Vanessa Curtis on writing inclusive books
Published on: 05 November 2014 Author: Alex Strick
BookTrust consultant Alexandra Strick talks to author Vanessa Curtis about her new novel The Baking Life of Amelie Day, and creating inclusive books which successfully inform readers without making disability or illness an 'issue'.
How did The Baking Life of Amelie Day come about?
I'd always wanted to write a book about a girl who bakes, as I enjoy devising recipes. I'd also seen a documentary about kids with cystic fibrosis, a life-limiting lung illness and wanted to explore the subject further.
What made you choose to combine these two very different themes - life-limiting illness and baking?
I found out that kids with cystic fibrosis need to eat a lot more calories than people usually do - they lose weight more easily. So I thought that making Amelie a baker would illustrate this - not only does she bake the recipes, she also eats them all as well!
There is a definite sense of authentic detail in the descriptions of Amelie's day-to-day life with cystic fibrosis - did you carry out any research into the condition?
I did - I followed the blog of Victoria Tremlett, a young adult who lives with Cystic Fibrosis and also got some very helpful advice from Ollie Jackson who also lives with the condition.
How important was it to you to ensure a sense of accuracy in terms of the depiction of someone with the condition?
I think it's paramount, really, if you're trying to convey a true sense of what something must be like to live with. I wouldn't want to have offended anybody with cystic fibrosis by not doing justice to the subject matter, so it was important to research and double-check in order to get the details of the illness just right.
Amelie tells her mum that she is not like 'most kids' but actually, aside from the Cystic Fibrosis and the baking obsession, she is in many ways a typical teenager, with the usual preoccupations - her boyfriend, friends and homework. Was this important to get across?
Definitely - I didn't want Amelie to be defined by her illness at all, but rather to be enjoyed as a feisty, individual and determined teenager who was determined to achieve her dreams.
The chapters are interspersed with some of Amelie's recipes, guaranteed to motivate young people to pick up a wooden spoon and get baking themselves (they have certainly inspired us at Bookmark - we baked the golden syrup cookies this afternoon!) Where did the recipes come from?
I hope your cookies turned out well! That particular recipe was from an ex-pupil of mine and the others were mainly adapted from recipes I got from friends and family.
Have you got any personal experience or knowledge of disability issues that has influenced your writing?
Not really, which is why I was so keen on researching the condition very carefully. I do however remember that sense of trying hard to fit in with the other kids at school and I drew on some of those memories when I wrote the school scenes in 'Amelie Day.'
To what extent do you intentionally write 'inclusive' books and to what degree extent does it just happen naturally?
If you mean books which deal with difficult issues, then yes, I do set out intentionally to write them and they usually flow quite naturally once I start, because I'm always interested in the subject matter.
What was your favourite book as a child? Were there any specific books in which you 'saw' yourself?
I didn't have one particular favourite book as a child, but I liked books in which there were strong girl heroines - I used to love a book called 'Seven Little Australians' which was all about a family of rather wayward children. I also loved 'Frost in May' by Antonia White and rather wanted to be Clara, her heroine, who was always questioning religion and teetering on the brink of insanity.
What's your favourite scene in the book?
There's a striking scene in that novel where Clara visits her beloved aunts, but she's on the brink of madness and views them all sitting inside the house from her hidden position outside in the garden at dark, and the way in which she feels alienated is beautifully conveyed by the author.
Amelie uses the internet to crowd-source recipes - how significant do you think the role of the internet (particularly social media) has become and can this be particularly relevant to children who happen to be disabled?
I think there's good and bad about the role of the internet for children. It's a wonderful research resource. It's also the killer of natural communication between 'actual people'. But in the case of children who have disabilities I guess it can provide an outlet, in, say, the form of a blog or diary and it's one way of welcoming the world into your house without necessarily having to go outside.
Zela Green Queen of Clean is about a character with a misunderstood condition - obsessive compulsive disorder (as well as touching on subjects like mental health and self-harming). Alongside creating a really absorbing read, both books raise awareness and increase understanding - can you tell us more - is this a delicate balance to achieve?
It is quite a delicate balance to achieve - I like to educate with my books but not in a preachy or over-detailed way and I certainly never want to saturate my books in illness, which is why I often use a lot of black humour to balance it out. Zelah Green has a warped sense of humour and Amelie Day has enormous determination and a humorous catchphrase, 'Flour Power.'
How would you sum up The Baking Life of Amelie Day if you were describing it to a young person and what message do you hope they take from it?
The Baking Life of Amelie Day is about a teenage girl who will stop at nothing to achieve her dream of world baking domination, even though her mother is worried about her health. I hope it shows that anything is possible to achieve in life if you've got the right attitude and good friendships, as Amelie has.
Can you tell us what you are working on now?
By way of complete contrast I have a YA book about the Holocaust coming out in January 2015 (The Earth is Singing, Usborne). I've also just finished writing a ghost story set down in Cornwall.