I went to a great event recently at which Sally Gardner, R J Palacio and Laura Jarrett discussed the theme of difference in their novels Maggot Moon, Wonder and Skin Deep. All felt their characters derived strengths through their differences from those around them: self- awareness, empathy and courage, for example. Palacio made the important point that their books transcend as well as celebrate difference. The theme of fitting in was a major one
for all three. Gardner said readers have loved characters who don’t fit in ever since Wuthering Heights. She told us that because of her dyslexia she has no understanding of a sense of belonging, so could never write about it. Jarrett asserted that the book characters who stay in the mind are those who are different. All talked about their books in relation to most teenagers’ desire to fit in, a desire that runs alongside a need to explore identity and try on different personas.
It was fascinating to learn the genesis of their novels. Palacio was ashamed that her reaction to her three year-old’s tears when he saw a girl at an ice-cream stand with a facial deformity was to hustle him away. She started Wonder that night, in an attempt to rewrite history. Jarrett’s inspiration for Jenna in Skin Deep came from her work with children with genetic and eating disorders, but the crystallising moment was her disgust at reactions to Susan Boyle. I loved hearing Gardner’s motivation to write Maggot Moon. Her family found her so unpleasant as a result of the diet she was on that they banished her. She thumped out her frustration on the computer, and the amazing Standish Treadwell was born.
The authors made impassioned pleas to any young writers in the audience not to be influenced by trends in publishing, whether in relation to diversity or anything else, but to write from their guts. There is a pressure on authors to get things ‘right’, and base their writing on personal experience, but imagination and burning conviction are far more important.