107 – Leicestershire Writers Christmas Party

Join me and several of the Leicestershire Writers that were featured on the show this year for a nice little literary Christmas party. Each author has contributed a little something to this gift to you, the listeners.

Featured in this episode is

Jonathan Emmett reading his poem “Yours Ungratefully”
– A warm greeting from Emily Owen
Ben Dixon reading a passage from Neil Peel’s Rival that deals with a pleasantly rude Christmas card
Anne Fine shares the seasonal words of John Updike, Laurie Lee, and T.S. Eliot
– And Tom “The Tale Teller” Phillips shares the wintry Norwegian tale “The Cat on the Dovrefjell”

I know I say it all the time, but really, thanks for listening!!

103 – I Must Stop This Grinchmas from Coming

I’m up on my soapbox this week, giving some recommendations for books that would make great holiday gifts and encouraging listeners to consider whether or not the “content” based on the works of great authors is really worth your time and money. There will always be some tension between the competing demands of writers to create good art and make a product that actually sells, but generally once an author is dead and gone and corporate interests take over, the end product is rarely respectful of a writer’s legacy or even very much fun to watch at all.

However, no matter how much content is pumped out in order to extract the value of a franchise based on an author’s work, the original works still stand and your enjoyment of them can remain untouched. You’ll have to decide for yourself and your kids whether or not you’ll pay for products that the authors themselves never would have approved, and in general I won’t tell you how to make that decision. There is one franchise I feel pretty comfortable calling out, though, and that’s the “Grinchmas” line that has been pushed harder every year by the corporate interests that control Dr. Seuss’ work since his wife and collaborator Audrey died.

There’s nothing more ironic than the full on commercialization of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. This is a book that is explicitly about how stuff is not what should matter most at the Christmas season, but Grinchmas is doubling down on materialism, promoting fast fashion, sweatshop labor, and obsession with material goods. Materialism and cruelty to others was something Dr. Seuss explicitly stood against, and I feel that the Grinchmas line is enough of a violation of his legacy that I don’t think it’s a good idea to support it.

As mentioned in the show, here is my list of suggested books based on the Leicestershire children’s writers that I’ve been featuring through the year:

I’ve also done up this episode as a YouTube video:

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.

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.

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.

83 – Interview with Ben Dixon

July’s Leicestershire Children’s Writer is Ben Dixon. Ben spent his teen and tween years in Leicestershire, giving him experiences that helped him create the delightfully relatable world of Neil Peel. Neil navigates secondary school life in a trilogy of novels that portray his mishaps with school bullies, his sometimes friendly, sometimes dangerous big sister, and his own failure to understand that sometimes being perfectly honest isn’t the best idea.

You can buy copies of the Neil Peel series in bookstores in the UK and US, as well as online:

And you can follow Ben online:

80 – Interview with Bali Rai

This month’s Leicestershire Children’s Writer is Bali Rai. Born and raised in Leicester City, he still lives in Leicestershire with his two daughters and is an active part of the local, national, and international literary scene, making frequent visits to schools and publishing new works for children at a steady rate. In our interview, Bali talks about how Sue Townsend influenced and encouraged him as a writer, why he is unafraid to tackle difficult topics in his books, and why he loves reggae music.

Bali is the author of dozens of books, many of which explore overlooked areas of history and struggle with complex social problems. He’s also able to tell sweet, believable tales about ordinary school kids finding their way through childhood. But whether his writing is about folkore from India, an RAF pilot evading the Nazis in occupied France, a teenager struggling to escape an arranged marriage, or boys and girls playing soccer together, Bali Rai’s work honors his Leicestershire roots.

You can follow Bali online:


A note for those listening who may not be a Chissit (someone from Leicester):

Twice in the interview Bali says “mardy,” which is a very useful bit of Leicestershire slang that generally means being grumpy or unpleasant. Back in Southern California as an equivalent we would say “in a funk” or “being a downer.” The term “mardy bum” means someone who is moping or complaining a lot and could be translated as “sourpuss” or “sad sack.”

73 – Interview with Rachel Greaves

Rachel Greaves is my Leicestershire Children’s Writer for the month of May. She was kind enough to come to my home for a chat about her books, her creative designs for puppets, and future plans for Ruffle the Rail Dog, the lovable, adventurous pup who stars in her books. You can find Rachel’s books at ruffletheraildog.co.uk.

Rachel made Eric, the puppet on the right, entirely out of recycled or repurposed materials, resulting in a cute, lightweight, but sturdy character to feature in live performances of her stories.

Eric’s body is made from an empty four pint milk jug and his hands are carved wooden spoons. The hands are especially clever as the long handles allow the puppet’s arms to be easily manipulated without children seeing how during shows. This makes the puppet more believable and draws in the audience. Rachel also makes excellent use of Ruffle when she performs with him, making sure that he’s always moving around in a natural way.

Please do check out the adventures of Ruffle the Rail Dog! He’s a charming little guy with a lot of adventures that your kids can join in.

71 – Sue Townsend

Sue Townsend is Leicestershire’s most beloved author. While she primarily wrote for adults, she has been a major influence on other local children’s writers and her first three novels about the angsty, acne-plagued Adrian Mole remain beloved by teens and adults alike after 40 years in print. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4, The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole, and The True Confessions of Adrian Albert Mole provide a spectacular view of the messy life of a teenager growing up in Britain in the 80’s.

The novels about Adrian Mole’s teen years are a good lesson in the history and politics of this period, offering a chance for kids to understand the different points of view on the issue of government assistance and social programs for those farther down the economic ladder. They also provide a great opportunity to spark conversations about how teenagers should deal with the increasingly adult problems they will have in their lives, sometimes sooner than they would wish.

Activity: Who Should Help Adrian?

Adrian Mole is a disadvantaged teenager. His parents have a volatile relationship, and for a while his mother moves away. Both parents have short-term relationships wiht other people, creating an even more unstable home environment for Adrian. Both parents smoke and drink heavily and depend on government handouts to pay the bills and put food on the table.

Issues such as welfare benefits, socialized health care, and who deserves help from society can quickly become abstract or even contentious, but teens can begin exploring these ideas in an age-appropriate way by keeping the focus on Adrian and his life. Students can explore the following questions in a classroom conversation or in an essay.

  • When parents fail to take care of their kids properly, what is the point at which help should be offered by outside groups such as churches, schools, or social workers?
  • Adrian had his first hangover at age 14. What public health information can you find out about the dangers of heavy drinking at such a young age? What do you think is a good way to talk to teenagers about the risks that come from drinking alcohol?
  • Adrian’s father loses his job and becomes too depressed to look for work, instead sleeping late and watching television during the day and depending upon government benefits to pay the bills. Without welfare payments to Mr. Mole, Adrian will not have enough to eat or a home to live in. Do you feel Mr. Mole should continue to receive money from the government?
  • If disadvantaged children do not receive help to ensure that they have homes, food, healthcare, and an education, it is more likely that they will work in lower-paying jobs, have poorer health, and be more likely to engage in criminal behavior. What are ways that disadvantaged children can be helped? How should the costs of such help be paid for? Who should decide what help a child’s family should receive?

67 – Interview with Tom Phillips

March’s Leicestershire Children’s Writer is Tom Phillips, also known as Tom the Tale Teller. He’s the author of Leicestershire Folk Tales for Children, a collection of local stories from the spooky and fantastic to the sad but true.

In our conversation, we talk about the importance of keeping in-person storytelling alive. It’s more important than ever in a world full of digital distractions. Tom explains how he selected the stories for his book, how he dealt with the problem of multiple versions of a story, and how he managed to simplify the very complicated tales of Lady Jane Grey and Richard III. We also mention two places that have inspired storytelling for each of us — Bradgate Park here in Leicestershire and Sycamore Canyon in Los Angeles.

You can find Tom the Tale Teller online. Give him a follow to see videos of past storytelling and find out where you can see him in person!

Check out my previous features of Leicestershire Children’s Writers. Each month this year I’ll be featuring an author from my community!