#BathKidsLitFest Day 7: Are we obliged to write good role models?
If you’re not sure what to read next it’s always good to go on someone else’s recommendation, and who better to suggest a great read than Gill McLay, artistic co-director of The Telegraph Bath Children’s Festival. Bath Picks, the initiative that she and John McLay, co-director (and husband) launched this year celebrates authors whose voices just have to be heard.
And so we have Sarah Crossan, Virginia Bergin and Sarah Benwell in conversation on stage at the Mission Theatre. We get a reading from the novels showcased, Crossan’s One, Bergin’s The Storm, the sequel to The Rain, and Benwell’s The Last Leaves Falling, and a lively discussion about the themes that emerge from these three compellingly original Young Adult books.
One is Crossan’s fifth novel. Like her prize-winning book The Weight of Water, it’s written in free verse. It’s the story of conjoined twins, Grace and Tippi, who have been taught at home for most of their lives. But that’s all about to change. The world intrudes when they go to school and have to come to terms with a whole host of issues – love, separation, identity and the usual stuff that teenagers go through.
Crossan wrote 30,000 words in prose before realizing that Grace’s voice came through so much stronger when written in verse. Hours of research in the British Library and lengthy conversations with the leading surgeon who operates on conjoined twins have resulted in a remarkable story that twists and turns, dancing the fine line between tragedy and comedy.
Bergin confesses that Ruby, the fifteen-year-old heroine of her sequel took over the whole story whether she wanted her to or not. “Ruby just rocked up,” she says. “I had no idea that she was there. But her voice started and then she would just not shut up!” Bergin’s inspiration for her two related novels came from New Scientist magazine (“a great place for ideas”). It’s a ‘what if…?’ scenario. The ‘what if’ being how would the world look after water becomes toxic and global apocalypse ensues. This brings a whole host of problems for Ruby, not least the prospect of having access to her favourite cosmetics seriously compromised.
Benwell’s debut novel is set in Japan, a country where the suicide rate for teenagers is at epidemic levels. Sora is suffering from ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease. He’s lost the use of his legs and he can’t go to school any more. Increasingly, his thoughts turn on whether in the spirit of the legendary Japanese samurai warriors the time has come to choose how, and when, to die. It’s a pretty bleak premise, but with Benwell’s careful handling and beautiful writing, Sora’s story has moments of great hope and testifies to the enduring power of friendship.
“Are we obliged to write good role models?” Bergin wonders. “The most important think is that your character should make you think” McLay offers. Grace, Ruby and Sora certainly do that, and more.
Claudia Pugh-Thomas at Bath Picks on Sunday 27 September as part of The Telegraph Bath Children’s Literature Festival continues until Sunday 4 October 2015
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