Socialist Worker

Take the Troubles and wrap a story round them

Award-winning children’s writer Alan Gibbons spoke to Socialist Worker about his new book and the audience for books that deal with serious issues

Issue No. 1927

In my new book, The Defender, the main character, a 14 year old boy called Ian, comes home to find two menacing characters waiting for his dad.

He runs away from the house and calls his dad, who tells him his secret.

In the past Ian’s dad, Kenny Kincaid, used to be involved with Loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland, and he stole some money from them. Now they’ve tracked him down.

The book is a thriller, which looks through flashbacks at how the Troubles started. I think that what you have to do is take an issue and wrap the story around it.

A lot of young people aren’t really aware of the Troubles now.

The book is more about what happened to the soldiers after the Troubles, after the war. But the Troubles are still a shadow over British life and politics.

I write fiction, which means that I want to tell a good story. I don’t expect my readers to have any previous knowledge of Ireland or its history. I want to unpeel the history.

I started teaching when I was in my thirties, and that’s really when I started storytelling. Necessity is the mother of invention, and all that.

And I found that the best discipline was a good story. An anecdote that has some humour—that was the best way to work with kids.

Teen writing is very healthy at the moment. It deals with issues. There are a lot of new writers who really have their finger on the pulse. Our peers are breaking new ground.

His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman was incredibly important because it wasn’t just fantasy—it looked at how the world is now.

Now these books get an adult readership as well. I think some adults read novels that are aimed at children because a lot of adult writing has moved away from narrative.

J K Rowling wasn’t the first person to write these crossover books which appeal to both adults and children.

The Harry Potter books definitely made the reading of teen novels more acceptable, but I think they reflected rather than caused the trend.

Lots of children’s writers are also campaigners, and I think that really changed the landscape of what’s being written.

Having political ideas in your writing is incredibly unpopular in some circles. There’s this idea that teenagers aren’t interested in issues—that the novels written for teenagers should just be stories.

As far as I’m concerned that’s wrong for two reasons.

Firstly all literature deals with ideas. If you write without dealing with the issues of today that affect these kids then all you’re doing is upholding the status quo.

Secondly, kids today are hugely political—they are concerned about the environment about the war.

Just look at all the school walkouts at the start of the war on Iraq. These were not the actions of people who were not interested in what’s happening in the world around them.

Just because kids aren’t necessarily interested in official politics doesn’t mean they’re not aware of the realities around them.

There’s an openness, a new politicisation, and that’s something we should respect.

You have to respect the people that read your books. As far as I’m concerned a book isn’t finished until it’s been read.

The Defender by Alan Gibbons is available from Bookmarks for £4.99. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

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Sat 13 Nov 2004, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1927
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