Monday, 10 April 2017

Author Cathy Cassidy argues teens need books more than ever in a world that can seem confused and unfair.

In a passionate speech about the need for libraries, best selling teen author Cathy Cassidy argued that books and empathy were needed now more than ever in a world which can seem frighteningly confused and unfair.

The Puffin author was the guest speaker at the annual ‘Pupil Library Assistant of the Year Award’ being held in the Houses of Parliament. The Award was set up to recognise the contribution made by pupils who work in their school libraries and to give them the recognition they deserve, both within and outside their school community.

Addressing the audience in the Atlee Suite of Portcullis House, Cassidy said:
‘Reading for pleasure makes us smart, gives us a quiet confidence that no reading scheme can. We need free choice, the option to choose a picture book about unicorns one day and a book on engineering or world politics the next. We need the freedom to explore and learn without restraint. Libraries give us power, as the Manic Street Preachers song says – and they are under threat.

‘Libraries are closing countrywide – we have become a nation that does not value culture, learning or the freedom to read widely. If we can’t buy something, we can’t have it. Libraries matter more than I can say, and if we stand by quietly and allow them to be closed, our country will be the poorer for it.
‘Without libraries where will tomorrow’s dreamers, creatives come from? How will a child climb out of a difficult childhood into a brighter future without the ladder that library books can provide? Libraries treat us all as equals. They level the playing field, give everyone a chance to follow their dreams. We must not allow them to be taken away.

‘Why do we need books? To connect, to understand, to help us open up our hearts and minds, to make sense of the world around us. We need books to see that in spite of our differences and our uniqueness, we are all linked and have so much in common. Books help us to see, and see beyond the surface – and we need that empathy more than ever these days, in a world that can seem frighteningly confusing and unfair.
‘My school visits often start and finish in the school library, often with a coffee, a biscuit and the company of wonderful student librarians who know more than any adult could about how to draw young people into the world of books and learning. Those schools are a joy to visit; but some schools have downsized their library to make room for banks of computers. Some have terrifyingly closed their school library altogether. Many new build schools have no library at all. These are the school that ask me, as a visiting author. “What can we do to improve reading in our school?” The answer is plain. Love your library. HAVE a library!’     

The School Pupil Librarian of the Year was Victoria Langford from St Hilda’s CE High School in Liverpool. She won £500 worth of books for her school library.

Details of the Award can be found here
(photo: Victoria Langford, Cathy Cassidy, Barbara Band). 

Sufiya Ahmed is the author of Secrets of the Henna Girl (Puffin) and was the PLAA 2017 guest judge. The Award is a joint venture between the CILIP School Libraries Group (SLG) and the School Library Association.

Being able to pursue a career in publishing is dependent on family life says Ayisha Malik

Nadiya Hussain, the winner of the 2015 Great British Bake Off, is a name that most will recognise on the cover of a new fiction book ‘The Secret Life of the Amir Sisters’.
The release of the book recently caused a Twitter spat when another author, Jenny Colgan, objected to the fact that Hussain had co-written it with a lesser known author, Ayisha Malik. In her Guardian review Colgan claimed that ‘the worst thing about this [book] is that it feels greedy’.
Many objected as to why in the age of celebrity ghost-written hardbacks galore, it was the Muslim woman’s book which was deemed as ‘one too many’.

I ask Ayisha her thoughts on the whole issue over a recent coffee. Her response is to shrug, preferring to talk instead about her new release.
‘The Other Half of Happiness’ is the sequel to her debut novel ‘Sofia Khan is not obliged’.
“It’s a book which looks at how well really think you know someone,” she says, the gold bangles jingling on her wrists as she adjusts her hijab. “Sofia Khan is now living as a married woman in Karachi.”
I mention the depiction of the father’s character in the first book. Although it seemed to be marketed as a ‘single girl finds the one’, it was actually Sofia’s relationship with her parents which stood out for me.
A love letter to her parents perhaps?
Unexpectedly her eyes well up with tears.
“Yes, it was. It was a love letter to my Dad. He died when I was 14. He was 49.”
She wants to talk about him. “His cause of death was so unnecessary.” She dabs her eyes. “He had a kidney condition and had to have dialysis every day. And then when I was 14, he wanted to go for my uncle’s wedding to Pakistan. He needed his dialysis equipment so we cargoed it.”
She pauses and to my horror I slowly realise what happened.
“The equipment never arrived. He spent three days without the dialysis. The Pakistan hospitals didn’t have the equipment. He died on the fourth day.”

Negligence, I say out loud as if it had never occurred to her.
She shrugs. “It was my widowed mother and her two teenage daughters. Just the three of us. We didn’t know how or what to do with the cargo company. My mum just got on with raising her daughters. She’s a strong woman.” Her face lights up. “She gave me the space to achieve what I wanted. She even funded my Masters in Creative Writing.”
I agree with her. Our mothers’ generation are like solid rocks, providing stability and unconditional love to allow daughters to achieve what the first generation of immigrants could only ever dream of. 
Is she working on anything else? “Yes, the second book with Nadiya. It’s a three book deal.”

So Ayisha’s name will occupy more shelf space than any other British Asian author at a given time. How did it all start?
“Nine years ago I was the only hijabi in publishing. I think there are a few more now but back then it was just me working as a publicity assistant. I began with two weeks work experience at Random House, then temped for a few months before I was offered a part time job. Oh, the amount of photo copying I did.’ She smiles. “Finally a full-time vacancy came up and I was told it was mine if I wanted it.
“I think being able to pursue a career in publishing is very dependent on family life. I was never pressured to pursue law or medicine or any of the other popular Asian parent preferences. This allowed me to chase my dream which is not really common. Asian parents don’t push their children to be creative. I was able to do it because I had a stable financial position at home.”

Did she think she was treated differently as a hijabi?
“Publishing is a very middle class white environment. I was treated well ...of course I was. Yet, I was a novelty to many. Anything unknown is a novelty. I know there is a lot of talk about the need for change as regards diversity in the industry. I think ignorance is a harsh word and used often, but lack of knowledge doesn’t come from bad intentions. It’s about fostering diverse relationships."

‘The Other Side of Happiness’ is released in April 2017 
The Secret Life of the Amir Sisters is published by HQ
Sofia Khan is Not Obliged is published by Twenty7

Sufiya Ahmed is the author of Secrets of the Henna Girl, published by Puffin Books.