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'Sounds a bit serious'
A couple of weeks back I found myself in the main hall of a large secondary school watching two hundred Year 7's file in to listen to me talk. One cheery student broke away from his mates to come over to say hello (I always admire the ones that can do that) and then asked what I was going to talk about. I told him I would be talking about how I came to write my latest book, Jessica's Ghost, and a bit about its themes of depression and suicide. 'Oh,' he said, as his smile faded. 'Sounds a bit serious.'
And indeed it is.
If I had known, when I started writing Jessica's Ghost, that depression and suicide were going to be two of its themes, I would almost certainly have abandoned it. I had set out to write a light-hearted ghost story about someone who was dead, and was trying to sort out what she was supposed to do next. I presumed it was going to be a comedy, because that's what I do. I write comedy. Light comedy. With a lot of nice people and happy endings.
The nice people and the happy endings are still there, but the suicide and the depression sort of muscled their way in with a determination that would not be denied. I worried, of course, whether these were themes that were suitable in a story for young people, and I'm still not a hundred per cent sure that they are, but it's a good book and… at what age does one start talking safely about these things?
The Head Teacher of a girls' secondary school laughed out loud when I asked her if the twelve year old audience for my talk would even know what depression was. Far too many, she assured me, would know exactly what I was talking about - and the government statistics support that. Apparently one in ten of 12-17 year olds will suffer from clinical depression (that means a depression lasting longer than a month) and if you include the people whose depression is just as real but less severe, the proportion is considerably higher. Maybe, like sex education, it's better for children to be armed with a bit of knowledge on the subject before they're hit by its problems rather than after.
I suffered from bouts of depression from the age of about 10 until comparatively recently, and one of the weird things about it, as I told my audience of twelve year olds that day, is that although you think it has a rational, external cause, it really doesn't. At the time my depressions were particularly bad, I had no health problems, was happily married, with two wonderful children, and a hugely enjoyable career and yet… the bouts of gloom kept getting worse. The medical term for this is 'endogenous depression'. It literally means 'depression without a cause’.
There's a brilliant description by Alan Garner (author of The Owl Service and The Weirdstone of Brisingamen) of how, at the height of his fame and success, he came home one day from working on a film, and fell into a depression so deep that he wound up lying on the kitchen settle, face to the wall, almost too miserable even to speak, for two years. I'll say that again. For two years. I remember, when I read that, how enormously helpful it was to know that what I was experiencing (fortunately on a much less debilitating scale) could happen to someone as intelligent and talented as Alan Garner. And, I discovered, to a good many others.
In fact, one of the most useful things to know about depression is simply that there is a lot of it about, and a story is not a bad way to get this across. It was C S Lewis who noted that the most powerful thing a piece of writing can do is cause the reader to say 'Oh, I thought that was just me!' and to help them realise that what they feel is part of a more general condition. To discover that you are not alone, and that others have been through this particular valley and made it out the other side is, apart from anything else, deeply comforting.
So, although this is a topic that, particularly when talking to twelve year olds, needs to be raised with the greatest caution, and although one needs to tread lightly and warily... I think, on the whole, that the subject is worth raising, despite the risks. One of the things I did during my talk, was to ask, very much on the spur of the moment, if any of the two hundred students I was addressing had any personal experience of depression - either in themselves or with someone they knew. If they had, I said, could they raise a hand? Nothing too public. Just a little gesture...
Over half of them, put a hand up.
So, yes, it is a bit serious But it's important, too.
Top 10 guardian angels in children's books
I've always been a fan of stories with guardian angels in them. I don't mean angels with wings, like Clarence in This Wonderful Life - although I like those as well - I mean stories where the hero is helped on his or her journey by someone who turns up, frequently out of the blue, with just the right resources and knowledge to help them sort out whatever problem they are facing. They are, in literary terms, the Helping Hand of a benevolent universe. It's a device which has become less fashionable in our more secular times. Fewer people still believe in a benevolent universe - there is, after all, so much alarming evidence to the contrary - and we prefer our heroes to prove they can win through on their own resources. Child heroes these days need to be independent and self-empowered. I'm not sure when or how I came to believe that the universe is, despite all appearances, friendly. But I do. And it's why, in my own stories, the solution to a problem is often provided by some source beyond the ingenuity and clever thinking of the hero. He or she will certainly do their best, but the solution to the trickiest bit of the puzzle will come from a chance remark, or a bit of help and advice from an unlikely guardian angel type character. As if a benevolent universe knew exactly what was needed, and was offering a Helping Hand. In my most recent book, Jessica's Ghost, it is Jessica herself who, despite being dead and barely a teenager, unwittingly turns out to be a guardian angel for the other characters in the story. She is the force from beyond the purely causal, rational world, who, with the occasional quiet suggestion of an alternative possible course of action, changes the lives of everyone around.
You may not agree that that is how things work in real life, but it is certainly how they ought to work...
1. The Railway Children by E Nesbit
The Old Gentleman in this wonderful story is the archetypal example of a guardian angel at work. The children start by merely waving at him, as he passes in the train each morning, but he is the character they later call on to help with the stranded Russian writer, who provides money in hard times and, in the end, obtains their father's release from prison. The children all play their part but the decisive help comes from outside...
2. Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett
Terry Pratchett always knew there was more going on in the world than we could see with the purely physical eye. His books are stuffed with an awareness of the deep forces at work in our world (along with a healthy distrust of the lunacies of organised religion) and Granny Weatherwax is probably my favourite of his many guardian angels. You know, when she turns up with her heavy boots and ferocious glare to lend a hand to Tiffany Aching, that things are going to get properly sorted...
3. The Amazing Mr Blunden by Antonia Barber
Mr Blunden follows all the best traditions of a guardian angel. Clearly human, but somehow not fully from the physical realm, he knows things. He knows what's going to happen and knows what our hero children should do as each step of the story unfolds. Not that he ever forces anyone to do anything, of course. He just asks that they do as he suggests, and when they do... One of my favourite books.
4. Right Ho, Jeeves! by PG Wodehouse
One of the joys of reading the Jeeves and Wooster stories, is that whatever terrible mess Bertie Wooster might have landed in, you know that his butler, Jeeves, will, without any apparent effort, quietly sort the whole thing out before the end of the story. It's that trust - that all will, in the end, be well - that makes stories with guardian angels such a comforting read.
5. A Dog Called Homeless by Sarah Lean
The shelves of recent publications are not exactly filled with stories where problems are resolved by mysterious outside forces, which was one reason why reading this book was such a surprise. Cally, in this story, has plenty of problems but it was the idea that she is still protected and watched over by the mother who recently died that qualifies it for a place on the list of books with guardian angels. That, and the fact that it is an utterly delightful read.
6. The Angel of Nitshill Road by Anne Fine
This is, quite simply, one of the best books ever written. The guardian angel - the heroine of the story, the one who changes life for everyone around her in the primary school at Nitshill Road - is Celeste who is somehow imbued with the ability to know exactly the best and most powerful thing to do in any circumstance. She is also one of the funniest, cleverest and somehow most believable characters ever. Utterly brilliant.
7. The Sword in the Stone by TH White
This is the first volume of the quartet written by TH White on the Arthurian legend and incomparably funnier and deeper than the amiable Disney movie. If you're going to have a guardian angel watching over your early years and growing up, Merlin the magician is not a bad choice.
8. The Magician's Nephew by CS Lewis
Does Aslan really count as a guardian angel? Or is he rather more senior than that? Either way, he's a pretty reliable guide to navigating through life, and I absolutely couldn't leave the first of the Narnia books off the list. Aslan can show you how best to cope with any problem - even stuff like accidentally dragging a cruel queen from a different universe into Narnia.
9. Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian
One of the many wonderful things about this book is that it's not a simple matter of Mister Tom acting as the guardian angel for poor, downtrodden Willie Beech. You could equally argue that it is the old man who is "saved" by the arrival of young Willie. Ultimately, all guardian angel stories are about healing, and this is one of the best.
10. Car-Jacked by Ali Sparkes
I may be cheating a bit with this one, but I didn't want all the books on the list to come from the previous century, and it's a very good story. Jack Mattingly, plunged into an unexpected crisis, is guided by a voice in his head called SAS Guy. And that's where some of the best guardian angels are to be found, of course. Deep in our own minds.
I don't usually like ghost stories. Well, not the sort you tell late at night that send a shiver down your spine and make you want to keep the light on while you go to sleep. Some people like to be frightened like that, but I don't. I'm scared of quite enough things already without adding ghosts to the list.
But there is one sort of ghost story I've always enjoyed. It's based on the idea - I don’t know where it came from - that ghosts are people who are somehow stuck here. Something happened to them during their earthly life and, instead of going to wherever you're supposed to go when you die, it means they've stayed here, desperately trying to undo whatever was done. Because until it is undone, they can't move on.
As far as I know, the first writer to use this idea was Oscar Wilde, in what is still one of the best ghost stories ever written - The Canterville Ghost, published in 1887. In it, Sir Simon Canterville, who murdered his wife in 1575, is still haunting Canterville Chase 300 years later - rattling his chains, maintaining the bloodstain where his wife died, and frightening anyone he meets in the corridors...
Until an American family come to stay, who are not frightened of ghosts at all. Mr Otis calmly gives Sir Simon a bottle of Rising Sun Lubricator so that he'll make less noise with the chain rattling; his wife uses Paragon Detergent to get rid of the bloodstain, and his children take great delight in ambushing the ghost in the corridors and scaring him to bits.
It's all very jolly, but then comes the switch. We actually start feeling a bit sorry for old Sir Simon. He is so desperately unhappy. Weighed down by guilt, he has not slept for 300 years, and he is tired... tired beyond belief. I won't tell you how he is eventually saved, but it is very moving and a good many people have used a similar idea to tell their own versions of the story.
In my book, Jessica's Ghost, Jessica is not a murderer like Sir Simon, but she is puzzled to find she is a ghost, uncertain what she is supposed to do next, and rather relieved when she meets one (then two, then three) people who are able to see her and talk to her. The first half of the story is about what fun it would be to have a friend who was invisible and could move through walls, but then - and I can remember the exact moment this happened as I was writing - I suddenly realised what it was that Jessica had done that meant she could not 'move on'. And what she would have to do about it...
The appeal of this sort of story is, I think, the idea that whatever we've done, whatever mistakes we may have made, there is always a way out. We are not 'stuck', and we are not doomed endlessly to repeat a pointless pattern. There is always a path to... forgiveness.
It's an oddly satisfying idea. And whether it's true or not, it definitely feels like it ought to be.
A ten year old boy once told me that the reason he liked my books was that I didn't fill them with 'long descriptions of trees and things'. He said I just 'got on with the story'. I was very flattered.
My Ladybird book on How to Succeed in Writing told me how important it is - particularly in the first chapter - to 'get on with the story'. Those opening pages need to grab the reader, draw them in, make them want to know what happens next... because if they're not hooked by the first chapter, they'll never make it to the last one. Or even chapter two...
I had what I thought was a cracking opener for my book Jessica's Ghost. It was going to start with a girl who finds herself in hospital and slowly realises that the reason everyone is ignoring her is that she's dead. She doesn't know how she died (nor did I, at the time) and she doesn't know what she's supposed to do next (I didn't know that either) but the story was going to watch her attempts (and mine) to find out.
In my first draft of the book, Jessica meets a boy, Francis, about her own age, who can see her, and she does indeed find out how she died and why she is a ghost. However, as Terry Pratchett said, the first draft is where you find out what your story is really about (then you go back and write it properly) and what emerged from my first draft was that the central character of my story was not Jessica, but Francis.
This meant, as my editor at the wonderful DFB pointed out, that I would probably have to abandon my brilliant opening chapter. Constructionally, there was something basically unbalanced about starting a story focusing on one character, but finishing it with someone else. With remarkable stoicism and only the one tantrum, I agreed, threw away a fortnight's work, and sat down to write a new opening that saw things from Francis' point of view. Where would they meet? What would they talk about? How does one talk to a ghost? How does one even find out the other person's a ghost in the first place...?
I tried a variety of locations and wrote innumerable possible conversations before I settled on what you'll find in the book. And when I read it now, I have to tell you that I am quietly proud of the result. It might not grab you, exactly, but then not everyone likes being grabbed. What it does do is introduce my two main characters, tell you something about their situation and makes you, I think, at least a bit curious about what happens to them next.
It also helps, of course, that I was very careful to make sure there are no descriptions of trees.
You can download the first chapter of Jessica's Ghost here.
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