The Reading Teacher: Fiction for Resilience

We’ve been hearing rather a lot about resilience lately. It’s one of those ideas that’s filtering through from business into education and, while I rankle at some of the ways the word is being used (like the recent suggestion that we train new teachers to improve their ‘mental toughness’), there is no doubt that being resilient is of direct personal benefit to young people as they grow up.

Unsurprisingly to anyone who’s ever been to my blog before, I think stories are a rather fabulous way to help foster resilience. There is no story without conflict, and it is in the (incremental) resolution of that conflict that the story works. ‘X wants Y. X gets Y’ is not a story anyone would publish and with good reason. Therefore, effectively, any story gives some kind of lesson in resilience, in determination, or persistence.

It all starts in the grand folk tale tradition. There must be three attempts to win the quest, pass the test, retrieve the treasure – two is unsatisfactory and four is a travesty. And after centuries of this, it is what we expect. So, any story is likely to offer a lesson in resilience if you look for this angle, but I thought I’d offer three I’ve read relatively recently which might be of interest to UK teens and also allow a suitable moral to be drawn.

Looking at the Stars, Jo Cotterill

looking at the starsThis marvellous novel about refugees from an oppressive regime offers hope through the determination of young Amina, who keeps her family focused through the stories she tells as they gaze at the stars at night. [NB: For anyone worried about sensitivity with a ‘refugee’ book, this is beautifully handled. It’s really powerful and is set in a fictional place, with a fictional regime, so it’s clearly about the experience and not ‘aimed at’ any political or religious group specifically.]

The Bone Dragon, Alexia Casale

The Bone DragonThis beautiful, lyrical novel is magic realism for teenagers. At the start of this novel, Evie (the narrator) does not seem very resilient: she has been hiding the pain of her past from her adoptive parents and is struggling to break this habit. She has a fragment of her own rib, left over from surgery to repair her old injuries, and she carves this into a dragon as a talisman. This is a beautiful, if somewhat unsettling, read that could be used to open up debates about resilience and recovery with older teens.

Bubble Wrap Boy, Phil Earle

bubble wrap boyOne for the slightly younger secondary students, this hilarious and warmhearted tale features Charlie Han, whose overprotective mother causes him considerable social problems. The novel follows him as he gains a new interest and uncovers a shocking secret about his mother. It’s brilliantly told and will definitely offer opportunities to discuss Charlie’s strategies for coping with school, his Mum and setbacks to his plans.

New Year’s Blog Resolutions

Jpeg Those of you who are, like me, blessed with lurchers, greyhounds and the like, will be familiar with their ‘zoomies’ habit: that is, their love for running in circles. They may chase each other, like our two are doing here, or they may perform solo just for the sheer love of it. Those of you who are, like me, cursed with an anxious brain, will also be familiar with the way the mind does exactly the same thing about the most ridiculous of things. I have a confession: I have allowed blogging to become a source of stress by getting bogged down in anxious and negative thoughts about how it’s ‘supposed’ to be.

This is ridiculous because I love blogging. Above all else I love the book blogging community. I have no idea, however, how some manage to blog so regularly. I’ve seen some people post a book review or discussion post a day – now that’s commitment. As is clear, I cannot boast that level of commitment to blogging, however much I’d like to.

Having had various plans over the last couple of years, which have mostly gone awry due to my complete inability to meet them, here are my new blogging resolutions (which, incidentally, fit in rather neatly with my general resolution to take a bit better care of myself):

  1. I will avoid the accusatory verb ‘should’ in thinking about how much/often I blog, especially compared to others.
  2. I will stop worrying about writing long and detailed reviews for every book I read and continue to find other ways to support and recommend the books I enjoy and value. Posts like ‘recommendations round-up’ and ‘literary lonely hearts’ features have worked well for this (I think), allowing sufficient description and discussion to give a good enough flavour of a book to show readers whether it might suit them.
  3. I will focus on more unusual posts like the ‘reading teacher’ ones. They have had a great response and I enjoyed writing them.
  4. I will be bolder about pointing publicists who have sent me books to these more unusual posts as they do still promote their titles (and will try not to worry that they want me to just write reviews and not these different posts).


The other lurcher gift – this level of chill – about it all is what I am aiming for: 2015-09-27 17.09.47

I hope you all have a brilliant 2016!

Review: Essence of Arcadia Essential Oil Sets

I’ve been using essential oils for over 20 years, so was very pleased to be recently asked to review this new distributor of oils. Essence of Arcadia sent me a 6-oil and 14-oil set to review, both of which I am happy to recommend to anyone looking to start out with aromatherapy at home, or boost an existing oil collection. Either set would also make a lovely gift, as they are very smartly packaged. Replacement and additional individual oils are readily available from the company’s website or from Amazon.

2015-11-15 11.09.05
Tightly-packed bottles, all beautifully and clearly labelled.

The 6 oil set contains:

Cinnamon, Eucalyptus, Lavender, Tea Tree, Peppermint, Frankincense and a card with a weblink for the company’s VIP club to get recipes and usage information.

The 14 oil set also contains:

Bergamot, Clary Sage, Grapefruit, Rosemary, Lemongrass, Ylang Ylang, Orange and their own Healing Blend, as well as a recipe booklet.

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Smart packaging complements the luxury feel of the products.

Each set is packaged in a high quality heavy duty black cardboard box, which will clearly work well for long term storage. The oils are all clearly labelled and presented in dark brown glass bottles with dropper caps, so they are protected from light and easy to use. I like that each oil has its own different colour label – my teen daughter and I have quickly learned which colours to reach for.

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My trusty wise hermit diffuser, protecting us with the Healing Blend.

The oils are described as ‘therapeutic grade’ and they are clearly high quality. I have used them in a standard tealight-powered diffuser and in a carrier oil, and they could also be used in a warm bath or foot soak, or in toiletry making. Just be careful about quantities, as these are potent little products – don’t be fooled into thinking that as natural items, they’re always safe. Some shouldn’t be used with children or animals, or in early pregnancy, but some usage information is available on the Essence of Arcadia website.

We particularly appreciated the healing blend, which incorporates anti-infection and cold-fighting oils and was a very welcome arrival in November! (It also smells considerably nicer than many other more commercial preparations wafting through the house, thanks to the sensible inclusion of Cinnamon and Ginger.)

Both sets include sufficient variety to treat common conditions and create different moods within the home, including the multi-functional Lavender and Tea Tree and the cornerstone of infection-busting, Eucalyptus. I was also really pleased to see Frankincense in both sets, as it’s so useful as a base note in relaxing blends: it has a regulatory effect on the breathing, which is perhaps why it’s been associated with ritual for centuries. The addition of the brilliant mood-buster Bergamot and other citrus oils in the larger set were also a really welcome sight. In terms of oil selection, I would suggest that Roman Chamomile would have been a good addition, but that may just be a personal preference – I do use it in a lot of my blends.

Overall, I would definitely recommend these sets if you are considering starting out with aromatherapy or gifting someone else with some oils to get them started.

The 6-oil set is £19.99 from the Essence of Arcadia website and £16.99 from Amazon at the time of writing.

The 14-oil set is £39.99 from the Essence of Arcadia website and £29.99 from Amazon at the time of writing.

Please note that I received oil sets for an honest review; this did not affect the opinions expressed here.

The Reading Teacher: Two Extracts from Recent Teen Fiction to Teach Writing

I have written before about the tension between writing ‘rules’ taught in primary school and advice shared with those who seek publication. Today, I thought rather than rehash that rant, I’d offer something a bit more concrete. So, here are the openings of a couple of recent UKYA novels that classes could explore to discuss some ways in which good writing works.

With less time for ‘reading’ lessons in KS3 and none with older students, it’s a good way to be able to push books in front of them that they might be interested in reading. I’m always happy to make stealth UKYA recommendations to my classes, convinced that this is a much more likely way to gain an extra reader or two than only ever showing them the classics.

I’ve happily used these (and others) with classes from KS3 to A Level. The novels are marketed as Young Adult, but in practice will be read by about 12 to adult (I enjoy them, so I’m not putting an end age, OK?). I’ve chosen a contemporary story and an urban fantasy for today, as I would pair these together in a lesson in order to meet different tastes in reading (and to show that genre writing matters too).

Teaching Dialogue: Emma Hearts LA, Keris Stainton

Orchard Books, 2012

‘Most girls of your ageemma hearts la would jump at the chance to move to California,’ my mum says. She had been standing in front of the fireplace to make the big announcement, but, thanks to my reaction to it, she’s now sitting on the sagging sofa next to me.

I stare at her. ‘You are joking, right?’

‘No. No, I’m not joking,’ she says. ‘I’m sorry, Emma, but this is a great opportunity for me. And it’s a great opportunity for us as a family.’

I glance at my sister, who’s sunk deep in a beanbag in the corner of the room. She’s fiddling with her phone, a half-smile on her face.

‘Bex!’ I say. ‘You can’t be pleased about this! Tell me you’re not pleased about this!’

She glances up at me from under her floppy fringe. ‘I think it’ll be cool to live in Hollywood.’

‘Well, it won’t actually be Hollywood,’ Mum says.

‘Near enough,’ Bex says, grinning. She’s a drama dork, my sister. I bet she thinks she’ll be talent-spotted at the airport and have her own Disney XD show by the end of the year.

‘It’s a new start,’ Mum says.

This extract is brilliant for exploring pacing in dialogue and the technicalities of using dialogue in story writing. Here are a few of the things I’ve had different kinds of students do with this text:

  • Highlight/underline all the actual speech to look at how the author has spread it out, using commentary from the narrator to provide additional information and stretch out the tension.
  • Explore why authors rarely actually vary speech verbs (better to use said/says, which becomes invisible rather than ‘bogging down’ the text; speech can be attributed using other comments e.g. ‘I stare at her’, ‘She glances up…’ in this example).
  • Examine the tone and language of the speech to see how it has been made realistic, perhaps then asking students to rewrite or produce a dialogue-heavy piece of writing of their own.
  • Explore specific features of the dialogue and speech-like aspects of the narration:
    • grammatical: why contractions are mostly used but then not in ‘you are joking?’
    • grammatical: minor and incomplete sentences such as ‘near enough’ and
    • lexical: repetition, discourse markers and recycling/repetition.
  • Discuss the way dialogue and narration are used together to create a voice which speaks to the reader and firmly places us on Emma’s side (e.g. the suggestion of mum’s ‘staging’ of her announcement and the focus on Bex’s unrealistic expectations).

Teaching Atmospheric Writing: The Night Itself, Zoë Marriottthe night itself

Walker Books, 2013

Stealing the sword was a bad idea. I can’t pretend I didn’t realize that at the time. I wasn’t even supposed to know about the thing, let alone sneak up and snaffle it from the attic where it was carefully concealed in the dark, under layers of cobwebs and rotting Christmas decorations. I was fully aware that if my father found out about the sword or about me taking it, he’d pop a blood vessel from sheer fury and kill me. Or die. Maybe both.

If your family’s priceless heirloom is some ugly vase or painting, like on the Antiques Roadshow, the worst thing that can happen if you mess with it is that you’ll smash it or ruin the patina or something. My family’s antique is a different story. Sixty-two centimetres of curved, single-edged steel, designed with a single purpose: to kill. You’d probably call it a samurai sword. But its proper name is katana.

And I needed it for my Christmas party costume.

I’ve used this extract as an example of a strong opening, creating a sense of both character and of plot. Something exciting is clearly going to happen. Here are a few activities I’ve found useful with various student groups in exploring this text:
  • Highlight/underline the descriptive phrases to explore the balance of description and information. There are some effective descriptive details, but too much at this point would swamp the story and slow it down too much.
  • Printing the extract out with a space after every sentence for the students to write back. This could be a question to the narrator (what sword? why did you steal it?) or their own journal-type musings (hmm, I’m interested now). With some students, making it a live-tweeting-type activity has worked well, with a sentence at a time on a powerpoint and ‘tweets’ written on mini whiteboards to capture their reactions. This leads nicely into a discussion about how the author manages (manipulates is such a harsh word…) reader emotions and expectations, especially if you can save some of those ‘tweets’ for discussion at the end, once the whole has been seen.
  • Examining sentence and paragraph length. Students too often write very long sentences and very long paragraphs. I have made students count words, list the words in each sentence and paragraph and then edit a piece of their own work to these rules:
    • no single paragraph longer than the first paragraph here (in number of words)
    • no single sentence longer than the longest sentence here
    • only one ‘long’ sentences (calculated as mean of three longest sentences here) per paragraph
    • at least one very short sentence per paragraph
  • Discussing tone: highlight/underline parts that fall into these categories, in order to show how more impressive vocabulary is balanced with more colloquial language to avoid an overly distanced or alienating tone. The separation of the final sentence is also worth discussion in terms of its punchline-like effect. With older/more able students, I also discuss how the syntax creates a spoken feel, focusing on:
    • unusual high-register/’fancy’ words
    • unusual colloquial/’slangy’ words
    • sentences that ‘feel’ chatty/casual
  • Exploring how to set up a story without over-explaining. Students list what we learn from this extract about:
    • the narrator
    • her family
    • the plot
  • Examining how the motif of conflict is seeded in this opening, by pulling out all the contrasted ideas and words.

What do you think? If you enjoyed this/found it interesting/useful, please do let me know. I’d love to feature further ‘popular’ fiction extracts that I’ve used in class along with what I’ve done with them.

Reading is… #2: Reading is a chance to step outside yourself

Welcome back to my (very) occasional series Reading is… where I’m exploring the reading experience, along with some recommendations for books that fit that particular category for me. Last time, I discussed the ways in which reading is like a comfy blanket, offering the comfort of the familiar.

reading outside self

Today’s topic is how reading offers us a chance to stretch our experience beyond the confines of our world. This might be in seeing someone else’s experience of that world, or in visiting another time, another place, or even an invented place.

It was really really hard to come up with just a handful of recommendations for these categories, so please do be aware that these are by no means the only books I would recommend here; they’re just ones I’ve read fairly recently and are somewhat fresh in my mind.

Others’ Experiences of the World

This category is really all about diversity in reading. I am a great believer in the power of reading to show us, to an extent (of course), what it’s like to be in another’s shoes. Unlike other media such as film or TV, the action of a book takes place entirely inside your own head, so that lends an immediacy to experiences that you just don’t get with visual media. (aside: that’s one of the reasons that reading fiction is noted as a useful pastime for the development of empathy).

In terms of recent(ish) reads, I’ve particularly appreciated:

exploring the life of a young Japanese boy with a chronic disease in The Last Leaves Falling (Sarah Benwell, YA).

balancing friendship and first love with young Kitty, falling for a girl and uncertain who/whether to tell in Starring Kitty (Keris Stainton, MG).

willing Ashleigh to recognise and accept that her sexuality may not be what she has always assumed in Read Me Like a Book (Liz Kessler, YA).

Other Times, Other Places

Buffalo Soldier taught me loads about the period in US history around the Civil War and the Indian Wars, all while cheering on a young black woman masquerading as a man in order to join the US army and find purpose and (relative) safety (Tanya Landman, YA).

The Lie Tree, set in the Victorian era, has lots to offer about how the natural sciences were perceived in that period (particularly in relation to religion) and all sorts of weird and wonderful bits and pieces such as photography of the dead and the minutiae of women’s lives (Frances Hardinge, YA).

The Last Leaves Falling obviously fits here too, presenting a modern Japan that is completely unfamiliar to me and yet, through its evocation of core teen experience (the desire to fit in and have friends) was easy to relate to and empathise  with in a key way.

Other Realities

I’d also argue for the value of reading outside of reality, of reading about times and places which have not existed. These reading experiences can also allow us to stretch our empathy muscles and share human experiences in different contexts.

Sometimes, we need to connect with a character in a context that is very different to our own, far removed from ourselves, in order to understand something about our own lives, our own context. Appreciating the human core of a character who is unlike us can be a crucial step on the path to understanding, or at least a willingness to understand. Books from which I have derived such experiences recently include:

Seed, where Pearl’s undying loyalty to the nature cult is tested as she begins to lose faith in everything around her, just as many teens slowly gain the realisation that the adults around them are not perfect (not quite so dramatically though!) (Lisa Heathfield, YA)

Looking At The Stars, which presents an horrific refugee experience in an ahistorical and ageographical way, presenting the experience itself in a pure way, rather than getting drawn into the arguments around the conflicts which cause refugees (Jo Cotterill, YA).

All links will take you to Goodreads for a bit more information about the books in question. All are out now and definitely recommended.

UKYA Review: Apple and Rain by Sarah Crossan

Every so often, one book will make you cross, make you cry and make you smile – and then you know it’s a winner. Apple and Rain is that book most recently for me. It’s an absorbing and emotional read which I simultaneously wanted to race through and linger over.

Here’s the Goodreads summary:

Apple and RainWhen Apple’s mother returns after eleven years of absence, Apple feels whole again. She will have an answer to her burning question – why did you go? And she will have someone who understands what it means to be a teenager – unlike Nana. But just like the stormy Christmas Eve when she left, her mother’s homecoming is bitter sweet, and Apple wonders who is really looking after whom. It’s only when Apple meets someone more lost than she is, that she begins to see things as they really are.

Like a brilliant hybrid of Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson, Sarah Crossan entices you into her world, then tells a moving, perceptive and beautifully crafted story which has the power to make you laugh and cry.

and here’s my speed-review on finishing:

Really loved this. There’s so much of value here. Firstly and most importantly: it’s a great story, well-told (without that, nothing else matters all that much…). Secondly, some interesting representational issues: non-typical families, working class/money issues. Thirdly, some great bookishness: an inspiring English teacher (gotta love that!), the power of poetry as a theme, libraries as a tool. What’s not to love?

I loved the quirky characters and had so much sympathy for (most of) them throughout the book. There were times I shed the odd tear, times I wanted to tell Apple she was making a mistake – and I always think that’s a positive sign of being really invested in a book.

Definitely recommended to fans of UKYA contemporaries: this is a great example.

Actually, on revisiting those initial comments, I don’t have much to add. You all know I hate spoilers, and almost everything I would want to go into detail about would be one.  I will say that I suspect I read a different book as an adult to the one I might have found as a teenager (don’t you just love that about books?). I desperately wanted to hug Nana and slap Mum more than once (I’m pretty sure that’s no great spoiler) and I definitely loved the English teacher angle although I do feel that there isn’t time to be that kind of teacher now, so those kind of depictions are bitter-sweet for me…

Anyway, this is all getting a bit personal.

This book is fabulous and I would absolutely recommend it. I think comfy-cosy-safe YA readers will enjoy it and warm to Apple, and YA readers with less-than-perfect lives will also appreciate another good contemporary story that doesn’t focus only on the shiny happy kids – something that I think UKYA does particularly well. Sarah Crossan is a great writer and this is a beautifully written book, which presents some challenging ideas wonderfully well. Read it – it’s out now from Bloomsbury (and was nominated for the Carnegie and the UKLA awards, so it’s not just me who thinks it’s good).

The Reading Teacher: Some Books I’d Love to Read with Students

Reading Teacher 1

In my other life, I teach English at GCSE and A Level – and (mostly) I love it. I also love being able to recommend great recent YA books to keen readers of all abilities – it’s a real perk. But wouldn’t it be great if I could just pick books to share with classes for my own reasons? Although I will defend literary analysis to the hilt and do not believe we English teachers invent meanings and symbolism (you know, that ‘curtains are blue’ thing…*), I would welcome the chance to discuss books in a different way with students from time to time. Here are a few recent reads I’d choose.

Asking For It, Louise O’ Neill

asking for itI’d love to be able to read this with a class, in a ‘class reader’ kind of way. It’d be great to set chapters for at-home reading but also explore some revelations in class. This brilliant and necessarily uncomfortable depiction of rape and further violation-by-social-media deserves a slow class dissection, with plenty of chance for discussion. I’d love to bring this book, which unflinchingly and carefully examines complex social issues without preaching, into classrooms. It’s well known that fiction is an effective tool for empathy building, so just think what this could achieve.

Seed, Lisa Heathfield

seedMy reasons for wanting to share this with a class are quite different. Simply: I think it is so far removed from my students’ lives, and is such a good story, that it has the power to enchant and to engage and would just be great fun to talk about. The novel is contemporary YA set in an anti-technology and anti-modern cult. Characters grow their own food and live close to nature and in tune with her workings, which I think would fascinate many of my students. The story gradually reveals corruption and problems at the heart of the cult.

This one I imagine would be less of a class read and more of a book group type approach. I’d read the first couple of chapters aloud (this is my fantasy reading curriculum, remember?) to get the students engaged, and then we could chat about possible directions the story could take, and discuss the community etc. Students would then willingly read the rest at home with just a couple of lessons at key points to talk about how great it is, how the structure works etc and perhaps do some creative work inspired by it.

Bomb, Sarah Mussi

bombThere’s been some talk about anti-radicalisation in schools lately and this all-action, high-pace thriller about a girl who wakes to find herself strapped into a bomb vest would certainly facilitate some interesting discussions.

I work in Leicester, in a school with a relatively high ethnic minority population (over 50% of our students), many of whom are Muslim, but even those who are not Muslim are (or have been) at risk from Islamophobia if they happen to look Indian as a result of radicalisation and its perceived effects.  A book like this, therefore, which shows the kind of people who really are susceptible, would allow a lot of discussions to take place that are actually quite difficult for a white teacher to start on her own, however well-meaning she may be.

Joe All Alone, Joanna Nadin

Joe All AloneInterestingly, this book would be a great discussion starter for the typical student in my school for a different reason. Yes, many are from ethnic minorities, but they are also from a middle-class part of Leicester and often have little understanding of poverty in the UK. This book, with its beautifully well-drawn working-class main character Joe, would be brilliant to show them – especially those who assume that those ‘chav’ or ‘gypsy’ TV shows have the whole story on working class culture in the UK.

I loved Joe All Alone, and think that it offers – and provokes – a lot of empathy for 13 year-old Joe, left behind by his Mum for a week while she goes on holiday with her boyfriend. He has quite a lot to cope with: budgeting with £20 to feed both himself and the meter; bullies; the unexpected non-return of Mum; men seeking out Mum’s boyfriend none too gently…

The Last Leaves Falling, Sarah Benwell

last leaves fallingA bit like Seed, and a bit like Joe, this would be great to explore with my students because, for many, a lot of its content is unfamiliar. It’s set in Japan, and the main character is a young man called Sora, who has ALS (of controversial ‘ice bucket challenge’ fame). At the same time, Sora’s attempt to create normality by living online is one that many of us can relate to, so I think it would be great to explore issues around online identity and constructed identities with the early part of this story as a starting point.

I’d take a ‘class reader’ type approach with this one as well, since different opportunities open up as the plot shifts into debates about suicide and particularly differing cultural attitudes towards it. I think my students would enjoy following Sora’s exploration of Samurai ideals and concepts of honour as well as this being a very rich novel for discussion of a range of contemporary, relevant PSHCE-type issues. Of course, it’s also incredibly well-written and I’d love it put it in front of students as an example of a powerful, contemporary story that I think many of them could relate to, even though, ostensibly, it’s about someone very different to them.

So those are my fairly ad-hoc choices for now, none of which fit the curriculum or the exam specs, but all of which offer many valuable things to teen readers. There will probably be more posts like this, as there are so many books which would be great to explore with students.

*In case you didn’t know, here’s the meme:

curtains blue Just so we’re clear: authors often do pick colours/symbols deliberately to carry particular meanings. And sometimes even if it isn’t consciously intentioned, those meanings are there because they exist culturally . It really grates that some students will accept that the tiniest detail in an Avengers movie has meaning and yet will argue that Steinbeck can’t have meant anything by giving Curley’s wife red lips or red shoes with feathers on (Feathers on her shoes! On a ranch! Not a practical woman, ok?). Yeah, sure he didn’t.

Er, sorry about that. It’s been a long week…

Rewriting the World: Fantasy and Social Issues (YA Shot Blog Tour with Ellen Renner)

cropped-yashotcolourlesssmallAre you aware of the YA Shot event? It’s a fantastic Arts Council-sponsored event taking place next week in celebration of libraries and young people’s literature. 71 YA and MG writers are appearing in 3 venues across Uxbridge on Wednesday 28th October. There is also a programme of blogging and vlogging workshops for those who want to learn more about this area.

This thought-provoking post on the world of fantasy writing from Ellen Renner appears courtesy of YA Shot and demonstrates the high quality of material that you can expect on the day.


Rewriting the World: Fantasy and Social Issues

I write in order to understand. Writers stand outside the world and watch it spin. We study this amazing, contrary world we live in and ask: Why?

Why do some people do bad things, and others good? Why is society organised the way it is? Does power always corrupt? Is history doomed to repeat itself? Why do bad things happen to good people? Where do I fit in? Can I make a difference?

These are the very questions children ask of themselves and the world as they grow up. Writers simply never stop asking. Perhaps we never truly grow up. The first job of a story-teller is to entertain (otherwise no one will listen!); the second, to ask the hard questions.

Castle of shadowsAll of this is why I predominately write fantasy, although my debut novel, Castle of Shadows, could more accurately be described as alternative history. I wanted to write about power and politics set in a time of great technological and social change. In fact, I wanted to put a mirror up to our own world while keeping a necessary distance. So I created a world based on 1830s England but free from its history. Castle of Shadows was written just after the Iraq War and, not surprisingly, features political shenanigans and a weapon of mass destruction.

My most recent boTributeoks, Tribute and Outcaste, are straightforwardly within the fantasy genre, with all its related world-building. It was both liberating and terrifying to realise that the only limits were those of my imagination. But too much freedom can be a trap and I chose my ‘magic’ carefully and made sure it had logical limits within the story. Instead of potions and spells, my magic-users have a genetic ability to transform matter (telekinesis).

I wrote Tribute because I wanted to explore issues that have haunted me since I was a child: racism, sexism . . .all the ‘-isms’ which are an excuse for the all-too-human tendency to scapegoat segments of a society as ‘other’. In other words: the failure of empathy. It is no coincidence that my main character, Zara, is gifted – or cursed – with extreme empathy. She has no choice but to rebel against the evil she not only sees, but feels.

In this book – and especially in Outcaste – I explore the group-think mentality which allows genocide to happen, which enables members of a self-defining group to de-humanise those who do not belong. I’m extremely proud that Tribute is endorsed by Amnesty International.

Fantasy, for me, is a Petri dish in which I can place elements of our own society and culture them in isolation and watch them develop. Sometimes unexpected things grow in the dish. It isn’t surprising that the world of Tribute is unfair and violent, or that the non-magic are enslaved by those with telekinetic power. But I was shocked to discover that this terribly dark society had a single positive aspect: one silver lining to the cloud of oppressive evil. As I explored the logic of my world, it became clear to me that since women mages are as powerful as men – and cannot therefore be dominated physically – that there would be little reason for sexism to exist inside their society. Which means that when the main character – magic-user and rebel Zara – flees to the non-magic world of the Makers, she is in for a rude shock. That story is told in the sequel, Outcaste.

Sadly, fantasy still seems to suffer from a twentieth-century bias amongst the critical establishment. This, despite the fact that, when used well, fantasy is one of the best literary tools for asking those difficult questions. It is a device which allows writers and readers sufficient distance from our messy, complicated lives in which to think more clearly. Fantasy, used well, is a direct descendant of the great world mythologies. The best examples of its practice deserve to be read with thought and care, in the realisation that – in the hands of a good writer – nothing is more ‘real’ than fantasy.


How brilliant was that? Thank you so much, Ellen – and YA Shot, for that great post. If you want to find out more about Ellen’s writing, she is published by Hot Key Books and there is a fabulous review of Tribute by SF Said on the Guardian Books site, in which he says:

Two things make or break a fantasy novel: the magic and the world. In both these respects, Ellen Renner’s Tribute shares something with Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books, stories that gave us an original conception of magic and a richly imagined world, using the genre to say something deeply resonant about our own world.

Literary Lonely Hearts: are you a match for I’ll Give You The Sun?

I'll give you the sunLiterary Lonely Hearts

Soulful semi-mystic seeks fan of YA contemporaries for meaningful conversations about art, the many forms of love and the true self. Must be willing to invest emotionally and maybe shed the odd tear.


Goodreads’ Summary:

From the author of The Sky Is Every­where, a radiant novel that will leave you laughing and crying – all at once. For fans of John Green, Gayle Forman and Lauren Oliver. Jude and her twin Noah were incredibly close – until a tragedy drove them apart, and now they are barely speaking. Then Jude meets a cocky, broken, beautiful boy as well as a captivating new mentor, both of whom may just need her as much as she needs them. What the twins don’t realize is that each of them has only half the story and if they can just find their way back to one another, they have a chance to remake their world.

My reaction:

Gorgeous, lyrical writing which really suits the ‘arty’ subject matter. I loved getting to know this wacky family and their circle. The dual narrative works really well, with each twin getting to share a different slice of their story (Noah at 13-14, Jude at 16). This is a really effective way of increasing tension and mystery, as you can’t help wondering how they get from one (metaphorical/emotional) place to another. Wholeheartedly recommended for fans of contemporary YA, family dramas and stories with an arty angle. Also pleasingly diverse with different kinds of love (gay, straight, familial etc) all represented.

Recommendations Round-Up: Creepy Reads for Darkening Evenings

As we head towards All Hallows’ Eve, our taste for creepy tales awakens. Perhaps it’s an instinctive pull back to fireside stories of ghosts and beasties as the nights draw in? I think there is an element of this in us all. And although I am a complete wuss and do not enjoy horror films or downright scary books, I do appreciate a little light scare every now and again. So here are some recommendations which may not be all-out horror, but are definitely tense and creepy in a way which suits the general October vibe of gradually darkening evenings.

The first four here are YA, with an adult title to round off the set. All books are available now. Book title links take you to their Goodreads entries.

Accident SeasonThe Accident Season has a unique premise: Cara’s family is prone to accidents every October, like a curse. This idea exists as a fact behind the events of the novel, set in the October when Cara is seventeen. The novel’s fantastically unsettling atmosphere supports some great creepy touches: secrets, tarot cards, a masked ball in an abandoned house and a girl who mysteriously and impossibly appears in all of Cara’s photographs. This is Irish author Moira Fowley-Doyle’s debut and I recommend it to YA fans who enjoy a slightly dark, somewhat unusual read with paranormal/magical elements in a contemporary setting.

James Dawunder my skinson’s Under My Skin and Say Her Name are deliciously creepy UKYA reads with a strongly contemporary feel. Say Her Name is the scarier of the two (nudging the edges of my capacity for scariness), focusing on the Bloody Mary urban legend invoked in a boarding school. Under My Skin is less ‘jumpy’ scary, but pretty say her namecreepy nonetheless, featuring mild-mannered Sally who finds herself drawn to a tattoo parlour and soon finds herself sharing her body with pin-up girl Molly Sue, who is a million miles from mild-mannered. As always with Dawson, both feature sharply authentic UK teen voices.

Sally Nicholls’ Close Your Pretty Eyes is a quick read (which is just as well because puttinclose your pretty eyesg it down is hard…). Damaged and fragile, Olivia is bounced around in different care situations. The first-person narration is tense and tight, but still allows the reader to see where Olivia is misinterpreting people’s intentions. The creepiness comes in when Olivia begins to hear the ghost of a Victorian baby farmer, which no-one else in her new foster home can. I found this a well-constructed and at times deeply disturbing read. It’s another very contemporary UKYA book with grit and plenty of tension.

in a dark dark woodMy final choice for this theme comes from the adult shelves: In a Dark Dark Wood by Ruth Ware is a psychological thriller centred on a hen weekend in a woodland cottage. Main character Nora is invited to the hen do of a school friend whom she hasn’t been in touch with for 10 years. The action flicks between the aftermath (Nora in hospital, eavesdropping on the police outside her room and trying to piece together her memories), the lead up and that fateful weekend itself. Fantastically tense and pacy, I strongly recommend this for lovers of mysteries and thrillers.

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