Bestselling teen author Holly Smale: 'I want to give young people hope and belief in themselves and the world'
Published on: 15 February 2019
To celebrate the start of her new series The Valentines, we asked the wonderful Holly Smale about how she writes such great characters and which books are her favourites for young teens.
Your Geek Girl series has been phenomenally successful: how do you write great teen girls?
It’s tricky, because all of my teen characters are so different: they see the world in different ways, they want different things, they have different senses of humour and ways of relating to the people around them.
But the one unifying factor, I think, is that what they’re all experiencing is relatively new to them. Teenagers just don’t have that kind of calcified edge we develop as we get older, so emotions and events tend to be brighter, sharper and more overwhelming. They simply haven’t had time yet to experience situations repeatedly: they don’t have as much context, so they aren’t (usually) as jaded. A lot of things they’ll be going through for the first time, and that brings with it a very special rawness, comedy and beauty.
Writing teenagers, for me, essentially means peeling back the harder, stonier layers I’ve developed over two decades of being an adult, and finding a way to be fresh and vulnerable again.
What inspired your new series, The Valentines?
I knew I wanted to write a big, complicated, feminist family drama. I was obsessed with Ballet Shoes and Little Women when I was young (I’m a sister, myself), and I wanted to write a contemporary version of the books I loved most.
I also wanted it to be from multiple perspectives: there’s a special kind of challenge in writing very different narrative voices, as well as a special kind of joy that comes from reading them and seeing how they interact with each other.
Finally, I wanted the books to each stand alone, complete in and of themselves, but to also fit together as one large story that’s only revealed in pieces. Like a sort of narrative jigsaw, with each sister contributing disparate elements until we get the big picture.
The Valentine sisters are a famous family. Would you say that teens are more aware of – and desiring of – celebrity nowadays? And how does that affect their lives?
Geek Girl was essentially about an ordinary girl given an extraordinary life, and with The Valentines, I wanted to flip that fairytale: to explore what it was like to be born into that lifestyle, and to seek ordinariness within it.
Fame – the search for it, the desire for it, the loss of it – is central to our culture now. For young people especially, it’s almost inescapable. ‘Stars’ fill the films they watch, the music they listen to, the books and magazines they read, the vlogs they follow. Celebrities are everywhere, and with social media so prevalent, nothing really feels private anymore. Nothing feels quiet or off-screen. There’s a really powerful sense that if you’re not being watched, seen, appreciated, validated, that you don’t have worth. That you can’t be successful or happy. To some extent, there’s an insidious feeling that if you’re not being noticed, you’re not really there.
That’s a huge shift in the way young people see the world – and themselves – and as a writer, it’s a topic I was desperate to explore, especially through the eyes of very different characters. Fame felt relevant, dark and complex, but also ripe for comedy and laughter, and that combination excited me.
What do young teens want to read about?
I think teens want what we all want from books: to feel inspired and excited, to find escape, to see the things they’re thinking about or experiencing themselves written down on the page. But I also think – more than anything – they want to feel, and they want to experience the fullest possible range of human experiences. They’re hungry for emotion: they want to cry and laugh, feel scared, sad, hurt, relieved, giddy.
At every age, but particularly when we’re young, books are a kind of testing ground for emotions, and literature is a safe, private place to try out different feelings, different experiences and different ways of being.
I personally fell in love inside a book long before I fell in love in reality; I lost fictional people important to me years before that pain became real. That’s one of the many reasons books are so important for young people: they can make sense of the world and themselves at their own pace and in their own time, without fear of judgement or repercussions.
What other books would you recommend for this age group?
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole is still hilarious, and I think Louise Rennison’s Georgia Nicholson series will stand the test of time as comic genius. More contemporary authors, such as Nat Luurtsema and Jenny Mclachlan, are really fresh and funny, and you’ll always get all your feels from Malorie Blackman.
What were your favourite books as a child, and a young teen? Were there one or two books that really stand out as having “shaped” you in some way?
I know I’ve harped on about Anne of Green Gables for years, but it really was the book that meant the most to me as a young teenager. Like Anne, I was overly-imaginative, hot-tempered, prone to dramatics, earnest, loquacious; I was also lonely and terrified I always would be. That series allowed me to slowly start believing in myself: that I would find people like me, that I wasn’t inherently "wrong", that I was someone worth loving. Anne was so very real to me, and she became the source of comfort and confidence I so desperately needed at that age.
My urge to write, if I’m honest with myself, comes largely from a deep-seated need to pass that feeling on. To give young people hope and belief in themselves and the world – to do, for even just one other person, what L M Montgomery did for me.