can’t reveal. Her mother Caroline, is uptight, worn out and about to find her past catching up with her. Katie’s grandmother, Mary, is back with the family after years of mysterious absence and ‘capable of anything,’ despite suffering from Alzheimer’s.

Every morning Mary runs away. She’s desperate to find something, says it’s imperative, but when questioned, can’t be more specific. Katie wants to know what Mary’s looking for. She also wants to know why her mother seems to detest Mary. What was the nature of their original estrangement? It makes Katie question everything she thought was true about her family.

So – three women at different stages of life bound together by a web of lies that only the youngest can untangle.

Oh, and it’s a love story too…

2. Unbecoming covers so many themes – from mental health to sexuality. Did you set out to cover so many topics, or did they evolve natural as the story progressed?

I don’t really think in terms of themes or topics when I begin a project, I’m more interested in characters and the stories they have to tell. I start with them and see where they lead me.

Pinter said a writer’s job is to ‘arrange and listen.’ He believed that characters arrive at their destination through their own impulses, rather than being manipulated to suit a pre-ordained plot. I love writing this way, although it can be time-consuming!

It’s usually about a year or so into a project that I begin to see what I might be writing about.

3. You’ve mentioned in interviews that a lot of Unbecoming drew from your own mother’s Alzheimer’s. Was it taxing to write about a subject so close to your heart, or did you find it cathartic to put it on the page?

Unbecoming is undoubtedly the most personal of my books. I have been a teenager, a mother and a carer and a lot of my own experiences are in there. But perhaps most importantly, yes – my own mother had Alzheimer’s and became very unwell and died while I was writing.

I found it very cathartic writing the book. I used to care for my mum during the day and then I’d go home and try to imagine what it might be like to ‘be’ her. I like to think that writing about the erosion of memory from a sufferer’s perspective made me a better daughter and carer in my mum’s last months.

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4. You talk about some very intense subjects in all your books (Terminal illness in Before I Die, Sexual Assault in You Against Me) – Do you feel it’s important for YA literature to look at these ideas?

When I’m sitting inside the story writing it, I don’t think about themes or ideas, I just get drawn to interesting characters and dramatic situations. My job is to ensure the characters are emotionally truthful and then I find that they lift off the page and begin to tell their stories themselves.

As for what’s ‘important.’ I want to take readers on a journey, rather than give them a message to take away. Books can address difficult situations and confront social issues and help readers deal with real-life challenges. They can transport you, make you think, move you… the list is endless. I hope my readers shift allegiance over and over again with the characters in Unbecoming. I hope they empathise with teenage Mary in her claustrophobic 1950s town and teenage Katie with all her problems at school and home. I hope readers wonder, “What would I do if that were me?” And I hope, by the book’s end, the reader feels they’ve been somewhere and seen some things and that perhaps the world looks slightly different now.

5. YA has been accused of being “too dark” in recent years – do you think that’s true? Are there any subjects you don’t think teenagers and young adults should be reading about?

The LIVES of children and teens are full of tough things. It’s illusory to think we can keep them safe by only allowing them access to certain books. We need to find the joy among the difficult stuff, rather than ignoring the difficult stuff. I don’t think there’s a single subject that can’t be tackled in YA, so long as the author handles the material truthfully and with respect and takes account of all the complexities.

6. Do you have a favourite out of your characters?

I love them all after spending so much time with them – even the difficult ones! But perhaps Tessa in Before I Die has a particularly special place in my heart because her story doesn’t continue beyond the page. I’m very aware of her death date each year and I think how old she would be had she lived.

Dakota Fanning in the movie adaptation Now Is Good

Dakota Fanning as Tessa in the movie adaptation Now Is Good

7. How does a new story start to unfold for you? Do you plan meticulously or start writing and see where it leads?

I never plan. When I’m in the middle of a project and every day I’m throwing thousands of words in the bin, I wish with all my heart that I could be the kind of writer who could follow a path. However, when the book is complete, I’m rather proud that I didn’t need one. At that point, I think it’s exactly the best kind of writing habit and fully resolve to do exactly the same for my next book!

8. Do you treat writing like a full time job? Is your writing day structured or do you only write when the mood takes you?

When I know where a project is going (so about 18 months in), I can write every day and be quite disciplined. Before that, while I’m still exploring, I idle my way in. Most of my writing in the early stage gets chucked, but I find I return again and again to the things that preoccupy and eventually I begin to see what the book might be about. It’s a slow process. And involves lots of coffee and day-dreaming.

9. Why do you write YA?

Because young people are on the cusp of adulthood and that interests me. A teen protagonist can do almost everything an adult can, but because they are boundaried by adult rules and expectations, they have to be far more creative to get what they want. It’s much more exciting to tell a story when there are lots of obstacles in the way.

Also, YA is a happening gig! There are so many books being published in the UK and Ireland that wouldn’t have seen the light of day in past years and would still not be published in many other places in the world. More readers are seeing their own lives represented within stories and this enables them to think not only, ‘What would I do if that happened to me?’ But also to think, ‘That is happening to me.’ Books can sometimes give you the very thing you need – the clue to solve a problem, the strength to keep going, the laughter that makes things more manageable and, perhaps most importantly – the feeling you’re not alone.

10. Who are some of your favourite authors, YA or otherwise?

As a young reader I devoured poetry, folk and fairy tales (Grimm, Andersen), and stories from the Arabian Nights and Ancient Greece. Now I love Raymond Carver, Donna Tartt, Denis Johnson, Ali Smith, Toni Morrison, Maggie O’Farrell, Tove Jansson, John Irving and Kate Atkinson amongst many others. I try to read as a writer might – with one eye and half my brain looking for just how this author make this character so believable, or that sentence so beautiful, or this story such a pageturner…

11. If they made a Jenny Downham action figure, what three accessories would it come with?

Assorted disguises, working wings and a mini espresso maker.

12. Can you tell us what you’re working on next?

I’ve started something new, but it’s very early days. All I have are voices at the moment and I have no idea where they’ll take me. If I had to sum it up so far I’d say it’s about a girl who is furious! She wants her life to be very different and is determined to make it happen.


And that’s your lot! I’d like to thank the YA Shot Team, Carolyn at David Fickling Books, and of course – Jenny herself, for helping put all this together.

You can pick up a copy of Unbecoming just here.

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A small letter to YALC…

This year I was lucky enough to be working at YALC, the Young Adult Literature Conference held as part of London Film & Comic-Con. I know, I’m showing off more than I little bit. Victoria Schwab gave me a cookie (it was delicious) and I fan-girled meeting Malorie Blackman. It’s a far cry now from the first YALC I went to – the very first one in fact, crammed somewhere in the back of Earl’s Court, besieged on either side by the usual LFCC crowd. It earned its nickname that year as the literal hell on earth, so warm and overwhelmingly stuffy, with no boundaries to help keep things in one place. I had fun, but it was still a bit of a sensory explosion that left me a little fractured. The shift to Olympia has made all the difference. Us YA lot now have our very own floor, and the atmosphere change that comes with it is so very welcome.

Oh, the atmosphere of YALC… It’s so wonderful to be in a place surrounded by other book lovers. Everyone there loves books, and so the empathy in the room is palpable – a sense of joy and understanding that you can taste on your tongue. When I was a teenager, I’d have longed for the chance to chat to other bookish teens, to sit and watch talks by my favourite authors, and to get an insight into the publishing industry, so for I felt so honoured to be a tiny part of this year. To talk to others in the book world and to engage with the passionate young readers and talk to them about their favourite books, it’s why I fell in love with this whole wonderful YA community in the UK in the first place. The open-hearted love is real, and it’s wonderful to behold.

I do hope publishers, literary agents and authors where watching and listening to those fans this weekend. I hope they saw the joy the books they make can create. I hope they saw the amount of teenagers there in head scarves who aren’t seeing themselves in the books they read – yet. I hope the UKYA community continues to strive towards full representation of our wonderful multicultural world. I’ve always believed books create empathy, and it the light of all the stuff 2016 has flung at us so far, we need all the empathy towards one another we can get.

On my love of Stories…

Ever since I was very small, I’ve loved stories. My older brother used to make them up to help me sleep at night, my parents used to read to me, so stories have always been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. In recent years, with the rise of the ebook, there’s been a big debate about “the right way” to enjoy a story, and quite often ebooks aren’t it. I hate that. Stories are a special kind of magic: they help people to escape, they give them access to empathy, they help us to understand one another and let us forget the world all at once.

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Don’t you dare tell a person that their ereader is an abomination. That’s snobbery, and it’s just as bad as telling people that they shouldn’t enjoy certain genres of book/film/etc (something I blogged about for the Booktrust, which you can read if you fancy).

I’m a great big fan of letting other people do what makes them happy. If a person finds a book hard to engage with and they prefer to digest a story through a film? Great! I love films, and the visual medium can do so much that a printed one can’t (I might write a blog about this in the future), and if a person finds reading on a digital device easier or more convenient then good for them, they’re still enjoying narratives and that’s the best thing ever.

I prefer physical books because that’s just how I’ve always encountered stories, so that’s ingrained in me I guess, as part of my upbringing, but even then I prefer paperbacks to hardbacks, battered and worn. I know that others prefer pristine hardbacks, resplendent and beautiful, but for me it’s the words inside that I crave. That’s not to say I don’t just aesthetically enjoy books for the way they look – I am definitely not above buying a gorgeous edition of a book I already own because it looks pretty on the shelf. I am that shallow sometimes, okay?

Just look at the charm of this, though!

Just look at the charm of this, though!

But it isn’t even always a preference issue either – ebooks are cheaper, and space a premium, so why should we live in a world where the ability to enjoy stories is reliant on class? Or health? There are many who find holding a physical book difficult, and we shouldn’t be looking down on them for their choices, because that’s an especially awful kind of elitism.

I’ve heard the argument that physical paper is where stories are meant to live, but what about before we had a written language? The beauty of stories is how versatile they can be, and the oral tradition of storytelling is filled with just as much beauty and passion as the written word is. Have you listened to Stephen Fry reading the Harry Potter books? It’s divine. And implying that stories belong in physical books really denies the power of plays too – Shakespeare does not work on paper. It just doesn’t. I love the bard, but reading him is no fun – having those stories performed though, is amazing, because that’s how those stories where intended to be told, and that’s what I’m trying to get across – however you choose to engage in a story is absolutely great.

You like to binge on Netflix and absorb episodes of on-going narrative? Excellent! Me too! You like the ballet? Awesome! I’ve never tried it, but I bet I’d be absorbed. You like playing hours of Bioshock? I adore video games – they’re a chance to interact with a story in a way you don’t get from other mediums. You like an action blockbuster with pretty people and an uncomplicated plot? So do millions of other people because that’s storytelling in an accessible way, and that is a real joy!

I will argue the sheer awesome power of this story forever.

I will argue the sheer awesome power of this story forever.

So don’t frown on someone because they buy ebooks. And don’t think someone’s a snob for only buying leather bound classics (unless they’re ostensibly being snobby). Don’t judge someone who wants to see the film because the book isn’t going to hold their attention. The essence of the story is still there. Remember, to our knowledge, human beings are the only thing in the entire known universe, amongst the vastness of existence, who spend their time making up stories to amuse and thrill each other. That to me, feels like a very unique sort of magic. We should treasure it.

Thanks for Reading,

D

P.S. A big thanks to my great friend Ming for proofreading, editing and offering suggestions.

Gig Night – Original Writing

So I have these two characters that I can’t stop writing about. They have such fun chemistry to work with but NO plot that I can work out yet. I can’t ever do straight up contemporary, so it’ll need to take on a weird fiction/horror vibe for me to really get stuck into it, but… They’ll get something one day. It’s a dual narrative too, which I have never tried before, but both characters are fun to write, so… Enjoy!


The deep, pulsing thrum of music that echoed into the cold night told me that obviously the first band had already started, I weaved my way through the smokers out the front of the club and got my hand stamped ‘No Alcohol’ by a mountain of a bouncer whose skin seemed more faded ink than actual flesh.

Inside, the venue was hardly packed; odd clumps of people hung like driftwood here and there, nursing drinks in plastic cups and nodding in time to the frantic beat half-heartedly. The place was cast in darkness and carried an odour of sweat, beer, and weed that mingled into my nose, an intruder.

‘No wonder people drink so much at these things…’ I muttered, my words totally absorbed by the overwhelming crash of cymbals and the rumble of bass.

The band, though loud to the point of distortion , were half decent at least – complex riffs were punched out tightly along with some seriously intricate drum work. When the vocals finally kicked in, they were cracked and strained with years of use and passion. For a second, I was confused; neither of the guitarists or the bassist had microphones. I’d never seen a band with a drummer on lead vocals before, and I crept up on to my tiptoes, eager to get a peak.

It was her. The girl from the café.

Under the stark stage lights her dark skin shimmered with perspiration, her face a mixture of intense concentration and ecstatic freedom as she barked into the microphone with energetic aggression. Her long toned arms worked in complex patterns with what seemed to me like effortless precision. I stood absolutely transfixed during their set, occasionally moving further forward but always with my eyes fixed on her. Right at the edge of the stage were the die-hard fans – a handful of impossibly attractive indie kids in skinny jeans and vintage dresses. I hung back as they bobbed and weaved in time, shouting along with choruses and throwing their hands up.

They only played a few songs, and when they were done, she climbed onto her stool and blew an extravagant kiss into the audience. I found myself letting out an enthusiastic cheer that was much louder than I intended, and I was sure she met my briefly across the gloom. She sauntered confidently off the stage to the right, and after a quick chat with her bandmates she slipped outside through a side door. Not quite sure what I was planning, I manoeuvred my way through the steadily growing throng of people and headed outside. Wandering around the building, I found her leaning against the brickwork, wrapped in a long fitted coat, a bottle of beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. As she spotted me, her purple lips twitched with what I hoped was a smile.

‘I thought that was you yowling like a sick cat at the end there’ she said coolly.

‘Well, it was yowl worthy playing’ I replied. It had sounded a lot more like a compliment in my head.

We stood in silence for a few seconds, me shifting awkwardly with my hands stuffed in my pockets against the cold. She seemed distracted, blowing smoke out into the misty night leisurely.

‘I didn’t know you smoked’ I said, inwardly berating myself for struggling to find words.

She fixed me with a hard look, ‘I smoke, I drink, hell – I even get to choose my own boyfriends. Isn’t that just terrifying?’ She answered dryly.

‘I didn’t mean-‘ I faltered, ‘I wasn’t disapproving, I was just saying…’

She sighed, and took one last drag before stamping the cigarette out under her heavy, heeled boot.

‘It’s a social thing’ she said.

‘You’re out here alone’

‘Well not anymore I’m not, am I?’ She smiled.

I managed to hold her eye contact for at least two heartbeats before the heat flushing my face became too much to bare and I had to shift my gaze to the wall to the right of her head.

‘Tell you what, let’s go inside and drink to excess’ she concluded, grabbing my hand and leading me back into the pounding darkness.


 

His palm was warm and a little clammy in mine, but a little part of me was sort of enjoying just how nervous holding his hand could make him. Maybe it was mean of me, but boys are far too fun to mess with.

The Ruin were on stage as we tried to squeeze our way the try-hard scene kids, delivering their special blend of bland four chord emo-pop. Like a constant sledgehammer to my soul, the drummer smashed his kit just off time, managing to be unimaginative and yet somehow incompetent all at once. Their vocalist, a self-absorbed cockwomble called Eric was screaming abject misery, which lost its charm when you’d seen him stacking the shelves in Tesco on a Sunday afternoon.

Eventually, we managed to angle ourselves in front of the bar. Old Mike, a leering greasy Guns ‘N’ Roses fan who’d been serving drinks to underage teens for at least half his life, stood disinterestedly behind the sticky counter.

‘Mikey Mike!’ I called above yet another by-the-numbers song ripping off Good Charlotte, ‘a drink for me and this young fish out of water?’

Mike grunted, ‘young’s about right. You even old enough to drink?’

The boy shifted uncomfortably under the older man’s cynical eyes boring into him.

‘Oh come off it Mike,’ I yelled, ‘You served me for at least two years before it was legal.’

‘Yeah but you were a hot girl,’ he sleezed, ‘count don’t it?’

‘I were a hot girl?’ I feigned outrage ‘Have the years truly withered my once glowing good looks?’

Mike rolled his eyes at me, but I could tell he’d given in, ‘What’ll it be, chief?’

‘Um…’ The boy struggled, his eyes nervous and constantly moving.

‘Tequila, Mike!’ I squeezed the boy’s hand to try and reassure him, ‘One bottle, two glasses and somewhere to fall down please.’

We didn’t finish the bottle, but we’d probably drank enough to kill a small elephant. I didn’t remember the main act being on at all, but eventually the house lights kicked Iin, revealing the dank, dismal interior in all its glory. The tables were littered with glasses and bottles with varying levels of alcohol remaining.Yet more sticky liquids pooled on table tops themselves, as well as across the floor. The whole atmosphere was infused with a sense of desperation and escapism.

‘Take care of him, love’ Mike called to me, as I shouldered the boy to the door ‘If he ends up in the sea, they’ll have my bollocks.’

‘Don’t you worry,’ I winked at him, ‘I’ve got him in hand.’

‘Lucky boy. Need any more?’

I gave Mike the finger as I left.


 

I hope you enjoyed that! I do always like feedback.

Thanks for reading!

D

My Top Ten Reads of 2015!

I’m pretty sure when I did my top ten round up last year, I said something along the lines of “Wow, what an outstanding year it’s been for YA & Books in general” but THIS YEAR BEAT THE PANTS OF IT. Seriously, 2015 has seen the publication of some of the most challenging, powerful and evocative novels for Young Adults that have ever been available. The level of diversity, LBQT+ inclusivity and Mental Health awareness is beyond anything it’s ever been in previous years – and while we still have a long way to go, it makes my heart sing to see the dedication of authors, publishers, readers, bloggers and the whole community to actively shout about diversity and to demand better representation in the books they read. The UKYA community is going from strength to strength too, becoming a glowing warm beacon of passion and friendship across the internet that I always feel privileged to be a part of. OKAY, enough of me doing all this gushing – in no particular order, here’s a list of ten of my FAVOURITEST READS from this year! 

The Lost and The Found by Cat Clarke 

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Cat Clarke has a reputation for harsh, bleak thrillers that have a talent for breaking reader’s hearts in two. The Lost and The Found is no exception to her gritty formula, focusing on a family absolutely torn apart by the loss of their daughter thirteen years ago. It has an emotional level to it that’s uncompromising and refuses to look at the world in terms of black and white, letting Faith, its main character, be angry, bitter and selfishly flawed in ways that are deep and understandable. It’s a powerful book that asks a lot of questions, and isn’t afraid to leave those questions unanswered.

Birdy by Jess Vallance

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FRANCES BIRD IS MY BEST FRIEND. Birdy is a sinisterly dark, acid clever little thriller with so much of a skewed sense of unease. Hinging on an obsessive, out of control friendship and coming from a wonderfully unreliable narrator, it’s a slow burning novel that gradually unravels into a sprawling spider’s web of deception, paranoia and constantly escalating madness. It’s definitely not one for the faint of heart, but if you like a book that pulses with psychological trauma and emotional turmoil, then this is a fast paced gem for you. You awful person.

The Next Together by Lauren James 

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Lauren’s debut managed to do something that never normally happens for me – it managed to be a love story that I felt totally invested in! Her characters are witty and sweet, warm and utterly real, and she lets them be quirky and original, without falling into the usual gender stereotypes, and the use of time travel is clever, original and quite often fascinating – well researched and fully formed, and the way it skips between them creates a fresh, paced feel that keeps the plot hanging and pounding. Not to mention a fantastically mysterious open ended conclusion. I’m really looking forward to her next book in 2016!

The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell 

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Rundell is the only non-YA title on my list, but it’s one I would urge people of all age to read. She’s got such a phenomenal talent with crafting words, like a true artist, she weaves them flawlessly and with passion and love. She refuses to talk down to her audience, and The Wolf Wilder is a captivating tale of wolves, snow and freedom, spearheaded by a wilful heroine who has more than a dash of Philip Pullman’s Lyra Belacqua about her. The wonderful words are beautifully accompanied by gorgeous inky illustrations that make this book the whole package – a children’s classic that we’ll have on bookshop shelves in fifty, maybe even a hundred years time.

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

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My first ever Hardinge book, and a darkly twisting novel that swirled with mystery and deception, all pulled along by a brilliantly bright, determined heroine trapped in a male-dominated society that really cuts into the reader. She has such a lyrical, haunting way with words that felt hypnotic and made me so intensely jealous, if I’m honest. She pulls in elements of weird fantasy into a windswept period world, creating a sense of unease and paranoia so tangible it practically drips from every page.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness 

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Yup. A Patrick Ness book came out, so OBVIOUSLY it’s on my list. It has to be. He’s managed to yet again create a perfect YA novel – tongue firmly in cheek and fully mocking standard tropes and stereotypes from a lot of mainstream Young Adult lit. It’s all done with love though, and it also manages to tell a heart-wrenching coming-of-age story that beautifully looks at the loss of innocence, mental health and the power of friendships and family. Ness manages to blend contemporary drama with weird science fiction vibes seamlessly, shot through with wry humour and a bizarre, charming sense of warmth and sadness. It’s also so wonderfully Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

All Of The Above by James Dawson

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James Dawson has had two books out this year, and All of The Above was the author’s first foray into contemporary, and it’s totally astounding. Filled with chaotic, messy and brilliantly real characters with flaws and so much love, it managed to utterly break my heart and completely sucked me in, by allowing its teen characters to be rude and sexually diverse, shunning labels and focussing on emotions. The dialogue is hilarious and cuttingly witty, and the friendships are achingly beautiful, filled with fury and passion. It’s a triumph of a YA novel that doesn’t talk down to or patronise its audience in the slightest.

Remix by Non Pratt 

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Non’s second book is yet another testament to the fact that she might well have one of the best narrative voices in YA. She manages to make her characters speak exactly how me and my friends always used to (and still do, for that fact), and she tackles some important issues that affect teenagers on a regular basis with stark honesty and superbly hilarious heart. Not to mention, Remix is all about Festivals and Music, something that is very very close to my heart, and the book includes some brilliant nostalgia, band nods and musical feelings that made me squeal with delight.

Unbecoming by Jenny Downham 

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Jenny Downham novels don’t come along very often, but when they do, they’re really something special. Unbecoming is a huge mix of diversity, emotion and themes that should feel clunky and forced, but it simply flows and sings flawlessly. It’s a powerfully important book that touches on family and mental illness, as well as examining sexuality and race, all with respect and intelligence. It’s got so much heart and so much warmth to it.

The Accident Season by Moira Fowley-Doyle 

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Easily one of the most original, haunting, captivating and twistingly brilliant YA novels this year, The Accident Season is an absolute powerhouse of a debut novel, one that uses language like wind and magic, to create an unsettling dreamlike atmosphere that sucks you in totally and completely. It’s filled with diverse, whirring characters (Bea will always hold a special place in my heart), and a dark, creeping mystery that has one foot in Fantasy and one in Contemporary Drama. It’s simply outstanding writing.


RIGHT! That’s your lot! This was one of the hardest Top 10 lists I’ve ever pulled together, because honestly YA publishing has been so unbelievably on fire this year! From debuts like The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury and Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, to the latest instalments in some of my favourite series, like Lockwood & Co’s The Hollow Boy, or the final in Will Hill’s outstanding Department 19 horror series –  I can only hope that 2016 builds on this year and delivers even more. Although I have NO IDEA when I’ll get them all read!

Thanks for Reading, and be wonderful to each other.

D for Darran/Dinosaur/Decepticon

 

World Mental Health Day 2015 – Some Books to Try

Suffering from a mental illness is a terrifying experience. To the outside world, it seems trivial, harmless and invisible, but to those of us suffering, it’s anything but. And it isn’t just an illness of the mind – It can cause all kinds of physical effects too. 1 in 5 Young People are now being diagnosed with some form of mental health problems, from generalised anxiety and depression, to eating disorders and schizophrenia, and there’s no one-size-fits-all guide to what to expect from these illnesses. Stigma and misunderstanding, confusion and fear, are all rife when it comes to understanding mental illnesses, and I’ve always found that the best way to understand something is to read about people in down to Earth, sensitive and respectable Fiction and Biographical accounts. So as last week was Mental Health Awareness Week, I thought I’d throw together a list of fantastic YA and Teen Fiction titles that either deal with, or have characters who suffer from, mental health problems. Many of these have helped me in the past, and I’d love to know that they’ll go on to help others. People with these illnesses aren’t monsters – they’re not crazy, dangerous lunatics – they’re people struggling with an invisible, but deadly disease.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini

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Themes – Depression, Suicidal Thoughts, Eating Disorders, Anxiety

Inspired by the author’s own experiences of hospitalisation for depression, It’s Kind of a Funny Story is a brilliant mix of genuinely sharp humour and honest, heartfelt emotion that absolutely buzzes in the words he writes. Vizzini’s tragic death at just 32 years old makes the impact of these book painfully real.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

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Themes – Depression, Suicide, Identity

The quintessential book when it comes to main characters with depression, Plath’s only novel is beautifully haunting and poetic and while it’s dated in some ways, the feelings at the heart of it remain as current and relatable as ever. The book touches on how the pressures of adult life can weigh heavily on young people, and ultimately has a hopeful tone to it.

 

All Of The Above by Juno Dawson

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Themes – Eating Disorders, Self-Harm

Juno’s first contemporary novel is by far her most diverse, intelligent and emotionally articulate offering to date. It examines the stresses and pressures that teenagers and young people go through in a chaotic, messy and heartfelt way, never pulling any punches, but always holding your hand, it looks at how people can hide things about themselves and how there is no definitive normal.

All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

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Themes – Depression, Suicidal Thoughts, Self-Harm

A wonderful, heart stopping, devastating and uplifting book, All the Bright Places is a beautiful tale of friendship and love told alongside some dark, complex themes, all in a sensitive and intelligent way. The words crackle with energy on the page, and the characters are wonderfully real and relatable.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

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Themes – OCD, Depression, Eating Disorders

Not out until later this year, but I can already tell you that Patrick Ness continues to be one of the finest YA writers working today. In The Rest of Us, our narrator Mikey suffers from near crippling Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, frequently washing his hands until they bleed. Patrick paints his own self-loathing honestly, tackling the concept that OCD is synonymous with being neat head on with a sledgehammer of truth. He also touches on eating disorders with a secondary character, and really captures the helplessness and hopelessness that sufferers of these illnesses can feel.

When Mr. Dog Bites by Brian Conaghan

9781408842539

Themes – Tourette’s Syndrome, Bullying

Shortlisted for this year’s Carnegie Medal for Children’s Fiction, When Mr. Dog Bites is one of the very very few books out there that looks at what it means to live with Tourette’s Syndrome, an often over looked and woefully misunderstood illness. Naturally, it’s rude and funny in places, but it’s also it bristles with an honest energy and has a brilliantly open and genuinely well-intentioned main character.

Solitaire by Alice Oseman

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Themes – Depression, Suicide, Eating Disorders

Alice’s debut novel is one of my favourite YA books of all time, and her drive to be inclusive is what makes her book stand out so well. Tory’s brother, Charlie, suffers from a number of mental health problems, highlighting that these things often aren’t as simple as the media makes them out to be. His anorexia is sensitively handled and I feel like having a male character suffer from an eating disorder is so important to have in fiction, and his relationship with his sister is absolutely wonderful. He’s a sensitive, intelligent young person who struggles with the harshness of the world, and Alice never lets him become a stereotype.

Heroic by Phil Earle

9780141346274

Themes – PTSD

Phil Earle is one of the best unsung writers in Teen and YA literature, purely because of just how well he manages to capture the anger and confusion of teen life. Heroic is looks at friendship, the relationships between brothers and the dark and upsetting effects Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can have, not just of sufferers, but on their families too. This book is hauntingly real and gritty, but from there is its power, to overcome the darkness of the everyday and reach the light that we can find in each other. His characters are brilliantly created, snappy and intelligent, and by writing from two perspectives, we get a fully layered and complex look at a harrowing condition.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

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Themes – Suicide, PTSD

Without any spoilers, I will just say that Perks is one of my favourite ever books ever ever. It made a huge difference for me in my life, and Charlie is the music obsessed, shy and sensitive young man I needed to read about. It’s a book that teaches that it’s okay to be who you are, that gender stereotypes are dumb, and that through each other, we can overcome even the most horrifying events. The way Stephen Chbosky flashes back through Charlie’s life in this book is haunting and gripping all at once.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

9781447263227

Themes – Social Anxiety, Bipolar Disorder

Fangirl is a sweet story of love, friendship and coming of age that also works in an underexplored and worryingly misunderstood condition – social anxiety. In an age where everyone can be in contact with one another without ever actually having to see those people physically, Rainbow works it into Cath’s character without being dismissive or painting it too lightly. She also makes sure that we know it’s okay to be shy, to need space or prefer to be alone, and in doing so, she creates a character that is so easy to relate to, in a sweet novel that’s already becoming a massive bestseller.

Other recommended titles:

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick (Depression)

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher (Suicide, Depression)

Panther by David Owen (Depression)

Every Day by David Levithan (Depression)

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green/David Levithan (Depression)

The Accident Season by Moira Fowley-Doyle (PTSD)

A Really Awesome Mess by Trish Cook/Brendan Halpin (Eating Disorders)

Butter by Erin Lange (Eating Disorders)

How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff (Eating Disorders)

Hello Darkness by Anthony McGowan (Psychosis)

Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dallaira (Depression)

You can find more on this fab list on Goodreads too.

Part of the best way for us to tackle to misconceptions and stigmas that surround these illnesses is to talk about them, and share our own experiences as well as stories like the ones I’ve talked about here. These books aren’t just for those of us who struggle with these things every single day, they’re also for the people who have never had to cry when they wake up, who don’t know what it’s like to struggle with thoughts and feelings that can’t be controlled, and who can’t put themselves into those lives. Empathy is the key to humanity, and we all need to do our best to understand and care for one another.

Or something like that, anyway. I ain’t a great philosopher, I just read a lot of books.

Obviously, many of these books will contain triggers/upsetting scenes, so please always do some research and never be afraid to stop reading something that’s upsetting you.

If you need someone to talk to, The Samaritans are there 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to just listen, and never judge.

Thanks for Reading. I hope you find a book that helps.

D

Free Writing No. 12 – Dreams

This is strongly influenced by HP Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle work, although without psychic cats. It’s in present tense, which is a bit… well, it’s hard work to be quite honest.


 

I spin breathlessly beneath the purple sky, my skirt pin wheeling about me as I twist in the warm, gentle breeze. I know that the sky shouldn’t be purple. Of course I know that. It also should crackle with gargantuan bolts of lightning that threaten to rip open the fabric of the world above me. There are things lurking out there in the cold silence of space that want to be let in. They hunger to be let in. I feel the creeping gnawing of dread, but there seems to be a strange mix of energy and hedonism in my blood that overrides it and fills me with a giddy sense of wonder at this alien world I seem to have found myself in.

“How did I get here…?” I wonder aloud to the two gigantic, looming and oppressive moons that hover in the sky – impossibly distant, and yet strangely close. They feel malevolent, like they’d like to devour me from the ground if they could only break from their gravitational prison.

I wrack my brain for how I got her, remembering that I woke in my room, in my house, to purple light sifting through the curtains. Thinking it odd and hoping maybe for an electrical storm, I climbed out of the window and found myself here, in this wonderful, beautiful, oppressively dangerous alien landscape. I stop my pirouette and look this way and that, but my house is nowhere to be seen. The elation that had thundered through my body began to give way to the much more familiar fluttering and shifting of anxiety.

“Hello?” I called, answered only by the faint crackle of celestial lightning someone high above me.

There was no sign of a path, or anything resembling it, just acres of black sand spotted with strange, spiked plants that stood hundreds of feet high.

“You are lost…” A voice punctuates the heavy silence. It’s soft and feels amused, but I can’t see the source of it. The area around me is all open spaces and there’s nowhere to hide. In the distance, I see a silent shriek of purple lightning hit a gigantic plant. It is disintegrated instantly.

“Yes… I am. My house was just here…” I reply to the voice. It giggles, a harsh, high pitched noise that makes my stomach turn. I lose balance for a second at the sound, my head shuddering involuntarily and my hands clenching and unclenching at their own volition.

“Little ape, you are not meant for here…” It hisses softly, a noise like the shifting of sand.

“Ape? Excuse you?” Some of my attitude returns to me.

“I am not to be excused. I am celestial. Eternal. I will still be in the universe when your entire species has been swallowed by the sun.” There’s an edge to the voice now, clearly I offended it by not bowing in worship.

“And despite all of this, you hide in a desert to torment a lost teenage girl?” I ask. I know getting a rise out of the voice is probably not a sensible idea, but my mouth never did listen to reason.

“Petulant little thing… Aren’t you?” There’s amusement back in its voice.

“So my teachers keep telling me.” I reply, smiling. I feel much more at ease now. Maybe I’ve made a friend. That would probably come in handy.

“Teachers are afraid of you. You have potential they never did. They resent your untapped future. You have an infinite amount of possibilities ahead of you while theirs dwindle every day.”

“I like the sound of that, but mostly I’m just a gobby cow. Look, I always prefer to look who I’m talking to in the eye… Do you think we could observe a little social convention?”

“So be it.” The voice has lowered several octaves, now the leaden depth of a mausoleum door swinging shut.

The black sand begins to shift and swirl, hissing and crackling as it does so. I see tiny shots of static electricity racing across it as it grinds together. From beneath the sand, something huge shifts and unfurls itself. A creature beyond anything of Earth. Beyond science fiction and horror movies. It stands thousands of feet high, silhouetted against the rich purple sky, and I scream. I scream and scream until my mind refuses to acknowledge the horror in front of me, and the world goes black.