A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
HAPPY BOOK BIRTHDAY!!!!
love, the Allsorts
UNBOXED, for those of you who don’t know much about it, is a fabulous, heartbreaking story about what happens when four friends return to open a time capsule after their fifth friend dies. Here’s the official description:
Four friends meet up at their old school to open the memory box they stowed there years ago – with five letters inside for four of them, because their friend Millie has died. When they open the box they find a new letter from Millie and discover that she has left them special instructions: permission to open her letter only if they all read aloud the letters they wrote to their older selves, revealing their deepest secrets.
I was lucky enough to read this one early and adored it, so I’m so pleased to be celebrating Non’s book birthday with her here on the Allsorts blog.
SANGU: What inspired you to write UNBOXED?
NON: The book is dedicated to my friends who made the ‘time capshoole’, so named because I pronounced the word incorrectly and wasn’t allowed to forget it. We were 15 and thought it would be cool to make a time capsule that we’d meet up and open years later. There’s a few things that’s leeched from that into Unboxed, like picking someone’s birthday as the date to meet up because we’d all remember, everyone putting songs on a mixtape (yes I am that old) and writing letters to our future selves. One of my friends gave us very strict instructions that if she wasn’t there to open the letter, we had to burn it and that got me thinking…
S: Oooh that’s brilliant, I love how much of that made its way into Unboxed. Of all the characters in the book, do you have a particular favourite?
N: In most of my books my favourites tend to be a secondary character who I wish had more page time in the final text – in Trouble it’s Neville and in Remix it’s Ruby’s brother’s boyfriend, Owen. For Unboxed there aren’t any secondary characters and although I love all my main cast, my favourite is Dean Marshall. Named by Twitter when I asked everyone to suggest boys names that immediately signalled trouble, Alix describes thirteen-year-old Dean as skinny and surly with really cool hair and all the things she lists about him are all things I find really cool. He’s closed off, a bit dangerous and remarkably insightful. He also encompasses something that enrages me about how carelessly we treat young – and teen – boys. We decide they’re trouble and treat them as such without giving them a chance to be anything else. Of the friends, Dean is both the toughest and the most vulnerable. (And no, the irony of specifically asking people what names signify ‘trouble’ isn’t lost on me, it’s a psychological quirk that fascinates me…)
S: I have such a soft spot for Dean too and I did find myself wishing we could see more of him. Now a harder question: of all the characters you’ve ever read in fiction, which one would you say is your favourite?
N: There are about a million, but since you’re not letting me list them all so I’m going to settle for Leo in Lisa Williamson’s The Art of Being Normal. He’s not entirely dissimilar to Dean in how he behaves now I come to think about it… I obviously have a type! It’s not just Leo’s character I love but how well his relationship with his family is realised, his reluctant friendship with David and a particularly harrowing flashback that brought me to panicky tears. I realise that all the characters listed so far are male, so to redress this, I’m just going to point out that Evie (or indeed any member of the Spinster Club) in Holly Bourne’s Am I Normal Yet? is one of my top characters too.
S: There’s a lot of diversity among the main characters of UNBOXED, which is fabulous. Alix is attracted to girls, for example, while Zara and Ash are POC. Was it important to you to have a diverse cast?
N: I visit schools. In one of my talks, I get the students to run some of the biggest films of the last year through the Bechdel Test. These films don’t come up that well. Then I ask the group if they notice anything else that’s under represented on these posters… The answer is people of colour (there’s a teeny tiny Nick Fury and gloriously big Finn – on two out of six posters) but it’s unusual for anyone to get there without me leading them a little.
Then I ask what the students think about this. In one session, a girl put her hand up. She was smart, engaged and articulate. She was also brown. She affirmed, with complete confidence, that this didn’t matter because most people in the world are white and the posters were just reflecting this.
She proved the point of the talk perfectly and we were able to discuss the fact that perhaps she thought this because that is what the news, the film industry – and books – has presented to her. It is not reflective of reality.
It should be important to us all as a bare minimum that the stories we feed our children and teenagers reflect the diversity of the readership.
S: Speaking as someone who could easily have been that young brown girl not too long ago, I love that answer. Without getting too spoilery, my favourite scene in the book (and it was hard to choose just one!) is the moment Alix finishes reading her past self’s letter to her future self. Do you have a scene you most loved writing? Or one you really, really struggled with?
N: I’m please it was hard to choose a favourite! I enjoy writing scenes where my characters get to do something exciting and my favourite is when Alix and Dean have just found the box where it’s hidden on the school roof, but some security guards have turned up. It’s an action scene, with very little dialogue and it was weirdly exhilarating imagining being trapped on a school roof and running to escape getting caught. This book has been much easier to write than others, but it was hard writing all the letters because they had to be written in the voice of the character who wrote the letter rather than Alix’s narrative voice. The one I found hardest of all was Zara’s.
S: You nailed it, though, Zara’s letter is gorgeous! UNBOXED explores friendship, love, death and identity in a way that’s both hopeful and heartbreaking. Do you have any favourite YA that you’d recommend to readers looking for more books like this one?
N: Well let’s have one for each theme… I love Sara Barnard’s Beautiful Broken Things as an exploration of the inequalities and dependencies of female friendship. For love, I’d go for Daughter of Smoke and Bone (and the rest of the trilogy) as a story that manages to be incredibly sexy and romantic yet (despite featuring angels and demons) believable. As for death I fell hard for Gabrielle Zevin’s Elsewhere and for identity, I’d recommend Radio Silence (or Solitaire) by Alice Oseman – an phenomenal writer whose narrators conjure up the desperation you feel most keenly as a teen.
S: What’s up next for you? Can you share anything about current or future novels?
N: I’m currently working on what I hope (if I get it right) is the final round of major edits for Truth or Dare – my third novel for Walker out in 2017. It’s about Claire and Sef, who set up a YouTube challenge channel to raise money for Sef’s brother who has neurodisability after falling from the local viaduct. Claire is desperate to reclaim the internet for good after an awful video of her has been shared amongst everyone at school, as well as help the charismatic and reckless Sef, but as the channel grows and the dares spiral, Claire starts to wonder whether Sef has been telling her the truth… In the more immediate future, I’ve also written a short story for the Stripes anthology I’ll Be Home for Christmas featuring tons of UKYA authors including Melvin Burgess, Benjamin Zephaniah, Juno Dawson and Cat Clarke to name only a few. It’s out in September and £1 from the sale of every book goes to Crisis and Stripes have committed to giving at least £10,000.
S: Is there anything else you’d like to tell readers?
N: We’re always talking about getting/keeping teens reading and if you know someone who’s struggling to find a story to fit their needs then a shorter novella, like Unboxed or any of the books on Barrington Stoke’s list might be worth a try… but just because we as a community love books doesn’t mean that’s the only way to consume stories or to boost literacy, so let’s not get too stressed about doing it this way and support teens in the ways that work for them.
S: Thanks so much for answering these questions, Non.
So there you have it, guys. Go grab UNBOXED today!