Hands up who loves notebooks?

I’ve been lucky enough to have had many tribes over the years. A fair few more than the ones I was born into, clan Grearson and the Poole horde.

There’s my Schoolgirl Six. My jaeger-fuelled Queens’ lot, and their counterpart, my adoptive SPC massive. My volunteering gang. My Nigerian family. My VSO vintage workmates. The huge web of love drawn tight around my little girl.

So many of my facebook photos are of my pea-head cheesing out of group shots, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. But lately, for work, I’ve been a lone wolf. Obsessively drawn to stuff that can’t be delegated, that no-one else can do. My paintbrush, my business. My words.

So it felt brilliant to find my latest tribe, two weekends ago, at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference: story-telling nerds like me, all of us gathered in suspiciously beautiful Winchester. (I talk a bit more about it for their online magazine, Words and Pictures, here.) There were talks, workshops, critiques. There was a book launch. And fancy dress. But better than that, there were so many friendly faces. Everyone I spoke to was warm, kind, and hugely passionate.

My personal highlight had to be David Almond, author of the aching Skellig and one of my top five Geordies, talking to us about the uncertain adventure of making books, in his words, those ‘half-real, half imaginary’ things.

A life spent writing and illustrating can feel half-real, half-imaginary. Us fabricants make things exist that weren’t there before. We spend a lot of time hearing voices in our heads, seeing things that aren’t there. And for everyone still to get their words or pictures out into the world, you can’t help feeling a bit fictional yourself. Sometimes I feel like the tiny people living on a speck of dust in Dr Seuss’s story, who must yell out to prove they exist, or they’ll get boiled in Beezle-Oil. I AM HERE, outside world, honest.

Part of it is having the swagger to own a label. Like Ashley and Jerwayne say in Phone Shop: ‘If man say ‘im a ting, ‘im a ting.’ You write? You’re a writer. For me, one of the best gifts of the SCBWI conference was simply being able to be there. To feel seen. And to get in another group photo, obvs.

Before something can be real in the world, it must be imagined. David Almond talked about his boy self, going into Felling library in Newcastle, and picturing the day when he’d take down a book from the shelves and see the words ‘by David Almond’ on the cover. Today he can do just that.

Writing a book is an act of optimism, he told us. An act of love. As I stagger on with my current story, getting ever deeper into the woods, I know what he means. So do many of the people I met in Winchester, the other lone wolves of my pack.

Like love, a story is a gift that gives itself because it must. Your whole world, laid in a basket of bulrushes, and pushed out into the reeds.


Yay! (Image: SCBWI BI)

There’s only one thing more pretentious than a comedian explaining why things are funny. And that’s a writer, wanging on about writing.

It’s deeply interesting to a tiny handful of people and dull as frick to everyone else. Like the average Oscars acceptance speech, or those interminable wedding thank yous. (NO ONE CARES who made your cake. Is it time for dancing yet?)

But you’ll have to allow me this nerdy work post. Left to my own devices, I wouldn’t be writing it, but the truth is, I’ve got a debt of honour to repay. To the memory of a lady called Margaret Carey, a lifelong volunteer for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, otherwise know as SCBWI. I won an award in her honour to go to SCBWI’s annual conference tomorrow, and without that, it would be impossible for me to be there. So, thank you again, SCBWI.

Last time I was more than one night away for work, it was 2007. I spent 15 days interviewing health professionals volunteering with VSO in remote Indonesian islands. This weekend, I get to meet fellow story junkies, children’s writers and illustrators, in Winchester. I’m possibly more excited now than I was then.

Winchester is a venerable old place that, somehow, I’ve never been to before. So, like the conference itself, I’m hoping that it will feel like discovery and homecoming at the same time.

I’ll be posting about the conference again afterwards, to share with everyone like me, who had that nose-pressed-to-the-sweet-shop feeling watching the line up take shape. For those folk currently writing alone behind a laptop, who’d love to hear David Almond talk, or get the chance to shake up their characters, or hear some good advice on getting published and staying published.

I must be a pretty unoriginal kind of soul. The things I’ve loved, that have drawn me to do them, have drawn thousands of others too. You want to study what, where? You fancy working in that, do you? You want to write for who now? Join the queue, pal. But if it feels like you don’t have a choice, you have to do it or you’ll burst, well, what’s life but one big queue anyway?

I think writers shouldn’t waste their energies seeing each other as the competition. (Easy for you to say, scholarship winner, you may well think). The only competition a writer should feel is with themselves. To strive to tell the best story they can. Children’s writers most of all, because their readers have to make so much more effort. Young readers deserve the funniest, wisest, most exciting, most valuable, most beautiful ideas we’ve got. If those ideas are good enough, they’ll inform the minds that build our future. And right now, that feels more important than ever.


Hands off my Furby, Donald!

Remember those arguments you used to get trapped in as a kid?

The ones that you had to keep going at, like picking a scab, even though it hurt and it was making everything worse, and you were going to end up with a horrible weeping mess afterwards.


Arguments about property. ‘That’s MY Furby!”

About boundaries. ‘No girls in this den!’

About truth. ‘Your Dad’s not really a racing driver.’

About honour. ‘But you promised!’

Right now it feels a little like the world is watching one of those arguments. Instead of two six-year-olds in a primary school playground, it’s the presidential candidates of the United States of America.

If he loses, Donald’ll be turning to the appeal courts, all: ‘Moh-oh-ohm. They didn’t vote for me. TELL them!’

Like the time Laura Watts put Jackie Noonan in the big bin outside Mrs Turner’s class, there’s no way this argument can end well. Never before has the debate felt so claustrophobic, nor the two sides so close, in being so bitterly divided. Never have such unpopular, imperfect candidates been so inflated by the anger of the people they seek to lead. Anger poured into binaries: truth and lies, black and white, for us, against us.

Anger is necessary. There is a lot to be angry about in America right now. But just shouting louder at each other achieves nothing. Like the EU referendum, the way people will vote depends on what’s real for them. What they, through their lived experiences, hold to be true, and how that fits with the pictures in their mind of the US and its future.

So much of the way we see the world, our self-evident truths, are sculpted from the place and time in which we’re born. You feel it best if you’ve ever gone somewhere new to live, felt out of place. Made the effort it takes to make sense to people, to explain yourself. You see that values come from a tapestry of experience only possible in one particular place, at one particular time. How meaning is sliced differently, even if you’re using the same words. Something I encountered working in Ibadan years ago.

‘Open-minded’, the way many of my Nigerian friends and colleagues used it, meant ‘outspoken’: sharing what’s on your mind, giving your opinion. Whereas most British people would use it to mean ‘trying to see both sides of an argument’: not making up your mind, listening to a different point of view.

The same phrase. Two different meanings. Crossed wires. Confusion. Incomprehension. But you can’t know what you don’t know, until you talk about it. (And boy, did we.)

‘The trouble with having an open mind, of course,’ said Terry Pratchett, working in the British idiom, ‘is that other people will insist on coming along and trying to put things in it.’

Anger deserves open-mindedness, in both Nigerian and British senses. People need to speak up: people need to listen. Anger needs more than infantile argument. It needs to tell its story.

Stories are the opposite of arguments. They keep us grazing the edges of our own beliefs and assumptions. To help us see what’s already in our so-called open mind. And to check whether it really ought to be there.

When we’re sucked into a story, we see through someone else’s eyes. We make the leap into another person’s skin, their world. We get to feel it from the inside. We get another reality to the one we’ve just so happened to be born into. We get practise at seeing things from another point of view. I think this makes us better people.

On Wednesday, the anger won’t be going anywhere. But the argument has to end, and the hard work of understanding begin, for the sake of the story every American is living. No matter how hateful their words, pages that get ripped out can never be rewritten.

When it hurts

When it hurts: apply notebooks.

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.

Daddy’s girls

Dad. Me. Horrific carpet.

‘Who’s the boss in your house?’ asked James Blay, when we were playing football in his garden.

‘Mum,’ I said. This was a fact, like the sky being blue, the grass being green.

‘No, she’s not,’ he told me. ‘It’s your Dad. Because he’s a man.’

I looked at him, my brow all wrinkly. Then I laughed.

‘Nah,’  I said. ‘It’s definitely Mum.’

James knew Dad. He wasn’t like other people’s dads. Other people’s dads were sometimes scary. They could shout. They didn’t play for hours on Saturday mornings, turning the living room upside down while they made you fly on their feet. They didn’t make you cars from cardboard boxes. Or take all the cushions off the sofa and make a square egg you could hide inside, while they pretended to be a chicken sitting on top. Most other dads didn’t like watching ‘Dogtanian’ and ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ just as much as you did.

No, Dad was definitely not like other dads. For a start, he said ‘barth’ instead of ‘bath’. His job was an unpronounceable mystery. (Metallurgist, specialising in tungsten carbide. Yep.) He sang in the cathedral choir, and his music filled the house. Where other dads played the Beatles, the Dubliners, Bowie, Dad was always tuned to Radio 3.

From the Roberts radio in the kitchen poured old, twiddly music that came from another time. I’d feel lost in it, like I was wandering in a strange forest, getting the odd glimpse of home through the trees.

Today I’m being my father’s daughter, and I’m listening to exactly this music while I work. Everyone who knows me will be shocked I’ve turned my back on Radio 1. (This is because  I still have the musical taste of a teenager from the Midlands.) My father’s music plays now, colouring the air like stained glass windows: complex and peculiar. I have stumbled over its beautiful corners, and I’ve felt like I’m little again, falling asleep to the weird warbles of opera coming from downstairs.

It occurs to me as I’m working, that so many of my story ideas are about daughters, fighting for their fathers. There’s Petrel, whose Dad is badly hurt, and whose only hope of recovery lies with her. There’s my current heroine, whose father is powerless to help her outwit her enemies. The first story I ever wanted to write was that of Ismene, the daughter of ancient Greek incest, and her struggle against her father’s fate. I’m drawn to daughters who battle, whose stories have slipped through the cracks.

‘The wonderful thing about having children,’ Dad told me once, as we sat side-by-side driving back from Scotland, ‘is that it teaches you so much.’

He is so right. One of the things it teaches you is just how much you learned from your own parents, your own early world.

I watch him play with my little girl, pretending to dance a tango together à la Strictly, or carrying her around the house in a plastic storage box. Building huge towers of megabloks and roaring with laughter at ‘Gigglebiz’. And I realise I’ve soaked up all my patience from him. All my flashes of silly fun are entirely his.

I don’t have a son, but if I did, this is what I’d want him to know: the noblest quality in a man is the depth of his kindness. A father’s gentleness shows his children how to be strong.

Us daughters, we’re tough, in any case. We’ll take up our arms and stand our ground. We’re fighting for us all. No matter what tomorrow throws at us, we’re ready.


Memorial Park, Coventry, by Peter Crowley.

One sunny Saturday when I was seven, a completely new feeling hit me, right in the middle of going downstairs. I was so full of it I had to sit down. Mum found me and wondered what was wrong.

‘I’ve got a funny feeling,’ I told her.

‘What kind of funny feeling?’ she asked.

‘A sad one,’ I said, hands pressed to my chest. ‘Like I miss something.’

‘Hmm,’ said Mum. ‘Sounds a bit like homesickness.’

I was puzzled. How could I be homesick? I was home.

But the longing was there all the same. It had found me, in the middle of that sunshine, that no-school freedom, that afternoon playing Lego with my sister. I realise now that feeling was of loss-to-come. Some moments mean so much that you miss them, even while they’re happening.

I felt the opposite feeling this week. Homesickness doesn’t really have an antonym. Home-wellness? You know, the feeling you have when you’re in a place that’s really yours.  It’s nothing to do with deeds or mortgages, that feeling. It’s more about places that have held you, that know you.

I was running under the beeches in the park at the end of the street I grew up on. I felt lighter and stronger, each step faster, just because I was there, passing the trees that are wardens of my childhood. Trees that watched me ride my first bike, push my little cousin in her pram, sit with my sketchpad. We have grown taller and thicker together, me and these trees. It probably looks nothing special to anyone else, these few green acres of Coventry park, but this is my place. It is a place that breathes into me.

Coventry is a hard place to be from. It’s not just that it doesn’t like to let you leave. Maybe it’s because it’s right in the navel of the country, but it seems to have a weirdly strong gravity. Coventry throws ‘em out for a while, but its kids tend to boomerang back home.

Coventry is hard, at least to me, probably its sappiest daughter. It’s hard to look at, in places. It’s had hard times. At school, if people called you ‘hard’, you’d made it. It’s hard for strangers to drive around its bonkers ring road. But there’s something to be proud of in its hardness. The blitz hit out its front teeth. Macroeconomics made it the Specials’ ghost town. Now, the cranes are busy again on that old skyline with its three spires. Coventry is a place that has had to get back up, time and again.

My park is Coventry’s memorial to the Great War, planted in a softer time, when the city took loss and death, and turned it into grace, creating a place that grows and breathes. At the foot of each tree is a plaque, which bears the name of a fallen son of the city. A hundred years ago right now, numberless young lives were forever lost in the trenches of France. In their memory, there is a place for families to potter and dogs to race in the sun, where you can swing a golf club or play five-a-side. A place that watches its people grow up, safe in the privilege of peace: to forget.

As ceasefire teeters in Syria, I hope that in a hundred years there will be a war memorial park in Aleppo, a far older and grander city being torn further apart every day. And that there, people will know what it is to have got back up again, to have rebuilt everything they lost in 2016. There will be somewhere to fall quiet under the cedars, crickets singing as the heat fades. Where children play in the shade, instead of being pulled from the rubble.

In 2116, who knows what will be left of my place. Maybe nothing but more clay brick houses pulled from the heart of the country. Or maybe the trees run wild, and stumbling into the forest one day, an intrepid kid sees the stone square the oldest beech has grown around, and wonders what it is for.

In these places, there is bliss in forgetting. Feeling the ache of loss-to-come and letting it go. Over us all, the leaves shiver in the sunlight. Underneath our feet, the roots run deep, knitting together the broken ground.


Dear Fairy Godmother…

This summer was supposed to be the first in a long time that I felt ok about wearing a bikini.

Didn’t quite happen. Because, like many a girl from my part of the world, I wear my burkha on the inside.

We all know how we’re supposed to look. Stomach: a taut stretch from rippling ribs to jutting hip bones. Breasts: high and proud. Limbs: long, strong and smooth as butter.

That wasn’t what I saw in the mirror. So, back into the old black swimming costume.

Sometimes, it would be a relief to cover myself from head to toe. To hide from the bullying gaze of my inner Heat magazine, that only ever sees all the ways my lived-in body invites contempt. As if loathing could lazer away your physical flaws, when all it does is uglify your mind.

My insecurities are my own, but they’re far from unique. I’m sure hardly anyone looks at themselves in beachwear and truly loves what they see.

The question is, why need such bulletproof self-regard, just to feel the sun on your skin?

In the UK, we may throw our hands up at the French police, making Muslim women strip at gunpoint on the beach. Showing the same kind of force as the Iranian religious authorities when they arrest women for immodest dress.

But in our gawping society, female bodies exist on the same axis of desire or revulsion. They are never just the way we are anchored in the world.

We’re long used to the idea that women dress for a reaction. Take Cinderella. The original makeover story. Cinders is transformed by a magic frock: a frock so damn fine the Prince is helpless, overwhelmed with attraction. It’s not a million miles away from the queasy old argument that a girl wearing a certain kind of clothes is to blame for someone else’s lustful violence. That she was ‘asking for it’.

There’s a story that’s been floating after me for the better part of two years. I feel it calling when I walk along the Uxbridge Road, passing the local masjid with bare arms. I feel it when I cross the school playground with my daughter, and wonder what the Somali mums think of me with my hair blowing madly in the wind.

It’s a what-if tale. Aimed at anyone that’s telling anyone else what and how they should put over their body.

What if the rules didn’t apply to the looked-at?

What they were only for the looker?

My story’s set in an alternative present, in a religious society which tells people the old story about the danger of bodies. Women can’t be looked upon by men: men can’t be trusted to control their lust. But in this world, power is split differently, and there’s only one logical solution.

If they’re going beyond the family compound, men must cover their eyes.

For, after all, if your right eye causes you to sin, it is better to pluck it out…

My story is about a girl whose father is blinded in a fundamentalist attack, and her fight for justice. For a world in which people see each other as human beings.

When we’re policed as prisoners of the flesh, we lose the ability to look each other in the eye. To see past the marvelous, ridiculous, flawed and brilliant bodies we are accidentally moored within. To the life that leaves everyone in the end.

When we lose sight of that, we’re all blind.


Tamagotchi. Never had one.

When I was little, my parents were always a bit baffled by the kid’s need for stuff. I never got the Keepers, the Boglins or the Gameboys that everyone else seemed to. (At least, that’s how I remember it. My little sister, who had an avalanche of cuddly toys, and a Tamagotchi that Dad queued for at 5am outside Toys-R-Us, might have a different take on things).

Tamagotchi aside, my parents never really cared about giving us things. But they cared so much about giving us experiences. I still remember the first concert Dad took me to. The way Mum showed me how to draw shoulders. Fireworks over Kenilworth Castle. Pink sand between my toes. Watching a foal being born. Stray cats gathering in the Spanish twilight.

My parents worked hard to give us these kinds of memories: and their work was also its own reward, because both of them were lucky enough to love what they did.

So, of course, I was always going to grow up to think that time is the most precious resource we get. Money comes, and generally goes (at least when I’m spending), and (hopefully) comes again, but time is the one thing you’ll never get back. None of us know how much of it we have. So use it doing something that makes your soul sing.

Because once our time’s up, our lives collapse into the past. When the book slams shut, all the pages kiss each other. All the moments of your life, being over, exist at the same time. You will always be five, tears prickling as your pencil won’t make the letters. You’ll always be seventeen, gazing out of the window at a face in your heart, not writing about Richard II (‘I have wasted time / And now doth time waste me.’) There will always be night falling over a strange old city, the future spreading unknowable against the sky. You’ll always be watching your baby’s fat feet jiggling in the high chair. Maybe you’ll always be half-listening for that voice you’ll never hear again, accidentally setting the table for two.

When I write, when I draw, time goes bendy, drooling like a Dali clock. There is no time, other than when the work is finished. Hours and minutes feel the same, or else I don’t feel them at all. Even now, even today.

It’s my birthday today. I have been given more years than many people, and my life has been bright with love, so much of it I can barely breathe at the blessing of it.

And I feel the debt to my dearest ones, who have shared their time, their faith, and their cash, so that I can spend mine doing this. I’m impatient to see the tiny green shoots I’m planting grown tall, branches stretching out to shelter us all, like the rowan tree Dad planted when I was born. But who knows how long that will take? And the only thing worse than wasting your time is wishing it away.

I can’t magic back the time others have so generously given me. And, right now, I don’t have any money. I can only pay forward their love by carrying on, step by step, word by word. Because, as Moloko used to sing, late at night in my tiny college room, the time is now.

To my daughter

Bess Pirate Girl
Pirate Girl by Bess

Last week, dearest Bess, you turned five. The first thing you wanted to do when you woke up on your birthday was stand tall against me, to see how much you’d grown now you were five.

I’m writing this to you for your fifteenth birthday, a birthday I find hard to picture, when I’ll no longer need to bend to hug you, and we’ll look each other in the eye, your face level with mine.

All letters are a kind of trust exercise. This one more than most. I’m writing with blind faith in the next ten years. Faith that the tomorrows will keep coming until we stand in that moment.

Because, marvellous girl, what I can’t tell you yet, in the fierce pride and love of your fifth birthday, is how I think of all the children born since 2011 that won’t see theirs.

In 2015, (the year you turned four, started school, learned how to write your name) 16,000 children under five have died every day across the world.

You could have been one of them, but for the sheer luck of where you were born, and when. There was the kidney infection just after you turned one, which needed a week in hospital with IV antibiotics to shift. The wheeze that sprang up with each cold when you were two, and the nights we spent in hospital, watching every breath heave your tiny chest. You had help, quickly and effectively, whenever you needed it. You have spent your earliest years in a country where no parent needs to worry whether they can afford to take their sick child to the doctor. We are so, so lucky. Please, never take this for granted.

I think of the lives lost because they began in the wrong time. Futures that were snuffed out by the living conditions of the past. People must have been used to it, we think, with death so omnipresent. But parents have always held hopes for their children, just as I hold hopes for you.  It’s just that there were more ways to have them dashed from their hands. Ben Jonson lost his son aged seven in 1603, to the plague.  His elegy throbs with the same fierce pride I feel for you, in words which long outlived his son:

Here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.

In too many places, over four hundred years later, nothing has changed. We should burn with shame that the vulnerable years of childhood are still so dangerous in so much of the world.

Many parents will say that all they want is for their children to be happy. I don’t wish that for you. Don’t be happy while there is so much needing to be fixed. Be happiest, wonderful girl, working hard to fix it. We have so much to do, and our time is so short. You will need all your spark, every flicker of your quick mind, and all your rage.

Right now you are as careless in your skin as a tiger cub. In the next ten years, I hope you’ll run, shout, play. Read, draw, write. And ask questions – always ask questions. May you never get sidetracked into feeling uneasy with yourself. Your face is the single most beautiful thing I will ever see, purely because it is yours.

No matter what happens after these first five years of yours, whatever the adventures or hurts, the humiliations or triumphs, one thing is true. Wherever you go in this world, however far we are apart, until your very last heartbeat, you are forever wrapped in my love.