It's World Mental Health Day today - so what better time to address the subject of mental health in children's and YA books? I'm going to focus on bipolar disorder, because it's a particular interest of mine. But much of what I say can be applied to depression and other mental health conditions.
First of all, let me announce that I'm a sufferer myself from chronic/recurrent depression. Although I've never been diagnosed as bipolar, I do have mood swings and have some idea, at least, of what the highs as well as the lows can be like (the highs in my case may possibly be the result of not getting the levels of medication right - who knows?)
I now believe that my depression started when I was in my teens, though I had no idea what to call it at the time. It was all put down to PMT, though I'm not sure that the term had been invented in the late sixties. The fact that I suffered from it at other times of the month - well, that's easily got around - there's always another period on the horizon somewhere!
Or perhaps it began even earlier, when I was five and my dad disappeared off to Singapore with the RAF and I was terrified for months afterwards that my mum would vanish too. I'm sure my parents did their best, but knowing me, a book would probably have helped, and there weren't books for kids about that sort of thing in those days.
Perhaps I became depressed when bullied at my new school at seven, when I was ostracised because of my 'posh accent'. The memory still brings tears to my eyes and the teachers didn't help.
My depressive episodes, never diagnosed or treated, recurred at intervals of a few years until eventually, in my late twenties and living in Edinburgh with two small children, I took myself off to the GP with stomachache and she had the sense to see that there was something more going on. I was prescribed anti-depressants (which I refused to take on that first occasion) and told to get a part-time job. The part-time job helped. But the depression came back after a couple of years. This time it was worse and I took the medication. I also had counselling and the combination of the two brought joy and colour into my life that I'd forgotten could exist. Just waking up in the morning feeling at peace with myself... free from the self-condemnation, guilt, shame, worry, and all those other horrible things depressed people suffer.
Since then, I've had further episodes, often but not always associated with times of difficulty and stress in my life. I still fear my depression and try to make sure I don't get too busy or stressed out - but it hits me from time to time. I'm adept these days at recognising the early warning symptoms. I have medication on hand and don't delay in visiting my GP. In fact my depression these days is like my bad back in some ways - I know that if I'm sensible I have less of a chance of setting it off - but there's always the possibility that something (or nothing) will trigger it. And I have to accept that I'll have down times when I can't do very much.
I'm very lucky in one respect, though. I have never been too depressed to read. I have several favourite books I turn to when I feel bad. William Styron's memoir Darkness Visible
is one of them - where the great American author describes his own experience of depression. I'm not sure why it helps me, but it does. Perhaps it's just the putting into words of some of my own dreadful thoughts. The 'I'm not the only one' feeling. Whatever it is, I am so grateful to William Styron for writing it.
Anyway - children's books. I decided a few days ago to compile a list of characters in fiction who have bipolar disorder. Of course, it's difficult to be sure, if you go back very far, because the condition wasn't sufficiently understood. I asked for suggestions from various friends, contacts and writers' groups, as well as trying to come up with some of my own. I was partly interested in which books came to people's minds - i.e. the ones that had made a lasting impression. Thanks to all who contributed, I now have a list - and for the purposes of this blog I will restrict it to novels for children and YA.
This is my list, in no particular order (further suggestions most welcome).
The Illustrated Mum by Jacqueline Wilson
A Note of Madness by Tabitha Suzuma
A Voice in the Distance by Tabitha Suzuma
My Mum's from Planet Pluto by Gwyneth Rees.
Red Shift by Alan Garner
Boneland by Alan Garner (though I'm told this is not strictly a children's/YA book)
***Mental by Sherry Ashworth
Girl, Aloud by Emily Gale
*** Mental is actually about schizophrenia, I realise now I've read it, but I'm leaving it on the list as it's a very good book.
Remember, these are for children/YA and I've restricted the condition to bipolar (except for Sherry Ashworth's Mental - see above). And I certainly don't claim that the list is complete. Nor have I read them all (yet). I'm currently enjoying Gwyneth Rees's My Mum's from Planet Pluto, which I'd strongly recommend. But I can't help noticing how few titles there are...
It concerns me that there aren't more. I said earlier that it would have helped me, as a child, if I'd been able to read about someone like me. I'm pleased to say that books for children featuring other kinds of conditions and disabilities are growing in number (though we still need more). We need, in my opinion, both issue-tackling books and books that treat the condition as a background thing - not the focus of the book but something one of the characters just happens to have.
It's the same with mental health. We need children's/YA books that delve deep into the condition (in a way appropriate for the target age-group, of course). But we need characters in books who just happen to have bipolar disorder (or depression or schizophrenia, etc) too. We need books that treat these conditions with gentle humour - combined, of course, with respect. I can laugh at my depression, at least some of the time. Often humour is part of the way we come to terms with things. We need books with 'heroic' endings (character overcomes all the challenges) and ones that are more true to life, while always offering hope. And in order to get this variety - we need LOTS MORE BOOKS. Sorry to shout, but we do.
So come on, children's authors... and publishers. By the time World Mental Health Day comes round next year, let's see a lot more books for children, YA (and adults) on the subject of bipolar disorder and, more generally, on mental health.
I believe there's a role for many of us in helping to remove the stigma attached to mental health conditions that, almost unbelievably, is still present in our society today.
We all have minds, after all, just as we all have backs.
Note: My own contribution to the bipolar list has just come out. It's for adults and it's called Alexa's Song.
You can see it on Amazon UK
and download it for Amazon Kindle for ¬£2.54.
I don't want you to think I really swim a mile - or even half a mile - every day, as I did for a time when I was at school (well, every weekday, pretty much). I still enjoy swimming but my Olympic ambitions did not last long. I got as far as swimming for my (smallish) town, was beaten by the girl from Castleford, and that was pretty much it. Even if I'd had the talent, I don't think I'd ever have had the resolve and determination to do all that training day after day.
Like many others, I'm currently enjoying the Olympic Games and especially the swimming - marvelling at the performances, the dedication, the sportsmanship and the articulate interview responses of these inspirational youngsters.
My swimming ambitions fizzled out long ago but I do still have ambition of a kind, at least where my writing is concerned. In these last few weeks - a time of reflection following the sad and sudden death of my father - I've been trying to work out what ambition means, if anything, when you reach the age of 57. What exactly do I hope to achieve by all this writing I do every day? Is it really just a hobby, like going for an early morning swim or dabbling my feet (when I get the chance) in the sea? No, I think I'm fuelled by something more powerful than that - but what am I pointing myself towards?
I thought I was aiming to earn enough from my books (some hope?) to buy myself a little seaside retreat. But, as it turns out, my wonderful father, who never earned a high salary in his life but never spent much either and invested wisely, has left me enough to make this dream come true. So, all being well, I will have my seaside hideaway, which I hope to share with family and friends. But where does that leave my writing ambitions? Intact, I'm sure of that, but the question remains - why I am working so hard?
It's not for fame, I know that much. I'm old enough to know that fame is not what Rosalies like best (not this one, anyway). Not that I've ever experienced it, but you know what I mean. I hate attention, being stared at, having my photo taken, being expected to behave in certain ways and having things to live up to. Nor is it for money, since I'm also old enough to know that fortunes bring troubles of their own.
I suppose it all boils down to wanting to write the best books I can - and wanting people to read them. I think my deepest ambition is to go on being active, both mentally and physically, for as long as I possibly can. And never to stop trying something new, especially where my writing is concerned.
Alongside that is a wish to be part of something wonderful - something that involves inspiring young people both to read and write. When I hear youngsters enthusing over books - and when I see them having a go at writing for themselves - it makes me happier than just about anything else. Yes, of course it's extra special if they like my
books and engage with my
characters, but, leaving ego aside, to be part of the tradition (beautifully enacted in that Olympic opening ceremony) of writing for children and YA - is a wonderful privilege. So I guess my ambition has to be to try to find better ways to connect with my readers through my books, and maybe to get some children reading who might not otherwise have thought of it. And to try to support, as well as be supported by, other writers, teachers, librarians, publishers, etc, who are doing the same. Not very original, perhaps, but enough to keep me going for as many years as I have left!
So I will continue to write my daily mile, and try to keep up the swimming too.
In an infinite universe, anything that can happen does happen - an infinite number of times.
Of course, the idea of an infinite universe is a tricky (possibly an infinitely tricky) one to grasp, and there's no proof as yet that our universe is infinite. Some theories propose that we may be part of a multiverse - a (possibly) infinite number of universes embodying all possible physical laws and values of important constants like the strength of gravity. Many of these universes would contain little of interest (a low gravitational constant, for example, makes it impossible for galaxies and stars to form, so life is most unlikely). Other variants would look more like ours. There might even be one in which I don't like chocolate, though I'm not sure that counts as 'possible'.
And then there's the interpretation of quantum theory which says that when you open the box to reveal Schr√∂dinger's cat, the universe splits into the 'cat-alive' and the 'cat-dead' version. By the time a few splits like this have occurred, you get a fair degree of diversity and some interesting narratives evolving.
Which brings me to the connection (there is one, I promise) with writers and writing.
If the universe really is infinite, then all our books, even our wildest fictional fantasies, are true. There is a universe somewhere, or perhaps a pocket of our own universe, where the characters you and I have invented actually exist - and do exactly the things they do in our books. And, in a 'neighbouring' universe, they make slightly different choices and perhaps write themselves into a better book.
This may all sound incredibly far-fetched. I am not an expert, though I did some physics at university long ago. These days, I'm a keen reader of those books that thrill you with the exciting bits of cosmology, quantum physics and neuroscience. They set my imagination alight... and nothing does that more than the idea that every work of fiction ever written has actually happened, somewhere way out there. I'm not sure why this thrills me, but it does.
As I sit and write, often feeling that I am listening in to my characters' conversations and observing their actions rather than making them up, the idea that I am tuning in to something real is a very powerful and poignant one.
I realise that the question of what 'actually exists' plunges one into some deep waters of philosophy. I'm going to stay in the shallows for the purpose of this post, but if anyone wants to wade out deeper, I'd love to know what you think.
Thanks to Brian Greene and his intriguing book 'The Hidden Reality' (Allen Lane, 2011), which gave me some insight into all this stuff and made me marvel all over again at the wonderful place in which we live. It seems safe to assume that the universe is even more amazing than our current theories tell us, and that, for me, feels exactly right.
[Photo of Earth from space by Terra satellite, image copyright NASA]
Do you want to be understood? As an author, I mean, though possibly as a person, too.
I imagine you probably do - as an author, at least, in the sense of wanting to write clearly and cogently and to bring your fictional world alive to your readers. And I think most of us want to feel understood as individuals, at least by our loved ones, at least some of the time.
But on what level do I want my books to be understood? Given all the above... I would still hate it if someone - child or adult - finished one of my books and thought: 'Oh, I see. I get it now. I've sussed her out. I understand what that story was about, what I was supposed to get from it, what the author was trying to say...'
Urrrggghhh. That is not what I want at all.
All this was prompted by an email exchange I had yesterday with a longstanding writer friend - someone who, if anyone does, appreciates my work and has given me lots of good advice and help. She admitted that she had never 'really understood' my first novel, Charity's Child. Good, I said - you weren't meant to. Enjoy it, yes. I hope you found my story interesting and that it perhaps raised a few questions in your mind. But 'understand' it - please God, no!
I don't understand it myself. And I don't think that novels are written to be understood any more than people are born to be understood. Glimpses of comprehension, yes. Sudden insights, and those wonderful moments when a reader points out something about one of your characters that you hadn't seen yourself, or finds a 'theme' in your book that you certainly never intended putting there. That's OK. What's not OK is someone feeling that they've successfully and thoroughly deconstructed you, your work, the whole caboodle. If it were true, it would be somehow demeaning. And I don't believe it ever is true, anyway. If a novel can be deconstructed in that way - if that's all there is to it - then it's not a novel at all but something else.
As a reader, my favourite works of fiction are the ones that leave me satisfied in one sense but, in another, not quite sure. What exactly was going on there? Yes, the plot was tight and well-constructed, the characters were alive and real, the story plausible (if it was meant to be) - the whole thing worked... and yet... I think that's one reason I hated the stuff we did at school. 'What were Hamlet's motives for a, b, c...?' Did Shakespeare know? Are we really meant to know? I'm pretty bad at working out my own motives, let alone anyone else's.
I think, ideally, I would like to be one of those disappearing authors like J. D. Salinger and Harper Lee, who wrote their books and then ducked out of sight. No explanations, and certainly no apologies, if any were needed. I don't like the idea of trying to explain myself as a writer, or of trying to explain my work. (So why am I blogging? Good question, I suppose...)
Answer: I'm a realist, who knows t
By: Rosalie Warren
Blog: An Awfully Big Blog Adventure
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, pearly gates
, Rosalie Warren
, St Peter
, Coping with Chloe
, Charles Dickens
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In one of my recurring nightmares, I'm ascending the golden staircase that leads up to the pearly gates, and there stands St Peter in his robes and spectacles, frowning.
I clutch my bundle of documents, all 12 point Times New Roman double-spaced (or should that be single-spaced, where the synopsis is concerned? Or 1.5? I've consulted a bunch of archbishops on the matter - no one seems to know. Not that it matters to them, they're already in the system...)
I've counted my words, headed my headers and footed my footers. My printer's been well fed with the choicest cartridges and the smoothest, whitest paper money can buy. I've define my genre and 'placed' myself with respect to other authors, though I haven't mentioned Charles Dickens, George Eliot or JKR. My pages are pristine, my sentences grammatical, my metaphors well-chosen, poignant and surprising (though no longer so surprising, after nine revisions, to me).
I hand over my submission with trepidation.
St Peter casts an eye over Chapters 1-3 of my life. Shakes his head, tuttting solemnly. 'Typo on page 2,' he intones. 'I'm afraid this is completely unacceptable. We can't consider anyone who has a typo on page 2 of their life story. And this is even worse - an exclamation mark on page 4!'
Chapters 1-3 are dropped (passive alert!) carelessly to the ground, which I notice is soggy and slush-like, consisting as it does of a thick layer of decaying manuscripts. St Peter glances at my letter and gives another frown.
'I didn't mention that my children love my work,' I venture (no, sorry, I say. One must never use a different word for 'say'). 'Nor did I tell you anything about my garden, my goldfish or my penchant for golden syrup sandwiches.'
'Adverbs...' intones St P. 'Three of them. To say nothing of four adjectives in the first two paragraphs of your synopsis.'
I bristle. 'There may be the occasional adverb, but only where strictly needed to make my meaning clear.'
'Strictly?' bellows St Peter. 'That's an adverb if I ever heard one. Save it for those dancing programmes on TV. I've sent devoted believers to hell for less.'
'But surely...' I adopt a pleading tone. No, make that a wheedling tone. 'St Peter, please. I've spent a lifetime honing and polishing my life story. Is there nothing I can do to get you to read it - so you can actually judge my life on its merit
How often do you play? In your work, I mean? In your writing, if that's what you do?
Most writers start out, I think, by 'playing' at writing - however young or old we may be at the time. In those early days, writing is probably a hobby - perhaps an escape from real life in the form of a dull or demanding job and/or a challenging home life. At the beginning, we are often bursting with enthusiasm and ideas, and what we lack is the space, time and (perhaps) expertise to get them into shape.
If we persevere and have a hefty dose of luck, we may end up earning something for our efforts. In the past, if not so much so today, some writers could make a part-time or even a full-time career out of it. If they were very
lucky, they might even become rich, though of course most never did, however good they were.
The danger is that as our writing careers progress, it's so easy to lose that intial sense of fun and play. Writing becomes the thing we have
to do - either to please a publisher or even just ourselves. I'm all in favour of self-discipline - the 'sit down at your desk at 9am (if only!) so the muse knows where to find you' and the 'minimum word count per day' frame of mind. Mostly, these things work for me. But it's when I lose that sense of play that trouble looms.
I've experienced this before, way back in another life, when I studied for a PhD and then became a researcher and, eventually, a university lecturer. As a student, my research was mostly fun. OK, I was lucky - I know that PhDs can sometimes be a terrible slog. But I happened upon a topic that fascinated me, had a good supervisor and made encouraging progress from the start. My main problem was combining this with caring for two young children. Not easy, but still, on the whole, satisfying and fun.
The fun continued when I gained an EPSRC research fellowhip for three years to do postdoctoral research. In fact that was eaiser, as it was actually a 2-year fellowship spread out over three years, which suited me fine.
The trouble started after that. My marriage broke up, which didn't help. I spent a year looking for a job in the city where my ex worked so my children could see us both. After months of struggling to get by, doing tutoring and gardening and PhD supervision, often all at the same time (well, in the same morning, anyway), I managed to get a lectureship at a unviersity. Perfect - except that I was now so busy, with several hours' commuting each day, a high teaching load, masses of admin, supervising students, giving pastoral advice, etc etc etc - my research slid into the back seat. It was no longer fun - and all my creativity dried up. It became something I had to do - in order to keep my job - and something I had to do well. In the odd hour or so between other commitments, I had to come up with earth-shaking new projects and theories. Hmmm....
The human brain just doesn't work that way. Or mine doesn't. A move south (the children older now) and a new job helped a bit at first, but the pattern was soon reestablished and the commute even longer. What's more, I now had an invalid mother-in-law waiting for me with all her demands when I got home - and two teenage step-children. Then my mother died and my father (110 miles away) became very ill. Something had to give and it was my health. I had a breakdown and was very lucky to be offered early retirement on a small pension, which put me in a position (just) of being able to fulfil my lifelong dream and spend my time writing.
That was wonderful - and still is. But just recently, six years on, writing has begun to feel l
I've officially been a children's/YA author for four months now, since March 21st 2011, when my young teens' novel, Coping with Chloe, was published by Phoenix Yard Books. This puts me in the nursery class, of course, compared with many other writers on here. I should say that posting on the ABBA blog is yet another 'first' for me, in a year that so far has been full of adventure, minor disasters, excitement, terror and hundreds of iced cakes (see below).
I don't particularly like the term 'learning curve'. Perhaps 'learning big dipper' better captures the crazy speeds, the loss of control, the apprehension, the thrills and the vomiting (if not the actual cakes).
So I thought I'd gather a few of my first impressions here. Let's start with schools. As a beginning children's author, I had no idea about going into schools. The last time I went into a school was for a prizegiving in 2003. Before that, it was a PTA meeting back in 1999. I didn't realise that many children's writers did regular school visits - or how terrifying or (in the end) rewarding and fun it would be. Thanks, Cardinal Newman School, Coventry, for your fantastic welcome, and thanks to all those experienced authors who gave me advice.
Something else I've learned recently is how many young folk are writing books and stories of their own. They are often self-motivated, dedicated and producing writing of quality and promise. No doubt some, as they grow up, will decide to put their energy into other things. But I'd love to think that a few of the young writers I've met recently will go on to achieve publication and wide readership. What I'd have given, as a child, to have a real live author (even one I'd never heard of) come into our classroom and speak with us...
Other things that stand out for me from these hectic past few months are:
- A book signing in Waterstones, during which I managed to pluck up the courage to do a short reading
- Baking and icing over 150 small cakes with As and Cs on them (you'll have to read 'Chloe' if you want to find out why)
- The kindness, generosity, friendliness, energy and warmth of *all* the children's authors I've met so far, through the Scattered Authors' Society (SAS) and elsewhere. Truly overwhelming...
- The thrill of hearing my words brought to life by young readers from King Henry VIII School, Coventry, at a recent launch event at Coventry Central Library
- The joy of having youngsters tell me they liked my book and asking when the sequel is coming out
- The excitement of writing for children and rediscovering the child/young person inside me. I'm now writing about about a robot and having the most fun since I don't know when...
I know the world of publishing is in upheaval and many writers, independent booksellers and other professionals are suffering. I know libraries are being closed, sales are down and authors are being dropped mid-series by their publishers. These are depressing and difficult times. But as a newcomer, I wanted to focus in this first post on some of the positive things I've experienced in the past few months. I'm not expecting to make a fortune, not even a small one, but I can't help feeling optimistic. With so much energy, creativity, commitment and kindness around - better times for the world of children's books must surely be ahead.
Hold tight round the next bend - wheeeee!!!
Vast deserts of time in which to write...
Wave upon wave of ideas, surging and pounding onto the shore...
Sounds like a writer's dream? Or even reality, at times?
I've (all too rarely) had the experience of whole, uninterrupted days, or even weeks, in which to write. And I've (also rarely) had those wonderful times where your brain teems with ideas and you can barely manage to net them before they're sucked away in the undertow. But what I would really like, and have never actually had, is a swathe and a surge at the same time. On the same day, I mean, or even in the same writing session. A sense of being brimful of ideas and having all the time I could possibly need to get them down ...
It just never works out that way. The days I'm full of ideas are always when I'm far too busy with other things to do - often non-writing things like driving up the M1 to see my dad, attending family get-togethers, making cakes, painting living rooms or helping with potato harvesting. Or even publicity stuff like book signings and school visits. All worthwhile and fun and useful things, that can nonetheless be very irritating when all you really want to do is sit down and write.
And then there are the swathe days, the quiet ones, when the family are all occupied somewhere else, no one is ill, the house and garden are managing quite happily by themselves and there really aren't any more emails to write or blogs to update. At last! I sit down at my desk and manage to produce half a page. It's hard work. Perhaps I need coffee or even a small snack? I consume, sit down again and .... zilch. My brain reports that it has nothing new to tell me. I force out another page, read it through and don't like it much. I remind myself of 'regular dates with the muse' and all that stuff about getting on with it and not waiting for inspiration to strike.
Creak. Groan. Whimper... No, my brain tells me - I really haven't got anything else for you today. Feel free to go and redecorate a couple of rooms, whip up a dinner for six, springclean the loft or start planning ahead for Christmas if you like. But of course I don't want to, or I can't let myself, because this is a precious swathe of writing time, the thing I've been longing for since *last* Christmas, at least. And now these glorious empty golden desert sands are all around me, yet I can't write a thing.
There must be a reason. Maybe vast stretches of available time intimidate my imagination. Perhaps inspiration works best when thwarted, because it knows that if the product is disappointing, there'll be a readymade excuse. Or maybe I'm just contrary.
But if anyone knows how to make the swathes and the surges happen simultaneously - please, please tell me!