Every School Needs a Library

Yesterday I was lucky enough to be asked to officially open the library (or Learning Resource Centre to give it its proper title) at Lambeth Academy in Clapham – the school where I am writer in residence. Look at it this way, I’d have been upset had they asked someone else. As part of the gathering I was asked to come up with a speech. Many, many authors have spoken out against library closures, but this was the first time I’d given the subject serious thought and I was surprised at how strongly I felt – especially about the need for a library in every school.

In the Internet age, non-fiction books are no longer a classroom essential. I have seen the future, readers, and it is every child with a tablet on their desk. Many classrooms also have a ‘book corner’ where pupils have access to dogeared copies of book 2 and 3 of a trilogy, book 1 having long since failed to emerge from under a pupil’s bed. It’s this kind of logic that has seen many schools dispose of the traditional library and librarian set up.

But this is WRONG. Wrong-diddly-wrong-wrong-wrong. First the basics. Number one: the Internet is a swamp of contradictory shit, advertising, and ‘ask anything’ forums with spectacularly misleading information. Much fiction is dressed up as fact. Teachers (remember I was one for eight years) spend half their time teaching pupils how to find reliable sources online (which, to be fair, is a vital life skill), but providing them with quality non-fiction books would have probably taught them more about the subject they were researching. Number two: librarians are experts. I also know I was a freak in that I was a busy teacher who ALSO had a bang-up-to-date knowledge of YA fiction. This is rare. Librarians ensure that libraries have the latest, most important, most attractive and most relevant new books. They’re ahead of the game. They can also spend time ensuring books aren’t lost or damaged – something teachers do NOT have time for in their ‘book corners’. Librarians are also responsible for budgeting and ordering new books, another job teachers don’t need. Perhaps more importantly, teachers will always push To Kill A Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men (because they HAVE to) and kids tend to stick to what they know (Wimpy Kid on repeat). Librarians are sooooooo vital to newish or debut authors because they are responsible for enticing pupils to new series or new authors. Thanks you guys!

But there’s an even more important reason for schools to have a library, something that really struck a chord for me when I was writing my speech. Libraries are SANCTUARIES. Bear with me. As has been widely recorded elsewhere, I had a shitty time at school. Even in the late *decade redacted*, schools were waking up to how widespread bullying was, but my school did little to protect students at, what I call, ‘vulnerable times’: the shift change between lessons; break time; lunchtime and hometime. As a teacher, I now know that this is because the poor frazzled staff needed to eat their ham sandwich or dash to their next lesson via the photocopier queue. At the time though, I dreaded these transition periods.

That was where my school library came in. We had a lovely librarian called Mrs Lythe and she provided a safe space – an island of calm. For a start, a school library is ALWAYS monitored by the librarian, meaning potential bullying is quashed. Nothing too awful could happen in that building. Unlike the rest of the school, we were encouraged to sit on bean bags and lay around on the carpets. It was a misfits’ paradise. Those who weren’t fast enough, cool enough, tough enough all had somewhere to go. Although we weren’t strictly allowed to, Mrs Lythe turned a blind eye to us eating our sandwiches as long as we didn’t make a mess. We were safe. It was in that library that I made my friends for life – the people who went on to inspire the gang in Hollow Pike. The scene where Lis escapes from the school bully and heads for the safe haven of the library cushions was my tribute to that time.

Touring Hollow Pike around dozens of schools and libraries has shown me that nothing has changed. The outsider kids – the least confident, most vulnerable pupils STILL seek refuge in libraries. They often take on the role of ‘Student Librarian’, giving them a purpose and a reason to be away from the rest of the school. I have met dozens of nurturing librarians who are actively protecting such pupils. A quiet, safe place where nothing bad can happen. You don’t get that in a ‘book corner’.

Lambeth Academy even use their library for student counseling and intervention groups – recognising the dual role of that space. I would urge all schools to ensure that libraries remain. It isn’t about a book budget or the English budget – it’s as much about pupil welfare. No student is going to willingly go to a ‘Nurture Room’, but they need a library…y’know – for books – *wink*.

Music and Gender: Stuart Warwick Interview

In Greek Mythology, the Muses were the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, whose music inspired love and joy in all who heard it. Today we use the phrase to describe any person who can conjure artistic inspiration. In this sense of the word, Brighton-based singer/songwriter Stuart Warwick is my muse. Although it would be lovely, he doesn’t sit on my desk while I write, singing YA fiction at me, but his intelligent and creative approach to songwriting is inspiring. You might remember ‘Misplaced Hearts’ from his first album, ‘The Ordeal’ appearing on the Hollow Pike playlist.

This week, Warwick releases his second album (which tradition tells us we must call his ‘sophomore’ effort), ‘The Butcher’s Voice’. Purely coincidental, but in a week which saw Twitter and high profile journalists at war over feminism and gender, Warwick’s album contains eleven songs which ponder this very subject matter. ‘I’d say it is mostly a concept album’, Warwick tells me, ‘Eight of the eleven tracks on the record deal with the problematic idea of gender identity.’

Tradtional concepts of masculinity in particular seem to fascinate the singer. On the title track, he establishes ‘The Butcher’ as the epitome of stereotypical masculinity, only to point out, ‘he’ll never sing you love songs’. The motif of adhering to, and defying stereotypes recurs throughout the album. ‘I’ve always seen gender identity as something quite strange’ Warwick muses,’ and the older I get the more peculiar it seems. We adhere to these very rigid ideas of what is masculine and what is feminine, not just in terms of behavior but in what clothes we wear and how we speak. It’s conditioned in us from a very young age to recognise these things and identify them as belonging to one sex or another. Of course they are just artificial, abstract notions but yet society on the whole obeys them, and alienates those who don’t. When you think about it though it’s utterly absurd; the idea that what genitalia you have should dictate the type of clothes you must wear, or what hairstyle you’re allowed to have, or weather or not you can wear lipstick.’ Taking this further, I ask Warwick how he defines his own gender. ‘I don’t have to define it, everyone else has done it for me,’ he says.

In a week that saw transgender issues (finally) being discussed (and perhaps if any good can come from the debacle it is that), I ask Warwick what he made of the articles that caused the ‘Twitter Storm’. ‘I haven’t read the article Susanne Moore wrote which sparked the outrage,’ he admits. ‘I did read Julie Burchill’s response which was hideously ill informed and comically stupid, and I’m sure can’t have helped matters at all. I understand there was an issue with Moore using transsexual as a noun, but as I say I haven’t read it yet so I can’t really comment on it.’ In the summer of 2012, Warwick previewed his new album with the controversially titled ‘Man With A Pussy’, although any possible offence taken to this title didn’t concern him. ‘Buck Angel has taken it as his sort of tagline if you like.’ Angel, the muse behind the track, is among the most famous female to male transsexuals in the world. ‘He’s very proud of it. It would only be offensive to someone who was offended by the word pussy, and if you are the sort of person who is offended by that then you’re probably not the sort of person I’d like listening to my music.’

The excellent video to accompany the song featured caberet genius David Hoyle (who, in the 90s, lived on Channel 4 as The Divine David), another muse for Warwick to play with. ‘David Hoyle has had a massive effect in the album. I’ve always deeply admired David, and after I promoted three of his shows in Brighton in the summer of 2011 (where incidentally the video for Man With A Pussy was filmed) I channeled a lot of what he’d been talking about on stage (with regards to gender) into the lyrical content for the album.’ Furthermore, Hoyle can be heard renouncing gender in the opening bars of final track ‘The Fairer Sex’ – ‘there is no such thing as gender, and those of you who think there is are deluded,’ Hoyle tells his audience.

Although hugely well regarded on the London and Brighton ‘gig scene’, high profile support slots for the likes of Marc Almond and sharing musicians with Patrick Wolf, Warwick is self-managed and self-promoting. In his previous guise as Jacob’s Stories, Warwick was managed but prefered the autonomy of riding solo. This said, achingly beautiful new single Sailors, a (mostly) unrequited love song to a drunk seaman was recently picked up for airplay on BBC Six Music, signalling a move into the mainstream at last. ‘I’d like to be acknowledged by the mainstream media. It would be great to receive a larger critical response to my albums. Having said that though I think it’s something quite out of my control. I’m just making the music I want to make, if someone else decides it’s current or that it fits in with a current trend and can be mass marketed, then that’s up to them.’

Describing Warwick’s ‘sound’ is difficult. ‘Haunting’ is a word that has literally haunted the singer, often drawing comparisons to Thom Yorke, Rufus Wainwright, Kate Bush and Portishead. Warwick’s looped samples, dramatic organs and sweeping violins have an identity of their own however. The Butcher’s Voice is more of a ‘production’ than its predecessor, welcoming more of a ‘sadpop’ vibe. Warwick took his time with his second album. Several songs didn’t make the final version of the album, although ‘Butcher’s Cuts’ with new material will be available later in the year. ‘That will contain a variety of songs that didn’t make the album,’ says Warwick. ‘Over the year or so Aidan O’Brien and I worked on the record many songs were scrapped because they just didn’t work alongside the others. So Butcher’s Cuts will be those songs plus a few remixes and live recordings.’

There is a sense of things snowballing for Warwick. He tours the new album this spring, and, in the summer, plans to undertake his first European Tour. Say you were there at the start and buy the album today.

The Butcher’s Voice is available as a download and limited edition pop-up physical format HERE and, of course, on iTunes and Spotify.


The Next Big YA Trend Is…






So it went something like this: Wizards were HUGE, then vampires became BIGGER, they were eclipsed (arf) by angels who were soon slayed by able young women from dystopias and post-apocalyptic futures. As we head into 2013, talk amongst bloggers, readers, authors and publishers turns to the inevitable…WHAT’S NEXT?

Of course, we know what was next. Porn Erotica. We ALL know that young adult readers were reading Fifty Shades, however with the possible exception of The Vincent Boys from Hot Key Books, young adult imprints (often attached to children’s imprints) have stayed away from this trend, doubtless over concerns of impropriety.

It may surprise you to know that one trend is being muttered about more than most. Is it mermaids? Games of Junior Thrones? ‘Sick-Lit‘? Gritty contemp thrillers? Cassie Clare rip-offs ready for the movie release? *Baited breath gasp* *writers’ pens poise over page* The answer is ‘none of the above’. It may come as a surprise to YA readers and writers alike to learn that ‘YA is over’ and ‘Mid-grade is IN’. The ‘word on the street’ is that YA authors are taking aim at a younger market and that publishers are looking for ‘New Narnias’.

Why the move away from the older end of the market, especially when New Adult was supposed to be the new Young Adult? I expect sales are probably the answer. Last week’s rundown of the top 100 books of 2012 threw up some interesting figures. The Hunger Games sold really, REALLY well but they were only YA entries in the top 100. The rest of the children’s/teen list was filled with Wimpy Kids and David Walliams’ books. High-profile YA releases sold well but not enough to make ‘phenomenon’ status. Yet.

Arguably, on the back of Twilight (and it was Twilight, because that paved the way for THG) the YA market has reached saturation point so the new way to stand out for both authors and publishers alike would be to try something fresh and new. Perhaps there is nothing new left for YA authors to try. I suppose all we can do then is leave this dying ‘genre’ and decide as YA authors if we want to write for younger readers or adults.

Hopefully, by now, you’re picking up on a loving, but nonetheless sarcastic tone. Yeah, it’s ‘trend’ time again. Trends are for commentators and, to an extent, journalists. Although in publishing and YA circles ‘supernatural’ or ‘dystopian’ were trends, to the rest of the world, YA as a whole was one such ‘trend’, erotica is a ‘trend’, during Fifty Shades fever, ‘reading’ became a ‘trend’. I’m not sure what facet of human nature makes us want to a) discuss or b) follow trends. Is it a terrible hangover from trying to fit in with the cool kids at school or is it the need of so-called trendsetters to wield their power. Does Anna Wintour derive satisfaction from emerging from her lifepod twice a year to decree ‘FANTASYPLAID’ or ‘URBAN-RUSTIC’?

All art forms are prone to trends and fashions. In art, they are called ‘movements’ and a successful film or TV series is bound to give rise to imitators. Why would fiction be any different? I don’t really think this can be said enough, but trend-predicting as writers is a sure way to go insane. Especially when I was unpublished it was hella tempting to scour the bookshelves for what would catch the eye of an agent or publisher, but now having met agents and publishers the same things catch their eyes in 2013 as in 2008 when I started: gripping plots; original and authentic voices; beautiful prose and intriguing characters. This is the only trend there has ever been.

Yes, marketing and sales people WILL react to what is selling well, but remember they’re six months to a year ahead of writers. Many of the post-Grey erotica novels were hastily repackaged works by existing authors. Release schedules are filled approximately eighteen months in advance, so trend chasing is tail chasing for authors. Further more, when have ‘thrillers’ or ‘romance’ ever been OFF trend? From Dragon Tattoo to Before I Go To Sleep from Bridget Jones to One Day. These ‘trends’ are timeless.

The best advice I’ve ever been given was from Patrick Ness, an author who has never needed trends. He told me: ‘write the book you want to write’. That is all. If you want to write vampire love triangles, do it and do it WELL. Right now, I’m in the glorious best-bit-of-being-an-author part where I’ve just finished one project and am about to embark on a new novel. I DID think about writing something for younger children, but only in the same way I thought about writing the Ultimate Companion to America’s Next Top Model – fleetingly. It wasn’t the book I wanted to write. As ever, I want to do something with young adults figuring out who they are. With some other stuff happening too.

All the original YA authors: Harper Lee, JD Salinger, Malorie Blackman, Christopher Pike, Judy Blume, Philip Pullman, RL Stine never worried about trends – they just wrote their stuff. And they wrote it WELL. I think I’d like to do that too.

Write the book you want to write. Read the books you want to read. Throw ‘trends’ insouciantly on a bullshit bonfire and walk away in slow-motion.