Showing posts with label Liz Kessler. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Liz Kessler. Show all posts

Monday, 25 February 2019

Hunting for Treasure - by Liz Kessler

I’ve always believed that writing a book is a very special journey of trust and exploration. It’s like a dance, maybe, or a relationship, or a treasure hunt. In fact, it’s all of those things and more. 

I am actually in awe of the way a book tiptoes into existence. How does it do that? I mean, yes, I put in the hours – lots and lots of them – but I am convinced that there is something more to it than that. Something beyond me, and beyond my understanding. I don’t know exactly what it is, but I do know I am grateful for it.

When I was a child, I used to read Whizzer and Chips and The Beano. One of my favourite things in these comics (other than The Numbskulls; I ADORED The Numbskulls) was a feature on the puzzle page. The Hidden Objects puzzle.

They looked a bit like this:

If you imagine that this picture is the world, and the hidden objects are the pieces of your story, this is what writing a book is like.

The pieces of the book could be hidden anywhere – in a castle or a shop or on a path; in an object on the beach; in the bushy grey hair of someone’s beard; in an unusually shaped cloud; in a conversation. They could be anywhere. I firmly believe that my job as a writer isn’t about making up stories – it is about finding the pieces and putting them together until they form the story they were always meant to be.

I have written over twenty books, and out of them all, this journey of bringing together pieces of treasure to form the story has happened particularly intensely on two occasions. Once was with my Young Adult book, Haunt Me, where every scene came to life in my head as I walked along the coast path listening to a playlist I made especially for this book.

The other time was with my latest book, Emily Windsnap and the Pirate Prince.

I can’t help thinking it’s quite appropriate that a book involving pirates and treasure has brought me closer to this treasure hunt than ever before.

Unusually for my books, I knew the title before I knew anything else. A chance remark from my amazing US publicist Tracy Miracle (yes that’s her real name, and yes she does live up to it) meant that the Pirate Prince was mooching around in the back of my mind for a year or so before it was time to write his story.

That chance remark was the first piece of treasure.

When the time came to start writing the book, I had to decide where to go on a research trip. (I love my research trips and always have at least one per book. They have taken me to all sorts of places from the beaches of Bermuda to a Devon village completely destroyed by a storm.) This one was an easy decision: I had to go on a tall ship.

And here’s where piece of treasure two came in. After a day of scouring the internet for suitable trips, I came across a last-minute opportunity to be part of a tall ship crew. It was sailing out of Tenerife for a week around the Canary islands, and was leaving in five days.

Five days later I was on that ship.

As research trips go, this one was about as special as it gets. Sailing on the ocean on the beautiful Morgenster, feeling the breeze in my hair, tasting the salty spray, hearing the tinkling of the masts at night, witnessing a sky packed full of stars as the ship sliced through dark waves: I lost count of how many pieces of story-treasure I found that week.

The phosphorescence as the waves glinted at us like stars at night; the dolphin that swam through these lights; the inspiring personalities of the ship’s crew, many of whose names I used in the book; the locker that I sat on with my notebook out on the deck, which became known as ‘Liz’s office’; the sunrise across the water; the shop where I bought a crystal on a chain without knowing why, other than a kind of inner knowledge that it would appear in the book – and it did. The old pirate stories one of my crewmates told me each day. And above all, the beauty of the tall ship, Morgenster, that I fell a little bit more in love with each day. Treasure upon treasure, the building blocks of my story were found, gathered, stored for later.

But a little while after arriving home, I had a sense that there were more pieces waiting for me somewhere else.

Several years earlier, I had witnessed an amazing sight at Mont St Michel in France. It was a spring tide and we happened to be there at the exact moment the tide charged in so fast it was like a river. I had never seen a tide come in like this and I was hungry to witness it again. I felt sure that it would have something to do with my book.

So, my partner and I headed off on a road trip to France. I timed the trip for a day when the tide would be at its strongest and highest, and I booked us a room on the outskirts of the castle on the island of Mont St Michel. And here’s where the strange thing happened.

The tide didn’t move me, as I had thought it would. It didn’t race up the beach, carrying inspired thoughts about my plot along with it. We watched, and yes, it was a fast moving tide, but I didn’t feel anything, and my book didn’t call out to it.

For a moment, I wondered if we had wasted the trip. And then the next day, we walked around the castle, and explored the narrow, winding, cobbled streets around it – and something began to stir.

Yes, the tide had brought me back here. But it dawned on me that the tide wasn’t the hidden object in the picture after all. Instead, it was the bustling, bartering atmosphere of the small village that would find its place in my book.

And I remembered that in the old picture puzzles, sometimes you found the objects in places you would not expect to find them. Sometimes you had to work a little bit harder to find the hidden treasures.

Once more, I came home with a head full of ideas and a notebook full of scribbles. And I finally had enough pieces of the puzzle to start working on threading it all together.

And here we are, nearly two years on from my wonderful trip on the Morgenster, and the book is out next month. This is why I love being a writer. Not for sales or awards. (Just as well as I’m not really an award-winning type of author!) Not even for the emails and letters from happy readers, although they are right up there with the best things about the job. 

I love being a writer for the journey. For those moments of connection. For the joy of creativity, in and of itself, seeking nothing but wonder. And above all, for the privilege of following a path that I know for sure is paved with a sprinkling of magic.

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Monday, 30 April 2018

When being a writer doesn’t mean writing – Lari Don

I am a writer, therefore I write books. That’s my job. Simple! Or not so simple…

It was a slow-dawning realisation for me, after the publication of my first book, that the job of a writer isn't that simple. That as well as writing books, I have to promote those books: school events, book festival events, bookshop signings, writing workshops, blog tours, maintaining a website, being cheerful about writing on Twitter…

All of that promotional activity, time-consuming though it is, at least has a direct connection to my writing and my books, and sometimes even to booksales. But recently I’ve noticed I seem to be doing more and more things that I never anticipated doing as a writer, and that have very little direct connection with my own writing.

Here are some things I've been asked to do recently: 

judge and write feedback on work by members of writing clubs

mentor a teenage novelist / storyteller

create a storystarter for a digital learning project

tell stories to librarians at breakfast

take part in a photocall to promote a book tour (not my book!)

take issue on late night telly with an academic study on how kids read books

and give a lecture on Why We Love Monsters alongside scientists talking about dinosaurs.

I’ve also realised that I’m rubbish at saying no! Mostly because these all of these projects seem interesting, challenging and potentially inspiring.

I should stress that I do sometimes say no, and that when I say yes, I'm usually paid the going rate for doing these projects. I should also stress that a couple of the projects above have been genuinely wonderful and creative experiences.

But it does throw up a few questions:

How do writers balance all these demands on their time, and still find time to write?

How do we choose which things to say yes to and which to say no to? (I find the Kessler equation handy, though I suspect I don’t use it rigorously enough.)

Why do people think writers can do all these varied things? What is it about writing books that makes people think we can do so many other things too? (Or that we would want to…?)

And what odd things have other writers been asked to do?

Almost all the things I’m asked to do have at least a tangential link to writing, though not always to my own writing or my own books. and I’m usually delighted to be asked. But this is not what I thought I’d be doing when I started on the path of being a writer. I thought I’d be sitting at home with endless clear hours ahead of me to play with stories and to imagine worlds, rather than snatching time to scribble down dialogue while travelling between school events and judging panels…

However, I believe stories can do anything, and the more unusual projects I say yes to, the more I test that belief. And the more readers, writers and booklovers I meet, while doing all these slightly odd and unexpected things, the more my own love of stories is expanded and enhanced.

But right now, I’d better get on with writing the next book! Because despite all the other distractions and demands, that is still the heart of my job…

Lari Don is the award-winning author of more than 20 books for all ages, including fantasy novels for 8 – 12s, picture books, retellings of traditional tales, a teen thriller and novellas for reluctant readers.

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Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Hanging up my boots. Getting back to my roots - Liz Kessler

If you picture a writer from centuries ago, what do you see?

I bet a fair proportion of you see a similar image to mine: a solitary author, hunched over a desk, working by candlelight with a quill pen and inky fingers.

Perhaps this is a slightly over-romanticised view. But what we do know for certain is that up until the last decade or two, the process of writing books was probably mostly confined to the job of, well, writing books.

Nowadays, any published author will tell you it is about so much more than that. Yes of course, at its heart, the one bit of the job that is essential is still the writing of the book. But we live in times that demand a lot more of authors if we want to be successful. It’s a crowded marketplace out there, and there is more and more pressure to find creative and effective ways to help our books to be seen and noticed.

We do this in all sorts of ways.
  • Writing blogs;
  • Setting up Facebook author pages;
  • Creating a website and keeping it up to date;
  • Doing school visits;
  • Posting on Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram etc etc etc.

I do all of these things, and for the most part, I REALLY enjoy all of them. But sometimes, I get to the end of my working day and I realise that I’ve spent the majority of it doing the work that supports my books, and only a tiny proportion of it on the actual writing. And much as I enjoy the rest of it, the writing is still my favourite bit.

This year, my publisher has asked me to start writing two books a year instead of one. The request is a compliment, and I’m keen to give it a go. But I’ve made a deal with myself: in order to do it, I have to stop doing a lot of the other stuff that fills my days.

And so, after five and a bit years, I’ve decided it is time to hang up my ABBA boots and give someone else a chance to join this fantastic blog whilst I get back to my quill pen and candlelight and attempt to put as much creative energy as I can into the writing.

At around the same time that I made this decision, I received an email that was one of the most heart-warming emails I’ve ever received. It was one of those that takes my breath away at the thought of having such a special role in a young person’s life, and it reminded me that the beating heart at the centre of my job is not the sales or the twitter followers or the marketing plans or the blogs. It is the readers.

And so, I would like to end my ABBA journey by getting right back to basics, and share the email that reminded what an absolute privilege my job is.

With thanks to Isabelle for writing it (and giving me permission to share it), this is why I’m a writer. And with huge thanks to everyone involved in running this wonderful ABBA blog and letting me be part of it (especially Sue and Penny) this is me signing off.

Dear Miss Kessler and Miss Windsnap,

“I’m ugly and this scar is the grossest thing ever!” I told that to myself whenever older students such as 8th graders would look at me and grimace or snicker when I passed them with my big, bulky, powder pink cast or my raindrop-print, Oh-my-God-I’m-freaking-deformed brace. I was like Quasimodo from Notre Dame – too different to be happy – that is, until I read The Tail of Emily Windsnap. Your book changed my whole view of my body for the better.

I remember when my own friends would occasionally tease me about my scar and call me “Bad Back Girl,” “Cripple,” or even “Scar,” like from The Lion King, and it hurt to hear them say that. I knew they were joking, but they knew how I felt about my surgeries and my messed up spine. I always laughed along, but I had wanted to curl up in the fetal position and feel sorry for myself. Reading about Emily and her being insecure about her own body made me realize that I’m not alone. It made me feel like there was someone that, even though she wasn’t truly real, I could talk to about being
worried or feeling ugly. I would sometimes write small notes to Emily and then imagine my own version of her response. It may sound weird, but it was a lot like having an imaginary friend; it made me feel better.

When I got your book as a gift from my mom, I immediately fell in love, because at the time, I was obsessed with mermaids and had always thought they were beautiful girls with sparkling tails who had no imperfections whatsoever. You and Emily proved that thought wrong. Reading Emily’s story showed me that anyone could turn into something even a tiny bit beautiful, even a lanky girl with chicken legs such as herself. Not long after reading your book for probably the third time did I realize what kind of an impact it had on me and on my feelings. When Emily said, “I’m not a freak,” it reminded me of my own feelings of being called a freak and helped me to truly connect to her as a person and not as an imaginary character.

Reading your books gave me a reason to care about my body and not to hide. Instead of wearing bathing suits that would cover my back, I would wear ones that would tie in the back and show off my battle scar. I wouldn’t back down when people would ask about it, and I’d respond in a cool manner. Your books have also given me the want to read more about Emily, and to read more books that involve kids being different, because they give me more of a feeling of fitting in, and they help me to remember that no one’s perfect and we all have imperfections. I truly want to thank you for your books and for giving me a new hope of fitting in. Never stop writing!!

Eternally Grateful,


Monday, 24 October 2016

Books, beer, belly laughs and bunk beds. Doing a book festival Cornish style - Liz Kessler

I’ve been to lots of book festivals in my years as an author. Generally speaking, they are absolutely wonderful affairs. But then, as an author, how could a gathering of writers and readers, brought together in a lovely place and surrounded by a passion for books not be a wonderful affair?

However, even in that context, the North Cornwall Book Festival was one of the loveliest events I have attended in years.

This festival began five years ago and is headed up by the rather wonderful Patrick Gale. I’ve never met Patrick before, but had heard of him, both – of course – as an author, and also by virtue of the fact that he is a fellow Cornwall-dweller.

Our first real-life meeting took place on Thursday evening. I was due to meet him and other authors and festival volunteers in a pub. Having managed to accidentally kill my car on the way there, our first meeting took place late in the evening, and halfway through the meal.

I had filled my car with petrol on the way to the festival. Sadly, two minutes after filling it, as I ground to a halt in the middle of a busy road, I remembered it’s a diesel car. After being rescued by guardian angel/AA man Martin, I finally arrived in the pub, two hours late, bedraggled and slightly stressed. Within seconds, I was given a chair, a beer and a menu, and made to feel like one of the family. The whole weekend continued in this way.

Accommodation was…interesting. I wasn’t sure if I felt like I was in a little cabin on the Paddington – Penzance night train, a prison cell or a boarding school dormitory, but it made for the cosiest experience of a book festival I’ve ever had. (Even with the intermittent snoring from a nearby bunk, no names mentioned.) And I have to say, there is no better way to bond with your fellow authors than having breakfast together in your PJs.

My events were on the ‘schools day’. This is where Cornwall schools are invited to bring groups of students in to listen to talks, attend workshops and meet some of their favourite authors. I met some fantastic young people who made me laugh, asked lots of great questions and bought loads of books!

The day ended with a brilliant marquee-filling talk from the wonderful Francesca Simon, and was rounded off with one of the most atmospheric musical performances I’ve ever been to. If you have ever walked through a sky so dark and clear that you can see the milky way spread out across thousands of stars, and crept across a spookily-lit graveyard to watch a Senegalese band performing inside a beautiful church – you’ll know what I mean!

If you like the idea of this, do check out Amadou Diagne and his Group Yakar.

Another high point of my weekend was meeting a novelist and poet who I have admired for many years but have never had the chance to sit down and have a good chinwag with. Scottish Poet Laureate Jackie Kay is as wonderful in real life as she is in the lines of her poetry. Although, word of advice, if she challenges you to a bet - beware. Her bargaining power is irresistible, and you'll probably lose.

All in all, this festival was utterly magical. From the technicians who supported my event perfectly, to the volunteers who took me on an evening excursion to the co-op as we’d run out of beer and an early morning run to the station when I had to leave; from the chef who made amazing meals for us, to the photographer who not only took wonderful photos but promised to spend a day teaching me some camera techniques when I’m next in London (and who took all the pics on this blog) from the beautiful surroundings to the belly laughs that accompanied every bit of it – this festival is a triumph.

Thank you so much Lisa, Patrick and all the team for letting me be part of it. I hope you’ll have me back next year. 

I’ll stock up on ear plugs, beer and diesel, just in case.

Find out more about the North Cornwall Book Festival

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Sending your baby to the house of tomorrow - Liz Kessler

I’ve ummed and ahhhed more than usual over what to write about this month. I’ve thought of and then rejected at least half a dozen ideas.

I was on the verge of asking if anyone wanted to do a guest post on my date – and then the advance copy of my new book turned up, and I realised that the joy of holding your new book in your hands for the first time never goes away.

You made this thing. It has so much of you poured into it. And yet, now that it exists in its own right, now that it is out there in the world – your role is done and you have to stand back and let it find its own way.

The letting go can be hard.

See, the thing is – I absolutely love this book. I love the characters, falling in love despite the biggest divide there is.

I loved writing it – each new scene unfolding virtually in front of my eyes as I walked along the wild coast path watching waves crashing on rocks, and listening to a playlist that brought me to tears more often than not.

I loved the process – the collaborating with the amazing poet, Ella Frears, who was so in tune with me that the poems she wrote felt as if they came from the pens of my actual characters. The songs she shared with me felt as if they came directly from the story I was weaving.

I loved all of it. And now that the book is going out there, it is taking a bit of my heart with it.

I am not a parent, so I don’t know if this analogy is as true as it feels, but producing a book does seem, to me, to be a bit like having a child. To be fair, probably not as painful as actual childbirth (although excruciatingly painful at times, in its own way!) Perhaps the process is more like the struggles, joys and extremes of bringing up a child from baby to adulthood.

I spent about eighteen months living with characters who had all sorts thrown at them. Bullying, panic attacks, life-threatening illnesses, drug overdoses, grief. Characters who somehow managed to choose love over all of these, again and again.

So yeah. It was an intense journey. And now, the book is out of my hands and – hopefully – into other people’s. It is finished, and I have to let go.

Luckily for me, I have an amazing editor, Helen Thomas, who helped break the intensity of the moment by sending me a text of the plotline - told in emojis! I love this as much as all the other things.

I have friends who are saying goodbye to their children as they go to university this month. I have witnessed their mixture of pride, fear, grief, loss, excitement and hope.

This is how it is with a book. I want the best for it. I want it to be liked – loved – thought well of.

If I had a child going to university right now, I don’t think I’d be rooting for them to come home with a first class degree and the highest praise for every piece of work they produced. Yes, of course, those things would be nice. But more than that, I believe the things that would make my heart swell would be to hear that they had made friends, they’d fallen in love, they were happy.

And so with the book – I don’t care about awards and shortlistings. Yes, they are nice (I haven’t had many in over a decade as a published author!) But I’d much rather my book found its way into the hands of young people who loved it, whose lives were enriched for having found it, who felt warm for reading it and wanted to share it with their friends.

I will do all I can to try to make this happen. In a few days, I’m off on a book tour where I will be meeting lots of young people all around the UK and sharing my book with them. Next week, I’m holding a book launch where I will celebrate its release. I'll accept every invitation I get to go and talk about it with young people.

I’ll give my baby the best upbringing I can, and send it off with a case full of clothes and books and a heart full of hope. Will people like it? I don't know. Will they criticise it, give it a rough time? They might. Once I've let it go, I have no control over what happens out there. And that’s how it should be. That’s part of the process. The letting go.

As Kahlil Gibran says, in The Prophet:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

I hope that Haunt Me has a great time, out there in the house of tomorrow.

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Wednesday, 24 August 2016

It's that time of the book again - Liz Kessler

Dear Fretting Liz

Oh look, here you are again. Finding it all a bit hard and wondering if you’ve lost your writing ability and it’s all over. Let me guess…half way through writing a new book? Yup, thought so.

OK, the great thing is that because I am in fact you, I know how you tick. I understand totally how you’re feeling, and I know the kinds of tricks that usually help you recover your mojo. So how about you stand back from being you for a minute, imagine you are a writing buddy in trouble, and see if you can give them the kind of advice that you would like to hear yourself?

Ah, forget that. I’ll do it for you. Here goes. Ten of my (and your) best getting-back-in-the-zone tips and tricks…

1. Re-read that blog you wrote years ago about the Seasons of Writing, and remember, sometimes you think that the spring has started and a few wintry days come along and take you by surprise. That’s nothing to worry about. It’s nature, and it will pass.

2. Take a few days off. Don’t argue. You can afford to. In fact, you can’t afford not to. Go on an Artist Date. Your well is depleted and needs restocking. Get out there and fill it up with some lovely creative energy.

3. Rewrite your writing schedule so that you can see in black and white (or red and blue and green) that you can afford the time to play out for a bit and still meet your deadline.

4. Get out in the fresh air. Go for lovely windy coastal walks. Surf, sail, kayak. Blow those cobwebs away.

5. Ask your wife to read what you’ve written, then go out in your van together and spend the afternoon talking about how you can fix it.

6. Make collages, draw pictures of the plot, flick through magazines for pictures of your characters, do some writing exercises. Y’know, the stuff you advise others to do when they tell you they're stuck.

7. Try to avoid calling your agent and telling her that you can’t do this writing lark any more. She will remind you that you’ve been here before and will suggest you see how the next week goes and that if you still feel this way in a week’s time, you can talk more. So cut out the middle man and save her a conversation. See how the next week goes, and if you still feel this way in a week’s time, you can talk to her then.

8. Tidy your office. You know you can’t expect your mind to feel clear and clean when your office looks like a particularly messy burglar has ransacked the place.

9. Meditate. Don’t say you haven’t got time. Just do it.

10. Write a blog about how you’re feeling, so that others can a) hopefully make use of some of your tips and b) possibly contribute some of their own.

OK, I think that should do it. Now, go have some fun. And when you’re done, get back to work. Trust me, your characters will be just as happy as you to have had some time off. When they see how chilled and happy and raring to go the new you is, they will welcome you back with enthusiasm and open up to you a lot more than they have been doing.

Good luck!

Wise Liz
(The part of you that knows you know all this anyway, but also knows you need reminding from time to time.)

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Sunday, 24 July 2016

Once I was Eleven Years Old, by Liz Kessler

I wrote this poem a couple of months ago, after listening to ‘7 Years’ by Lukas Graham. I wrote it shortly before the Orlando shootings in which 49 people were killed, shot dead for one reason only: they were in a gay club.

This blog is dedicated to the 49 people who lost their lives that night, and is posted in honour of the new Amnesty International book for young people, Here I Stand, a collection of stories by YA authors which I am immensely proud to be part of.

Once I was eleven years old,
I had a best friend.
We used to try kissing.
Told ourselves we were practising.
Once I was eleven years old.

I moved up to the big school, grew up kind of fast.
Left the girl behind as we took our separate paths.
Had a string of boyfriends, and never questioned why
None of them ever felt a hundred per cent right.

Once I was sixteen years old, and I had some new friends.
Two of them sat me down one day
Told me they were gay.
I knew right then they had a love I wanted too.
But I had to wait. They told me, ‘It’ll come to you.’

Once I was eighteen years old.
I’d started at college, moved away from home.
I met a girl one night and I knew what I’d been missing.
I’d never known a feeling like when we started kissing.
It only took one night
To know this was a hundred per cent right.

I always thought when I found love, things would work out fine,
Thought it would keep me safe from danger, keep me warm at night.
Didn’t expect the words that hit me like a brick.
‘Dyke, queer, disgusting, you make me feel sick.’

Once I was twenty years old.
And a law was brought in by bigots and fools
Said my sexuality had to be kept out of schools.
Told us we were dangerous, told us we weren’t wanted.
So we fought back…we marched, we sang, we chanted.

Once I was twenty years old.
I poured my heart into the world.
Demanded that it listen. Demanded we be heard.
Went out there and fell in love a hundred times or more.
Nothing would stop me, no bigot, no law.

Once I was thirty years old
I knew who I was by then.
I had a life, a job, good friends.
I looked back on the times I’d grown up in, the things we’d lived through,
And gave thanks that the world was growing up too.

Once I was forty years old
I met the love of my life.
Society had changed so much
That this girl is now my wife.

I only see the future now, and this is what I say:
Those dykes and faggots of the past have led us to this day.
The ones who fought, who bravely stood and let themselves be counted
Their gifts have brought us where we are. Their lives should be saluted.

Once I was forty years old.
I looked at what I’d done.
Published books for the young.
But there was still one left to write, still one thing I had to say,
And the need to tell this story had never gone away.

I went back to the book that I had written years before.
Gave it everything I had, and then a little more.
I owed it to that girl in there to stand up, face the crowd.
To tell them, ‘This is who I am’.
I hope that girl is proud.

Soon I’ll be fifty years old.
The world is still evolving, still turning.
We’re still growing, still learning.
My country is a place where two people can hold hands, embrace
Without fearing abuse and disgrace.

But we’re not there yet.
Not even nearly, so it seems.
You only have to watch the news on your television screens.
Every day another story
Tells us progress can be slow.
It’s one world and we still have a long way to go.

Maybe soon. Maybe one day.
Maybe when we’re eighty.
But at least now I can hold my head up and say to the girl of twenty,
‘Look, I did it, I stood up, told the world who I am. Come stand with me.’

Once I was eleven years old,
I had a best friend.
We used to try kissing.
Told ourselves we were practising.

Once I was eleven years old.

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Friday, 24 June 2016

Pick Yourself Up, Dust Yourself Down (Reality Bites: Part Two) – Liz Kessler

After a night of disbelief and a morning of despair, I am picking myself up and blinking against the sunlight that is poking out from dark clouds after hours of rain.

And, cheeky as it might be, I am taking advantage of this still being my ‘day’ on the ABBA blog to post a Part Two.

There are things I need to say, and I want to say them very clearly.

When more or less half of our country votes one way and half votes the opposite way, neither side can categorise the other with generalised labels or blanket descriptions.

No one will benefit from accusing 17 million or so people of being either ignorant and easily duped or being racist xenophobes. That simply isn’t true and isn’t helpful as a means of going forward. Equally, to gloat in the faces of 16 million or so people who are suffering and despairing is not going to take our country anywhere good.

I personally believe that Nigel Farage is an extremely dangerous man who has somehow been elevated to a position of power and influence by national media outlets that have granted him a generous and comfortable platform which he did nothing to earn. But this does not mean that everyone on the ‘Leave’ side of the vote agrees with or supports him.

His image, as an affable chap who’s in it together with the good, honest, working folk, has been cleverly orchestrated, and he has used scapegoat politics to give people a focus for their dissatisfaction with the status quo. ‘Don’t like what those out of touch politicians are telling you to do? Stand up for yourself – and while you’re at it, here’s some immigrants to blame.’

Yes it sounds simplistic – but it works. It’s worked before and it’s worked here. But we have to recognise that NOT EVERYONE who voted ‘Leave’ agrees with his stance or supports those politics. 

So here’s a challenge.

To those who voted ‘Remain’, let’s shrug off our sadness and shock, and ditch our despair and depression. The vote has happened, and this is where we are. So let’s look around and see how to deal with it. Find allies, keep conversations going, shake hands with people whose arguments we have been opposing for these last few months and let's prepare to work with as many people as we can in order to be part of rebuilding our country - and thus still have some influence in how that rebuilding takes place.

There is nothing we can do to change what has happened, so let’s turn our thoughts to positive action.

And to those of you who voted ‘Leave’ for your own, deeply held reasons and beliefs, and have been angry at being castigated as racist and xenophobic – now is your chance to get out from under that label. Join with those of us on the other side in letting Farage and the rest of them know that you don’t support him. Work with your communities, support the immigrants you say you are not opposed to, and please, please, whatever you do, try not to gloat over your victory.

And yes, even those who are UKIP supporters - I am utterly, utterly opposed to your politics - but the country has taken a vote and it has led us here, and I would rather have conversations in a reasonable and measured way than sling mud at each other across a wall that is so high neither side can see over the top of it.

We are here now. We have to work with what we’ve got, so let’s do it with dignity, compassion, optimism and kindness. 

And maybe when our children grow up and take our world into their hands, there is still a chance that they will look back on these days and be proud – of all of us.

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Reality bites, and it hurts - Liz Kessler

I wrote a post a week ago, which I scheduled for today.

It was about how, whatever happened in yesterday’s vote, I was putting my faith in the future, in children. It was a call to all of us to stand up for goodness and humanity. It was about my belief in the phrase that has been growing in popularity over the last few weeks: ‘Love Wins.’

The only trouble is, love didn’t win. What won was bigotry, intolerance, hatred, racism, ignorance, fear and xenophobia.

And having stayed up half the night watching it all unfold, and having then slept for a few hours and woken up to the results, I am finding it hard to stand by the optimism of that blog, and so this is a very hastily-written post that reflects how I do feel this morning.

I feel upset, horrified, aghast, ashamed, blank, empty, anxious, terrified.

I imagine most – if not all – of what we read, watch on television and talk about today will be about yesterday’s result. It is hard to think about anything else today. And most – if not all – of what we do is going to be about making predictions about the future. It’s going to be a very tough time. Friendships are going to be tested to their limit. Families are waking up to new divisions. Towns torn in half, and a country not only split almost 50:50 down the middle by a vote that in my opinion should never have been put into our hands, but thrown into a level of uncertainty that people of my generation and younger have never seen.

It’s tempting – SO tempting – to express anger towards those who voted ‘Leave’ this morning. Some of us are finding it impossible to resist. I am trying my hardest not to go there. The one bit of the post I’ve deleted that I do stand by is that we must try our hardest to cling to mutual respect, dignity and compassion.

It’s very hard though, because those are the values that ‘Great’ Britain voted against yesterday.

The ‘Leave’ campaign was based on two main strands. One was to do with money. The main point of this strand was a bizarre claim that the UK would somehow magically produce huge amounts of money to put into the NHS if we left Europe.  It’s not even 9am on the morning after as I write this, and ‘Leave’ leaders are already telling us this was a mistake and should not have been said.

Really? You don’t say.

The other main strand to the campaign was around immigration. It would be wrong, dangerous and untrue to say that all those who voted to leave are racist and xenophobic. What is true, though, is that the campaign to leave was focussed hugely on racist and xenophobic principles.

The thing that scares me the most is not the thought of what happens to our trade relations with Europe, scary as that is. It’s not even about financial concerns, scary as they are: the pound has already dropped to its lowest level since 1985.

The thing that scares me so much that this morning that I can barely stop crying is the message that this result has given to Nigel Farage and his ilk.

We have told Farage that he can stand in front of a poster that echoes Nazi propaganda, and get away with it. We have told him that he can stand in front of a camera and say, ‘We will get our borders back. We will get our country back,’ and our national television broadcasters will play his words over and over again without argument. We have legitimised words, actions and ideas that a decade ago would not have been acceptable to say in public.

I am terrified that the historians of the future will look back on these days, and they will be able to plot very clearly, very easily – shamefully plainly – how the UK moved, step by step, into a period of darkness and horror and extreme right wing rule that most of us have not seen.

My dad saw it. He escaped from it in 1938 as an eight-year-old boy. He came to the UK and was given safety; he was given his life. And now his generation were amongst the ones who voted most heavily in favour of leaving. But they weren’t the only ones. Over half the country agreed with them.

So now what do the rest of us do?

Do we just stand by as our country descends into a place divided by bigotry and ignorance? Do we paper over the cracks and do our best to heal the wounds of the last few weeks? Do we suffer on in silence, our heads in our hands, failing to see a way out?

I don’t think we can do that. I don’t think I can.

At this moment, I – like many of us – feel so stunned and shocked that I have no idea what we do, how we bear this, how we move on, how we tackle the coming weeks, months, years. I just know that we have to find a way. We have to stand up, be brave, be proud, be vocal, and ensure that when those historians of the future look back on these days, my fears are proved wrong. We have the responsibility now to ensure that they look at these days, at yesterday’s results, and they note that it was the point where the UK went up to the edge of a cliff – but where the voices of decency, humanity and compassion would not let us take a step over that chasm into the darkness that lay beyond it.

And I’ll tell you where I am managing to find a shred of optimism.

In the statistics that show that it was the younger voters who mostly stood up against the politics of scapegoating, fear-mongering and xenophobia. The ones who mostly voted to remain.

My shred of optimism comes from the fact that these voters are the UK’s future.

Today’s young people are tomorrow’s authors, doctors, teachers, politicians, scientists. They are tomorrow’s world leaders.

And whilst I ponder on that for a moment, ponder on this too: what a privilege to be a writer for children and for young adults.

So yes. Maybe that’s what I can do for now, whilst I work out where else to find a shred of hope. I can keep on writing my books about mermaids who, yes, go on some crazy-ass adventures but who also fight for opposing communities to unite and make peace.

I can continue to write about fairy godsisters who help others to have the confidence to stand up for themselves and not be afraid of who they are. I’ll carry on writing about girls coming out, about teenagers overcoming bullying, pirate dogs making friends with kittens, ponies looking after the chickens. I’ll keep writing my stories, and the underlying messages – of love, tolerance, compassion and unity – will find their way of sneaking into each one.

I will put my faith in young people and continue the privilege of working with and for those who have the future in their hands.

And I’ll hope that these young people will one day realise that this broken world that we are giving them to inherit is a world that they have the power to change, to bring back from the brink, to heal. And that they can do this safe in the knowledge that, whatever happened yesterday, there are plenty of us who will support, help and nurture them every step of the way.

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Tuesday, 24 May 2016

How to score top marks at school - Liz Kessler

A local school gave me a serious problem this week.

First of all they invited me to come to their school. They then proceeded to be one of the most wonderfully helpful, friendly and accommodating schools I have ever had dealings with.

Doesn’t sound too much like a problem? Well, no. Unless you are the next school who invites me to visit. This school has set the bar so high that they will be a VERY hard act to follow.

Now, I’m a great believer that every problem has a potential gift in it, if we are open to seeing it. And here’s the gift. As well as the lovely day, the school has given me the chance to write this blog, which means that from now on, if anyone invites me to visit their school, I can simply point them here and say, ‘Can you do it like this?’ and if the answer is ‘Absolutely,’ then we’re on. So, thank you Truro School for making those conversations much easier.

So here are my top ten tips for a great school visit...

1. The first email from the school’s librarian was friendly, clear in what they were asking of me and polite. Oh, and it included this line:

‘Your books are extremely popular, particularly with their local connections, and we very much hope that you will consider visiting us!’

Lesson one: flattery will not hurt your case.

2. When I stated my fees, the librarian was absolutely fine with this. No quibble; no, ‘We can’t afford to pay you, but it will be great exposure for you’. Just a, ‘Great. Please can we have a full day’s visit?’ Heaven.

Lesson two: please remember that in order for an author to visit your school, they will be giving up at least a day that they would otherwise have spent working at home and earning money, so please do not ask us to visit you for free. Before you do, ask yourself if anyone else – the teachers, the librarians, the head of English, the cleaner who will prepare the rooms for the visit, the admin staff who will send letters home – will be in school that day without being paid.

NB: If you still have any questions about the whole ‘being paid’ thing, take a look at this wonderful blog by Nicola Morgan. Hopefully this will ease any remaining doubts.

3. Approximately four emails into the exchange, the librarian brought up the issue of selling books. We discussed which ones would work best for the age groups I would be talking to, she agreed to send a letter home to parents letting them know books would be available and organised the ordering and selling of all the books.

Lesson three: Our livelihood depends on selling books. Most of us love visiting schools and talking to children – but we do need to sell books or our publishers stop publishing us, and if this happens, we stop being authors and you don’t get to invite us to your lovely school. So, yeah – well organised book sales will make us happy every time.

4. The exchange of emails was extremely friendly and lovely and easy from start to finish.

Lesson four: authors spend all day in front of their computers. We LOVE receiving friendly, lovely emails from people.

5. The librarian asked me how long I would like my sessions to last, how many children I’d like in each group, which ages I'd like to talk to, and we discussed between us whether workshops or talks would work best.

Lesson five: find out your visiting author’s strengths. Ask what works well for them. Negotiate. Do NOT ask them to do eight sessions in one day. Ever.

6. A couple of weeks before the visit, I was sent a proposed timetable for the day. It was just as we had discussed, showed the number of students in each group and included important things like ‘tea break’ and ‘lunch.’

Lesson six: Going to a school you’ve never been to can make even the most experienced amongst us nervous. The day will be full of people, places, routines and rules that YOU are probably very familiar with but we are encountering for the first time. A very clear schedule for the day that tells us where to be, when, who with and what will happen in between takes a lot of question marks out of the day for us.

7. Let’s just go back to the bit about lunch. Two librarians took me to the canteen with them. I was shown where everything was, and we sat together and enjoyed a lovely lunch. The only hardship was the bit where (because I’m on a diet) I made myself walk past the delicious-smelling fish and chips and choose a jacket potato and salad instead. Which was actually very lovely, as was the company.

Lesson seven: It doesn’t have to be grand or gourmet, but please do feed us. And even better, eat with us and chat to us and don’t make us have to sit on our own in a scary staffroom wondering where to go to get some food.

8. A week or so before the visit, the librarian emailed to ask me how I’d like to be paid. I was given an email address for the finance department to send my invoice to and was assured that payment would be made direct into my bank.

Lesson eight: Pay us. Please. On time, nicely, easily. No one likes to chase money, and most of us don’t like to spend all that long talking about it. 

9. The day itself! This was absolutely wonderful from start to finish. I was met in the foyer by the librarian who by now felt almost like an old friend. I was taken to the library where my books were on display, with showcards and posters everywhere. 

I was offered tea regularly throughout the day. I was greeted by the school’s headteacher who came in to see me and thank me for coming. I had plenty of teachers on hand for the crowd control during the talks. I had friendly, enthusiastic kids, teachers, librarians who listened, asked questions, joined in and generally made the whole day feel wonderfully smooth. I have to mention the lunch time session with a small group of very keen readers. This session was so warm and lovely and gave me an opportunity to share my writing process and some of the more personal aspects of the job with young people who I think really appreciated the opportunity to have this smaller session with me.

Lesson nine: I think by now, if you do all the things above, the day with you will probably go a bit like this too. I know that schools are all different and it won’t always be smooth and easy all the way – and nor should it be. But as librarians and teachers, what you can do is put in the legwork to make the day as organised as it can possibly be. The rest is up to us. If you’ve done your side of the deal, it makes it easier for us to do ours – which hopefully means that everyone involved will get the most out of the day.

Oh, and if you want bonus points, saving a space in the car park for your visiting author would be an extremely lovely touch.

10. After the event, the school wrote a little article about it which they sent to me. They emailed to say what a lovely day it was and shared photos on twitter and Facebook. This rounded the whole thing off perfectly.

Lesson ten: remember, in a few years, you’ll have a whole new set of students. If we had a wonderful time, we will almost definitely want to come back next time!

Thank you Truro School for setting the bar so high and for making my job a pleasure!

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Sunday, 24 April 2016

On Becoming That Person - Liz Kessler

Here’s a story. It’s set in early 1985. A girl is in her first year at university. Lots of things are changing around her. Politically, times are volatile. Margaret Thatcher is barely halfway through her time as Prime Minister. The miners’ strike is going strong. Clause 28 and the Poll Tax are only a few years away.

Inwardly, things are just as volatile for our protagonist. She’s been feeling confused about herself recently. Feeling things that she can’t quite put into words – or maybe she can, but she’s scared to.

She’s tried dropping hints to a couple of her friends about what she’s going through – but where to start? And does she dare? Sharing her theories about herself feels like a big risk to take on such new friendships.

And then she meets someone new, and the theory becomes reality. She meets a girl, and falls in love. Nothing has ever felt so right – but nothing has ever felt so scary either. The girls sneak around as secretly as they can, hiding their kisses, whispering their feelings, hoping that no one will guess. Of course, people do. Some are understanding. Others – like the girlfriend’s housemate who pours a pint over the girl’s head in the student bar and calls her disgusting – not so much.

The girl feels alone. Who can she turn to? She’s not ready to publicly walk through a door with a big ‘GAYSOC’ label on it yet. So she turns to books. It’s pre-internet, though, remember, so this isn’t an easy task, and involves building up the courage to go to the ‘Lesbian and Gay’ section of the women’s bookshop she’s heard about in London. But she does it. And there, she finds Rubyfruit Jungle, The Well of Loneliness, Patience and Sarah and a few others.

These books might be dated. They might be worlds away from what she’s going through. But at last, she is reading the words of someone who has trodden the path she is trying to navigate. Finally, she is not on her own.

You might have guessed by now, or you might not. (Which, incidentally, is a line from my first book, The Tail of Emily Windsnap, which my brother has always maintained is an allegory for coming out as gay, but which – well, if it is, it was purely accidental on my part.) The girl is me. Was me. The ‘was’ is important because of how different those times were. At least, in many ways they were different, and thank goodness for that.

If you spend a lot of time in certain circles, mixing with crowds who are cool, up-to-date, politically aware, cosmopolitan, you might be forgiven for thinking that we’ve advanced to a point where sexuality is no longer an issue. But that’s not the whole story.

In these advanced times, ‘That’s so gay’ is still commonly used as a derogatory term. In these advanced times, LGBT students and young adults still have one of the highest rates of suicide attempts. In these advanced times, a leading Cardinal in the Vatican feels able to go on record advising parents not to let their children have anything to do with ‘wrong’‘evil’ and ‘intrinsically disordered’ gay people.

So no, we are not there yet. But we're on our way. And I might be biased but I happen to believe that literature - and particularly Young Adult literature - is leading the way. 

Think back to the girl in her hall of residence, hoping no one had seen her come out of her friend’s room late at night, secretly reading books with lesbian characters and hiding them at the back of a drawer, hoping no one shouted insults as she drank in the union bar. Think about what she got from the books she found. The worlds they opened, the strength they gave her. The knowledge passed down from the generation that went before her.

And now think about this. I am that person. I’m not just the girl being called ‘disgusting’ by her girlfriend’s roommate. I am the person ahead of her too, the one further down the path, helping to light the way for the next generation. Because society has changed as much as it has, because my publisher wanted to be part of that change, not just watch it take place outside - my YA novel Read Me Like A Book was published. This month it came out in paperback.

I can hardly even put into words how much it means to that student back in the 1980s. In fact, I can, because I am her. It means the world. And I use that word on purpose. Because I am proud to be part of the world that has made these changes. And I hope to be part of the world that strives to make more, until a girl struggling to come to terms with her sexuality is such a non-issue that the idea of writing a book about it doesn't even make sense.

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