Usually I celebrate the arrival of a new book in glamorous author style, ie in my pyjamas, crying over my laptop while I try to write the next one. But I thought Pea’s Book of Holidays deserved a party all its own.
Why? I’m proud of all my books. But writing this one has been a different experience: not only because I’ve drawn so much from real memories of growing up reading Enid Blyton, or actual family holidays, but also because the process was different this time. More collaboration, more research, and more fear.
Mostly, my job is to write fun characters, a plot and daft jokes about ginger beer, but along the way I aim for all that stuff to be casually inclusive; to show a world where difference – by all definitions – is present, identifiable, acknowledged and integrated without fanfare. Mostly, I think I do OK. But reading Day Al-Mohamed’s post at Disability in Kidlit last year gave me a kick up the bum.
According to the United Nations World Health Organization, almost ten percent of the world’s population lives with a disability. That figure is the same for the United States, ten percent. People with disabilities are the world’s largest minority. These disabilities run the gamut including physical, sensory, mental, neurological/cognitive, and developmental, and impact young people regardless of race, ethnicity, age, gender, or sexual orientation.
And these are youth who are part of a new generation. They are youth who have not grown up in institutions and special schools. They have been integrated into mainstream schools – some more successfully than others. So the question for them is: “What’s next?” For many, the answer is: “I don’t know.”
Perhaps more than ever before these youth need role models. They need to see themselves out there in the world. While having real live people to emulate is great, the next best thing is fictional characters.
Around the same time, I started following the @EverydayAbleism twitter feed, and saw a reference to hemiplegia – a condition I’d never heard of.
A quick google took me to HemiHelp, the UK’s charity for Children and Young People with Hemiplegia, where I read this:
Childhood hemiplegia is a relatively common condition, affecting up to one child in 1,000.
I thought: that’s a lot of kids for something I’d never heard of. Then I thought: I can do something about that.
That’s when the fear kicked in. The idea for Pea’s Book of Holidays was already set: a family outdoorsy Famous-Five-ish adventure, which would gently unpick some of the murkier side of Blyton along the way. Could I take a kid with hemiplegia camping? I was already talking about race and prejudice in my book full of non-traditional families: was this going to make it feel like some sort of diversity training manual instead of a fun mystery with a dog in it?
And then the big questions. Do I have the right? What if I get my representation wrong? Is it safer not to try?
Of course it’s safer not to try. It’s safer not to write anything at all – but then we’d have no books. I have no hesitation in encouraging other writers to include LGBTQ characters in their books, while giggling about me being asked for ‘permission’ as if I’m somehow in charge. I had to give myself permission too – on the proviso that I’d do everything possible to get it ‘right’.
Getting it ‘right’ in hemiplegia’s case is an impossible task, it turned out; it’s a condition with a wide range of severity and numerous associated other conditions, and no single representation could hope to be universal. But that made it all the more important to rely not on paper research, but real individuals willing to share their experiences, and correct all my daft misconceptions. I was terrified they’d think I was overstepping some line; if they though I didn’t have the right, I really didn’t. But I was met with nothing but support and encouragement.
Neelam and Amy from HemiHelp allowed me to post in their Facebook group, giving me a wide range of experiences to draw on – and also allowing me to ask: what would you like your kids to read about, what would have helped you? And they put me in touch with two individuals who have helped so much I feel that 11-year-old gadget fan and ghost-hunter Ryan Munro belongs to them as much as me: Rosalyn Burbidge, whose whole family’s experiences, especially Tom’s, helped me create a meaningful family dynamic; and Joanna Sholem, who taught me that not only could I take a kid with hemiplegia camping, I could expect him to get up and down the steepest hill in Dorset too.
There will still be things I’ve got wrong. There’s always more for me to learn. But I plan to keep on asking for help; failing better. And with the help of all my collaborators and conspirators, family and friends old and new, and my brilliant editor Ruth Knowles, Pea’s Book of Holidays is exactly what I hoped it would be: a funny family adventure with a dog in it – and a team effort.
That’s why it needed a party – so I could say thank you to everyone who made this book happen.
Read the first two chapters of Pea’s Book of Holidays here
ebook for all ereaders | unabridged audiobook forthcoming