Will you help me to make a stand?

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I am joining The Big March against bullying! Organised by international bullying prevention charity BeatBullying, we will be marching across cyberspace on 11th June 2014. My avatar is wearing a yellow top hat! Want to join us?

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You can find all the details here:

http://bigmarch.beatbullying.org

Nobody who has gone to school has avoided bullying. Either being bullied, being the bully or witnessing bullying.

It still breaks my heart to remember the way one girl in my class at school was treated when we were about eleven or twelve and just starting secondary school. Little, nasty things that were done to her, just because she was slightly different. They made up stories about her. They laughed at her. They said that she smelt.

Now and again I would try to do something, but to my shame because I was shy and lacking in confidence I did not make a real, proper stand. Worse, now and again I would laugh at some joke which was at her expense, or agree that she was ‘really weird’. By doing this I will have reinforced the bullies’ behaviour.

Bullying taints everybody who does not stop it in its tracks, everybody who does not stand up and say ‘this is wrong’. I did not make a stand on behalf of the bullied girl in my class and to this day I regret that.

Other things happened at my school at around the same time which I still feel quite horrible remembering. My form teacher was bullied by our entire class. She probably had other things going on and she was clearly on the edge of a nervous breakdown. The more she lost control of the class, the worse the class behaved, and the more inventive and cruel the ringleaders became. They locked her out of the classroom, put blackboard chalk on her chair, and much worse. It was not quite ‘Lord of the Flies’, but what happened at that time made the book an uncomfortable read a couple of years later.

Bullying happens everywhere, to all sorts of people – young and old.

A friend of mine who went to a different school was bullied by a group of boys who made fun of her for needing a bra long before any of the other girls. They were incredibly cruel, and it affected her self esteem for years.

Over twenty years later she went to a dinner party and one of those boys was among the guests. He was now a perfectly nice man, with a very nice wife. My friend said that when he realised who she was she could tell that he remembered because he went quite pale, and was very quiet, to the extent that other guests asked if he was unwell. To his credit he must have felt considerable shame remembering what he did to her – the endless taunting and the pinging of her bra strap when they were children.

This is what often happens with bullying. The bullied (like my friend who is incredibly confident and successful now) eventually move on and realise that they are SO MUCH BETTER than the people who bullied them. The bullies have to live with what they have done, at some level, for the rest of their lives.

Cyberbullying is now the most common form of bullying. It is a new and nasty way to ‘get to’ people. It used to be that bullying was confined to school and home was an escape, but now the bully can follow their victim home. Cyberbullying is evil. At its worst it causes suicides. It ruins lives.

I was moved to bring cyberbullying into my teen novel ‘My Big Fat Teen Crisis’. I wanted to show that cyberbullying can happen to anybody.

The central character, Sam, is bullied online by a girl in her class at school who is jealous of her, with the cyberbullying incidents escalating as the story develops, until the bully goes just one step too far, and Sam’s friend Lucy (who has cerebral palsy) also becomes her target.

I hope that by showing cyberbullying happening to a central, very likeable character, it helps girls who read the book to see that the problem and the dysfunction is always with the bully, NOT the bullied.

So, will you join me on 11th June? I didn’t make a stand when I was eleven years old, and I will always regret that, but I am making one now. Let’s march against bullying.

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The fight against cyberbullying

I am pleased to report that the cyberbullying element of My Big Fat Teen Crisis seems to be helping teenage girls.
The central character, Sam, is bullied online by a girl in her class at school who is jealous of her, with the cyberbullying incidents escalating as the story develops, until the bully goes just one step too far, and Sam’s friend Lucy (who has cerebral palsy) also becomes her target.
I am hoping that by showing cyberbullying happening to a central, very likeable character, it helps girls who read the book to see that the problem and the dysfunction is always with the bully, NOT the bullied.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/My-Big-Fat-Teen-Crisis/dp/1407115952/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1395311208&sr=1-1&keywords=my+big+fat+teen+crisis

Want to write? Never give up

As I approached my late thirties I was pretty sure that my dreams of being in print were well and truly over.

Encouraged by my English professor at University, the poet Philip Hobsbaum, I’d had poetry and short stories published, and I tried to write a big ‘serious’ novel in my twenties. The novel I wrote was structurally a mess and didn’t fit any recognisable genre, and so unsurprisingly it did not win me an agent or a publishing deal, although I had a very kind letter from Robin Robertson at Jonathan Cape encouraging me to ‘keep going’.

What went wrong? I became unsure of myself, I lost my confidence for a while. Then stuff happened. My dad died. I had my first child. I had my second child. There was always an excuse not to put myself on the line again, not to make myself vulnerable, open to rejection.

I could never stop writing altogether. I wrote lots of short stories (which I never sent anywhere), but I pretty much gave up on every being published, which was quite heartbreaking. Wanting to write had been part of my identity since I’d been about four years old. It was how I justified to myself all my daydreaming, it was why no other career had ever completely ‘grabbed’ me. If I wasn’t ever going to be a writer, then who was I?

One day a friend said ‘You’re funny. Why don’t you write funny?’, because she knew I was a huge comedy fan and I went to a lot of stand up. You could call me a comedy nerd, following lots of comedy from here and the US, the quirkier the better (I love ‘Episodes’, ‘This is Jinsy’, ‘Black Books’, ‘Gavin and Stacey’, ‘Inside Number 9’, ‘League of Gentlemen’, ‘Nighty Night’, ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’, ‘Seinfeld’, ’30 Rock’, the list goes on and on.) It did seem odd that I’d never tried writing humour before, since I love it so much.

Although I’ve always read and loved all types of fiction from all genres, I’d always felt that I should be writing something very serious and ‘important’. Was this the curse of studying English Literature? I don’t know. But I had a word with myself and decided to loosen up and have some fun, instead of trying to write the next ‘Ulysses’.

I bought Carole Blake’s book ‘From Pitch to Publication’ which helped me to understand the nuts and bolts of writing a book for a particular market. I decided to try teenage humorous fiction. Carole Blake’s advice worked, because a few years later I had two teen novels published by Scholastic –  ‘Diary of a Parent Trainer’ and ‘My Big Fat Teen Crisis’ for girls aged 11-15, both humorous but with serious issues in there too.

Then I was lucky enough to have ‘The Abominators’ published by Little Brown Young Readers. It is a series for children aged 6-11 which I wrote for my own sons. It is about a very posh boy called Cecil Trumpington Potts who wears silk pants with the family crest embroidered on them. He has never met any other children, he wears his hair in a centre parting and he talks in baby talk. When he joins Grimely East Primary school he decides that he wants to join the most mischievous gang in Year 5, ‘The Abominators’. What could possibly go wrong…?

Today I am sitting pinching myself because not only has ‘The Abominators’ series made it into print (in 2013), but last week on World Book Day a primary school pupil dressed up as Cecil Trumpington Potts, and today his teacher sent me the photo below (with permission to use it).

This is year 4 pupil Ben, I can’t say where he lives and what school he goes to, but he has absolutely MADE MY DAY. He recreated Cecil’s bow tie and his centre parting – and the family crest on the panty wanty woos!

If someone had told me when I was on the verge on giving up on writing, that a child would be going to World Book Day dressed up as a character from my imagination, I would never have believed them. Thank you Ben, and thank you to all the children who have read and enjoyed ‘The Abominators’ and my other books (including the 6000+ children who have borrowed them from UK libraries). You have made it all worthwhile, and I’ve had SO MUCH fun along the way! I’m glad I did not give up.

The Abominators

Year 4 pupil Ben dressed as Cecil Trumpington Potts on World Book Day

Ben Hatch – an inspiration

This week I downloaded two Kindle books written by Ben Hatch (the author of the 2011 Kindle bestseller, ‘Are We There Yet?’ about a family travelling around Britain to write a travel guide). 

The first, and the one I am reviewing here, was ‘The P45 diaries’. This was originally published under another title, but it did not get the publicity it needed or deserved on publication and so Ben Hatch has recently published it on Kindle slightly revised and with this new title. Here is what I thought of it.

This is a very funny, engrossing and ultimately moving book. 18 year old Jay spends his days crank-calling BBC related celebrities using his father’s contact book (his father is a BBC Controller, working long hours and coming home to make chicken curries and pour himself ‘stingers’).

Jay is magnificently dysfunctional, getting and losing a series of dead end jobs in ways that made me laugh out loud. There was something noble about him mopping the floor in McDonalds, then being reprimanded for using too much water, and the character’s private thoughts about his bosses and colleagues are cruelly perceptive and very, very funny. He has not recovered from the harrowing illness and death of his mother to cancer, this becomes increasingly clear as the novel progresses. He messes up his jobs, his relationship and even his friendship with his friend Sean, who is as confused as he is. The book references ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ for good reason, a clever nod to another alienated young man.

Jay’s father is a lovely character. As his exasperation grows his love for his son does not diminish, and despite his flaws and vulnerability and temper we see he is only doing his best in his own grief and that he really does know best, for example with regards to Jay’s younger brother Charlie’s need for structure. This is the wonderful thing about this book, Ben Hatch manages to show the nuances… that Jay is to blame for much of his own misfortune… that his father is doing his best… that life is just shitty sometimes.

At times side-splittingly funny, at times so sad you are close to tears as you read, this book manages to maintain a small, strong flame of hope and faith in humanity that makes the ending, while necessarily inconclusive, surprisingly uplifting. A gem of a book.

The book is only 99p on Kindle right now, which is in my view a real bargain. Buy it!

A wonderful endorsement

As a new writer, it is SO HARD to get noticed. There are thousands of new children’s books out there and if you are not a famous name, why should anybody pay attention to yours?

I put my heart and soul into ‘The Abominators’, most children who have had the chance to read them have loved the books. The trouble is, I have not been able to get the shelf space in the big bookshops and WH Smith to generate significant sales, and there is only so much that word of mouth can do.

Which is why this endorsement from Bookbabblers is so lovely. For the Abominators to be voted one of their TOP TEN reads of 2013 is a huge boost, and a great way to end the year.

http://bookbabblers.co.uk/2013/12/our-top-books-of-2013/

The Abominators by J.L Smith

Review here: http://bookbabblers.co.uk/2013/01/review-of-the-abominators-and-my-amazing-panty-wanty-woos-by-j-l-smith/

Abominators

 

Stocking filler!

Delighted to report that Little Brown is recommending ‘The Abominators’ as an ideal stocking filler for children aged 5-12!

http://www.lbkids.co.uk/stocking-fillers-from-little-brown-books-for-young-readers/

 

A new snooker term

I was watching snooker on TV with my son Ben. He was comparing snooker with pool, and commented that in snooker while the reds disappear once they were potted, the other balls, such as the yellow, green and black ‘re-spawn’.

Young people now have their own language, derived from the language in their computer games.  The way he used the word was spot on in terms of what happens, those balls do, in game terms, ‘re-spawn’. But nobody of my age would have thought of putting it that way, whereas a twelve year old would.

I just wonder what Neil Robertson would make of it!

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Random thoughts on a Sunday morning

Last night I was out with a group of women, most of whom I’ve known for about thirteen years, through our children. There was a lot of laughter. Russ and the boys watched an action movie while I was out, so everybody was happy.

Despite a latish night, I can’t help waking up early. So I’m sitting with a cup of coffee and my thoughts, as nobody else is awake. I am at odds with my family in terms of the hours we keep, they stay up later than me and at weekends do not emerge from their beds until 9.30 at the earliest. 

My ‘lots’ are up on the Authors for Philippines blog – so if you living in Oxfordshire or Buckinghamshire and want to bid for a writing workshop for up to 10 children (possibly for a birthday party or a Christmas present?) then you can do it here – all proceeds go to the disaster relief and I promise I’d give the children a fun session, and hopefully get them enthusiastic about writing stories:

http://authorsforphilippines.wordpress.com/2013/11/16/347-creative-writing-workshop-for-ten-children-by-author-jenny-smith/

I was re-reading my ‘The Man Who Loved Stories’ blog post, and am wondering if I could possibly turn it into a radio play. I am going to have a go in the next month or so. I know there is something called the Stanley Baxter theatre which is Scottish plays for the radio, so I will need to research that and find out where to send it if I write it.

A friend is coming for lunch today, who I have not seen for about three years. We worked together at Heinemann, back in the day. Looking forward to a walk and a roast dinner with her and her family, as long as the rain stays off. 

Social media here I come

Shamefully, I’ve only just today created a Facebook page for The Abominators.

I think I was in denial about how important Facebook is to promoting writing. I think I was also overwhelmed by it all. I had one Facebook page called Jennifer Russell (my maiden name) and another called Jenny Smith. I also had one called Jenny Smith Author, for children to ‘like’. How confusing was that??? Anyway I am now on Facebook as Jen Russell Smith (with Jenny Smith Author for children and teenagers), and I have pages for My Big Fat Teen Crisis, Diary of a Parent Trainer, Acorn Writers (about author visits) and now The Abominators. To ‘like’ my The Abominators page, visit http://www.facebook.com/TheAbominators

What I find difficult is linking it all together. One central website is not realistic for me with my different hats. I have a website for my author visits which is called http://www.acornwriters.com but will have to have a different website for my freelance copywriting. I have an old website called http://www.jennysmithonline.com about my teen and children’s fiction, but I might have to consider letting that one go as it just feels like too much. Aaaaaaaaagh. 

Luckily, a lovely lady in the Athena Networking High Wycombe group, Claire Fryer, is an expert on these matters and is giving a talk at our next meeting. I will have a list of questions ready.

The day I stabbed the exercise ball to death

I few years ago, I snapped.

I’d had enough.

Working freelance, working part time and writing books was not a ‘real job’, so at the time (things have improved slightly I’m glad to say) it felt as if almost everything at home was down to me. I had four jobs – the lion’s share of house and child related responsibilities (everything like making sure cupboards stocked, keeping on top of the washing, shopping, cooking to getting car through MOT and booking dentists appointments and remembering everybody’s birthdays and sorting the social calendar – well I was ‘at home’, wasn’t I?) PLUS my freelance copywriting, grants and trusts fundraising part time job and trying to write my fiction. Oh, and mum was very sadly in her last few years, so regular trips and emergency dashes to Scotland, worry and daily phone calls to an increasingly confused and frail elderly lady.

I was trying so hard to do all this, and be a good (or at least adequate) mum. For the most part, I hope I kept it together but one day it was too much.

I was stressed. It was raining, so the boys (aged about nine and ten) could not play outside. Recently they’d taken to bouncing an exercise ball I’d got free with some magazine round the living room. Whenever they did it the dog would bark excitedly and loudly. Already a couple of things had got broken and so I hid the exercise ball and made it clear it was not to be used indoors as a football.

I was in the kitchen, slicing carrots and boiling pasta (I’m an inspired cook) when I heard the latest breakage.

I hurried through to see what had happened.

They’d found the ball, started a game of football and broken a mug half full of tea, so there were shards of mug and a big pool of tea on the cream coloured carpet (stupid colour of carpet to choose with boys and a dog).

That was it.

Realising that I was still holding the knife I’d been using on the carrots I stepped forward and stabbed the exercise ball with it, shouting: ‘THAT’S ENOUGH!’

 

Slowly, the exercise ball deflated. I walked back into the kitchen and continued to slice carrots, feeling much better. The boys were unusually quiet and well behaved for the rest of the evening.

They still refer to the incident. In fact it has grown in the telling. Apparently, I rushed in brandishing an enormous carving knife – not a tiny vegetable knife. And according to their version I stabbed that exercise ball over, and over in a frenzied attack similar to the shower scene in ‘Psycho’. 

I’m confident that when asked to recall their childhoods in years to come, they won’t refer to the times I’ve read to them at bedtime. They won’t recall me ferrying them to piano/drums/tennis/karate/swimming/football (especially the football). They won’t tell people about the camping trips, or when we tried to fly a kite, or the games of badminton in the garden, or the times when we played cards or went on bike rides (when we could coax them off the computer or the X Box.) Oh no. Of course they bloody well won’t. They will remember one thing about their childhoods and ONE THING ONLY.

They will remember the day their mum lost it and stabbed the exercise ball to death.

 

 

 

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