The Meaning of Life: Joanna Nadin on funny books

Joanna NadinI have always ‘done’ funny. Both as a reader, and a writer. As a child, I snorted through every page of every Dr Seuss, laughed until I cried at Russell Hoban’s inspired creation Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong in her iron hat cooking mutton sog, and the mere mention of the East Pagwell Canal from Professor Branestawm was enough to render me insensible.

Laughter is a tonic, it’s therapy. Quite literally, as there is no greater closure than the writer’s revenge of turning the adults who belittled you, or the children who taunted you mercilessly for having hair like Leo Sayer and second-hand skirts, into grim-faced moustachioed ladies, or moronic underachievers called Kylie (yes, both of them, and no I won’t name the inspirational bullies behind the characters, but suffice to say I didn’t bother to change one of the surnames).

A few months ago, I was asked by The Guardian to write a piece on my top ten favourite ‘funny’ books for young children. Of course I said yes, a) because my self-esteem is sufficiently low and my ego sufficiently enormous that I am easily flattered, b) because I like going through my bookshelves and ensuring they are still in excellent alphabetical order, and c) because I like thinking about funny things.

And so I did, think about them I mean, not just the books themselves (though that was a delight), but about the concept of ‘funny’ and its place in fiction. Because I’ve found that funny is, oddly, frowned upon by certain people, and certain schools of thinking. These are the people who would have you believe that ‘issues’ books—books that make you ‘feel’, that make you ‘think’ (usually about grim things)—are somehow more worthy of your time, and of praise, and prizes, than ones with jokes in.

People like my old ‘O’ Level teacher who told me I’d never amount to anything, when he caught me reading one of my own books under the desk instead of the syllabus text sat sullenly on top of it. It wasn’t so much the act of disobedience that riled him, I think, than the subject matter. My chosen book was George’s Marvellous Medicine—so much more interesting than the turgid (or so it seemed to me at the time) Silas Marner.

But what these people—and there are many, from teachers to parents to peers—fail to get is that funny books can be just as worthwhile, and just as potentially life-changing. They make you ‘think’, they make you ‘feel’. But they make you laugh while you’re doing it. And sometimes, that can make the drama all the greater, the truth all the starker.

Funny books are important—from getting reluctant readers engaged in a story, to keeping the attention of those with short attention spans, to simply making us feel clever when we get the joke. Shakespeare did it; Austen did it; Dahl did it, not just in his children’s books, but throughout his tales for grown-ups too.

I’m not claiming to be in their ball park, I’m not claiming that The Meaning of Life is life-changing, but I am convinced that, for at least two hundred-and-something pages, it will make life fun. And that makes life good. And that, surely, is what it’s all about.

(And if you’re interested in just what my top ten funny books for 5-8s were, you can read about them here).

Joanna Nadin

Joanna Nadin grew up in Saffron Walden in Essex, before studying drama and political communication in Hull and London. She is a former broadcast journalist, speechwriter, and Special Adviser to the Prime Minister. Since leaving politics, she has written the bestselling Rachel Riley series for teens, as well as the award-winning Penny Dreadful series for younger readers, and many more books for children and young adults. She has thrice been shortlisted for Queen of Teen as well as the Roald Dahl Funny Prize. She lives in Bath with her daughter.

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The third Rachel Riley Diary, The Meaning of Life, is out now with a fabulous new look. Further books in the series publish in  Jul and Oct this year.

Rachel Riley series

The Life of Riley

Celebrating the publication of The Rachel Riley Diaries: The Life of Riley, Joanna Nadin shares what she wanted to be when she grew up!

Joanna NadinI never wanted to be a writer when I grew up. That is to say, it didn’t occur to me that writing was a “real” job, much less one that I would be capable of, or derive enjoyment from, my talents and skills at that time lying more in maths and singing the books of the Bible off by heart.

And yet I devoured books, I lived in books, I was lost in books. If the weather was bad, I didn’t grumble, just sat in my cushion fort with a batch of Enid Blytons. If it was sunny, I took them into a den in the garden (my idea of the “Great Outdoors” is still limited to somewhere I can read comfortably). Because, while my peers were dreaming of growing up to be a ballerina, or a footballer, or the first female Prime Minister (oh, she’d have been so much better than the one we got), all I wanted was to be IN a book.

Jo Nadin child

I wanted to be Heidi – tending goats all day and sleeping in a hay loft at night. And, of course, nobly helping the crippled Clara to walk again.  I wanted to be George in the Famous Five, solving adventures that no grown-up could possibly fathom, and drinking a lot of lemonade while I did it (banned in our house – my grandfather was a dentist). Then I wanted to be pretty much anyone in the Pony Club series by one of the Pullein-Thompson sisters (kind of like the Brontës of the home counties, only with fewer wild moors and tuberculosis, and rather more plaits and gymkhanas and petty jealousy over who has the best curry comb).

Partly this was aspirational. The lives of these girls were far more exciting than my own small-town Essex upbringing. And partly because I thought I WAS these girls. I could see bits of myself in all of them: moodiness, the feeling of being the outsider, but still the heroine of the piece.

Jo Nadin reading 1

After I outgrew Enid Blyton, I moved on to films. I wanted to be Velvet Brown, winning the Grand National disguised as a boy. Or Andy in Pretty in Pink, falling for the boy on literally the wrong side of the tracks and winning him over with her brilliant vintage dress sense. Or Baby in Dirty Dancing, who got to save the world (or at least join the Peace Corps) AND do the lift with Patrick Swayze sweating in a vest. Note, I didn’t want to be Elizabeth Taylor, or Molly Ringwald, or Jennifer Grey. Well, I wouldn’t have minded. But what I really wanted was to be the characters they were playing.

As I grew up, towards an age where getting a job was becoming a reality, this feeling – this need to live through fiction – grew rather than lessened. When I applied to study drama, it was because I had read and reread The Swish of the Curtain. Somehow I thought this would be my all-access pass to coolness. Only to discover I would spend most of my time pretending to be an unconvincing toaster. And that, as a graduate, I wouldn’t be at the RSC assisting Trevor Nunn, I would be working for a pittance from a back room in Kings Cross sending out press releases to theatres in places like Wolverhampton or Colchester.

Then I worked in television news, imagining, I guess, I would become Kate Adie or even Jeremy Paxman. Only I spent rather too much time making tea for B-listers and not a huge deal of it writing groundbreaking news reports or interviewing despots.

Then I went into politics. Which, for once, was kind of a sensible career choice for a book geek. Having come from a background in TV and radio, I was, for the first time in my life, considered quirky and vaguely cool. I was the go-to girl if any ministers needed briefing on music, or E4.

Yet that wasn’t enough. Because I’m sitting there in the basement of No. 10 – which for a lot of people is an impossibly exciting and glamorous place to be. Only the thing is, it really isn’t. Because I’m supposed to be writing three hundred words on why ID cards are really, no honestly, a great idea. But instead, I’m staring out of the window into the ornamental gardens, imagining that, at any minute, the phone is going to ring and I’m going to get dispatched to the Middle East as an observer for the peace talks. Whereupon fate will intervene and my convoy will be attacked by insurgents, trapping me under a Land Rover. From where I will be airlifted to an army hospital in Germany, and will be languishing in a coma when the gorgeous Deputy Chief of Staff flies across the world to finally profess his dying love for me after years of will they, won’t they intrigue (I had moved on the The West Wing by then).

And I guess that’s when I worked it out. I had spent so long immersed in stories, that, when life turned out not to be exactly like it is in books or films, I was perpetually disappointed. I wanted a Hollywood ending. On a daily basis.

And so I figured, given the huge swathes of time given over to daydreaming, it might just be possible that, instead of waiting for the cliffhanger, or the movie kiss, I could write my own. I’d certainly be happier, because that way I’d get to spend all day in someone else’s head, and in someone else’s world, living in their adventures, and giving them happy endings.

So why write a series based on my own, uneventful childhood? Well, this way I get to give my alter ego – the girl who can’t always tell fact from fiction, who lives in hope of becoming Sylvia Plath – a little more drama, a lot more kissing, and maybe, even, the happy ending I was always holding out for.

Joanna Nadin

Joanna Nadin grew up in Saffron Walden in Essex, before studying drama and political communication in Hull and London. She is a former broadcast journalist, speechwriter, and Special Adviser to the Prime Minister. Since leaving politics, she has written the bestselling Rachel Riley series for teens, as well as the award-winning Penny Dreadful series for younger readers, and many more books for children and young adults. She has thrice been shortlisted for Queen of Teen as well as the Roald Dahl Funny Prize. She lives in Bath with her daughter.

Follow Joanna Nadin on Twitter

Find Joanna Nadin on Facebook

9780192733887_LIFE_OF_RILEY_CVR_MAR13

The second Rachel Riley Diary, The Life of Riley, is out now with a fabulous new look. Further books in the series publish in May, Jul, Oct this year.

Rachel Riley series

Authorship as autobiography: Joanna Nadin and Rachel Riley

Joanna Nadin on that hallowed object, the teenage diary, and the influence of her teenage years on the hilarious Rachel Riley Diaries.

Joanna NadinOne of the most-oft asked questions of writers is: “Is the book autobiographical?” Or “Is there any of you in there?”

The easy answer is that every book contains a little of its author: these are, after all, words we have sweated, cried, laughed, sometimes screamed over. But in the case of My So-Called Life, what’s on the page is pretty much all of me. Well, of the thirteen-year-old me that was stuck in a small market town in Essex non-affectionately known as Suffering Boredom.

Joanna Nadin teen photo

Joanna as a teenager

I had started out trying to write a tragedy. The kind of book I had devoured as an orphan-obsessed teenager (and adult), the kind involving star-crossed lovers, or mysterious benefactors, or just an ill-advised night in a nightclub in Camden. But the thing was, I had never experienced any of these things, been to any of these places, at least not until I was old enough to know better, and be constantly checking my watch to make sure I could get the last tube home. As Rachel says:

“Why is life never like it is in books? Nothing Jacqueline Wilson ever happens to me: I am not adopted, my mum is not tattooed, I am not likely to move to the middle of a council estate or be put into care. My parents are not alcoholics, drug addicts or closet transvestites. Even my name is pants.”

And so I went back to my own diaries I had kept at school, in the hope of unearthing something, anything wracked with even a tinge of tragedy. I found this:

5 October 1985
Went to Stephen Howell’s 16th at Wenden’s Ambo Village Hall. Drunk dubious champagne that Lucia won at the bingo in Spain. She and Boo went as Madonna. I went as me because mum won’t let me wear fingerless gloves. Anyway it was totally depressing as the love of my life i.e. Nick, is going out with Big Debbie B. And she does IT.

26 October 1985
Have got off with Guy.

7 November 1985
I really like Guy.

8 November 1985
Have decided to chuck Guy. Karen is going to tell him for me at work tomorrow.

It’s not Romeo and Juliet. It’s not even ITV drama. But the thing is, there is a kind of tragedy to it. Not the kind to take a vial of poison over, more the kind to mope about listening to The Smiths to. But it doesn’t make it any less devastating – the stakes still feel as high. No, my first kiss wasn’t on a balcony, to a background of violins, with a boy I was meeting in secret because our families were at war. It was at a lower school disco, to the sound of Spandau Ballet, with a boy who kept pigs. But I still couldn’t eat or sleep afterwards. Or go near the school farm without thinking I might “literally die” from sheer excitement and embarrassment.

Joanna Nadin teen picture 2

And so that’s what I wrote about. Small town lives. The ones that don’t usually get immortalized in print. And we’re all in there: my friend Jude became Scarlet, Stuart became Sad Ed (though in real life he has never had upper arm issues). I won’t say who the Kylies are based on, but they were very real, and very mean. My family is there too – though it’s me, not James who can sing the books of the bible off by heart – I do have to get some revenge on him for being sick on my Noggin the Nog book aged five.

So this really is my so-called life. Welcome to it . . .

Joanna Nadin

Joanna Nadin grew up in Saffron Walden in Essex, before studying drama and political communication in Hull and London. She is a former broadcast journalist, speechwriter, and Special Adviser to the Prime Minister. Since leaving politics, she has written the bestselling Rachel Riley series for teens, as well as the award-winning Penny Dreadful series for younger readers, and many more books for children and young adults. She has thrice been shortlisted for Queen of Teen as well as the Roald Dahl Funny Prize. She lives in Bath with her daughter.

Follow Joanna Nadin on Twitter

Find Joanna Nadin on Facebook

9780192794512_RACHEL_RILEY_MY_SO_CALLED_LIFE_CVR_JAN13

The first Rachel Riley Diary, My So-Called Life, is out now with a fabulous new look. Further books in the series publish in March, May, Jul, Oct this year.

Rachel Riley series

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