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Q&A with Catherine Barter, author of Troublemakers


I had the recent good fortune to not only review Catherine’s debut novel, Troublemakers, but also to chair a panel conversation between Catherine and Keren David, author of The Liar’s Handbook, among others. For those of you unable to attend, I also sneaked in a cheeky Q&A with Catherine so that I could share it with you here. Troublemakers is an unusual YA novel – it’s contemporary, about politics, and very apt in the current political climate. Set in London, it’s a coming-of-age novel that speaks of activism, terrorism, and family relationships.

I understand that you worked for an organisation campaigning for the rights of garment workers. Have you always been involved in political activism of some kind?

That’s right, I used to work for a brilliant organisation called Labour Behind the Label. I mostly did office admin – answering emails, stuffing envelopes, that kind of thing. I’m much too shy to be any good at direct action or street protest, so where I’ve been involved in activism it’s mainly been doing boring, behind-the-scenes things.

I’ve always been quite political, and my family talked politics a lot, but I think I got particularly switched on to it in my teens. When I was about sixteen I had that Naomi Klein book, No Logo, which a lot of people were reading at the time, and I got quite caught up in the idea of fighting back against global capitalism. Not that I exactly knew what that meant (I’m not sure I actually got to the end of No Logo), but I could tell it was important!

And then the Iraq War began the year that I started university, and I went on one of the marches against it, as did a lot of young people that year. So that was my first introduction to that kind of mass movement activism. You care very passionately about things when you’re a teenager, so I think it’s a good time to get interested in politics and activism.

You co-manage a radical bookshop (Housmans). What’s the most rewarding part of the job?

I love when young people come in to the shop looking for copies of old radical classics, things like bell hooks’ Ain’t I A Woman or Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. You get the feeling they’re just getting started on their political journeys and they’re putting in the groundwork by reading all these big, difficult, important books. And they’re really excited about it. I love seeing that.

Did the attacks on Housmans in the past in some way inspire what happens to Nick’s coffee shop in Troublemakers?

Hmm! I actually never thought about that link, but maybe on some level it was inspired by that. There’s definitely a bit of Housmans in Nick’s coffee shop, and working in the shop has made me aware that any business which has its politics up-front makes itself vulnerable to some extent. We do still get far-right people coming in to shout at us sometimes, and I can imagine Nick’s coffee shop with all its activist posters in the window would get the same.

When did you start writing Troublemakers?

I can be very specific! It was March 2011, when I took a six-week course at Writers’ Centre Norwich. I was feeling very liberated after finishing a PhD and wanted to start doing something completely different from academic writing.

Did you always want to write YA?

No. I didn’t know a lot about YA until I started writing Troublemakers. Then I sort of fell in love with writing from the perspective of a teenager and realised that YA was the right home for the kind of story I wanted to tell. Which was really exciting.

How did you feel to be shortlisted for the Bath Novel Award?

I was so happy. I can remember that whole day really vividly. It was gratifying because after I was longlisted, and before I submitted the full manuscript for the next stage, I’d worked really hard to fix all the problems that I knew the book had. I was still rewriting until the last possible moment, because I knew I could make it better. So I was thrilled when all that work paid off.

This is your debut novel. Tell me your route to publication.

After the shortlist was announced, the organiser of the Bath Novel Award, Caroline Ambrose, contacted literary agents to let them know about the books and authors on the list. As a result of that, a few agents requested to see my complete manuscript. Two of those offered to represent me–but one of them wanted me to write a different book, and one of them wanted to work on Troublemakers. So that was an easy decision! I did quite a lot of editing with my agent, who then sent the book out into the world, where it found a home with Andersen Press.

You wrote a PhD on Sherman Alexie. What attracted you to him?

I’d never heard of Sherman Alexie until I read one of his short story collections for a class on ‘multi-ethnic American literatures’. Then I got completely hooked. His writing is very funny and very sad, very immediate and sometimes flawed and all the more alive and interesting because of that. It’s very layered and political, too, and writing about his fiction was also a way to write and think about American history and politics and storytelling traditions. So all of that was very appealing. And he’s also written one of my favourite YA novels ever, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

What are you working on next?

It’s still in a bit of a fragile, embryonic stage, but I’m working on a story about four friends in a desolate Norfolk seaside town in winter. So it’s a completely different setting from Troublemakers, which has been fun to write.

Thank you so much to Catherine for agreeing to answer yet more questions. I encourage you all to read Troublemakers, it’s one of the best YA published this year. You can purchase it here.  

 

A Stepping Stone To Books

When I talk to parents whose children aren’t keen readers, I often mention how important it is to find another way into books – to make reading a habit. One brilliant stepping stone to engage children who aren’t ready for a lengthy book is to turn to a periodical. These are still relevant for keen book readers – many of the keenest readers adore my first featured periodical for its ability to tell a story and wait breathlessly for their Friday installment. The three periodicals featured below are informative, engaging, interactive, and interesting, and also work as an extra treat for the most dedicated book readers.

Phoenix

Phoenix Comic
I’m starting with The Phoenix because it celebrated its 200th edition last Friday. The Phoenix is a weekly comic for children aged about 6-12 years. Rather than just containing comic strips, it also features adventure stories – serialised week on week. In fact you may have seen some of these produced as books, including Corpse Talk by Adam Murphy. This comic strip appears in The Phoenix each week and brings back from the dead a famous character from history, supplying excellent non-fiction snippets, and cringe-worthy jokes (the book was shortlisted for the 2015 Blue Peter Best Book of Facts Award). Evil Emperor Penguin by Laura Ellen Anderson (a prolific children’s book illustrator) also features weekly, and Anderson’s Penguin adventures were also published as a book this October.

As well as the captivating story-telling in the comics, and the humour, and the facts contained within Corpse Talk, parents love that there are no gimmicks – no adverts, no plastic toys.

Without them realising, it gets children reading, teaches them to look for visual clues, provides different styles of writing, explores story arcs and offers a way into storytelling like no other. Many of the reading schemes I work with in schools have comics as part of their new titles now – it’s a good way for children to break down a story and see how a plot unfolds. The vocabulary in The Phoenix is great too – from onomatopoeias of comic genius, to sacrifices, explorers and rebellions related historical strips. As the publisher, David Fickling says “libraries and schools are deliberately stocking our comics because they see them as a link to books, not competition to them.”

The 200th edition has a beautifully illustrated cover by our children’s laureate, Chris Riddell, and a preview for the new strip called John Blake coming 2016 written by Philip Pullman, and illustrated by Fred Fordham. This edition also sees The Phoenix being stocked in WHSmith for the first time.

First news

First News
Another weekly that is fought over by children each week (“I’m reading it first!”) is First News. A weekly national newspaper for children, it features news told in a non-patronising but accessible way. Each news story assumes little prior knowledge on the history of the topic, so gives the story context, and tries to present it in an appealing way with graphics where necessary.

There is general news, home news in snippets encircling a map of Great Britain, world news presented likewise, but with reference numbers for each piece of text corresponding to the appropriate place on the world map (geography has never been so interesting), picture news, science, animals, entertainment and sports news. There are also weekly features including a comic strip, jokes, amazing facts, interviews, book reviews and a book corner, puzzles, and a great section called ‘Your News’ in which children send in their own reports about interesting experiences they have had.

It sounds comprehensive – and it is. It manages to tackle sensitive issues, such as refugees, bullying and the environment well, without resorting to sensationalism or being too simplistic.

The special editions, which are printed as an in-depth look at certain subjects, are also well presented. The Election 2015 edition was particularly well done.

The weekly newspaper does contain adverts, but having seen almost 100 editions, I’ve yet to find anything too objectionable. It’s an excellent source for knowledge about current affairs for children. A print version of the wonderful Newsround from the 1980s.

aquila

Aquila
The ultimate magazine for young non-fiction fans, Aquila is a monthly issue rather than weekly. Aimed at roughly 8 years and over, it features one topic per month and delves into it in a range of fun, interactive and informative ways. Next month is Life on Mars, this month was Invisibility.

The team behind the magazine deal with each subject in an imaginative way. Invisiblity is addressed not only as when you might feel invisible (such as starting a new school) but also what’s invisible in the natural world – because it is camouflaged. The Invisibility edition features an activity to help the reader make an invisibility cloak, a science experiment to make an object invisible, information on static electricity – which of course you can feel but not necessarily see, a double page spread on archaeologists ‘seeing’ what’s invisiible, and the history of priest holes, which are ancient hiding places – the sort that some Catholic priests used for hiding places to escape capture following the Gunpowder Plot.

There are also stories, puzzles and competitions. As with The Phoenix, there are no adverts, just a very full letters page with enthusiastic feedback from readers. It’s for curious children everywhere, and is delivered by post.

 

 

 

The little journos

When I was at school I wanted to be a journalist. Whether it was from watching Press Gang with Dexter Fletcher and Julia Sawalha or from voracious reading of Mizz and J17, I’m not sure. I don’t remember reading any children’s books particularly about journalism, but I liked the investigative side of Nancy Drew. and the diary technique of Z for Zachariah, Adrian Mole and so many others – and it seemed as if the writing buzz was the course to pursue. I worked on the school newspaper, then the university one (where Minerva Moan was born), and finally did a journalism postgrad before reality slapped me in the face and I fell into children’s publishing.

My love for the media buzz never died though, so I’m delighted to bring you three stories that play with ‘journalism.’

completely cassidy

First up, Completely Cassidy: Star Reporter by Tamsyn Murray. The second in this series, the first of which I reviewed here. I don’t tend to review another in the same series within a nine month period, but Cassidy’s voice resonated with me the first time and I was intrigued to see if the second in the series retains the same spark. It does. Cassidy falls into journalism rather than pursuing it, and stays with it to impress other people rather than for her own love of reporting. She starts an online petition in favour of girls wearing trousers to school (mainly to cover up her own mishap with some fake tan), and the editor of the school magazine asks her to join. Of course, with Cassidy things never quite work out according to plan, and before long she’s desperate for a decent story.
The great thing about Tamsyn Murray is she really gets modern school children and their world (there’s a mystery blogger who’s causing havoc/borderline online bullying), and she has a wicked sense of humour, which shines through the text. It’s tame enough to be a light, engaging read, and yet with such a strong voice that the reader just wants to read more and more Cassidy. I liked that her use of journalism in this book invokes the moral dilemmas associated with telling a good story. Being a journalist isn’t that dissimilar from being a young teen – it’s all about deciphering what is the right thing to do. Highlights included Tamsyn mentioning the PTA in a good light, and also to Antonia Miller for her fabulous little illustrations throughout, particularly the poison pen! It’s also refreshing to read about a girl with no big issues in her life – her parents are together, she has annoying siblings, she goes to a run-of-the-mill school – and yet, as for all of us, and particularly children finding their way in the world – even the simplest of lives can be complicated and hard to navigate at times. Age 9+. Click here to buy a copy of the book from Waterstones

.jonny jakes

Jonny Jakes, on the other hand, rather like myself as a youngster, lives for the buzz of the story. Jonny Jakes Investigates: The Hamburgers of Doom by Malcolm Judge, came through the post and I read it without knowing any spoilers, so was hugely surprised with the turn of events. Of course, the title is a great play on words – hamburgers for harbingers, although I’m not sure how many children would understand the joke. Jonny Jakes runs the secretive school newspaper under a pseudonym so that he can craftily write sneaky stories about all the teachers and goings-on at his school without being rumbled. This would be story enough for me, but then, out of the blue, his headmaster quits and is replaced by an alien. Rather than get the scoop of the century though, Jonny is pipped to the post by his new headteacher, and Jonny is determined to investigate exactly what sort of head this alien will turn out to be. Written in diary form, the plot twists and turns and gets wilder and sillier, as befits the title. It turns out the headmaster is hypnotising all the students with his special sweets, and fattening them with hamburgers in order to eat them. Accompanied by gross descriptions of the aliens, and accounts of revolting smells, this book is not for the faint-hearted, but I’m sure will be embraced with much amusement by many children. The denouement is wild and fun and action-packed. There are inspired illustrations by Alan Brown, and it’s as far-fetched and imaginative as you would expect. Children – enjoy! 9+. To purchase, click here.

ivy and bean

The third reason for getting into journalism other than aforementioned peer approval and the buzz of the story, is money. Ivy and Bean: No News is Good News by Annie Barrows is a charming story in the long-running American series about two friends, Ivy and Bean, who, in this particular episode, decide to produce a community newspaper so that they can sell it to raise some money. The funniest element to me about the story is that they want the money to buy cheese. Not that they like the cheese, but they like that red waxy packaging in which the individually wrapped cheese comes…and their mother refuses to buy it for them. During the course of the small story we discover what a subscription to a newspaper is, how to earn money up front, and, just like Cassidy, when publishing a story can be morally ambiguous – especially if the story is embellished, embarrassing or just plain fabricated. Ivy and Bean is a series of books for newly independent readers, and although very American in phrase and tone, strikes a lovely chord here too, as it develops a cute friendship and showcases endearing childhood naivety. Sophie Blackall’s illustrations complement the stories well – it’s a good addition to any young reader’s bookcase. (An interesting fact – Annie Barrows co-wrote The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society – see what a bit of investigating can throw up!). 6+ years. To buy a copy of the book click here.