suffragettes

Writing for Teens: A Conversation with Jon Walter

nevertheless she persistedJon Walter’s latest novel strikes the gong for women everywhere in this 100th anniversary year since some women were afforded the vote. Nevertheless She Persisted is the story of two sisters in 1913 and their struggle to achieve and succeed in a world dominated by men. Clara and Nancy work in Holloway Prison in a time in which the prison population includes a number of imprisoned suffragettes, some suffering force feeding as a result of their hunger strikes. Seeing their own struggles for independence mirrored in these fighting women, Nancy and Clara must make the decision as to which side to be on.

Walter’s novel gets to the very heart of the suffragettes’ struggle; looking not only at the importance of the role of imprisonment in the suffragette movement, and the Cat and Mouse Act, but also at the political motives and arguments surrounding women at a time in which their roles in life were still dependent upon men.

He doesn’t hold back. There is a graphic description of force feeding, an account of the sisters’ escape from their home, in which it becomes apparent that their father is guilty of incest. So, this isn’t really a book I’d normally recommend on a blog primarily designed to showcase children’s titles. In fact, it’s being published as part of David Fickling Books’ new foray into adult titles, which began with Pullman’s book of essays, Daemon Voices, last year. However, Walter claims that he writes YA fiction, (his previous novel Close to the Wind is suitable for those aged 10+ years, whilst My Name is Not Friday was longlisted for The Guardian’s Children’s Fiction Prize 2015), and his publisher claims that stories are for all:

Fickling says: Ideally I would really like to publish books that are not strictly for kids or only for adults, but with wide appeal. We’re not trying to muddle things – we’ll always keep story at our heart.”

But this is marketed as for adults, and so I feel that Walter could have pushed even more on the corporeal or visceral feelings that these women suffered – he holds back on the physical and emotional descriptions of childbirth and its after effects and the physical and emotional constrictions that women must have felt at that time, but to his credit he pushes the boundaries on the political instead.

Nancy and Clara are scarcely out of childhood themselves, and indeed at the time many women were made to feel that their childhood continued into adulthood because their independence was so curtailed. However, they occupy an adult world and step into roles of responsibility within the prison system, all the while trying to create their own new world, to forge a new path of a new generation – a world in which women aren’t tied by the patriarchy, and in which they can wear trousers or ride a bicycle and fight for their own freedoms and earn their own money. In this regard, Nevertheless does read like a YA title. Jon Walter believes that all his books are for a YA audience:

Jon WalterChildren’s literature can be a great place for dealing with big questions: Who are we? Where do we come from? Where do we belong? How should we live? I write for children because I want to address those questions. And I also write for children because they occupy a place of transition, particularly teens, who inhabit the borderlands between childhood and adulthood. This is extremely fertile territory for fiction writers because it is unformed and unstable. It has friction and is ripe for conflict as the new threatens to sweep aside the old. Basically, I’m more interested in the world young people will create than the world we adults have left them.”

I wonder if the reasons that DFB have cast this as an adult title are twofold. Firstly, the issue of incest – generally one of the last taboos. Walter isn’t sure: “There are no rules that can’t be broken in fiction but there is definitely safe ground and risky ground. With YA it’s certainly not content. Authors such as Robert Cormier, Melvin Burgess, Margot Lanagan, Louise O’Neill, M T Anderson have all put that idea to rest. I think it’s more about the chosen subject matter. YA tends to find itself in the territory where the adult and children’s world collide. Dystopian fiction would be a good example of the convergence, which is probably why so many teenagers walk around with copies of George Orwell or Margaret Atwood. It’s also about the tone of the book and the primacy of plot, though these are not defining features. Is Stephen King YA? Are thrillers or crime fiction?  I could give you a whole long list of books that are relevant and suitable for teenagers but published as adult fiction.”

Indeed, the teenagers I meet definitely read novels that are in the general fiction area of the bookshop – from 1984 to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time to Catch 22 (the latter not a novel I’d recommend for adults; it’s best read as a teen when you’re sucked in by the sheer lunacy). In which case, is YA a patronising term? Why does it exist at all? Jon thinks we might be imposing unnecessary age limits on our readers:

There’s a belief in children’s fiction that readers tend to read two years above their actual age. This is because, while they want to see themselves in a book, they also want to see what might be happening to them very soon. They want to do what the older kids do!

But there’s also something that happens to children aged 14 and upwards. They’re looking at the adult world and seeing how they are going to fit. This isn’t just about sex and drugs and rock and roll. It’s about politics, how the world is structured; the who gets what and why. It might even be about the world of work; what will they do to employ their time and will it pay them enough to live independently? These are very adult questions so it’s not surprising that teenagers often prefer to visit the general fiction section of a shop rather than the children’s section.

If you put these two things together, then the age range of YA  narrows considerably. Instead of a wide 13-18, it might more practically be seen as 12-15? And if so, are we failing to market properly to children and adults in the 15 -22 age range? And rather than pulling older readers in, does the notion of a young adult genre patronise them? My children are 19 & 22, one at university, one doing care work and deciding whether he will make a career of it. Like most people their age, both have a tenuous relationship to adulthood. Why are there so few books aimed at ‘kids’ of this age? It’s almost as though they don’t exist!”

And perhaps this is the second reason why Nevertheless She Persisted is classed as an adult title – the protagonists aren’t children, they’re in their twenties:

One of the problems with Nevertheless was that the suffragettes had an age limit (at least for official suffragette activity) of 21. The age limit for prison wardens was 24. I could have circumvented these with a younger character who witnessed the actions of others but I didn’t want to do that because a reader of fifteen upwards doesn’t necessarily need a protagonist their own age. I think the issues that Nancy and Clara deal with are resonant with the lives and decisions of today’s teenagers, despite the protagonists and setting being adult.”

All in all then, we tend to agree. The genres and age levels imposed upon novels are fairly arbitrary – after all how many novels are there that traverse across the genres rather than tidily fitting into one particular category. Is Jane Austen romance? Classic? Literary fiction? Perhaps in the end, it’s really just about marketing:

I think it is but that’s hugely significant. Successful marketing is about putting books into the right people’s hands – it can be the difference between a book being read or passed over.” Walter’s latest novel might be marketed as adult, but it’s an appealing read for any teen looking to discover the women’s suffrage struggle, or to understand the relationship between sisters, or to read social historical fiction that contains those small nuggets of detail that are so fascinating. It’s written with clarity and pathos and as one would expect from a Jon Walter novel, carries the reader at pace with style and poise. Walter appears happy with DFB’s new direction: “DFB are taking a risk with this but it might just be that their new adult list appeals more to teenagers than the books might as YA. If the list also succeeds in attracting adult readers who aren’t engaged with the children’s book world, then that’s even better!”

I’m looking forward to reading whatever might be next – perhaps Jon Walter might try his hand at a picture book next? And those, as we know, are for all ages.

You can buy a copy of Nevertheless She Persisted here.

 

 

International Women’s Day

Tomorrow, Thursday 8th March, 2018, is International Women’s Day.

As we celebrate 100 years of women’s suffrage in the UK in 2018, it’s essential to show the younger generation the importance of their political history, so that they appreciate what’s gone before them, but also so that they can be inspired and harness that energy to forge their path in the future.

The publishing industry has been pushing certain children’s books for a while as a call to gender equality (Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls is one such book, although I abhor the title). Seeing the young faces in the library each week, I know that they are interested in women in the past who have fought for equality, but the younger generation also need to continue the fight so that equal pay and equal opportunities become global achievements. You can read past blogs about some inspirational books here, and here, but below are a set of just published books celebrating amazing women in history, and contemporary struggles:

Make More Noise (anthology, published by Nosy Crow)
This is a sumptuous selection of short stories by top children’s authors, which all aim to inspire readers and whet their appetite to learn more about important figures in the past, and the meaning of the women’s movement. There are historical stories, contemporary, fantasy; each playing to the strength of its author, so that Emma Carroll and Katherine Woodfine have written delectable historical stories, whereas K Millwood Hargrave goes for fantasy, and MG Leonard sticks to bugs in the present.

For me, the defining story is the tale of an ordinary housemaid by Woodfine, as it probes into the essence of what the Votes for Women campaign meant. The idea was more than obtaining the right to put a simple cross on the ballot paper, but rather a different way of seeing women – a chance to provide further opportunities for education and learning, for social mobility, for basic human rights.

Emma Carroll’s story takes in the Land Girls, Jeanne Willis profiles the first woman to cycle around the globe in a year, and Patrice Lawrence writes a wonderful tale of the Spitalfields slums inspired by the campaigner, Olive Christian Malvery. Catherine Johnson writes a particularly engaging tale about the fairly unknown 43 Group, ex-servicemen who fought against anti-Semitic activists in Britain, and Sally Nicholls writes a jolly hockey sticks adventure about census night 1911, with a clear political message.

It’s all very well preaching history and political correctness, but luckily for its readership, this is a collection that is witty and wise, engaging and accessible, which mixes in themes of friendship, belonging and even the supernatural, whilst still staying true to women’s voices. An absolute joy for the soul – both men’s and women’s, and stunningly written, as one would expect from such a talented bunch of writers. You can buy it here.

herstoryHerStory: 50 Women and Girls Who Shook the World by Katherine Halligan, illustrated by Sarah Walsh

This large biography book takes a double page for each subject and tells the story of the woman it’s featuring. The author breaks the text into chunky paragraphs with subheadings, and each profile features illustrations, and where possible, photographs. The text reads straightforwardly but deals with complexities – as well as highlighting the life of the woman and her achievements, it also poses questions to the reader: What genius might Emily Bronte have produced had she lived beyond 30 years?

The text also extrapolates what was good about these women’s actions – the book features anti-Nazi resistance leader Sophia Scholl, and Halligan has quoted Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” The author then goes on to highlight how one person can have the power to change, to speak up for what’s right.

This is a powerful book that highlights the women’s importance but also depicts when in history these women were not recognised – when Mary Anning was not properly credited in museums, how Mary Seacole was never thanked officially by the military for her work. It then goes on to explain why and how these women are now worthy of our studies, of our knowledge, or their place in our ‘history’ or ‘herstory’.

Featuring such diverse women as Joan of Arc, Harriet Tubman, Amelia Earhart, Wangari Maathai, Anne Sullivan and more, this is a powerful and attractive collection of histories. Subjects are arranged thematically, so that Elizabeth Blackwell sits alongside Eva Peron in ‘Help and Heal’. If you’re wondering about Eva Peron, Halligan also points out where people may have found fault in things these women did too – no one is a saint.

This is crucial in our analysis of history, and being able to think critically about figures in the past. This objective insight also serves us well: if we portray all women as complete saints, we will find it hard to emulate them. Most importantly, the book highlights how all these women had to fight and work hard to get what they wanted – whether it be publishing at first under a man’s name, acting on stage with a prosthetic leg after traumatic amputation, or dying impoverished – each persevered, and have now been found to have made a huge difference to our lives today. An excellent non-fiction title for International Women’s Day and beyond. You can buy it here.

little leaders bold women in black historyLittle Leaders: Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison
Although there is a little more recognition of BAME and diverse voices in history now, and a little more recognition that all people need to be represented in publishing, there is still a gap in the market for such titles. This beautiful little book aims to plug one gap. Born from a project started during Black History Month, Harrison wants to celebrate those who have been marginalised in the past; some of Harrison’s subjects were not even aware that their steps were forging a path for the future. Of course, there is Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman, but also less well-known women such as Alma Woodsey Thomas, a teacher and painter.

Arranged in chronological order from date of birth, there is a large focus on modern women, with only 13 featured from pre-20th century, but this is to be expected with our patriarchal global narrative that has cast women as inferior for much of history. There is also quite a large American slant, although others are featured too.

Each woman is afforded a page of text, and Harrison runs through their lives and achievements succinctly, and without much commentary, and it certainly all reads very positively. Opposite the text is a full page illustration (which is how the project started). The illustrations are very similar – all feature the woman in subject looking doll-like with downcast eyes – and here is the rub. Unfortunately for a book about leaders, it seems a shame to have called them ‘little’ in the title, and illustrated them with their eyes down, looking somewhat demure and docile.

Women featured include Augusta Savage, Gwendolyn Brooks, Maya Angelou, Nina Simone, Julie Dash, Oprah Winfrey, Dr Mae Jemison, and Diane Abbot. At the back, Harrison lists a few more, but her bibliography is lacking. You can buy it here.

anthology of amazing womenAnthology of Amazing Women: Trailblazers Who Dared to be Different by Sandra Lawrence, illustrated by Nathan Collins

There’s a pattern emerging here! Another biographies book that features 50 women from various walks of life who have made significant contributions to society or ground-breaking achievements. Again arranged thematically, and again featuring a full page of text and an accompanying full page full-colour illustration for each person (somewhat stylised and looking a little like the Women in Science series). Sneakily, the author also shoves in another few women for the chapter openers – obviously whittling the list down to fifty proved difficult.

I would query how it’s possible to have a paragraph on Anne Frank without mentioning the word ‘Jewish’, and would query the need to feature this overflow from the 50, seeing as there isn’t the space to highlight their achievements and who they were in enough detail. For the fifty profiled though, the text is factual and unobtrusive without opinion and questioning.

A failing here is that there are no dates at the beginning of each profile, so it’s hard to immediately place the woman in history, but the upside is that generally this is quite a different cast of women, and this itself has the possibility to make the reader think.

Profiles include: Beyonce, Sheryl Sandberg, Tove Jansson, Yani Tseng, Nettie Stevens, Simone de Beauvoir, Hatshepsut, and Georgia O’Keeffe, as well as the reliable Emmeline Pankhurst, Mary Anning, Mary Wollstonecraft and Frida Kahlo.

It is especially delightful to see the inclusion of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian writer who has not only written some wonderful novels, but also continues to inspire with her TED talks. And Fanny Mendelssohn, whose husband encouraged her to compose and publish her work. Although cast aside by many because she was a woman, with the foresight of a feminist husband, she was enabled to gain some recognition for her music.

amazing womenAmazing Women: 101 Lives to Inspire You by Lucy Beevor, illustrated by Sarah Green

Doubling the stakes here, with 101 women featured, this is a more British take on inspirational women, and one of the best. Submitted to me with a press release, it was the only one to express the publisher’s difficulty in navigating history – in that people who were a power for good may also have caused some harm. It mentions replacing Aung San Suu Kyi in future reprints, but has rightly included Margaret Thatcher in spite of many people’s attitudes towards her. Indeed despite less text on each profile (a larger book but sometimes only half a page attributed to each woman), the text manages to deal with controversies, even if mentioned only very lightly, as in the profile of Benazir Bhutto.

This book is definitely one to whet the appetite for further research, rather than comprehensive bibliographies, but happily does give the dates of each woman. Arranged thematically again, but with slightly more ambiguity as subtitles include: pioneer, virtuoso, creator, campaigner, inspiration. It certainly feels more modern than the others, featuring mainly 20th century women, with the exception made for Edith Cavell, Marie Curie and Emmeline Pankhurst.

The illustrations are full colour, engaging and lively – these women look expressive and as if they are facing the reader, many with querying eye contact.

Like all the books featured, this one too promotes hard work and dedication, commitment and standing up for what’s right. The women featured might be lucky to have been picked for inclusion in the books, but there was not much luck in how these women got where they did – that was down to grit. You can buy it here.

Votes for Women

There are many reasons I’ve wanted to feature suffragette books on the blog for a while now. In a world of current political turmoil, it can be helpful to look to historical fiction for guidance. Women’s rights are still an issue, with recent contention over equal pay, sexual harassment in the workplace, and ongoing struggles within families as to ‘default’ parenting. So, the women’s fight for suffrage has never seemed that far from one’s mind. Next year, attention focusses fully on this again, as Vote 100 aims to bring attention to the 100th anniversaries in 2018: The Representation of the People Act 1918 (allowing some women to vote for the first time) and the Parliament Qualification of Women Act in 1918 (allowing women to stand for election to the Commons) as well as many other anniversaries. However, my compelling reason for bringing you these ‘suffragette books’ is that they’re all so completely brilliant.


Things a Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nicholls
One of my favourite authors for middle grade, Nicholls tells a wonderful yarn no matter her subject matter, and here she steps completely into YA territory. This accomplished novel follows three girls, Evelyn, May and Nell, through their fight for the vote at the beginning of the First World War. Each girl is from a different social strata of society, (Evelyn is expected to marry rather than be educated, and Nell is a working class girl just trying to get by), and each has different aims and ambitions, as well as winningly flawed yet determined personas. Nicholls tackles social history with aplomb, as well as LGBT issues and the tangled emotions of suffragette women as their cause became swept up in the war breaking out across Europe.

Both a fascinating historical eye-opener and a scintillating story, readers will race through the different points of view to see how the girls’ stories collide, and where they each end up. The research shines through, but never overpowers the book, and it is the girls who in the end dominate and succeed – through hardship and tears. Characters to remember, prose to devour. Who wouldn’t give these girls the vote? Buy your copy here.


The Making of Mollie by Anna Carey
For a younger readership, but another powerful novel that also includes accurate social history of the time (the author borrows from her own school’s history), with a great story.

Told in letter format to a friend at boarding school, Mollie stumbles into women’s suffrage after sneaking out after her big sister Phyllis and ending up at a suffragist meeting. Mollie empathises with the cause after relating it to small injustices in her own life, such as the free reign afforded to her brother, and the fact that he’s always given the best bits of the roast chicken first. The story strikes a lovely balance between school days (tussles with friends and enemies, conservative teachers and disapproving adults), with the political cause dominating the landscape.

Mollie and her friend take to the suffragette cause in a gentle way; attempting to attend meetings; their most daring venture being the chalking of pavements with notices. It feels real, and practical, and suited well to the age of the protagonist. This novel is set in Dublin rather than England, and also intersperses the politics of suffrage with issues of Irish Home Rule, illustrated by speeches of the time. The book doesn’t shy away from details, but mainly explores a coming-of-age at an interesting political time, showing what it means to stick up for what you believe in, and the consequences for all those involved. Clever, engaging and endearing. You can purchase it here.


Little People: Emmeline Pankhurst by Lisbeth Kaiser, illustrated by Ana Sanfelippo
Part of the series of stylish picture books on women achievers; previous titles have included Frida Kahlo, Maya Angelou, Marie Curie, telling the women’s stories simply and effectively. This one is no different.

Pankhurst’s life is explained with one or two sentences per page, from her childhood in which she first discovered the inequalities between men and women and then her inspirational fight in adulthood to obtain the vote for women. It highlights her leadership skills, the adversity she faced as a single mother after the death of her husband, and her commitment to her family as well as to the cause. Her life is distilled into a simple, harmless yet powerful biography.

With retro colouring, and great attention to detail, the illustrations make the storytelling. There is a find out more section at the back, and photographs of the real Emmeline on a timeline, but the essence of this series is that the books look as good on a coffee table as lining a child’s bedroom. You can buy it here.


Rebel Voices: The Rise of Votes for Women by Louise Kay Stewart and Eve Lloyd Knight
Cheating a little, because this book isn’t out until January, but this beautifully illustrated title celebrates campaigners around the globe who fought for the women’s right to vote. Although suffrage in this country does get a good deal of attention, there are some startling facts and figures from other countries that are worth knowing, and this book aims to highlight them. In fact, the story starts in New Zealand, with Kate Sheppard, who cycled her way around the streets in Christchurch in 1892. Maori women and female settlers in New Zealand became the first women in the world to win the right to vote in a national election in 1893. The book moves chronologically around the globe, charting the rise of women’s rights country to country, and mentions key campaigners and activists, but also points out places in which women were afforded the vote, but the right was not necessarily granted to other minority groups.

Fascinatingly illustrated too, in that the illustrations dominate each page with their bold colours, striking strength and symbolism, and each suits its country well, there is little text for the size of the book – just enough to convey the pertinent points and get the reader thinking. The book ends in 2015 with Saudi Arabia, but also draws some conclusions. The author points out that women have a long way to go in other areas of equality, such as pay, education, and opportunities, and asks the reader to think about the global patterns in which suffrage was granted – often at times of war, revolution, or changes in identity. This is a powerful-looking book for a powerful subject, and well-deserving of a place in every library. You can pre-order your copy here.


Girls Who Rocked the World by Michelle Roehm McCann and Amelie Welden
Lastly, this isn’t a suffragette book, but if you’re looking for inspiration on powerful women, as well as Bedtime Stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo and Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World by Kate Pankhurst, you’d do just as well (if you’re looking for something aimed at those a little older) to pick up this collection of biographies.

Featuring women from across the centuries and around the world who have had a remarkable influence, including suffragette Anna Elizabeth Dickinson, Hatshepsut, Florence Nightingale, Anna Pavlova, The Bronte Sisters, Indira Ghandhi and many more. It’s a weird and eclectic selection, including up-to-the-minute influencers, but it attempts to show that women, just like men, have been, and continue to be, shapers of history.

Each person is described in a few pages, highlighting what they have done, but also why they matter. The text style is chatty and informative, but also quite dense – there are very few illustrations here. Perhaps a book to dip into, rather like short stories. There are ‘boxes off’ with quotes from today’s young women, talking about what they hope for their own futures: How will You rock the world? If it’s aimed to get the reader researching further, thinking more and making a difference, it works. You can buy it here.