Everybody Hurts – a story of love (and ping pong)

It began, as so many great love stories do, with an argument. This time, however, there was no prom, or even eyes meeting across a bar; rather boy (Anthony McGowan) met girl (me) on Meg Rosoff’s blog, shouting about Jane Austen, and bonfires and something to do with the colour pink. The precise details escape me now, though the row itself made the pages of the Times, but underneath the sniping something must have struck us both, because six – seven? – years later we’ve made something pretty amazing together. Everybody Hurts took three years to write – itself a labour of love, each of us ping-ponging chapters back and forth, not knowing entirely where our story would take us, other than a disused pipe in a Leeds back street. But every minute of waiting and wondering what the next ping would bring was worth it. In the words of the wondrous Rae Earl: ‘Two masters of their craft have created something so special here . . . I didn’t want to leave Matt & Sophia . . . How refreshing to read about this subject matter in a way that feels so real. Funny, touching – just wonderful.’


You can buy the book here. And read the opening chapter below.



One upon a time, I made a list of things I do not believe in. There were a bunch. Hey, I’m a cynical kind of girl. But these, in no particular order, were my top five.

  1. A benevolent god. Or any kind of god, really. But benevolent really is the icing on the cake of bulldada.
  2. That anyone called Rainshine Wilson, Yuffy or some Nigerian guy named Professor Mahuba can any more cure a brain tumour than they can bring back the dead or enlarge my non-existent penis.
  3. Fake tan.
  4. Conspiracy theories (no, the FBI did not cause the Tsunami, blow up the twin towers or force Backstreet Boys to reunite).
  5. Love at first sight.

If you believe in that last one – the whole eyes-meeting-across-a-crowded-room shit – you might as well start arguing for the existence of the tooth fairy, Santa or Jesus. It just goes against science, as well as the law that unless you share some basic grounding in music appreciation then you’re pretty much doomed to failure. And I know that both liking the hidden track on some obscure Deaf Beats album doesn’t mean you’re fated, but it’s better than basing an entire relationship on the fact your stomach lurches because of the way his hair falls into his eyes. What if it’s just indigestion?

Lexy said I was being provocatively cynical (she found that one that on a blog). And I know she thought it was just the tumour talking. But then she would. Because she counts on life playing out like it’s Hollywood-scripted and has fallen in love more times than she’s fallen off her latest diet. Jesus, she spent the whole of GCSE year looking for her Heathcliff; worked her way through half a dozen of boys from the wrong side of the tracks in the hope one of them would have leading man potential. It’s Leeds, I said, not Hollywood. You’re not going to find a hero working down Kwikfit.

Besides, Heathcliff’s a jerk. And love blind at best, and a deceit at worst. The idea that we’re all half-formed, lost without a boy by our side, or preferably one step ahead of us opening doors and fighting wars? Screw that, I said to anyone who would listen. There’s nothing missing from me. I’m whole, complete, and I can open my own doors and clear my own pathways. Thanks all the same. No The Great Gatsby is where it’s at. Just fine dresses and gin and everyone playing at being someone else. Love in West Egg is so clearly an illusion, and if you think for a minute you can cross that great divide in disguise or otherwise then you’re a fool, nothing but a beautiful fool.

Until I clocked him. And he clocked me. And my steadfastly cynical world was tilted swiftly off its axis, and I landed, bruised, bewildered, in a bed of bloody roses.

I didn’t see that one coming.

Not on a wet Friday afternoon in March against the Dettol-scented backdrop of a hospital canteen.

Not with a boy nearly a year younger than me and a whole record collection short of anything resembling taste.

Not with a boy like him at all.

But then love, like I say, is blind.

And I, it turns out, am a fool after all.


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Joe All Alone on CBBC

About three years ago, before Joe was even published, I got a phonecall from a TV producer who had got hold of the manuscript, read it in one sitting, and was determined to persuade CBBC to make it into a drama series. Things move slow in telly – like wading through treacle – when they happen at all. But happen it has, finally. Zodiak is filming in Belfast this summer with the brilliant cast, directed by BAFTA-winning Beryl Richards, with scripts from BAFTA-winning Guy Burt, with the series to be aired next year.

From Zodiak:

Zodiak Kids Studios announces today a brand new commission for CBBC Joe All Alone. The series will consist of 4 x 30 minute episodes filming this summer in Northern Ireland for delivery later this year. Zodiak Kids Studios UK Creative Director Steven Andrew (Secret Life of Boys/CBBC, The Lodge/ Disney) will executive produce.

The series will be adapted for television by Guy Burt (Harriet’s Army) from Joanna Nadin’s book Joe All Alone, directed by Beryl Richards (Secret Life of Boys) and produced by Nadine Marsh-Edwards (Been so Long). The story is a powerful and moving story of a boy who manages – despite the odds – to find optimism, adventure and friendship in deprived circumstances. The series will rely on Joe’s strong first-person narrative voice, shot through with flights of fantasy, moments of escapism, and wry commentary on his life. Joe shows us that no matter how tough life gets there is always room for hope.

Joe Holt is thirteen. When his mum and her unsavoury boyfriend Dean suddenly announce they’re going on holiday, Joe’s thrilled at the prospect of a break from trouble at school and tension at home… until it becomes clear that while his mum and Dean are heading off for Spain, Joe’s being left behind in their Peckham flat. His mum calls it “a holiday at home”.  Dean calls it “a secret”, and says Joe needs to keep out of sight for a week or face some nasty consequences.

Left ‘all alone’ with £10 for the electric meter and a fridge half-full of leftovers, Joe plays X-box, stays up all night (and regrets it), makes a surprise friend in a girl called Asha who also seems to be parentless for the week, counts off the days… and discovers a sealed bag lodged in the lavatory cistern. Inside the bag is £20,000 in used cash. However, that’s only the start of Joe’s troubles. When the week’s over, his mum and Dean don’t show up and Joe knows life’s about to get a whole lot more difficult…

The novel Joe All Alone was nominated in 2016 for a CILIP Carnegie Medal, the oldest and most prestigious children’s book awards.

Steven Andrew, Executive Producer, said:  “I am delighted that CBBC have decided to commission this compelling and important story, Joe All Alone. Joe is an engaging and resilient 13 year old  boy  whom, despite his circumstances never stops believing  that life can be better. His story is powerful and moving, but, sadly not unique. This commission allows us to shine a light on those children who really deserve better.”

Cheryl Taylor, Commissioning editor CBBC, said: “Our ongoing aim at CBBC is to reflect the diverse lives of our audience. We want to open windows on a wider world with content that is brave, innovative, challenging and above all gets everybody talking.  I’m delighted that Steven, Nadine, Guy, Beryl and the team are bringing Joanna Nadin’s wonderful book to the channel – we have all been fully engaged by Joe’s story and feel sure that our audience will be too.”

Zodiak Kids owns worldwide distribution rights to Joe All Alone.

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Home alone?

Joe All Alone coverI’m at the UKMG extravaganza next Saturday in Nottingham, celebrating books for 9-12 year olds, including my own Joe All Alone. But ahead of that, I’m getting shouty rather than celebratory. This went up over on Pewter Wolf’s blog today, but reblogging here because the more people know about this the better…

Joe All Alone is a book 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 (out in 2016), 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.



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A is for Apiphobia.

My friend Emma being eloquent on her personal phobia. Bees I can handle, literally, but bodily functions not so much. I suffer from emetophobia. Which is not great when one has a Menace to mop up after.

Smiles away girl.

Do you cross the road if a dog is walking towards you? Do buttons make your skin crawl? Snakes make you want to cry? Are you overwhelmed by panic at the thought of blood, or vomit?

I’ve felt so stupid about this for such a long time: I’m completely and totally irrationally afraid of bees and wasps. I have never been stung by either of them.

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Hello May Hitlist

An oldie, but a goodie. My So-Called Life is on the hitlist (in a good way) for May.

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Home alone

Joe All Alone coverWhat if your mum went on holiday with her boyfriend for a week and left you home alone? What if it meant you got to play Xbox for hours on end and eat Mars bars for breakfast and jump on the furniture with our anyone throwing insults or punches? What if it meant you got to make friends with the girl across the hall and set out across Peckham like you’re Tom Sawyer and Huck on an adventure?

But what if the school hard case is after you for money? And what if the estate hard cases are after your mum’s boyfriend? And what if your mum doesn’t come back?

This is what happens to 13-year-old Joe. And here is how it begins…

Friday 24th May

I should know something’s up right from the off, because when I get in Dean isn’t on the sofa playing X-Box there’s just that big dip there instead and a stain from where he spilt Cherry 20/20 that time. And Mum has this smile on her like she’s on a TV game show, all stretched so wide you think her face is going to crack. And then she gives me a Mars bar and we haven’t had them in yonks. But my head’s too busy being happy that it’s the last day of school which means no Perry Fletcher for a whole week, and that I get a chocolate bar instead of a biscuit or bread and marg, and that I can play X-Box without getting kicked off or kicked. So it’s not until Dean comes back four hours later with his breath all sour and two plane tickets in his hand that I know any better.

            “Think of it like a holiday,” Mum says.

            And I try, but I can’t. Because there are too many other thoughts all saying stuff like, Who goes on holiday to Peckham? To their own flat? Not anyone I know, that’s for sure. Stacey Hale went to Disneyland last Christmas. And Kyle Hoskins went to Malaga yesterday with his mum and stepdad, even though Mr Pruitt sent a letter home saying it was breaking school rules when they did it in the summer.

            “Why can’t I come with you?” I ask.

            She looks down, starts scratching at a patch of dried-out tinned spaghetti. “We can’t afford it, love,” she says. Then she looks up again. “And Dean’s got a little job while we’re out there. You don’t want to be hanging around while he’s working, do you.”

            I shrug and wonder what she’ll be doing when Dean’s working, and what the little job actually is. If it’s carrying bricks like he does sometimes for Chinese Tony, or something else.  

            Then I remember something Bradley said, about when his mum and dad went to see his Aunty Reenie in Cyprus that time. “Nan could come,” I say. “She could stay here and look after me.”

            “Don’t be daft.” Mum tries to laugh, but it comes out all mangled, like a choking noise.

            “I’m not. I just don’t get––” But I don’t finish the sentence because Dean has got something to say. Dean’s always got something to say.

“––You don’t need your nan. You don’t need anyone. It’s only a week and you’re thirteen not flaming three.” He’s back in the hollow on the sofa with his Bensons and his beer and the joystick in his hands. He shoots at something and ash falls from a cigarette onto his crotch. “Christ, when I was your age I was living in the caravan, working down the pier and smoking twenty a day.”

            Mum swears at him when he says that but Dean just laughs. “Welcome to the real world, son.”

            I’m not your son, I think. And it’s not up to you, it’s up to Mum.

But that’s not true and we all know it.

“Dean’s right, love. You’ll be okay, won’t you?”

She’s up in my face now, so close I can see those pores like little pinholes in her nose where I used to think the rain would get in. And I can smell that her breath is sour too and see her smile is thinner. And I know she needs more than anything for me to say yes so I say it.


            “Good boy.”

            And when she says that I feel a rush of warmth in my stomach like syrup on Ready Brek and I know I’ve done the right thing.

 And the more I think about it now the more I reckon it’s like being in a book or a film or something. Like I’m Tom Sawyer. Or Huckleberry Finn even, all on my own, lighting out for the territory. Mum read me that book three times even though it’s three hundred and sixty-eight pages long. She wasn’t keen because it took three months to do them all but I begged and begged and in the end she gave in. Only the book got taken to the charity shop with my old clothes when we moved here because Dean said if I’d already heard it all what was the point of keeping it. Mum hasn’t read me anything since but Dean says that’s because I’m not a little kid.

And Dean’s right: I’m not a little kid, I’m not three, I’m thirteen, just like Huck was, so I don’t need a babysitter. And everyone at school says this kid Dane Fenwick was on his own in Chelsea House for two days when his Mum had Letisha and that was when we were only eleven. Plus it’s just for a week. That’s only five days more than Dane. And they’ll back in the blink of an eye, Mum said. Back before I know it.

            It’ll be like an adventure, she said.

            A holiday and an adventure.

Only without the Mississippi or a boat or Tom Sawyer at my side.

Joe All Alone is published by Little,  Brown on Thursday 4th May, and you can order the paperback, or download the eBook via Hive

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Countdown to 7 May

Joe All Alone coverIn less than two weeks, on the 7th May, the most important day for the last and next five years will be on us. Yes, it’s the release of a whole host of YA and MG novels, including my very own Joe All Alone. Left home alone when his mum and her skeezy boyfriend fly off to Spain, Joe is at first delighted with his freedom, and makes friends with Asha across the hall in his block, who’s hiding out at her Grandfather’s flat. Together they explore Peckham and their own relationship. But then the money runs out and the net closes in – thrown by school bullies, and Dean’s dodgy mates – and Joe has to make the biggest decision of his life.

It’s not an easy read – it’s bleak and brutal in parts. But, as the writer Rhian Ivory points out in her review, it does offer some big, fat HOPE, which we can all use some of. Also biscuits, parakeets and a kiss. And, frankly, I am a huge fan of all of those.

If you want to know more about me, and the story behind Joe, the lovely Sophie Waters has blogged over at So Little Time For Books.

And then I urge you to vote – with your book-buying or -borrowing power. You know it’s the right thing to do…

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