The YA Book Prize

mrlIf you follow me on Twitter, and Instagram, you’ll know that to celebrate the forthcoming YA Book Prize, this week is #TeamSalisbury week – during which the YA Book Prize focuses The Sin Eater’s Daughter, one of the ten nominees this year.

Tonight, I’ll be taking part in an hour long Twitter chat, from 8pm, where you can ask me questions, and I’ll do my best to answer them. Please come and chat with me!

For now, I want to talk a bit, about The Sin Eater’s Daughter, and what it means, both to me, and apparently to a lot of young people too. And how unexpected that was.

I expect that to some people, at first glance The Sin Eater’s Daughter being on the list is a little strange. On a list featuring multi-award winning and critically acclaimed authors like Sarah Crossan, Louise O’Neill, Frances Hardinge and Patrick Ness. Against books that fight prejudice, raise awareness, and tackle big societal issues. Books that are both beautifully crafted, innovative pieces of literature and also complex, deep and essential explorations of the world we inhabit. Standing alongside some of the most important children’s fiction to have been produced EVER, is my book.

I thought I was writing a fairytale; a girl in a tower who falls in love at the wrong time. A wicked queen, and a handsome prince and a damsel in distress. It’s a tale as old as time, and one we all know. Sin eater  cover share

And I did write that. All of those things are in the book. What I didn’t realise until the end was that it was also a story about emotional abuse. Control. Manipulation, lies, and threats. Neglect. Growing up in a loveless environment. Being taken advantage of. Being used.

In writing about a girl who is trapped by her heritage, and her abilities, and her gender, I wrote about a girl discovering who she is, and what she wants, in a world that’s never considered she may be anything more than what it decides for her. I thought I was telling a story about a caged bird who longed to be freed. And I was. but it was also more. Darker. Less palatable. Twylla’s story might be fiction, but for a lot of girls it isn’t.

My heart breaks, at least once a week, when I get an email, or anonymous message on Tumblr. Girls (because it’s always girls) who thank me for writing Sin Eater, tell me they loved it. And then tell me their parents won’t let them go out with their friends, or stay over at people’s houses, or date. Girls who tell me they’re 15/16/17 and have to be in bed by nine o’clock at night. Girls who tell me they’re emailing from a computer in their school library because their parents check their messages. Girls whose parents choose their clothes for them. Girls whose parents choose their GCSE subjects, tell them what to eat, who they can and can’t talk to, and when.

Girls for whom natural obedience to their parents, and familial respect, has tipped over into something deeply sinister, and deeply damaging. “If you just do this, I’ll love you…” “If you’d just behave, things would be so much easier…” “It’s for your own good.” It’s always “YOU“, always the girls who are responsible for the way they’re treated. Often they don’t have relatives or friends they can run to, they don’t have money, or street-smarts. A lot of them don’t even have friends, because their lack of ‘normalcy’ makes them weird in the eyes of their peers. Makes them – wait for it – ‘unlikeable’.

We talk a lot, as readers, about wanting to ‘see’ ourselves in books. I wish so much that no one saw themselves in Twylla.

Because I know that without support, a lot of girls in Twylla’s position won’t be able to escape their abusers until well into adulthood. And the sad fact is that for some of them, they’ll escape controlling and abusive home relationships, only to end up in comparable romantic ones. When you are brought up in an oppressive environment, when love and support and basic kindness are lacking, it’s too alluring to believe in the first person who shows you those things, whether they mean them or not. To a person who has been brought up in an environment of emotional security, it’s easy to look at another person making what’s clearly a huge mistake and judge them for it. To think them weak, and stupid. To be smug in the knowledge they’d never make that decision. To walk away and leave them to it, alone, and vulnerable. And so the cycle continues…

We don’t talk about this kind of abuse very often. We don’t talk about the often-irreversible damage it does to be undermined, manipulated and neglected by the very people society tells you are bound to protect and love you. We have mechanisms and support in place for children who are physically abused. But there is so little exposure for children who are emotionally abused, day to day, in their own homes, by the people who are supposed to love them. They are the hidden victims, the forgotten ones.

For some girls, life is, and always has been a little medieval. We forget that having a voice, having agency, is a privilege not afforded to everyone. So I’m proud and honoured that my book has been a comfort to girls like Twylla. If my book has made them feel less alone, and feel less hopeless, then I’ve already won.

 

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Second time around…

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Me, and my friends Fran and Katja, who came over from Germany to celebrate with me.

This time last week I was downstairs in Waterstones Piccadilly. It was the night of the launch of my second novel THE SLEEPING PRINCE.

Half of my face was painted gold and I was wearing a crown I’d made at home two nights before. At that point in time, I still had my shoes on. If I remember rightly, my publicist Rachel had just shown me my cake, and I was trying not to cry because there was a cake, and the cake had a map on it of the world I’d created, and my publishers did that for me.

They had set up a table with alchemical potions and knick-knacks on; they’d made badges showing the countries in my world so people could choose where they were ‘from’. They’d supplied wine and pop and crackers and blue cheese. And they’d got me a cake – did I mention the cake?

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CAKE

It was my cake. For my second book.

There’s a lot of nervous talk around second books – second anything, in fact. We’ve all heard of Second Album Syndrome, and the Sophomore Slump. Second books are notoriously harder to write; first books are often laboured over and nourished for years before eventual publication, whereas second books are usually written to a deadline. There’s more expectation to write a ‘better’ book second time around. There’s the fear that all of the fire and innovation was used up writing the first book and the second will come from a more mechanical place. There’s the worry that being able to write a first book was a fluke, and it can’t possibly be repeated.

I’m lucky, because when you write a series, you already know largely what the second book will be about. You don’t truly have to start from scratch, as all of the groundwork – the world, the history, the characters – is already in place.

Unless you do something stupid, like set it in a different place, and have a different character telling the story. But what kind of idiot would… Ah. Yeah.

From the very earliest days of The Sin Eater’s Daughter, I knew I wanted it to be a series. And I knew the narrator of the second part would be Errin. I knew the whole story was the tale of two very different girls; one raised up to be something special, and one ordinary; one full of darkness and fear, one light and hopeful. But it felt like an unusual approach, and I was scared it would go wrong, that it would fail. To be honest, I was scared of everything when I was writing The Sleeping Prince.

I’ve never admitted this before, but this time last year, I was not having any fun. I was terrified of what people would think of my first book. I was convinced it would be a flop, and that I was going to let down everyone who’d worked so hard on it, my cover designer, the sales team, marketing, editorial. Everyone. I couldn’t connect with the experience, I couldn’t really talk about it. I felt like a fake and a fraud and I was so, so frightened that this one thing – this impossible dream – was going to be taken away from me. I kept waiting for the axe to fall. For a year, I couldn’t look up in case I saw it.

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Lovely Katie Webber, me, and my agent Claire.

The thing that got me through last year was my agent and my publishing team – the very people I was convinced I was failing. Claire Wilson, Genevieve Herr, Emily Lamm, Rachel Phillips, Mallory Kass. They kept my mind focused on The Sleeping Prince, but still reminded me how much they loved TSED. They replied to my emails with speed, and kindness, and understanding. They gave me the room to be creative on my own terms, and always, always with their support.

So that’s why having a cake was A BIG DEAL. Having a cake was the solid proof that they were proud of me – proud of us, and what we’d made – and that they wanted to celebrate. It seems such a stupid thing, of all the things they’ve done for me, to wax lyrical about a cake but to me it was everything. So this year I won’t shut up about The Sleeping Prince. Because my team deserve to know how over the top, over the moon thrilled I am with it and all of the work we’ve all put into it.

And to reassure Claire that there will be a lot less, “Claire, I think you’ve made a huge mistake representing me” emails this year.

mel 4To make up for not letting myself be happy in 2015 I am making an extra effort to enjoy myself in 2016. And there’s a lot to celebrate. The Sin Eater’s Daughter was the bestselling UK YA Debut of 2015. It’s been nominated for the Carnegie Greenaway Medal, for the Branford Boase award (along with my UK editor, Gen Herr). It is shortlisted in the North East Teen Book Awards and has even been nominated for an Edgar by the Mystery Writers of America (!!!).

In fact, I’m so determined to be proud of myself that I launched The Sleeping Prince twice! The beautiful Chelley Toy of Tales of Yesterday wrote an ace write-up of the second one, and I think I’ve been mawkish enough for one post, so I’ll leave you with her version. But at the time of going to press, I predict I’ve probably started a trend for multiple launches, because it’s the most fun. I fully expect many authors to hold multiple, country-wide launch events this year. And so they should. This is a great job to have. We should celebrate more.

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