Following Your Inner Compass: Q & A with author Andrew Norriss

Jessicas GhostAndrew Norriss’s brilliant new Middle Grade (9-12+) book, Jessica’s Ghost, is out now and I highly recommend it. We are fortunate enough to have Andrew visiting the hearthfire today to answer a few questions about this book and his interesting writing career (did you know his other writing includes sitcom The Brittas Empire and kids’ TV series Bernard’s Watch?).

Jessica’s Ghost tackles a weighty subject (depression and suicide) for young readers; where did the idea for the book come from?

It’s not an idea I consciously chose. I would not have dared. I was trying, as an experiment, to write a story without all my usual pre-planning, so I began with the idea of a ghost (with no idea why she was a ghost) and just started tapping away. I was halfway through the first draft before I realised she had killed herself (it’s curious how this was never really up for debate) and was thoroughly alarmed. This is not my usual territory, and I was not at all sure I had the ability to make my story remotely convincing.

That does sound alarming! Francis is a great character. How do you create a character like that? Did he arrive, fully-formed, or did you have to work out what would make him different?

Arriving fully formed just about sums it up. Again, to my surprise. I know nothing about clothes, design or fashion and there was a lot of hasty searching in books and on the web for good phrases and words that might make it look as if I did. What I did know, however, is that passions like these can appear at a remarkably early age, so I imagined Francis finding back numbers of Vogue when he was four, and demanding a sewing machine for his eighth birthday. And just a few weeks back I found an article in the paper about a famous designer who had done exactly that.

What would you say to someone who says children’s books shouldn’t raise difficult issues directly?

I have some sympathy with this but, like so many things in life, you can’t make a hard and fast rule about what can and cannot be put in books. Even in Narnia, war kills friends and mothers have cancer. Maybe it’s not so much the subject that matters so much as how it’s treated. And most important of all, of course, whether it’s a good story.

Yes, didactic ‘issues-driven’ books don’t really work for any age group, adults included – story is definitely the most important thing. Jessica’s Ghost is, first and foremost, a good read and I think that’s how you can ‘get away with’ raising these issues with this age group.

You have written in a range of media and genres in your career; how much is that a conscious choice?

After deciding that I was going to take the writing thing seriously, the first piece I wrote was a situation comedy for television and, to my astonishment, managed to sell it. I wrote sitcoms for 10 years, with my friend Richard Fegen and then, as mysteriously as the urge had arisen, it simply disappeared, and I found myself writing other things instead. Like books for young people.

I don’t know why this happened, but I have come to realise that there is an inner compass in all of us, telling us which star we have to follow – like Francis wanting to design clothes – and it is a foolish person who, for the sake of money or fame or to please their parents, tries to go in a different direction. We really have about as much choice about where this inner compass will take us as we do in choosing which direction is north. To a quite remarkable extent we go where we have to go…

Do you have a fixed writing routine? (e.g. number of words per day, set hours for writing etc)

I never went for the idea of a set number of words, but I always found a time limit very useful. I usually made sure it was not too long as well. Four hours was a good day…

What advice would you give to young writers?

The best advice I ever found on writing was given by Robert Heinlein (science fiction writer). He said there were only three rules to follow for a successful career in writing. Number one was to write something (he reckoned that was where 99% of would be writers fell down). Number two was to send it off to a publisher. And number three was to keep on doing numbers one and two… Made sense to me!

Thank you, Andrew – such interesting answers. If this has whetted your appetite for a quirky MG read that offers depth without ever feeling heavy, I can definitely recommend Jessica’s Ghost.

UKMG Review: Jessica’s Ghost by Andrew Norriss

Jessicas GhostLight of touch and yet rich in depth, this novel explores issues from fitting in to depression and even suicide through a perfectly pitched story for the 9-12 audience.

Goodreads summary:

Francis has never had a friend like Jessica before. She’s the first person he’s ever met who can make him feel completely himself. Jessica has never had a friend like Francis before. Not just because he’s someone to laugh with every day – but because he’s the first person who has ever been able to see her …Jessica’s Ghost is a funny, moving and beautiful book by a master storyteller, about the power of friendship to shine a warm light into dark places.

I really enjoyed this and would absolutely recommend it to children in the target age range. The story and the characters are charming and quirky; I loved Francis particularly but they are all really well realised. It’s the best kind of ‘misfits’ book, and perfect for this age group when kids are busily sorting out whether and where they fit with their peers. Without being didactic or dogmatic, the book has a clear message of self-acceptance which will be valuable for many children to absorb.

In terms of the ‘darker’ content, I am so impressed with how this is handled: it didn’t feel inappropriate, heavy or awkward at all and I would have no hesitation sharing this book with children regardless of their existing understanding of depression and suicide. Sometimes a book featuring issues is clearly intended for those already in the know, while others may be most suitable for those on the outside of an issue. In this case, I think neither is true and would happily use it to introduce the topic, or recommend it to a child who I knew to be struggling.

Overall, I hope it’s clear that I definitely recommend this one! If you want to hear more about it, Andrew Norriss will be here at the hearthfire on Friday answering some interview questions, so do check back.

Jessica’s Ghost is out now from David Fickling Books. I am grateful to have received a review copy.

YA Review: The Sky Is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson

sky is everywhereThe Sky Is Everywhere is a gorgeous contemporary read, in which Lennie struggles to deal with the loss of her older sister, Bailey, alongside handling normal 17-year-old things like school and boys.

My initial reaction:

Gorgeous and oddly romantic YA novel about grief and starting over. A book about a 17 year old girl mourning her sister, where said girl finds herself in a love triangle may sound crass but it’s actually wonderful. The family is quirky in a way that reminded me of Sarah Addison Allen’s books (although there is less sense of magic being real here) and which ensured real depth and interest to the characters. I thought the portrayal of Lennie’s grief was fantastic in its rhythms and depths, and I also loved her artistic side: a clarinettist, she’s also a compulsive writer who adores Wuthering Heights. Well worth a read – beautifully-written and definitely something to sink into for a bit.

I am absolutely recommending this. It’s a real treat of a read: emotional without ever being mawkish or sentimental.

The plot is well-constructed and drives the book on, while the characterisation is a real strength. This is definitely character-led fiction, where you are rooting for the characters and despairing at their mistakes and misfortunes.

I know some Goodreads reviews have criticised the idea that Lennie would be concerned with boys/romance/love while mourning her sister, but I would argue that that is exactly what makes this realistic. Other stuff doesn’t just stop while we grieve, and that’s part of what makes grieving difficult and confusing – goodness knows how much worse that confusion is if you have to grieve someone as close as a sister in your teenage years! Jandy Nelson has captured this complexity of emotion beautifully, I feel (and it’s hardly as though Lennie goes blithely about her days without guilt for having feelings besides grief).

So, the key factors which I enjoyed were: Legive you the sunnnie’s poetry, strewn all over town and simultaneously actually worth reading and realistic as teen poetry; Lennie’s offbeat family; the treatment of grief, love and romance. This was a lovely, lyrical read which I greatly enjoyed and would definitely recommend to fans of YA contemporaries.

The Sky Is Everywhere is out now from Walker Books. Jandy’s next novel, I’ll Give You the Sun is out next month.

Linking everything together: how my textbook writing draws on my life

You may think that writing English textbooks would be very dull and unimaginative. In my experience, however, writing textbooks and school resources is just as creative and personal an endeavour than writing stories, just in a different way.

There are of course restrictions and certain things that have to be included. You couldn’t have a GCSE English Language textbook without work on persuasive devices or writing descriptively (in the very specific ways that GCSE requires), for example – but this is where the creativity can come in. One of the beauties, for me, of writing this kind of material is in choosing the texts and data for students to work with.

Lang textbook

This past week, there was quite a bit of excitement in my department at work as sample material from the new AQA A Level English Language book was given out, with my name on the cover. For many, this was replaced by hilarity when people spotted that I had pulled together a batch of texts about dogs (I’m quite a doggy person…) for students to work on, not least a photo of my own dogs featured in a tweet.

UKYA recs
L-R: KS3 student book, KS3 teacher book, IGCSE student book

This made me think about how some of my other textbooks have drawn on my own experience and interests. Running this blog, and more specifically, being plugged in to the UKYA publishing world in a small way has certainly has a positive effect on my usage of texts in the teaching resources I have written.

I think it’s brilliant that I can be a blogger and a textbook author, as blogging has made me aware of some fabulous YA (especially UKYA) texts that other teachers might not be familiar with, making them known to the students using these textbooks in class. Obviously, I am also including the staple Dickens and Bronte passages, but how lovely to be able to also show students great recent writing, which they may wish to investigate further!

Books referenced in this post:

  • A-Level English Language for AQA, OUP, 2015 (Dan Clayton, Angela Goddard, Beth Kemp, Felicity Titjen)
  • First Language English for Cambridge IGCSE, Nelson Thornes, 2014 (Beth Kemp)
  • Essential Anthology for KS3: Communication and Information (Student Book), 2014, Nelson Thornes (Christina Brookes, Caroline Davis, Ken Haworth, Beth Kemp, Nicola Williams)
  • Essential Anthology for KS3: Communication and Information (Teacher Book), 2014, Nelson Thornes (Christina Brookes, Caroline Davis, Ken Haworth, Beth Kemp, Nicola Williams)

February’s Reading Log

It’s time for the monthly round-up! These posts help keep track of the reading challenges I’m doing this year and also give a quick shout-out for all the books I’ve been reading (not just those I review).

I won’t give too much detail here (as this kind of post gets long really quickly) – just a quick summary of each book read and some stats. The book titles link to their Goodreads pages for more info.

Despite February being a fabulously bookish month for me (I went to two brilliant events: the launch of Arsenic for Tea and the first UKYA Extravaganza), I did less well than in January with 7 books completed and many of my personal challenge aims missed (although I did read both British Books and Diverse Books).

Oh well, better luck next month!

Feb reads

Arsenic for TeaRobin Stevens, Random House Children’s, 2015, 9+ historical mystery

Set in the 1930s, this is a classic Country House Murder Mystery for kids. It’s the second in the Wells and Wong series which started with Murder Most Unladylike. I cannot recommend this highly enough – both for kids and for adult fans of boarding school series and/or kids’ crime. A triumph of diverse representation as well as a brilliantly conceived mystery.

Close Your Pretty Eyes, Sally Nicholls, Scholastic, 2013, YA contemporary with chiller/thriller elements

I really enjoyed this: clever first person narrative, heartbreaking in places, great is-it-or-isn’t-it haunting plot. Hard to classify, or to sum up briefly. If a damaged narrator (she’s 11 and on her 16th home…) and a vengeful ghost appeals at all, definitely pick it up.

Counting by 7s, Holly Goldberg Sloan,  Piccadilly Press, 2013, YA contemporary

A quirky read that grew on me fairly rapidly: by the end I was definitely rooting for Olivia and the bizarre group of people she had surrounded herself with. The story of a teenage genius who loses both parents in a car accident, this is also about family and community an identity. Worth sticking with.

The Dead Men Stood Together, Chris Priestley, Bloomsbury, 2013, YA chiller/horror

Fabulously inventive re-imagining of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which I believe would be a brilliantly enjoyable tale even if you didn’t know the original. Reading it from a position of being familiar with the story, however, it is impossible not to admire how Priestley has filled in the gaps and made it a solid YA horror/chiller for today.

All The Truth That’s In Me, Julie Berry, Templar, 2013, YA historical

I remember seeing a lot of hype about this one and was disappointed when it came to reading it myself. I found the narration quite disorienting (it’s like a letter directly addressed to another character) but the mystery of what has happened to the central character – she was kidnapped and returned around two years later with her tongue cut out – is intriguing enough to carry it.

The Sky Is Everywhere, Jandy Nelson, Walker, 2010, YA contemporary

This book is just lovely, which is an odd thing to say about a book that focuses on grief and mourning, I know, but it is also about love and forgiveness and families – and poetry. It’s also extraordinarily well-done. I loved Lennie’s poems shared within the pages and also the quirkiness of her family. Highly recommended for those who love a convincingly emotional YA novel.

Bird, Crystal Chan, Tamarind, 2014, YA contemporary

This is a great read in terms of diversity, focusing as it does on a Jamaican-Mexican-American family and particularly discussing clashes in the beliefs and traditions of those different cultures. It does so very well, and is another heartbreaking family story. I definitely enjoyed its dreamy and lyrical qualities and would recommend it for 12+ readers.

Challenges Progress this month – books read:

I did so much less well this month in terms of challenges! No TBR-reduction, no personal challenge met and no own (as in neither review nor for school) books read. Oops!

UKYA/UKMG titles: Arsenic for Tea, Close Your Pretty Eyes, The Dead Men Stood Together.

Reviews published this month:

Full reviews: Arsenic for Tea, Squishy McFluff, The Weight of Souls,

eligible for British Books Challenge: Arsenic for Tea, Squishy McFluff,

eligible for Dive Into Diversity Challenge: Arsenic for Tea (narrator is from Hong Kong)

Plans for next month

To prioritise my challenges (which, remember, I did set for myself, after all!)

To read some of the books I picked up at the fabulous UKYA Extravaganza.

Gorgeous goodies with heart: my first GOOD Box

A few weeks ago, I signed up to be a tester/reviewer for new ethical subscription service This GOOD Box and on Monday I received my first box.

I was so excited, I forgot to photograph it at first (sorry!) but here you can see the lovely (recycled) tissue wrapping and coordinated tape and string used.

JpegThe contents are all from ethical and/or socially responsible traders and it was great to be able to find out more about these brilliant companies.


In my package, I received:

a yummy white chocolate lolly from Chocolate Memories, a social enterprise run by Autism Initiatives in County Down. The factory provides people with Autism Spectrum Condition with training and work opportunities. The chocolate was thick, creamy and indulgent – definitely recommended!

a lovely mint lip balm from Raw Skincare, a company offering chemical-free skincare in recycled/compostable packaging. The balm smells gorgeous and is really tingly on my lips. I love it!

a bracelet of recycled paper beads made by Sarah Namaganda of Awamu, a social enterprise working in the slums of Kampala to improve the lives of women and children in particular through education and business opportunities. I love that it’s possible to see the specific person who crafted the product and even see a video clip of her working and talking about her work – plus it’s a really nice bracelet!

a lovely greetings card on recycled stock, produced by designer and illustrator Jenny Jackson. This is very high quality and feels luxurious.

team GOOD badges, both saying “be the reason someone smiles today” – gJpegood advice indeed :)

team GOOD postcard, with “Kindness is always fashionable” on one side and a set of random challenges on the other. I’m trying to remember these as I go about my week.

So, all in all, a lovely thing to receive. If you want to know more about Team GOOD, their website has some nice ideas and information on it and one-off boxes are available now, with a subscription service due to launch in the Spring.


UKYA Extravaganza Blog Tour: Q&A with Alan Gibbons

UKYA extravaganzaAs you may know, there is a very special event taking place on the last day of this month: the UKYA extravaganza, with 35 UK authors of YA books at Waterstones Birmingham. Tickets sold out within 24 hours, and it looks like this will be the first of many, rather than a one-off event. Today the blog tour stops here, with Alan Gibbons answering a few questions about writing, the UKYA phenomenon and reading.

Gibbons booksAlan’s books cover a range of important and interesting topics. They are often contemporary novels, focusing on difficulties that teens and children face. He has written about gun crime (Raining Fire), hate crimes (Hate), domestic violence (The Edge), bullying and suicide (Hold On) and racial tension (Caught in the Crossfire, An Act of Love) as well as football (Total Football series), mythology and folklore (Shadow of the Minotaur, Night Hunger). With all of Alan’s books that I have read, there is a very real and very human story at the heart that brings the issue into focus. His writing is issues-led, but never preachy or didactic.

What do you think is special about UKYA? Why does it deserve celebrating/ promoting?

I think any initiative that keeps young people reading through the teenage years is to be supported. This crossroads between childhood and adulthood can often be turbulent, thrilling, troubling and monstrously exhausting. It was for me! The genre barely existed until landmark books such as S E Hinton’s The Outsiders, Robert Cormier’s Chocolate War and Heroes and Robert Swindells’ Brother in the Land and Stone Cold blazed a trail. Now it attracts some of the most talented writers around. An event that brings lots of these authors together with their readers is a terrific idea.

You obviously believe in the importance of diverse books. What advice do you have for writers who are hesitant about writing characters who are from different cultures from themselves?

I suppose I just feel that the variety of human experience should find its way into literature. Writers who have a range of black and Asian, male and female, gay and straight characters aren’t following an agenda or pushing ‘political correctness.’ They are reflecting their society. They are being human. Anyone who chooses not to do this is surely pushing an alternative agenda.

I would never be so arrogant as to give other writers advice. Personally, I think I have nothing to lose by walking around in somebody else’s skin. Whatever details of skin colour, gender or sexual orientation, we are all brothers and sisters and have far more in common than we have difference. I just write out of human solidarity and that means having that little bit of courage to stray into the odd avenue I have not trodden myself, to imagine another person’s circumstances and responses. Hey, if I get it wrong I can apologise in the best way possible, do it better in the next book I write. Defensiveness is the enemy of literature and artistic creation.

I’m also aware of your tireless library campaigning. Do you see this as part of your role as an author, like school visits?

Absolutely. I am a teacher-writer-activist. Each of those elements is as essential as the others. What this government is doing is wrong, the greatest act of cultural vandalism carried out in this country since World War Two. How could we writers step aside and let the philistines get away with book burning by proxy without raising howls of protest?

Can you tell us something about what you’re working on at the moment?

My next novel is about political and personal betrayal, focussing on the son of a Member of Parliament and something his father did in public life that impacts disastrously on the family. It was planned to be called You Took My Son, but may morph into End Game because my publishers prefer the second title. I am just happy for it to see the light of day in the spring. I am now working on a book about abduction and abuse for 2016.

How do you work? Do you plan in depth? How do you decide what your topic will be? Does the story come first, the characters or is that not at all how it works?

I was an angry young man. Now I am an angry man in late middle age. Pretty soon I will be an angry old man. I usually start with something in the news that either upsets me, confuses me, perturbs me or inspires me. From that, the characters start to emerge, essentially how they respond to crisis. I would love to be good at planning, but I am terrible. I usually get an ending, a few ‘scenes’ in the middle and a vague sense of where it is going then start tapping away at my laptop. I feel my way through the text instinctively and rather chaotically, I’m afraid.

Thank you, Alan, for that insight into your work. I look forward to seeing you in Birmingham!

In the meantime, if you fancy a well-written thriller set very firmly in the real world, grab one of Alan’s books.

UKYA Review: The Weight of Souls by Bryony Pearce

weight-of-souls-bryony-pearceThe Weight of Souls by Bryony Pearce is YA urban fantasy with a brilliantly original premise and a very cool, outsider-type hero. It’s also great to see a main character of Asian origin.

Taylor Oh, aged 16, bears a curse passed to her from her mother. If the ghost of a murder victim touches her, she gets a black mark on her hand which gradually darkens while she finds their murderer to pass on the mark. If she fails, she will be dragged into the Darkness in their place. The novel follows her on the mission to find out who killed Justin, one of the ‘cool kids’ (who bully her) from school. And as if that weren’t twisty enough, she is lead into various dangers as she seeks out a mysterious society with plenty of conspiracy, as well as dealing with her feelings about Justin and his allies.

I really enjoyed this, particularly for its strong MC and its usage of Egyptian mythology, which makes a nice change. It is also unusual to see parental involvement – although her mother is dead, her father is actively involved in the story as an interesting counterpoint: he does not believe in the curse and focuses on the appearance of the dark marks as a physical disease. This adds yet another conflict for poor Taylor to deal with, as well as a dash of realism (surely if you could see ghosts, people around you would struggle to believe you?)

All in all, this is a book which is definitely worth picking up. It’s a solid UK urban fantasy (strong MC, great premise, twisty plot) which combines various unusual aspects (Asian MC, Egyptian mythology, conspiracy theories, parental involvement) with strong writing.

Bryony Pearce has another novel coming out soon (around Easter 2015): Phoenix Rising, which sounds really interesting (text from author’s website) If this book is anything to go by, Phoneix Rising is sure to deliver!:

After the fuel crisis the world changed and became filled with unusable junk; technological relics of a world long dead.

Toby is the son of a pirate Captain and he has spent his life on a converted cargo ship.

The Phoenix travels a sea clogged with rubbish in search of a mysterious island. Said to have risen from the ocean following a volcanic eruption it has enough natural resources to keep the crew in comfort for the rest of their lives. The ship is chased by Governments desperate for his father’s inventive mind and rival pirates, keen to strip the Phoenix of everything useful.

When The Phoenix is attacked by a rival ship and forced into port, Toby has to grow up, and fast.

UK younger reader review: Squishy McFluff, the Invisible Cat by Pip Jones

squishyThis little rhyming book is a delight. Sure to hold the attention of pre-schoolers with its fantastic line, gentle humour and quirky illustrations, it would also be a good choice for early readers, who would be supported by the rhyme and illustrations.

Here are my initial thoughts on finishing:

Loved this delightful story, told entirely in rhyme, which is a hilarious and well-told tale in the tradition of stories where younger kids can vicariously enjoy the characters’ naughtiness. The story is complemented perfectly by Ella Okstad’s lovely illustrations. Strongly recommended for older picture book fans and kids who are just starting to read for themselves.

There is now a second book in this series, focused on a supermarket sweep and a third book is out soon, featuring Mad Nana Dot. I would definitely recommend these as they will appeal to a wide range of children in terms of interests (naughtiness, pets, imaginary friends) and reading ability, as it works very well as a read aloud but feels like a ‘big’ book as it is in chapters and is longer than a picture book.

Squishy McFluff, the invisible cat and Squishy McFluff: Supermarket Sweep! are out now from Faber, from whom I gladly received a review copy of the first.

Bookish Adventures: Arsenic for Tea launch in Cambridge

arsenic for tea propsMy youngest daughter and I spent a lovely afternoon yesterday in Cambridge for the launch of Robin Steven’s marvellous middle-grade mystery, Arsenic for Tea.

We enjoyed reading time on the train (and my daughter was excited that there was a refreshments trolley, like Harry Potter – although there were no chocolate frogs at all!).

The launch itself was great. Look at the lovely spread! We were particularly impressed by Daisy’s birthday cake and the Poirot-moustache cup cakes, not to mention the lovely props table next to the Reading Throne :)

Robin read the tea scene from her book and then she cut the cake and we all dug in. (Nobody was injured).

arsenic for tea launch

My daughter really enjoyed the detective quiz and ‘how to plan a Wells and Wong mystery’ sheet provided and she is beyond thrilled with her signed books (and with her moustachioed photograph with Robin!). I have to say, having read both books in their kindle forms, it is quite exciting to be able to see the gorgeous maps in print – they really are a lovely additional touch.


Personal blog: mostly bookish, plus some dogs, feminism and whatever else occurs.