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.

92 – Tom Sawyer and Robin Hood

In chapter 8 of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain, Tom and Joe Harper re-enact the fight between Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne. They quote directly from a real story which was very popular when Mark Twain was a child: Robin Hood and His Merry Foresters, a book written by Joseph Cundall under the pen name Robert Percy.

In this episode, find out about the scene from Cundall’s book that inspired Twain’s reenactment, and get ideas for how to inspire reluctant readers with books that actually appeal to their tastes.

Activity: Get Inspired Like Tom Sawyer

Before reading chapter 8 of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, read the story of “Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne” in Robin Hood and His Merry Foresters by Robert Percy (the pen name of Joseph Cundall). Have students re-enact the scene, preferably outdoors and with some props. Encourage them to quote or elaborate on Cundall’s tale. Then read Mark Twain’s version of the scene as performed by Tom Sawyer and Joe Harper. Discuss the similarities and differences.

91 – Roald Dahl Day

107 years ago this week, Roald Dahl was born. To help celebrate Roald Dahl Day on September 13, we’re playing a game of “True or False” to find out which amazing stories about Roald Dahl are true! What languages did he speak? Was he a WWII Ace fighter pilot? Did he marry a movie star? Which legendary children’s author did he meet as a kid? Let’s find out!

Roald Dahl Day can be just a fun time to celebrate some great children’s stories, but it’s also a chance to dress up and raise funds for charity. Roald Dahl’s Marvellous Children’s Charity raises funds to ensure that seriously ill children get the skilled nursing care they need. Learn more about Roald Dahl Day at roalddahlcharity.org.

90 – Sense and Sensibility and Teenagers

Sense and Sensibility is the one best suited for teenagers out of all of Jane Austen’s works, and after more than 200 years it still has a lot to say to older teens looking for good advice on how to finish growing up. While of course many things have changed when it comes to the economic independence, dating preferences, and age of marriage for young people, Sense and Sensibility can still give good advice by contrasting the overly romantic approach of Marianne Dashwood to the more pragmatic approach of her older sister Elinor.

Activity: How do You Spot a Bad Partner?

While reading Sense and Sensibility with teenagers, engage in discussions about how Colonel Brandon, Edward Ferrars, and John Willoughby all reveal themselves to be good or bad romantic partners. After reading the novel, have students either write an essay, give a presentation, or engage in a discussion about how young people should balance romantic and pragmatic concerns when looking for someone to date or even marry.

89 – Rob Childs

Rob Childs, author of over 80 books mainly about kids playing sports, is my Leicestershire Children’s Writer for the month of August. He spent his career teaching schoolkids and running team sports, as well as writing books for children based on his thoughtful understanding of their lives and experiences.

Rob Childs spent one year training at The Dyslexia Institute, which helped him not only to understand how children with dyslexia learn (or don’t, if they aren’t getting the right instruction.) His experience informed his book Moving the Goalposts, which very accurately portrays the anxiety and struggle of being asked to read and write by teachers who don’t understand how difficult that is for Sam, a year seven student and star soccer player who struggles with dyslexia.

Whether or not young readers have dyslexia, they will be able to empathize with Sam’s worries. This is the strength of Rob Childs’ work; his writing engages students with very realistic concerns and experiences, and that can be a great encouragement to those who think reading isn’t for them, or that it’s impossible to do.

88 – A Defense of Dick and Jane

Dick and Jane used to be the kids who taught American kids to read. Now the readers chronicling their adventures are largely considered old fashioned because of the rise of phonics in the 1970’s as well as the emergence of an entire industry based around selling literacy curriculum.

Dick and Jane books are old fashioned. But sometimes old things stick around because they are tried and true. Although Dick and Jane readers make use of sight words, they are also fun. They also instantly build confidence, something that phonics-based readers are not great at. While phonics absolutely should remain a big part of early reading curriculum, sight word books like the Dick and Jane readers can go a long way toward teaching little ones that reading is fun and that anyone can do it. That kind of confidence and enthusiasm will help instill a lifelong passion for reading in any young child, especially those who have previously given up on reading.

87 – Cendrillon

Charles Perrault’s version of Cinderella is the most famous one worldwide, and that’s because it was the first to be widely printed, first in French and then in English. It’s also a story that is strikingly modern, from its use of the pumpkin, a new world plant, to its Enlightenment values celebrating Cinderella’s personal virtues even more highly than her beauty.

This story was first published as “Cendrillon, ou la petite pantoufle de verre”, which translates to Cinderella, or the little glass slipper. It was part of a collection called Histoires ou contes du temps passé, avec des moralités ou Contes de ma mère l’Oye. That rather wordy title translates to Stories or Tales from Past Times, with Morals or Mother Goose Tales.

Charles Perrault was an Enlightenment man through and through, from his use of explicit morals, emphasis on good character, and very enlightened position on forgiveness toward those who have behaved very badly.

Activity: The Journey of the Pumpkin

Have students research the history of the pumpkin. They should be able to answer the following questions after their studies:

  • What is the original native range of the pumpkin? On what continent was it located, and in which areas?
  • How did Native Americans make use of the pumpkin? What was the role of pumpkin and other forms of squash in a Three Sisters garden?
  • When and how did Europeans first encounter the pumpkin?
  • About when did pumpkins first arrive in Europe?
  • About how many years had passed since the arrival of the pumpkin to Europe when Charles Perrault wrote “Cendrillon?”
  • If a Cinderella story were written today, what kind of new, trendy plant could be used to be magically transformed to transport Cinderella? What kind of vehicle would it turn into?

Activity: Cendrillon’s Forgiveness

After reading “Cendrillon” by Charles Perrault, have students consider Cendrillon’s act of forgiveness toward her two wicked stepsisters. She not only forgives them but helps them to very advantageous marriages with royal courtiers. In a group discussion or as a written essay, have students reflect on the following questions:

  • Why do you think Cendrillon forgave her stepsisters?
  • Would you have treated the stepsisters in the same way? If not, how do you think the stepsisters should have been treated?
  • What advantages are there for Cendrillon to keep her stepsisters close to her at court?
  • How do you think the common people in Cendrillon’s kingdom would have viewed her actions?
  • As a princess, what kind of an example has Cendrillon set for others to follow?

86 – The Saga of Pecos Bill

Out of all the larger than life figures in American tall tales, Pecos Bill is the roughest, toughest, meanest, wildest, most untamed, and funniest of them all. Only Pecos Bill has the kind of personality and adventures big enough to have come from Texas.

Unlike most tall tales, which arose slowly and were authored by many people, Pecos Bill was probably the creation of one man, Edward “Tex” O’Reilly, whose own life can seem like a tall tale. Born in the last days of the Wild West, Tex traveled the world as a soldier, mercenary, adventurer, and at last, a writer and Hollywood star of the silent film era. His story “The Saga of Pecos Bill” likely did draw on tall tales told in his childhood days in Texas, but it also satirized popular adventure stories of the day such as the books in the Tarzan series by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Parents and teachers should note that Pecos Bill is by no means a role model. He fights, kills, swindles, robs, drinks, and cheats. However, it’s also fairly obvious from the tone of the story that none of this is meant to be taken seriously. These are silly stories about a bad man, so the worse he behaves, the better the story is. However, some tales about Pecos Bill may need to be modified or skipped entirely for younger children as they may take the tales more literatlly.

Activity: Draw one of Pecos Bill’s Adventures

After telling a few stories about Pecos Bill, ask students to create a work of art showing one of his adventures. Students may refer to the original drawings by Elmer Hader in The Century Magazine or other works of art for inspiration.

Activity: Peform a Pecos Bill Story

Have students write a script and put on a comedic skit or play showing one or more of Pecos Bill’s adventures. The performance should be as silly and funny as possible.


“The Saga of Pecos Bill” as originally published by Edward O’Reilly in The Century Magazine issue 106

Stories of Pecos Bill told by Robin Williams

Depictions of Pecos Bill

Boatright, Mody. Tall Tales from Texas Cow Camps. Dallas: Southwest Press, 1934.

Botkin, B. A. “The Saga of Pecos Bill.” In A Treasury of American Folklore. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1944: 180–85.

Chechik, Jeremiah (Director). (1995). Tall Tale: The Unbelievable Adventures of Pecos Bill. Walt Disney Pictures and Caravan Pictures.

Geronimi, Clyde (Director). (1948). Pecos Bill. Walt Disney Pictures.

O’Reilly, Edward. “The Saga of Pecos Bill.” The Century Magazine 106 (1923): 827–33.

85 – The Tyrannosaur’s Feathers

Co-host Chloë and I went up to Woolaton Hall in Nottingham for our first on-location interview with Dr. Adam S. Smith and Jonathan Emmett, authors of The Tyrannosaur’s Feathers, a wonderful new picture book about how our understanding of the Tyrannosaurus Rex has changed over the years. This book is playfully illustrated by Stieven van der Poorten, and uses humor and fun to teach about how science works over time to gather new information and refine our understanding of the facts.

This book gets a wholehearted endorsement from The Children’s Literature Podcast. It’s a total blast to read, thanks to the wit and humor used as the Tyrannosaur’s appearance is corrected by a pedantic but still charming Velociraptor. The pictures and central story are engaging for all ages, and the sidebars are packed with fascinating bits of information aimed at older children and adults. The Tyrannosaur’s Feathers is the second collaboration between Jonathan Emmett and Adam Smith. They are also the authors of The Plesiosaur’s Neck, another book that is as fun as it is informative.

Chloë and I really enjoyed our conversation with Jonathan and Adam, which was held in the Woolaton Hall Library. We talked about fossils, how media affects popular understanding of scientific facts, and why the Tyrannosaurus Rex is just the coolest. When we were finished, the authors showed an interesting book about plesiosaur fossils from the Woolaton Hall library to Chloë.

Dino lovers everywhere can buy a copy of The Tyrannosaur’s Feathers when it hits shelves on August 3!

84 – Casey at the Bat

“Casey at the Bat” by Ernest Thayer is the most beloved poem in American Literature. It’s mock-heroic epic about . . . a baseball game. It’s very funny and makes a great selection for children to recite. It’s also a great way to introduce students to common poetic devices as well as themes from classic literature that are often referenced by modern writers.

Activity: Poetic Device Hunt

Give students a printed copy of “Casey at the Bat.” Have students circle and label examples of the following poetic devices in the poem:

  • Hyperbole
  • Alliteration
  • Enjambment
  • Personification
  • Metaphor
  • Simile
  • Caesura

Additionally, students can research the references in this poem to great works of myth and literature, such as the source of the phrase “hope springs eternal” and the story of Echo from Greek mythology. Students can also research the poetic meter used in this poem (iambic heptameter, also called a “fourteener”), which was commonly used in Renaissance-era poetry.

Activity: Write Your Own Epic Sports Poem

Ask students to write a poem in the style of “Casey at the Bat” based on their own favorite sports moments. Poems should describe a heartbreaking moment in sports and make use of language that is pretentious, florid, and overly grandiose. Students can then contrast this language with fairly common everyday language. If possible, poems should reference people or events from mythology or come from famous poems or stories about gods, royalty, and legendary people.

Activity: The Rules of Baseball

In a PE or baseball team setting, ask students to explain the scenario described in “Casey at the Bat” using the rules of baseball. Students should explain why Casey is in a critical position, as it is the ninth inning, the team is behind by two points, and two players are on base with two outs already on the board. Students should be able to explain that there are four possible outcomes:

  1. Casey is able to hit a single and get on base, sending Flynn home for a run and leaving Blake on base. The score would then be Mudville 3, Visitors 4. The Mudville Nine would then send its next batter up, and the game would depend on him.
  2. Casey is able to hit a double or triple and get on base, sending Flynn and Blake home. This would leave the score tied 4-4, sending the game into extra innings even if the next player gets out.
  3. Casey hits a home run, batting in Flynn and Blake ahead of him. Mudville wins the game 5-4.
  4. Casey strikes out, and Mudville loses 4-2.

Ask students how they would have batted if they found themselves in Casey’s position. With players on second and third, what kind of hit would they attempt? Not getting out is the highest priority, so how would they have tried to manage the situation?