Tag Archives: Miriam Halahmy

Hidden #2

Miriam Halahmy, Hidden

I read and reviewed Miriam Halahmy’s book Hidden seven years ago. How time passes. Unfortunately not a lot has got any better, and the topic is as current as ever. More so. I don’t reckon any of us who felt bad about what things were like then, ever dreamed that it would soon feel much worse.

Below is my review from April 2011, to celebrate that a new edition of Hidden is published today. Today is May 1st, International Workers’ Day. We have much to march for, but perhaps not much hope for improvement or the fair treatment of everyone, least of all refugees and other immigrants.

They come here and take our jobs.

No they don’t.

But far too many people believe this about foreigners, and especially about refugees. It’s time to get the message across why people flee their own country and come here (or anywhere else).

Miriam Halahmy’s new novel Hidden is all about the plight of refugees, and especially those who have been denied the right to stay, because they somehow don’t fulfil the strict criteria for permission to remain in Britain.

It’s as if people would want nothing more than to come to a place where they don’t belong, where they don’t know anyone and where ‘everyone’ hates them. I mean, who wouldn’t love to move somewhere like that?

Alix accidentally befriends Samir in her class from school, and equally accidentally the two of them end up rescuing a refugee from Iraq, which is where Samir came from several years before. They need to hide him and they need to make sure he doesn’t fall ill and die from his injuries. All because he’s illegal and Britain doesn’t want people like him.

Samir has problems of his own, and so does Alix, who lives with her mum after her dad left and her granddad died. In their class at school they also have the sister of the local hooligan, and they need to steer clear of both her and her terrible brother.

Until she came across this Iraqi man, Alix had always assumed her friends and family and neighbours felt the same about immigrants and refugees as she does. Now she realises she has no idea who is on her side, and it comes as a surprise to find that not all are as she’d expect.

Hidden is a great story about a very real and current problem. It shows the reader precisely why refugees come here, and it’s not for the hospitality. You come because there is no alternative. And there are good and bad people everywhere.

As Nicholas Tucker says in his review, this is a book that ‘deserves the widest audience’.

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Stories for empathy and a better world

I had been looking forward to the event with Miriam Halahmy and Bali Rai on Saturday. I’d never met Miriam before, but she was everything I had expected, and Bali was Bali as usual. Empathy is important and it promised to be an interesting discussion.

Bali Rai and Miriam Halahmy

We were all asked for examples of empathic children’s books that had made a difference to us. I can see the point of asking the audience, but it split my attention a bit too much. Miriam is a big fan of Morris Gleitzman and talked about his Blabbermouth, and Bali suggested Zana Fraillon’s The Bone Sparrow. President Obama’s talk about the ’empathy deficit’ was mentioned.

Miriam read from The Emergency Zoo, and explained how she loses herself in the book when she writes. She is her characters.

Bali then read from The Harder They Fall, apologising for some ‘rude’ words. When he started writing about a female character, it took him some time to understand that girls are ‘just’ people. He talked about how many poor teenagers never even consider going to university. Sometimes because they are the main carer for someone in their family, and they can’t contemplate getting into debt.

On getting started Miriam reckoned the most important thing she did as a child was to read. After that it was being a teacher, doing a writing course, and reading and meeting people like Morris Gleitzman and Jacqueline Wilson. The best thing about writing is losing yourself in the writing.

Roald Dahl was a hero of Bali’s, and he liked reading about Vikings and volcanoes. Later on Sue Townsend played a big part influencing him. Bali described his hard-working colleague Alan Gibbons, who travels and writes and campaigns tirelessly for good causes. The best thing about being a writer seems to be ‘vomiting [words] on a page.’

Can you understand the world if you read escapism? Miriam believes in a real place and a real boy or girl. Bali feels that in The Lord of the Rings the whole world is escapism, and he listed Andy Stanton for sheer bounciness, had nothing [positive] to say about David Walliams, and it seems the archetypal white man comedian comes from Stockport. He praised the way Jacqueline Wilson writes about hard work and ordinary children. And there’s Siobhan Dowd and Patrick Ness.

Someone in the audience had problems seeing how fantasy could be empathic, but discovered Miriam and Bali disagreed. To make children understand empathy we don’t need it on the curriculum, and there is no right age. According to Miriam you can’t suddenly ‘do empathy today,’ but you need to embed it more deeply. For Bali it’s economical politics in this dog eat dog world. And you should be allowed to have fun at school, because how else do you get to write about fish zombies?

As with letting school-children have enough time for fun, I’d have liked more time for the two authors at Saturday’s event.

Miranda McKearney, Anna Bassi, Miriam Halahmy and Bali Rai

Lit there

Or ‘sit there!’

After a morning of walking round Oxford, waving to colleges everywhere, taking touristy photographs, refraining from buying stuff we don’t need, even when it looks so tempting – Dobby mask, anyone? – it was good to get to the litfest venue for a sit down.

At our first event with Miriam Halahmy and Bali Rai, I managed a polite negotiation on not sitting where they wanted me. When it came to the event with Sally Nicholls and Sheena Wilkinson, I ended up offering to leave. I somehow don’t feel that 20 of the best – in my opinion – seats should be reserved for latecomers.

If there is a next time, I will arrive late.

On our way ‘home’ Daughter was enticed into Blackwells where she spent lots of money on some heavy books. I know this, because I carried them, while she carried the pizzas. Safe hands, and all that.

Early check-out and changing of the clocks have ensured this brief blog post. There will be more on what people said later.

Worcester College

Caught mid-cycle

Last week Ebony McKenna told us how she dealt with the problem of her publisher not wanting to publish more than two of four planned books. That’s getting to be a far too common problem. This week Miriam Halahmy has agreed to answer a few questions on what she did when her publisher ceased to operate, just as she was expecting to send her third novel out into the world.

Miriam Halahmy, Hayling Island books

“How did you start? Was it just one book at first, or did you know there would be three?

Hidden was the first Young Adult book I had ever written. Before that I had written and published short fiction and a novel for adults. But half way through writing Hidden, I became interested in the bad girl, Lindy Bellows and decided she needed her own story. This became Illegal.  I decided that I wanted to continue with my novels set on Hayling Island and so Jess, the leader of the posh girl gang, moved forward in Illegal, and then Stuffed became Jess’s story, together with her boyfriend, Ryan. I call the books The Hayling Cycle and my new publisher, Albury Books, would like another. I have a very good idea and so there might be a fourth!

And what about your contract; was that for one book at a time? Did you actually have a contract or agreement that Meadowside would publish the third book in your Hayling Island cycle?

Meadowside loved Hidden and offered me a contract for that book. However, I had written Illegal and had a strong synopsis for Stuffed. They loved Illegal and liked the ideas for Stuffed and so they then offered me a three book contract which I accepted.

When, and how, did you find out that they would not be publishing Stuffed?

In September 2012, a few months after publishing Illegal, I was informed that Meadowside had been taken over by Parragon Books, the fiction list cancelled and rights for all three books would revert to me. I was devastated, as you can imagine.

Had you already written it by then? Did you ever consider giving up on Stuffed?

I had completed Stuffed and was actually working on a new novel. I had no idea what would happen to my Hayling Cycle and whether Stuffed would ever be published.

How did you set about finding a replacement publisher?

I didn’t. I felt realistically that no-one would want the third book in a cycle of three and it was also very unlikely that a publisher would take on all three books. But in June 2013, Simon Rosenheim, the former director of Meadowside, who had left before their demise, emailed me and said that he was starting his own publishing company, Albury Books, and would love to publish my books. Simon came and met me in my home. He was very keen to put the Hayling Cycle back in print, especially as Hidden had done so well. ‘I was so proud when Hidden was nominated for the Carnegie Medal,’ he told me.  He also said that Stuffed would be Albury’s first unpublished book and would showcase what the publisher could offer. I was delighted to sign with my original publisher again and give my cycle a new lease of life.

Did the change delay publication of Stuffed?

Originally Meadowside were going to publish Stuffed in March 2013, a year after Illegal. Albury worked very fast and were able to publish in February 2014, only eleven months later. So yes, publication was delayed, but the end result has been amazing.

How has it been different working with a new publisher on an already established series of books?

Simon was already right behind my books as he was my original publisher. But of course there were different editors, designers, type setters, etc to work with and this was tricky at times. I was used to the way the Meadowside team worked and we had discussed the layout and design of Stuffed already and had a particular vision for it. However, Hannah Howell, Publisher Controller, and Simon worked together so well and helped me to overcome any problems. We all had the same vision. We wanted Stuffed and the other two books to be produced to the same high standard as my previous publisher so that I could be proud to promote my books and also proud to be published by Albury Books. We believe that we have achieved that.

What would you have done had Albury not stepped in? Any thoughts on self-publishing?

I was considering publishing all three as e-books. I was also looking into companies that simply printed back lists for established authors. But I have to say that my heart was not really in this because I knew how hard it would be for Stuffed to get noticed this way and very difficult for me to reach my audiences. I am very relieved that Simon contacted me and set up Albury Books.

I gather you have lots of events about to happen this year. What sort of events, and where and for what age group? What do you talk about; the books, or the kind of society that caused them to be written in the first place?

Miriam Halahmy

Yes, I have had a sudden wonderful resurgence of interest in Hidden and as a result have been invited to schools in Paris and Frankfurt. Also Hidden has been chosen by IBBY Ireland  to feature on their website for International Children’s Day, April 2nd, as an example of multi-cultural issues in children’s books. Meanwhile, with Stuffed coming out, I have about 20 invites to schools, festivals, colleges and universities. At an author event I talk about my books, give a reading and I have adapted some of my scenes into drama scripts which the students are very keen to read out. I encourage debate, group discussion and question and answer. My books cover some of the most contentious issues in our society today and there is always a great deal to discuss.

Do you have plans for your next book yet? Can you tell us about it, or do you feel it’s better to stay quiet until a book is finished and ready to go out and meet its readers?

In the past year my book, Meet me Under the Hitler Tree, about a Far Right street group influencing a Sixth Form college, has been under submission. No takers yet and so I have written a new book with Home at its heart and that is currently being redrafted. I have an idea I am researching and will let you know as soon as I have some news.”

I’m very relieved Miriam found a solution to her problem, and that we have more books to look forward to. (Might be a good idea to buy one or several of her Hayling Island books, just to encourage her new publisher?)

Stuffed

I’m thinking it’s been too long, this wait for the third instalment of Miriam Halahmy’s Hayling Island cycle. But here it is at last; Stuffed.

Like the middle book Illegal, it’s about the bad girl, or perhaps more accurately, about the scary and rich and not always so likeable girl, Jess. It’s a very clever move, writing about less ‘worthy’ characters. It’s given me an opportunity of getting to know someone completely different to myself (obviously…) and finding it’s possible to like them too.

Miriam Halahmy, Stuffed

Jess’s family have had lots of money and have not been shy about flaunting it or spending it. And all of a sudden there is a change.

She has just met Ryan, who is a very nice boy. He tinkers with his van and dreams of going to Africa. But he too has a big problem in his life.

This is good stuff. Not only does Miriam need to untangle Jess’s and Ryan’s relationship, but also their individual big worries, while throwing in a few more things like sibling rivalry and the rest of the world.

Despite being a fan already, I began reading rather cautiously, but it didn’t take long for me to get totally caught up, and I didn’t cringe once, the way you sometimes do over books about teen romance and teen problems.

You could easily read this on its own, but why not read all three books? They throw a new light on contemporary teen life, and they are anything but the same as ‘all those other books.’

Why Miriam wrote Illegal

Today I’m happy to have Miriam Halahmy on the blog. You will remember my review of Illegal the other day? Here Miriam tells us about some of the things that inspired her, and she certainly has a lot of experience of teenagers like Lindy and Karl. Not everyone has had television sets thrown at them.

‘Illegal is the second novel in my cycle of three novels set on Hayling Island opposite the Isle of Wight. Each novel is stand-alone but a minor character in the previous novel becomes the major character in the next. Illegal is Lindy’s story; the story of a teenage girl driven to take desperate measures when all other choices are taken away from her. It is a novel about growing up and gaining independence against the odds.

In this book I have focused on the needs of vulnerable young people in our society who do not come from supported backgrounds. I was a Special Needs teacher in London schools for 25 years and worked with many pupils like Lindy and Karl.

Lindy is based on an amalgam of pupils I knew with emotional and behavioural problems. Many of these pupils cannot cope in mainstream classes and attend special units with a very high pupil teacher ration. Even then they present very challenging behaviour fuelled by a whole range of factors such as difficult home backgrounds, drug taking, peer group influence and sensory and emotional problems.

One girl I worked with had grown a fingernail and then sharpened it to a fierce point. She threatened everyone around her but inside she was a very frightened person as a result of abuse she had suffered. Another boy was going deaf and refused hearing aids. He simply couldn’t control his anger and broke windows, furniture and doors. Another lad threw a portable television at me one morning. You learn how to duck in this field of work!!

Inside all of these damaged, angry and very frightened young people were decent human beings trying to emerge. Some of the pupils I have worked with were mute, like Karl. This is a terrible affliction and reduces the sufferer to a shadow. They cannot make friends, their education suffers and they need very specific therapy. A paediatrician confirmed to me that the shock Karl experiences in Illegal could trigger speech again. But it’s not the ideal cure!

I believe that with the right support every young person has a future. It concerns me that in these days of austerity the support needed by young people on the very fringes of our education system may be cut and opportunities reduced. I am certainly convinced that last August we would have had much less trouble on our city streets if there were youth clubs and youth leaders engaging with young people on the margins of our societies.

At the heart of many of these troubles is the massive drugs industry. This is why I chose to place this issue in Lindy’s story. I have worked with many young people who have had serious mental health problems from using cannabis and other drugs. If Lindy’s story helps even one teenager think twice about taking drugs, then it’s been a story worth telling.’

Let’s hope it does. I have great faith in the power of books, and if I were a doctor I’d prescribe them. And if I was the government I’d start spending our money rather differently. The trouble with them, though, is they’ll never be as wise or sensible as I am.

Illegal

The minute I began reading Illegal I felt right at home. It was as if I had been waiting for it.

The title makes me a little uneasy. It feels so, well, Illegal. But other than that, it is a great story. I was going to say, maybe even better than Hidden, which was Miriam’s first book in the series. But that’s time for you. I think they are both equally exciting and also equally necessary. Where Hidden was about illegal (as well as legal) immigrants, Illegal is about doing things which are against the law.

Miriam Halahmy, Illegal

Here we see more of Lindy, who was the ‘bad girl’ in Hidden, and we find that she’s not bad at all. She’s got a tough life, which makes everything seem worse. Lindy’s toddler sister has died, two of her brothers are in jail, and her unemployed parents do nothing all day, leaving Lindy and her little brother Sean to fend for themselves.

When her cousin Colin offers her good money for some ‘gardening’ work, she jumps at it. Except it’s his way of tying her into his drug dealing business, and when she realises this, it’s too late to get out.

Or would have been, had she not met mute boy, Karl, who goes to her school. Together they work on sorting things out.

This is an exciting story, which also shows teenagers like Lindy that there is always hope. Just because you are perceived as bad, doesn’t mean you are. It’s important that young people can read about how there is a way out, and that you can find friends in the most unexpected places. In the end, there was less help from Hamlet and St John Ambulance than I had come to expect, but Lindy grows from experiencing what she can do for herself, and for her family.

It was a little broken, but not forever.

I’m looking forward to Miriam’s next book.