Jaqueline Wilson

Lily Alone by Jacqueline Wilson – Review

Stars

A Good Read

“Lily’s things to remember! How to look after my brother and sisters.”

When I started teaching, Tracy Beaker was on the TV and Jacqueline Wilson’s distinctive book covers were all over my classroom. This never changed. She is always a firm favourite with young girls and does not shy away from tackling some of the issues young people face today. Lily Alone is no different and actually it is a story that resonates with me on all sorts of levels.

Lily is 11 and in Year 6 at primary school. She has 3 younger siblings, Baxter and Bliss, twins aged 6, and, Pixie, aged 3. Their Mum is just 15 years older than Lily and, to put it bluntly, she is more interested in her own life than that of her children. Now, to clarify, the thrust of the story is that she leaves her kids without an adult to go on nights out and also to go on holiday with a man she has just met for a week in Spain. There are stories of this in the papers and we make judgements about the parents all the time. Lily’s Mum is not intrinsically bad. She loves her children but there is a part of her that still wants fun and to escape the responsibility of 4 kids.

Lily is extraordinary. She is an 11 year old who has become so used to taking care of her brothers and sisters that when faced with the prospect of the twins immature and violent Dad coming to stay for the week, she decides to take on the challenge herself. She really does try her very best and considering she has no money and no front door key, she does the most incredible job. The kids are fed and loved. She is driven by the need to keep them all together and no matter what she will protect her Mum from the police and social workers. Lily is so used to her life that she normalises her world and despite the odd moment when she is desperately alone, she copes with everything that is thrown at her.

What I really loved was the way that Jacqueline Wilson reminds us that she is still a child. Sometimes Lily can’t cope and makes idle threats that terrifies her siblings. She likes to draw and has a tantrum when she can’t get the image of her perfect home down on paper. She also dreams of being alone without the responsibility of looking after her siblings, a rather ironic replication of her mother’s behaviour. There are some lovely moments when the kids are all sat around the dining room table eating peaches and cream but equally some where you just want to scoop them all up and rescue them. At one point in the story, they are sat in a café eating people’s leftovers as they have no food. It’s funny and also deeply upsetting. How can 4 kids sit in a café for most of the afternoon and no-one really notices them? It’s a sad world.

There is one other thing I found slightly disturbing and perhaps it’s the way teaching has changed. Mr Abbott, Lily’s teacher, turns up at their flat, when Mum is away, and chats to the kids. He also gives Lily some postcards from a trip she missed and seemed to be offering to pay to take her on the school trip too. In the back of my mind, all sorts of alarm bells were ringing about appropriate behaviour and why hadn’t he gone straight to his safeguarding lead. Old habits die hard, when you have been working with children in a pastoral capacity for 20 odd years.

So how does it all end … I’m not telling you. But I do love the fact that the story does not end ‘and they all lived happily ever after’, it would be wrong if it did. It does highlight the way the social care system could be better and that Lily’s Mum needed a little more support and guidance to make the right choices, at the right time.

Who should read this?

I would recommend this as a good adult read, actually. It certainly pulls at your heart strings. I think young girls in Years 6 – 8 would love this. I suspect there are many who would recognise themselves in the story either as the strong and resourceful Lily or, unfortunately, as the young carer who is left to fend for their family alone.

Planning

Learning the Craft

I love writing.

I will make up all sorts of silly stories, poems, notes, sentences, words. However, I am not confident in what I do. Like every writer, I wonder if anyone will want to read my stories. After all, I’ve delayed and delayed writing anything that could be considered fully formed. So, in order to understand the writing process, I’m trying to get to as many workshops and meetings with other writers as I can.

Writing like all crafts has some groups that you can access and some you can’t. However, I have so far taken advantage of the Literature Works, How to get Published Conference, which was brilliant and which has really moved me forward. I’ve followed every single person I can find on Twitter to see what they are reading and absorb their advice. I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators so I can attend some of their courses and read their magazines. I’ve read two other writing magazines and kept some useful articles and, today, I went to a course run by Imagine Creative Writing in Tiverton.

I know that when I taught creative writing with GCSE students, I’d talk about having some kind of structure to the writing. How was it going to end? Were you going to start ‘In Media Res’? Could you create a story with only one character? How would you get me interested in the first 3 lines? When it came to A-level creative writing, we always talked about suspense and how you could tease your reader. We’d look at more complex story structures than beginning, middle, and end. We’d talk about motifs and themes. So I know a tiny little bit about planning. Do I do it myself? Ummm … nope! I seem to have entire novels fully formed in my head. My latest story of family loss and rebuilding has been lurking around in my head for a while but was influenced by a homemade sign I saw on a lamppost in Shaldon: “Lost: Cat. Ran away from Cattery. Could be  trying to get back to Dawlish.” Now, my story has nothing to do with cats (well not this one anyway) but the poster made me think about how young people cope with loss. Then I had a family, I had a setting, and a ‘voice’. So after that I sat down to write!

Today, after a wonderful 2 hours with the fantastic Jenny Kane, I realised that I probably (having written over 5000 words) ought to have a little think about timelines and how my story hangs together. In the class, we did two exercises which really made me think about story construction and I realise, I am driven by titles and names but I will come back to that in another blog! The first exercise, involved using a random story generator. What a fantastic resource this is for just getting some ideas. So what did we end up with:

  • Main Character
    Man in his late 40s who can be quite eccentric
  • 2nd Character
    A young man in his late teens who can be quite imaginative
  • Setting
    The story begins in an alleyway
  • Situation
    A 30 year old murder case is resurrected
  • Theme
    A story about vengeance
  • Character Action
    A character has to do some quick thinking to keep ahead

Now, I was off … as always, disappearing into my Philip Marlowe type world of police detectives and dead bodies. I did smile though, as the work I had done at my previous workshop on opening lines had an immediate impact. Here is my opening line:

“Boney fingers were visible underneath the black bin bags that lined the alley.”

What fun!

Next exercise was to create a timeline for a story outline which we created from a set of prompts. This was quite a challenge but it also showed me how I really needed to think about this for my own story. I would never have thought to do this had I not been shown. Now it might be obvious to everyone else but I think with longer writing, as I used to say to my students, if you don’t know where you’re going, how do you know you are there! The next step for me, is to create the timeline for my own tale of loss, which has quite a complex narrative structure … But I know that 11 and 12 Year olds love stories that move through different times and places. Just look at Harry Potter.

Thank you again to Jenny and to the other lovely students, who created some amazing writing and were so supportive. I am not going to forget the dark gothic tale of dogs and cats that one lady came up with for some time!

To Be A Cat by Matt Haig – Review

Stars

A Good Read

“Cats are magic.
That’s right.
Cats. They’re magic.”

If you had any doubts about the way cats behave when you see them on the street or when  lying on a radiator at home, then this book confirms your worst fears, cats are sometimes evil!

Matt Haig has an interesting style when he writes, actually interrupting reading the novel to interject. It would be a good book to use with students to talk about narrative voice as it shifts between the ‘author’ and Barney Willow, throughout the text. The book starts quite slowly, setting up Barney’s rather dysfunctional home life, as his Dad has gone missing and seems to be presumed dead. He can’t escape his misery at school, as he experiences the wrath of Miss Whipmire, the Headmistress, who seems determined to ensure that he is expelled from his secondary school in the first term in Year 7. As if to make things even worse, he’s also at the mercy of the school bully, Gavin. Poor Barney really does seem to have the rough end of the stick.

There are some good characters in the novel. It’s not all doom and gloom. Rissa, Barney’s best friend is the kind of girl that will appeal to those who are determined to be individual and she has some top tips for coping with an otherwise brutal world. She’s strong and clever and ‘marmalade’ works well for her (and not in a Paddington Bear type way). She is a complete contrast to Barney, in that nothing seems to worry her and her parents are settled and happy. They also live on a barge and are vegetarian, so Mr Haig does dip into every stereotype going. Perhaps my favourite character is Guster, Barney’s pet King Charles Spaniel. He speaks like a king and clearly has ideas above his station, oh and he hates cats, of course. But Guster’s inner musings are fabulous.

Now I don’t want to tell you what happens to Barney, as that would really spoil the story. But needless to say there are many cats in this tale (hahahaha) and, just like people, cats seem to have their fair share of problems.

Who Should Read This?

I wasn’t sure about this book at the start but by the end I was gripped and couldn’t put it down. The narrative rushes to it’s conclusion and it’s not clear until the very last minute who is going to win the day. The novel is an easy read with plot and characters easy to follow, even with the interruptions from the author! I think Years 5, 6 & 7 would enjoy this and even some reluctant readers would find the illustrations helpful in conveying the narrative meaning. It would appeal to both genders too and adults, who are very suspicious about cats.

In the Beginning

Well … here it is the start of my writing adventure!

So far, two books started and one nearly finished. Hundreds of ideas logged and noted down. When I taught and we would embark on some creative writing, I used all sorts of tools to encourage students to ‘get started’: photos, paintings (particularly Bruegel, some of those pictures were superb for creating a character), music, posters, cartoons. But even with all that stimulation, I’d still hear, ‘I don’t know what to write.’

So where do my ideas come from. I think some of them are stimulated by a title, or a sound or a memory. I worked with teenagers and they are a source of so much inspiration. They are both full of arrogance and self doubt and desperate to be seen as adults. So to all of them that I looked after over 25 years, you have all influenced my writing and whether they are ever published or not, I guess I should say thank you. Some of my ideas though are complete curve balls influenced by some nutty moment that I experience whilst out shopping or doing something that seems completely ordinary. For instance, I was sitting outside my son’s swimming lesson and in the corridor was a mum with her daughter. The daughter was throwing the most unbelievable tantrum and threw a wooden hairbrush down the corridor, narrowly missing a toddler on the floor. This has spawned an idea for a comedy horror book for 5 – 8 year olds! I wonder if that little girl will recognise herself in it.

I think at the moment, I have notes on about 10 different ideas. Some of them will come to nothing. Others … well who knows. When it comes down to it, the only way to write is to sit down and do it. There used to be a poster near the reception of the Brotherton Library at Leeds University that said something along those lines. Can’t remember the actual quote or the person who said it now (it was 25 years or so ago!) so if anyone can enlighten me that would be good. It was an excellent quote! Anyway, I digress, what I am trying to say is that I love writing. Whether it’s this blog or writing PRs for my work, or creating interesting content for websites, I can’t stop writing. So with an over active imagination and wanting to use time wisely rather than wasting it away, I might as well produce some stories.

Now then … back to the beach and my leading lady, Sophie. Let’s see what she does today.