This week is Anti-Bullying Week and I’m delighted to welcome Stewart Foster to the blog today with a special Q & A about his wonderfully insightful book, ‘All The Things That Could Go Wrong.’ This is a book that tells two very different stories about Dan and Alex who both find the reality of everyday life a struggle. Dan is consumed by rage after his brother left, and unable to deal with his emotions he torments Alex, honing in on his weaknesses and taking out his pain on him. For Alex life was incredibly difficult even before Dan started to make his life a misery, his severe OCD makes it hard for him to live a normal life. But their paths are unwittingly thrown together when their mums make a plan for them to meet outside of school and finish the raft that Dan started with his brother. This is a really interesting book as it gives us an insight into the mind of the bully Dan and tries to understand why he behaves horribly towards Alex, whilst showing the reader the devastating effect bullying has on Alex’s life.
Stewart Foster – Q & A
Can you tell me what inspired you to write ‘All the Things That Could Go Wrong,’ which had bullying as one of the main themes?
The actual moment that inspired the book came whilst I was being interviewed to teach at a school in Essex. I was waiting outside the interview room, looking at the school notice board. Amongst the usual school trips, recitals and sports team announcements , I saw a section on mental health. This section included advice on OCD, exam stress, anxiety, depression and bullying, and I suddenly thought, god, the pressures we put our kids under these days. At that point I wanted to write something hard-hitting and realistic for middle grade readers, but at the same time I wanted to give them hope.
Why do you think books are a useful resource in dealing with bullying?
I was lucky enough to grow up watching Grange Hill. I children’s programme that really did tackle the issues of growing up in a state school. I’m not sure there is any like that for children to watch anymore. So I think reading, especially for middle-grade readers, is a great way for children to both get informed, but also forge their own opinions. The issue of bullying was covered brilliantly in ‘Wonder’ and it’s promoted discussion in many schools I’ve visited. If my writing can do the same, and perhaps enable readers to see the issue of bullying from both sides, then I’ll consider that a success.
In your book we get to see the story not only from the viewpoint of the child who is being bullied Alex but also from the side of the bully Dan. Why did you decide to include Dan’s point of view?
Ha, well I started to answer this question at the end of the last. The reason I did Dan (the bully) point of view, first person was that I wanted to experience what it might be like to be a bully, and put the reader in that position too. It was very hard at first, but that was because I was concentrating on the awful things he was doing, and not on what type of kid he was. I may be naive but I link to think that there are grains of good in everyone, and that sometimes we just have to learn to understand them to help the good come out.
The theme of this year’s Anti-Bullying Week is ‘All Different, All Equal’ which aims to promote difference and equality in schools. How do you feel both Alex and Dan stand out in school and how to they deal with this?
Alex both stands out because of his physical appearance but his unseen mental torture flies under the radar. His teachers haven’t got the time to truly understand and help him and because he’s quiet he doesn’t demand attention. Dan is similar but because he’s louder he’s actually demanding attention but at the same time, he is like Alex, he trying to work his way through his problems and somehow discover his own identity. I think we’re so lucky as middle-grade writers because the age group we write for and about are smouldering volcanoes. In Dan’s case, the volcano erupts whereas Alex’s keeps bubbling, bubbling, bubbling, but both have very uncomfortable rides.
I felt that your book was really empathetic and insightful. Did you deliberately write it with this in mind so that children who read it and hadn’t been bullied would understand the experiences more clearly?
I only thing I did deliberately was to set out to write a story about bullying and I wanted it to be real. I think if I’d set out looking for children to emphasise and be deliberately insightful then the story would have become contrived, unconvincing and children would switch off. All the things carries to important a message for that to happen, so I just wrote what was in my heart and let it bypass my head. Personally, I learn quite subliminally and I guess that’s how I write too because I care massively about both bullying and OCD and I hope it’s that that comes through in the book.
‘Bubble Boy’ featured a boy called Joe who is very different, do you think it’s important for children to meet a diverse range of characters in their books?
I’m glad you say the characters are very different from Joe, because whenever I start a new story I have to get rid of my best mate from the last book and make new friends in the next. For that reason alone it’s good to have very different characters to keep me interested, but I think also that children need to meet characters that they may not come across at home or in school. We live in a big world, but for the first part of our lives we live in pretty small communities and don’t stray far from them. Meeting different characters in novels is a great way for children to see how other children live in cities in their own countries or even on the other side of the world.
How important do you feel reading for pleasure is in developing empathy in children?
Reading is a very intimate experience, it’s just you and the book and unlike watching a film you get to colour that book however you want. I don’t think reading for pleasure instils empathy, but as your question suggest, it develops what is already there. I’m not sure that in the early years a child could actually describe empathy, more that it comes out in their own behaviours and I’m pretty sure some of the great middle grade books are promoting this. Books offer children their own little private space, away from the influences of friends, school and TV.
A huge thank you to Stewart for inviting me to host this Q & A. You can find out more about Stewart by following him on Twitter and Facebook. ‘All The Things That Could Go Wrong’ is available to buy now online or from any good bookshop.