Not the Booker at the Halfway Point

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Well, here we are – mid way through the Guardian’s Not the Booker prize process.

Half of the novels on the shortlist have been reviewed by the Guardian’s Sam Jordison so far. ‘Dark Chapter’ by Winnie M Li, ‘The Ludlow Ladies’ Society’ by Ann O’Loughlin and my own, ‘Not Thomas’ have all felt the sting of Sam’s not overly-friendly reviewing skills. They’ve had their turn for comments from members of the reading public too.

As I type, Sam is uploading his review of the fourth novel, ‘The Threat Level Remains Severe’ by Rowena Macdonald, and then that too will be ready for all the comments – positive, negative or indifferent – that readers want to throw at it.

It’s been a fun and odd five weeks for my novel ‘Not Thomas’ since the Guardian’s shortlist was announced.

Although being reviewed first wasn’t the easiest of positions, it has meant that ‘Not Thomas’ has ended up being mentioned in relation to the other books too. And the more it’s mentioned, the more its title gets ‘out there’.

In his review, Sam denounced Tomos as too young to think the way I’ve portrayed him. That’s fair enough – after all, I expect everyone has their own view of what a typical five-year-old is like, and even if we don’t know any right now, we’ve all been one in the past.

Fortunately for me, a few teachers and some other people who work with children came to Tomos’s defence in the comment thread of the ‘Not Thomas’ review, pointing out that at age five children fit into a broad spectrum of abilities.

And even Sam defended ‘Not Thomas’ the other day –  in a very mild way, of course. When someone who hadn’t even read it suggested it was a ‘clunker’, Sam said it wasn’t a clunker and that “Not Tomas (sic) had some good points”. That’s about as much praise as I expect from him. (But note the misspelt title – what little he gives with one hand he takes away with the other!)

There are five more weeks to go before this year’s winner of the Not the Booker prize will be announced.

The live announcement will be made on Monday 16th October. But before that, there’ll be a week of public voting to endure, and along with some of the other finalists, I’ll be attending an event in London where there’ll be debates, readings and Q&A sessions. All good fun – nerve-wracking, nail-biting, good fun.

I’ll be over-dosing on the flower remedy again!

Thanks for reading.

Love,

Sara x

P.S. Have you read any of the books on the shortlist? Let me know what you think of the competition so far.

Sara’s debut novel Not Thomas is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy direct from the publisher and from Amazon.

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Not the Booker Part 2 & Sam’s Scathing Review

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What a week and a bit it’s been!

A lot has happened since I last wrote about my experiences of being on The Guardian’s Not the Booker shortlist. The main new event is that my novel, ‘Not Thomas’, has been reviewed by Sam Jordison, The Guardian’s book club reviewer.

And the review is pretty scathing – which is exactly how I expected it to be

In fact, I’ve spent the whole time between being shortlisted and his review warning my supporters, and especially my family, that Sam’s review would rip my novel to shreds. ‘Surely not?’ they all countered. ‘Believe me,’ I would reply, ‘I’ve been following Not the Booker for a few years now, and it’s not a friendly place to be.’

‘Why then,’ a good friend asked me, ‘did you want anything to do with it in the first place?’

Good question.

‘It’s a brilliant platform,’ I told her. ‘Let a reviewer tear my lovingly crafted novel to pieces – if it means Not Thomas reaches an audience it would never otherwise have had, I’ll gladly let them do it.’

She didn’t quite get it

And I guess it does sound pretty weird. I suppose it’s not the path all writers would choose to go down. I’m sure there are plenty of authors who would rather cut off their fastest typing hand than launch themselves into a less than flattering spotlight.

But when I was nominated for the Not the Booker, I saw it as a huge opportunity I simply couldn’t waste. I knew my novel would attract negative attention. I knew it would receive a harsh review from Sam. I knew many of the comments from the Guardian’s book clubbers would be damning and brutal, but yet…

I also knew that very many people who had read Not Thomas had praised it.

I knew those readers had recommended it to other people, and they’d liked it too. Word-of-mouth was working well for Not T, but word-of-mouth is a slow process. I needed to hurry things up. I’m over fifty and I may never write another book. This was my one, and possibly, only chance at getting my novel out into the big wide world.

What would you do if you were me?

Well, this is what I did as Sara…

Once I knew I was definitely on the Not the Booker longlist, I set about asking those people who’d already read Not Thomas and liked it, to think about giving it one of their votes.

There were very many worthy titles on the list – some of them from writers I knew personally, some from Welsh writers like me, and some from world-famous authors. I felt uncomfortable asking people specifically to vote for my novel, but I wanted to draw their attention to the fact that this particular prize is voted for by the public. And they had two votes, so if they had a spare, they might consider giving it to Not Thomas.

I sent out that message on Facebook and Twitter, and I waited to see what happened

Thankfully, messages of support started coming in. People who’d read Not Thomas wanted to vote for it, but The Guardian’s Not the Booker voting page was proving a nightmare. At the top of the page it promised a ballot paper below, but at the bottom of the page there was no ballot paper to be seen. Nowhere did it say ‘Vote Here’. You had to click on ‘Join the Discussion’ to place your vote. Even then it wasn’t straight forward.

People who typed their review straight into the comment box often found the review disappeared once they clicked ‘submit’

So I wrote a step-by-step guide and pinned it to my Facebook page. I wasn’t directing people to vote for Not Thomas, of course, but setting out guidance generally about how to navigate the voting page. Despite this, a lot of people contacted me to say sadly they’d had to give up.

But thankfully, so many more actually managed to vote. I had wonderful support from a whole range of readers. Two book clubs in my town had read Not T and they voted for it, and they encouraged other people to read it and vote if they liked it too. A fantastic group of on-line book bloggers, who had hosted a Not Thomas blog tour the week before, did the same.

A group of teachers who’d all read Not Thomas voted and shared the news about my Not the Booker nomination on Facebook. They encouraged more teachers to read it too, and to vote for it if they liked it. Family and friends got on board, of course, and very touchingly, people from my home town who’d read Not Thomas contacted me to ask how to vote too.

There are accusations every year in the Not the Booker comments thread about how publishers get their staff to vote for books on the longlist. This sort of mass voting results in reviews that are a rehashing of the book’s blurb

Well, I’ll just say that Not Thomas is published by a tiny, tiny publisher – Honno Welsh Women’s Press based in Aberystwyth. Four people work there, all part time. I had their total support, of course, and five authors who are also published by Honno did a fantastic job of sharing my posts, and reminding people which box took you through to vote on the Guardian page. But mass voting and rehashing book blurb it most certainly was not.

All week long, I sat at my computer replying to the wonderful, and sometimes heartbreaking, comments that Not Thomas readers sent me via Facebook and Twitter. Teachers, foster carers and social workers contacted me, all pleased that the issue of child neglect had been raised by Not Thomas. One message particularly stands out, from a person who said she had been a neglected child, just like Tomos. She thanked me for giving a voice to neglected children everywhere. Through my tears, I wrote and thanked her for her kind comments.

It was a very long and extremely emotional week

As it drew to a close at midnight on Monday, 7th August, the last vote and review for Not Thomas came in at 11.58. It was from my lovely 21-year-old niece. I crawled off to bed, exhausted by the whole process, but hopeful that the wonderful efforts of all the fantastic Not T readers had got the novel through to the next stage.

At lunchtime the next day, my neighbour rang to congratulate me. I was still in bed, totally exhausted by the week’s efforts. I hadn’t yet discovered what he was about to tell me – Not Thomas was not only on the shortlist but had the most votes. It was absolutely amazing.

And I’m so grateful to every single person who took the time and had the perseverance to vote for my novel. It was a massive team effort, and I’m so glad Tomos supporters are part of ‘the journey’. I know it’s a horrible term, but I think it’s the right one here.

There’ll be more updates soon about this Not the Booker experience, but for now the comments are coming in on The Guardian’s page in reply to Sam’s scathing review. You can read them here and comment too, if you wish. There’s no guarantee your comment won’t be ripped to shreds by the Guardian’s book clubbers – just as they’re shredding Not Thomas – but that’s all part of the fun.

That’s the result of stepping into the spotlight – and this month, I wouldn’t want little Tomos to be anywhere else

Thanks for reading my (very long!) post. Please leave a comment if you were part of the huge team effort to get Not Thomas onto the shortlist, or even if you weren’t.

Love,
Sara x

Sara’s debut novel Not Thomas is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy directly from the publisher or from Amazon.

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Not the Booker Madness

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It’s been a very exciting week for me – a weird, amazing, crazy three days since I found out Not Thomas has made it on to the longlist of The Guardian’s annual Not the Booker prize.

To be fair, it didn’t have to do anything to qualify, apart from meet the simple criteria that the regular Booker prize entrants meet.

But it did have to be nominated.

I’m very proud to say that Not Thomas was initially nominated by book blogger, Anne Williams. I’m so delighted that out of all the very many books she’s read this year, she chose my little Not Thomas.

If you’ve read Not Thomas too, and liked what you read, you can vote now for it in the public voting stage. This ends at midnight on Monday, 7th August, so not long to go!

There are a couple of rules: you must vote for two different titles & you must review one of the titles you’ve chosen.

Why not go to the Guardian’s Not the Booker prize page and take a look at what people are saying in the comment thread?

And if you’re curious about Not Thomas – a novel for adults in the voice of a five-year-old child – you can find a sample on Amazon.

Not Thomas is available to buy for £2.84 on Kindle today.

Read it by Monday and then if you like it, please consider giving it one of your votes!

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I’ve been keeping a nightly diary on my Facebook page since I heard about the Not the Booker longlisting. I thought I’d share last night’s snippet here:

Before I crawl off to bed after another weird but wonderful day, I thought I’d post a quick round-up of ‘Being on the Not the Booker prize Longlist’ Day 3.

It’s been a day when I’ve realised that there are so many people – who I’ve never even met in real life – going that extra mile to support me and Not Thomas.

I turned on my laptop this morning and found the wonderful book reviewer Being Anne’s blog post about why she loves The Guardian’s Not the Booker prize and why she nominated Not Thomas for it. It’s so kind of her to choose Not T out of all the books she’s read this year, and I’m very honoured she did.

This afternoon, the very talented YA author, Amy Kitcher created a wonderful graphic on twitter for Not T, plus a voting & buying link. It’s brilliant! I wouldn’t have a clue how to do it. She’s made one with all four of us authors from Wales on too. They’re on my twitter feed if you’d like to take a look.

There are lots of other instances of people showing their support too – the re-tweets, the shares, the supportive comments. My lovely neighbour kindly put a post on our town’s FB page, and my local post office suggested I put a poster up there.

And then there’s been the votes.

A huge thank you to everyone who’s voted or reminded someone else to vote – the tally was creeping towards 20 when I last looked, far more than I dreamed possible on Monday afternoon, when I first heard I was long-listed.

So that’s the end of Day 3. Thanks for your support. Dare I say this? I’ll whisper it:

If voting carries on the way it’s going, with nearly 20 votes at the end of today, maybe there’s actually a tiny, tiny chance of getting Not Thomas onto the short-list. A tiny chance. Tiny tiny…

Thanks for reading. There’ll be an update of Day 4 on my Sara Gethin Writer Facebook page tonight. Until then…

Sara x

Here are those voting and Amazon links again, just in case I’ve tempted you… 

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Not Thomas Brook Cottage Books Blog Tour

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This week is a very exciting one for me as my debut novel for adults, Not Thomas, goes on blog tour with Brook Cottage Books. I’ve never had a blog tour before and so needed to have the whole thing explained to me very carefully and slowly by Helena who’s responsible for marketing at Honno, my publishers. I think I’ve got my head around it now.

For the whole of the week, book bloggers will be promoting and reviewing ‘Not Thomas’ on their own websites, and also posting on twitter and Facebook – all co-ordinated by the wonderful Brook Cottage Books. There’s also an interview and competition to win copies of Not Thomas hosted by Boon’s Bookcase.

Today I’m going to feature here on my website the review by BeingAnne.

Not only did Anne write a review that made me cry – in the best way possible – she also nominated ‘Not Thomas’ for the Guardian’s ‘Not the Booker‘ prize. I’ve followed that award with interest for a number of years now, and to think that my little novel will be on the longlist come next Monday (provided it meets all the requirements) has absolutely made my week! So a huge thank you to Anne for taking the time and trouble to nominate Not Thomas, and for believing it worthy.

Here’s Anne’s review:

“Every so often, a book comes along – without any great fanfare – that makes me want to shout about it from the rooftops. Not Thomas by Sara Gethin – published by the consistently excellent Honno Press on 15th June – is one of the most stunning books I’ve read this year. As I finished reading, I immediately nominated it for the Guardian Not The Booker prize – if there is any justice in this world (and I do hope there will be) this book should be on mainstream prize shortlists everywhere. I’m just so thankful that Sara chose a blog tour with Brook Cottage Books to help bring it to people’s wider attention. Had she not, it might have passed me by entirely… and what a loss that would have been.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a big fan of reading about the ugliness of this world, drug culture, violence, neglect – but that’s the world you’ll find in this book, and I couldn’t tear my eyes away. And if you’d told me that I’d sit, totally rapt, reading a book written in the voice of a five year old child, seeing that dreadful world through his eyes and from his unique perspective – well, I really wouldn’t have believed you.
I could do with a thesaurus to come up with some new adjectives – the best ones have all been used. Let’s try powerful, moving, heart-wrenching, poignant, shocking, emotional, enthralling, and maybe a bit exhausting – but let’s not forget uplifting, life-affirming, and sometimes wonderfully funny too. The impact of this book was exceptional. Tomos’ voice is absolutely authentic and compelling: you find yourself smiling at the way he expresses himself, immediately before being in tears at some new piece of cruelty that he dismisses as the norm. The detail of his world becomes part of yours – the borrowed coat, the damaged truck, the coin, the black chair – and long after finishing reading, those small details will stay with you.
Standing back from the story and its content a little, the mechanics of story-telling are superbly handled – overheard adult conversations, not always fully understood by Tomos, move it cleverly forward and disentangle the threads around past history and the adult relationships. The story itself is strong, with real narrative drive and unexpected twists and turns – much more than an unflinching view of a suffering child.
There’s a whole range of humanity in this book – exceptional generosity, love and kindness sitting alongside ignorance, cruelty and neglect. And you’re left with that aching feeling that someone should have seen what was happening and intervened more forcibly – and then wondering how many other children might be suffering in a similar way.
The author, in one of her blog posts, says of the reader: I hope… their mouths will have smiled, as Tomos might say, even if their eyes have cried. That summed this wonderful book up absolutely perfectly for me. A unique and unforgettable experience – and one I’d urge everyone not to miss.”

Thanks to Anne for her wonderful review. You may like to check out all her other reviews on her website Being Anne. And here’s the link again for Brook Cottage Tours – where there are opportunities to become involved with book blogging, if you love reading. And why not enter the Not Thomas Giveaway with Boon’s Bookcase?

More posts from the blog tour to come, and I’ll keep this site updated about the Guardian’s Not the Booker prize too.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this. Let me know what you think.

Love, Sara x

 

Sara’s debut novel Not Thomas is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy on Amazon.

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An Unusual Book Signing Memento

Just last weekend I held my very first book signing event with early copies of ‘Not Thomas’ at the Waterstones bookstore in Carmarthen. It was my first signing for this book, but wasn’t my first signing ever – I’m used to doing these events with my children’s books and they’re something I really enjoy. As a book lover, why wouldn’t I want an excuse to stand around a bookshop discussing books with other book lovers? It’s a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.

 

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But I’d been warned that this signing would be different. The managers of the shops I’d booked events at told me that children’s books and adults’ books are two very different beasts. Children’s books (at least mine) tend to retail for around £5, a good impulse-spend price. You can sell to parents, to grandparents, aunties and uncles. They’ll come in for a browse and go home with a little present for a beloved youngster.

But books for adults are entirely different. They cost more, for a start, and they have a much more limited and specific audience. And sometimes they give the impression that they’re aimed at one sex more than the other – and that halves your potential customers at a stroke.

So, the managers said, be prepared to talk to lots of people on the day, but don’t expect to sell many books – that’s just the way it goes with books for adults. I’d taken all this on board and was thoroughly prepared to sell one book, if I was lucky. And I decided not to be disappointed if I sold no more than that.

But the word fairies must have been on my side because my day went far better than expected. The weather was drizzly – not great for heading to the beach or the countryside – and the shop was very busy, with plenty of people browsing the tables of special offers. I had lots of opportunities to give out ‘Not Thomas’ flyers and to chat to potential customers, telling them what the novel was about. And most people were very happy to stop and talk, particularly when they saw my banner – placed right in the middle of the shop with a huge picture of the book cover on it.

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Two good friends from my writing group arrived near the end of my session, and by this time I was down to my last three copies. As we started to chat, I suddenly had a little rush of customers. All three books went in two minutes. It was surreal to see three people standing at the checkout, each with a copy of my book. My writing friends had obviously brought me extra luck! No copy left for them – well, not until our next writing circle meeting, anyway.

So, feeling extremely fortunate, I very happily packed up my banner and set off to the nearest coffee house for a long awaited cup of chai latte – my reward of choice. To off-set the amount of sugar in a mug of that guilty pleasure, I forwent the cake and had a toasted teacake instead.

As I sat relaxing, waiting for my drink to cool and the butter to melt on the bun, the smoke detectors in the café went off. Someone had burned the toast and the whole place was evacuated. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough hands to take my toasted teacake, so I had to stuff one half into my mouth and leave the other half on the table. All the customers ended up finishing drinks out on the street – haphazard alfresco style.

The staff locked up and waited for the obligatory visit from the fire brigade. As we drained our cups, they handed out tokens for free drinks and told us not to worry about returning their china. It wasn’t exactly practical to leave mugs on the pavement.

So I now have a lovely big Café Nero mug as a memento of my first ‘Not Thomas’ signing. It’s a cheerful and bizarre reminder of the day I spent a few very happy hours in Waterstones – not that I’m ever likely to forget that day in a hurry!

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Sara’s debut novel Not Thomas is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an ebook and is available to buy on Amazon.

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The view from behind the chair

pexels-photo (1)Children hide behind chairs for all sorts of reasons. Some fun, some not fun at all. When I was setting up my website a couple of months ago, I needed a title for it. Like my Sara Gethin pen name which had been sitting at the back of my mind for years, I had a name in reserve for the blog. It was a name that connected to the five-year-old child in my novel, ‘Not Thomas’, and his habit of hiding behind a big black chair whenever things at home got scary, or when someone unexpectedly knocked on the door. It was ‘The View from behind the Chair’.

I can relate to Tomos’s habit of curling up small behind the big chair. Don’t get me wrong, my childhood was happy and nothing at all like Tomos’s, but at around his age I did spend quite a lot of time behind a chair. I was hiding too – hiding from people who made fun of me.

Well, they didn’t make fun of me  exactly, just the fact that I was still attached to my old bottle at four years old. A baby’s bottle that was never filled. I loved it, that empty plastic bottle. We were inseparable. It was like the dummy I’d never had.

There was once a photo of me with it in my mouth, taken by accident. I was standing at the back of a large family group, peeping through the adults’ legs. And there it was – Bottle – hanging like an oversized cigarette from the corner of my lip. No one realised I had popped it in my mouth.

But when the photos eventually came back from the chemist (it was that long ago) oh, the shame! I still remember it. Here was hard evidence of my odd habit. It was burned in the fireplace – the photo that is, not the bottle (Bottle survived to suffer a different fate at a later date) and he and I ran off once more to our hiding place behind the big chair.

Despite the problems he caused me, Bottle also made me think on my feet. One day, a neighbour came to our open back door while I was playing in the kitchen with my older brother and sister. My bottle, as usual, was firmly clamped between my teeth. As I looked in horror at our ‘Aunty’ Lois standing on the doorstep, I silently and with an ashen-faced whipped the bottle from my mouth and dropped it behind my back into the laundry basket my mother was carrying on her way to our top-loader washing machine.

My family thought it was hilarious, especially as I’d stood there staring at the woman for a good five seconds with the bottle still in my mouth before I’d surreptitiously (or so I’d thought) disposed of it. They were still recounting the story years later. It caused me quite a lot of confusion as a child. I was so proud that I’d done something my family thought very, very funny, but I was also ashamed because Bottle was a part of the story. And I was ashamed of Bottle.

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Of course, I would never have felt Bottle was shameful if other people hadn’t made me feel that way. While my immediate family mostly ignored my habit, I was teased mercilessly by my many uncles whenever they visited, which was often. I spent hours behind that chair in our lounge, waiting for them to go home so Bottle and I could come out.

I can vividly recall the texture of the fabric on the chair’s back, the raised pattern beneath my fingers, the smell of the cloth, and yes, the view, half obscured by the arm of the chair. A section of the TV screen, a glimpse of a programme I’d been looking forward to seeing. And all the time listening for my name to be mentioned, along with a teasing – ‘What have you got behind there? Come out and show us’.

That’s absolutely nowhere near as bad as the problems some people endured in childhood, I know. And it’s nothing like what poor Tomos has to put up with in my novel. But remembering how I felt as a young child back then certainly helped me put myself in Tomos’s place – small and uncomfortable.

My ‘problem’ was easily resolved in the end. Bottle broke. I’d tried to take good care of him, but he was four years old. That’s ancient for a bottle. So he ended up in the dustbin and I cried and cried. But eventually I got over him. Life without him was easier. And there was no reason to hide behind the chair anymore.

Sadly, that’s Tomos’s place now.

And the blog ended up being called ‘Not Me’, like ‘Not Thomas’, because I’m not Sara, I’m Wendy really. What do you reckon, should I have gone for ‘The View from behind the Chair’ instead?

All other views considered.

The child at the window – images, ideas and imagination

pexels-photoThere are some images that stay with us. Those that are dark and frightening may haunt us for a lifetime; others sit quietly in our subconscious and float to the surface now and then. One image I’ve carried with me for years is that of a child at a window, and it became a recurring theme in my writing.

People often ask where ideas for stories come from, and it’s something that puzzled me too, until I actually set aside time to write. I was forever thinking up ideas for what might be an interesting basis for a story while I was chopping vegetables or driving around. I’d have a vision of what a story could look like and then, by the time I’d finished preparing dinner or parked the car, I’d promptly forget the whole thing.

Eventually, after starting a writing course, I began to keep a notebook for these germs of creativity. It was the first piece of advice my writing tutor offered. And I slowly trained myself to retain the ideas until I could write them down. At last I managed to corral my sparks of inspiration into a form I could use. Then I found there was inspiration everywhere – on television and in newspapers, in conversations overheard in cafes or on the train. And, of course, in real day-to-day life.

I used to work as a primary school teacher and people sometimes ask if the central character in ‘Not Thomas’ is based on a child I taught. In fact, he’s not based on any one child – he’s a mixture of many disadvantaged children I’ve known from the schools I taught at. Some of these children were already being monitored by social services, while others were on the verge of being referred.

‘At risk’ children tend to stick in your mind. There was the girl left alone every evening while her mother went out with a new boyfriend; the many children who came to school hungry, having not eaten a proper meal since their last school dinner. And the young boy that kept watch from the window to see when other children were setting out for school. His mother never got up early enough to see him off and he couldn’t tell the time, so that was the only way he had of knowing when to leave. He spent a long time looking out of that window.

There can’t be many teachers who haven’t known at least one child like these. Most schools have quite a few. Sometimes they’re the ones that slip through the net, the ones whose lives are difficult but who somehow struggle on. Often the best a teacher can do is make sure social services know about their concerns, and then keep a careful eye on the child.

Tomos, the boy in my novel, spends hours at the window. He’s watching for his neighbour to stop at the gate and walk him to school. And he waits at the window for his mother to come home too. Even though he has visits from a social worker, he’s still suffering from neglect. His supply teacher – he calls her simply ‘Miss’ – knows he’s not being properly looked after and she’s raised her concerns with the school’s head. She’s done what teachers everywhere do, and she’s keeping a close eye on him. She’s not based on any particular teacher I taught with, although there were plenty like her – genuinely concerned people who were always striving to do their best.

But there’s more than concern driving Miss’s actions. She has a shared history with Tomos, and her own reasons for bringing sandwiches and clean clothes to school for him. And it means she’s prepared to do much more than any right-minded teacher would.

She, of course, is a fictional teacher, caring for a fictional child. Over the years I spent writing about them, Tomos and Miss became very real to me. Even so, they’re still simply the products of my imagination. But that image – the one of the child looking out of the window – that’s reality. It’s an image recreated over and over by the many, many children waiting patiently to go to school, or watching all alone for someone to come home.

Those children are completely real.

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