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An interview with… Anne Cassidy

In the #196 Feb 2018 issue of Writer’s Forum I interviewed YA author, Anne Cassidy, about why she believes it is important not to shy away from difficult subject matter such as rape, in young adult books.

Anne used two of her Young Adult books No Virgin and No Shame to illustrate how they sensitively deal with the issue of rape. No Virgin tells the story of Stacey Woods a seventeen-year-old girl from Stratford East London. She falls for a boy and finds herself used and exploited by an older man. In No Shame she goes to court to try and get justice for what has happened to her.

When writing about teenagers Anne explained it’s important to go back to your own teenage years and rediscover the teenager you were, the friends you had, the problems you had to overcame or otherwise. It’s key to remember how you felt about things. When I was a teenager I was very lonely. I was an only child and made friends easily but didn’t always keep them. The feeling of uncertainty, of needing to connect with people; those feelings can be used when writing about teenagers, whether they’re contemporary or from any other time in history.

The trappings may be different, the voices a bit louder, the technology mind boggling but the feelings are not different. Teenagers are struggling to become the kind of adult they want to be. That is the same in 2017 as it was in 1966. So, finding your ‘inner teenager’ is a must.

In No Shame Stacey, is very close to her best friend Patrice. She depends on her for lots of things. When it comes to the trial she has to stand on her own two feet. Stacey and Patrice have this thing about doing each other’s hair. When Stacey realises that she must act on her own she declines Patrice’s offer to style her hair and makes her own decisions about it. This is a statement about becoming more independent, something Anne explained that she went through as a teenager.

Teenagers deserve to read about serious and sometimes challenging subjects. I have always been interested in writing such stories. In No Virgin and No Shame I deal with the rape of young girl by an older man. Anne told me the first thing she had to do was to create my character and her family circumstances. She is a working class girl from Stratford doing her ‘A’ levels. She has a close friend and has had one boyfriend who she has had sex with. She is not a virgin and this is key to the situation she finds herself in.  Anne asked herself the question: “How would a young girl find herself in a situation where an older man felt he could override her feelings and have sex with her?”

The one explanation Anne had for this was that she is manipulated by someone else, someone she likes and trusts. So at the beginning of the novel she is swept off her feet by Harry, a boy from Kensington who she meets by chance. It is these elements which lead up to the situation where she is raped.

Anne did a lot of research on the internet for No Shame. She revealed there is a lot of information about rape procedures and trials, which will help to get the basic facts right. She also knew an expert in criminal law so she asked a few questions. Anne explained this was because the factual stuff was important but it was also important to get the emotional story right.

Occasionally ‘facts’ have to be sacrificed for narrative development. For example, Anne wanted her main character, Stacey, to meet up with the rapist at the trial – just the two of them accidentally bumping into each other. It was important for the readers to see them together. It’s unlikely this would happen in real life but she engineered the situation in the novel.

We all would want to keep our children young and safe. But they grow up and go out into the real world. Just as we tell them to be careful on the roads we must do the same about other things. We hope that parents will have these conversation, but we can’t be sure about that. It may come up in school but that’s not until much later (year 11 perhaps).

Young Adult literature is exactly the place where young people can read and grapple with these things. It has all sorts of things going for it. It’s accessible (in school libraries) It can be read alone – so no embarrassment factor. A story speaks to an individual in a way that nothing else can. They can make their own mind up.

Anne believes you can not just choose a subject and say you want to write about XYZ. You have to have strong feelings about it. Anne read a lot about rape cases in the newspaper as part of her research and was incensed at the coverage and the way the story was portrayed to make the victims look as if they were to blame. These feelings simmered for ages before she decided to write No Virgin the first book about Stacey Woods.

Her advice to writers who want to write about gritty subjects for theYA market is to think about subjects that you are interested in and genuinely have feeling about. It might be political or about refugees or climate change. Whatever makes you sit up and want to speak – that’s the subject you should write about for teenagers.

Before you write about a subject you have to find the teenager you want to write about. That teenage character will probably have some of YOU in them. It has to be a sincere attempt to write something real. Then the writing will be good, strongly felt, authentic. If it’s just about ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ the gatekeepers will know. They are sharp. If it’s good they have to support it.

Anne Cassidy is the author of over 50 novels for teenagers. You can find out more about her writing on her website: www.annecassidy.com or follow her on Twitter: @annecassidy6

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #196 Feb 2018 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my future Research Secrets or Writing 4 Children interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website, or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

An interview with… Anne Clarke

In February 2017, I interviewed literary agent Anne Clark about her children’s book agency and the kinds of books she would love to find in her submissions inbox for Writers’ Forum.

The Anne Clark Literary Agency started life nearly eight years ago. Before then, Anne worked in children’s publishing as a commissioning editor and editorial director for twenty years, at Hodder Children’s Books and Piccadilly Press. Her first jobs were in publicity and educational publishing.

She told me that she started the agency because it was the right time for new adventure, one which meant she could still do the things I like doing most – working with authors and publishers to get new books out into the world for children and teenagers to read and enjoy.

She explained children’s books are a joy because there is such freedom and variety in terms of subject and style. In a typical morning she might be dealing with a clumsy fairy, a shapeshifting cat burglar, a boy who thinks he’s an alien and a girl struggling with her body image. Children’s writers can draw on magic and fantasy without finding themselves stuck in a particular genre. She enjoys rigour in getting things right for a particular age group – the right language, right content. She said foreign rights are also an important part of children’s publishing giving it an international feel.

Anne revealed the best children’s books get the fundamentals correct: memorable characters you want to spend time with, and gripping stories which keep you turning the pages. Successful children’s authors don’t talk down to kids and they often show young people taking control of their worlds in some way, whether it’s a four-year-old with a tricky witch or a teenager with a bullying boyfriend. They may tackle difficult subjects but they offer hope. Her favourite books also stretch readers’ minds, taking them somewhere new and interesting – maybe to a Tokyo where mythical monsters roam, wartime London or inside the head of a refugee.

“An agent needs to be a talent-spotter, able to spot a promising newcomer at a hundred paces; a nurturer of authors, offering editorial direction, honest feedback and encouragement in wobbly moments; a market expert, in touch with trends and editors’ wish lists and pet hates; a shrewd salesperson; a negotiator of deals; and a champion of her authors.”

Anne Clarke

When she opens a manuscript from a new writer, she first looks for the author’s voice, and that comes over very quickly – in the first few lines and certainly within the first page or two. If she like the voice – if it feels confident, distinctive and fresh – she’ll keep reading. But she won’t be sure I want to work on a project until she has read the whole manuscript, because she is also looking for an author who can shape a whole story and take it to a satisfying conclusion.

Anne’s tip to children’s writers is to spend time identifying and sharpening your book’s unique hook – it could be an unusual setting, an original style, a unique character or perhaps a surprising combination of familiar elements – and how best to express it. You might need to make some changes to bring your hook to the fore, and it’s a good idea to reflect the hook in the title if you can.

When you are ready to approach an agent, her advice is: be focused. Keep your letter short and to the point. Start with a very short pitch for your book, briefly summing up the story and the hook, and follow up with relevant information about yourself. Be friendly but business-like – mention any courses, prizes and other experience, and don’t go into detail about your family unless it has a direct bearing on your writing. Don’t be apologetic or claim to be the next J K Rowling. And of course: make sure your manuscript is as good as it can be; and follow each agent’s submissions guidelines!

Check out www.anneclarkliteraryagency.co.uk to find out more about the agency, my clients and the submissions policy. You’ll find the latest news at www.facebook/anneclarkliterary or twitter at @anneclarklit.

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #184 Feb 2017 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my future Research Secrets or Writing 4 Children interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website, or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

An interview with… Sibéal Pounder

For my Writing 4 Children column in Writers’ Forum this month, I interviewed Sibéal Pounder about the differences between writing for children and writing for adults.

She writes for age 7+ and is the author of the Witch Wars, the Bad Mermaids series, Beyond Platform 13 (which is the sequel to Eva Ibbotson’s The Secret of Platform 13) and Tinsel, which was launched on Oct 29th 2020.

Sibéal explained writing for children is different from writing for adults for a few reasons. First of all, they are much harder to impress. They are busy people and unlike adults who will slog through a book hoping it gets better, kids are quite happy to chuck it at four pages deep and move on. You’ve got to hold their attention, impress and entertain them from the off.

Another reason writing for children is different is they are more vulnerable as readers. I don’t mean that to be patronising, I think kids are often smarter than adults. It’s just when adults read a book we do so with a lot of context about the world already in place. We read with a clear understanding that the author’s experiences and views may inform the content, and we come to it with a robustness and a critical eye.

Adults see books as something they read, children see books as somewhere they go. They learn from what is said and how characters are portrayed, what roles they are given and how they are treated. It’s a huge responsibility to write for children – the stories can shape how they think and feel, and you have to be very careful with that.

Two books I’d really recommend on the topic are Why You Should Read Children’s Books Even Though You Are So Old and Wise by Katherine Rundell. And Sway by Dr Pragya Agarwal, which is about unconscious bias – I found it hugely useful and eye-opening. I’d really recommend it if you’re a writer, especially a writer for children.

Each book presents its own challenges. It doesn’t get any easier! I wasn’t a big planner as I felt it was quite restrictive, but I did plan Beyond Platform 13 in great detail, down to each chapter, because it was an Estate project and Eva Ibbotson’s family and the publisher had to approve the outline before the work began. I found the planning transformative and really enjoyed working that way, so when it came to writing Tinsel I did a lot of planning. She revealed:

“Mrs Claus has always fascinated me. Everyone knows who she is and yet no one really knows her at all. If you ask a child to tell you a fact about Santa, they’ll have facts coming out of their ears – everything from his impressive skillset to his snack preferences. Mrs Claus is usually met with, ‘Um, she’s Santa’s wife.’ And, ‘She’s old.’”

Sibéal Pounder

What we know about Santa (the commercial version of him – the large jolly man in the red suit with the sleigh and elves) came about mostly in the 1800s, including the introduction of Mrs Claus. It got her thinking about how women were seen back then and how in many ways Mrs Claus is a relic of those times – a mere background character, known and yet completely unknown, in a world that didn’t imagine much of women. So she decided to find her story. Tinsel is that story – it’s the story of young Blanche Claus. And it turns out, a long time ago, we all got the Santa story a bit wrong…

I think Tinsel stands out because it takes everything we know and tells the story in a different (and hopefully funny) way. With Tinsel a lot of the comedy came from playing around with what we know now about Santa and having the reader know more than the characters. It’s set over a hundred years ago when the Santa story began and, after delivering the presents, Blanche reads the newspaper reports and exclaims, ‘They think I’m an old-bearded man called Santa Claus?’ Carol the elf assures her, ‘It’ll never catch on.’

Tinsel has quite a small cast (if you don’t count the thousands of elves all called Carol), and I wanted to have a sense of underlying balance in the book as it explores issues around gender bias. So I wanted every character to have a counterpart. Blanche and Captain Garland are counterparts, for example, because they are both adventurers, Mr Krampus and Carol, because they are the two most powerful characters in the book. It was fun to add that extra layer – I don’t think anyone will notice it but it provides a balance, I think.

When writing for children make everything bigger. Make the world you’re writing bigger, the characters bigger. Sometimes when people write for children they make the story small because that’s how they think of children. But kids have big minds and want big adventures – make everything bigger.

To find out more about Sibéal Pounder visit her website: www.sibealpounder.com ofr follow her on Twitter @sibealpounder and Instagram @sibeal.pounder

You can read my future Research Secrets or Writing 4 Children interviews by investing in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website, or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.