Windows and Mirrors: Author Q&A with Katharine Quarmby
Windows and Mirrors is an upcoming series of 6 engaging and thought-provoking titles that will offer a powerful opportunity to open conversations, challenge bias and prejudice, foster a sense of community, and build resilience. Written by award-winning writer, editor and journalist, Katharine Quarmby, these titles can act as ‘mirrors’, reflecting the reader’s own experiences to help them feel heard and understood, as well as ‘windows’, where students are given an insight into lives different from their own. Set in an inner city school, each book looks at the experience of a student who is going through a difficult time. The books navigate the reader through hardships and signpost how to access, or offer, help. Although the books can be hard-hitting, the subjects examined are expertly and sensitively handled.
We spoke with author Katharine Quarmby about the series:
Can you tell us about the inspiration behind your series ‘Windows and Mirrors’? Were there real-life experiences or events that influenced your writing?
I was inspired by both my own experience of bullying at secondary schools and those close to me who have experienced bullying as young people. I was particularly interested in how bullying can target individuals in a very cruel way — for characteristics they can’t change, such as wearing glasses, being tall or small (as I was), or coming from a minoritised community.
What themes do you explore in your books, and why have you chosen to write about them?
I think bullying can have all sorts of traumatic results for the person who is being targeted, but when it is about who they are, in a very deep sense, whether that is being a refugee or having a disability, it feels particularly cruel. I wanted to explore some of those themes in these books.
Why do you think it is important for young readers to have access to books about these topics?
Children and young people need both “windows” and “mirrors” — windows into worlds and experiences that they may not directly share with others, and mirrors so they can see themselves in books. I hope that these books offer both.
How do you approach writing sensitive themes in a way that is accessible and appropriate for teenage readers?
I did a lot of research, not only looking at reports and books about bullying but also talking to young people and adults who had experienced targeted bullying, listening to what they said and, of course, asking for their permission to use any of those experiences in my writing.
How do you address the potential for triggering readers while discussing such heavy subject matter, especially in the context of reluctant readers?
Every book has been read and discussed at length with young people and with relevant adults, including adults working with young asylum seekers, foster carers, disabled people, and people working in the care system. This is so that any issues can be addressed during the editing process, although, of course, the final decision and responsibility lies with me.
Your series tackles complex issues. Did you encounter any challenges while writing, and if so, how did you overcome them?
I personally felt that exploring bullying transported me back to the miserable time when I was badly bullied by a group of girls around the ages of twelve and thirteen. Looking back at old school photos and seeing how weighed down I looked was hard to see, but I also know that I got through that with support from my parents and others. I also could not have written this book series without talking to other young people and adults who had both experienced bullying and found ways, with support, to move beyond it.
What advice would you give to teachers, librarians, or parents on how to use your book series as a teaching tool to address these important topics with young adults?
I would say the books are a useful contribution to opening up discussions around bias and prejudice and give some interesting perspectives on bullying and ways to counter it.
How do you ensure your books are authentic and representative of diverse experiences?
Every book has been discussed, researched and read with young people and adults from the communities represented.
Do you have a favourite character? And why are they your favourite?
I think my favourite characters (sorry, I couldn’t choose one!) are the main characters in Off Pitch and Just Breathe because they are unapologetically themselves and so caring and kind to other people. I also want to give a huge shout-out to my character, Kerry, who appears in a couple of books and is from an Irish Traveller background and is an ally and upstander to people who experience bullying in the books.
As a series aimed at reluctant readers, what is different about your stories that will make teenagers want to read them?
They were written and planned very carefully with my brilliant editor, Sarah, and then worked on to ensure that the language was appropriate for reluctant readers. However, I think the main thing is that the plots, which are all taken from real life, give the stories a sense of pace, and the in-depth research means that the stories speak to people directly and feel authentic.
Do you have any personal experience of dyslexia or reading reluctance? What advice would you give to a young person struggling with reading?
I read from an early age, but I really struggled with maths and don’t think I would have managed to get a qualification in maths if my brother, who is a maths teacher, hadn’t helped me to understand it. So, I would say it’s key to seek support, whether from a parent, sibling, teacher or librarian and work with them to find ways to make reading work for you.
What message or messages do you hope readers will take away from ‘Windows and Mirrors’?
I hope readers feel that the books shine a light on experiences they’ve seen or been through, whether as being bullied, an upstander, a bystander, or even a bully themselves. That they learn about perspectives outside of their own and gain some understanding about those who are perceived as “different”.
Can you give us a sneak peek into any upcoming projects? What’s next for you?
I was mainly raised in East Anglia and am very attached to the landscape there, as well as where I live now, in north-east London. I was lucky enough to be awarded an Arts Council grant to develop a three-part crime series that moves between those locations (and others I have visited as a journalist), so watch this space!
Windows and Mirrors will be published January 2024 and is available to pre-order here.