I had a brilliant surprise last week. I won a scholarship to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Conference in November. I sent them a chapter of my story about Petrel, the girl with a deeply weird problem: spiders keep talking to her. And SCBWI liked it. Enough to get me along to a weekend of invaluable professional learning: character workshops, critiques, talks by heroes of mine like David Almond. (Oh, and a fancy dress party.)
I’m glowing with this investment. Thank you, SCBWI. You better be sure I’ll graft as hard as I can to honour it.
As Haiti picks itself up after Hurricane Matthew, as Syria continues to collapse in on itself, as the world waits to see whether a cartoon character will become US President, I can see how a weekend talking children’s fiction could seem cosy. Self-indulgent.
But when the darkness gathers, when the storm looms: that’s when we need stories the most. We need voices raised against the howling wind. They give us different worlds to the one we’ve been handed, more ways to imagine other, better futures. They can keep our dreams safe until the world is ready to see them built.
This is all the more important for children, whose minds will shape the tomorrows I’ll never see. They deserve not to feel trapped in the story they’ve arrived in, not to feel like there’s no way out. They deserve to know that when you feel like you have no choices, you can always choose your words.
An organisation who knows the power of this for young people is First Story. They help school kids, those who otherwise wouldn’t have the chance, to get writing. To see the value of their own experiences, find their own voices. I’m really proud to be working with them over the next few weeks, getting secondary schools involved in their National Writing Competition.
And today, World Mental Health Day, this work feels more important than ever. Especially given recent findings that mental health problems among teenage girls are on the rise.
Teenage girls are close to my heart. I’ve been one. Still am in many ways. I know about wordless compulsions, how it feels to etch your self-hatred on your surfaces. How it feels to be constantly losing the unspoken wars of purity and disgust. I know the silent girls, who say nothing, and the gobby girls, who say everything except what really matters.
One article suggested that by talking about young women’s mental illhealth we normalise it. I don’t know about that. When silence reinforces suffering, it must be broken. And since when is happiness the norm of human experience?
What I do know is that we should talk more with young women and men about the art of facing each day. Surviving life, when it hurts. Because it will. Where there is happiness, there is nothing to say. Joy is mute. But pain sings. It must have a voice.
I didn’t realise, when I was younger, that thin paper and cheap biro were not only getting me through the aching business of life. The sentences scribbled in the margins of my life, on trains, sitting in stairwells, jolting on buses, would keep carrying me through, long after the crises had passed. I had to weave with the threads I’d been handed, but the pattern was mine.
So I would say, to souls younger than mine: look for your words to bear life. They won’t make it hurt any less. They won’t diminish your struggles. They will be words of love and pain, braided together, as love and pain always are.
Those words. At first they feel heavy, dragging like chains. But they grow lighter, the more you carry them.
You’ll need them again and again. Bind them bright over your brow; sling them over your shoulders. They’ll be your chainmail, your armour. Your whole life you’ll be making more.
Wear them all, and it won’t matter that the night draws closer, that your story must end. You’ll step bright as steel into the evening, and go golden into the dark.