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 A world of difference

A world of difference

Look out for galaxies, stardust and two brothers trying to work things out in THE SPACE WE'RE IN by KATYA BALEN, who tell us more about her debut novel.

THE SPACE WE'RE IN follows ten-year-old Frank, the narrator, and his younger brother Max who is five, and autistic.

Max struggles with things that are too loud or too quick, or just different, while Frank is quiet, sensitive and desperate for more of his parents' attention.

Frank also secretly wishes his brother wasn't quite so different from other children but still has a fierce loyalty towards Max. When tragedy strikes the family and things spiral out of control, it is Frank who must find a way to bring the family back together.

We asked author KATYA BALEN to tell us more about her debut novel, THE SPACE WE'RE IN:

Q: Can you tell us what took you into writing for children?

A: I think my happiest and most vivid reading memories are from when I was a child - the books I read then really shaped me and stayed with me. I also used to work with children in lots of different places, and so I was immersed in their worlds. Those two things just meant it made sense and felt important to write for children.

Q: What was the process of writing your first book, The Space We're In?

A: I was very scared to write a book! I didn't think I could so I didn't write a word for years and years. Then I did an internship at a literary agency and I was suddenly surrounded by books and people who loved books and people who had been brave enough to write books. I started writing The Space We're In almost immediately after finishing there. I borrowed my boyfriend's laptop, sat on the sofa, and just wrote and wrote and wrote.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on the relationship between two brothers, ten-year-old Frank and his younger, autistic brother, Max

A: I think that sibling relationships are so important, and yet we don't read about them an awful lot. Quite often your sibling(s) has a huge impact on the way you grow up and the person you become. I wanted to show this different family, and this different way of growing up. It's not uncommon, but there aren't many books that reflect it.

Q: How confident were you in writing about a family learning about autism through their youngest member, Max? What were the biggest challenges?

A: Most of my working life has been spent with autistic children and their families, and later with autistic adults, so I felt that I had quite a good insight. I was much more comfortable because I wasn't trying to use the voice or perspective of an autistic person - I don't think it's my place to do that.

I think my biggest challenge was representing Max in a way that was true and fair. I was nervous, and still am nervous, that autistic people and their families might not like my representation but the feedback so far has been lovely.

Q: The story is narrated by Frank, how did his voice develop?

A: The honest answer to this is I'm not really sure. I think it had been swirling around in my head for a little while, but when it came to writing I just had him. There was tidying up and smoothing down that needed doing, but the essence of Frank came naturally.

Q: Frank often feels left out with Max getting much of his parents' attention, while their relationship is also challenged by Max's demands. How important was it for you that your novel covered all aspects of living with neurodivergence?

A: Very important. I don't think it would be right to show the family's lives as perfectly simple, or perfectly awful. I always wanted to show that Max gives a huge amount to the family and that he is so incredibly loved. But he does need extra help, and I thought it was important to show that, as well as Frank's frustration at being left out.

Frank gets angry when he thinks Max is stopping him doing things or that Max is getting all the attention. For a ten-year-old, that's really important, but I didn't want to write it in a way that made Max look bad or so the reader blamed Max.

The book is very much about Frank loving Max for who he is, and I hope that comes across. Frank feels excluded, but he also grows and develops and understands. I didn't want to sugar-coat neurodivergence, but I did want to celebrate it.

Q: Frank has to deal with some unkind reactions to his brother from people outside their family. Is this still something you come across in your work?

A: Sometimes. It's never nice. However, I think on the whole people are more understanding of difference than in the past. That doesn't mean there isn't a lot of work still left to do - most public spaces and events could make small adaptations that would mean they were much more accessible to huge groups of neurodivergent and disabled people. I've had events organisers say to me 'oh we don't make that adjustment because no one autistic has ever come here' and it's like yes, because you haven't made the adjustment!

Q: Was it difficult to manage Frank's recognition of his love for Max, while also exploring the shame he feels about Max's differences?

A: I think it was quite tricky to navigate the balance, yes. Frank feels embarrassed by his brother and then feels ashamed of his embarrassment. That's quite a lot for a ten-year-old to feel, and quite tricky to write so that Frank is represented fairly. He isn't nasty or mean, but he is caught between wanting to fit in and be just like everyone else, and wanting to show that he loves his brother for who he is. I think Frank's friends and their simple acceptance of his family were very helpful in helping Frank along in that journey.

Q: What do you feel the illustrations contribute to the novel?

A: Everything. Laura's art just transforms the words, as well as Bloomsbury's incredible team who designed the beautiful text effects. Laura is so talented and she completely understood the book. I think her art captures the absolute soul of the story, and her drawings are abstract and evocative enough that each reader can make them their own. They add a whole new dimension.

Q: What would you like your readers to take away from The Space We're In?

A: That we're all made of stardust. That no matter what differences or difficulties or experiences we have that set us apart from others, we are all made of the same stuff. So be thoughtful, be understanding and above all, be kind.

Q: Where and when are your favourite times and places for writing?

A: I like to mix up where I write - I have a lovely cosy study and if I really need to get work done then I'll try and sit at my desk all day. If I've got a bit of time to play around with what I'm working on then I'll sit at the kitchen table or curl up on the sofa. I don't like to get up early and write though, no way! Afternoons are best, with plenty of breaks for biscuits.

I've just finished my second book - it's about a girl who lives in the woods with her dad, away from everyone. She loves her life - looking after the woods, being wild and telling stories by the fire. Her world falls apart when she's forced to move to London...I won't say much more, but there's also scavenging for secrets and a baby owl!

Q: If you could create your dream 'writer's shed', where would it be and what would it look like?

A: Oh this is an interesting question! I'm someone who doesn't like to squirrel myself away when I'm writing, so I wouldn't want anything too isolated. But maybe it could have some sort of transporting power so I could be whizzed from London into the Brecon Beacons when I needed to escape and look at some beautiful scenery.

Maybe it should have a big cupboard of snacks and a coffee machine that never ran out of beans. Oh and a music system that plays exactly the right songs for what I'm writing. All the walls should be covered in bookshelves and I should have a special shelf just for fancy notebooks. I'm not asking too much, am I?

Q: What are your favourite escapes from work, and writing?

A: I really love knitting and baking, both of which are hobbies that make me sound like I'm ancient!? Obviously I also love reading. I got a rescue dog so I could go for long walks and get away from my desk, but he prefers to sleep for around 23 hours a day. I think his DNA got mixed up with a cat's...


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