Meg Rosoff: What She Is

An invitation to sell books at a school talk given by Meg Rosoff is the sort of invitation you don’t so much need to think about as jump at. Meg Rosoff is author of some stunning young adult novels and has a rare talent that balances quality writing, memorable characters and plots that can fly off in such unexpected directions they can plummet into fantasy or leave you reeling from the brutal reality.

It’s hardly surprising that Meg Rosoff has been showered with awards and she was in Abingdon to talk to some school girls about books and the writing life in general, just before the final judging takes place for this year’s ‘children’s book of the year’ – which will be awarded the Carnegie Medal.

She was in Abingdon as the town’s schools have a growing reputation as one of the places where schools do Carnegie shadowing really well (a national scheme where schoolchildren read the books on the shortlist and learn to judge and review them). In Abingdon it’s a big thing – involving both state and independent schools, where judging takes place on which schools and individuals have performed well in written reviews and presentations, and prizes given.

As a recent survey showed many school librarians don’t read around children’s books and recommend only a narrow band of authors, it’s great to be in a town where the opposite is true. And this is particularly true of St Katherine’s and St Helen’s School, where the librarian, Donna Bell, gets her children reading all sorts of new and exciting writing.

This year’s Carnegie shortlist is also particularly strong with a choice of books that must surely have something for everyone, from epic historical battles to sensitive issues of race and class.

Meg Rosoff writes books where teenagers are often thrust into a world where they have to survive without adults. But her stories are not of long summers of picnics and freedom where the children round up a few baddies after a few scrapes. All sorts of horrific things happen to her young folk. But the thing they all discover is that they are survivors.

Her first, How I Live Now, was showered with awards, and her appeal has already spread into adult readership.

Her second, Just in Case, could have been the difficult second book after such a debut, but switching her voice to a teenage boy and involving fate as a character, made it just as original and succeeded in winning the Carnegie Medal last year.

Whether What I Was will make it a Carnegie two in a row will be decided on June 26.

Her audience on Thursday were treated into some great insights into her writing processes, including how and why she came to writing so late – an inspiring talk about following your dreams. She was in her forties and had never even tried to write, when her sister’s death from cancer made her realise she really ought to start doing what she wanted to do.

The result, she said, was a horse book that ended up having lots of sex in it, which got her an agent, but instructions to go away and try again. She was also given the advice not to ‘read around’ too much. She writes for a ‘young adult’ audience – a niche that is newly invented and her books do manage to successfully bridge that tricky gap by having as much appeal for adults as children.

This is probably why Meg Rosoff is also at the forefront of being one of the few children’s writers who have come down firmly in favour of age banding on books. She feels very strongly that children over a certain age will get a lot more out of her books.

It’s no real surprise to hear that she doesn’t plot her books implicitly beforehand, as they tend to fly off to new places with little sympathy or preparation for the reader. The cornerstone of the afternoon’s session, with an older and more feisty audience, was a masterclass in not being intimidated by the blank page.

She says her friend still has the email she sent while writing How I Live Now in which she said she felt things were getting a little boring and how she thought she’d introduce World War 3. As part of the lively afternoon session she also regaled her audience with plenty of entertaining stories about what life in advertising is really like.

Her vivid talk inspired bristling questions – from does she write her own blurbs to has she re-used characters in any of her books. And there was a scramble for books and signings for a full hour.

The ability to generate so much enthusiasm for taking a book away and reading it is a rich and rare talent. Those girls will take away so much from those books – whether they particularly love them or not – they will think about what went into them and all the other great and wise things the author said.

It was one of those occasions which reminds you that bookselling is such a pleasure and a privilege. So thanks to Donna, all the girls who took part, and to Meg Rosoff for such a brilliant and inspiring day.

It’s great that Abingdon’s efforts in this have been rewarded with such supremely good authors agreeing to speak to the schools. Another shortlisted author, Linzi Glass is to speak on Carnegie Day as well.

This year Mark has been invited to be on the judging panel and is really looking forward to being part of it all.

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