A plus, Louise Rennison!

This blog post first appeared on ABBA

Keren has already written a lovely post about it, but I still wanted to add a small tribute to Louise Rennison who died last month. Being part of the ‘Georgia Nicholson generation’, it was moving to see what seemed like the whole of Facebook (well, at least the female half of it) shedding tears, but also sharing the funniest extracts, at the news. It’s difficult to think about Louise Rennison without smiling – even at such a sad time.

I’ve never actually read Georgia Nicholson’s diary in English. In the early 2000s, when the first book was left for me under the Christmas tree by a prescient Santa, it was in the form of Mon nez, mon chat, l’amour et moi: “My nose, my cat, love and me”: a much more prudish title than the original. I read, reread and rereread the whole series in French throughout my teenage years.

Thankfully, Catherine Gibert’s translation for Gallimard was exceptionally good. It takes a bit of genius to translate funny books in general, but it takes a lot of genius to translate funny books for teenagers. To keep up with Rennison, Gibert had to make up many words (not an easy exercise in French), twist and break traditional syntax (even less so); she pretty much invented a ‘funny teenage voice’ in French.

The neon-coloured covers were a bit of a novelty in the very ivory/cream/white aesthetic of the French literary landscape of the time (even for children):

Gallimard had hired, to illustrate them, one of the punchiest and most famous French female cartoonists, Claire Brétécher, whose legendary renditions of slightly ugly, very endearing teenagers fit perfectly with the theme.

At the time, there were few authors in teenage literature who rang true, who were funny and modern and spoke to us. Louise Rennison was one of them, and my friends and I couldn’t get enough of it. But interestingly, while everyone in the UK says that they found themselves in the books – that they identified with Georgia – for us French girls it was a very foreign world. We didn’t have all-girls’ schools, we didn’t have uniforms, we had much less P.E. (seriously, I couldn’t understand why Georgia was doing sports pretty much everyday – in France we had 2 hours a week, and spent them half-heartedly playing ping-pong). And, at least in Paris, we didn’t have those residential streets with cats sitting on walls – though I was familiar with that concept from Harry Potter. And what??? teenagers drove motorbikes???

Only later (when I arrived in the UK) did I realise that Georgia Nicholson’s diary also gently mocked the British suburban middle-class, with its bored yummy mummies, its numerous opportunities for gossip, its populations of slightly immodest teenage girls looking for love by rolling up their uniform skirts. All of this very British lore felt just as unreal to me as the daily routine of Narnian fawns.

Yet it was still hilarious, and I still identified, because there’s no need for social reality to make immediate sense when everything about the characters and their reactions feels so true. Rennison’s teenagers were entirely contextual, and absolutely universal. They could not have been anything else than British, and yet they were every teenager in the world’s best friends.

Louise Rennison was a teenage-literature genius, a redeemer of sad days, an exquisite social satirist, one of the best comedy writers in this country. I’m very sad I never got to meet her and thank her in person.

Childfree adults in children’s literature

[Originally published on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, January 2016]

Recently, I’ve started paying attention, when reading children’s literature, to adult characters who don’t have children. This started as I was rereading Matilda last year to write an article on it; it struck me that the Trunchbull and Miss Honey shared one characteristic: their childlessness. But while the formidable headteacher hates children, Miss Honey’s own narrative arc in the story sees her eventually adopting Matilda (spoiler alert) (oops, too late). While Miss Trunchbull is quite clearly childfree (childless by choice), Miss Honey’s happy resolution seemed to entail being finally ‘completed’ by a child.

‘Childfree’ adults denounce the degree to which adults, in society, are seen as incomplete when they don’t have children; to them, it isn’t the case that any adult in possession of a good mortgage must be in want of a child. Children’s books, in this respect, seem to me in general to perpetuate the idea that adults need children. Worse, they often appear to imply that childless adults have a problem that needs to be rectified (= they need a child), and childfree adults, meanwhile, should be either completely in the service of children, or suspicious, monstrous, or dangerous.

Here’s a vague taxonomy of childless and childfree adults I’ve been playing around with in my head. Feel free to add, criticise and nuance! Children’s literature seems to me to categorise childless and childfree adults broadly according to those lines:

The childfree (childless by choice):

– The monstrous and the murderous: Dahl’s Witches, Carroll’s Red Queen, Barrie’s Captain Hook. Ogres and giants. They hate children. But they are also clearly obsessed with children. Their whole raison d’être is to kill a lot of them.

– Cool uncles and aunts, nice godmothers: Those childfree adults are equally obsessed with children, but devote so much time to children who are not their own that presumably they don’t need their own; in fact, that would probably come in the way of the affection that the protagonist needs exclusively. Basically, they’re surrogate parents, but allow for the necessary fifty shades of authority that are germane to children’s books. Godmothers in fairy tales, Rowling’s Sirius Black, Dahl’s BFG, Jules Verne’s many travelling uncles, and my own Sesame Seade’s lazy student boss Jeremy.

– Anthropomorphic animals and picturebook adults: This category of adults who are basically children doing adult jobs, and who mostly appear as protagonists in literature for the very young. Those adults by definition cannot have children, since they are essentially placeholders for children themselves.

The childless: (not by choice)

– Those who are mourning a child, or mourning never having had a child: melancholy figures who, explicitly or implicitly, appear sad to not be parents; or have lost their child, or a child very close to them, and are generally on their own path of mourning and grief. Often, this translates as some emotional investment in the child protagonist of the story. E.g. Lois Lowry’s Giver, Ma Costa in His Dark Materials, and even Dumbledore who lost his younger sister. They are, I think, a sad or more profound variation on the childfree ‘in loco parentis’ adult described above.

– Those for whom being childless is fairly unproblematic, but who end up looking for a child for various reasons: E.g. Miss Honey, as mentioned earlier, but also for instance the bizarre Willy Wonka, whose name implies that there might be something wonky with his reproductive organ, leading him, at the age of I have no idea how many years, to have to look for an heir.

Blurry zone: Teachers

Teachers are an interesting, huge category of childfree/ childless adults in children’s literature. To my knowledge, no Hogwarts teacher has children. In fact, many teachers in children’s literature seem mysteriously to have no kids at all. Whether it’s by choice or not, teachers seem to devote their whole time to other people’s children. I wonder if it’s because teachers’ children (who do exist in children’s books, but not that many) would distract from the total absorption that child protagonists require from their teachers. It mirrors the narcissistic impossibility, as a young child, to imagine that one’s teacher might have a private life, or – horror!- other children than us to look after.

It seems to me that children’s literature shows a lot more empathy for the childless than for the childfree; and presents the childfree as being still very invested in children, whether nefariously or positively. In other words, children’s literature doesn’t really let adults, at least in leading or secondary roles, be indifferent to children.

Of course, indifference towards children couldn’t be very frequent among adults in children’s literature, because of clear narrative and generic reasons: this type of text, obviously, is rather centred on children, so adults in children’s literature need to work within that narrative. But as a result, of course, we grow up thinking that adults must be interested in children, by nature and by necessity; and if not, it makes them suspicious.

Please add your own thoughts! This is a very quick and not very deeply thought-out taxonomy, and I’m sure I’ve forgotten lots.

News and Mayhem

It’s been a very long while since I last wrote anything here; Russian and Spanish (see post below) have enjoyed a very durable top spot on this blog. Most of the action has been happening over there on my French blog, which I keep up much more diligently than this one. But a lot of things have been happening since this summer, bookwise (academia-wise too, but I’d better talk about it separately).

Firstly, The Royal Babysitters, or rather Les royales babysitters, came out in French in August. This was the very first time ever that I ever had a book translated from English to French – and it wasn’t by me, but by the very talented Amélie Sarn. She did it so amazingly that I actually laughed when reading it, which is no small feat since I’ve read the damn book something 24540536 times in English.

royalesfrancaisesThen The Royal Bake-Off came out in September. In that third book in the Anna, Holly and Pepino tetralogy (that’s four books), the three aspiring holy-moly-holidayers go to Americanada (on an uncomfortable Kryin’Air flight), where the Emperor, Sam – who is also King Steve’s brother – has organised a huge baking competition between various royals around the world. The tasks take place in the Grand Yeswecanyon, the N.H.E.A.G.A.R.A falls (the Nobody Has Ever A’crossed the Gigantic Awful River Alive Falls), and a spaceship. Many invasions are repelled and enemies puréed.

Don't they look adorable together? All the credit to Bloomsbury, and of course the amazing Becka Moor.

Don’t they look adorable together? All the credit to Bloomsbury, and of course the amazing Becka Moor.

I also finished A Very Royal Holiday, which is the last book in the series – scheduled to come out next April – and which turned out to be my personal favourite, so I’m particularly looking forward to seeing that one in print.

French-book-wise, this summer has been a busy one for my latest YA novel Les petites reines. We sold the full rights to the cinema in September, and a film script is currently being written, which is an exciting and weird thing to happen. It’s been nominated for lots of awards, and the book will also represent France for ‘Writing’ on the IBBY international honour list, nominated by the children’s literature people at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, whom I feel very grateful to for chosing it.

It's about bikes, black pudding, rural France, and friendship.

It’s about bikes, black pudding, rural France, and friendship.

Meanwhile, my and Antoine Déprez’s picturebook La louve, which had slipped by unnoticed when it first came out at the same time as Les petites reines, has gathered steam. It’s been nominated for one of the top children’s book awards, the Prix des Incorruptibles, and recently I saw that it’s in the White Ravens list of remarkable international children’s books at the Munich Youth Library. I’m delighted about that, because it’s a book I’m particularly fond of and which works very well with children. I love reading it to whole classes when I do school visits. Antoine and I are currently preparing another one together.

couvIMG_20140204_142431Last but, proverbially, not least, and leaping back to the English side, I can announce the release in May 2016 of a book of detective short stories in which I have a story myself – it’s with Egmont, it’s edited by the astonishingly talented and murderously imaginative Robin Stevens, and it looks fantastic, look:

Mystery and Mayhem front coverGorgeous gorgeous cover, amazing all-female crime club, and deliciously murderous stories – not all murders, also thefts and other kinds of crimes. Mine is very definitely a murder though. Or is it? Look out for Mystery and Mayhem when it comes out next year and you’ll know all about it.

 

France’s Zoella

(First published on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure)

France has its very own Zoe Sugg: she’s called Marie Lopez but goes by the name of Enjoy Phoenix, and she’s a beauty, make-up and life vlogger. Like Zoe Sugg, she’s written a book, which was published a few days ago and is called #EnjoyMarie (the title sounds only slightly less weird in French). I wasn’t the only ‘old person’ to discover her works on that occasion, but she’s been fabulously popular online for a while.

Le livre d'Enjoy Phoenix, numéro un des ventes la première semaine.

Hardly had #EnjoyMarie been published that the press started mocking the book, with the trendy magazine Les Inrocks devoting an article to ‘The 27 sentences that will make you think Enjoy Phoenix is the new Flaubert’. Each sentence is escorted by a sarcastic comment:

3.We are a generation of words created by an ever-sharper technology and, without noticing, we’re living under the attractive power of the webs of the Internet.” EnjoyPhoenix > Edward Snowden.

17.I shudder as I imagine drinking my first glass of alcohol… I hope there will be some.Spoiler alert: there was.

Etc. It’s funny in some ways, but it’s also a bit facile to mock a 19-year-old who started a blog five years ago as a means of dealing with school bullying, and who picked the phoenix as her animal of choice to express her desire to be born again and different. But then French adults are always cruel to teenagers, as I well remember.

Lopez’s book is in many ways a bizarre phenomenon in a country which is far from having a literary landscape as cluttered by author ‘brands’ and celebrity books as the Anglo-Saxon market, even in children’s and teenage literature. As the title of the Inrocks article indicates through the direct and snarky comparison with Flaubert, there is something distinctly disasteful, for the French mindset, about a book so obviously commercial.

It’s worth saying here that Les Inrocks is in many ways culturally snobbish, but as regards edgy pop culture – they’re not at all protective of highbrow culture; you would never find an article on Flaubert in there, so the reference sounds a little bit out of place. But even they, faced with walls of fuschia pink #EnjoyMarie books in each Fnac (the French franchise of cultural supermarkets), felt defensive enough to remind their readers of our literary canon, which in France would be packaged between white or cream covers. (Judging a book by its colour is very much a thing in my country.)

L’Express, meanwhile, has decided to compare the sales of #EnjoyMarie to those of the other best-selling non-fiction books of the moment, which are: a sociological study of the Charlie Hebdo demonstrators by an academic; a political study of Germany by a politician; an apology of blasphemy post-Charlie-Hebdo-massacre by a feminist intellectual; and a book on health and nutrition by some doctor. ‘Enjoy Phoenix sells more books than all those people!!!!!’ L’Express marvels.

And provides a diagram to prove this astonishing fact:

INCREDIBEUL! ZE POLITICAL ESSAYS ZEY ARE NOT AS MUCH SELL AS ZE BOOK ABOUT ZE MAKE-UP!

My French writer and illustrator friends are watching all of this with some amusement and not much anxiety. But some are mildly incredulous too, in part because of the unashamed money-making dimension of the enterprise. As I’ve written about before, the French market is much less commercially-oriented and there’s much less money to be made; books cannot be discounted, and they are generally quite expensive (my latest YA novel retails at 15,99€).  

In a publishing world where advances for teenage novels are generally between 500 and 2000 euros, and there are never any announcements along the lines of ‘NEW AUTHOR GETS FIVE BOOK DEAL FOR AN UNDISCLOSED SIX FIGURE SUM’, #EnjoyMarie feels like an odd import from Britain or the US – it’s no coincidence that the name sounds English. Interviewers and journalists spend a lot of time telling their readers about Marie Lopez’s supposed salary.

Another interesting thing is that, as far as I can tell – I might be wrong! – Marie Lopez probably wrote her own book mostly on her own; unlike, as everyone here remembers, Zoe Sugg. Keren David wrote a great blog post on the matter a while back. Keren was annoyed “that no one from Zoella’s management team or publishers –  let alone Zoella herself –  wanted to give the ghostwriter a co-writing credit, or admit up front that Zoella needed a hand to get her ideas down in print.” Like Keren, I think it would be far healthier if the world was actually told that writing is a proper job, which not everyone famous is always necessarily qualified to do.

It’s time to confess that I haven’t actually read Zoella’s book (sorry), but it sounds to me like it was well-received by her fans. By contrast, Lopez’s book is getting mixed reviews, including from its target audience. I think this is the first time a French publishing company has given a book deal to a teenage celebrity in this way, and I wonder if they underestimated the need to hire professional help to bulk up the content of the book.

Is this the beginning in the French publishing world of a more Anglo-Saxon way of doing things? Well, you can tell from the way in which people are reacting that it isn’t something they’re close to getting used to. But after all, ex-First Girlfriend Valérie Trierweiler’s memoir on François Hollande sold hundreds of thousands of copies earlier this year. Maybe France is slowly edging towards this brave new world after all.

Characters’ faces

The lovely Helen Fennell, in a blog post which you can find here, asks other readers if they actually ‘see’ characters’ faces precisely. She says, ‘faces seem to elude me for the most part, I imagine almost the “essence” of a person rather than any great detail’. She then goes on to wonder, ‘Do authors have a very clear idea of what their characters look like? Can they create an image in their head akin to a photo?’

And then asks (in the Britishest way possible): ‘If it isn’t too impertinent a question, what do you imagine when characters from books take their place inside your head?’

caillebotterameur

One solution: hiding faces under huge hats.

This topic chimed with me because I, like Helen, never see detailed characters’ faces when I read – nor when I write. This is all the stranger as, firstly, I’m a very visual person, an amateur doodler and an avid reader of comics, and, secondly, I ‘see’ places and surroundings in a very precise way, however little they might be described.

Unlike Helen, I’m not very easily influenced by film adaptations (though when a book is heavily illustrated, I’m influenced by the drawings), so the Harry in my head isn’t in any way Daniel Radcliffe . However, he isn’t either a very different person with precise features; his face is just a blurry ovoid thing, with glasses and a scar and a ‘shock of jet-black hair’.

harryglassesI’m very sensitive to colour in my everyday life, and mildly synaesthetic (colour/ letters, /numbers and /sounds). Some characters are patches of colour rather than faces; this seems to be triggered by the writing style and atmosphere. Characters in novels by Colette, Beauvoir, Larbaud, Nabokov ’emit’ a lot of colours for me.

In my own books, I very rarely describe main characters. There’s strictly no physical description of Sesame Seade in any of the books, for instance. For me, she wasn’t much more than a mass of hair whooshing around on purple rollerskates. When we were ‘briefing’ Sarah Horne for the illustrations, my editor called me to ask what Sesame looked like, and I didn’t really have an answer.

Yet when Sarah sent the first illustration, I immediately ‘recognised’ her.  It was ‘as I’d imagined her to look like’, yet I hadn’t imagined her to look like anything specific.

Sarah's first drawing of Sesame

Sarah’s first drawing of Sesame

French philosopher Clément Rosset talks about those moments when we think that someone looks like someone else, and then are incapable of saying who; we resort to saying ‘he’s got one of those faces’. Or when we see on screen an actor playing a character from a book, and we scream, ‘that’s not what she looks like at all!’. And yet we don’t have in our head any precise idea of ‘what she looks like’.

Or, we see for the first time the face of a radio presenter, and it can’t be them, surely not! That’s not the face we assigned to that voice. But what was that face? Not much more than a blur – but we’re adamant that it’s not that one.

This is, Rosset says, moments which evidence the ‘existence’ of invisible visions; an intimate conviction that we are referring to something (a perception, a thought, an image) when we are in fact referring to nothing at all, or not much. This ‘thinking about nothing’ is much stronger than reality, because reality is unfavourably compared to it: Daniel Radcliffe is much less Harry Potter than the not-much in my mind.

In Rosset’s view, which is connected to his wider theory of reality and its double, the invisible is eminently superior because it is ours, infinitely malleable, and always future; reality, in its visibility, is solid and boring. It is ‘the thing that we dream of when it is far, and which disappoints when it is close’ (45).

Better look at things far away than at this repulsive husband.

Better look at things far away than at this disappointing husband. (Caillebotte again)

Rosset’s explanation, though, fails to explain why I, on the other hand, immediately ‘recognised’ Sarah Horne’s Sesame, and why I do sometimes (and I’m sure many of you do too) ‘recognise’ book characters in the form of the flesh-and-blood actors, with no or very little effort.

Helen is right to say that the ‘essence’ of the person (or character) is important. I ‘recognised’ the spirit of Sesame in Sarah’s drawing, and it’s precisely because I had no vision of her – because she was ‘invisible’ or ‘not-much’ in my mind – that the image was so cosily accommodated by my imagination.

What about when characters are heavily described? I’ve noticed that I tend to skip or not take into account physical descriptions. There are ideological problems, though, with this tendency. Infamously, the character of Rue in Hunger Games was at the centre of a racist storm in recent years when it emerged that she’d been Black the whole time. This was news to many readers, who had masterfully avoided the moments in the text where this was made clear. Rue had been by default white.

We’re often asked by students and pupils ‘who we would cast’ as our book characters (presumably also because many people think that having one’s book adapted into a film would be a writer’s deepest joy, and it’s very hard to convince them otherwise). Recently I did a school visit in France for one of my teenage books, where the students had ‘cast’ famous actors and actresses in the roles of the main characters, and asked me whether I agreed. It was an interesting exercise but I didn’t feel I could help much.

ImpressionIn the book, there’s absolutely no physical description of the narrator. Her name isn’t even mentioned. The teenagers had tried to imagine what she might look like. They’d had a poll in the class, saying how many people ‘saw’ her as having ‘short hair, mid-length hair, long hair’; ‘blond hair, brown hair, black hair’; whether she was ‘short or tall’ (she was by default white). They asked me for the right answer, but of course, I didn’t know.

Scam on the Cam: out today!

It’s today!

Happy Birthday, Scam on the Cam!

Welcome to the world, Scam on the Cam!

This weekend is the Boat Race but you don’t need to watch it – because you can curl up in bed with tea and read Scam on the Cam, which features a much more exciting Boat Race. Honestly – even Trenton Oldfield’s Boat Race disturbance is nothing next to Sesame’s.

Do you want a free copy? Take part in the BOOK GIVEAWAY! (at the moment there’s like 3 people. They’re lovely people, sure, but do you want to let them win that easily? No! So add your comment!) The blog post also says everything there needs to be said about Scam on the Cam.

Do you want a print of Sarah’s brilliant illustrations? Head there!

If you want to read about Sarah’s point of view on the books and mine, read the interview posted on the BookBag website yesterday…

…and if you want to know what I would do in a zombie apocalypse, read Tatum Flynn’s brilliant ‘Here Be Dragons’ interview – I was lucky enough to be the first interviewee on her list!

… finally, here are some very recent reviews of the Sesame books: Book 1, Book 2, Book 3

Additionally, I will be on BBC radio Cambridgeshire this afternoon at 4.05 to talk about the books and the Cambridge Literary Festival.

I think that’s all for now! I hope you all enjoy Scam on the Cam. Just a reminder that the books can be read in any order – but that you can start with Sleuth on Skates if you prefer, of course!

bisous to all!

Clemx

Seven Days Till Scam on the Cam!

Scam on the Cam, the third volume in the Sesame Seade series, is coming out in just one week!

Best cover so far? I think so.

Best cover so far? I think so.

I can’t believe it’s already almost the end. I would cry if I were a bit of a crybaby, which I’m not. But also, it’s not really the end – it’s just the apéritif. Because more and more people all over the world are now reading the Sesame books!

And so many kids – so, so, so many kids. It’s brilliant to see that so many of them love the books, and they tell you they do, and when you ask them why they do, they say things like: ‘Because… because… I don’t know’ and when you ask them which bit they prefer they say ‘I like the moment when… well, I like how… oh, I don’t know’. Which is, I’m sure you’ll agree, the best possible review one can get.

“I don’t care about your narcissistic dribble! What’s the book about?”

It all begins when Sesame, Gemma and Toby find an authentic pirate chest on the banks of the river Cam. Could it have anything to do with the fact that a mysterious illness seems to be striking, one after the other, the rowers of the Cambridge University Rowing Team, just a week before the Oxford/ Cambridge Boat Race? (hint: it does).

Sesame is faced with more problems than one, since her precious sidekick Gemma appears to have fallen in love with the deplorable Julius Hawthorne. As for Toby, he’s more interested in collecting frogs. And the pirates always seem to turn up just at the wrong time… Will Sesame solve this tricky mystery? (hint: she will)

Here are some other important facts about Scam on the Cam:

  • It’s about the Boat Race, but it’s ten times more gripping than the actual Boat Race. No, make that a hundred times. You can read it while other people are watching the race, and laugh and laugh and laugh and say that they’re missing out.
  • It’s my favourite of the three, and also Sarah’s favourite of the three. And a few bloggers have hinted that it was also their favourite.
  • Something terrible happens to Sesame’s Phone4Kidz phone.
  • We meet a real French pirate.
  • There are many animals, including the usual (cats, ducks, parents), but also new ones (frogs, fishes, rowers).
  • It’s the last one for now!

Conclusion: this is what you should do now: go into your local bookstore and say “AHEM AHEM! I can see there’s [delete as applicable] only three/ one/ no copies of the Sesame Seade Mysteries in here!” and when the bookseller says, “The sesame seed mysteries? Maybe that’s in the cookery-book department,” you reply “Certainly not! it belongs here. It’s written by Clementine erm… Clementine ermm… Beaver? Beavis? Bovine? Well, something like that. Look it up!”. Then you order quite a few, for your nephew, your goddaughter, your great-aunt and your neighbour, and one for yourself.

And you'll end up with this rather pretty array of Sesame books

And you’ll end up with this rather pretty array of Sesame books

ALTERNATIVELY, you take part in this…

_____________________________________________________________________

BOOK GIVEAWAY!

_____________________________________________________________________

In order to win a copy of Scam on the Cam, leave me a comment on this blog answering this little question:

Which big sport event would you most like to gatecrash spectacularly? and how would you make your big entrance?

Results in 2 weeks’ time!

This week

This week, like many other authors, most of what I’m doing involves talking to people like this:

blog_0002It’s the week around World Book Day in the UK – and authors are visiting schools everywhere to meet enthusiastic children who want to READ!

Authors are amazing.

In her school visits, Kate Rundell does tightrope-walking:

katerundellJulian Sedgwick does knife-juggling:

blog_0003But even the rest of us, who just talk, ask questions and show pictures, make children happy:

blog_0004And THEY make US happy:

blog_0005So this is just a little post to say THANK YOU to schools, bookshops and parents for organising all this –

and if you’re wondering what you could do to make your children’s school a little better…

… persuade them to invite an author!

Happy World Book Week to all,

Clem x

Books I will never read

Maria challenges me to a blog post on ‘books I will never read’, as suggested by this Guardian article. Hers is there. Here’s mine:

The Fault in our Stars. It started out as a book I just didn’t make time to read, and then slowly evolved into a weird personal challenge to myself that I would simply never read this book, no matter how vociferous the claims that I really should. No particular reasons other than a vague sense of teenage rebelliousness.

The Luminaries. I always try to read all Booker-winners. But ain’t nobody got time for that flipping mahoosive book. UNLESS she wins the Nobel at some point.

Faulkner. Can’t. Sorry. I’ve tried. It’s just – argh!

Hemingway and Steinbeck, been there, NO.

Piers Plowman and The Faerie Queene, but I don’t think anyone’s actually read those. The Pilgrim’s Progress? ha, no.

Anything labelled New Adult. I did try. Most commercial YA (oh God, I’m going to get lynched). Fifty Shades and copycats.

Authors whose books I won’t read because they said idiotic things: Martin Amis, who thinks you have to have a ‘brain injury’ to write for children, and VS Naipaul, who thinks women can’t write. Yeah I know, no author’s perfect. But there you go, I just can’t be bothered with those two bigots.

Like Masha, I’ll probably never read the sequels to:

Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief

The Hunger Games

The Knife of Never Letting Go

Eragon

A Wrinkle in Time

(and many more I’m forgetting)

Some of those I actually enjoyed, but I feel one is enough. Same with The Giver and Holes, which are two of my favourite books in the world, but I somehow don’t want to read the sequels.

Like Masha, I won’t read any more Balzac, George Sand, Dan Brown, and I certainly won’t bother either with any more Sade. Paulo Coelho is also out of the question.

I’m not sure why, but I feel I’m unlikely to ever read Atlas Shrugged, Catch-22, The Leopard, Suite Française, The RoadOn the Road.

And I’m not sure I’ll ever manage to finish Ulysses.

The quality of silence

School visits in primary school are nothing like school visits in high school. Primary school is Care Bear land: children are enthusiastic, chatty, unhibited, fun, on the edge of their seats. You leave feeling exhausted and deliriously happy, with tripled self-esteem. Especially when they’ve made you a book-shaped cake and cupcakes with your initials.

Yes, I'm showing off.

Yeah I’m showing off.

High school is resolutely different. Something happens in the first few weeks of Year Seven – you can spot it as soon as you come through the door. Pupils look distrustful, sarcastic – they stare at you, and then at one another, exchanging funny little smiles. Some of their questions and comments are unsettling, if not downright offensive. Evidently on purpose. All the more so if you’re young, female and blonde.

But after a few minutes, if you show them that you’re on their side, you gain their trust and the atmosphere gets more relaxes. And then you can talk about really interesting things, and have fun, and tackle serious topics, and let them speak about themselves, and listen to them.

So it’s not the same dynamic at all in a primary school visit and a secondary school visit. In particular, though I often conclude my primary school visits with a reading, it had never come to my mind to do a reading for high school students.

Well, I was having lunch last year during a literary festival in France and talking to another author who suggested I should. He said teenagers loved being read to. I didn’t believe him for a second; I put on my best polite face (“Really? How interesting!”) while secretly thinking “The poor man is completely disconnected from the real world – the teenagers he read his books to must feel terribly offended to be treated like babies.”

Not a teenager.

Not a teenager.

Coincidentally, though, that very same afternoon I did a school visit in a Year Nine class where the teacher said to me in front of everyone: “The students would very much like you to read an extract from your book to them”. They’d already all read that book (La pouilleuse), or were supposed to (in France, you do school visits only when schools have studied your books).

Since a teacher had asked, I wasn’t going to say no – like most academics, I’ve always scrupulously followed teachers’ orders – but I thought, once again, that the poor adult was completely deluded: teenagers, I firmly believed, don’t like being read to.

Of course I was completely wrong. Hardly had I begun to read that I noticed the extraordinary quality of the silence that had fallen on the room. The students were staring into emptiness, or at their hands or feet. They didn’t look enraptured, hypnotised or stunned – simply silent, and listening.

What struck me was how different that silence was from the silence you get when you read something to primary school children. Primary school children fidget, giggle, whisper. They’re so used to being read to, it’s just normal to them.

Not to those teenagers. They’d lost the habit – the habit of finding themselves in a situation where there’s nothing else to do than to listen to a word after another, to each sentence with its rhythm and musicality. For them, I could tell, it felt new.

(And no, I’m not subtly bragging about the rhythm and musicality of my book; I’m pretty sure I could have read them anything. It was all about the situation, not the text.)

(And no, I don't have his voice.)

(And no, I don’t have his voice.)

When I finally found a place to stop, there were a few more seconds of that silence. Then they started moving again, and some of them said, “Just a few more pages…”

Since then, I always try to take time at the end of my high school visits to read extracts from the book. Something always happens. I know, now, that literature teachers know it – and sometimes take advantage of this amazing quality of their listening, to read them texts that they wouldn’t read themselves with the same focus, the same attention.

At the risk, of course, of gradually breaking the spell…