Guest post by Sue Wallman
Five years ago, after the publication of my first young adult thriller, I started a new career as a school librarian. Although untrained, I brought to the role a huge enthusiasm for books and writing, and an interest in young people. In turn, my job has had an interesting influence on my writing.
In my first school, one of the most socially deprived in Surrey, we used Accelerated Reader, so I knew for a fact that reading ages in our Year 7 cohort ranged from 6 to 16. One thing I quickly realised was many students had never used a library before. They needed to be taught the system and vocabulary or they were never going to feel it was for them. A frustrated Year 8 girl once described a book to me as “the thin one with lots of words” – she meant the paperback version. Most students, though, whatever their reading level, loved thrillers and mysteries, and their love of plot twists pushed me harder.
As a librarian, I see how students choose books. Of course, some reluctant readers are completely focussed on the thickness of the book, but most students inspect the cover, read the blurb and scan the first page. That first page better be good. Occasionally, they barely look at the book at all, and take it out because their friend has told them it’s good – and I love that. Word of mouth recommendation is everything.
I realise how important it is that my publisher hits the right note with my covers. They need to be attention-grabbing to appeal to my target audience, commercial enough to be sold in supermarkets (if I’m lucky), but not perceived as down-market or librarians and parents will assume my carefully crafted sentences have no substance.
My books have to compete with so much other stuff (especially TikTok). It blows my mind when readers tell me they’ve read one of my books in a day. That book will have taken about a year to write and rewrite, but who wouldn’t want their book to be unputdownable?
Working in a school library has taught me how much my readers love action. When something’s kicking off, you can almost touch the ripples of excitement. Of course, we need all sorts of books, but humans are wired for story. We want – more than ever – to make some sort of sense of the chaos of everyday life. We want great plots and satisfying endings. Interesting, believable characters are crucial, but I also need to make things happen, preferably things which my readers don’t see coming.
Being among my target audience means I have first-hand experience of teenage speech patterns, language and social media obsessions. I have to be careful though as slang can be fleeting and there are regional differences. Life is very different to how it was when I was a teenager, but the intense emotions are the same and it’s those which I tap into. My latest book, I Know You Did It, is based in a secondary school, so that’s been pretty handy!
As a librarian and author, I want the same thing: I want young people to read – to find books they can’t put down, which speak to them, and help them work out their feelings and who and where they want to be. If some of them love reading my books, that makes me proud.
I Know You Did It by Sue Wallman is published on 6th May 2021 (Scholastic UK)
Any opinions expressed may not truly reflect those of the FCBG