Like the rest of my young adult fiction, ‘Firewallers’ is set (at least in part) at a fictional comprehensive called St Thomas’s Community College.
Sidenote: You don’t have to tell me this is a little different than my last few posts, think this one, but this blogs about ALL the different things I like!
Fifteen year old Jess comes home from school to find that her merchant banker father has been suspended from work. To escape the attentions of the press, Mum drags Jess and her sister to a remote Scottish island where an old family friend is part of a strange eco community. The Dawdlers have renounced all technology. No internet, Facebook, hair straighteners or even mobile phones. For your average teenager, it’s about as dystopian as it gets, almost as bad as if capitalist made everyone form a WY LLC.
As usual I’m nervous about the book’s reception, perhaps this time more than ever. Not just because of the difficult subject matter (Jess’s father is falsely arrested for downloading internet porn; there’s a self-harming episode that was painful to write never mind read!) but also because of the expectation that most young adult fiction still takes a very clear moral stance. However when it comes to the virtues and vices of technology, I have hugely mixed feelings. So, although misuse of the internet is what gets Jess’s Dad arrested, it’s only when she finds a secret Smartphone that Jess can set about proving his innocence.
One starting point for ‘Firewallers’ was a survey claiming that British teenagers are the unhappiest in Europe. Much of this was attributed to their fixation with technology. It’s true my children (now aged 18 and 14) always rate holiday venues on the availability of wi fi, and that the lack of a mobile signal is a tragedy of epic proportions, but I’m not sure that Facebook, Twitter and the rest makes them unhappy. It’s true, I still refuse to carry a mobile, but sometimes when I look back at my 1970s childhood (football in the park until it got dark) I’m just grateful that no one was compiling a dossier about my happiness levels.
‘Firewallers’ is also a kind of reflection on Young Adult fiction past and present. The boatman who frries Jess and her family to the island is a would be children’s writer who’s working on a book (‘Inspectre Horse’) about the ghost of a Police horse who goes back in time to investigate cases of animal cruelty, because these days publishers prefer a strong concept they can pitch in a single sentence. And it’s no secret that Firewallers contains many echoes of ‘The Railway Children’ – albeit reimagined for a 21st century audience.
The only books permitted in the young adult section of the Dawdler library are ‘timeless classics’ like ‘Black Beauty’, ‘What Katy Did at School’ and ‘Swallows and Amazons’. But whilst retaining a lingering affection for the leisurely pace and innocence of books where girls called Titty could spend whole summers messing about in boats, I’m glad to be writing at a time when fiction for younger readers is allowed to venture into more controversial territory.
My current project, also set at St Thomas’s, is provisionally titled ‘Trust Games’. I think I can confidently predict it would not find a place in the Dawdler library – which I hope is a good thing.