(Pigeon) seeds of a story

It began with a name, as it so often does for me: The Audacious Birdy Jones. But who she was, what she looked like, what her story was were blurry and inchoate, still lost somewhere in the soup of story that swirls in my head like the everlasting porridge pot.

Then came the birth certificate, magpied from another book entirely but handed to Birdy fresh and new and fledgling itself, setting her off on an adventure to find herself? Or her name. Or perhaps, even, her audacity.

Her squawk of an accent belonged to another little voice, a girl from a film I once saw, and the kids in the city I’d met on a visit, all ordinary and amazing. Her face, though, and hair are straight from the silver screen, from a shorn and scrawny twelve year old just finding her feet.

Dogger’s a ragtag mix, part Artful Dodger, part Son of Rambow, and played in my head by a boy I once knew at school, pale and freckled but busting with swagger.

And the birds? Seen in back sheds from a misted train window, they came last of all, but are the start and the end and everything in between.

And together they grew shoots of idea until they twined into a complex tale, of a boy who is lost, and then found, of a father who’s forgotten what that means, and of an audacious girl who needs to find out where she comes from to know where’s going.

Where Do You Go, Birdy Jones is out today. And you can buy it here.

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Birdy Jones is all alone

Of all the questions I get asked on school visits, there are several perennials:

  1. How old are you, Miss?
  2. How much do you earn, Miss?
  3. Do you know JK Rowling / Jacqueline Wilson / David Walliams / any other much more famous author?

But the one that comes up time and time again, often several times in the same session, because, you know, attention span, is: ‘Where do you get your ideas from, Miss?’

I was asked it today at a bookshop signing, and I told the gobsmacked little girl the same as I tell all the other gobsmacked children: Mainly I steal them. Because it’s true. I magpie from everywhere. Bits and bobs and names and words and tiny little seeds. We all do it (even Shakespeare did it), but it’s what we do with it that stops it being plain theft.

In fact there were two eggs of ideas for Birdy. Firstly the name: Birdy Jones. I came across it somewhere (a newspaper perhaps?) and pocketed it (written it in my Book of Ideas), along with the word ‘audacious’ which is a delicious thing in itself. I knew then (about three years ago now) that I wanted to write a book about a girl called The Audacious Birdy Jones.  But who was Birdy? I had no idea and tried several out for size: small funny girls, older girls full of swank and swagger, but none seemed to take. Until one day, I was staying in a house by the sea with another writer called Liz Kessler, who lent me a book she’d just read, about someone who thought their dad wasn’t their real dad.

As soon as I got to that bit I stopped reading. What would happen, I wondered, if a much younger girl or boy found their birth certificate, and the man they thought was their father wasn’t on it. What if just said: ‘Unknown’. And so the egg began to incubate with more questions: What if the girl who found it was struggling to work out who she was? What if her real mam had died and she was living with her supposed dad and stepmam? What if she decided to go and find her real dad? And then the final, obvious question: what if the girl was called Birdy Jones? Only she didn’t feel audacious at all. Not yet.

The pigeons came from the film Little Voice. The names of the birds from the 1970s Leeds United line-up. The dad from Game of Thrones (imagine Sean Bean when you’re reading it). And Birdy herself is played by Eleven from Stranger Things, at least in my head (only with a Leeds accent). Little bits of sparkle stolen and shone up and turned into something new.

It’s out on July 12th for 8-12 year olds, and you can pre-order it  here.

 

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BAFTA, baby!

On Friday, someone asked me how different my life was a decade ago. And other than the Menace being smaller and markedly more menacing, and my home being two roads away, I said it barely was. ten years ago I was writing for a living, working several other (albeit writing-related) day jobs, and wondering when I got my ivory tower.

 

 

The next morning I woke up at five, and remembered that, in a few hours, I was going to BAFTA, to see the screening of a story that once lived in the mess of my brain, and that I would get to sit on stage, with actual actors, and people would listen to me as if I knew what I was doing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And I’ve done this job long enough to know that these things are at best ephemeral and glitter for minutes, or so it will seem a year from now. But yesterday, it all glittered brilliantly. What a wonderful thing we made.

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CBBC’s Joe All Alone and the truth about child poverty

Joe All Alone is a book (and, now, BBC TV series) about friendship. It’s a book about family, and what constitutes that today. It’s a book about bullying. It’s a book about difference and acceptance. But beneath all that, it’s a book about one of the most fundamental needs in life: money. I know heat, food, water come first as basic bodily requirements. But they don’t come cheap. And they certainly don’t come free.

So the premise is this: Imagine your mum tells you she’s going away on holiday with her boyfriend. And imagine she says you’re not going; you’re staying home alone. Exciting, huh? Because you’ve seen it done before: Macauley Culkin fending for himself in his suburban mansion, then in a swanky New York hotel. The thing about the Home Alone films though is that not once does Kevin have to seriously worry about what to do when the dollars dry up; he’s minted, and besides, his mom and dad’ll be home any day to bail him out. 

Joe Holt’s house, and bank balance are a different ball game. He lives in a rundown flat in inner London, he has no money of his own, and his Mum leaves him just £20 to get through the week. Does that seem a lot? You could definitely do a decent food shop with a twenty. But add the electric meter onto that. Add the money some kid at school’s demanding off you. Then add the fact that your mum might not show up back on the doorstep when she’s supposed to.

You do the maths, as they say.

There are 3.7 million children living “below the breadline” in the UK today. To give you a better idea, that’s 9 kids in every class of 30, and in Peckham, where Joe lives, it’s 12 in every class.

The truth is, most kids aren’t Kevin McCallister, not even close. And too many are in families struggling to put food on the table, to turn the heating on, to buy second-hand shoes, let alone new ones. And it’s a growing problem. Thanks to welfare cuts under this government, another 700,000 kids will be in poverty by 2020. And if you don’t believe the numbers, you only have to look at the rise of food bank drop-offs at supermarkets, or in the number of our friends who rely on them, to see for yourselves how big an issue it is.

Yet it’s not something we read much about in books, or see up on the big screen. Glamour sells, as a rule. Plus it’s not easy speaking out, let alone writing a novel or a film, when you’re struggling to pay bills. Joe All Alone, and the follow-up White Lies, Black Dare try to give those 12 in 30 kids a voice.

Listen hard.

And if you want to know more, or help make a difference, click on these links.

http://www.endchildpoverty.org.uk

http://www.cpag.org.uk/child-poverty-facts-and-figures

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Bid on Bloody Everything

In a bid (oh come on) to raise money for Marie-Curie, whose nurses look after terminally ill patients and support their families, a bunch of authors are auctioning off signed and dedicated copies of latest releases, including books from Ruth Ware, Rowan Coleman, Julie Cohen, and moi. If you’d like the copy of The Queen of Bloody Everything, you have until March 25th to show me the money by bidding here.

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Joe All Alone at BAFTA

About five years ago I wrote a book about a boy from Peckham. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, he turned real. And now he’s out in the wild and being screened at BAFTA before the series starts its run on CBBC. My mind is more than a little blown. It’s on Saturday April 14th at 2pm. And you can book tickets here.

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The Queen of Bloody Everything is born

This one has been a long time coming. I’ve been writing for children and young adults for seventeen years. But for various reasons I’d shied away from grown-ups. Partly because I had so much to say about teenage years – it’s a time when it feels like the volume and contrast on the world have been turned up. Partly I didn’t feel grown-up. As if my own development had been arrested somewhere around 1988 so how could I write about grown-up matters?

But a few years ago, I began to realise my growing fascination between the teenagers we once were – and try to shuck off – and the adults we become. I studied adolescent identity in philosophical and neuroscientific terms for a doctorate. And from the PhD, a story began to emerge. About a girl who, like so many of us did, desperately wants to be someone else, and starts trying on new lives for size – especially that of her best friend who lives in the big house at the bottom of the garden.

This is the story.

And this is how it begins…

Now.

So how shall I begin? With Once upon a time, maybe. The tropes of fairytale are here after all – a locked door, a widower, a wicked stepmother, or a twisted version of one at least. But those words are loaded, tied; they demand a happily ever after to close our story, and I’m not sure there is one, not yet.

Besides, Cinderella was never your scene: “Don’t bank on a handsome prince, Dido,” you would sneer through the cigarette smoke that trailed permanently in your wake; that cloaked you, tracked you, like a cartoon cloud in Bugs Bunny. Like Pigpen’s flies. “If they do bother to show up it’ll be late, and then they’ll only beg or borrow. Or worse.” And the twelve-year-old me would roll her eyes, like the girls in books did, and think, “Those are your princes, mother, not mine. And I’m not you.”

But I am, aren’t I? Though it’s taken me four decades – half a lifetime – to admit it.

I used to rail against my inheritance, the pieces of genetic jigsaw puzzle that make up half of me. I thought I could overwhelm them, drown them, if I found him – the man who’d given me his pale skin, his plumpness, his pathetic hope in one true love. When he failed to show up on the doorstep or in any of the faces I followed in town, I turned to friends to fill the gap – stole their habits, their hair colour, their hatred of soul music. I turned too to characters I borrowed from books in the hope I could carry off their courage, their capability, or at least their slick, smart one-liners. But acting was your forte, not mine, and one you failed to parcel up and pass along, offering me instead small ears, an extended second toe, and a lifelong dislike of marzipan. Amongst other things.

But back to the story. I know how it begins now. And where. This, the first words will spell out in black and white Times New Roman, is the story of us, of you and me. And how we got here – to this striplit room on the fourteenth floor of a hospital in Cambridge. Some parts of the tale you will not know at all, or even be able to spot yourself in the cast. But, as Pied Piper, that is my prerogative – I can dance a merry dance to other houses and other cities to show you scenes that shaped our path. And, though you might not take a starring role, you are ever-present, your influence reaching across years and oceans. I know that now.

Some parts you will recognise, though they will appear distorted, skew, as if seen in a fairground mirror, or through time-thickened glass, told as they are from the haze of memory and my myopic gaze. If you asked Tom, or Harry, they’d give you a different version: a shrunken picture, like a view through a wrong-ended telescope; or rose-tinted, perhaps, embellished with sequins and a glitterball that dapples the scene with some kind of magic.

But this story – our story – has no enchantment. There is no fairy godmother, no genie, no amulet or grail.

There is just us. Me and you. And a tangle of secrets and lies, of second guesses, of half-formed hunches Chinese-whispered into tangibility; of poorly-timed honesty, and misplaced blame.

But I am getting too far ahead of myself again.

Let’s go back to the start, to the seed of it all.

Are you listening carefully, Edie? Then I’ll begin.

You can order the book here. And read on for the first reviews.

Reviews

  • The Independent ‘Best 10 new novels for 2018’.
  • Red magazine ‘Best 10 of 2018’.

The book expertly follows funny and chubby six-year-old Dido into adulthood, swinging from gentle comedy towards something sadder, and wiser… a must-read. (The Independent)

This heartfelt coming of age novel is a wonderful example of Spangles Lit, books recalling seventies childhoods in all their polyester glory. (The Daily Mail)

A bittersweet coming of age novel, The Queen Of Bloody Everything perfectly captures the pangs of adolescence, first love and growing up in a small town. You’re in for a treat with this one. (Red magazine)

A bittersweet delight. Perfectly captures the awkwardness and longing of those who don’t quite fit in. (Sarra Manning, author of After the Last Dance and House of Secrets)

I bloody adored this perceptive, funny, unflinching novel about growing up, love, sex, mothers and everything. (Kate Eberlen, author of Miss You)

So good… more than lives up to its outstanding title. (Rosie Walsh, author of The Man Who Didn’t Call.)

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