Kirkus: unmaking the White default

Kirkus reviews, for those who don’t know, is a highly influential, USA based body of reviewers. A starred Kirkus review is something that authors fling their hats in the air, squee and dance about. So I was really interested to read this:  

I think it’s a good move. I also like the fact that they’ve flagged up that one of their reviewers of colour didn’t agree with the decision. Because guess what, not all people of colour hold exactly the same views on what’s racist and what isn’t, what with us all being different people and so forth 🙂 . Kirkus have made this decision to try it this way, and I think it’s a good one. It draws attention to the white default, and that’s a good thing, I think. If you can’t see the problem, you can’t start tackling it.

Meanwhile, Nikesh Shukla has tweeted this relevant piece

“When you only see white folks being glamorous, beautiful and sympathetic in media, it is all too easy to internalise the message that you have to look white in order to be attractive.” 


Author Lisa Glass has also kindly drawn my attention to this tumblr: looks worth a read!


London Book Fair 2016

I was at #LBF16 today to talk about diversity and writing for children and teenagers, with Peter Kalu and Tariq Mehmood, authors at HopeRoad Publishing, run by Rosemarie Hudson. I was only there briefly before having to run off to another meeting, but as usual wished I’d arranged to stay longer! Notable moments: the Bonnier dinosaur outside, Keris Stainton rescuing me from starvation by kindly swapping sandwiches, and spotting Chips, Beans and Limousines in exalted company…

Chips, Beans and Limousines at #LBF16


Meet Tina, Megaphone Participant


Tina headshot
Tina Freeth

Leila: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your writing life so far?
Have you been writing long, and what drew you to writing for children
and teenagers?

Tina: About me? Well, that is quite a story in itself but I’m not sure I have enough room to fit everything in, so here is the condensed version! Are you ready? This is what I answer when I am often asked “Where are you from?” – I was born Maisie Chan back in the late 70s (the same year as Elvis died – RIP The King). At twelve days old I was fostered by the Freeth Family who then went on to adopt me when I was 8 years old. I was fairly good at school, went on to study American and Canadian Studies at Birmingham Uni as I liked basketball, rap music and wanted to live in America for a year (I had no career aspirations back then!), plus my Mom wanted me to stay at home and I lived around the corner from the campus.

During my year abroad,  I read lots of Asian American authors such as Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan, but on my return realised there were no British Chinese authors. I went to live in Taipei so I could learn Mandarin Chinese to feel closer to my Asian roots, but really I felt more British – so that backfired! In 2003 my Mom passed away and soon after, I decided I wanted to write. I had a few jobs as a grants writer for various charities, and in 2006 it was all change again as I decided to quit my job and focus all of my energy into writing and unexpectedly found my biological father when I was surfing the internet – he was a Tai Chi Master and was doing a show in London. I did his tai chi class and after told him I was his daughter. I started to write a book about it but never finished it!

I was accepted onto the National Academy of Writing diploma course at Birmingham City University in 2007 and also had a place on the Birmingham Libraries scheme for BAME writers Original Skin which culminated with a short story anthology.

Since then I’ve had a handful of short stories published in various anthologies and collaborated on two picture books for reluctant readers that were published by Franklin Watts. The characters in those children’s books were from an urban housing estate and looked like me and people that I had grown up with, such as the Pakistani families on my road, or the families that had the random child in the middle who was a shade darker than all of the others.  Families are not only white, they aren’t always like the ones you see in the supermarket adverts buying food for their neat breakfast tables. I knew that it was important to have people of colour and to have working class people in books, especially children’s books as all children need to see mirrors of themselves represented in books. Society is made up of a mixture of different people and circumstances.

I had a break from writing to have my two children in 2010; one of them looks Spanish and the other one looks Chinese. They both love to books and we create weird stories together. I want to write stories for children and teenagers because I remember what it was like being a child and even though my Mom was not very literate, she always took me to the library and made sure I could read well. A librarian once told me that my writing ‘voice’ suited young adult fiction and I often work with children, either through storytelling, family yoga sessions or doing author events at schools and libraries.

Fortunately for me, in 2015 I was accepted onto the Writing West Midlands Room 204 writer development scheme last which has been wonderful as it has put me in touch with local writing community. I was one of the finalist of the Creative Futures Literary Awards last year which was a surprise as I hadn’t written for such a long time.

I’m super happy that I will be teaching creative writing to teens during this coming year which I am sure will help me understand that particular age group a bit more as it’s been a while since I was a teenager! I need to brush up on the lingo!

Leila: And can you tell us a bit about the book you will be writing this
year – what’s it about, and what inspired you to write it? What do you
think the biggest challenges will be in writing it? (the things you
think will be most difficult – e.g. researching, or structuring, etc.)

Tina: I have a tendency to write tragic comedies and I suppose the novel I am writing will be along a similar vein. I am going to write about a British Chinese teenager who is going to go live with a black foster family, I want to explore how my protagonist deals with the cultural differences that will arise from living with a family very different to your own. Originally, my idea was that her father had been sectioned for mental health reasons but now I am thinking of changing it to her grandfather (whom she lives with) who has severe Dementia and has to go onto a care home. He has looked after her since her parents both died. I often want to explore themes in my stories that I have experiences such as grief, rejection, being a young carer, or the effects of mental health issues on the family. I think many young people have to go through these issues, it’s not all about who you fancy or Justin Bieber!

I think the most difficult thing about writing the book will be carving out time to do it whilst juggling family life. My daughter starts school in September so I’m very much looking forward to that event! I also teach yoga once a week and it helps me maintain my own yoga practice which I think definitely helps me as a writer. It counters the sitting in a chair and tapping on the laptop. In essence I need to make more time and will start going to a local cafe to write instead of doing it at home with all the distractions of laundry and washing up. I tend to procrastinate a lot!

I also need to use my experience but then detach from it too and know that I am writing fiction. I am not the main character and the story is hers story not mine. Research for the story shouldn’t be that difficult as I have firsthand experience of many of the themes in the book.

Leila: Finally, what do you hope to get out of Megaphone?

Tina: I hope that Megaphone will take my writing to the next level. I have only written short fiction and short scripts but have always wanted to write novels, but in my mind I felt I couldn’t do it without some kind of support. Often on writing courses you are not taught how to write a longer piece of work, so having a mentor is going to be invaluable as she will read the novel as I’m writing and editing it and has so much experience in this area of writing. I am also looking forward to the masterclasses from visiting authors and publishing professionals. I’ve created a facebook group for the five of us from Megaphone to get to know each other better, to share resources and to support each other over the coming year. I’m looking forward to seeing the other participant’s novels take form as well as my own.

A writer friend once said her mantra was ‘BOOK IN WATERSTONES!’ and I am adopting that too, I want my book (s) in Waterstones (actually any large bookstore or independent ones too for that matter!) I want young people to read it and for that to happen it has to be published and to be out there.

Megaphone is an excellent scheme to make this happen I just have to live up to my end and write the best story I can. Thanks to all of those involved in making this happen. It really is a life changing opportunity.



Megaphone first masterclass!

The first Megaphone masterclass took place on Saturday 02/04/2016 at Writing West Midlands’ meeting room in the Custard Factory, Digbeth, Birmingham (venue kindly provided as in-kind funding by Writing West Midlands). I didn’t notice the graffiti outside the window when I was taking this but it’s quite funny!

We looked at book, story, plot points and communicating your story to readers. I’m so pleased and excited to finally have things underway, and to be working with these five very able and promising writers !

First Megaphone Masterclass

Meet Danielle, Megaphone participant

Danielle Jawando

I’m interviewing the first ever Megaphone participants, giving those who follow the blog and have an interest in Megaphone an insight into the people who’ll be on the scheme. Today, Danielle Jawando tells us a bit about herself and her writing and her hopes for Megaphone.

Leila: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your writing life so far? Have you been writing long, and what drew you to writing for children and teenagers?

Danielle: Writing and books have always been a huge part of my life. In fact, most of my childhood memories include reading or scribbling down some form of story or the other. Although writing has always been something I’ve done, I never realised I wanted to be a children’s author until much later on.

True to form, English was my favourite subject at school and I then went on to study a BA and MA in Creative Writing at the University of East London. For me, this was one of the most significant turning points in my life. I’d never really been around other writers, or people who loved words as much as I do.  So those years spent analysing craft, exploring narrative, discussing theory and questioning what it means to be a writer, made me realise that this was what I wanted to do.

I then went into teaching, and taught a mixture of English GCSE, Functional Skills and Creative Writing in an FE college (along with running various writing workshops within Hertfordshire.) On the rare occasion I didn’t have marking to do, or lessons to plan, I would stay up and write. But I found that I just didn’t have enough time, and when I wasn’t writing, that’s all I could think about.  Although I enjoyed teaching, deep-down I knew that I was writer, and the less I was able to write the more miserable I became.  For me, writing wasn’t just something I enjoyed, it was a necessity. When I didn’t write, I felt disconnected. Lost almost, and I knew then (that even if nothing came of it), I had to finally do what I’d always wanted. I began sending stuff out and the good old rejection cycle started.  Then, at 23, I had my first short story published by Deadink and NAWE, not long after that I found out I’d been shortlisted for an Original Voices scheme with ITV and Emmerdale.

After several very close calls (and countless no’s), I finally left teaching in May last year, to start storyline writing for Coronation Street. I worked on Corrie for seven months and during that time, I also wrote a few short plays, one of which was put on with a local theatre company.  I’m currently in the process of developing a full-length play (‘O’Donoghu’s Wife’) which will be touring next year. But I guess, through all of this, the one thing I’ve been desperate to do is to write children’s fiction. When a close friend of mine sent me the Megaphone application last year and I read about the scheme, I knew I had to apply. I was thrilled when I found out I had been chosen as one of the five participants.

I guess the first thing that drew me into wanting to write children’s literature, is my love for children’s books. I think that some of the most wonderful stories, important messages and pressing accounts of society and the human condition, come from children’s literature. Of course, having taught would undoubtedly come into this. I feel that as generation after generation evolves, so does the need for new stories. I think as writers, we owe to the world to constantly look for new perspectives, new narratives and new ways to have those important conversations.  It’s an exciting time to be a children’s author, there’s even more of a shift in boundaries, in censorship, in diversity and in voice.  Finally, I’ve always found the way children and teenagers see the world fascinating. Perhaps it’s that balance of innocence and experience, or that element of truthfulness that children so often possess.  They tell you how it is, they look at things and when something isn’t right, they speak out. Either way, all of these things have contributed and Megaphone is something I’m very much looking forward to being part of.

Leila: And can you tell us a bit about the book you will be writing this year – what’s it about, and what inspired you to write it? What do you think the biggest challenges will be in writing it? (the things you think will be most difficult – e.g. researching, or structuring, etc.)

Danielle: The novel I’ll be writing, I’ve had in my mind for about four years now.  I was coming to the end of my Masters and was writing my thesis on the representation of mental illness within literature and the effects that institutionalisation has on voice (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one of my favourite novels.) I read a lot of Foucault, Laing and Goffman at the time, and I was both disturbed and fascinated by the history of mental illness, and the way in which society treated those who they perceived to be ‘mentally ill’ at the time.

A few things really stuck out to me, one of them was Foucault’s discussion that madness itself is not a natural disease, but rather “a disease of civilisation.” Foucault believed that this was often created in order to evade a certain moment of our own existence, “the moment of disturbance, and penetrating vision into the depths of ourselves.”

Another significant influence was Laing’s The Divided Self, in which Laing provides detailed accounts and case studies of what ‘schizophrenic and schizoid’ patients. Laing’s main purpose was to describe the decent into madness in a comprehensible way, allowing others to understand the transition between the ‘sane schizoid way of-being-in-the-world,’ to the ‘psychotic way of being-in-the world.’ Laing then goes on to discuss, how the term ‘schizoid’ often refers to an individual who is “split in various ways.” An already “shattered humpty dumpty, trying to exist in the world.”  These images really stuck in my mind, and from those bits, all of these questions started to form. It made me wonder how someone born into such a controlled and institutionalised society, where madness is this disease of civilisation, would cope? It also made me wonder what it would be like for this person with this shattered sense of self, a core they’re constantly trying to piece together, would cope?

From that, my novel and my characters were born.

My protagonist, (Nathan) is a teenage boy with this divided and split sense of self, almost like a Rubick’s cube he’s constantly trying to piece together. I then began to think about other aspects of his life, his mum, his brother, his younger sister and those relationships around him. The novel is going to be a split narrative, with two parallel points of view running along side by side. One point of view is going to be told from Nathan’s perspective (who is institutionalised and perceived as being ‘mentally ill’), and the other point of view from his brother, Sol  (who is perceived by society to be sane.) It’s not just about this depiction of mental illness and the effect of institutionalisation, but I also want to show this ‘transition’ in a comprehensible way. For me, this story is also about those murky bits in-between. How a young boy with this divided-self experiences the world, how his relationships are effected, how he grows up.  I’m really interested in those grey areas, which so often bleed into every aspect of our lives.

Some of the challenges I know I will face, will undoubtedly be research. For a novel like this, I think it’s important to not only get the critical and theoretical research, but also the experience from those what have worked within the mental health profession. I’m still playing with the idea of my novel being set in a dystopian universe, but either way, I want it to seem real, truthful and believable, so research will be a significant aspect. As my novel is also a split narrative and will have two parallel points of view, another challenge will undoubtedly be the structure and the distinctiveness of both voices. I think I’ve managed to accurately portray the voices of teenage boys (years of teaching construction students have definitely helped that), but my challenge will be in keeping them separate and distinct. I’ll definitely have to embark on some thorough planning. Finally, with most things in life, I don’t want this novel to be as clear cut as this is ‘reality,’ this is ‘fantasy,’ this is the voice of someone who is ‘mentally ill,’ this is the voice of someone who is ‘sane.’ As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m very much interested in those grey bits in-between. I’m hoping to write something that will consistently have my readers questioning their perception on sanity, but also society’s perception on it. Through it all, I want them to understand, experience and feel what both brothers are going through – which I know will be a challenge!


Leila: Finally, what do you hope to get out of Megaphone?

Danielle: A lot of my friends are either published writers, or in the process of sending out their manuscripts and the one thing they always tell me, is how difficult it can be to receive critical feedback from an editor or agent. One of the wonderful things about Megaphone is that it opens up the direct channel of communication to editors and agents. There are so many experienced people involved, from Leila Rasheed to the countless editors, writers and publishers who have volunteered their time. One of the things I’m hoping to get out of Megaphone, is that crucial experience and advice from industry professionals. I’m excited to attend the masterclasses and I’m also excited to learn, from everyone who is involved in the scheme.

Another thing I’m hoping to get out of Megaphone is a good support network of friends and writers. Writing is such a lonely feat. You spend most of the time in your own head, or locked away trying to get your ideas down. It’s one of those jobs where you are constantly doubting yourself and sometimes can’t see the wood through the tress. I think it’s so important to have a group of fellow writers who you can trust and share your work with (especially in those early stages, when things are still raw.) Another great thing about the scheme is that there are four other people going through the exact same process as myself. So we will be able to support and encourage each other along. We’ve already been in contact (although we haven’t yet met), and have shared book recommendations and the writing samples which we submitted during the application process. I’m hoping that long after the scheme has ended, we will all be in contact.

Finally, without meaning to state the obvious, I’m looking forward to writing my novel. Aside from all the wonderful people I’ll meet and the wonderful things I’ll learn, I can’t wait to have my finished manuscript.


Meet Avantika, Megaphone participant

I’m interviewing the first ever Megaphone participants, giving those who follow the blog and have an interest in Megaphone an insight into the people who’ll be on the scheme. Today, Avantika Taneja tells us a bit about herself and her writing and her hopes for Megaphone.

Avantika Taneja

Leila: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your writing life so far?
Have you been writing long, and what drew you to writing for children
and teenagers?

Avantika: It’s difficult to own my identity as a writer, but I suppose the
written word has always been my way of processing and encountering the
world. When I moved to London over eight years ago and embarked on
some solo travel, books and my Alice-in-Wonderland diary were my main
companions, so that was the first time I properly scratched my
creative writing itch. The anonymity of building a new life emboldened
me to take my first creative class back then, so my relationship with
writing is very much intertwined with my relationship to the city.

With a career in educational charities in NYC and London, my work has
always related to children and young people – enabling them to make
sense of the world and their voice within it, largely through the
education system. I had a few isolated opportunities to write for
children in a previous job, in the voice of animal characters,
distilling complex social issues into age appropriate stories.

Lucky for me, a couple of years ago I happened to marry a witty
wordsmith who is a screenwriter/filmmaker, and that has hugely
nurtured my storytelling imagination and helped me treat my craft more
preciously and professionally.

Leila: And can you tell us a bit about the book you will be writing this
year – what’s it about, and what inspired you to write it? What do you
think the biggest challenges will be in writing it? (the things you
think will be most difficult – e.g. researching, or structuring, etc.)

Avantika: The story I will be developing is a fictional piece about a young
Syrian girl and her family’s journey into refugeehood and the inner
world that the children create to cope with traumatic changes around
them. Throughout the physical journey of fleeing Aleppo, entrapment in
Turkey and the perilous path to Europe, the young protagonist invents
an imaginary society, The Children’s State of Aleppo, for the benefit
of her younger brother, where children rule the roost (democratically,
of course), chocolate fountains abound, borders are open and passports
are not needed, as enshrined in their Manifesto. The Children’s State
gains more solidity in their imagination and becomes ever more utopian
as they encounter more and more obstacles in the real world in their
quest for home.

My inspiration is of course current geopolitics and my own political
and personal interest and experience with migration regimes. But it is
also rooted in the utmost respect I have for children’s ability to
retain their sense of wonder and imagination even in the most
harrowing circumstances, and their capacity to imagine big, bold,
whimsical solutions to social problems. I want the children’s context
in my story to be very real, so to speak, forcing them to grow up too
quickly, and yet I hope my characters defy this with their childlike
ability to invent and carve out their own agency when so many things
are unravelling around them.

For me, migration stories are about the themes of childhood and
growing up: love and loss, displacement, sense of belonging and
arriving at a new ‘home’ – be that a place or a renewed identity.
Through the prism of one family’s story, I want to further normalise
the experience of mobility, migration and forced migration like some
of the inspiring children’s books I have relished by Elizabeth Laird,
Benjamin Zephaniah and Michael Morpurgo.

I expect my biggest writing challenges to be around researching and
representing the ‘real’ context my characters are embedded in. Because
the context is a live and moving and violent and highly politicised
one, I will have to anchor my characters in a particular moment within
this. I expect to be constantly battling the tension between age
appropriateness and overprotecting my audience, and I will need to
find some creative devices to condense the background of a complex
conflict within the story, without employing a ‘teachery’ voice.

Leila: Finally, what do you hope to get out of Megaphone?

Avantika: First and foremost, a like-minded community with a shared vision for
the landscape of children’s literature. It’s an absolute privilege to
be welcomed into a community of established children’s authors and
industry professionals as well as other aspiring children’s book
writers on a similar journey.

Through the mentorship and nurturance of Megaphone, I really hope to
tackle some of the storytelling challenges described above as well as
develop my craft by becoming more conscious of my own voice and my own
process. As my husband would say, becoming a writer means
professionalising your self-doubt so I’m also eternally grateful for
the mentorship and community to help weather the emotional journey

I hope Megaphone can be the structure and accountability every writer
needs: knowing I am going to have to take my writing outside of
myself, even if it’s initially just to one other person, will force me
to create, in the best sense. Beyond this, benefiting from the
experience of established authors and industry professionals ​will add
a real practical weight to the writing process and ​a point of access
to a​ world that sometimes seems impene​trable from the outside​.
Ultimately, I see Megaphone as an absolutely brilliant and affirming
way to turn a passion project into a reality.

Reflections and thoughts for the future…

I’ve written a piece for The Read Quarterly, a magazine covering current issues in children’s literature, about Megaphone: what i’ve learned so far and what the future could hold:


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