A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
Books made up a massive part of my childhood. Weekends were all about visiting the library and searching the shelves for books I hadn’t read yet, preferably those that didn’t have ponies or babysitters or slimy monsters on the cover (very difficult in the teen section in the ‘90s).
Out of all the books I read, there are three that stand out. I devoured them over and over. Though they’re very different, they’re all a bit fantastical, full of heart, and more than a little dark — just like the books I gravitate towards now, and the stories I love to write.
Rebecca’s World was one of those library books I checked out countless times. Written by the creator of the Daleks, it’s a sci-fi about a young girl, Rebecca, who looks through a telescope and accidentally ends up on another planet. This world is terrorised by alien-like killer ‘GHOSTS’, which can only be banished by the touch of wood — and since all trees but one have been cut down, the GHOSTS are overrunning the planet. With the help of some quirky new friends, Rebecca has to decode riddles and get past alarming gate-keepers in order to find the planet’s last remaining tree, get to it before the villain can, and repopulate the planet with greenery.
Looking back now, the environmental message is obvious, but I didn’t even notice it as a child. I loved Rebecca’s World for its sheer imagination, but most of all for its characters. All of Rebecca’s new friends are outsiders in some way, and, at the start of the story at least, feel themselves to be failures: a wannabe superhero with no powers, a spy who’s useless with disguises, and a man with the world’s most painful feet. Though my feet were fine, I related to these characters so much more than I did to those in many other children’s books — I didn’t feel like a perky girl who rode ponies. Over the course of Rebecca’s World, the four mis-matched characters turn out to have heart in bucket-loads, far out-weighing their ‘failures’, and that was a message I loved. A few years ago, I lost my copy and paid £30 on eBay for another, I adored it that much. (Since then, it’s been re-released as an audiobook — a much cheaper way to read it if you fancy it!)
Behind the Attic Wall is another title that stuck with me, though for rather different reasons. For a children’s book, it’s really quite dark. The orphaned main character, Maggie, is shipped off to her horrible great-aunts’ house, where she finds a pair of living dolls in the attic. As if living dolls aren’t creepy enough, these dolls bear an uncanny resemblance to the house’s dead owners. Despite appearances, however, they’re not evil (they so would have been in any other book), but instead befriend Maggie and help her make sense of her unhappy life, becoming inert toys again only when she no longer needs them.
Like Rebecca’s World, Behind the Attic Wall has an overall positive message about finding your place in the world and finding friendship in unexpected places. Unlike Rebecca’s World, it was the first children’s book that properly unsettled me, and paved the way for darker, more complex, and more adult books.
Since YA hadn’t really been invented when I was a teen, I moved to adult books early. The books I tried, however, convinced me that modern adult fiction was all either trashy chick-lit or literary and incomprehensible, and so I discovered the classics. The first was Jane Eyre, and I loved it so much that it set me on a ten-year scramble to read all the classic Victorian and Gothic novels I could lay my hands on. Other than the odd book I had to read in uni, I barely read anything less than a hundred years old until my little sister forced Twilight on me. (Whispers: Yes, sparkly vampires in high school changed it all. Don’t tell anyone.)
I read Jane Eyre multiple times, long after we stopped studying it in school. It was long and slow in places, but also passionate and magical and Gothic. As a shy teen, I loved that Jane could be hard-working and unpopular with the cool girls, yet be tough and headstrong and individual (and get the brooding hot guy in the end).
Looking back, these three books, though very different, had a similar message — believe in yourself, be friends with who you want, follow your passions, and everything will work out alright. That was a message I needed when growing up, and I’m very glad I had books to tell it to me.
Kendra Leighton is a YA author represented by Lutyens & Rubinstein Literary Agency. Glimpse, her debut novel, was inspired by Alfred Noyes’ poem ‘The Highwayman’.
Kendra has a BA in English Literature from Durham University and a PGCE from Cambridge. She taught English in China and Spain, before returning to the UK to teach in middle schools. She discovered her love for YA fiction while browsing in school libraries.
In 2008, Kendra left teaching to start a raw chocolate company. These days, when she’s not making chocolate, she can usually be found writing, reading, taste-testing chocolate (far more than necessary), or trying to steal other people’s cats.