All Stories, a free mentorship programme for underrepresented children's book writers, was launched on 30th March 2021. Here, the twelfth in a series of interviews with All Stories mentees, Words & Pictures Advisory Board member A. M. Dassu speaks to Lio Maddigan to find out more about their writing and experience as a mentee.


1. What made you want to write for children?


I have always been an avid reader of children’s books, loving their immersive worlds, adventurous characters, inventive magic and ideas, and the themes that speak to all ages, and for me, my writing has always been tangled together with my reading. I’ve had a poetry phase, a gritty dystopian phase, a time-travel romance phase, but I always always always return to writing children’s stories.


2. How long have you been writing for?


It feels like forever! I have always loved making up stories – before I started writing them at around age 12, I would act them out in elaborate imaginary games, scorning any other kids who ruined my plots or didn’t act out the characters properly. As a teenager, I was an active member in writing forums for young people and I also studied creative writing, and specifically writing for young people, at university. Writing has been my voice, my therapy, my escape, and my world.


3. You're a born writer! Can you tell us a bit about the book(s) you’re writing? (Age range, genre and anything else you’d like to tell us.)


I’m writing a middle-grade mystery about two kids from very different families, who are unexpectedly intertwined in the hunt for a missing father and a long-lost sister, uncovering family secrets and the truth behind a crime along the way. It’s a deeply nostalgic book for me, as I’ve filled it with my own childhood haunts and settings inspired by the Norfolk countryside. But also, the two main characters represent aspects of my own identity that are still so rarely seen in children’s fiction: a girl who does not yet know she’s autistic, and a lonely genderqueer kid wanting to make friends.


4. Sounds amazing and much needed! What has your writing journey been like up to this point?


Mostly quite private. Other than a commendation in Foyle Young Poets when I was 17, I’ve never applied for, or done anything with my writing. At university, I became quite unhappy with how achievements were only measured in publishing deals, and very few people on my course seemed to actually love and enjoy writing – I was scared that wanting to be published might lead me to feel like them, or give up on writing. I have since written only for my own enjoyment.


5. Why did you apply for an All Stories mentorship? What are your goals for it?


I applied because 2021 was the year I decided to be brave and stop being a writing-hermit. In January I began writing a new book, joined WriteMentor, shared chapters with strangers for the first time in a decade, and I told myself I would apply to anything I was eligible for. I didn’t expect to get in at all! At the beginning, I simply wanted to finish a first draft of my manuscript. I’d never done anything like this before and mostly just wanted to learn as much as I could about the industry, and working with an editor. Now we’re nearing the end of the mentorship, my goals have shifted – I realise now how ambitious it was for me (I worked on my previous novel for 9 years!) to finish a draft in only one year. While I am determined to finish and redraft it this year, I have recognised how much daydreaming, processing time, and time spent purely on world building, etc. are necessary parts of my process, and I need to allow my brain time to work out the creases of my story without feeling guilty. I haven’t finished my draft, but I do have a solid redrafting and editing plan, lots of great feedback from my mentor and critique group, and I have learned a lot throughout the programme.


6. What’s it like to have a mentor for your writing?


It’s great! Sara has helped me a lot with some of the things I struggle with, like plotting and pacing, transitions, and developing the mystery elements of my story. She’s very knowledgable, and it’s great to have someone so invested in my work and ideas, encouraging me and holding me accountable. She’s also made me feel more confident about sharing my work with others.


7. What are your thoughts on representation in children’s literature?


I have seen promising improvements in representation in recent years, but there is still much more work to be done, and not just in publishing. While my school is fortunate to have a well-funded library and a librarian, a great many schools have neither. All children need to see themselves in the books they read but access is a key that many do not have, which means any movements in publishing to improve representation miss their target audience and exist only for those lucky and privileged enough to have access to them. This is an issue that needs addressing through government education policy, specific school library funding and protection in law, and the development of school reading cultures.


8. I wholeheartedly agree! What is your favourite book and why?


I have sooooo many favourite books, it’s impossible to choose! Some of my favourite reads last year were: Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas, Show Us Who You Are by Elle McNicoll, A Pinch of Magic series by Michelle Harrison, and The Soup Movement by Ben Davis. I also recently read Rollercoaster Boy by Lisa Williamson which I found delightful and really moving.


*Feature image courtesy of All Stories and profile image courtesy of Lio Maddigan ______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Lio Maddigan lives in Devon and works as a school librarian. They are writing a contemporary family mystery with an autistic main character. They have always wanted to write for children and, as non-binary autistic person, they are especially keen to write #ownvoices stories about and for young people whose identities they share.

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