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Eastbourne author Jenny McLachlan on the poignancy and passions of adolescence

PUBLISHED: 12:30 25 August 2016 | UPDATED: 12:30 25 August 2016

Archant

After 14 years as an English teacher, Eastbourne’s Jenny McLachlan had a good handle on teenagers and what makes them tick. Her first book was the subject of a bidding war and the fourth and final book in her Ladybird series has just been released.

I picked up Flirty Dancing, Jenny McLachlan’s debut novel, with some trepidation.

We all know the old adage about judging a book by its cover but this was unashamedly pink and girly and I was a bit embarrassed to read it on the train. Let’s face it, I wasn’t the target audience (which is ages 11-15).

But the point of fiction is to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes and a few chapters in, I was definitely in 15-year-old Bea’s corner. When I’d finished, I read the next two books for good measure and concluded that if I had a daughter, I’d like her to read these books. The female protagonists have agency and attitude and their callow crushes often turn out to have feet of clay.

Author Jenny, who grew up in Eastbourne, clearly feels a great affinity with her young characters and says she was a shy teenager. “I was just very quiet and intimidated by everything but that’s very common, isn’t it? Not feeling comfortable in your own skin.

“That’s actually one of the reasons I wanted to write these books – with the benefit of hindsight I perhaps wasted a few opportunities. I think it’s interesting the way girls particularly might suppress who they really are, although in a way they are waiting to find out who they really are. Hopefully my characters don’t change but they do become true to themselves.”

Coming-of-age stories are a trope unto themselves and many literary classics fall under that category, so it is clear that for adults too, adolescence is endlessly fascinating. Jenny believes that’s because the emotions of the time are so heightened that we remember them for the rest of our lives. “We have so many of our formative experiences in adolescence – so many terribly embarrassing experiences, so many exciting experiences: you’re just at the start of your adult life and so much is yet to come. It’s that time when you’re becoming who you’re going to be for the rest of your life.”

Reflecting the intense peaks and troughs of teenage life, it’s not all sunshine and sparkles in the Ladybird world. There’s bullying, alienation, references to underage drinking (although not much) and one character’s loss of a mother while still an infant. The last storyline, in the second book Love Bomb, was “quite heart-breaking to write”, says Jenny. “After I’d had my first daughter I watched a documentary about people who have terminal illnesses who make memory boxes for their children. I suddenly wanted to write a letter for her because I thought if anything happens to me she’s got to know how immense my love is for her. I sat down to write it and thought ‘what do you say?’ That was what gave me the idea to write Betty’s story.”

Jenny taught English for 14 years, most recently as head of department at Uckfield Community Technology College. She hadn’t told anyone she was writing herself until she got a four book deal, although she wrote the first, Flirty Dancing, about 10 years ago. She shelved it for five years and on picking it up again saw what improvements she needed to make and also how the story could be expanded to include the rest of the characters.

As a YA writer Jenny had a distinct advantage in being on the front line of teenage concerns, although she says, “In a way what helps is that nothing’s really changed. All the concerns that we had when we were teenagers are the same concerns they have, with added technology. But you have to be so cautious with vocabulary and technology, because things date so quickly.”

And writing as someone who’s pretty out of touch with teenage concerns but exposed to tabloid alarmism about social media, sexting and cyber-bullying, that is very reassuring. In fact, according to Jenny social media has given the disenfranchised a voice: “I think now teenagers are more confident about speaking up and not accepting things that are possibly imposed on them. They have a voice through social media and have got used to expressing themselves and expecting to be heard. Possibly when I was at school you put up with things. I think that change is for the better. They have much more equal relationships with teachers now. I think girls are turning against the idea of conventional femininity. They don’t want to define themselves so neatly and there’s a bit of a rebellion against girliness.”

The books are set in an unnamed Sussex town, with day trips to Brighton being a regular feature – Jenny thinks the area is “absolutely brilliant” for teenagers.

In terms of what she’ll do next, she thinks with YA fiction she has found her voice.

“I’m always tempted to do something purely plot-driven with no emotion. Maybe a bit more murder. I would quite like to write a romantic comedy for adults, because obviously there’s quite a lot you can’t include in YA. I have thought of a follow-up with the girls at university.”

Jenny plans at least three books similar in tone to the Ladybird series. Having spent a lot of time writing unsuccessfully for adults, “the moment I started to write Flirty Dancing I felt it was right. I’ve got so many books I’d like to write, the only problem is time!” 


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