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May 2018

Sally Bayley On Childhood Reading
17th May 2018 - Sally Bayley

Sally Bayley On Childhood Reading

Girl With Dove by Sally Bayley

In Girl With Dove: A Life Built By Books, Sally Bayley demonstrates how vital and transformative reading is in helping children understand the often mysterious and sometimes unsettling world around them. In this personal memoir of childhood, reading is shown as not only a means of escape and fuel for the imagination but also a way to make sense of one's immediate environment.

Here, Sally talks to us about who taught her to read, how she adopted Miss Marple, and why reading doesn't need to be a solitary activity.


It was my grandmother who first taught me to read. She taught me after school, in between the washing up and putting on the toast. I brought words home from school and they sprung out of a silver box that had once held sweets. Reading was a sweet treat. Words were something I sucked on, hardboiled and tangy. Words were my sherbet lemons, my rhubarb and custard and chocolate éclairs.


Words take time to dissolve because words all contain small plots. Words come out of particular contexts and circumstances. Where you place certain words changes the meaning of everything, and for a child that can be confusing, even unsettling.


When you first begin reading you need a familiar relationship: characters and plots you recognise and can comfortably navigate. Perhaps the strongest reading paths begin as a form of transference of trust from family members to literary characters: from real life to stories.


Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple was my first literary adoption. I adopted her and I like to think that she adopted me. Miss Marple was a version of my grandmother, and aged eight I adopted her, and she adopted me. We shared a sympathetic relationship: we both wanted to know what was going on in the world around us. We were both curious, or, perhaps downright nosy.


But I needed somewhere special to read. Miss Marple had her own cottage in St. Mary Mead where she looks out through her window upon the world. When you read you peek into other worlds. You carve out new spaces. I grew up in a house with little physical space. Reading gave me more space, an alternative habitat, other worlds. An avid reader is an escape artist; she is looking for ways out of now.


But children need help with reading: firstly a comfortable place. I read on the top of my bunk bed and then outdoors. I had a few special nooks and crannies. Once you have a reading place you have a habit. You can return again and again.


In this day and age children need more help with developing strong reading habits. There are so many distractions. Our capacity for reading -- our reading brain -- has altered because of the internet. ‘I can no longer deep-sea dive’, said one 12-year-old girl reader I knew. ‘I can no longer feel the words surrounding me. I don’t know how to go deep underwater: to swim.’


So we read Jane Eyre together. I showed her several editions, to try, one produced for children and two for adults, all with illustrations. We took turns reading sections together. We discussed the words alongside the drawings. We read parts and took on characters. We turned the book into a play. We became reading companions.


Reading need not be a solitary business. At the point that words enter the brain the experience is solitary and perhaps that is part of its tangible pleasure. None of us quite receives words and images in the same way. We all imagine and differently. But reading can also bring intimacy and connections - trust and friendship - kin. Reading can create new families and relations. When we read alongside others we are bridging the gaps between ourselves and others. We are learning sympathy; to cross an imaginative bridge between one self and another without eliminating the specific differences in our character and circumstances: our separate experiences of living.


Sally Bayley Author photograph

Sally Bayley put herself into care aged fourteen and remains the only person to study at university from the West Sussex Care Service. She is currently a Teaching and Research Fellow at the Rothermere American Institute at the University of Oxford, and from September 2018 she will be teaching writing in Oxford as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow. She is the author of The Private Life of the Diary as well as books on Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson.



Looking After Your Mental Health
16th May 2018 - Alice James

Looking After Your Mental Health

Looking After Your Mental Health from Usborne

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, an initiative pioneered by the Mental Health Foundation to encourage openness and discussion of mental ill-health.

Designed to raise awareness of mental health issues in young people, Looking After Your Mental Health is an informative and accessible guide for young people that talks about the topic in a straightforward and helpful way. It contains a wealth of practical advice and is packed full of brilliant illustrations, making it an essential resource for young people and the adults that care for them.

Here, co-author Alice James tells us why mental health awareness is so important for young people and how she went about creating the book.


There are loads of brilliant books out there about growing up – what happens to you and how your body changes – how to wash your face, deal with periods, shave, and so on... But when I was growing up and at school there didn’t seem to be very much warning about what the experiences and trials of growing up can do to your brain, and how emotionally bewildering and exhausting growing up can be. 


That’s what I wanted this book to be – a guide to stuff that can affect how we think about ourselves as we grow up (and once we reach that mysterious “grown up” age, too...). It’s about confidence, identity, body image, and self-esteem – things that can shift dramatically during puberty and really affect our relationship with ourselves. If that relationship sours, the negative affect can persist for a long time, and have a really big impact on life. The book offers ideas, advice and coping strategies, but mostly it is there to reassure, and to say IT’S ALRIGHT if things are making you nervous, worried or anxious. They’re probably making other people feel like that too, and it’s totally normal to feel unsettled when things change or are challenging. We all have mental health, all the time, and it’s important to be aware of it and take care of it. 


The thing that I’ve always found hardest is that when you find yourself feeling low, the natural reaction is to berate yourself for that, which only makes things worse. There’s still an attitude that hangs around that being sad is self-indulgent, being stressed is melodramatic, or being nervous about things is ridiculous. I really wanted this book to convince people that feeling bad sometimes is normal, and doesn’t make you any weaker or worse than people who breeze through. 


To make sure that message really came across I worked closely with a psychologist and psychiatrist, who gave me their professional input, and they’ve made sure the advice is sound. We added lots of little cartoons and illustrations, courtesy of some of our wonderful in-house designers, to make sure the book didn’t feel too heavy. Adding bits of humour here and there help to lift the difficult subject, and hopefully make it more engaging and relatable than words alone. 


One of the key reasons I wanted to be involved in this book was because I think young people are under so much pressure, increasingly so, and it’s easy to ignore the toll that can take on their mental health. Starting conversations and getting young people used to discussing how they feel, or letting someone know when they’re struggling, can have a massive impact on their ability to cope. 


The fact that all of us have mental health and we need to look after it is SO important, for everyone, and I’m really encouraged by the fact people are talking more and more about it, including loads of wonderful high profile people, who are brave enough to be open in the public eye. I might not be a famous author, but every publisher, company, and person that talks about mental health is doing something to help. It’s all about starting the conversation, and if this book helps even some readers talk to someone about how they’re feeling then that is mission accomplished


About the author

Alice James joined Usborne after working in primary schools for a while. She absolutely loves science, and over the years has lived with chimps, spent a month in the rainforest, studied Biology at Oxford University, and grown 200 carnivorous plants (not necessarily in that order). Whilst at Usborne Alice has worked on books on all kinds of science topics, from space to energy to the periodic table.

Looking After Your Mental Health is co-written by Louie Stowell and illustrated by Nancy Leschnikoff and Freya Harrison.



Read an extract from Tell Me the Planets
11th May 2018

Read an extract from Tell Me the Planets

Tell Me the Planets by Ben Platts-Mills

Tell Me the Planets is an enlightening insight into Ben Platts-Mills' work with survivors of brain injury for the charity Headway and into the world of the survivors themselves. It offers the opportunity to see the world through the eyes of a remarkable group of people. Below, we have an extract from the book about one of those people, Sid.


This memory feels autumnal: it must be 2006 or 2007, around the time Matthew first came to Headway. I’m out for a walk with one of the clients: Sid. Sid and I get on. I admire him. He seems to have a sense of humour, despite everything. In some ways, of course, it’s a one-sided friendship. I don’t know what, if anything, he thinks of me. 


Of the people you could meet at Headway, he definitely isn’t the one that would strike you as looking the worst off. He is pale and unkempt. His clothes are inexpensive – tracksuit bottoms, ill-fitting shirts. He walks oddly, like an old man, shuffling along. If you get closer, you notice a long vertical fault line beneath the skin of his forehead, running up from his left eye into his thinning hair. But others are more noticeably scarred, like Mike, whose injury and subsequent surgery left him with a huge indentation that takes up almost half his head and which he covers most of the time with a hat. And Sid has a degree of physical function that others lack: he has the use of both arms, his hands are warm and his grip is strong. He can do things – like the washing- up – and can take himself to the toilet. He’s good at chess and rummy. 


But Sid’s outward completeness disguises a profound loss. There is a space inside him where things go in and never come out again. 


We’ve gone for the walk because he was getting annoyed. He wants to smoke all the time but he can’t do it indoors and he’d just beat the front entrance all day if we didn’t try to distract him – and he enjoys other things once he gets into them, like walking. We’re making our way down the concrete ramp at the front, into the courtyard. I’m asking him what he used to do for work. I’ve asked him before, probably fifteen times, but I’m asking him again to see if he says anything different. He seems to like reminiscing. He has a nice way of going about a conversation, as far as it goes. He’s gentle, matter of fact. 

‘I worked in a bank.’ 

‘Which one?’ 


‘Did you like it?’ 

‘Not much. I left after a couple of years.’ Sid speaks quietly, with a husky voice from all the smoking. He mumbles a bit. To my ear he also sounds slightly northern, Lancastrian perhaps. He flattens his vowels. As I understand it, he has always lived in London, apart from trips abroad. 

‘What did you do next?’ 

‘I went to Israel.’ This is all the same as before. I know he worked on a kibbutz. He met French girls there. He didn’t work that hard. I ask him all the same. 

‘What did you do there?’ 

‘I worked on a kibbutz.’ 

‘How long for?’ 

‘About a year.’ 

‘Did you work hard?’ 

‘Not really, after I’d been there a while.’ 


Once we get to the bottom of the slope, I ask which way he wants to go. He looks each way and gestures ahead of us. We walk into the courtyard. There are big loading-bay doors at the end that belong to the Mildmay Hospital. Sometimes lorries reverse in here, beeping. There’s a skip with bits of wood in it, a white door off its hinges. Next to that there’s an old washing machine waiting for collection, some black metal dustbins as tall as me. 


‘What can you see, Sid?’ I ask. 

Sid pauses and looks ahead. After a moment he says, ‘Farming equipment.’ 

We make our way over to the other side of the courtyard. 

‘What can you see now?’ 



He’s looking at a big London plane tree in front of us, its flaky bark like a jigsaw. Sid’s memories of Israel are bleeding into the present day, I think. His vision is a jumble – he is seeing what he is thinking about. Can that be so?


Ben Platts-Mills author photograph

Ben Platts-Mills lives in Hackney and has spent the last 14 years working for Headway East London, the charity that supports survivors of brain injury. In 2013 he led on the development of the life writing project, Who Are You Now? which publishes survivors' stories.



Alex Reeve on identity
8th May 2018 - Alex Reeve

Alex Reeve on identity

The House on Half Moon Street

Alex Reeve's debut The House on Half Moon Street is an intelligent, atmospheric historical crime novel set in Victorian London. Its hero, Leo Stanhope, is a coroner's assistant—and a man in love, drawn into a dangerous murder investigation in which everyone has secrets to hide.


Here, Alex talks to us about the origins of his trans protagonist, his fears over cultural appropriation, and why he decided to put Leo back at the heart of his novel.


Identity theft


The first time I contemplated writing about a trans character I was sitting on a train, staring at the empty seat next to my co-worker, who happened to be a trans woman. The train was packed, people standing in the corridor, but for some reason no-one was sitting in that seat – at least, until a teenager on her phone barged through the crowd and plonked herself down.


My co-worker didn’t comment, but she must have noticed the glances. At that moment, I felt a burst of compassion and an inner rage. Surely, the most fundamental right we have as humans is to choose who we are?


I’d been considering writing a historical novel for a while and wondered whether it could feature a trans character. I decided to do some research. At least, I thought, things must have got better over the last hundred-and-fifty years.


Apparently not much. Then as now, there were numerous examples of trans men and women, as well as, presumably, lots of people who lived their lives in peace and obscurity. However, many of the same issues existed then as now too: misinformation, misunderstanding, legal ambiguity, societal disapproval, and physical and mental health issues.


At some point in my research process, someone appeared in my head almost fully formed. He was in his mid-twenties, the child of a small-town vicar, and had left home at fifteen to become Leo Stanhope. He was a bit of a romantic, innocent in some ways, sure of who he was but also amused by it. I started seeing the world through his eyes and hearing his voice explaining, sometimes impatiently, how the world would seem to him. Once he arrived, he wouldn’t leave.


I loved Leo, but I could see a million problems, the biggest being cultural appropriation. I’m not a trans man, so do I have the right to tell this story?


I tried everything. I undertook writerly contortions you wouldn’t believe.


First, I made Leo a sidekick, the friend of the central detective. But the story kept veering back towards Leo. Every time I looked, he was hogging the focus like an attention-seeking toddler.


Next, I tried demoting him, making him a ‘C’ character, hardly in the novel at all. But that looked like pure tokenism and was dramatically unsatisfying. It simply wasn’t the story I wanted to tell.


After that, I took a couple of weeks to think. What was it that so fascinated me about this story?


The answer was obvious all along. What I cared about was identity; the right of every individual to decide who they are. And if that was going to be the story, Leo had to be at the heart of it. That was why he had taken up residence in my head.


I still felt concerned about cultural appropriation – which has never completely gone away – so I gave myself a rule: this wouldn’t be a novel about being trans, it would be a novel about a man who happened to be trans. That clarified everything for me. Leo was confronted by a tragedy anyone might face; it was neither caused or solved by his being trans. He has a unique perspective, but being trans is just one part of who he is, not the sum of it.


Even so, I wanted to get the views of trans people, so I approached The Beaumont Society, a group run for and by trans people, and showed a draft to Jane Hamlin, the President. She was incredibly patient and supportive, and gave me belief that I could at least add usefully to the growing debate.


On one level, The House on Half Moon Street is a straightforward historical crime novel, because I adore historical crime novels. But underneath that, it’s also a story about identity. Almost every character in the book has had to change to survive. They’ve aligned to the powerful forces of gender politics, class, money or ambition. Many of them have changed their names, how they dress and how they speak. That was the dramatic irony that compelled me to finish it: Leo is the least changed of all them.


Leo has simply stopped pretending to be someone else.


Alex Reeve Author Photograph

Alex Reeve lives in Buckinghamshire and is a university lecturer, working on a PhD. The House on Half Moon Street is his debut novel, and the first in a series of books featuring Leo Stanhope.



Read an Extract from A Skinful of Shadows
5th May 2018 - Frances Hardinge

Read an Extract from A Skinful of Shadows

A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge

In Frances Hardinge's A Skinful of ShadowsMakepeace, a courageous girl with a mysterious past, defends herself nightly from the ghosts that try to possess her. Then a dreadful event causes her to drop her guard for a moment. And now there's a ghost inside her. The spirit is wild, brutish and strong, but it may be her only defence in a time of dark suspicion and fear. As the English Civil War erupts, Makepeace must decide which is worse: possession - or death. 

Intrigued? Read the opening below.


The third time Makepeace woke screaming from the nightmare, her mother was angry.

‘I told you not to dream that way again!’ she hissed, keeping her voice low to avoid waking the rest of the house. ‘Or if you do, you must not cry out!’

‘I could not help it!’ whispered Makepeace, frightened by her mother’s fierce tone.

Mother took Makepeace’s hands, her face tense and unsmiling in the early morning light.

‘You do not like your home. You do not want to live with your mother.’

‘I do! I do!’ Makepeace exclaimed, feeling her world lurch under her feet.

‘Then you must learn to help it. If you scream every night, terrible things will happen. We may be thrown out of this house!’

Behind the wall slept Makepeace’s aunt and uncle, who owned the pie shop downstairs. Aunt was loud and honest, whereas Uncle glowered and was impossible to please. Since the age of six, Makepeace had been given the task of looking after her four little cousins, who were always needing to be fed, cleaned, patched up, dressed down or rescued from neighbours’ trees. In between times, she ran errands and helped in the kitchen. And yet Mother and Makepeace slept on a bolster in a draughty little room away from the rest of the household. Their place in the family always felt loaned, as if it could be taken away again without warning.

‘Worse, someone may call the minister,’ continued Mother. ‘Or . . . others may hear of it.’

Makepeace did not know who the ‘others’ might be, but others were always a threat. Ten years of life with Mother had taught her that nobody else could really be trusted.

‘I tried!’ Night after night, Makepeace had prayed hard, then lain in the blackness willing herself not to dream. But the nightmare had come for her anyway, full of moonlight, whispers and half-formed things. ‘What can I do? I want to stop!’

Mother was quiet for a long time, then squeezed Makepeace’s hand.

‘Let me tell you a story,’ she began, as she occasionally did when there were serious matters to discuss. ‘There was a little girl lost in the woods, who was chased by a wolf. She ran and ran until her feet were torn, but she knew that the wolf had her scent and was still coming after her. In the end she had to make a choice. She could keep on running and hiding and running forever, or she could stop and sharpen a stick to defend herself. What do you think was the right decision, Makepeace?’

Makepeace could tell that this was not just a story, and that the answer mattered a great deal.

‘Can you fight a wolf with a stick?’ Makepeace asked doubtfully.

‘A stick gives you a chance.’ Her mother gave a slight, sad smile. ‘A small chance. But it is dangerous to stop running.’

Makepeace thought for a long time.

‘Wolves are faster than people,’ she said at last. ‘Even if she ran and ran, it would still catch her and eat her. She needs a sharp stick.’

Mother nodded slowly. She said nothing more, and did not finish her story. Makepeace’s blood ran cold. Mother was like this sometimes. Conversations became riddles with traps in them, and your answers had consequences.



Frances Hardinge

Frances Hardinge spent her childhood in a huge old house that inspired her to write strange stories from an early age. She read English at Oxford University, then got a job at a software company. However, by this time a persistent friend had finally managed to persuade Frances into sending a few chapters of Fly By Night, her first children's novel, to a publisher. Macmillan made her an immediate offer. The book went on to publish to huge critical acclaim and win the Branford Boase First Novel Award. Known for her beautiful use of language, Frances has since written many critically acclaimed novels, including Verdigris Deep and the Costa Award-winning The Lie Tree.


Author photo © David Levenson





The Language of Kindness: Christie Watson's Letter to the Reader
3rd May 2018 - Christie Watson

Language of Kindness blog banner

The Language of Kindness 

Christie Watson's Letter to the Reader


The Language of Kindness by Christie Watson

Christie Watson's memoir of her twenty years as a nurse, The Language of Kindness, is a poignant and affecting account that highlights just how important small gestures of kindness are, and how they can bring comfort, hope and consolation. In her letter to the reader below, Christie explains why she felt compelled to write her story now and the conversation she hopes it will start.

We have a very limited number of signed copies, click here to check availability.


Why I Wrote 


I first had the idea to write The Language of Kindness five years ago. I’d been a nurse by then for many years but my dad was dying. I was on the other side of the fence. Watching my dad’s nurse, Cheryl, I began to truly understand the power of kindness. Nursing is so different from medicine. It cannot cure. But Cheryl offered my dad and our family something else. Something even more important perhaps. Dignity, peace, and love.



The Code of Professional Conduct is a list of rules that nurses in the U.K. must live by in order to stay registered. One clause states that nurses must remain objective and have clear professional boundaries with patients at all times. There is no objectivity in good nursing care. To nurse is to love. Cheryl loved my dad. And he loved her back. What an enormous privilege to hold the hand of a person at the frailest most significant and extreme moments of life. To be a nurse. Yet nursing is the most undervalued of all the professions. If how we treat our most vulnerable members is a measure of our society then the act of nursing itself is a measure of our humanity. I worry about this terrifying age in which we find ourselves, but in writing this, I didn’t want to shout. There is too much shouting and not enough listening. The stories I’ve focused on, I hope, explore what connects us. We are all afraid and fragile and vulnerable. We will all get old, or we will get sick and die. We share the same human fate.



I love reading the growing genre of medical memoirs, beautifully written by – mostly male – doctors. But although most of us will never come across a neurosurgeon, we will all be nursed at some time in our life, each and every one of us. And we will all nurse a loved one. And at that time love and kindness will be the only things that matter in the end. My hope for this book is that it’s part of a wider conversation, and a reminder that time flies, and life is precious. As Florence Nightingale said, 'Life is a splendid gift. There is nothing small about it.'


Christie Watson Author Photograph (c) Peter Clark

Christie Watson was a registered nurse for twenty years before writing full time. Her first novel, Tiny Sunbirds Far Away, won the Costa First Novel Award and her second novel, Where Women Are Kings, was also published to international critical acclaim. Her works have been translated to fifteen languages. She lives in London.

was a registered nurse for twenty years
before writing full time. Her first novel,
Sunbirds Far
, won the Costa First Novel Award and her second
Where Women Are Kings
, was also published to
international critical acclaim. Her works have been
translated to fifteen languages. She lives in London.
was a registered nurse for twenty years
before writing full time. Her first novel,
Sunbirds Far
, won the Costa First Novel Award and her second
Where Women Are Kings
, was also published to
international critical acclaim. Her works have been
translated to fifteen la
nguages. S
he lives in London.





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