What songs shape your stories?

20160205_095020I was asked to write a blog for World Book Day Teenfest, by coincidence on the day it was announced that Maurice White had died. I know some Earth Wind and Fire songs, but Marlon, in ‘Orangeboy’, is one of their biggest fans. So I wrote the blog about the music we inherit and the music pass on… (It is also a snapshot into hairstyles past.)

Check out the blog here.

What are your inheritance tracks?

My partner knows a coroner. I never saw that coming. (Notes from a debut YA author.)

Yah!  I have a two-book deal with Hodder!  I have signed on the dotted line for my first young adult novel as well as another stand alone one to follow.   I am actually being paid money for this.  Yay, again!  Last Man Standing, will be published in March 2016, Indigo Donut, (title may change…) in March 2017. This is good news.

Actually, it’s amazingly excellent news.  Such good news that it  made our local paper, as well as The Voice newspaper, the website of a prolific local blogger and our local freebie. I was even interviewed on Colourful Radio, sitting in the corner of a north London park, on a bench between the goats and the deer, on my way to work.

And I have wanted to be a writer since.  Just since.

So, how did this deal come about?  I researched the young adult market – that is, loitered with intent in Charing Cross Road Foyles and scanned my daughter’s shelves.  She’s into manga.  Not helpful.  I also started planning a crime novel set in 1940s Port of Pain, a society still facing up to the impact of the second world war, colonial rule and a programme of de-slumming and emigration.  If you’ve seen Errol John’s play ‘Moon On A Rainbow Shawl’, you know what I mean.  A setting ripe for drama and random poisoning.

I took my collection of ideas to an Arvon crime-writing course, tutored by Dreda Say Mitchell and Frances Fyfield.  About halfway through the week, we were given an exercise to help us hide information – a sentence that had to be embedded within a paragraph or so.  The rest of the group had to guess the sentence.  I was presented with ‘He woke up dreaming of yellow’.  So – what was on my mind?

The obvious.  Mustard.

A few weeks earlier, my daughter and I had used the day of a teachers’ strike to check out Hyde Park Winter Wonderland.  Everything was so pricey that after a couple of rides – her, not me, I’m a coward – we only had money left for one hot dog to share. So – what if?  What if two young people are at a fairground? It’s their first date and the boy is a bit uncertain.  He hates mustard but he’s going to eat that hot dog the girl’s just bought him because it’s a sign.  She’s claiming him.  The date’s going well and then what’s the very worst thing that can happen?  After I wrote that, I just carried on writing.

There was no plan.  Characters emerged from a murky subconscious and vicarious wish fulfillment.  The mother I’d like to be, the 15-year-old I wish I’d been, the big brother I wanted, were all there on the page.  And what was at the core?  The press release mentions gangs, drugs and guns, but that wasn’t what really interested me.  I wanted my protagonist, Marlon, to be a lovely young man, a bit quiet, a bit geeky and with an enduring love for vinyl records.  I was fascinated by what would tip a boy like that over.  Why would Marlon Sunday, who can name every Earth, Wind and Fire album in order, risk destroying his family and his future?

First draft done, after a thorough critique from my writing group, priceless mentoring and the complete removal of a subplot, I was getting there. The book had always been like a jigsaw, but now I had the right number of pieces.  I had to keep trying until the picture looked right.

Caroline Sheldon, my agent, sent it to a number of publishers. My first meeting with Hodder was in an office with a wonderful view and premium biscuits.  I fell in love and eventually it was requited.

So what have I learnt from this so far?

1. My partner knows a coroner.  I honestly never saw that coming.

2. Local newspapers really like good news. So –

3. It’s good to have a couple of decent hi res pics to send off.  My hair is its own lifeform.  In the photos you will see it trying to escape.

4. I somehow have to balance shameless and modest self-publicity.  Haven’t quite worked out that one yet.  However, promotion is vital.

5. The joy of getting to the 300th edit.  There will be more polishing, but I feel that we’re nearly there.  (Aren’t we?  Say ‘yes’!)

6. How pleased and encouraging my friends are!

7. I have a full time job, a teenage daughter, a needy cat and a heavy clad allotment.  I should learn to multitask.

I’ll (try and) keep you posted about book cover selection, promotion and all those new experiences as as we edge towards publication. Px

Natural hair, curly hair – draw the hair! Illustrating ‘multicultural’ books.

dark and lovely

Oh, the politics of black women’s hair.  At the recent Women of the World festival, at London’s Southbank, a session was devoted to debate.    And below is an excerpt from an interview in the ‘Telegraph’ with Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie:

Throughout the interview, Adichie has been playing with her hair, which is neatly braided and tucked on top of her head. She’s waiting for me to ask about it. Because hair is everywhere in Americanah. It has taken root as a central theme. Adichie herself is a leading voice in the natural hair movement – which decries the use of relaxers and anything that chemically alters it. And none of her characters escapes having their locks categorised. Indeed, much of the storytelling takes place in an American hair salon, where Ifemelu has gone to have her hair braided.

There are descriptions of cornrows, braids, shiny straight weaves, box braids, comb-overs, natural afros, corkscrews, coils, russet waves and TWAs (Teeny Weeny Afros). And to style them? Pomades, irons, relaxers, oils, butters, moisturisers and creamy conditioners.

So what of her own hair? As a ‘hair fundamentalist’ surely it’s all natural?

Adichie hesitates. “Actually the tips are Afro Kinky extensions, to add volume. Most black women add extensions to their hair. But I argue that they should be like our own hair. We should embrace our natural style.”

Her approach, she admits, leaves her Nigerian friends bemused. She has even been scolded by strangers for not having a straight weave.

“My hairdresser in Lagos says; ‘Why do you want to use this rough hair? Try this one, it’s silky and soft'” says Adichie. “And I say to her; “because it’s like what grows on my head. That’s why”.

When I confess that my poker straight locks often bore me to tears, Adichie sits-up straight.

“You should go public,” she urges. “In Nigeria straight weaves are very desirable and very expensive. I remember once, when I was in a salon in Lagos, a woman came in and paid $800 for a straight weave. And I sat there thinking ‘what? Get the rough hair. It’s about $9!”

I’ve pasted this in full, because sets out the arguments so much better than me.  It is a subject especially dear to my heart, especially when there is still that Caribbean divide of ‘good hair’ and ‘bad hair’ – if you’re curly, you better get out that hot comb.  In my time, I have had long hair, short hair, straight hair, curly hair, straightened, relaxed and curly-permed hair.  I have loxed my hair (twice), plaited it in braids and there are school photos that involve an afro.

So, I am always intrigued by the depictions of ‘black’ hair in children’s books.  I want to see women and men that look like my friends and family.  But more importantly, I want to children to see themselves and feel proud.

I bought ‘What About Me?’  for  my daughter when she was five months old.  It was in a bookshop in the Southbank Centre – I saw the cover and grabbed it.  (In those days, I used to grab any book that had a brown-skinned child on it, regardless of the quality!)  But this story was great – I read it so much I knew it by heart.  While  I was studying for MA in Sheffield, I used to read it over the phone so her dad could play it on loudspeaker in the car.  But… she used to bend over and kiss the little girl’s face.  I may be disillusioned, but I’m convinced she used to think it was me.

what about me

 

Then there is the wonderful ‘So Much’. so much I found this after Googling Helen Oxenbury’s name in the early days of Amazon.  (We had a bag full of Helen Oxenbury board books from Booktrust, given to parents when their babies were vaccinated.)  In this book, the illustrator does HAIR.  Daddy and baby – yup, afro.  Mum’s got the braids.  Aunty Bibba, hair up, afro-bun.  And a headband.  (And desert boots!)  Uncle Didi?  Shaved back and sides, with a flat-top mohican combo.  The grannies – handbags and hats.

At a recent event on equality in publishing, there was a rather tense debate about workforce development.  Will a more diverse workforce influence the content of children’s books?  Should it?  In a global society, should we still be asking that question?

I always used to resent the fact that I had to seek out special ‘black hairdressers’  to get my hair done.  In the end, the best hairdresser I ever had was a white guy.  The same way, I feel that children’s illustrators  regardless of their own ethnic background, should feel able and comfortable to draw our hair and features, sympathetically, stylistically and fit for a baby to kiss.