Monday, 19 August 2013

Celebrating Difference

As the summer holidays - for teachers and children at least - draw to a close what better way to be invigorated for the academic year ahead than by reading?  The government may be doing all that it can to encourage reading in all the wrong ways but thankfully authors, booksellers, readers, reviewers. librarians and many teachers are continuing to ensure that children of all ages develop a love of reading that will stay with them for life.

By Celebrating Difference in teen fiction three writers are ensuring that the older readers have plenty of story as well as many issues to get to grips with.

R J Palacio, Sally Gardner and Laura Jarratt were interviewed by Catherine Woodfine from the Booktrust and grilled by an audience of new and avid fans at an event held at Waterstones Piccadilly (London) on Wednesday 14th August.

R J Palacio had quite literally just stepped off a train from Edinburgh where she and Sally Gardner had been part of a panel event.  Laura Jarratt and her husband were just in London for the event and a short overnight stay, the first without the newest addition to their family!  All were wonderfully enthusiastic and full of insightful thoughts on children's literature and how to celebrate difference.

Beginning the evening with a challenge - how to get on the very comfy but high chairs - certainly broke the ice for all and was followed by a brief introduction from Catherine Woodfine to the authors, their books and the concept of celebrating difference - looking at characters who are profoundly different from those around them.

For R J Palacio it is Auggie a 10 year old boy with a cranial facial difference.  Sally Gardener introduces Standish Treadwell, a severe dyslexic and Laura Jarratt uses Jenna, an average teen who wants to fit in and Ryan a traveller boy.  The books, Wonder, Maggot Moon and Skin Deep are all fantastic reading, gripping from page one despite an apparent lack of quest, detective or spy thriller or even vampirical theme!  It just goes to prove that great writing is great writing and can be gripping for itself.

Back to the books and the discussion ...

In Wonder Auggie feels that he is normal, and RJ explores the way in which he faces a world who do not know how to react, this theme of courage is one that is shared by all the books.  So what motivated the authors?  For R J it was personal experience - not knowing how to react when her son was upset at seeing a girl with a facial deformity.  for Sally it was having become so cantankerous when on a diet that she had to shut herself away and write whilst for Laura it was pastoral work with children.

In each book the celebration of difference becomes a strength for the character in question, they begin to accept themselves, gain more empathy with those around them and think outside of the traditional box.

Writing outside the 'box' is however not easy.  R J explained how she had a book about gay characters rejected as marketing were not convinced it would sell and Sally explained how she felt many were too quick to judge.  Read and understand, allow writers to challenge and children to think from within the safety of fiction - this is the message.  A message that is beginning to break through, certainly for R J who has seen a shift in the US book market towards a celebration of difference that does not mean turning into a vampire or werewolf!

For the authors exploring and celebrating difference is not only important for their audience it is important for them too.  Readers can use the books to explore, find themselves, have fun, be individual.  It is a challenge, to create a character who, on the surface appears not to fit in but in reality with a little work, does.  In effect all fiction is about difference, it is the way in which authors approach it that really matters.  Difference is a common theme in humanity and deserves to be celebrated.

So to all those in the audience and now to those of you reading this Blog the message was to be a good writer extrapolate.  Write about what you feel from the gut, imagine.  Believe in your story, tell it over and over again until you get it right and when it burns inside you don't ignore it - write it!

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