We are delighted to host Jo Cotterill, author of the stunning middle grade book, Looking At The Stars. Amina’s homeland has been ravaged by war for many months, but so far she and her family are safe, together. When a so-called liberating force arrives in the country, the family think their prayers for peace will soon be answered, but they are horribly wrong . . . The country is thrown into yet further turmoil and Amina’s family is devastated . . .
Through it all, Amina has her imagination to fall back on – of a better place and time. But can her stories get her through this?
Some time in 2013 there was an online argument among authors and readers about writing ‘strong’ female characters. Why should girls be ‘strong’? asked some people. Why were they supposed to be emotionally strong and assertive above all else? Surely a good three-dimensional character can be strong, weak, confused, angry, wrong, passionate and frightened. When authors write male characters, are they referred to as ‘strong’?
Our society persists in dividing the sexes with a line so thick you can’t see through it. As a mum of two young girls, I see an insidious creep towards the Disney Princess. Many toys are now aimed at boys or girls, as though children should be placed carefully into categories because of their gender. Well-meaning people buy pink purses for my daughters instead of toolkits or Meccano. My five-year-old already has firm ideas about what ‘girls’ like and what she should prioritise. Yet the female of the species is worth more than that! Possibilities should not be limited by gender, and that’s why fiction is important, because it can show a world of options.
There is also a persuasive idea going around that boys don’t read books that feature a central female character. I don’t think this is true for all boys, but I do think society teaches boys that girls are still less important than they are. Why else would boys avoid ‘girly stuff’ and lump female characters in with it? And yet many books written about girls are hugely useful. They teach us about relating to people; about finding inner strength in realistic situations; about kindness and cruelty; about discovering your own talents. All of these are vital skills for real life. Not to mention that girls make up half the population: shouldn’t boys want to read about them?
In Looking at the Stars, Amina and her sister Jenna are the two central characters. They have been living under a very repressive regime that prevents them going to school and forces them to wear headscarves that identify their age. This is not a ‘female issue’; it’s a human issue. And to test out a boy’s reaction to my book, I sent it to a friend of mine. Her twelve-year-old son, an avid reader, sent me this review:
Even after reading the Hunger Games, which had some really sad moments, this is the first book that ever made me cry. Because it was so life-like. I almost felt I was with the characters, on their journey. It is now one of my favourite books. I think it is like…nothing else I have read.
THAT is why boys should read books about girls, and why we should stop assuming they won’t be interested in them. And it’s why I hope lots of boys and girls will read my book. Written by Jo Cotterill Jo’s first story at the age of five was a festive one entitled ‘Chismas’. After writing a lot of stories about unicorns, she decided at the age of thirteen to become an actress. Her professional acting career was enjoyable but frustrating, so she became a teacher instead, writing stories on the side. Her first book was published in 2004, and she gave up teaching in 2009. Jo now lives in Oxfordshire and fits writing around her young family. She enjoys music and card-making, and is an avid fan of Strictly Come Dancing.
Looking At The Stars was published today by Bodley Head.