Jenny Alexander has written over a hundred books for children, among them, Finding Fizz (A & C Black, 2006); Tom, Sid, the Goth and the Ghost (Longman, 2004); and Stranded! (Longman, 2003).
Her non-fiction books include When Your Child is Bullied (Pocket Books, 2006); Bullies, Bigmouths and So-called Friends (Hodder Children's Books, 2003) as well as The 7-day Stress-buster; The 7-day Brain-booster; The 7-day Bully-buster and The 7-day Self-esteem Super-booster (Hodder Children's Books, 2007) which seek to empower children and their families in dealing with issues concerning bullying, self-esteem and self-confidence.
She is also the author of How 2 B Happy (A & C Black, 2006); How to Be a Brilliant Writer (A & C Black, 2005) and Going Up! The No-worries Guide to Secondary School (A & C Black, 2004).
In a recent interview, Jenny Alexander spoke about her writing.
What prompted you to write your first book?
I decided I was going to be a poet when I was about 7 years old -- well, either a poet or an artist. Writing and drawing were my favourite pastimes, a quiet oasis in a very noisy, busy, family -- I was the middle one of four children.
In my teens I stopped writing poetry because learning literature at school convinced me that I didn’t really understand it. Poetry had felt like a natural thing, like talking, but we dissected poems like dead bodies, trying to force them to yield up their secrets, instead of enjoying their music and sensing the shades of meaning in the words.
I wrote a number of adult novels in my late teens and twenties but didn’t really try to find a publisher. Writing at that stage was a way of trying to make sense of my own experience and publishing the stories I was writing then would have felt exposing for both me and my family. I find the current popularity of ‘misery memoirs’ very unsettling and I’m really glad I didn’t freeze my own family within the story I had of them when I was in my turbulent twenties.
What prompted me to write for publication was that I needed a proper job after my last child started full-time school. I sent a lot of material to an agent, including an adult crime novel and several pieces of children’s fiction.
When was this material written?
I wrote them while my youngest child was at playgroup, for a few hours each morning, with the express intention of trying to find an agent and start my writing career. A couple of months after she took me on, she sold my first children’s novel to Hamish Hamilton. It had taken me about two weeks to write the novel. When I got the call I whooped for joy -- it was the most amazing feeling because suddenly a writing career felt completely possible, not just a dream.
Who would you say has influenced you the most?
I write all different sorts of books, both fiction and non-fiction for readers aged 4-years-old to adults, as well as magazine articles and the odd poem, so I’d say my biggest influence has been the wonderful British library service. When I left university, almost completely cured of the urge to write anything original at all, I took a job in a branch library where I discovered the absolute joy of reading adventurously.
Why did university have this effect on you?
I studied French with English, so lots of reading analytically. When I wasn’t working, I didn’t read for leisure -- that would have been a busman’s holiday -- and the activity of reading became an intellectual process, which although it is a sort of pleasure, can interfere with the emotional satisfaction of responding to a text on the personal, heart level.
Do you remember some of the books you read when you were working in the library or how you selected them?
I read all the Agatha Christie mysteries, literary fiction, non-fiction of every kind -- pictorial histories of steam railways, royal biographies, practical art and craft books, animal books... and best of all, children’s books such as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and the entire contents of the kinder box, which I fell upon having never possessed any books as a child or belonged to a public library.
How have your personal experiences influenced the direction of your writing?
I think the decade I spent as a stay-at-home parent has provided the inspiration for a lot of my stories as well as the experience to write non-fiction about life-strategies for children. Virtually everything I write comes out of first-hand experience rather than research -- looking after your rabbit, living on an island, understanding your dreams…
What would you say are the biggest challenges that you face and how do you deal with them?
I think writers have pressure these days to keep working to the same formula once they become established. A lot of writers I know feel trapped by that expectation and I don’t want to be pigeon-holed. I enjoy the thrill of trying new things, seeing what I can do.
I write different things in my spare time and between contracts and then try to sell them.
How many books have you written so far?
I stopped counting when I passed 100 -- but lots of them are very short.
Of all the books you have written, which was the most difficult to write? Which was the easiest? Why do you think this is so?
The most difficult was How 2 B Happy. It’s a straightforward book based on the principles of cognitive behavioural therapy and positive psychology but I happened to land the contract just before my marriage broke up.
I had just written a book on bullying and was asked to put together some material on self-esteem. I wasn’t keen on the whole idea of self-esteem, mostly because I thought people often have mad ideas about what good self-esteem constitutes, so I went for happiness instead since I think happy people tend to have good self-esteem anyway. The most difficult thing was feeling authentic writing this book when I was struggling with unhappy feelings about the events unfolding in my life at that time -- but of course, one of the things you need in order to be happy is the pragmatic acceptance that shit happens and sometimes you’re bound to go through gloomy patches. It’s not about being happy all the time, but being buoyant and recovering quickly if you get knocked down.
Researching involved revisiting books like Susan Jeffers’ Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway which served to remind me of exactly what I needed to do for myself as well as for my book.
The easiest was the first one, Miss Fischer’s Jewells (reissued in paperback as Haunting for Beginners) because when I started writing, after putting my ambition on hold for so long, I was completely fuelled by joy. The idea behind the book was a gift -- it just arrived all on its own, and I wrote it a chapter a day, no rewrites, just a bit of tinkering with the text before sending it off.
And what's your latest book about?
I’ve just done a series of children’s non-fiction books called The 7-day Stress-buster; The 7-day Brain-booster; The 7-day Bully-buster and The 7-day Self-esteem Super-booster. The idea for the series came about because my publisher wanted another book on bullying. Her first idea was to do a workbook, so children could do the exercises and tasks I suggest in spaces within the text because, often, with self-help books you race through, intending to do the tasks later and then don’t get around to it.
In the series, I offer a menu of quick tasks for each day, so that children can develop a practice of thinking and behaving in self-affirming ways, not just think about the ideas in the chapter. Modern childhood is nothing like it was for today’s adults -- children have to handle enormous stresses both at school and at home, with fractured families and parents often working all the hours or not working at all, and feeling too stressed themselves to really be there and spend time with their children. I think of myself as an elder in a society which doesn’t really have elders any more, writing the sort of reassuring common sense that grandparents used to be there for when families had more leisure and were less geographically dispersed.
How long did it take you to write the series?
I did the four books in about 7 months. In Great Britain, the first two books were published in January 2007 and the second two in April.
With non-fiction I always find the planning gorgeous, the first draft frustrating and re-drafting satisfying. I think the first draft is hard because you have to find a way of expressing your ideas that is both interesting and accessible, and sometimes that makes my brain hurt.
Which aspects of the work that you put in the series did you enjoy most?
Devising the quizzes and special features. I like the playfulness of quizzes and the extra dimension that comes with writing visually varied types of text.
What sets these four books apart from the other things you have written?
It’s the first series I’ve done.
In what way is it similar?
I’d already written several other life-skills books for 8 to 12-year-olds: Bullies, Bigmouths and So-called Friends; Going up!: The No-worries Guide to Secondary School; How To Be a Brilliant Writer and How 2 B Happy.
What will your next book be about?
My spare-time book is an adult workbook on dreams. I think most dream books are very disappointing because they either comprise stock interpretations which never fit any individual dream or theoretical ideas that distort the way we approach dreams and detract from their power.
I’m [also] putting together material for two fiction series that will hopefully be my next contract. One is for girls aged 9 to 12 years, a favourite age group for me -- the other for boys age 6 years and up. The main difference is that these will be for trade publishers, and since my first few books I’ve only written fiction for educational publishers.
What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?
Overcoming first my fear of failure and then my fear of success.
How did you get there?
I think I was propelled by this life-long feeling that I was meant to be a writer and the sense of home-coming I felt every time I put pen to paper.
What are your main concerns as a writer?
To enjoy myself and keep pushing back my boundaries by trying new things. Why is it important that I push back boundaries? I’m stumped by this! I just don’t know. I guess I think of writing, like life itself, as a big adventure, and the main business of it is to keep pushing into new areas in order to become the most that you possibly can.
You have also written a number of books on bullying. What motivated these books and how much of a problem, for young people and for children, do you think bullying is?
One of my children was bullied at school and I discovered that all the advice available to him and to me, as a parent, was useless. The latest ChildLine research found that 5 to 10 percent of children will suffer prolonged bullying at school no matter what interventions staff make or how good the school is. These kids tend to be different in some way -- exceptionally bright or attractive, physically or mentally less-able, or not fitting into gender stereotypes, for example -- but it could equally be some poor child who had suffered a bereavement or family break-up, fallen foul of bullies at a vulnerable moment and then got overwhelmed by it, enabling a pattern to set in.
It seemed to me that those kids and their families needed strategies for surviving and not being damaged by the experience through learning skills such as how to handle anxiety and self-doubt. The added bonus is that emotionally robust people make less satisfying targets for bullying, so toughening up is also the best chance for getting the bullying to stop.
I think unkindness, envy and so on are part of human nature, so bullying will always exist, but the fashion for mocking, practical-joke-style humour in the media is certainly making it worse because it blurs the lines about what is acceptable and makes children feel it’s cool and funny to humiliate other people.
This article was first published on OhmyNews International.