'To Be Invisible is an Awful Thing'
Published on: 04 February 2015 Author: Alex Strick
BookTrust consultant Alexandra Strick catches up with Susie Day to talk Enid Blyton, Corfe Castle, hemiplegia and the need for all children to appear across all genres of books.
Can you sum up the Pea books for anyone who has not yet encountered them?
The Pea's Book series is all about bookish redhead Pea and her quirky family: theatrical Clover, junior criminal mastermind Tinkerbell, and Mum - also known as Marina Cove, children's author.
Pea faces challenges large and small, from finding a new best friend when they move to London to trying to track down her absent dad. The books deal uncompromisingly with real-life 'issues,' but they're funny too, and kind. My aim was a series that's fiercely contemporary, while keeping the warm cosy quality of classic family stories like Noel Streatfeild's.
One of the new friends Pea makes in Pea's Book of Holidays is Ryan who has hemiplegia. How did this come about?
Twitter! (See, mum, it is work really.) I follow @EverydayAbleism, where real people share their daily experiences. One day someone commented that their hemiplegia was much worse in cold weather, and I thought: what's hemiplegia? A quick google took me to HemiHelp, the UK charity for young people with hemiplegia and their families, and read that one in 1,000 children have the condition. That's not rare. Statistically speaking, worldwide, it's about as common as red hair. I felt shocked that I'd never heard of it.
I was in the early stages of planning Pea's Book of Holidays, in which Pea drags the family to Corfe Castle in Dorset to crack Mum's writer's block with the magic of 'Blyton fumes'. I wanted to explore the love/hate relationship many of us have with Enid Blyton's work, and how Pea navigates that as both an avid reader, and a member of the kind of family Blyton would never have written about. It just felt natural to include Ryan as another kid on that list.
How did you find the experience of including a disabled character and were there any particular challenges involved?
My biggest challenge was granting myself permission to write so far outside my experience. Do I have the right? Will I be criticised if I get it wrong? Is it even possible for me not to get it wrong? But I believe if we're going to get more diverse children's books, we can't keep requiring only minorities to write them.
Did you need to do much research to be confident in describing his condition and if so, what form did this take?
Of course. Sure, I'm an author, I use my imagination for a living - but I'm not dreaming up the rules of a unicorn society, I'm writing about something that real people experience. HemiHelp were brilliant: I got in touch outlining what I had in mind, and asking if I could join their Facebook group, which is a mix of people who have hemiplegia, and parents and carers of young people with hemiplegia. They let me ask questions, from practical everyday stuff to what they personally would like a character like Ryan to be like, and what they would want their kids to read. They were incredibly generous with their time.
HemiHelp also put me in touch with Joanna Sholem, and Rosalyn and Tom Burbidge, who have direct experience of what it's like to be an eleven-year-old with hemiplegia, on holiday, making new friends. They read an early draft for me. Hemiplegia's a condition which has a wide range of severity in terms of impairment and related conditions such as epilepsy, so Ryan could never be a representative of all kids with hemiplegia, but they rescued me from including things that were just plain wrong. I originally wrote a scene where Ryan's dad 'reassuringly' promised 'Don't worry, his brain's fine, it's just his body doesn't work quite like yours' - when hemiplegia is literally a brain injury. I originally wrote a scene where everyone else climbs up a really steep hill and Ryan just kind of hangs out at the bottom - until Joanna told me her tales of hiking in the Grand Canyon, and in Vietnam, and I realised I was underestimating him at every turn.
They were fantastic and I couldn't possibly have written anything plausible without them. Sadly exams intervened so I've still not met Rosalyn and Tom, but I've hung out with Joanna a bunch of times since and we're now good friends.
What was important to you about including a character like Ryan?
Across the whole Pea's Book series I've tried to get away from the idea that diverse = issues, worthy, heavy, bleh. I've just written a YA short story for Malorie Blackman's Love Hurts anthology which, if you take the tick list approach, is narrated by a disabled non-white lesbian. And it's about those things, because those things inform her life. But it's also about love and first meetings and internet fandom and Tumblr and Sherlock and how we watch TV and families and daft jokes about Taylor Swift. It's a sweet cute funny romance AND about a disabled non-white lesbian, and the world did not implode.
We will always need 'issue books', but mainstream commercial publishing can accommodate all young people, across all genres. To be invisible is an awful thing.
Your books seem effortlessly inclusive in terms of showing a diverse society (different families and backgrounds) - was it therefore a natural progression to include a character who was disabled in some way?
I've touched on mental health issues in Young Adult fiction before now, but I was conscious that I wanted and needed to do more. I know there will be some writers who blanch at that statement, as if self-consciously including 'diverse' characters is somehow an artistic or imaginative failure, a threat to the romance of it all. But every person we choose to write about is a choice. There is no default character. Writing about middle-class straight white people is a decision. It just seems to be the decision that a lot of people make, so maybe we could change that up?
How did you make sure that Ryan was an important member of the 'cast' with a fully-rounded character?
By conceiving him as a whole person who has needs and wants and interests - and one who also has hemiplegia which hugely impacts on his life and his family's life. Ryan's an experienced ghosthunter from Paranormal Investigations Edinburgh - yep, that's PIE - in Corfe Castle to track the mysterious Grey Lady who haunts the ruins. He's a pretty cool kid. He has swoopy hair. He has a dorky little brother, and divorced parents, and an Xbox that he plays one-handed.
My favourite scene is in the tea rooms, when Ryan is trying to be supercool and standoffish towards unbeliever Pea, only to discover that he's forgotten to bring any money to pay his scone bill. It's both about his hemiplegia - Pea's too embarrassed to ask if he needs help in case he's offended, Ryan's too scared to call his already overprotective, anxious dad - and also about Britishness and pre-teens and the incremental stages of friendship. And it's also about plot, since that's what propels them to realise they each have ghostly knowledge that's useful to the other and maybe they ought to team up after all...
Do you think we might meet Ryan (or any other disabled characters) in future books?
I'd love to write a standalone about Ryan and Troy and their mum and their dog Pepper, secretly ghost-hunting away in Edinburgh - though I've got two more books lined up before I can think about it.
My next book, The Secrets of Sam and Sam, includes a character who is a selective mute - this time drawing on the experience of a child I once taught. It's out July 2015 and is a standalone spin-off from the Pea's Book series, featuring the Paget-Skidelskys who live next door: two mums, two Sams, Surprise the puppy, and a whole lot of secrets...