Spotlight on Catherine Johnson, author and Megaphone masterclass leader

 Spotlights tell you more about the people involved in Megaphone: writers, editors and agents.

Catherine Johnson is one of the authors who will be leading a writing masterclass for Megaphone.

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Catherine Johnson: “In twenty years I have only ever worked with one Black editor.”

In her twenty year career she has written many books for young readers, including Sawbones, which won the Young Quills Best Historical Fiction prize in 2013. Her latest novel for teenagers is The Curious Tale of The Lady Caraboo – a gripping mystery about a girl who is not what she seems. She also writes for film and TV including scripts for Bullet Boy and Holby City. Her radio play has been shortlisted for The Prix Italia and The Imison award. But she is particularly known for her historical fiction, which often tells the stories of non-white children and teenagers in the past – something I think is particularly useful, given that British history has until fairly recently been presented as exclusively white, which does not reflect the reality. I asked her to say something about her writing process: what draws her to a character or a scenario in history and makes her want to turn it into a novel?

square SBCatherine: “It’s usually different every time, Sawbones was triggered by a visit to the Hunterian Museum in London – there was a tumour in a jar, the label read ‘cut off the face of a boy in St Kitts’ and I wrote the whole thing in six weeks. Caraboo came out of being reminded about her in an interview when I had just written Nest Of Vipers (about a gang of confidence tricksters). I was asked who my favourite conman or woman from history was, and I knew I had to write about her. Every book is different. Although being shallow I must admit the first historical fiction I ever wrote was prescribed by fashion. I wanted a book with empire line frocks so it had to be the 1820s…I have to get caught up in the story, a novel takes a long time and it’s sort of a confidence trick in itself. You have to convince yourself your characters are real before you convince any readers!”

Benjamin Zephaniah has recently spoken about how Black History Month ought to be integral to the teaching of history, not just a month. I asked Catherine if she thought historical fiction had a place in teaching parts of history that the curriculum doesn’t reach.

Catherine: “I was so bad at history that I wasn’t allowed to take the O level (they were O levels then). I hated learning about Corn Laws but I loved people. I have learned more reading historical fiction and brilliant non-fiction – like Peter Fryers’ Staying Power.  I think it’s so much easier learning stuff if it’s interesting. What I object to is taking exams. It’s hard. You want students to love their topics, maybe making it more about people and less about economics isn’t a bad thing.”

Finally, I asked her: what positive change would you love to see in the children’s book world? What project, initiative or change of approach would really make a difference?

516tZVguXhL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_CBCatherine: “I think writers need proper support; publishing is a business but I don’t know if it’s one I would be able to join if I was starting out now. I had a housing association house, a part time job and tax credits as well as writing books. These days – twenty years on – my advances are not any more than when I started out. It looks bleak – why do it at all? It’s hardly viable…..BUT the only person who loses out if you don’t do it is you. So it’s like a horrible addiction. What positive change would I like to see apart from writers being paid reasonably? More people of colour in the publishing industry for sure, in twenty years I have only ever worked with one Black editor.”

About Megaphone, Catherine has previously said:“I believe the Megaphone project is one that’s needed now more than ever. As a BAME author who has been published for the last twenty years I have seen numbers of non white UK children’s authors stay resolutely low. Young readers need to see modern Britain reflected back at them in their books. New authors need support – support that is no longer available in publishing today.”

Thanks to Catherine for her support!

Spotlight on Rachel Mann: Children’s Fiction Editor, charity founder and teacher

 Spotlights tell you more about the people involved in Megaphone: writers, editors and agents.

 

Rachel Mann 2015
Rachel Mann

Rachel Mann (@rachelphilippa ) Children’s Fiction Editor for Simon & Schuster UK,  is one of the editors who is generously donating her time to help select the applicants for Megaphone and to deliver final feedback on the manuscripts. She is also Founding Director of literacy and education charity The Saltpond Education Project (SEP) based in Ghana, West Africa. This sounds a fantastic project, so first of all I asked her to tell me something about it.

Rachel: “SEP has been an ever-evolving project, borne initially from the passion of a single Ghanaian teacher and the very urgent need of the beach children where he lives. We’re now a mid-sized charity with lots of wonderful UK trustees, providing an innovative form of education and teacher-training to over 180 children and 13 staff, all from a particularly underprivileged area of Saltpond, Ghana.”
On the subject of books and literacy, Rachel added:

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Children reading at the Saltpond Education Project

“One of the first thing I noticed upon my first trip to the country was a truly upsetting lack of imagination and expression in the classroom. This is a complex issue but one that has a lot to do with a lack of access to reading materials for students, teachers and the general population. Schools generally have a few copies of battered, outdated, poorly-produced textbooks to hand – and certainly no fiction – either in English or local languages. Literacy levels across all generations are extremely low in the area we serve – and most of our students are not recorded in national statistics because their births went unregistered.

So, we send over as many culturally appropriate and easily accessible storybooks and educational materials as we’re able to and, where we can, ones in which the children can recognise their own skin colour. Sadly, as we know, there aren’t that many! We then build interactive lessons and teaching styles around stories – using puppets, play acting, art and creative writing. We also run after-school creative writing and reading clubs, among others, as well as adult literacy classes and educational plays for the wider community. Once we were up and running, we let our students name our school, and they chose to call it ‘ the SEP Happy School’. Our school truly is a happy and dynamic place and this is largely because of the impact that stories and pictures have had on our learning environment.”

 

Rachel is clearly an incredibly busy person, so I had to ask her: why take something new on- why support Megaphone?

Rachel: “I have been working with children’s books for over twelve years now and have always, frankly, felt embarrassed and concerned about the lack of diversity and internationalism in the books that are currently available – though things are finally beginning to shift a little. Publishing is an industry which has a lot to do with canon and heritage, and one that can be very slow to change. Commissioning editors like myself can certainly do much more to ensure that all areas of our global society are reflected in the materials and stories we provide children with, but it’s also a sad fact that we just don’t see enough submissions by writers of BAME heritage. That’s because we’ve already failed a whole generation of readers, who have not seen themselves in stories and so haven’t felt that the industry would welcome them. That’s shocking – and something we need to address as soon as possible.”

Rachel added: “I took some time out of publishing in 2012 to teach English in an incredibly good school in Tower Hamlets, in which the cohort was 98% Bengali Muslim girls. The students were lucky enough to have access to a wonderful library, and a variety of extra-curricular activities around reading and writing. And yet, when these avid readers wrote stories, they would call their characters ‘Lily’ and ‘Rose’ and any number of other names straight out of a Jacqueline Wilson or Sophie McKenzie novel. Hardly any of them ever considered writing about themselves – their protagonists were always normalised Western-Caucasian girls, and certainly didn’t wear hijabs. And the girls I taught were all WONDERFUL writers – open-minded, worldly, expressive, and having had extremely interesting and often difficult lives already. So many of them were made to be authors, but almost none of them considered it. Sadder still, none of those readers were even able to escape a sense of struggle and alienation into imaginary worlds that accepted them. That was a huge factor in my return to publishing!”

Rachel thinks that when it comes to diversity and equality in the children’s book world: “It’s about changing the landscape and helping young people to feel included and supported in reading and writing at as early a stage as possible. Megaphone is wonderful in that it will help get more books published in which all young readers will recognise themselves. At the same time, we must make sure that teachers, librarians and other professionals are able to get those books into the hands of the right children, not just a privileged few. This is a lot to do with library and arts funding – something we must all keep fighting for. Creative writing initiatives like First Story and Ministry of Stories are also doing really wonderful work in helping young people from all backgrounds to get writing!”

Totally agree – and I’d add to that the Young Muslim Writers Awards, which is doing great work. Thank you Rachel for your support!

Spotlight on Jane Griffiths, Children’s Fiction Commissioning Editor.

 Spotlights tell you more about the people involved in Megaphone: writers, editors and agents.

Jane Griffiths is one of the editors who is generously donating her time to help select the applicants for Megaphone and to deliver final feedback on the manuscripts. She has worked in publishing for over ten years and is currently Senior Commissioning Editor at Simon & Schuster Children’s Books UK – a key role, with a lot of responsibility for which books and authors reach publication.  Read on, to get great tips about being the kind of writer that editors love to work with!

 

Jane Griffiths - photo
Jane Griffiths

Leila:  “ You’ve recently been double shortlisted for the Branford Boase award – with The Year of the Rat by Clare Furniss and The Dark Inside by Rupert Wallis – which acknowledges the contribution an editor makes to a book – congratulations! What do you think makes a great editor?”

Jane: “Thanks so much! I was thrilled when I heard that I’d been shortlisted with two of my authors for the prize, it’s a wonderful award because it recognizes that the editorial process is a collaborative one. And that, for me, is the crux of the editor/author relationship, collaboration and working together to make sure that the author’s novel is the very best it can be. I think editors can look at a manuscript the way that authors can’t always because you are one-step removed from the process – it’s why editors are often described as the “midwives” of the authors’ “babies”! So, really I think a great editor is someone who is there to help an author shape and form their manuscript into the best book it can be.”
Leila:  “And what makes a great writer from the editor’s point of view?”
Jane: “Every author is different, but the writers I enjoy working with most are the ones who you know are open to ideas and suggestions and also are keen to get stuck into those rewrites if necessary! I think that most of my authors would say the editorial process is a fun one (I hope!) with two people working together on a text they are both passionate about. Having said that, I also think that a great writer knows the world that they have created in their novel – they know their characters inside out and often have backstories and histories in their mind that go well beyond the action that takes place in the novel – which means they’re able to take editorial comments and ideas and really run with them.”

23652426YORLeila: “And finally, why did you want to be involved with Megaphone?”
Jane: “As a commissioning editor it’s frustrating that we just don’t see enough from diverse voices that reflect different perspectives and experiences. As an industry we need to do something about that by going out and actively seeking authors from different backgrounds to open up the world of publishing and schemes like Megaphone are a really good way to do that.”

 

Thanks to Jane for her support!

Spotlight on Lee Weatherly, author and Megaphone masterclass leader.

 Spotlights tell you more about the people involved in Megaphone: writers, editors and agents.

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Lee Weatherley

Lee Weatherly is one of the authors who will be leading a writing masterclass for Megaphone. In an industry where it is notoriously as difficult to stay published as it is to get published in the first place, award-winner Lee has had more than fifty books published, an impressive achievement which I think makes her excellently placed to pass on the benefit of experience to Megaphone participants. I personally have found her book, co-authored with Helen Corner, Teach Yourself: How To Write a Blockbuster a practical, useful basic guide to writing anything (not just blockbusters :)). Her latest book, Broken Sky,  will be out in March from Usborne Fiction, and is ‘‘an exhilarating epic of deception, heartbreak and rebellion, set in a daring and distorted echo of 1940s America’. Can’t wait! You can follow her on Twitter @LA_Weatherly and on Tumblr to find out more.
About Megaphone, Lee has said: “I’m thrilled to be involved with Megaphone — because diversity in children’s fiction matters. When kids read, they should both experience other realities and see their own reflected. They need to know that anything is possible, that the world isn’t closed to them. We’re all cheated when this isn’t the case, no matter what our skin colour.”9781409572022-broken-sky-new-2
One of the goals of Megaphone is to support the participants in developing the skills and networks they need to sustain a longterm career as a writer, and since Lee is a great example of success in this respect, I asked her what she thought writers needed to keep going in the long term.
Lee: “Oh gosh, what a tough question. Dedication, I guess, and talent, and a willingness to try different genres. But honestly, I think I’ve been very lucky. I’ve never written anything that I wasn’t passionate about, and everything I wanted to write happened to be in vogue at the time. I think if you try to write to the market, you’re probably likely to fail. You have to love what you’re writing.”
Good advice – so I asked her for some more. What top 3 tips would she give to an aspiring children’s fiction writer?
Lee: “Writing is hard, that’s the main thing I know. Read all you can about it, and then figure out the way that works for you. But here are some tips:
1. You should genuinely love children’s/YA fiction and read a lot of it. If you don’t, you should probably be writing something else.
2. Be aware of the market, and then forget about it. Write what excites YOU. 
3. Inhabit your characters and tell the truth. Never write ‘down’. Kids aren’t stupid. They can smell well-meaning condescension a mile away.”

Finally, I asked her: what positive change would you love to see in the children’s book world? What project, initiative or change of approach would really make a difference?
Lee: “We’re in a time where publishing any individual title is a group decision based largely on marketability, which can mean that the more challenging or ‘quiet’ or unusual stories don’t ever make it onto the shelves. What I’d love to see is more decision-making power being returned to the commissioning editors, less emphasis on sales right from the onset, and a more nurturing atmosphere where authors are helped to build careers across several books. (Well, I can dream..!)”

Thanks to Lee for her support, and I’m really looking forward to her masterclass!

Spotlight on Kirsten Armstrong, Fiction Editor at Penguin Random House

 Spotlights tell you more about the people involved in Megaphone: writers, editors and agents.

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Kirsten Armstrong

Kirsten Armstrong (@K_L_Armstrong) is one of the editors who is generously donating her time to help select the applicants for Megaphone and to deliver final feedback on the manuscripts. She has worked at Random House Children’s Publishers since 2011, on the prestigious David Fickling Books imprint and across the list more generally. She also has special responsibility for managing the Tamarind fiction list, an imprint which aims to redress the balance of diversity in children’s publishing and which publishes wonderful authors including Jamila Gavin, Candy Gourlay, Malorie Blackman, Bali Rai, Narinder Dhami and Crystal Chan. She has been a strong advocate for diversity in publishing for a long time, and sits on Penguin Random House’s Diversity Task Force.
So, what is Kirsten looking for? If she could order the perfect unpublished children’s or YA book to arrive on her desk tomorrow morning, ready for her to edit and send into the world, what would that book be like?

Kirsten: “My two favourite books are Junk by Melvin Burgess and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, because both are brilliantly written, have strong characters and pack an emotional punch. They tackle difficult subjects and are not afraid to challenge the reader, but are written beautifully and have a deftness of touch. I would love to find a writer who is an expert storyteller, able to captivate, challenge and surprise me with their narrative, and make me really root for their characters.”

With responsibility for Tamarind Press, Kirsten has a great opportunity for insight into diversity in children’s literature. I asked her: what one thing does she believe is most needed, to improve diversity and equality in the children’s book world? What project, initiative or change of approach would really make a difference?

Kirsten: “I think the publishing industry has turned a corner recently – three years ago, it was really difficult to find a submission that featured BAME main characters, but thanks to movements like ‘We Need Diverse Books’ I am seeing so many more. However, there is definitely still work to be done, particularly in terms of ensuring diversity within the writing community, not just within the pages of books. Megaphone excites me because I think the industry really needs a mentoring scheme like this. I think a project like Megaphone could make a huge difference, in terms of coaching talented new writers to develop and prepare their work for submission. Getting an agent or a publishing deal is tough, but I hope that by having an industry professional to mentor a writer through the process and impart practical advice this would help to encourage more BAME voices in children’s literature.

Many thanks to Kirsten for  her support!

 

Note: Tamarind Press was originally an independent publisher, started by Verna Wilkins who is something of a legend in publishing: I strongly recommend reading The Right To Be Seen, Verna’s 2008 Patrick Hardy lecture, in which she describes why she set up Tamarind Press. http://www.tamarindbooks.co.uk/downloads/tamarind_righttobeseen.pdf

Blog: How can I, a white writer, include more diverse characters in my writing?

 

Inspired by the #geaqa (Golden Egg Academy live chat ) that I participated in last night on Twitter, I’ve decided to put down my thoughts on this question, because it cropped up a couple of times last night and it does crop up frequently.  When speaking about Megaphone I have often been asked by white writers, who agree there is a problem of lack of representation of non-white characters in children’s literature: ‘How can I make my writing more inclusive? I want to write diverse characters, and make a difference, but how do I avoid getting it wrong?’ I’m never quite sure how to respond to this question because while it comes from a place of very good intentions, I believe the only real way to create a more inclusive, diverse children’s literature is to make the workforce that  officially produces, critiques and disseminates it (writers, librarians, critics, academics, booksellers, etc.) more diverse and inclusive in itself. Better representation in literature will follow from BAME people’s increased confidence and sense of ownership of children’s literature.

Having said that, so many people have asked me this that I think it might be worth putting down a few thoughts, with the caveat that these are my own personal opinions – others may disagree.

  • Don’t force it. The story must lead and the character must lead the writing. Writing should be fun, at least at the beginning.
  • Don’t force it. Putting a BAME character in a book won’t automatically make you a better or a more trendy or a more saleable author.
  • Listen to real life BAME people. Actually care about them.
  • Not just by researching facts but by listening to feelings. I’ve seen so many incidents on social media that go like this:
    -Non-white person posts a link to an article/blog post about some kind of racism or cultural appropriation, and passionately says they agree with it and share this experience.
    -Several other non-white people post to say they have also shared this experience.
    -White person pops up and informs non-white OP that they are wrong about racism, that their experience is invalid, and instructs them as to what they should be thinking instead.

… I can’t honestly bring myself to go into why you should try your very hardest not to be that white person. Suffice to say a kitten dies in Rainbowland every time the above happens.  Basically: if you want to write characters who differ from you in important ways, tune in more than you broadcast. Do people the courtesy of assuming they are telling the truth about how they feel, rather than assuming anything that makes you feel slightly upset/ uncomfortable/ defensive is part of some ‘agenda’ (a mysterious object, apparently possessed only by minority groups). Appreciate that non-white people live at the sharp end of racism. Ask open-ended questions and learn from the answers. The internet can put you in touch with all kinds of people and groups, and people are usually keen to talk if you are keen to listen respectfully. Gutenberg and online archives can give you access to testimony from the past – always try to go to original sources where you can.

  • Beware reverse white-washing (in which your BAME characters behave in weird ways, because even though you’ve called them Abdul and Mohammed you haven’t fully imagined them). Would an all-white family with young children start running a Balti house in Sparkhill? Maybe, but you’d probably expect to learn something about them in the course of the novel that would explain their lack of concern about their children being the only white children in the local school, about not fitting into the community, about being the only white family in the street, about possible local hostility to their customs, etc. Would a Pakistani family move to Cumbria to open a guest house themed around Wordsworth? Maybe, but you’d probably expect to learn something about them in the course of the novel that would explain their lack of concern about their children being the only non-white children in the local school, about not fitting into the community, about being the only Asian family in the street, about possible local hostility to their customs, etc.
    An interesting, uncomfortable exercise is to describe yourself through your character’s eyes. How would your character see you?
  • Don’t jump from the inclusive attitude of, ‘We are all the same really,” to the erroneous conclusion: ‘You are all just like me!’. Difference is not a bad thing. Respect people’s differences in your writing, don’t ignore them. And don’t forget that there are huge, subtle, complex differences between members of a single ethnic or religious group. People may have attitudes and values which are irreconcilable with yours, without that making you, or them, a bad person.
  • Where possible, enable and empower less-heard people to use their voices and take control of the production of stories and literature. Better to mentor a minority writer to develop their own voice, than write a minority character into a book. Don’t forget that diversity in children’s literature is not merely for its own sake, but in order to have a real impact on real children – so that the next generation can see that they’re a valued and important part of British culture, and that they too can aspire to be writers, not just passively written about.
  • We lovers of children’s literature run on nostalgia. This isn’t a bad thing. We want to write because we loved to read. But the fact is that the books we read were often written in very different times and often contain racial stereotyping (the Calormenes, for example, or my beloved Tintin, Rider Haggard or Jules Verne). So sometimes we stereotype without meaning to, just because we’ve let our self-awareness idle and written what comes easily, without examining the shortcuts that our childhood reading have set up in our minds. Take a step back now and then and make sure you’re not making all your baddies BAME, disabled or some other minority. Some books and films still perpetuate stereotypes, sadly. Let’s try to make sure we don’t do this.
  • Equally, beware exoticising people. Are you writing this ethnic minority character because you really care about the lives and experiences and concerns of real black/Asian/Chinese PEOPLE, or just because it seems exciting and sexier than your own identity? Generally speaking, ethnic minorities don’t feel exotic, they feel disempowered.
  • Finally: my rule of thumb. Diversity in children’s literature has no purpose if it doesn’t affect the lives of real people for the better.

I know this all sounds less about writing, more about challenging and changing one’s own attitudes. But I  personally think that is what it takes; there are no short, simple answers to the question of how you get better at writing about very different people’s experiences. I think if you accept that it won’t be easy, that it will be challenging and painful sometimes, that’s a good start. It reminds me of something an instructor said to me in an exercise class: there are two kinds of pain and discomfort: bad pain and discomfort that happens because you’re being injured, and good pain and discomfort that happens because you’re being stretched, and it’s important to be able to differentiate between them. Racism injures people. It wounds. But to reach equality, we all have to stretch.
– Leila

The Golden Egg Academy q&a is storified here: https://storify.com/LAHodges10/geaqa-with-5666a4f746faaa4e2eb4c877

Spotlight on: Kate Agar, editor and secret vampire plotter…

Spotlights tell you more about the people involved in Megaphone: writers, editors and agents.

Kate Agar (@kateagar) is one of the editors who is generously donating her time to help select the applicants for Megaphone and to deliver final feedback on the manuscripts. She is commissioning editor for Hachette (Little Brown Young Readers) .  The ‘commissioning’ bit means that she gets to seek out new authors, and advise the publishing house on who to publish – a very important role. In addition to traditional work, she works on licensed projects such as Mattel’s Ever After High and with non-traditional authors such as Frank Lampard, and develops ideas  generated in-house into stories and novels. 

Kate Agar photo
Kate Agar

Kate mentioned in her bio for Megaphone that she was building up the Young Adult (YA) list for Little, Brown Young Readers. I asked her what she was looking for and what she thought the future of YA held.

Kate Agar: “We’ve seen some big sweeping trends in YA in the past, but I think we’re heading towards a landscape where we’ll be able to make really great stories work, regardless of genre. Saying that, I keep hearing talk of YA sci-fi having a renaissance (and I recently had a coffee with an agent where we plotted to bring back vampires . . . but don’t tell anyone . . . ). For our list, we want a spread of authors covering different areas so that we have plenty of space to promote each of them. I’m not seeing a great number of male protagonists in my submissions pile, and I’d love to acquire something with a hint of supernatural or magical realism. But what I want more than anything are authentic voices. We can work on the plotting or the world details, but if I don’t immediately fall in love with the voice it’s very unusual for me to be won over by a manuscript!”

Kate is, like all the writers and editors involved, a very busy person – so I wanted to know why she took the time to get involved with Megaphone!

Kate Agar: “As soon as I heard about Leila’s plans, I was incredibly keen to be involved. It’s such a brilliant way for editors to see a new range of voices that we don’t always have access to, and hopefully will start to help to make publishing as an industry feel more accessible. I think the whole process of book creation can feel a bit opaque from the outside, and the more we can open it up the better.

Finally,  the question that I asked everyone: what do you think is needed, to improve diversity and equality in the children’s book world? What project, initiative or change of approach would really make a difference?

Kate Agar: “Can I say Megaphone?! I think we’re in a bit of a vicious cycle because historically most characters in children’s books have been white and able-bodied, so children who identify in that way are the most likely to want to become writers and editors. Long-term, making sure we have a wide cast of characters within the books we publish will help to solve that, encouraging readers early on and bringing new voices and experiences to both the submission pile and the pool of commissioning editors. But other initiatives are also really important in the shorter term: Megaphone, of course, but also charities such as Creative Access (which places interns from BAME backgrounds into creative industries) and Arts Emergency (which pairs young people with mentors in the arts, and supports people of all backgrounds to think about a degree in the arts).”

Many thanks to Kate for  her support!