102 – Interview with Anne Fine

November’s Leicestershire Children’s Writer is the legendary Anne Fine, author of dozens of books including the Diary of a Killer Cat series, The Chicken Gave it to Me, Bill’s New Frock, Flour Babies, Madame Doubtfire, and her most recent book, Aftershocks.

Anne’s writing skill is matched by her sense of humor and her thoughtfulness, and it was a great pleasure to be able to speak with her. In our conversation, she discusses her latest work, her surprise that Bill’s New Frock remains relevant today, and how she really feels about the cat who inspired her to write Diary of a Killer Cat.

You can learn more about Anne and her work at annefine.co.uk.

101 – Dork Diaries

The Dork Diaries series  are hilariously true to the daily dramas of middle school life. They have special appeal to readers who are just about to go into middle school, offering a tantalizing peek into the agonies of tween life.

Written by Rachel Renée Russell and illustrated by her daughter Nikki Russell, these stories are very popular with host Chloë and her school friends at the moment. Find out why Chloë loves these stories and what she thinks they have to offer readers from about age 8 and up.

Activity: Rewrite a Diary Entry

Choose one of your favorite entries from Nikki’s diary. Pay attention to the characters who are in the entry, and consider how that person may have viewed the incidents Nikki writes about. Then write your own diary entry from the point of view of one of the other characters. The point of view, motives, and feelings may be similar or very different.

100 – One Hundredth Episode Mailbag

Wow! 100 Episodes! Join us as we read letters from you – the listeners. Find out what we think of book bans, what Jane Austen’s work does — and doesn’t — have to say to teenagers, and what books, movies, and TV shows we enjoy outside of the show.

Thank you so much to all of you listeners. Putting on this show is quite a lot of work, and while we enjoy doing it for ourselves, hearing back from you really makes it worth the effort. As Chloë said, we know we’ve said this a hundred times, but THANKS FOR LISTENING!!

99 – Where the Wild Things Are Turns 60

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak is turning 60 years old this week! Millions of children and their grownups have loved this book over the years, and it’s showing no signs of its age. You can help celebrate by drawing a picture, dressing up as a Wild Thing, or making your wildest face and sharing it online with the tag #HappyBirthdayWildThings.

Activity: Make your own Wild Thing

Draw your own “Wild Thing” by choosing different parts from humans and animals. You can combine any features you like – claws, scales, fur, teeth, tusks, noses – anything at all! Have students share their Wild Things with one another, explaining where each of the creature’s parts came from.

98 – Interview with Chloë Townsend

October’s Leicestershire Children’s Writer is . . . co-host of the show Chloë Townsend! She may be only nine years old, but she is already a published author with plenty more to come.

When selecting local authors to feature this year, I tried to choose a wide variety of interview subjects, and it occurred to me that I had been only interviewing adults! Luckily, right in my own home is a funny, interesting, hard-working writer. Please enjoy my conversation with my daughter Chloë about what interests her, the sort of books she is currently working on, and what she thinks she’ll do in her future career.

97 – Yanagita Kunio

Yanagita Kunio is known as “The Father of Japanese Folklore.” If not for him, many ancient Japanese legends would have been lost to the tides of modernization. He established folklore as a legitimate field of academic study as he traveled his nation, carefully listening to the thoughts, concerns, and stories or ordinary people. Yanagita is little known in the Western world, but his contributions are just as important as – and remarkably similar to – those of the Brothers Grimm.

Without the work of early folklorists, many commonly known children’s stories – and the works they’ve inspired – wouldn’t exist today. Fields such as literature, film, art, and even comic books would be much poorer without the hard work done by Yanagita to preserve Japan’s shared cultural memory.

Activity: Discover Early Folklorists

Have students research the lives and work of the people who helped to establish the field of folklore in the 19th Century. Students can, in groups or as individuals, write and present reports that summarize the biography and work of an early folklorist. Encourage students to choose subjects from around the world so that biographies and folklore work can be compared and contrasted.

96 – Bambi by Felix Salten

Bambi: A Life in the Woods was published in 1923 as a warning to Jewish people. Its author Felix Salten accurately foresaw the coming danger during the buildup to World War II, and wrote a novel that somehow mixes an anxious call for self-preservation with stirring love for the natural world and respect for the preciousness of life.

As a Bildungsroman, or coming of age story, Bambi is the perfect book to give to teenagers, who will be engrossed not just by its surface level story of animals learning to survive in a dangerous world, but also its moving parable about the plight of European Jews in the 1920’s.

Activity: Habituation

Have students research the phenomenon of how animals become habituated to humans. They should understand how animals lose their natural fear of humans, why this is dangerous for both humans and animals, and what negative consequences result from this problem. There are many reliable sources of information about animal habituation, such as this page from the US National Park Service about animal habituation in the Grand Canyon.

After studying habituation, have students write an essay or engage in a discussion about how the character of Gobo in Bambi: A Life in the Woods had become habituated, and why this lead to his early death.

Activity: Salten’s Warning to Jews

While teaching students about the rise in anti-Semitism during the buildup to World War II, have students read Bambi: A Life in the Woods. Ask students to reflect upon the mixed feelings that this book can produce. It can seem fatalistic and depressing in some moments, but also hopeful and happy in others. The character of Gobo provides the starkest warning to Jews, serving as a symbol of those who do not take the threat of anti-semitism seriously. Have students write an essay that breaks down the symbolism of Gobo’s character and experiences, and ask students to consider whether anything realistically could have been done to save him.

Music in this Episode

Melodies from Das Lied von der Erde by Gustav Mahler

95 – The Tortoise and The Hare and Hubris

Hubris is a literary concept that kids should learn about so that they can spot it in Ancient Greek and modern tales. “The Tortoise and the Hare” from Aesop’s Fables is a great way to introduce the idea of excessive, selfish pride in a character, and an old Disney cartoon makes the story extra fun.

Activity: Learn to Identify Hubris

Ask students to give definitions for the word “pride,” encouraging them to differentiate between good and bad kinds of pride. Hubris can be defined as the bad kind of pride – the sort of self-confidence that is selfish, arrogant, and even reckless.

After introducing the idea of hubris, have students watch “The Tortoise and The Hare,” a 1935 Disney cartoon based on the Aesop Fable. Afterwards, have students write a reflection or participate in a discussion about the numerous times that Max Hare displays hubris. In contrast, have them identify the ways that Toby Tortoise shows his good character and admirable personality traits.

Activity: Artwork about Aesop

“The Tortoise and The Hare” has been depicted by countless artists over the centuries. Choose several different depictions from different times in history and have students compare them. What techniques were used to produce the image? Which images are serious, and which are comical? Which art styles do the students prefer?

After studying other art styles used to depict events in “The Tortoise and The Hare” have students create their own work of art based on the tale.

94 – Why I Love Ramona Quimby

Host Chloë Townsend shares what she loves about Beverly Cleary’s most beloved character, Ramona Quimby. In the first episode entirely written and presented by Chloë, hear about why Ramona is so real and relatable, and why she’s a great friend to grow up with.

Activity: Write your own funny childhood story

Stories about Ramona Quimby are so funny and memorable because they are so true to life. Many of Ramona’s mistakes are embarrassing or silly, but they are exactly the kind of mistakes all children make. Write down a story from your own childhood in which you made a mistake. It might have been embarrassing long ago, but retold years later it can be a way for everyone to share a good laugh when they hear about it.

93 – Emily Owen

Emily Owen is the show’s Leicestershire children’s author for the month of September. She is an author who deals frankly with faith, serious health conditions, doubt, family life, and personal growth.

Emily has dealt with Neurofibromatosis Type 2 for most of her life, and the surgeries required to save her life have taken away her hearing and some of her other nerve functions. Despite this – or perhaps because of this she has developed into a writer with a strong voice that delivers the unvarnished truth in a way that is both poignant and motivating.

You can learn more about Emily at emily-owen.com. Her book Also Made: A Star Called Reeva is a Christmas story for children of all ages. My Diary is a thought-provoking memoir good for older children and young teens, and Still Emily is an autobiography best suited for teens and adults.

Full Transcript of this Episode:

This episode of the Children’s Literature Podcast is brought to you by the last berry picking of the year. The last berry picking of the year – you won’t know it happened until there just isn’t another one.

Welcome to the Children’s Literature Podcast. I’m your host, T.Q. Townsend. This episode is about Emily Owen.

Each month this year I am featuring a children’s writer from Leicestershire, and in September I am delighted to tell you about Emily Owen, an author who makes the expression “take lemons and make lemonade” seem like the understatement of the century.

Before we get started, I’d like to remind everyone that we are just 7 episodes away from our 100th show, in which co-host Chloë and I will answer your questions. I have some good submissions, but I can squeeze in just one or two more. If you have anything you want to ask us, send it in to letters@childrensliteraturepodcast.com.

I also want to hear from listeners for an upcoming episode on Stig of the Dump by Clive King. This is a book that isn’t much known in the United States. I had never even heard of it until about a year ago. It’s a fun, wacky tale about some kids who find a real caveman living in their local dump. Or . . . is he real? I seem to have discovered that British people absolutely love this book, and they have different theories about whether or not Stig is imagined by the children, or if he’s an actual caveman left over from prehistoric times. I want to do an episode where I share your theories about Stig. Is he real? Is he imaginary? Is he a time traveler? Is he a modern kid who is pulling a prank? You can send in audio or written answers via Instagram – the account is @childrensliteraturepodcast, or they can come in to the email address, letters@childrensliteraturepodcast.com. I think this episode will be fun, and I am open to any theory, whether it’s rational or completely out of left field.

Emily Owen was born in 1979. Her home was in Leicester City, where she was the oldest of four sisters in a home she described as “fun, chaotic, noisy, supportive, and faith-filled.” She grew into an intelligent and talented teenager, with rare combination of being very gifted both in athletics and music. She played the piano, flute, guitar, and accordion and ran cross country. She was voted Head Girl by her peers at school. But she also seemed to have sudden and uncharacteristic bouts of dizziness. From time to time, Emily would suddenly get dizzy and lose her balance, occasionally injuring herself. It was very easy to dismiss these moments as just common childhood accidents, but in hindsight they were terrible warning signs. She would get terrible headaches from time to time, which were diagnosed as migraines, but no migraine medications seemed to help.

By the age of 16, Emily’s headaches and dizziness were so bad, and her GP was so flummoxed by the way her symptoms defied any treatment, that she was referred to a neurologist. After some alarming test results, it became clear she needed urgent treatment for a very rare and very serious condition. You’ve probably never heard of Neurofibromatosis Type 2. It’s a genetic condition that causes tumors to develop on the skull and along certain nerves such as those that enable hearing. Emily’s promising future was upended by the sudden discovery that her dizziness, headaches, difficulty walking, and balance problems were caused by the presence of two brain tumors that were putting pressure on her brain. They were so large that it wouldn’t be safe to operate on them until doctors had given her large doses of steroids.

Emily’s path from this point was incredibly difficult. She went from the life of a promising, talented, hardworking teen to a kid fighting for her life as she was shuttled from hospital to hospital, enduring multiple operations and near misses with death. Summarizing her story seems kind of crass, now that I’m telling it, because it’s not possible for me to properly convey just how much she went through and just how resilient she is.

Emily’s life may have taken a drastic turn away from what she had planned for herself, but it’s not surprising that someone with so many talents was able to adapt and reconfigure. She’s since become an author and educator. Her Christian faith is deeply important to her, and this is reflected in the several books she has written on biblical themes, which are naturally targeted at adults interested in Christianity. But she’s also written three books that children would really enjoy.

Still Emily is a memoir that is best left to older teenagers. It’s perfect for this age group as it’s not too long to read, but still manages to tell a full story of Emily’s diagnosis, treatment, and ability, through it all, to remain still Emily. The author is remarkably unflinching in her description of what she’s been through. The surgeries required to save her life have left Emily Owen deaf, a particularly cruel stroke of fate for a musician. They also damaged her facial nerves, making it difficult for her to have normal facial expressions and speak as clearly as before. I can’t imagine being just out of my teen years and having to deal with those kinds of struggles, and I think teen readers can really benefit from how clear eyed Emily Owen is about the fact that sometimes, life is painfully, irrationally unfair.

And yet the story also shows how normal life somehow manages to go on in such situations. I loved a passage early in the book, when Emily was forced to stay at home on bed rest before an operation. A package arrived at her house, and inside was a mix tape. It had not only meaningful songs, but also the latest news from school and warm wishes from her friends. Emily Owen is about my age, and those of us who grew up in the 90’s will remember fondly how personal and special it was when someone gave us a mixtape. I can only imagine how much more special this one was because it came from several people wanting to remind her that she was still part of a circle of friends.

The memoir is a mix of extremely relatable moments, such as going down to London for a special night of musical theater, as well as painful, surreal memories like spending an entire night listening to music before a surgery that will render Emily completely deaf. She describes having a “bucket list” for her sense of hearing. I have to admit that as someone who has been heavily involved in music my entire life, these parts were very difficult to read. But Emily’s total lack of fear in describing what she went through is what makes her memoir so raw and real and compelling.

Still Emily would be a bit much for younger readers, which is why it’s so great that Emily Owen replicated her story in a format better suited for tweens and young teens in My Diary. This book is written in the format of a journal, covering a lot of the same material as Still Emily but in a way that younger readers will be able to understand. However, it still has the same unflinching realism. One of the title pages warns “This diary is about real life. Sometimes sad things happen.”

That statement could be seen as needlessly harsh, but I feel that it’s a very useful thing to say to kids who are growing out of childhood into their teen years. I can’t think of a better way to prepare children for real life than to say “sometimes sad things happen.”

Emily Owen’s religious faith is a huge part of her life, but one of her skills as a writer is to frame her faith in a personal way. This means that if you are a Christian, as she is, her beliefs will resonate powerfully with you. It also means that even if you aren’t a Christian, her personal experiences will resonate powerfully with you. She writes about her faith in a way that is real and humble and relatable. I really appreciated this passage from My Diary that captured what it feels like to have your worldview shaken hard by a trying experience:

I think this is the worst situation I’ve ever been in . Worse than being bullied, worse than sitting in A&E, worse than everything put together. Lying here, staring at the ceiling, I remember all the times Mum has said to me, “let’s pray about it.” It’s always the first thing we do. OK, I can still pray.

“God? God?”

Sometimes people say they feel that their prayers are bouncing off a ceiling, which means they don’t feel like they are getting through to God. I always used to think, ‘I Don’t know what you mean.’ But now I do know.

Whether you are Christian, of another faith, or of no faith at all, I think you can find this passage completely relatable.

In this moment, Emily is a girl having to deal with major surgery, which carries its own frightening risks. She is also about to have her sense of hearing taken away, which is especially punishing for someone who loves music so much. I think most people would feel terribly alone at such a time.

It takes a lot of courage to acknowledge a moment of fear and solitude. It would be so easy to just say what fellow believers expect, but Emily Owen chooses to be honest. I have very deep respect for anyone who chooses to acknowledge moments of fear and doubt rather than tell comforting lies that paper over moments of trial and tribulation. I think that young readers could learn a lot from Emily by reading My Diary.

Emily Owen’s third book which is good for young readers is Also Made. This is an illustrated book which can be understood by all ages. It is a Christmas story, in the theological sense, but it’s still endearing enough to have wider appeal if you are familiar with the Christmas story. A fairly ordinary star, Reeva, doesn’t feel terribly special, but he learns that he has a greater role to play as one day he discovers that he is the star of Bethlehem shining over the stable where baby Jesus was born.

The book’s one weakness is that the illustrations don’t do much service to the good writing, but I think if it’s read by a good storyteller, illustrations won’t be needed. The story’s final message is that you don’t need to have stereotypical gifts in order to be important or useful. Whoever you are, and whatever your gifts are, you’ll have something to offer the world as long as you are willing and ready when the chance comes along.

The work of Emily Owen is unapologetically infused with faith and unflinching in its description of pain and progress. Her stories have a lot to offer young people. Both Still Emily and My Diary help to build a sense of empathy, but without ever triggering a condescending sense of pity. There is no varnish on experiences based on fear, confusion, and pain, but this isn’t done for shock value. It’s just raw and real and honest.

You can learn more about Emily Owen at emily-owen.com. In the interest of making this episode accessible to those who are deaf or hard of hearing, I’ve also published a full transcript of this episode at childrensliteraturepodcast.com, and I will try to do this as much as possible in the future. Whether your approach to Emily Owen’s writing is faith based or secular, you will sincerely come to appreciate her honest, open voice as she speaks about her very personal experiences with a disease that only affects one in 60,000 people. She has a powerful voice and experiences that can teach even the most world-weary reader, and Leicestershire is lucky to claim her as a local writer.

You’ve been listening to the Children’s Literature Podcast. Please subscribe and give the show a rating. Send comments to letters@childrensliteraturepodcast.com. I’m your host, T.Q. Townsend. Thanks for listening.