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:

READING
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!