Helen Harper


  • March 29, 2015
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I read a lot of Young Adult fiction. It started out as part of my old day job. Thanks to a truly wonderful school librarian who I worked with in Tokyo, I started to read teenage books to help make recommendations to my students. It didn’t take long before I was reading them purely because they are so damn good. Somehow I’m not surprised that 55% of YA readers are over 18 (The Guardian) and I don’t think it’s because of a hankering to be a kid again – it’s because YA books take risks, show imagination and are just so immensely readable.


I’d been planning to write a blog on this topic when I came across news a few days that made my toes curl up with joy – Steven Spielberg is signed up to direct Ready Player One, a fabulous sci-fi adventure inspired by the 1980s. Despite my vast disappointment in films such as Insurgent, The Fault In Our Stars and the Maze Runner (and, believe me, I loved those books), I have high hopes for this one. Taking advantage of a lazy Sunday, however, I lay on my sofa today and read Only Ever Yours by Louise Neil. I’m now in an entirely different frame of mind.


Neil holds up a mirror to girls in today’s society by creating a nightmarish dystopian society. The genius in her book, however, lies not in its premise but in the main character, Frieda. Frieda often hates her best friend, Isabel, because she’s ranked as the most beautiful girl in her year (the only test that ever matters to any of these students). She won’t dare show her feelings but they’re there nonetheless. The characters are bitchy and mean, competing with each other to be the perfect weight, have perfect skin and be chosen to be worthy enough to be a ‘companion’ to a man. Frieda is no kickass heroine. This isn’t Katniss. She’s weak and unlikeable but I was rooting for her all the same. The trouble is that there’s no positive endpoint for her. To ‘win’ means to end up in a potentially abusive relationship where you pop sons until you’re culled at forty. To lose means to be a concubine, used purely for sex, or a chastity teaching new groups of girls. Turn the pages of any tabloid newspaper or glossy magazine with their screams of ‘too fat’ celebrities or ‘too thin’ WAGs and it’s easy to see how Neil’s book isn’t a dystopian sci-fi – it’s now.


YA books are so very good at dealing with difficult subjects. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson deals unflinchingly with rape, the Diary of Pelly D imagines a world where genocide and the extermination of an entire race has been successful, Eleanor and Park considers bullying and isolation and love, Every Day touches upon gender identity in the most breathtakingly original manner. In a week where the Clean Reader app has been dominating book related headlines, we should be celebrating the freedom, ideas and beauty of YA fiction. And learning a lot about ourselves in the process.

Photo by jennnster

Helen Harper

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

  • March 13, 2015
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I stayed up later than I should have last night, reading Jon Ronson’s compelling new book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.?It is a very sympathetically drawn and yet often even-handed book which makes for riveting reading.?In an odd way, reading about how social media has often gathered into mob mentality to destroy people like Justine Sacco (the Africa AIDS tweeter) was as much of a rubber-necking car crash moment as watching the actual ‘shamings’ happen the first time around. That probably says some disturbing things about my own psyche that I’m not sure I want to dwell on.

One of the most interesting theories which Ronson posits is that people who shame others on social media often do so out of the desire to do things ‘right’. I can understand that. I remember a story from a couple of years ago about a UK woman caught on camera stroking a cat and then dropping it into a nearby wheelie bin. As a cat lady myself, it was awful to watch. ?How dare she treat an animal that way?

However, when 4chan users banded together to find her true identity what ensued was nuts. There were Facebook pages calling for the death penalty and claims that she was ‘worse than Hitler’ (The Guardian). What she did was wrong, I’m not denying that. But thousands of people agreeing that she was worse than Hitler? Really? Social media – and all of us who may not even join in with such comments but certainly don’t do anything to stop them – blur the lines between justifiably condemning an action to acting as if it’s akin to the cold, vicious genocide of six million people. We band together to stop bullies by, well, becoming bullies.

Call out actions and words that you think are wrong by all means. But think carefully about how you do it. Nietsche was right: He who fights with monsters should?look?to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you?gaze?long?into?an?abyss?the?abyss?also gazes?into?you.

Photo by built4love.hain

Helen Harper

Reading…and reading…and reading…

  • March 10, 2015
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Sometimes I have a love-hate relationship with my e-reader.


Despite my best efforts, I currently have 152 books waiting to be read. That’s not to mention the ones I started then decided I wasn’t in the mood for and have carefully moved to a folder named ‘Later’. There are 32 books there. (It’s probably better to forget entirely about the ones I have started but have no intention of ever finishing or the paperbacks still waiting to be read and languishing on my shelves).


It’s not really my fault. I read news articles and reviews that mention books which sound interesting so I buy them. I wander past posters in bookshop windows and immediately click to buy on my phone. I receive daily emails about books from Amazon and Bookbub and …. half the world sometimes it seems. I used to panic when I was a kid that I’d die in the middle of the night and never find out what happens at the end of the book I happened to be reading at the time. At this rate, I’ll have enough to read for several times over.


I bring all this up because the Bailey’s long list has just been announced. Last year I made a concerted effort to read the Booker long list. I didn’t quite manage it – there were still two titles to go by the time the shortlist was announced but now I feel I need to give the Bailey’s prize the same attention. Just to be fair! Out of pure chance, I’ve already read three on the list – just seventeen to go. I might not be talking to anyone anytime soon…

Photo by zimpenfish

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