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Reading for pleasure Representation

Why is representing rainbow families in children’s books so important?

It’s no secret that I’m passionate about the representation of rainbow families in children’s books. Indeed, a conversation with my son about the lack of positive representation (particularly in funny books) was my starting point for The Accidental Diary of B.U.G. series which I’ve previously blogged about here.

In my opinion, the answer to this question is:

A. to give children with two mums or two dads the choice to read a book that reflects their reality

and

B. to help children from more traditional family units to broaden their understanding of the world.

But why?

According to the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education’s ‘Reflecting Realities’ report (2020), representation is the key to successful reading for pleasure (another of my passions).

When a child sees themselves in a book, they feel validated, their self-confidence sky-rockets as they realise they’re not alone. Moreover, they’re more likely to read for pleasure and, if this habit is sustained, they’ll have better life chances, get better grades and report higher levels of wellbeing (OECD). 

So given that in 2019 (according the ONS) there were 212,000 same sex families in the UK (and three years on, this figure will surely be greater), representing rainbow families is key to reading for pleasure for a large number of children.

That’s the ‘mirror’ element of reading.

But reading about people who are different to you, is of equal importance. This is where ‘windows’ come in.

To be able to read about life from another person’s perspective, helps children to make sense of the world around them. When a reader from a family with a mum and a dad reads a book that contains a rainbow family, they learn to empathise and accept. Essential conversations are sparked which can often lead to a deeper understanding of ‘different’ and a celebration of the many similarities that unite humans.

So, in summary, from picture books for babes in arms, right through to longer reads for older children, books have a huge role to play in helping youngsters to understand our world. Whether that’s to boost an individual’s self-esteem, to help nurture empathy for different, or just to cement the fact that all family units, whatever they look like, are valid, worth writing about, normal.

Can you recommend any great children’s books that contain positive representation of same sex parents?

Yes! BookTrust has some marvellous suggestions on these pages:

Middle Grade recommendations (age 7-11ish)

Younger readers

And here are a few recommendations from me:

My Daddies written by Gareth Peter, illustrated by Garry Parsons – a rhyming picture book adventure that includes a celebration of adoption and is perfect for introducing children to a family with two loving fathers.

Love Makes a Family written and illustrated by Sophie Beer – a board book depicting a wide range of families and what they may typically do on a daily basis.  I love this book’s main message: the one thing that makes every family is love.

The Pirate Mums written by Jodie Lancet Grant, illustrated by Lydia Corry  – an adventure picture book that helps children to embrace uniqueness – whether that’s because you have two mums, or that your parents are pirates!

Uncle Bobby’s Wedding written by Sarah Brannen, illustrated by Lucia Soto – an uplifting celebration of love in all its forms.  I vividly remember my nephew worrying I might not have time to play when I told him I was getting married!

The Accidental Diary of B.U.G. (3 books) written and illustrated by me! – think Wimpy Kids meets Tom Gates, but with a witty female protagonist who, incidentally, has two mums and was adopted as a baby.

The Last Firefox written by Lee Newbery, illustrated by Laura Catalan – a fantasy tale about finding your own courage with lovely representation of an adoptive family with same-sex parents (two dads).

Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It by Susie Day – an exploration of masculinity told via an exciting adventure and including a family headed up by two fathers.

Proud of Me by Sarah Hagger-Holt – a lovely coming of age story with multiple LGBT themes, told from the point of view of twelve year old siblings Josh and Becky who have two mums.

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Uncategorized

What was World Book Day Like for you?

It’s been a busy couple of weeks with all the wonderful World Book Day (AKA World Book Fortnight!) activities and events I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in.

Schools, libraries, theatres, bookshops – thank you so much for having me.

Audience participation in Answer The Question Before 🙂

It’s been completely brilliant to see children so enthused about books – laughing, sharing tales, dressing up as Billie, asking some inciteful questions and, best of all, telling me how much they love my series.

#Authorgoals – a potato of my protagonist – Billie Upton Green

Here are some of the most popular questions I got asked over the last couple of weeks and some short and sweet answers in case you’re interested:

When did you write your first book?

When I was seven. It was completely magpied from a book I loved to re-read when I was this age: About Teddy Robinson by Joan Robinson. Mine was called About Teddy Carney. The teddy lost his leg, played tennis and got a cap with the number 88 on it. Deep.

Practise makes…better…

What’s your favourite biscuit?

A question I love and one I often answer thus: A Tunnock’s Tea Cake – brilliantly dismantle-able; delicious to boot. Oddly, it doesn’t feature in TOBLA’s Biscuit Laws. Yet.

The first five Biscuit Laws in The Accidental Diary of B.U.G.

What inspired you to start writing?

  1. My mum. She wrote funny poems about my family and I loved her reading them to me.
  2. A teacher at High School called Mrs Gray who gave me tons of positive feedback and encouragement about my penmanship.
My lovely mum (and toddler me)

Have you had any other jobs?

Yes, many! Here’s a few of them: family learning tutor, KS2 teacher, working in a shoe shop, working in a bank, bid-writer, project manager, leaflet deliverer.

Here’s me working as a project manager on a gardening project

Why did you write this series?

I wanted to make sure that my children (and subsequently children all across the country/world) had the option to read a funny and interactive book that featured a main character who was happily adopted by two mums – because that’s what my son wanted when he was 10.

There are currently three books in The Accidental Diary of B.U.G. series. You can order them here if you like!

How long does it take to write a book?

Tricky. For me, writing a first draft might take about four months (predominantly working 9.30-2.30 Monday to Thursday). But the rest of the process takes much longer – working with an editor to make everything shine, the illustration process etc. It can take over a year for a book to get from an idea in my head to being available in a shop.

Some of the books I’ve recently signed for Ebb & Flo bookshop

How old are you?

I like to answer this question, and the one about how long I’ve been writing, with a maths problem.

My age is 9 x 5, half of 90, three lots of 15

I started writing stories when I was seven. That was in 1983.

(This detail is correct as at 13th March 2022!)

Me and Rachel – the wonderful children’s bookseller at Waterstones in Warrington. Say cheese!

Do you have any tips for writing funny books?

Keep a notebook handy. When you see/hear/think of something funny, write it down for reference. Test your material out on your intended audience. Be prepared to make some drastic cuts!

A child laughing…I think because she’s been allowed to dismantle a custard cream in class.

What’s your favourite book?

I honestly don’t have one. I love reading all sorts of books. When I’m asked this question by children, I often recommend a book I’ve recently read and enjoyed. This week I read a couple of advanced reader copies of books I loved, both of which are out later in 2022: Secrets of An Undercover Activist by Nat Amoore and My Name is Sunshine Simpson by G.M. Linton. I do love realistic, contemporary stories with humour and heart.

#authorperks …publishers send you early reader copies of brilliant books like this.

Can you tell us a joke?

My answer here varies. Here’s an oldie, but a goodie: Knock knock. (Who’s there?) Europe…

I’d like to finish this blog with some HUGE thank yous to the following schools and organisations for inviting me to connect with readers during this bookish time of the year:

Orpington Library Chatterbooks group, The NENE Trust schools, Tameside Libraries, Albany Academy, Coleham Primary School, Horwich Parish C of E, St Joseph’s RC Primary, Woodside Junior School, Chorley Theatre, Ebb & Flo Bookshop and all the schools in Chorley who attended my World Book Day live event either in the theatre or via the livestream, Boldmere Primary, The Vineyard School, Hull Schools Library Service, Hampshire Schools Library Service.

Categories
Engaging reluctant readers Reading for pleasure

Why do your books appeal to reluctant readers?

I’ve received many marvellous messages from parents, guardians and teachers thanking me for igniting a love of reading in their reluctant readers. Such correspondence delights me, because it was my own son’s MAHOOSIVE reluctance to read that inspired the format and content of The Accidental Diary of B.U.G. series.

So, in brief, here are five reasons I think my books appeal to children usually disinclined to choose to read for pleasure:

  1. Early attention-grabbing content
  2. Short chapters easily finished in one sitting
  3. Dynamic content
  4. Laughter and jokes
  5. A relatable (and inspirational) protagonist

Allow me to expand…

  1. Early, attention-grabbing content

The first few pages of a book are important for all readers. For children disinclined to read for pleasure, grabbing and maintaining their interest in the initial pages is, perhaps, vital.

Will I read the rest of this book?

Where children who love to read might enjoy an atmospheric, descriptive build up, reluctant readers (my own son being a prime example of this) are inclined to abandon perfectly wonderful books if nothing has piqued their interest by page four.

Other people have commented on this aspect of my series:

“My 7-year-old is a hard sell… books have to grab him immediately. We could hear him laughing while he was in bed reading this. It’s a triumph. Thank you”

Parent

“I have an 8-year-old reluctant reader… hadn’t read anything willingly for well over a year… from page 1 I could see her interest piqued… Tonight when I finished reading to her, she took the book from me and read a couple of pages to herself whilst giggling at the content…It’s early days but you may just have got my lovely girl’s reading mojo back on track.”

Parent

2. Short chapters easily finished in one sitting

The feeling of accomplishment should not be under-estimated. I’ve never come across a child who wasn’t thrilled to have found a book they actually enjoyed reading. And a proudly announced, ‘I’ve finished A WHOLE CHAPTER!’ is a moment to be celebrated.

My daughter usually has to be bribed to read. The short chapters kept her going. She read this whole book without complaint and immediately asked me to order the sequel. Thank you.”

Parent

“Hasen has finished your book and absolutely LOVED it! Thank you so much for writing a book which has ignited a love for reading in some of my reluctant readers.”

KS2 Teacher

3. Dynamic content

For many so-called reluctant readers I have taught over the years, a full page of text was a real turn-off. Even if the story was gripping, even if I read the opening chapter to pique interest in a book I knew they could read and I thought they’d enjoy, some children (especially those who were also struggling readers) just felt too overwhelmed by dense paragraphs of words page after page, so gave up.

The Accidental Diary of B.U.G. series is purposefully packed with doodles, interactive pages and activity ideas – often viewed by reluctant readers as a nice little reading break despite the reading skills these parts of the story involve (Shhh)!

Lots of reading here!

“The Accidental Diary of B.U.G. is immense fun and is the first book I have read in a single sitting in a long time!”

Louie Stowell, author of many great books for children including The Dragon in the Library and Loki

4. LAUGHTER AND JOKES

Through funny speech bubbles, daft doodles, blatant jokes and the odd amusing hyperbole, The Accidental Diary of B.U.G. series is intended to make children laugh. In my experience, the LOL-factor can be a magnet for many reluctant readers as books are often competing with games consoles/phones. Certainly, my son always had a better entertainment option unless it was bedtime. As a parent to three would-be screen-addicts, these recent tweet made me VERY happy:

“Awab is really enjoying his new book and was very proud of himself this morning. ‘Miss, I am already on page 111 and I didn’t even go on my PlayStation last night!’”

“Daughter got a copy for her birthday and hasn’t put it down since! Even choosing book over Nintendo she is loving it so much 😊

“Jen Carney writes family life with warmth, nuance and a phenomenal eye for detail. Plus, she knows how to make kids laugh . . . and I mean totally unreserved roll-on-the-floor belly laugh. Billie Upton Green is a firm favourite in our house.

Emma Mylrea, author of Curse of the Dearmad

5. A relatable (and inspirational) protagonist

B.U.G.

Many reluctant readers, in my experience, enjoy reading about someone who’s a bit like them.

Billie Upton Green is a regular, present-day ten-year-old – no angel, but likeable. She lives with her family, she goes to school, she watches TV, she plays with her friends, she has disagreements, she visits relatives, she bemoans rules and obligations, she marvels at the extraordinary, and she’d much rather be doodling than writing. She’s not afraid to laugh at herself and the things she struggles with (namely spellings) and she’s very matter of fact about life. Writing about the everyday with no filter, and in a witty but easy to understand manner, she’s a character that proves to reluctant or struggling readers that everyone is smart in their own way.

“The character of Billie is wonderfully relatable, as well as likeable and funny. And Carney has done well to incorporate topical subjects, like diversity, same sex parent adoption and so on. This is life as youngsters know it today, and it’s great to see such issues treated with both humour and respect.”

Amazon reviewer

Class workshop feedback:

“I liked how she made spelling mistakes and drew things she couldn’t spell.”

Abominable

“I’m going to invent my own biscuit laws later.”

The Cream-Filled Commandment

I dearly hope that one of my books might begin a reluctant readers’ ‘reading for pleasure’ journey because it was these kinds of books that turned my book-loathing son into someone who chose to read for pleasure. (Said son is now sixteen and reads a wide range of books, his current favourite genre being dystopian fantasy. So, to anyone currently struggling with a reluctant reader, my advice would be to pile them with books until they find their pleasure, then wait – they’ll branch out in their own time.)

The Accidental Diary of B.U.G. and Basically Famous are available to buy now. They’re recommended for readers aged 7+ (note that plus – it’s very important, my son was eleven when he was reading books like this). If they hook your reader, the third in the series, Sister Act will be published on 3rd February 2022.

PS In addition to all of the reluctant reader hooks mentioned above, all the books in The Accidental Diary of B.U.G. series carry important underlying messages surrounding being proud of who you are, accepting differences and navigating friendships.

Categories
My journey to publication

What inspired you to write the B.U.G. series?

It was a complaint from my son when he was about eleven that drove me to write the first draft of what has since been published by Puffin as The Accidental Diary of B.U.G. series.

At the time, the only kinds of books he’d read independently were laugh-out-loud funny, highly accessible to even the most reluctant reader, and (more often than not) heavily illustrated. (I’ll blog about my experience of the power of funny books for reluctant readers in a subsequent post.)

His complaint: Why do the main characters in these types of books never have two mums or two dads?

After failing to source him such a book, I figured I’d write one.

In all honesty, my initial draft was for his eyes only. Avoiding his reading kryptonite of text-heavy paragraphs in favour of interactive pages, doodles aplenty and gags about spellings, I created a protagonist whose life vaguely represented his reality (adopted by two mums) and I was overjoyed when he told me he loved it.

Mission accomplished!

Or so I thought…

A couple of years later, I shared the manuscript with my then eight-year-old daughter and was thrilled to see her as engrossed as my son had been. It was when she expressed how much she’d love all children to have access to a mainstream ‘laugh about it in the playground’ book that illustrated how perfectly ‘normal’ ‘different’ families actually are, that I knew I needed to try my luck at finding a publisher!

Positive representation, I’ve learned, matters enormously to all children. At the time of my son’s complaint, our bookshelves were sagging under the weight of books featuring children who had been adopted and children with same sex parents. The problem was, they were all picture books we’d shared when our children were small, non-fiction books a little too earnest in their ‘you’re so special’ message, a bit depressing, or contained too many emotional triggers.

We also had plenty of books that featured families very similar to ours as a matter of fact – manic parents making questionable packed lunches, children recounting school mishaps, curious family anecdotes and so on. But none of the main characters ever had same sex parents.

It was the light-hearted humour, combined with the honest, matter-of-fact, ‘this is who I am’ nature of Billie, the protagonist of The Accidental Diary of B.U.G. series, that my children took to. Not only did it satisfy their hunger to see themselves in a book, it enabled them to verbalize how a book like mine could fill the gap they were both acutely aware was missing from their peers’ libraries – a funny ‘middle grade’ read that would incidentally expose all children to the normality of everyday life of our kind of family.

The Accidental Diary of B.U.G. and Basically Famous are available to buy now. The third in the series, Sister Act will be published on 3rd February 2022.

I really enjoyed reading the adventures of Billie Upton Green (not Bug!!)! Billie is a delightful and relatable character, and her escapades are both funny and heart-warming. I particularly enjoyed the inclusivity in the text, and it’s a real joy to see such positive LGBTQ+ representation in children’s books. Jen has written a real treat for younger readers, and the artwork is fabulous, too!

― L. D. Lapinski, author of The Strangeworlds Travel Agency

Readers will love Billie’s adventures, and her funny, doodle-filled way of sharing them, as much as they love the Dork Diaries or Wimpy Kid stories, and it’s great too to see such a warm celebration of diverse family life.

― LoveReading4Kids

Carney’s lively, upbeat Billie is a welcome inclusive addition to the world of illustrated diaries. Her two mums feel like people I know, her weariness at explaining their existence just as familiar – and Billie herself is a treat, from her passion for biscuits to her determined pursuit of the school thief. Fun, funny, and deceptively clever.

Susie Day, author of Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It

brilliant, hilarious and heartwarming book! I’m pretty sure if I’d read this as a child it wouldn’t have taken me quite so long to understand and accept my own queer identity. Amazing for normalising same-sex parenting and adoption, completely laugh-out-loud funny and a feast for the eyes with lots of fun and engaging doodles. I loved it!

Abigail Balfe, author of A Different Sort of Normal