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The Agony of the Untold Story

Posted By Jacob Hope, 30 July 2019
Updated: 01 August 2019
We are delighted to welcome Tariq Mehmood to guest blog about his latest young adult novel, You're Not Here and to discuss the gaps in the publishing market and how he came to write this.


'There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.' Maya Angelou,

When I was in my teens, I was homeless in Bradford and always hungry. In those days the Central Library opened 9am-9pm. It had a cafe where my friends often fed me. I spent all day in the library browsing through all sorts of books. I read John Locke and David Hulme, and many other writers who often I didn't even understand. I usually found comfort in the world of fiction of Tolstoy, Harding and others, but felt something amiss in this. It would take me 30 years to realise what this really was: I was fictionally invisible, as were my stories and those of my friends.


In 1981, along with eleven others, I was imprisoned falsely on charges of terrorism in a case that was known as the Bradford 12. We were all acquitted.

If convicted I was looking at two life sentences, plus 14 years. I desperately wanted to leave a record of my story behind, and  started write my first novel, Hand On The Sun, whilst in prison. I completed it whilst on bail and sent it to Penguin who published it in 1983. At the time of writing the novel, I didn't understand anything about the tools of fiction, such as character, tension or pacing. I didn't even have an 'O' level in English, and besides I am dyslexic.


Three decades later, I'd had children of my own and as they were growing up, I realised that the world of children's literature was all but white . I began to publish some illustrated books for them, which would eventually lead to me publishing my first YA novel You're Not Proper. Most of us writers don't really know what will happen with our novel if ever we actually finish it. I was lucky and entered the manuscript for the Frances Lincoln Diverse Voices in Children's Fiction Award, which the novel won in 2013. This is set in a Northern English town seething with Islamophobia, where two young girls struggle to find out who they are. I tried to address issues of love, loss, war, racism, tolerance and Identity all with a generous sprinkling of Northern English humour.


Some time after the publication of You're Not Proper, I met a white woman in Manchester, who was vociferously opposed to the 'War On Terror' and had campaigned against it. She was distraught. Her son had joined the British Army and was due to go to Afghanistan. My next novel, You're Not Here, is a squeal to You're Not Proper. In this novel the characters are older, and looks at how the effect of the never ending war working class communities. In this story, one brother goes missing in action in Afghanistan, whilst the other falls in love with an Afghan girl in England. The story is told through Jake, a white boy, the son of an ex-soldier. Jake's love, Leila comes from the same village in Afghanistan where his brother goes missing. This novel tries to bring the war out there, is connected to the strife back home. I really enjoyed writing this novel, as it allowed me not only to deal with complex issues of the infiltration of the British Army by Far Right groups, but also into new depth of working class humour – something I grew up with, and continues to put a smile on my faces in the dark and dreary times.

Tags:  diversity  Libraries  Reading  reading for pleasure 

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An insight into the themes of Nikesh Shukla's 'The Boxer'

Posted By Jacob Hope, 15 July 2019
Updated: 15 July 2019

Fiction can be an invaluable way to explore complex and sophisticated issues that influence us individually and as a society.  Here Nikesh Shukla, author and editor of The Good Immigrant talks about his latest Young Adult book, The Boxer and some of the, much needed, conversations that he hopes might arise from the book.

 

I wrote The Boxer because I wanted young people to have the language to talk about the trauma of racism.

 

When I was a teenager, I was hit by a car, and the driver, angry at me for daring to step out on to a zebra crossing, called me a blind paki. Those words stayed with me. They haunted me. They made me internalise a lot of feelings about what it meant to be an Asian in Britain. Frankly, it ruined my teenage years. I couldn’t see my friends. I couldn’t feel settled. I couldn’t find my feet. It was horrible. I descended into the online world and replaced real friendships with chat room ones. I will never forget that person or that moment. They will not have given it a second thought. And that was the thing that stayed with me.

 

I didn’t have the language to talk about. I certainly couldn’t talk to my dad about it. He would have laughed and called it Mickey Mouse compared to what he went through in the 60s and 70s. Mum would have reminded me that I needed to study hard because that was the only way to show people.

 

I’ve dealt with racism my entire life. From overt and obvious and violent, to small and quiet and subtle and insidious. I feel, now, we’re able to have conversations about these issues. Because of books like The Hate U Give and The Good Immigrant and Noughts And Crosses we can have these open conversations about race and racism. I wanted to add The Boxer to that canon. It’s about a kid who is beaten up in a racist attack, and all he wants, in that moment, is the strength to walk away from the situation. He trains with Shobu, who helps him deal with his trauma and also learn how to box. As he learns how to box, he starts to notice that his new best friend is becoming radicalised by the far right.

 

Keir, his best friend, is not a cookie cutter racist. He is a complicated character, dealing with his own loss and family pressures and sense of isolation. It was important to me to ensure that depictions of racism were as complex and nuanced as our ways of dealing with it. So while this is a book about sport and triumph over adversity, somewhere in there is a conversation about the trauma, the haunting awfulness of racist incidents. I’m so excited to get this book into young boys’ hands, so we can talk about masculinity and sport and mental health, but we can also talk about racism, and bullying and radicalisation and what it looks like.

 

The Boxer is my attempt to start multiple difficult conversations. 

 

Tags:  Diversity  Reading  Reading for Pleasure 

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New Class at Malory Towers - an insight from Rebecca Westcott

Posted By Jacob Hope, 28 June 2019

Having had the privilege of being her editor on her first three novels, I knew Rebecca Westcott would bring an outstanding emotional depth to a story about girls at boarding school. I also knew that her own background, as well as her work as a primary teacher and special needs co-ordinator, would help her bring a very different perspective to the situation.
Alex Antscherl

 

I was a late reader and nobody could understand why because I grew up surrounded by books and being read to is one of my earliest and happiest memories. And then my mum introduced me to her battered old copies of The Faraway Tree and everything changed. Suddenly I was hungry for more – so I learnt to read, informed my mum that her bedtime-story reading services were no longer required and lost myself in the wonderful world of Moonface, Silky and Saucepan Man.

 

The Enchanted Wood turned out to be my gateway drug and I was soon desperate to get my hands on all things Blyton. I raced through Amelia Jane and The Naughtiest Girl in the School – my first introduction to boarding school books. The Famous Five followed and then everything screeched to a halt because I discovered Malory Towers and I was completely hooked.

 

I fell instantly in love with Darrell Rivers and her friends. I borrowed the books from the library and looked for them at jumble sales and, over the course of the next few years, was given the occasional copy as a gift. I didn’t own the full set but the ones I did possess were read and reread and then read again. At one point my mum gently suggested that it might be a good idea for me to expand my reading choices and explore other genres – and by ‘gently suggested’ I mean that one Easter she gave me The Hobbit instead of an Easter egg. I dutifully plodded my way through the tale of dragons and dwarves and wizards but quickly returned to my beloved Malory Towers. I didn’t need a fantasy book because I already had it. As far as I was concerned, everything that Blyton wrote about in those books was one-hundred-percent fantasy and escapism. There was as much chance of a girl like me, living on benefits on a council estate, going to Mordor as there was of me going to Malory Towers…

 

Being asked to contribute a story for New Class At Malory Towers was the kind of experience that I heartily wished I could have somehow told my eight-year-old self about. Instead, I have written the story that she would have loved to read – a story that suggests that, just maybe, there is a place at Malory Towers for girls who know that midnight feasts and swimming pools hewn out of the cliff and ponies in the school stables are not the norm. A story that aims to promote inclusivity while building on the wonderful world that Enid Blyton created.

Tags:  Diversity  Enid Blyton  Inclusion  Reading  Reading for Pleasure 

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A New Class at Malory Towers - an insight from Narinder Dhami

Posted By Jacob Hope, 27 June 2019

Discovering that Narinder was a devoted fan of Enid Blyton was a thrill. Narinder has a fantastic knack of introducing humour into unlikely situations, which I knew would be perfect in a Malory Towers story. I wanted to see girls from diverse backgrounds created by authors from an ‘own voices’ perspective in our new book, and Narinder has incorporated this in a brilliant way.
Alex Antscherl

 

When I was asked to contribute a story to New Class at Malory Towers, I said yes straightaway. I didn’t even have to think about it. Enid Blyton was one of my childhood favourites, although being a precocious reader – like many authors – I’d raced through pretty much all of her books by age eight. I hadn’t re-read the books since then, but I’d lived through the Blyton controversy when her literary merits – or lack of them – and her attitudes to class, race and sex were endlessly debated. Whether she was in favour or not, I’d always had a sneaky admiration for just how very prolific she was, the way she handled different genres of fiction with ease.

Maybe I should have thought more about how to approach writing a new Blyton story. I didn’t. I simply re-read the original six Malory Towers books, then plunged straight in. I’d absolutely forgotten just how laugh-out-loud funny they are, and that was a feature I definitely wanted to keep. I had no particular qualms about recreating Blyton’s style. It’s spare and clear – OK, perhaps a little too spare at times as details are glossed over to keep up the pace – but my main concern was to maintain the integrity of iconic characters such as Darrell, Alicia and Mam’zelle Dupont. I think the characters are the backbone of these stories. All of them are flawed in some way – for example, Darrell and her hot temper – and although the portrayal of Mam’zelle sometimes threatens to tip over into caricature, it’s her warm, upbeat, kindly character that keeps her real.

The plots of the original stories are often very much of their time, and I wanted my story to be something that Blyton herself might have considered writing – an Indian princess in disguise becomes a pupil at Malory Towers! The postmodern, feminist twist on this scenario is my own. Whether Enid Blyton would approve, I don’t know, but it was a joy to breathe new life into these well-loved characters.

Tags:  diversity  Enid Blyton  libraries  Reading  Reading for pleasure 

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What is on our Bookshelves - an opinion piece by author Miriam Halahmy

Posted By Jacob Hope, 18 September 2018
Updated: 18 September 2018

 

At the Youth Libraries Group Conference, Miriam Halahmy will be speaking on a panel with Candy Gourlay in discussion with Chloe Germaine Buckley from Manchester Metropolitan University talking about unconscious bias, cultural appropriation and colonial influences in children's literature and collections of these.  Here Miriam talks about her time as Head of Special Needs at a school in Camden.

 

In 1981 I was Head of Special Needs in a Camden secondary school and The Rampton Report on the education of children from ethnic minorities was published. The recommendations of that report had a huge impact. Our school had many children of Asian and African Caribbean descent as well as many other cultural backgrounds. As a staff we were concerned to promote a multicultural society and the classroom as a microcosm of that society.

 

One of Rampton’s recommendations was that teachers review all books and materials and assess them for appropriateness in today’s multicultural society. I remember so well the day I went back to my classroom, looked through my tiny library and threw away those books which presented a negative view of children from a different culture.  It was a painful process as we had no money to replace them but there was no way I would have left such books on my shelves anymore.

 

A recent report stated that only 1% of children’s books have a BAME main character and only 4% have any BAME characters. Is that because we threw our books away 30 years ago?

 

No, of course not.

 

But our work embracing the multicultural society – valuing each child and the cultural background they brought with them, displaying world maps to showing where everyone came from, etc,  – often feels today as though it is being ridiculed. There are claims that the multicultural concept of society has undermined our Britishness.

 

Rubbish! is my answer. We were the bedrock of creating a more tolerant society and it seems the job has hardly begun in the world of children’s books. I would urge anyone providing books to children and young people to scan carefully through your collections as we did and literally throw out the less enlightened books and materials.

 

Meanwhile my job as a writer is to ensure that all characters in my books represent the multicultural world I come from, have lived in and worked in all my life. But then I have always found that quite a natural part of my writing.

 

Miriam Halahmy

www.miriamhalahmy.com

Tags:  collections  conference  Diversity  libraries  reading  representation 

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The Back Story of Riding a Donkey Backwards

Posted By Jacob Hope, 14 September 2018

Children’s author Sean Taylor will be appearing, with Eleanor Martin of Khayaal Theatre, at the YLG Conference in September. Here he introduces RIDING A DONKEY BACKWARDS – wise and foolish tales of Mulla Nasruddin, a collection of traditional Islamic tales, full of riddles, humour and wisdom.

 

You’ll have to excuse me. This is a story that is likely to offend you…

 

At a wedding, a few months ago, I got into a conversation with a young man who sees the world very differently to me. His hero is Jacob Rees-Mogg. The young man said, “Do you want to know what I think about burqas? People are surprised that I have nothing against Muslim women wearing them. In fact, I’m all in favour of burqas…for ugly people. Do you agree with that?”

 

I told him I didn’t agree. The young man was slightly apologetic for his arrogant ‘joke’. “Sorry. I’m just being facetious…” he told me. But I didn’t leave it at that. I asked, “What’s behind what you’ve just said? What do you actually think about Muslims and their beliefs?” He said, “I’m really not bothered by them. But Islam, as a religion, always takes itself far too seriously. And I can’t stand people who can’t laugh at themselves.” I asked, “Have you ever heard of Mulla Nasruddin?”

 

Nasruddin is the hero of our book, RIDING A DONKEY BACKWARDS. It was a collaborative writing project, with Khayaal Theatre, several years in the making. And it came about as a direct result of a terror attack. (You can find the full story here: http://www.minervareads.com/riding-a-donkey-backwards/ )

 

In the introduction to our book, we say: He has many names because stories about him are told in many different countries. In Turkey he is Hodja. In Central Asia he is Afandi. The Arabs know him as Joha. Others call him Mulla Nasruddin. He is a trickster. And Muslims all over the world love him because he makes them laugh… If he doesn’t make you laugh, he will certainly make you think – and perhaps think sideways instead of straight ahead. He may even make your thoughts do somersaults inside your mind!

 

That last sentence feels key to what’s special about Nasruddin stories, and also key to what made us want to put together a collection of these stories for young readers. Human beings love having their thinking ‘spun around’. It’s one of the commonest forms of humour . (A boy tells his father, “Dad, there’s an invisible man at the door.” His father says, “Tell him I can’t see him at the moment.”) The 21 Nasruddin tales we retell will get you laughing because they spin your thoughts around. But we wrote them down because we’d like to go beyond that.

 

Islamophobia is a growing problem in the UK and beyond. People are often persuaded that Muslims are aggressive, fanatical and narrow-minded. Co-authors, Khayaal Theatre, have long worked to remind people of the traditions of poetry, wisdom, questioning and humour in Muslim cultures. RIDING A DONKEY BACKWARDS is a part of that work. We hope that the book itself will do some ‘spinning around’ of people’s thinking. We’d like it to show readers that Islam is not, to quote the young man mentioned above, “a religion, that always takes itself far too seriously.”

 

I sent him a copy, for starters.

Tags:  children's books  dconference  diversity  reading  representation 

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How the Light Gets In - The Background to Debi Gliori's 'Night Shift'

Posted By Jacob Hope, 08 September 2018
Updated: 08 September 2018

Night Shift by Debi Gliori was one of the 2018 CILIP Kate Greenaway medal shortlisted titles.  Debi recently visited Bury Grammar Schools who have been shadowing the awards to provide insight into the background for the book.  

Night Shift had unusual origins.  It began as a series of unplanned pictures rather than as a book.  Debi worked on enormous rolls of paper using charcoal, which she describes as one of the oldest drawing materials.  She used her fingers to help create the work, making this quite literally a hands-on experience and allowing the creation of the smudged fog, a term she uses to describe the depression she's had since she was twenty-five.  'I drew how I felt - numb and miserable.  It seemed as though there was a pane of glass and as though all of the great stuff in life was happening behind that'.  

The series of drawings communicate how depression manifests itself and makes us feel as well as the insidious and sneaky way in which it affects life.  'Creating the pictures wasn't therapeutic.  It triggered memories and reminded of what unfamiliar territory depression was when it first occurred.'  Debi described how the hustle and bustle of working around the clock to meet deadlines led to a lack of sleep and increased pressure in her early twenties.  'It was terrifying, I used to belief I could hear what people were thinking.  It was like static on the radio that I could not tune out from.'  

When Debi's agent, Penny Holroyde, saw the pictures, she suggested with the addition of some spare text, they might form the basis for a special book.

'Debi told me she had been working on some large pictures in charcoal and I asked to see one. She sent me the image of the girl clutched in the dragon’s arm and told me that sometimes, during depressive periods, it’s easier to point at a picture than describe in words how you feel. This image (although cropped for the final book) and the sentiment behind it, moved me enormously and Night Shift, the book, became a little seedling. Debi obviously has a sublime way with words and I thought that simple captions would be the most effective way to carry the imagery and there is an intimacy in the picture book format that suits the subject matter perfectly.'

Penny Holroyde, Holroyde Cartey Agency

 After the conversation, Debi began thinking about the way this could show how depression is a real illness and the way it makes people feel.  She thought back to Leonard Cohen's line, 'there is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in,' and realised that finding a way to re-frame depression was the key to giving structure to her illustrations and creating a narrative around these.  

The moment when this clicked into place was serendipitous, it was during a walk on the beach.  Debi recounts how helpful she finds being out in the natural world, among trees, rivers, sea and sky.  On this particular occasion, she stumbled upon a feather, comprised of both light and dark elements, and realised this could provide the shift in perspective that she needed.

Debi's unique honesty and courage in recounting her personal experiences and making these both engaging and accessible for young people made the event every bit as affecting, heartfelt and affectionate  as 'Night Shift' itself is.  The Youth Libraries Group are delighted that Debi will be joining their annual conference Reading the Future this September and discussing the role books and reading can play in unlocking young people's emotion and empathy.

Tags:  conference  diversity  illustration  kate greenawayvisual literacy  mental health  reading 

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Through the Eyes of Nikesh Shukla

Posted By Jacob Hope, 06 September 2018
Updated: 06 September 2018

We are delighted to welcome Nikesh Shukla editor of The Good Immigrant, author, columnist for The Observer and tireless champion for representation in publishing and books to discuss his journey into Young Adult fiction with the publication of Run, Riot.

 

Run, Riot is my first book for teenagers and it’s an interesting journey, I think, for why I decided to write for teenagers. One of the more inspiring things about working on The Good Immigrant has been the wealth of teenagers who feel represented by the book and that they are seen, their stories valid. Some have said that it’s the first time they’ve read books featuring about people just like them. Others told me that it was the first book they read that wasn’t for school and now they can’t get enough.

 

So working on The Good Immigrant has been a real vindication of my desire to find young readers of colour and why it’s so important that they see themselves in books.

 

But my journey to writing YA starts well before that.

 

In around 2012, I was invited to do some creative writing workshops at a Young Offender’s Institute, not long after my first novel came out. I hadn’t ever really taught creative writing and I didn’t know how I should be in front of the young people. What did they want to get from me, the session, the day? To cut a long story short, I was terrible. I sucked so badly at teaching creative writing that the guards had to intervene and most the kids back to their cells, because I didn’t know how to be with them. I didn’t know how to inspire them or what I wanted them to do. I think, sadly, I wanted them to think I was cool. And when they asked me questions about how much money I earned as a writer, the facade dropped, for them, and for me, and I realised what an utterly stupid thing to wish. To look cool. How facile of me. The thing that stayed with me was that sense of failure: knowing that I could have made a difference.

 

I decided that the thing I needed to do was youth work. Be with young people, inspire them, help them find their voice. I remember talking to another workshop leader at the YOI, an ex-gang member who had turned his life around and did motivational talks. He impressed on me the importance of inspiring the next generation. And I believed him.

 

This is how I found myself, a few years later, working on a youth project called Rife magazine, designed to give young people in Bristol where I live a platform to tell their stories in their own voices and talk about the issues directly affecting them.

 

One of our first team of journalists was a young Asian filmmaker/poet/stand-up called Adibah. One of her first pieces for Rife was called ‘We Need To Talk About Stokes Croft’ and discussed her experiences of growing up in this ‘cool’ area of Bristol, and how it was now utterly gentrified, to the point where she no longer felt welcome there.

 

It led me down a rabbit hole of exploration about gentrification: how ultimately most of us are complicit in how it manifests. Live in any city in the UK and you will see property developers buy up properties in low income areas, offer out cheap space to artists, who create a cool vibe, which attracts people, which drives up property prices, which in turn then allows those property developers to flip properties for huge amounts of money. This is a very ‘dummies’ guide to gentrification’ way of looking at things, but talking to the young people I worked with in Bristol, this is how they described what was happening in the city they all grew up in.

 

And I was complicit. I moved here from London cos it was cheaper to live. I’m part of the problem.

 

Talking to those young people about the types of book they read, a lot of them said the same thing about YA: they didn’t feel it was for them. One of them even went so far as to say she felt ‘UK YA was written by white women in their late twenties for white women in their late twenties who wanted to read the books they wished they’d had in their teens’. Whether this is an accurate reflection of UK YA or not, it is still a valid perception by a young person outside of the industry. However those of us who are inside the industry see it, we have to listen to the consumers who have no insider knowledge. All this young person was, was someone who wanted to feel seen. She wanted to feel like her story was being told.

 

So I wrote Run, Riot for Adibah and for all the young people I met along the way at Rife, who felt like their stories weren’t being told, and the issues they felt were important weren’t being seen on our bookshelves. This is a thriller about gentrification and corruption and the things we hold on to in order to maintain our communities. I know that young person I mention feels seen. Because this one is for her.

Tags:  author  diversity  inclusion  representationreading  YA 

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Diversity and Inclusion in Children’s Books and Libraries at The Curve in Slough on Friday June 8, 2018

Posted By Elizabeth F. Beverley, 27 June 2018
Updated: 27 June 2018

Youth Libraries Group South East and South West held a joint training day called Diversity and Inclusion in Children’s Books and Libraries at The Curve in Slough on Friday June 8, 2018


Our objectives for the day were to achieve the following:
• To increase understanding of issues around diversity and inclusion in children’s books, and why they matter
• To consider how we, as library staff, can support and promote diversity and inclusion in children’s books and in our libraries
• To showcase examples of diverse and inclusive children’s books
• To provide opportunities for discussion and sharing good practice


Many thanks to everyone who attended our training day with YLG South West and a special thanks to Slough Libraries The Curve - Slough for hosting & the library tour.


The amazing Tales on Moon Lane for selling a selection of the inclusive and diverse books on the day.


We had fantastic talks provided by:

Alexandra Strick from Inclusive Minds
Storyteller and Author Chitra Soundar
Caroline Scott from Empathy Lab
Anna McQuinn from Alanna Books
Poet and Author A F Harrold


Thanks to Jake Hope, Slough Libraries and West Sussex Libraries for sharing an insight into their diversity and inclusivity work they have been doing.

 Attached Thumbnails:

Tags:  children's books  diversity  inclusion  training course  youth libraries group south east  youth libraries group south west 

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