Sue Townsend: thank you for the memories

It was with great sadness that I heard of the death of Sue Townsend on 10 April 2014.

I’d caught it as a Tweet on Twitter just before going to bed but couldn’t find any confirmation until the next day, when it was all over the newspapers and internet. Tributes were pouring in for a woman who caught the imagination of not just one generation but of many.

I’ve spent the first part of the Easter weekend devouring the book that made her a household name: The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 3/4. It’s the 30th anniversary edition and it contains some fascinating information about Townsend’s journey to becoming a bestselling author. I’d had no idea that:

  • she had left school aged 15 because she said her parents couldn’t afford the uniform for her to go to the local grammar schools to take exams
  • one of the most famous diaries of recent times started off as a secret writing project, and the very John Tydeman, who Adrian writes regularly to with his attempts at poetry, championed it at the BBC
  • Adrian was originally called Nigel but Townsend was persuaded, with difficulty, to change it after BBC people pointed out it was too similar to Nigel Molesworth. Before Townsend arrived at Adrian, she experimented with the name ‘Malcolm’ but rejected it, saying that it reminded her of blocked sinuses
  • Sue Townsend had originally written the diary as reading material for adults, despite the age of the main protagonist
  • she had become a virtual recluse towards the end of her life because of ill health and what she called ‘late-onset shyness’.

I first read The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4 when I was around the same age, and certainly in the mid-1980s soon after I moved over here from Canada. The books were a joy to me – pure comedy and so evocative of the times I was growing up in. I felt both sympathy and frustration for the wannabe-intellectual, who pestered Malcolm Muggeridge for information on what it was like to be an intellectual, and who badgered the kind John Tydeman with his dreadful poetry. His teenage angst, heightened by raging hormones, lust over Pandora, acne (which he mistakes for Lassa Fever) and the insecurity that many if not most teens feel, rang true and I was staggered that a middle-aged woman could capture this so well. Townsend did say to her publishers that she didn’t want her name on the book cover precisely for this reason: ‘It was supposed to be written by a 13 3/4-year-old boy. It seemed stupid to have my name on it.’

Returning to the book several decades later, and it still seems fresh to me. I still laugh aloud at Adrian’s ineptitude and his seriousness. This is one of my favourite passages:

Thursday January 22nd

It is a dirty lie about Pandora’s father being a milkman! He is an accountant at the dairy. Pandora says she will duff Nigel up if he goes round committing libel. I am in love with her again.

Nigel has asked me to go to a disco at the youth club tomorrow night; it is being held to raise funds for a new packet of ping pong balls. I don’t know if I will go because Nigel is a punk at weekends. His mother lets him be one, providing he wears a string vest under his bondage T shirt.

My mother has got an interview for a job. She is practising her typing and not doing any cooking. So what will it be like if she gets the job? My father should put his foot down before we are a broken home.’

For all his aspirations to intellectualism, Adrian is still very provincial and narrow-minded and this is what gives the books much of their irony. Take, for example, his comments on his mother’s disillusionment with marriage: ‘… she said that for some women marriage was like being in prison…Marriage is nothing like being in prison! Women are let out every day to go to the shops and stuff…’ Later he gets a worse shock when she cuts her hair off, wears boiler suits (sometimes with sequins) and joins a feminist group.

Similarly, his despair at not being able to do his maths homework drives him to calling the Samaritans for help. ‘The nice man at the end of the phone told me the answer was nine-eighths. He was dead kind to someone in despair…’ only to later lament the help: ‘The stupid Samaritan got the answer wrong! It’s only seven-fifths.’ For all his attempts at intellectual loftiness (reading and not understanding Iris Murdoch, for example), Adrian still remains quite sheltered and, dare I say it, mediocre.

Adrian as a teenager nowadays

In the notes at the back of the 30th anniversary edition, Sue Townsend is asked what Adrian would be like if he were a teen nowadays. She replies: ‘He would be exactly the same, but he wouldn’t be using Twitter … He would keep a secret diary. … He would not use social networking.’ As someone who does use Facebook and Twitter and has a blog, I feel strangely happy about this revelation. Perhaps this is because Adrian Mole represents a certain time in my life when these activities weren’t even dreamt of and teens did other things, like go to Ricky Lemon’s Youth Club and have slide shows on wombs cut in half as a form of sex education (actually, I never experienced anything like that). It’s strange that, despite the lack of social media in the Adrian Mole books, they still feel timeless. Or maybe they do to old-timers like me.

RIP Sue Townsend, and thank you for the memories and the laughs.

image courtesy of i.telegraph.co.uk

Quotes are taken from: The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4 (30th anniversary edition), published by Puffin in 2012, first published by Townsend in 1982.

 

What does a picture book need?

Hi readers! Here is a post just for you.

Today I have a question and this question is: 

What does a picture book need?

You see, guys, I am writing a picture book at the moment; it is mainly for young girls and it’s about a princess. But one day I asked my mum: “Does a picture book need description? Or does it not because it has pictures?” Then my mum said, “That would be a good blog post: what does a picture book need?”

So here I am now asking you what you think a picture book needs.

So please don’t hesitate to comment; we want some answers!

Review: Geek Girl, by Holly Smale

Tonight’s review – by Holly, no less! – is of Geek Girl, by Holly Smale.

 

Image courtesy of amazon.co.uk

What it’s about (from the publishers):

“My name is Harriet Manners, and I am a geek.”

Harriet Manners knows that a cat has 32 muscles in each ear, a “jiffy” lasts 1/100th of a second, and the average person laughs 15 times per day. She knows that bats always turn left when exiting a cave and that peanuts are one of the ingredients of dynamite. But she doesn’t know why nobody at school seems to like her.

So when Harriet is spotted by a top model agent, she grabs the chance to reinvent herself. Even if it means stealing her best friend’s dream, incurring the wrath of her arch enemy Alexa, and repeatedly humiliating herself in front of impossibly handsome model Nick. Even if it means lying to the people she loves.

Veering from one couture disaster to the next with the help of her overly enthusiastic father and her uber-geeky stalker, Toby, Harriet begins to realise that the world of fashion doesn’t seem to like her any more than the real world did. As her old life starts to fall apart, will Harriet be able to transform herself before she ruins everything?

Holly’s review:

This book is about a 15-year-old girl whose mother is dead. She is a total geek until a model agency spots her and then things change.

I am currently reading the sequel to this book and the next one will be coming out soon. Harriet, the geek girl, sort of reminds me of myself except she is a lot more clever and older than me. This book isn’t tragic, it’s actually quite funny. I think this book is brilliant. I absolutely love it. I think this book is definitely for girls.

This is the best book I’ve read in ages. I will hopefully be reviewing the other book soon!

Sam’s review:

Holly picked this book off a table in Waterstone’s while we were browsing one day and the assistant (a young man no less!) raved about it. Holly decided to give it a go and, as soon as she started reading, she couldn’t stop. I think she loved the random facts that Harriet comes out with and got really involved in the story – a true underdog triumphing against the world kind of thing. She laughs a lot reading these books and I think as she is moving now into pre-teen/teen books, we will be looking for more like this. Harriet is a likeable heroine – she’s smart, and not apologetic for being so. Even though she’s spotted by a modeling agency, she isn’t obsessed with body image, make-up, etc – she likes knowing crazy facts and figures, though she’s not so keen on the bullying that sometimes accompanies being who she is. But she’s never apologetic for that and I think she makes a great role model (not just a clothes model!) for young girls, making their wobbly way into the world of teenagers (an admittedly terrifying place).

I am from a problem area of society

Reading the course contents from my MA last week, I was rather shocked to discover that I come from a recognized problem area of society.

The focus for that week was on ‘socially committed writing’ and the materials introduced this topic by saying: ‘A feature of the later part of the twentieth-century was the increase in the number of children’s books which took a hard look at many of the problem areas of society, such as homelessness, single parent families, drug abuse and racial prejudice.’

I’ve never considered myself in this light before, though I remember very clearly growing up in the mid-80s through to the late nineties and people having very strong views about the evils of single-parent families. News stories would hint at the social disruption children like me were causing across the UK – as if we were a band of hard-hearted outlaws who left nothing but crime and unhappiness in our wake.

Still, it was rather shocking to read that single parent families can be classes as a problem area of society. I wanted more clarification on this assertion, but none was offered.

And, in fact, the only text we looked at that showed this particular family structure was Dear Nobody, by Berlie Doherty, which deals with the issues raised by another potential problem area of society – teenage pregnancy.

Image courtesy of www.berliedoherty.com

In this story, teenagers Chris and Helen think they are in love and their first physical encounter results in Helen falling pregnant. The book revolves around the way in which they and their families come to terms with this. Chris, the father, comes from a single-parent home and it is portrayed as a very warm, loving and stable environment. Thank you, Berlie, for showing that single parents and their offspring are not social pariahs.

So why has this type of family been singled out (pardon the pun) as a social problem? From what I remember in the 1980s (and my memory’s a little hazy in my fourth decade), we were viewed as rather a disturbed lot, prone to anger and antisocial behaviour, and were low achievers academically and vocationally, with an article in the Daily Telegraph, from relatively recently in 2008, stating: ‘Young people whose mother and father split up are also three times as likely to become aggressive or badly behaved, according to the comprehensive survey carried out by the Office for National Statistics.’ (You can read more about this here.)

The problem with statistics is that they are figures and not people. I won’t deny that they reflect elements of reality, of society, but they also risk turning people who might otherwise break the trend into discouraged accepters of an unhelpful stereotype. I was lucky – I was encouraged to be successful, to study hard, to never be a victim. I’m not blowing my own trumpet (well, I am not trying to at least) but even though my mother and I struggled to pay the bills (working two jobs each as well as studying and working), I got a place at Oxford, and neither of us has ever been unemployed and a burden to the taxpayer. Nowadays, I don’t think that single-parent families are considered as quite as dangerous to society as they used to be because the traditional family structure has changed so much in a relatively short space of time.

Turning to children’s literature, I wanted to see how it reflected what was happening in society. And not in the sort of books that (apologies for my frustration here), talk rather patronizingly to parents and children about ‘hey, it’s OK not to have your mummy/daddy living at home with you’. No, I wanted to look at books where single-parent families just were – with no excuses and no apologies.

It was quite hard to come up with loads of books where this was the case. Granted, plenty of books have orphans and half-orphans, but it seems as if a parent dying is acceptable and less likely to turn you into a social monster than divorce, for example. What I did find were the following:

  • Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech: I really loved reading this book, filled as it was with tenderness and respect for the central character, Salamanca Tree, who embarks on a journey to find her mother, who left her and her father. There is no indication here that Salamanca is nothing but an intelligent and well balanced child. Yes, she does yearn to find her mother and discover why she left, but she’s not filled with existential angst or boiling rage at life.
  • Pippi Longstocking, by Astrid Lindgren: OK, this is a little farfetched, as Pippi doesn’t actually live with a parent (she sets up home on her own with her monkey and her horse after her father is presumed lost at sea, and her mother is dead). However, what Lindgren does so well is take a potshot at po-faced societal expectations that all happy children must live either with a family or in a children’s home in order to grow up into successful and obedient human beings. Pippi can defend herself, with hilarious humour, against attempts to force her into conformity. Sure, she’s a little wild but she’s also brave, generous and kind-hearted and the reader cannot stop rooting for her.
  • Madame Doubtfire, by Anne Fine: This story is tragicomic, really. It made uncomfortable reading for Holly and me but not because the children were maladapted – it was the dreadful behaviour of the adults that made us squirm. In fact, the children were much more well adjusted than the parents and our hearts broke for their pain at how the parents behaved. But at least this shows that children can remain true to themselves and brave even in the face of parental weakness.

I found other examples of children who were brave, likeable and successful but these tended to come from families where one parent had died rather than separation or divorce.

So I leave you with this question: Can you recommend good books about children from single-parent families? Is the death of a parent more acceptable than divorce or separation in children’s lit?   

 

 

 

World Book Day 2014!!!

A post from Holly…

Happy World Book Day everyone! As you may know, this is the day when hundreds of children in schools dress up as one of their favourite characters from a book. And it is not just children who dress up – some adults dress up too.

I am dressing up as Heidi from the story of Heidi. But my school’s World Book Day day is tomorrow, a day late. Here is a list of what other children I know will be dressing up as:

  • Lotty (from the Lotty Project)
  • The Cheshire Cat (from Alice in Wonderland)
  • Ruby (from Double Act)
  • Mickey Mouse
  • Harry Potter
  • Heidi

So Happy World Book Day to all our followers!!!