Monthly Archives: October 2012

All Hallows’ Eve…

Happy Hallowe’en! As I write, it’s dark as pitch outside and the rain is battering the windows. It’s the perfect setting for writing about this, the scariest time of the year. I hope you like my blog’s ‘new look’ – thanks to my wonderful husband who redesigned the colour of my banner image, and added the cutest… I mean, most terrifying bat I’ve ever seen. It’s my little celebration of the day when the worlds begin to slide into one another, and you never know what’s waiting for you around the next corner…

I’ve always loved Hallowe’en, even in the years that have passed since I grew too big for ‘trick or treating’. I didn’t have much imagination back when I was young enough to be able to get dressed up and go around terrorising the neighbours, I’m afraid to say. I was usually a witch, because there were always long skirts and spooky-looking scarves lying around at home, so it was a very easy costume. We didn’t even call it ‘trick or treating’ when I was young – I’m not completely sure whether we even had a name for it. I have a feeling it rejoiced in the name ‘going around for Hallowe’en’, which definitely has less of a ring to it! I just remember it being great fun, and I recall the frisson of terror that would run up my spine every time we rang a doorbell, particularly when we didn’t know who lived there. We would be ushered into living rooms and kitchens and urged to do a dance or a ‘recitation’ of poetry in order to get a few coins, or a handful of nuts, as a reward. It was rare that we got things like sweets or chocolate – we would be far more likely to come home with our swag-bags laden down with apples than with sugary treats. It makes sense, as Hallowe’en probably has roots in harvest festivals and celebrations relating to the goddess Pomona (the goddess of fruit and/or fruitfulness, and possibly apples – I’m not completely sure any more!), but I didn’t have this scholarly perspective when I was a kid, and I often felt short-changed as I munched through my pile of Granny Smiths. It’s funny, now, that I’m on the other side of the whole ‘trick or treating’ thing, that I make such a big deal out of it. I spent nearly an hour yesterday making up little ‘treat packs’ for our local children, ready to be handed over when we are, inevitably, deluged with visitors as soon as darkness falls. I’m really looking forward to it. Nothing is more lovely than seeing the local kids all excited and dressed up. I’m just hoping I have enough packs to cover everyone – a couple of years ago, we ran out of goodies and my husband and I had to cower in the kitchen with the lights turned out until the doorbell stopped ringing. That was fun.

I’m thinking about scary things today, of course, and I wanted to muse a bit about frightening films versus frightening books. I’m not sure if anyone else is like this, but I find that I’m completely unable to watch scary films. I have zero tolerance for them. One of the best photographs of me as a child is one that was taken during my first viewing of the movie ‘Jaws’ – I’m basically clutching a pillow to my chest and peering over the top of it, regarding the television with an expression of pure terror. ‘Jaws’ is a film I consider to be scary, but it’s not a ‘horror’ film, as such; when we get into the territory of horror, I just can’t do it. You might remember a few weeks back I mentioned that I’d watched ‘The Woman in Black’ and almost lost my life in the process – all this, despite the fact it’s generally considered a film so un-scary as to be funny. Even my mother, who normally shrieks at shadows, laughed her way through ‘TWIB’. I, however, could not sleep afterwards, and had to leave my bedroom lights on all night, much to the amusement of my family. I’ve seen ‘The Exorcist’ because a friend basically forced me to, and I watched ‘Poltergeist’ when I was younger before I really knew what I was getting myself in for. However, that’s about it for classic horror movies. I particularly can’t handle anything that involves possession, or demons, or monstrous psychopaths (Freddie Krueger, for instance), and I also can’t cope with anything that involves young children coming to harm. (Now that I think about it, I’ve also seen ‘The Others’, which nearly made me lose my mind because the little boy in it looks just like my brother did when he was young, so I can’t help but feel the movie is about my brother – yes, I’m weird).

Well, my brother was a bit less pale and strange-looking, but the general outline is similar. Anyway.

However, when it comes to scary books, I’m a different animal altogether. Scary books, I can usually handle. I’ve read all of John Connolly’s novels, which are pretty spooky, and feature not only murder but also a lot of supernatural goings-on, including ghosts and fallen angels and the lot. I can read Stephen King, but I can’t watch adaptations of his work. The book I’m currently reading, ‘Kraken’, is full of scary bits, which I have no problem with. If I even wanted to get picky about it, one of my favourite books is Henry James’ ‘The Turn of the Screw’, which is similar to ‘The Others’ in so many ways; I love the book, but can’t handle the film. I’m wondering why this is, and I think the secret lies in control. I feel, when reading a scary book, that I’m in control of the images being created in my mind – I can make them as scary as I’m able for, and if I want to, I can focus on something in the background of the scene instead. I also know I can close the book and walk away at any stage. I’m not completely sure about this logic, though, because usually when a person reads, the mental images are more intense, because they’re so extremely personal. Hmm.

It’s a puzzle, and no mistake. Has anyone else experienced this? Is there a secret trick to being able to watch frightening films that I’ve just never been exposed to?

Happy Hallowe’en – have a wonderful day, whether you’re trick or treating, or doling out the tricks and treats. And stay safe out there!

 

The Kraken, The Weather, and Me

Well, somehow it’s managed to become Tuesday again without my noticing it. I hate it when it does that.

I spent a lot of yesterday reading – which will come as no surprise to most of you, I’d wager – and I’m finding myself engrossed by China Miéville’s ‘Kraken’. Like all of Miéville’s novels, this one is so imaginative that it leaves you breathless as you read, asking yourself ‘did that just happen? How did that just happen?’ The plot asks us to imagine that someone has stolen a massive specimen jar from London’s Natural History Museum – a specimen jar which contains the preserved body of a giant squid, Architeuthis. The jar is so large that it seems impossible, at first, to imagine how (or why) it has been taken, but it soon starts to become clear to our protagonist, Billy Harrow, that strange things indeed are afoot. He is faced with a succession of strange and creepy Londoners on his quest to find out what happened, and some of these characters are among the most interesting I’ve ever met. I’m particularly fond of Collingswood, the smoking, foul-mouthed and wisecracking young PC (who is also gifted in extraordinary ways) who begins to crack the case. I’m not finished the book yet, but I have enjoyed what I’ve read so far. Miéville’s style can sometimes be complex, with a lot of neologisms and complex (and unexplained) jargon which we just have to do our best with; it’s a bit like jumping from one stepping stone to another across a wild, rushing river. It’s worth the effort, though. The setting for ‘Kraken’ has been compared to Neil Gaiman’s ‘Neverwhere’, and I can see why – it’s about an alternative London, it’s peopled with strange and weird creatures and magic crackles between the paving flags of the City. I love ‘Neverwhere’, and I do think ‘Kraken’ borrows some ideas from it, especially the fact that it also features a pair of sickeningly evil characters who go about together, one of whom is silent and the other extremely talkative – reading Miéville’s Goss and Subby is the same as reading Gaiman’s Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar. But, that said, I definitely have room in my heart for both these books.

Reading it has set me off thinking about the Kraken again. I say ‘again’ because I used to be obsessed with it as a child.

I first came across pictures like this one in books and encyclopedias when I was very young, and I never quite shook the fascination with these gargantuan kings of the sea. I used to imagine the heart-shredding terror of being on board ship as tentacles the size of giant redwoods started to wrap around the vessel, and the sheer helplessness of knowing there was nothing you could do about it. I tried to picture the Kraken and the Whale, locked in their eternal combat, and even tried on several occasions to draw my own version of the battle between these two sea-giants. It has always interested me, so much so that when I first tried my hand at writing a book, over a decade ago now, I featured the Kraken as a character. Or, at least, I kept mentioning the Kraken all the way through the book – but he/she/it never actually made an appearance. This glaring omission did not occur to me until I’d finished the book, and was reading back through it. It made me wonder how on earth I’d managed to bring one of the most compelling creatures in fiction into this story of mine without actually remembering to feature it at the story’s conclusion.

There may be a good reason why this story has never seen the light of day.

Some years later, I started a new story, also featuring the Kraken, but I haven’t yet managed to finish this one. It’s on the back burner, and as soon as I have time to get back to it, I will. Reading Miéville has renewed my interest in the Kraken, and it has also reminded me of the lesson I learned all those years ago – don’t keep mentioning something in a story if you have no way to bring it in, properly, to the plot. It’s like the dramatic principle described by the playwright Anton Chekhov – if you feature a loaded gun on stage in Act One, it must be fired by Act Three; if not, it has no place on the stage to begin with. I hadn’t intended to create a huge red herring through my (mis)use of the Kraken in my first book, all those years ago – it was merely a rookie mistake, but a valuable one. I promise to feature the Kraken the whole way through my new story – may I be dragged beneath the waves by a giant tentacled arm and drowned if I don’t!

As for the weather – well, I’ve learned a lesson in self-pity lately, all because of the weather. I’m really beginning to feel the needle-teeth of winter here, and people are starting to speculate about whether we’ll have a ‘hard’ winter, i.e. whether the very bad snow and ice we’ve seen in recent years will make a comeback. I was beginning to feel very sorry for myself at the prospect of facing into that sort of hardship, when I turned on the news last night and watched the coverage of Hurricane Sandy. I was taken aback by the scale of the thing, and a friend of mine (whose parents and other relatives live in Connecticut) told me that her family have had to furnish their basements and bring their generators down there in order to prepare themselves for the next few days. Apparently, as ‘hardy New Englanders’, none of this is new to them – but I felt very small for being afraid of the sort of weather we’re likely to get here. It reminded me how lucky I am to live in Ireland!

So, I hope you have a snow-, ice- and Kraken-free day, wherever you are. And if you’re in any way affected by the Hurricane, my thoughts are with you. Fingers crossed it won’t take too heavy a toll.

And So, it Begins Again!

Forsooth, it is Monday, and I’m back at my desk again. Did I miss much?

I was away for the last few days, visiting my parents, and we had a very busy weekend. The excitement kicked off on Friday night with ‘the party of the century’ (allegedly) – a surprise birthday party for my mother, which my father, brother and I have spent the last few months organising. I’m extremely happy to say that it all went off without a hitch, the guest of honour didn’t suspect anything until we all started yelling ‘surprise!’ at her, and a wonderful night was had by all. The surprise was increased by the fact that my mother’s birthday is not actually in October; it’s in March, but a combination of other family events at that time meant that we couldn’t have a party for her back then. I have to admit that the planning of this party was extremely stressful – because, of course, we all wanted it to work perfectly – but every second of the stress and worry was more than worth it. It was wonderful to give my mother such a beautiful and happy evening, surrounded by her family and friends. We had music, we had food aplenty, and we had cake (some of which was baked by me!) My mother is a wonderful woman, of whom I’m extremely proud and who I love very much, and it made me (and the rest of the family) extremely glad to see so many people make the effort to come out to help her celebrate on a freezing cold October night. So, thank you to everyone who helped us to make the night special.

The day after mam’s party, my husband and I called up to visit my parents, and for the first time in my life I wasn’t sure I wanted to look out our back windows, out over the grassy fields that stretch to the horizon behind my parents’ house. This is because those beautiful grassy fields, in which my brother and I and all our childhood friends spent all our days playing, are no more. My parents have been keeping me up to date on the changes over the last few weeks, describing for me how the land-moving machines rumbled in to rip the fields up, and trying to give me an idea of the scale of destruction, but until I saw it for myself, I couldn’t have imagined it. It drew tears, I’m not ashamed to admit it. When I was a child, these fields not only soothed the eye, but they were also a wonderland of playing opportunities – we climbed trees, slopped around in the mud, ran through the tall grass, swung out of the gates, and just rambled for hours ‘up hill and down dale’, aimlessly having fun as only children can.

It wasn’t only my brother and me who used to play there – my father did, and all his siblings did, and my grandfather before them. There was a feature of the landscape known locally as ‘The Bog Well’ which was marked on maps going back hundreds of years, familiar to all of us living in the area – now it’s been destroyed. It’s making me so angry to know that all these memories are now going to be entombed beneath a supermarket, and it makes me twice as angry to think my parents, who are used to living with the comfort of fields stretching out behind them, will now have to live with a huge loading bay right behind their house. But what can be done? Nothing. The fields were sold, permission to build was sought and granted, and that’s that. Progress trundles on.

My father, husband and I walked down to a neighbour’s garden to get a closer look at some of the deep excavation. The machines had cut down about fifteen feet – perhaps more – into the ground, making the garden where we were standing feel like it was teetering on the edge of a cliff. It was like looking down into the deep end of a gargantuan swimming pool.  ‘You know how deep they’ve cut down?’ asked my husband. I, thinking he was talking in terms of feet and inches, said ‘no’.  ‘About five thousand years,’ he replied, looking with disgust at the history that has been lost. That really struck pain into my heart.

The rest of the weekend was great, though – we got to spend time with my family, and that’s always good fun. Today is a Bank Holiday here, so we’ve got an extra day of relaxation before the world kicks in again. After the weekend we had, with the extremes of emotion we went through, we need the extra day, that’s for sure. I hope you’ve all had a good weekend and that you’re all happy, healthy and well. Happy Monday!

Memories

Good morning, world. I’m here in my kitchen baking (again), and the radio is playing as I work. The DJs are asking listeners about movies and memories from their childhoods, and it’s got me thinking about my first memory. Well, at least, what I think is my first memory.

When I was born, my parents had just bought our house. It was right beside my dad’s mother’s house, and it was (probably) about a hundred years old. It was in a terrible state of disrepair and neglect, and (spookily) the last owner was an old lady who had died in the house. So, my parents (who were so young… so much younger than I am now!) decided to knock the house and rebuild it. Meanwhile, our little family lived in a mobile home in what is now my parents’ garden. I’m convinced that not only do I remember the back wall of our house as it was being built, but also the kitchen area of our mobile home, and I consider this one of my earliest memories.

My parents tell me there’s no way this can be the truth. I was barely sentient, they say. I was a mere blob of flesh with an appetite and very little hair. How could I possibly remember these things?

I’m also sure I remember our street the way it looked when the house had been demolished – it was like a row of teeth with the middle one missing. To remember this, I must have managed to haul myself up to a sitting position and peer out of my pram, goggling in that particularly unfocused way that only babies and the very drunk have ever mastered. Even I have doubts that I managed to do this; yet, the memory remains.

I also remember (I tell myself) sitting on the floor of our kitchen playing with the pots and pans. My mother has told me I did do this, but I feel the picture I have of it in my mind is more influenced by a photograph than it is by actual experience. I see this memory as though I was outside my own body, so I was either an experienced astral projector at a young age or I saw a picture of this at some stage and have convinced myself it’s a memory. It looked a bit like this:

Most of my childhood memories are sort of like that, though – almost like photographs. I have a memory of walking back to my aunt’s house with no shoes on one very hot summer’s day when I was about six, but I see it like a snapshot of myself taken by someone else. No such photo exists though, because I was definitely on my own at the time. I remember the first time I saw a girl who would later turn out to be one of my best friends – it was on the day of our First Holy Communion, so we were about seven. It was like my mind took a photograph of her as she left her pew, resplendent in her beautiful white gown, to approach the altar; I wouldn’t actually meet her till the next school year, when we were placed sitting beside one another, but this memory of my first sight of her is very clear. I still don’t know why my mind decided she was important, and worth taking note of, before we’d actually met – perhaps, as well as being an astral projector, I’m also a bit psychic. Or something.

The first film I remember seeing in the cinema was Bambi. This doesn’t mean I was, in fact, born in 1942 – it must have been an anniversary showing, perhaps. I am old enough, however, to remember when smoking was still permitted in cinemas here in Ireland; my memories of watching Bambi take place through a haze of cigarette smoke. I also remember (patchily) watching E.T. the same way. I went to both these movies with my dad, and he still likes to tell people how I babbled about stars and aliens and little men in the sky the whole way home after we’d been to see E.T. I think it’s one of his favourite memories of me.

Whether or not my memories are actually memories, or just mis-remembered photographs, I still treasure them. My parents were great photography enthusiasts when my brother and I were young, and we have a wonderful store of images to look back on – and they’re not just pixels on a screen, either. They’re actual photographs, in a collection of biscuit tins, yellowed with age, varying in size as the cameras changed and modernised through the years, and I love them all.

Anyway, time to come back up memory lane now! My cake is cooling on the rack, and it’s time to move on to my next task of the day. I hope you’ll share some memories with me in the comments below, and that you all have wonderful days today.

P.S. I won’t be blogging tomorrow as ‘real life’ is interposing again – I’ll tell you all about it next week. Hold tight till then.

Notes for Tuesday

It’s no longer Monday – I feel like celebrating, but I have nothing with which to celebrate, nor indeed anyone with whom to celebrate. So, I’ll have to content myself with writing here instead, as a sort of mini-party for one. *streamers*

Yeah, so this is a pretty boring party. Let’s get on with the blog.

Part One: My Attempt at a Picture Book

Last year, my friend had a little boy. He’s (of course) the handsomest and most charming little boy in the world, and I promised her a special present for his birth. Of course, he’s now almost 2 years old and I still haven’t got around to making this present for him, because it’s a book – to be more precise, a picture book. Because this little boy’s birthday is coming up in the next few months I’ve really put a kick on with regard to getting this book done.  I have the story written (finally) – I had one written which I really liked, but then my friend told me that certain aspects of the story as I’d written it would be meaningless to my target audience, i.e. her son, so I had to go back to the drawing board. Yesterday, I wrote the story again. It felt good to write an entire book in a day, even if it is less than 300 words in total! The words are one thing – now I have to illustrate it, too. I used to be good at drawing in school; I illustrated all my own notebooks with little characters to help me remember important points in all my harder subjects, for instance. I’ve always drawn – I’ve been drawing for longer than I’ve been writing.

But heck. Drawing is one thing. Illustration is hard. I’ve finally got basic face-shapes and characters, and I’m sketching out expressions, and so on, but what I can’t do is make the pictures in my head match up with what’s coming out of my pen. And I hate that. It’s been a few years since I drew anything properly, so it’s probably no wonder I’m a bit rusty. But I will persevere!

Part Two: My Amazement at the Internet

So, there are a lot of writers and authors out there. I don’t think I really appreciated how many until I started this crazy dream-following thing back in August. They all Tweet, many of them blog, most of them have professional Facebook pages… it’s all rather overwhelming. I can’t help wishing that all this stuff had been available when I was a teen, dreaming big dreams of one day being an author, poet or artist; I think I’d have found it a lot easier to share my work if I’d felt I could do it semi-anonymously through a blog or Twitter feed. As it happened for me, most of what I created back then languished in boxes and old biscuit tins under my bed, and has probably long ago reverted to dust.

But I digress.

What I mean is – I’m glad I’m the age I am, where I can appreciate exactly how much the Internet has done for people who like to create. I’m not sure a person who has always known about the World Wide Web can really get a perspective on it, because it’s so all-encompassing. I’m glad that I knew what the world was like before we could just refer to Google if we needed an answer to some burning question. My brother and I had a set of encyclopedias, which our parents spent a huge sum of money on – we made great use of them, and they’re still in our parents’ living room, resplendent in their gold binding, but to a modern child, they’re an impossibility. We might as well have a Stegosaurus in our house as a set of books which don’t respond to tapping or swiping, and which don’t have any clickable links.

What’s a Google? Can I eat it?

I’m glad I’m old enough to appreciate what I have, and not so old that I can’t be bothered to learn how to use any of this newfangled stuff.  More reasons to celebrate!

Have a lovely Tuesday. I hope you find some reasons to celebrate, too.

 

 

 

Photo credit: http://www.fineartamerica.com Confused Dinosaur fine art print by Jesse Pickett

How was your Weekend?

Happy Monday!

It’s sunny here, and the trees at the end of our garden are golden, which automatically puts me in a good mood.  The light is wonderful, and it’s the sort of day that begs you to go outside – as soon as I’ve written this, I’ll go exploring for a while.

I hope everyone had a good weekend.  I spent mine recovering from a heavy cold, reading a lot and doing quite a bit of baking.  Yesterday, we went to the cinema to see ‘Looper’ just before it leaves; I was a bit scared to see it, because I thought it would be very similar to my WiP in some respects.  Turns out it wasn’t at all like my WiP, and it was also a good movie, if a little full of unanswered questions.  Somehow though these don’t seem to matter, because the film overall is entertaining and well-paced.  I’m not sure what they did to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s face to make him look so different, and I’m also amazed by how good a job he did in ‘impersonating’ another actor in the movie (I don’t want to give too much away in case anyone hasn’t seen it yet!), but it was pretty impressive.  It made me wonder whether it’s easier to get away with unanswered questions and sticky, problematic plot holes in the media of film as opposed to in writing.  Perhaps I’m wrong!

I also read some books.  I’m afraid to say how many in case you think I’m a nutter.  Sometimes my husband gets a bit afraid when he sees me reading; I think, secretly, he fears I may be an android.  (I’m not, I swear!)  One of the books I read was ‘The Poison Throne’ by Celine Kiernan, an award-winning Irish author.  I absolutely loved it, and I can’t wait to read the second and third book in the Moorehawke Trilogy (‘Poison Throne’ is Book One, obviously).  I’m amazed by how books have now really taken on the mantle of ‘tutorials’ for me in recent months – not only am I reading them for enjoyment, but I’m also learning from them more than ever before.  I always admired things like narrative voice, structure, characterisation, imagery and so on in the books I read, but now that I’m mid-way through my own effort to create a finished book, I’m really taking note of how other people manage the things I feel I have problems with.

Celine Kiernan is a wonderful writer, and she’s deservedly award-winning.  Things I learned from ‘The Poison Throne’ include:

How it’s all right, even if your book is action-driven and full of tension and serious Goings On, to have funny dialogue and very amusing scenes; it doesn’t derail the tense bits;

How to use details to make something seem real – for instance, Wynter and her father in ‘The Poison Throne’ are carpenters, and Kiernan uses just enough information about what they do to give us an authentic sense of it, without overloading us with the nitty-gritty and making us feel like we’re drowning in sawdust;

How to handle action scenes, and make them scary and real without coming across as corny;

How to create a confident, self-assured, charismatic protagonist without making her seem arrogant, and how to pitch a voice which is appropriate to a person of the age my own main character is.  I really found that hard, so reading this book gave me an insight into what’s suitable.

As well as all that, it was a wonderful story which gave me such enjoyment, and it’s full of well-fleshed characters, each with their own voice.  I loved how her characters hint at their hidden depths and their back stories, and I really loved the political intrigue of life in the kingdom.  I really got a sense of the suffocating nature of protocol and how horrible it must be to have to do something for fear of angering the king in ‘The Poison Throne’ – the punishments for crossing ‘Good’ King Jonathon are laid out very clearly!

I still haven’t dared to revisit my own WiP; the more I leave it to settle, the more my ideas around it are becoming clear.  Details I could add are occurring to me and certain plot problems are beginning to work themselves out, so I suppose leaving it to settle for another few days might be a good thing.  I suppose, too, it’s good to stay away from it until I really start to miss it – that can only strengthen my desire to make it as good as I can.  Here’s hoping, at least.  Meanwhile, I’ll look a bit like this:

Whether you’re writing, editing, or (like me) percolating, I wish you well.  Have a great day.

Issues in YA Literature

Hello, and happy Friday.

Even though I didn’t work on my WiP yesterday due to ill-health, I did spend my time doing useful things, including reading other blogs and keeping up to date with current thought in the YA world.  Turns out there are lots of burning topics to think about, but the one I want to write about today just stuck in my head, and thoughts started to congeal around it.  That topic is social issues – race, sexuality, disability, poverty – and how they are dealt with in Young Adult books.

My thought processes on this started yesterday when I read a blog article about race in Young Adult literature, and how the characters, particularly the main characters, tend to be white, or (even worse) are just assumed to be white.  I’m afraid I don’t know yet how to link things properly on my blog, but if you want to copy and paste the following into your browser, you’ll get to the article:

http://www.wordforteens.com/2012/10/the-whiteness-of-ya-books-and-book.html

The blogger was asking the question ‘why does this happen?’ and, unfortunately, came to the conclusion that ‘whiteness sells’; in other words, that putting pictures of pretty white girls on the cover of the book will help to sell it.  I thought the article was excellent, and timely – and very, very sad.

The blogger mentions the Twitter backlash a few years ago when a character in The Hunger Games was portrayed by a black actress when the book came to be turned into a movie.  It seemed that some people couldn’t get their head around one of the most important players in the story (Rue) not having the same white skin as the protagonists.  In fact, the character is described as black when we first meet her in the book, but it is such an unimportant part of her that it soon just becomes incidental; it becomes just another part of her, like her singing voice and her ability to climb, and her gentle compassion.  She’s probably my favourite character, not only in The Hunger Games but in the trilogy overall; it made zero difference to me what colour her skin was. I remember the furore around race when the movie came out, and I remember how disgusted I was by it.

By using the words ‘unimportant’ and ‘incidental’, by the way, I don’t mean to downplay the importance or significance of these characteristics, and I’m certainly not trying to belittle or disparage ideas of racial equality.  I don’t mean to imply that the fact of the character’s blackness is not significant – in fact, ideas of race, sexuality, gender and disability are very important to me as a person, and as a writer.  What I mean is, the fact that the character of Rue has black skin makes no difference to her character in this story.  Her compassion, her kindness, her talents, her loving heart, her bravery, and her beautiful spirit all have nothing to do with the colour of her skin; this is why the author doesn’t mention it again after our first meeting with the character.  She’s not brave because she’s black; she’s just a brave person who also happens to be black.  The protagonist, Katniss, is also a brave person – not because she’s white, she just also happens to be white.  It’s noteworthy that Suzanne Collins doesn’t really dwell on physical characteristics or descriptions in her books – we’re not constantly reminded of Katniss’ race, or the physical appearance of any character, to the best of my recollection.  People in these books are just people, and I think that’s important.

I then started to think about Ursula Le Guin, and the way she has always dealt with race and bodily difference in her novels.  For Le Guin, characters are nearly always described as being brown, or dark – it seems like everyone, more or less, is the same colour, but that colour is not necessarily white.  Again, like Collins, skin colour is not important to characterisation in Le Guin – it’s an incidental, barely-mentioned thing. The reader is given enough detail to fix the character in their mind and then we just get on with the story, with nobody paying any heed to what colour a person is. Even gender and sexuality, in Le Guin’s work, is seen as being fluid – distinctions are made unimportant. I’m thinking of The Left Hand of Darkness here, where it’s impossible to even describe a character as being ‘male’ or ‘female’ – everyone in this book is both, and neither, male or female. They can choose a gender at certain times in their lives (known as ‘kemmer’), and temporarily become one or the other, but for the most part gender is unimportant to who the characters are. I’ve always admired Le Guin’s treatment of people in this novel – even the idea of pronouns, and how to refer to people, was problematic but she overcame it through some very skilful use of language.  Sometimes characters who are usually referred to with male pronouns are described as women, and vice-versa; sometimes, pronouns are just ignored.

I also began to think about disability in Young Adult literature, and found myself stuck for examples of characters who are disabled. More often than not, in these books, protagonists are more specially gifted – stronger, faster, quicker to learn – than their contemporaries, and it’s rare to come across characters, let alone protagonists, who are just unexceptional, or who have a disability. There’s also a risk in literature that the author will decide to ‘cure’ a disabled character, or bestow some extra-special talent on them to ‘make up for’ their disability; though this might be done with a good heart, it’s important to remember that it can be seen as insulting by readers with disabilities.  Why is it so hard, I wonder, to imagine a character who not only lives their life perfectly well, but also excels at whatever it is they choose to do, and all this while disabled?

It would be wonderful, I think, if characters in novels could be just seen as ‘people’, regardless of their colour, gender, sexuality or disabilities.  These things are important, of course, and they will affect how a person sees themselves and how their world works, but they shouldn’t make a difference to whether or not they’re a good person, and certainly not to whether or not they’re a good character, about whom we enjoy reading. It would be wonderful if readers didn’t automatically assume that every character is white, straight and privileged, and if book covers (as the other blogger suggested) didn’t reflect a homogeneous, all-white picture. I certainly hope we never witness another ‘Rue is black?’ debacle, because – surely – at this stage, it should make no difference.

What are your thoughts on these issues? I’m particularly interested to know if anyone has any recommendations for books I could read with disabled characters, or books which deal with race or gender in interesting ways.  Let me know what you think!