I am hugely excited to be participating in the Children’s Book Award official blog tour in the books for older readers category. It’s the only national book award to be voted for entirely by children from start to finish, so I can imagine how wonderful it must feel as an author to be nominated by the readers. Today I am sharing I Have No Secrets by Penny Joelson, a London based author who says: “I was delighted when I heard that ‘I Have No Secrets’ had made the top ten for this award – one of three books in the older children category. It is particularly special as I know it is an award where the voting is entirely by children and young people themselves. I enjoyed writing this book so much and it is wonderful to think about so many young people reading it now. I can only say – I am utterly thrilled!”
I Have No Secrets, published by Electric Monkey features fourteen year old Jemma, who has severe cerebral palsy. Unable to communicate or move, she relies on her family and carer for everything. She has a sharp brain and inquisitive nature, and knows all sorts of things about everyone. But when she is confronted with a terrible secret, she is utterly powerless to do anything. Though that might be about to change…
I was filled with a certain amount of trepidation before reading this book. Having grown up with an older sister who was completely physically disabled and had round the clock care, I wasn’t sure how I would feel ‘hearing’ a story told from the point of view of someone suffering a similar condition. However, I’m glad I did read it. The opening hooks the reader instantly by introducing a really unpleasant bad guy and immediately you are on Jemma’s side -not because she’s disabled but because she is brave and determined. The narrative isn’t just centred on Jemma’s disability, it focuses on the relationships between those around her; her carer Sarah, her foster parents, her foster brother who is autistic and her foster sister who has behavioural issues. Suffice to say there is a lot going on but the story doesn’t get bogged down and as the plot thickens, you wonder just how on earth Jemma is going to bring the culprit to justice, when she cannot speak. Jemma’s world is further turned upside down by the arrival of her long lost twin sister from whom she was separated at birth and the emotional turmoil that ensues is incredibly moving.
Some really insightful moments caused me to draw breath and wonder how many times I’d left the room with my sister feeling frustrated she couldn’t say what she really wanted to. The author brilliantly captures the reality of looking after a severely disabled person and the difficulties that arise from this. Given the themes covered in I Have No Secrets, it is particularly inspiring to know that young people themselves have nominated the book for this award. But not surprising – it’s a well-written thriller told from a unique perspective, with believable characters and a great plot. You can’t ask for more than that and I am really pleased to welcome author Penny Joelson to the blog to share more of her story with us!
Congratulations on the publication of your novel Penny! I Have No Secrets is a great story – I read it in one sitting. Tell us a bit about your career so far as a writer and the inspiration behind this story. I’ve loved writing and reading since I was a young child. As an adult I did writing courses with the London School of Journalism and at City Lit in Covent Garden, London, where I now teach. I enjoy thrillers and family dramas and I wanted to combine both these things in my work. I had the idea for a thriller in which the protagonist knew the identity of a murderer but was unable to tell anyone. The character of Jemma popped into my head. It took me three years to write and then nine months to get an agent and more months to secure a publishing contract with Egmont.
Why did you decide to write the story from the perspective of a character with a disability? I didn’t set out to write a story from this perspective. The concept came first and then the character. I was a very shy child and became interested in my teens in people for whom communication was difficult for other reasons. I did voluntary work for several years with deaf-blind children and children with cerebral palsy, so I had some experience to draw on. I was also influenced by a play I’d seen at the Chickenshed Theatre about and starring Paula Rees, who has severe cerebral palsy and was unable to communicate until she was ten years old.
How did you go about researching what life would be like for someone who is unable to talk? It was only when I started looking for other books with a character who had cerebral palsy or other severe disabilities, that I realised how few books there are. I felt a huge responsibility as someone who can talk and does not have cerebral palsy myself, to make sure I gave a realistic and convincing portrayal. I knew it would be a challenge to write from this perspective.
As part of my research I spoke to people with cerebral palsy, people who use devices to communicate and people connected to them – family and professionals, charities including ‘Communication Matters’ and ‘One Voice’, as well as doing research online. I wrote however, mainly from the heart. Jemma’s character came alive in my head and sometimes it was as if she was telling my what to write or acting as a critic and telling me to change things. Once I had a draft I was reasonably happy with, I got people with cerebral palsy, AAC users (people who use alternative ways of communicating) and professionals with relevant experience to read the manuscript and give feedback. When someone with cerebral palsy told me how strongly he could relate to it and how he thought even his parents could learn more about what it was like to be him from my book, I was very moved. Since publication I have had very positive feedback from people with cerebral palsy and this has meant so much to me.
Jemma is cared for in a foster family and her foster parents are clearly remarkable people in that they are caring for three children with very distinct needs. Why did you decide to introduce this theme? Years ago, I was involved as a volunteer and then leader for holidays for deaf-blind children with the charity SENSE. As leaders we used to go and meet the children and their parents before the holidays and I came across amazing foster parents who have stayed in my mind ever since. They were the inspiration for Jemma’s family.
Aside from enjoying the story, what do you hope readers will gain from reading I Have No Secrets? I hope that readers will feel more empathy with disabled people and be less likely to assume that if someone can’t communicate they are unintelligent or have nothing to say.
Thank you Penny for participating and we wish you every success with I Have No Secrets! Penny’s next book Girl in the Window is out in August. Find out more at www.pennyjoelson.co.uk and follow Penny on twitter @pennyjoelson.
The Children’s Book Award is the only national award voted for solely by children from start to finish. Any child up to the age of 18 can visit to vote for their favourite books from the top 10. It is highly regarded by parents, teachers, librarians, publishers and children’s authors and illustrators as it truly represents the children’s choice. Thanks to the support of the publishers, over 1,000 new books are donated to be read and reviewed by our Testing Groups across the country every year, with over 150,000 total votes being cast in the process. At the end of each testing year, nearly 12,000 books are donated to hospitals, women’s refuges, nurseries and disadvantaged schools by our groups. Previous winners of the award include, Michael Morpurgo and Michael Foreman, Quentin Blake, JK Rowling, Jacqueline Wilson and Rick Riordan.
With thanks to Kate, the coordinator of the Children’s Book Award, for inviting me to participate in this wonderful award blog tour. Thank you to Egmont for sending me a copy of I Have No Secrets to review.