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Jemima Small Versus the Universe

Tamsin Winter

Jemima Small learned from an early age that she is seen as overweight and with this comes awkwardness, bullying and shame.

When Jemima's father is sent a letter from the school that she is overweight and will be joining a 'special programme' run by the school to promote good health, Jemima is mortified.

At the same time, she has to decide whether she is brave enough to audition to take part in her favourite television programme - one she is smart enough to win - if only she wasn't afraid of being seen on screen.

We asked author TAMSIN WINTER to tell us more about JEMIMA SMALL VERSUS THE UNIVERSE:

Q: Why you want to tackle the question of body image in Jemima Small versus the Universe?

A: I had read a newspaper article about a girl in Year 6 who had been weighed at school, then sent a letter from the headteacher telling her she was overweight. The entire article was written from the mother's perspective - how outraged she was, quite rightly in my opinion - but nothing about how the girl felt.

I looked at the picture of that girl in the newspaper and wondered how she was feeling. I thought about how I'd have felt about getting a letter like that at her age, when I already felt pretty insecure and self-conscious about my body. Jemima's story came from that.

Q: Were you ever affected by questions around your own body image as a teenager?

A: Absolutely. I felt desperately insecure about my appearance, including my weight. I was tall for my age, so people often commented on how tall or big I was, and I always felt gigantic next to my classmates. I can remember getting terrible blisters from wearing shoes two sizes too small for me because I didn't want people to think I had big feet. It seems absurd now! (It was also extremely painful.) But at the time, I was genuinely ashamed of the size of my feet. I mean, where did that even come from?

As a girl, you reach ten or 11, maybe even younger, and it's like it suddenly becomes socially acceptable to comment on your body. I can vividly remember that feeling of my body being scrutinized. It still happens now. Just take a look at some of the daily news headlines. Women's bodies are constantly scrutinized and ogled; a source of entertainment or ridicule. Young people aren't immune to this.

I spent a lot of my younger years hating myself for how I looked. What I realise now is that I was scrutinizing it too. I suppose Jemima Small Versus the Universe partly came out of those thoughts. Feeling comfortable in your own skin can make an extraordinary difference to your life. If you can look in the mirror and say: "I'm pretty amazing, actually". I hope that's the feeling readers get from reading Jemima's story.

Q: Where did you go to research the impact of body image on women and girls?

A: As with Being Miss Nobody, I drew on some of my own personal experiences and feelings, but I also read a lot of books that explore body image, fiction and non-fiction. I read blogs, watched YouTube videos, particularly ones about body positivity. I spoke to young people and their parents and teachers about body image and weight-related bullying in schools.

In Jemima Small Versus the Universe, some of the scenes are based on real things young people told me, and the social media stuff in the book is based on real comments I read online.

Jemima goes through some very difficult moments in the book, so it was important to me to make sure they felt authentic. And it made me realise she needed to meet empowering, confident women and of course have a fully awesome best friend on her journey.

Q: How did your main character Jemima Small - who is funny, warm and with lots of attitude, but also really low self-esteem - develop?

A: I knew from the very beginning that Jemima would have something of an attitude. She's extremely smart and that seemed to sit nicely with answering back to a lot of the idiotic comments she gets about her size.

But this confidence kind of nose-dives when she gets to secondary school. She starts believing what people say about her, and thinks that her value lies solely in how she looks to other people. But, she's smart. Which is how she figures out that what she thinks about herself is what truly matters.

Q: Because of her size, Jemima is vulnerable and horribly bullied at school. Why did you want to tackle this in this story?

A: I couldn't have written a book about a girl like Jemima without touching on the weight-related bullying that still happens to girls and boys. It's something I came across time and time again in my research, in real life and online.

I wanted to explore that particular aspect of bullying in the book - where the victim feels they are somehow responsible for being bullied. Lottie says some truly nasty things to Jemima about her size, yet Jemima still wants to be liked by her.

I've had people, even teachers, tell me that bullying is an inevitable part of school life, and that we ought to accept it. But it really isn't. Everyone can choose to be kind. Some people just need a little more help making that choice.

Q: How did Gina - who runs a 'healthy lifestyle' programme at Jemima's school - become part of the story?

A: My initial idea was a kind of boot camp that Jemima and the other "specially chosen" people were forced to attend for the summer, and I came up with a very strict, fitness-obsessed instructor that was Gina Grantley-Bond.

As the plot developed, Gina's class became a Healthy Lifestyle class in school and, despite my best efforts to make her strict and scary, when I pictured her, Gina always had this enormous smile fixed on her face. It became impossible to ignore, so she morphed into the sweet, slogan-chanting, wise goddess type character she is today.

I'm so glad I went with what my mind was telling me about Gina, as she becomes fundamental to Jemima gaining confidence and an ally for her in many moments in the book, and she was a brilliant character to write.

Q: Why did you decide to give Jemima a sibling, her older brother Jasper, who is both annoying and, when it matters, supportive?

A: I love writing the sibling dynamic, and after the beautiful and close relationship Rosalind has with her little brother, Seb, in Being Miss Nobody, I wanted to do something different.

Jasper is a gigantic showoff and a big head, and he revels in it when Jemima gets into trouble with their dad. But he is thoroughly loveable and he shows up when Jemima really needs him.

Sibling rivalry and conflict is a pretty normal part of growing up, especially when your brother is as annoying as Jasper, so it was a lot of fun to write those scenes. His obsession with magic and his pet tarantula were there from the very beginning. The entire Small family was a "phantasmagorical" family to write.

Q: Has Jemima Small Versus the Universe changed significantly from your early drafts of the story?

A: I drafted this book so many times I feel quite bad about the amount of notebooks I got through. Jemima's story has changed a lot since I first began writing it back in 2014. The sub-plot about her mum has changed rather dramatically, from Jemima writing letters to her, to Jemima discovering hidden letters from her, to Jemima investigating where she went, to what it is now.

I'm one of those writers who is never fully happy with my work, so my editors are used to some drastic edits. I must have deleted over 300,000 words getting the story right. But ultimately, at its heart, has always been an awesome, funny and extraordinarily smart girl who finds it hard to measure up.

Q: Jemima's story and character are hugely engaging, but were any parts of the book difficult to write?

A: Basically, all of the maths and science bits! Jemima is far smarter than I am, or ever was at school, so weaving in her scientific and mathematical knowledge was a slight challenge at times (thank you, Google, my sister and amazing maths teacher friends!), and the opening chapter took ages to get right.

The most difficult scenes to write were probably the bits where Jemima and her friends describe the bullying they've gone through. There's a moment where Jemima's friend Heidi texts her a list of the ways she's been body-shamed and I can remember the tears streaming down my face as I wrote it.

It was particularly hard because although you're making it up, you know there are young people out there who have been through that exact thing. It was the same with Being Miss Nobody. I don't know why I write such sad books! I start with the intention of making them really funny, and by a couple of chapters in, I'm crying my eyes out.

The characters take on a life of their own, but no matter how difficult it gets, it feels like an enormous privilege to tell their stories.

Q: What would you like your readers to take away from the book?

A: I hope Jemima Small Versus the Universe helps readers to hold their heads a little higher. To look in the mirror and see how awesome they are. I hope every reader finishes the book and thinks about everything they have achieved and can achieve still, just as they are.

Q: Where is your favourite place to write, and when? What are you writing now?

A: I do most of my writing either very early in the morning or late at night when my son is asleep, although I try to write wherever I am. I recently wrote a chapter on the way to Lego Land! (I wasn't driving, I hasten to add.)

I have a writing room at home, which is basically my spare room, and that's where I do most of my writing. It has framed covers of Being Miss Nobody and Jemima Small Versus the Universe. I believe in celebrating your writing achievements, probably because I never thought I'd ever get to the point of actually finishing a book.

I'm currently working on my third book, which is about a girl called Dylan. It deals with hacking and privacy online, and that's all I can say right now. Some of it takes place near Copenhagen in Denmark, so I'm looking forward to my first research trip.

Q: And what are your favourite escapes from writing?

A: It's funny, because writing was always my escape. It feels slightly less of an escape now I have deadlines. I recently got an allotment, which probably sounds extremely boring, but I love spending time outside and I love planting seeds and making the plot look pretty with flowers and plants, most of which turn out to be weeds.

I also love heading off to a forest or a lake or the sea with my little boy. I love places where nature is left to grow wild. With everything that technology offers us, it doesn't even come close to the beauty of places like that. I also love reading books and playing board games. I am kind of a dork.

Q: Do you read much contemporary writing for teenagers, and if so, could you recommend a couple of titles for our members?

A: Yes, I've always read very widely, and I read lots of books for teenagers. I read the classics when I was younger, and I'm incredible jealous that young readers are so spoilt for choice these days.

Some books I've loved recently are: The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q Rauf, The Ice Garden by Guy Jones and No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton.

For YA readers, I absolutely loved Skylarks by Karen Gregory, Oh My Gods by Alexandra Shepperd and Goodbye, Perfect by Sara Barnard. They're all contemporary novels and all made me laugh.

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