As a writer of funny books, it often seems as if such novels are not given the same weight as those that deal with tragic or heart-breaking themes. Whilst this does not keep me awake at night (at the best of times, there’s a long list of other things to do that and then comes along a global pandemic), I do think that a) young people could really do with a lift at the moment and b) a book that has a light-hearted or comic tone does not necessarily mean that its themes and content are frivolous.
As well as being an author, I teach part-time in a girls’ school and once a fortnight, years 7 and 8 go to the library for a lesson. We have a gorgeous library and an equally talented and enthusiastic librarian so we are very lucky compared to so many other schools. As a writer, it’s fascinating to see what they are reading and as a class, I ask students, especially those who are more reluctant to pick up a book or have fallen out of love with books somewhat, to ask for recommendations. The two things they ask for are either mysteries/thrillers or funny books. We can always find plenty of the former to recommend to them but far less choice of the second. Given how stressful teenage life can be, even more so at the moment, then perhaps now really is the time when funny novels can come into their own and take their turn in the spotlight alongside their more heart-breaking book sisters!
In my books, (Rebel with a Cupcake, Firefly April 2020 and Tulip Taylor, June 2019) I aim to make readers laugh but also think, a combination which has made Holly Smale, Jenny McLachlan and Katy Birchall’s books so appealing to readers. Though readers of Tulip Taylor often tell me that the moment on page 23 makes them giggle and Chapter 18 is also a great fan favourite, the novel explores the rather dubious world of ‘sharenting’, how lifestyle blogger/vlogger/influencer parents can make money out of their children and their lives. Is this ethical? Whose life is it anyway – is it right for parents to share images or details from their children’s lives which may then stay online with them as the child grows up? Is it right to earn money from ‘selling’ your family life online? I loved writing scenes with Tulip’s mother because she is so extreme but she is monstrously selfish. Or is she?
I also take on stereotypical reactions to girls who choose to experiment in wearing make-up. Does wearing make-up necessarily make you vain, self-centred and vapid? Or is it an entirely understandable reaction to living in a world where a girl’s value to society is often measured in how far she is considered conventionally attractive? Girls seem trapped in a paradox. They are sent so many invisible messages that they should make themselves attractive but then if this standard is achieve, they often find that to found pretty can also mean to be found vacant.
Rebel with a Cupcake deals with other (please excuse the pun) weighty issues. I’m very glad that there a number of novels published which deal with society’s attitudes to weight, the pain of fat-shaming and the importance of body positivity as it’s a subject close to my heart. From childhood onwards, I’ve always been larger than average. As a teacher at form time, I would overhear so many heart-breaking conversations about fear of being fat, the unintentional fat-shaming of others, the horror that being fat has for so many girls, the complex relationship so many of them had with food. They craved food but felt that they weren’t allowed to eat.
Out of all of this, the idea for Rebel with a Cupcake was born. Jess is confident, considered attractive in many ways, but even this confidence is punctured by a combination of pressure from her model mother and teenager vulnerability. I know some readers might find Jess’ choices with regard to food as problematic. There is no doubt in my mind that all the science says that diets don’t work long term. However, diets/products are endorsed by celebrities on social media every second of the day. I wanted to write something that was honest about what it’s like to be a larger person in a society which is often fat-phobic. Body positivity is a wonderful thing. But it is, in my experience, hard won and some days you can be more confident than others. To have a character who never felt any doubt about her appearance, to me felt false. And who wants to write a novel for young people which isn’t grounded in truth? I wanted Jess to feel the doubts and insecurities so many woman and girls feel but still to progress on her journey back to confidence. With a fair few jokes along the way!