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>> A road story, and a love story

A road story, and a love story

A road story, and a love story

ROSIE LOVES JACK follows Rosie as she sets off on a journey to be with her boyfriend, Jack. As a teenager with Down's syndrome, Rosie will face many dangers on her journey. We asked author MEL DARBON to tell us more about her debut YA novel, aimed at readers aged 14+.

Q: This is your debut novel, why did you decide you wanted to write a book?

A: I've written stories ever since I can remember. When I was at Primary School we made our own storybooks, which we decorated on the front. I loved this more than anything and would have spent all day writing in them.

Writing a book was something I had to do and I've never felt any differently - it's just taken me much longer to achieve than I would have liked, but life has a habit of getting in the way! Five years ago my three children told me to get on with it, as I wasn't getting any younger...

I applied for the MA Writing for Young People at Bath Spa and got on the course. It gave me the space and motivation to write my book - one that I had kept inside me for many years, inspired by my brother who has severe autism; someone who I so desperately wanted to give a voice to, alongside the inspiring teenagers with Down's syndrome who I worked with a few years back.

Q: And why did you decide to write a romance - and since one half of the couple is absent for most of the novel, did that make it harder to develop their relationship for the reader?

A: I wanted to write a love story that demonstrated how my character, Rosie, is a teenage girl first and not just a person defined by her Down's syndrome. It was very important to me to write a story that showed we all have these same aspirations; to love, be loved and to be accepted without limitations, because human emotions don't discriminate between those who are able or those who are disabled.

I wanted to make it a romance because it's a universal situation we can all relate to - especially for teenagers and young adults - as it's quite often the time that you first fall in love or dream of falling in love. We can all remember the agonies and ecstasies that we went through, or hope that one day we will know that sort of love that we've seen in films or read about in books. It's a time when the person who can make you the happiest can bring you the most pain. It's the first time you become truly comfortable with someone. If you lose it, as Rosie thinks she has at the beginning of the book, you question your own self-worth, feel devastated and can't imagine not being with that person. Rosie feels just this. When she discovers Jack is just as miserable as her, she knows she has to be with him.

It actually didn't make it harder to develop their relationship for the reader because I knew Jack as well as I did Rosie right from the start and Rosie carries Jack with her, inside her head and her heart throughout her journey. It's what keeps her pushing on to find him, no matter what gets thrown her way to stop her. She constantly refers to him and his postcards that she carries, so he is present even if he isn't physically there. She has flash backs which show how they met and how their relationship developed, all written in a heightened, lyrical voice, which is how Rosie 'speaks' in her head. These scenes help the reader to feel close to Jack, especially since they quite often highlight Rosie and Jack's most romantic moments together and draw us into their relationship and explain their deep love for each other and why they need to be together.

Q: The protagonist, Rosie, has Down's syndrome, was this something you needed to research before you wrote the story or were you already aware of the condition?

A: I was already aware of the condition. Although my brother is severely autistic, he used to go to specialist schools where there were children with many different learning disabilities, including Down's syndrome. Now-a-days people with autism tend to go to centres that cater for their particular needs. My daughter's friend had a sister with Down's syndrome, who attended the inclusive college I worked at, where I helped quite a few teenagers with Down's syndrome - who inspired my character Rosie.

In spite of this I still researched more thoroughly into the condition, as I wanted to make sure that I was fully aware of the common symptoms and characteristics of Down's syndrome, because even though people with this syndrome may have some physical and developmental features in common, the cognitive symptoms of Down's syndrome can range from mild to severe.

Q: Rosie faces many difficulties during her journey to find Jack. Despite this, it is a very optimistic and often funny novel too thanks to Rosie's perspective. How did her character develop?

A: I had a picture of Rosie in my head a long time before I started to write the book. She was loosely based on a few girls with Down's syndrome I met when working at Henley College, but in particular one girl who happened to be called Rosie. She was bright, fun and fiercely independent.

My character Rosie really came to life when I formulated a character analysis, starting from when she was born and then establishing what had happened to her in her life to influence her and make her the person she was. For example, the fact that Rosie's brother Ben had hurt his back when he was a little and had to be in hospital for some time gave Rosie the opportunity to become more independent and not be the constant focus of attention. It empowered her and shaped the person she was to become.

Once I felt I had got her voice right and the language she uses, I started to see the world from her perspective, which was a joy to write with and her words flowed onto the page and her character grew. Rosie became real to me and lived in my head and by my side. She led me through the story - sometimes to surprising places!

Q: Rosie often needs to point out that she is not a disabled person, she is Rosie. Is this one of the reasons you wanted to write the story in the first person?

A: Yes, it is. I think it's hugely important to have a first person narrator with impairment, as I wanted my reader to be able to view the world from the perspective of someone with Down's syndrome because we should never assume that someone who has difficulty communicating has nothing to say; we need to look beyond the labels and focus on ability and not disability.

I wanted my reader to really feel and understand what it's like to have assumptions made about you because of the way you look by 'putting on Rosie's shoes' and walking with her on her journey. It's a very intimate perspective that works well for a teenage /young adult reader.

Q: There is, now, a lot of attention being paid to diversity in children's literature but do you feel that people with disabilities are still being neglected?

A: I think they are still being neglected, but I think it's more a question of not knowing where to start - and also the fear of getting it wrong and misrepresenting someone, rather than being deliberately negligent. Any publishing house will have sensitivity readers to insure they are representing people correctly, but even with that report they can hesitate to publish.

The last couple of years have seen some improvements, especially in picture books, but in my opinion MG and YA books still have a long way to go because, sadly, perhaps it's also the perception that these stories might not sell here or abroad. This is why it's so fantastic that publishing houses like Usborne are making sure that they do provide books that feature disabilities, which will break the 'Catch 22' situation and help inclusive books become more of the norm.

After all, children need to see the world they live in reflected in books they read, because it isn't just important for those children who are disabled but those children unaffected. Inclusion breeds empathy, understanding and the realization that we all have value and deserve to be heard.

Q: Is it a difficult area to cover, unless you have a good understanding of what you are writing about? Does that discourage authors?

A: It is indeed a difficult area to cover unless you know what you are talking about; even though you can research any topic in great depth, it's never the same as if you truly understand or experience something for yourself. It is an especially sensitive area, so a lot of writers might hesitate to embark on a story with a character such as Rosie, for fear of getting it wrong and misrepresenting them, as I pointed out before. It can be done, as proved by Mark Haddon and his famous book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, but interestingly Haddon made it clear that he had never specified any disorder and was uncomfortable that the book was seen as a handbook for autism spectrum disorders.

A lot of writers who do tackle disability have experience of it themselves - for example, Rachel Lucas, who wrote The State of Grace, a story about a teenage girl who has Asperger's, has a daughter with this condition.

Q: Rosie comes into contact with many different kinds of people and many of the responses to her are cruel; how true to life do you feel this is, and did this make it a difficult novel for you to write?

A: When my brother was young, there were many cruel responses to him, even to the point where we were told he should have been got rid of. People would stare at him and make very hurtful comments. Things are definitely changing as schools have become more inclusive and people with various disabilities are used in television dramas, film and advertisements.

Inclusivity is helping change people's views, but my brother can still get comments when he's out and so can many people who have physical or learning disabilities. You only have to look on Twitter to see that, sadly, cruel comments are still the norm in some areas.

It did make it difficult to write, because I didn't like putting my character in that position - and it brought back the pain we all felt at the unkindness my brother had to and still has to occasionally contend with. But it was important to represent real life, warts and all, so that the reader can sit back and think about the way people can be treated because they have a disability and do it within the safe, non-judgemental pages of a book.

Rosie can help my reader see a different perspective and by getting to know her as a teenage girl, in love, who they can relate to, is a step towards empathy and understanding.

Q: You take Rosie into a very dark place where you explore child exploitation, drugs and abuse. Why did you want to bring this into the story?

A: Rosie is part of our world where these issues are there for us to see, her journey is a reflection of life and with the media we can't escape it. I felt that any young person out in London by themselves, unsure of where to go, is vulnerable, not just someone with Down's syndrome, for example - though Rosie has an innocence and naivety that a lot of sixteen year olds wouldn't have as they'd be a bit more street-wise. But at 16 you think you know it all, when you know so little of the wider world - and in that sense thinking you know it all makes you as vulnerable as someone as naive as Rosie.

It seemed a probable progression in the story that this could happen to my character and I felt I could use it to highlight these issues - because there will always be predators and although most of the time it won't end like Rosie's journey did, it can and does happen. Indeed, my daughter worked with young girls who've been groomed and I was shocked at how prevalent it was all over the country, not just happening in places like Rochdale - and I'm talking about girls who are as young as eleven. And it isn't just with children who are able - sexual exploitation amongst disabled children is equally extensive.

I felt a responsibility for Rosie in this situation but knew it could generate awareness, but do so, as I said before, within the safe pages of a book. I hope that young people will find this immensely valuable.

Q: The novel ends on a positive note, but still with some questions. Do you plan to return to Rosie and Jack, to follow up their story?

A: I will definitely do Jack's story if I can, as I always intended for my reader to see his story and what he is going through at his centre in Brighton, with all the diverse characters he is living with there. I'd like people to experience his side of the love story. It would be a story that stands alone too and helps people to understand what life is like with a brain injury. It will also have humour in it to alleviate the darker aspects of the story.

I'd love to do a follow on story with what happens to Rosie and Jack, but I'll wait and see what the response is to Rosie Loves Jack first!

Q: What would you like your readers to take away from Rosie Loves Jack?

A: That they've read a great love story that entertains them and that they can relate to. I hope they take away a book, with a character that stays with them and that might raise some healthy discussion on some of the issues that are presented in it. I hope they can look at the world through different eyes and understand that human emotions don't discriminate between those who are disabled and those who are able - and that by putting on someone else's shoes they take a step towards empathy and understanding.

Q: Where do you write and what are you writing now?

A: I write in my attic room of my eighteenth century cottage in Bath, which was originally owned in 1740 by an Elizabeth Bennet!

I don't want to give too much away about my next book, but I can tell you it's another love story, which touches on our drinking culture and features a severely autistic teenager - oh and a double decker bus.

Q: What are your favourite things to do when you're not writing?

A: I love to paint, using a variety of different mediums, something I did as a career before I followed my dream of writing novels for young people. I love walking with my dog in the countryside around Bath, going to the theatre, hunting around flea markets for unusual antique jewellery, reading - constantly, though I never have enough time to read as much as I'd like to. I love being with my children and going on mini-adventures with them and spending time with the rest of my family - especially my brother Guy, who I am very close to.

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