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Champions of Reading: Fortismere School

When Librarian Mrs Ward asked me to say a few words about reading to a group of lovely Year 7 eager readers (chaired by SF Said) I wondered about where to start. And it seemed only natural to start in bed, lying on my side, covers pulled up, the warm glow of my bedside lamp, and icicle fingers holding a book. Ever since I was young - and I’m so old now, so that must be over 45 years – I’ve gone to sleep the same way.

There is so much pleasure, so much intense delight in the intimate conversation we have with books: I see them as little literary stage coaches. They collect you at the post and they carry you with them and in them. You travel inside them and they in you until they leave you at the next post and go flying on into the night. You take another one on another journey then, and the view from the coach window is always different, and your fellow travellers are either spotted with warts, blind in one eye, have broken, desperate pasts, or sinister secrets, they’re malevolent or cruel, they tell lies, or they suffer for love.

Any and all of these are true and, whether we’re aware of it or not, it’s truth that we always go looking for in good writing. Stephen King says of good writing that more than anything else, it’s the voice that brings us into a novel. It’s what we listen for and what makes us stay. That voice should feel true, authentic. It should say, ‘listen to me! You need to hear this!’

Contemporary YA writing has some of the best voices in the business. Patrick Ness, Meg Rosoff, Jandy Nelson, David Almond, Phillip Pullman, John Green, Sara Dessen and on and on and on …

They honour their readers with straight talking, often hard hitting fiction that is never coy or blousy or slack. Patrick Ness who wrote, among others, the amazing Chaos Trilogy, said that YA readers are the most exacting, the sharpest of critics and that good YA fiction needs to earn every word. YA fiction is not kids’ stuff: at its best, it can be tough, uncompromising, intelligent writing – it can poke at hornets’ nests – unpick locks and lay things bare. It doesn’t take prisoners, and readers keep coming back for more.

I write YA fiction – my second book is out soon – and one of the most important lessons I learned as a writer, is to write what I want to write, not ‘the new thing,’, to create voices and characters that are authentic to their truth; and above all, to never, never forget what it felt like to be a young person: at that time of transition – that insane rollercoaster that is adolescence: of change, of discovery, where everything is real and unreal and frightening and compelling and dark and light and the same time, and where everything and nothing means everything.

Congratulations to all the students who gave such intelligent, enthusiastic and wide-ranging presentations on their chosen books!

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