When I wrote Joe All Alone and its follow-up White Lies, Black Dare I had a checklist of “things I wanted to say” – about child poverty and child neglect, about toxic friendship and family breakdown, about bullying amongst children and adults alike. Fiction has the power to bring new light to these difficult subjects and illuminate not just gory details, but also paths out of the darkness, which is why I will always weave hope into a story, however bleak. But there is another idea lurking in both novels, one that paints books as beacons in a more profound capacity: that books make us who we are, and can change that too.
Books matter. Of course I’m going to say that: the ability to pay my bills depends on me writing and selling enough of them. But my belief in their transformative power goes far beyond personal monetary gain. And it’s not writers who think so. There are government studies that point to reading for pleasure as raising test scores in subjects as seemingly unconnected as maths and science. There is research that highlights how stories encourage empathy. But there is evidence too that books penetrate deeper than that, changing our very selves as they show us new ways to be, offering us a pick and mix menu of characters to incorporate into our own.
As a child I worked my way through an array of fictional role models – George from Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, Velvet Brown from Enid Bagnold’s National Velvet, even Pandora from Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole. The academic Francis Spufford describes this appeal in his homage to the power of children’s fiction The Child That Books Built: “Be a roman soldier, said a book by Rosemary Sutcliffe. Be an urchin in London, said a Leon Garfield… Be an Egyptian child beside the Nile, be a rabbit on Watership Down. Be a King. Be a slave. Be Biggles.” In other words, reading helps us try out new lives for size. It helps us try out being better or bigger or just different people.
It was this in mind that I gave both Joe in Joe All Alone and Asha in White Lies, Black Dare books not just as background reading, but as talismans, magic amulets that would change the course of their lives on and beyond the page. For Joe, the eponymous Huckleberry Finn gives him the courage to face up to his situation. It helps knowing that someone else has been where he is – been alone in the world – before. It helps him work out who he wants to be – brave like Huck. It helps knowing that Huck finds a friend. It helps knowing that Huck can evade the adults who are closing in on him.
For Asha it’s Sodapop and Ponyboy in S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders that drive her final dare and damnation, as well as her ultimate salvation. “So I do what I always do,” Asha says. “ I pick up my book and bury myself in story, glorious story. I read until it’s so real I can feel myself right there in Ponyboy’s house, smelling the eggs and chocolate cake he’s cooking for breakfast, and smoke from Two-Bit’s cigarettes. McCardle’s right, I think, that books get you through stuff.”
This is what books can do. They can teach us, they can show us the way. They can give us hope. And more than that they can make us. They have certainly made me – I am part George, part Velvet, part Pandora, and so many others besides. I am even part Asha now, and all the better for it.