It’s the time of year when everyone is thinking about festivals of light which give a warm glow to our homes at the darkest point of winter. Many people in the UK are getting ready for Christmas, putting up the tree and stringing lights outside the house.
My family are Jewish and we are preparing for Chanukah which begins this year on December 23rd. Our festival involves the lighting of candles for eight consecutive nights and of course, the children get plenty of presents.
But what about young people who don’t have a home and family to spend the festivals with? What about teenagers who find themselves homeless over Chanukah or Christmas? Our televisions are pumping out good cheer and shops are stuffed to the brim but if you are on the outside looking in, my heart is breaking for you.
According to the charity Centrepoint, 103,000 young people in the UK presented to their council in 2017/18 as homeless or at risk and over 50% “left home because of family relationship breakdown.” Reasons vary but include mental health issues such as hoarding.
My novel, Behind Closed Doors, was inspired by the rising statistics on teen homelessness and I decided to focus on the reasons why this happens. In my book, Josie and Tasha are both fifteen. Tasha is already homeless – she is sofa surfing to avoid the unwanted sexual advances of her mother’s new boyfriend. She is no longer safe at home. Josie’s mother is an extreme hoarder and has filled up every corner of the house, including her bedroom. There is no room for her at home anymore. Josie and Tasha form an unlikely friendship in their hour of need, but will they end up sleeping on the streets as things come to a head?
The festival of Chanukah celebrates a perceived miracle following the ransacking of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Greeks. After the Jews fought back and reclaimed Jerusalem, they found the Eternal Light above the Ark where the Torah scrolls were stored was running out of oil. It would take eight days to get more supplies. They lit the Light and miraculously the oil kept burning for the entire eight days.
Lighting the menorah in my home each night, with my children and grandchildren safe and cared for around me, my thoughts often turn to the teenagers who have no idea where they will lay their head that night. Both Festivals of Light have stories of miracles behind them. But the greatest miracle for our time would be that every young person who needs a safe berth for the night would be automatically provided one by the council.
I will be donating to Shelter, as I have been since it was founded in 1969 and I would encourage you to donate to a homeless charity this year if possible, to help spread light and warmth for our homeless teenagers.
The concept for Alex Sparrow and the Zumbie Apocalypse struck before the first Alex Sparrow book was even published, and I remember, four years ago, hoping that I would get to write it one day. When the opportunity to develop the idea finally came about, I soon realised that this story would be about family. We hadn’t seen much of Alex’s family in the first two books, but we had watched him create a new, tight-knit, group of friends around him: Jess, Dave, Bob, Mr Prickles, Miss Fortress; all of them a hugely important part of his life. I wanted to delve into Alex’s home life, to get to know some of the people he has grown up with, and also explore the idea that a family isn’t limited to the one we are born into.
Setting it at Christmas – a time when our focus adjusts, temporarily, away from work and routine, and onto home, and the people around us – fit so perfectly that I couldn’t resist. I have always loved Christmas, and I have spent a lot of time trying to work out why, exactly, other than the presents. I’m an idealist at heart, and view the world through twinkle-lit glasses. I believe in magic, and I believe that kindness will always win. Christmas amplifies all the wonderful things in life. Magic is closer, tinkling in every Christmas tree bell and nestling in waiting stockings. And people are kinder – embracing loved ones tighter, forgiving more easily, and giving – to people they know and to people they don’t.
But while Christmas allows wonder to flourish, it also intensifies some of our negative feelings. The pain of loss is sharper at Christmas. The deep ache of loneliness can be overwhelming. I wanted, through Alex, to face the good, and the bad, and to encourage readers to think about how they might help to make Christmas magical for everyone. Donating money or time to charities like Age UK can help to ensure that there are fewer people spending Christmas alone. Giving to BookTrust’s brilliant Christmas appeal, which raises money to send special book parcels to children in care at Christmas, could help to make what might be a difficult day for someone, a little brighter. Or by reaching out to people who are suffering, and offering friendship and support, we can all make a difference.
So this Alex Sparrow book celebrates family – in all its weird and wonderful shapes and flavours – and kindness, always kindness. I wish all of you a Christmas full of twinkle lights, bear hugs, delicious food and lots of laughter, and I hope that the new year brings hope and love to everyone.
Writing The Clockwork Crow and The Velvet Fox has been a real pleasure. It was great to write for a younger age group and to try and create a satisfying set of stories that had all my favourite things – legend and folklore, a Welsh landscape, a strange old house, frost, snow and Christmas, and then in the second book the reds and golds of autumn, fallen leaves and deep woodland.
Above all it is fun writing the characters, especially the Crow and Seren, with their tetchy, humorous (I hope!) relationship. And in The Velvet Fox I had a few villains too, the odious governess, Mrs Honeybourne, and the silkily dangerous Velvet Fox himself.
One of the interesting things about writing for this age group is having to use simple and direct language that engages the reader and keeps them breathlessly turning the pages, without stripping the story of atmosphere or description. It’s often a fine balance and involves a great deal of cutting and deleting, always a good thing for the self-indulgent writer, and I am one. Also there has to be plenty of action but that should not overwhelm the characters and their desires and fears and problems.
Another thing I enjoy is weaving in elements of fairy tale and folklore; often parts of plots or transformations that readers will recognize. In these books the Tylwyth Teg, the faery folk of Wales, are always plotting to snatch away the children or even the Crow himself, and I enjoy creating Their tricky, beautiful allure.
I hope readers of the books will have as much fun as I have writing them! And look out for book 3 The Midnight Swan, coming next year.
To celebrate the publication of Three Strikes our intern Nia Thorne had a chat with the very lovely Kat Ellis about her novella ‘The Twins of Blackfin’ which is a prequel to her debut YA novel Blackfin Sky.
What inspired the plot of Blackfin Sky?
Well, the beginning came to in the usual way (for me) that all stories do: what might happen if… and in this instance, the question was what would be the weirdest thing to happen if you showed up late to school one day? So naturally, everyone thinking you had died was where my brain took me. I knew that Sky would be completely blown away by this – after all, she remembers the last three months since her supposed ‘death’ going on just as normal – so I needed to figure out how and why she remembered events differently to everyone else. That question had me stumped for quite a while; until one day when I went with my sister and niece to the circus, as we do every year, and as I was sitting in the grand stand watching all these amazing performers, I had an idea about a very unusual circus visiting the town of Blackfin, and how that might connect to Sky’s missing three months.
The plot is complex, was the whole thing planned out before? Were there certain things you put in when you were writing the book?
I wrote out the first few chapters without knowing where it would all go, but after that I had to sit down and do some serious plotting so that the mystery of Sky’s death (or lack thereof) would unfold in a way that made sense. And of course there was a lot of editing and tweaking after that, making sure those threads knitted together properly so readers wouldn’t see through the fabric. And with a book like Blackfin Sky, each round of revisions made me wonder what might make this scene eerier? Stranger? More exciting? And so it came together. Weirdly, but together.
Who are your favourite characters?
Besides my two main characters in the Blackfin stories, Sky and Bo (who I kind of have to love most after spending so long inside their heads), I think Gui – Sky’s lovely, emotional, gigantic father – is definitely a favourite, as is Sean, Sky’s friend whom she has the mildest (AHEM) crush on. And Cam, who is dippy and delightful in equal measure. And Silas, of course – who doesn’t love a bad-tempered haunted weathervane?
What made you write the prequel about Bo?
While I think there are a lot of stories I could tell about Blackfin, I knew that continuing Sky’s journey would probably take a full-length novel, and as I wanted to write something shorter I decided to tell the story of a ghostly voice summoning the young people of Blackfin from their beds – and as it was quite a dark, chilling tale, I needed a main character who wouldn’t scare easily. So naturally, that was Bo.
Was it easy to write the old characters from Blackfin again?
Easier than I expected! Even though it’s a few years now since I wrote Blackfin Sky, it was like catching up with old friends.
What was your favourite part about going back into the world of Blackfin?
Revisiting that bizarre place where anything can happen, and frequently does! Where the weathervane on the school roof is haunted, and the wishing well might just steal your pocket change, and doors might lock of their own accord… Yeah, I had a blast going back to Blackfin.
The story in Three Strikes is darker than Blackfin Sky, what made you want to write it? What inspired you?
I started writing it in September, just as autumn was settling in around me, and it’s the time of year when I naturally start reaching for books with a spooky, sinister edge – and that trickles through into my writing. I also knew that ‘The Twins of Blackfin’ would feature alongside those of two brilliant authors who know how to write dark, chilling stories so well – so I think that might have spurred me on to take some darker paths with Bo’s story!
Read this brilliant blog by Ruth Morgan on why she has written a middle grade fiction about gaming ahead of publication of Ant Clancy Games Detective, out on 11 July.
Ant Clancy is the world’s first Games Detective, and by the end of this story you will know what a Games Detective is and why the world needs one so much. The ‘games’ in this case are virtual reality games and the story is an exciting adventure where Ant has to pitch himself against a deadly adversary, partly within the game and partly in real life. It’s not just Ant, he has a couple of friends working alongside him, as well as his ace dragon Pradahl who he can transport from his favourite game, Kismet Cosmos, to take part in battles.
Kismet Cosmos is where the idea for this story came from. I thought to myself, what if you were the very last player of a really old videogame? I know with the massive interest in retro gaming that would be unlikely but every story, for me, has to begin with a what if…? The ‘what if…?’ in this case got me thinking about Ant’s character and how as the last player of Kismet Cosmos he’d be someone who doesn’t mind standing out and being different and has his own sense of what’s important to him. The story grew out of me getting to know Ant and also, the ideas I had for the amazing directions in which virtual reality might take games in the future, because while Ant is enjoying his old game, there’s a new, trailblazing VR game that the whole rest of the world wants to play, and that’s Ray-Chay.
I should explain, I’ve lived with keen gamers in my family for years and have enjoyed playing along myself, so I understand the appeal completely. My stepson, Steffan is a games designer with amazingly creative ideas. While he was at university, he designed the first ever Minecraft Annual (2014 – published by Egmont), while our son Gethin was one of the official ‘Minecraft testing crew’ who had page proofs sent to him to try out various new constructions suggested and also has his name in the book. I didn’t do anything, but I did enjoy the excitement!
Gaming sometimes has a bad rep amongst generations that don’t play and don’t get the appeal. There are positives. Gaming can be a very social experience and you’re often called upon to work with others to problem solve or attain some common goal. It’s fun and a huge stressbuster. There’s probably an issue if gaming is all you do with your free time, which is why my hero Ant has plenty of other hobbies and pursuits, like belonging to his local table tennis club (because it’s my favourite sport – our ‘World Cup of Ping Pong’ tournaments are legendary, ask our neighbours!) Ant’s dad, Snoz, is someone who’s aware of addiction and how it can ruin a person’s life. Amongst other advice, he guides Ant in balancing his real life and gaming life. Snoz’s favourite saying is “You’ve got to be bigger than the game” and this takes on a deep significance through the twists and turns of the plot.