Ure, Jean 1943- (Ann Colin, Jean Gregory, Sarah McCulloch)
Ure, Jean 1943- (Ann Colin, Jean Gregory, Sarah McCulloch)
Surname sounds like "ewer"; born January 1, 1943, in Surrey, England; daughter of William (an insurance officer) and Vera Ure; married Leonard Gregory (an actor and writer), 1967. Education: Attended Webber-Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art, 1965-67. Hobbies and other interests: Reading, writing letters, walking dogs, playing with cats, music, working for animal rights.
Home—Croydon, Surrey, England. Agent—Caroline Sheldon, Caroline Sheldon Literary Agency, Thorley Manor Farm, Thorley, Yarmouth PO41 0SJ, England. E-mail—firstname.lastname@example.org.
Writer. Has worked as a waitress, cook, washer-up, nursing assistant, newspaper seller, shop assistant, theater usherette, temporary shorthand-typist, translator, secretary with NATO and UNESCO, and television production assistant.
Society of Authors.
American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults citation, 1983, for See You Thursday; long-listed for Guardian Award for Children's Fiction, 2003, for Bad Alice.
FICTION; FOR YOUNG READERS
Ballet Dance for Two, F. Watts (New York, NY), 1960, published as Dance for Two, illustrated by Richard Kennedy, Harrap (London, England), 1960.
A Proper Little Nooryeff, Bodley Head (London, England), 1982, published as What If They Saw Me Now?, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1984.
If It Weren't for Sebastian, Bodley Head (London, England), 1982, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1985.
Hi There, Supermouse!, illustrated by Martin White, Hutchinson (London, England), 1983, published as Supermouse, illustrated by Ellen Eagle, Morrow (New York, NY), 1984.
You Win Some, You Lose Some, Bodley Head (London, England), 1984, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1987.
You Two, illustrated by Ellen Eagle, Morrow (New York, NY), 1984, published as The You-Two, illustrated by Martin White, Hutchinson (London, England), 1984.
Nicola Mimosa, illustrated by Martin White, Hutchinson (London, England), 1985, published as The Most Important Thing, illustrated by Ellen Eagle, Morrow (New York, NY), 1986.
Megastar, Blackie (Glasgow, Scotland), 1985.
Swings and Roundabouts, Blackie (Glasgow, Scotland), 1986.
A Bottled Cherry Angel, Hutchinson (London, England), 1986.
Brenda the Bold, illustrated by Glenys Ambrus, Heinemann (London, England), 1986.
The Other Side of the Fence, Bodley Head (London, England), 1986, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1988.
One Green Leaf, Bodley Head (London, England), 1987, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1989.
Tea-Leaf on the Roof, illustrated by Val Sassoon, Blackie (Glasgow, Scotland), 1987.
War with Old Mouldy!, illustrated by Alice Englander, Methuen (London, England), 1987.
Who's Talking?, Orchard (New York, NY), 1987.
Frankie's Dad, Hutchinson (London, England), 1988.
(With Michael Lewis) A Muddy Kind of Magic, Blackie (Glasgow, Scotland), 1988.
(With Michael Lewis) Two Men in a Boat, Blackie (Glasgow, Scotland), 1988.
Play Nimrod for Him, Bodley Head (London, England), 1990.
Cool Simon, Orchard (New York, NY), 1990.
William in Love, Blackie (Glasgow, Scotland), 1991.
Dreaming of Larry, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1991.
A Place to Scream, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1992.
Spooky Cottage, Heinemann (London, England), 1992.
The Unknown Planet, Walker (London, England), 1992.
The Ghost That Lives on the Hill, Methuen (London, England), 1992.
Captain Cranko and the Crybaby, Walker (London, England), 1993.
The Phantom Knicker Nicker, Blackie (London, England), 1993.
Always Sebastian, Bodley Head (London, England), 1993.
Seven for a Secret, Blackie Children's (London, England), 1993.
Night Fright, Blackie Children's (London, England), 1994.
Who Says Animals Don't Have Rights?, Puffin (London, England), 1994.
Faces at the Window, Corgi Freeway (London, England), 1994.
Howzat, Gordon!, Black Children's Books (London, England), 1994.
Horrible Baby, Longman (Harlow, England), 1994.
Jug Ears, Longman (Harlow, England), 1994.
Help! It's Harriet, Collins Children's Books (London, England), 1995.
Demons in Disguise, Ginn (Aylesbury, England), 1995.
Has Anyone Seen This Girl?, Bodley Head (London, England), 1996.
Love Is Forever, Orchard (London, England), 1996.
Whatever Happened to Katy-Jane?, Walker (London, England), 1996.
Dance with Death, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1996.
The Gools, Ginn (Aylesbury, England), 1996.
The Children Next Door, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1996.
Harriet Strikes Again!, Collins (London, England), 1996.
The Collins Book of Ballet and Dance Stories, Collins (London, England), 1996.
Whistle and I'll Come, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1997.
The Big Time, Ginn (Aylesbury, England), 1997.
Danny Dynamite, Transworld, 1998.
Three-in-One Ballet Stories, Red Fox (London, England), 1998.
Girl in the Blue Tunic, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1998.
Puppy Present, Collins (London, England), 1998, Harper-Collins (New York, NY), 2000.
Big Head, Walker (London, England), 1999.
Secret Simon, Hodder Children's Books (London, England), 1999.
A Twist in Time, Walker (London, England), 1999.
Just Sixteen, Orchard (London, England), 1999.
Family Fan Club, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2000.
Big Tom, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2000.
Monster in the Mirror, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2000.
Get a Life!, Orchard (London, England), 2001.
Boys on the Brain, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2002.
Daisy May, Collins (London, England), 2002.
Dazzling Danny, Roaring Good Reads (London, England), 2003.
Bad Alice, Hodder (London, England), 2003.
Ballet Stories: "Hi There, Supermouse!," "Proper Little Nooryeff," "Star Turn," Red Fox (London, England), 2004.
Is Anybody There?: Seeing Is Believing, HarperCollins Children's Books (London, England), 2004.
The Tutti-Frutti Collection (short stories), HarperCollins Children's Books (London, England), 2005.
Sugar and Spice, HarperCollins (London, England), 2005.
Over the Moon, HarperCollins Children's Books (London, England), 2006.
The Flower Power Collection, HarperCollins Children's Books (London, England), 2006.
Gone Missing, HarperCollins Children's Books (London, England), 2007.
Hunky Dory, HarperCollins Children's Books (London, England), 2007.
Star Crazy, HarperCollins Children's Books (London, England), 2007.
Just Sixteen, Orchard (London, England), 2007.
Love Is Forever, Orchard (London, England), 2008.
Fortune Cookie, HarperCollins Children's Books (London, England), 2009.
Contributor to anthology The Animals' Bedtime Storybook, Orion Children's Books, 2000.
See You Thursday, Kestrel (London, England), 1981, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1983.
After Thursday, Kestrel (London, England), 1985, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1987.
Tomorrow Is Also a Day, Methuen (London, England), 1989.
"WOODSIDE SCHOOL" SERIES
The Fright, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1987.
Loud Mouth, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1988.
Soppy Birthday, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1988.
King of Spuds, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1989.
Who's for the Zoo?, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1989.
Who's for the Zoo?; Loud Mouth: Two Plays, Longman (Harlow, England), 1994.
Trouble with Vanessa, Transworld (London, England), 1988.
There's Always Danny, Transworld (London, England), 1989.
Say Goodbye, Transworld (London, England), 1989.
Plague 99, Methuen (London, England), 1989, published as Plague, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1991.
After the Plague, Methuen (London, England), 1992.
Watchers at the Shrine, Methuen (London, England), 1992
Come Lucky April, Methuen (London, England), 1992.
"PETER HIGH SCHOOL" SERIES
Jo in the Middle, Hutchinson (London, England), 1990.
Bossyboots, Hutchinson (London, England), 1991.
Fat Lollipop, Hutchinson (London, England), 1991.
Jam Today, Hutchinson (London, England), 1992.
The Matchmakers, Hutchinson (London, England), 1992.
The Wizard in the Woods, illustrated by David Anstley, Walker (London, England), 1990, Candlewick Press (New York, NY), 1992.
Wizard in Wonderland, illustrated by David Anstley, Walker (London, England), 1991, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 1993.
The Wizard and the Witch, Walker (London, England), 1995.
"DANCING DREAM" SERIES
Star Turn, Hutchinson (London, England), 1993.
A Dream Come True, Hutchinson (London, England), 1994.
Fandango!, Hutchinson (London, England), 1995.
(With John Blake, David Clayton, Mick Gowar, Ian Gregory, Sam McBratney, and Stephanie Moody) Comets Pack: 1, Collins Educational (London, England), 1995.
(With John Blake, David Clayton, Mick Gowar, Ian Gregory, Sam McBratney, and Stephanie Moody) Comets Pack: 2, Collins Educational (London, England), 1996.
The Great Safe Blag, Collins Educational (London, England), 1996.
Skinny Melon and Me, illustrated by Chris Fisher and Peter Bailey, Holt (New York, NY), 1996.
Becky Bananas: This Is Your Life!, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1997.
Fruit and Nutcase, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1998.
Secret Life of Sally Tomato, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2000.
Shrinking Violet, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2002.
Pumpkin Pie, Collins (London, England), 2002.
Passion Flower: Wars of the Roses, HarperCollins (London, England), 2003.
Secret Meeting, HarperCollins (London, England), 2004.
Boys Beware, HarperCollins Children's Books (London, England), 2005.
"PET PALS" SERIES
Lucky Pup, Orchard (London, England), 1997.
Lucky, Orchard (London, England), 1998.
"SANDY SIMMONS" SERIES
Sandy Simmons and the Spotlight Spook, Orchard (London, England), 1998.
Sandy Simmons, Star Struck!, Orchard (London, England), 1998.
Sandy Simmons: Saves the Day, Orchard (London, England), 1999.
Sandy Simmons, Show Stealer, Orchard (London, England), 1999.
Sandy Simmons: Superstar, Orchard (London, England), 1999.
Sandy Simmons: Sweet Success, Orchard (London, England), 1999.
"WE LOVE ANIMALS" SERIES
Brave Warrior, Scholastic Hippo (London, England), 1998.
Daffy Down Donkey, Scholastic Hippo (London, England), 1998, Barron's Educational Series (Happauge, NY), 1999.
Foxglove, Scholastic Hippo (London, England), 1998, Barron's Educational Series (Happauge, NY), 1999.
Muddy Four Paws, Scholastic Hippo (London, England), 1998, Barron's Educational Series (Happauge, NY), 1999.
Snow Kittens, Scholastic Hippo (London, England), 1998, Barron's Educational Series (Happauge, NY), 1999.
Honey Bun, Scholastic Hippo (London, England), 1999.
"FOSTER FAMILY" SERIES
Foster Family, Hodder Children's Books (London, England), 1999.
Here Comes Ellen, Hodder Children's Books (London, England), 1999.
Meet the Radish, Hodder Children's Books (London, England), 1999.
My Sister Sam, Hodder Children's Books (London, England), 1999.
Babycakes, Hodder Children's Books (London, England), 2000.
Little Miss Perfect, Hodder Children's Books (London, England), 2000.
Bella, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2000.
Buster, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2000.
Bouncer, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2000.
Bonnie, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2000.
Boys Are OK!, Orchard (London, England), 2002.
Girls Are Groovy!, Orchard (London, England), 2002.
Girls Stick Together!, Orchard (London, England), 2002.
Pink Knickers Aren't Cool!, Orchard (London, England), 2002.
Literacy Land, Longman (London, England), 2003.
Prince Pantyhose, Longman (London, England), 2003.
"STEVIE SILVER" SERIES
Stage Struck, Orchard (London, England), 2006.
Star Light, Orchard (London, England), 2006.
The Other Theater, Transworld (London, England), 1966.
The Test of Love, Corgi (London, England), 1968.
If You Speak Love, Corgi (London, England), 1972.
Had We but World Enough and Time, Corgi (London, England), 1972.
The Farther Off from England, White Lion, 1973.
Daybreak, Corgi (London, England), 1974.
All Thy Love, Corgi (London, England), 1975.
Marriage of True Minds, Corgi (London, England), 1975.
No Precious Time, Corgi (London, England), 1976.
Hear No Evil, Corgi (London, England), 1976.
Curtain Fall, Corgi (London, England), 1978.
Masquerade, Corgi (London, England), 1979.
A Girl like That, Corgi (London, England), 1979.
(Under pseudonym Ann Colin) A Different Class of Doctor, Corgi (London, England), 1980.
(Under pseudonym Ann Colin) Doctor Jamie, Corgi (London, England), 1980.
(Under name Jean Gregory) Love beyond Telling, Corgi (London, England), 1986.
"RIVERSIDE THEATER ROMANCE" SERIES; FOR ADULTS
Early Stages, Corgi (London, England), 1977.
Dress Rehearsal, Corgi (London, England), 1977.
All in a Summer Season, Corgi (London, England), 1977.
Bid Time Return, Corgi (London, England), 1978.
GEORGIAN ROMANCES; UNDER PSEUDONYM SARAH McCULLOCH; FOR ADULTS
Not Quite a Lady, Corgi (London, England), 1980, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1981.
A Most Insistent Lady, Corgi (London, England), 1981.
A Lady for Ludovic, Corgi (London, England), 1981.
Merely a Gentleman, Corgi (London, England), 1982.
A Perfect Gentleman, Corgi (London, England), 1982.
(And compiler and editor) Pacala and Tandala, and Other Rumanian Folk Tales, illustrated by Charles Mozley, Methuen (London, England), 1960, published as Rumanian Folk Tales, Franklin Watts (New York, NY), 1961.
Henri Vernes, City of a Thousand Drums, Corgi (London, England), 1966.
Henri Vernes, The Dinosaur Hunters, Corgi (London, England), 1966.
Henri Vernes, The Yellow Shadow, Corgi (London, England), 1966.
Jean Bruce, Cold Spell, Corgi (London, England), 1967.
Jean Bruce, Top Secret, Corgi (London, England), 1967.
Henri Vernes, Treasure of the Golcondas, Corgi (London, England), 1967.
Henri Vernes, The White Gorilla, Corgi (London, England), 1967.
Henri Vernes, Operation Parrot, Corgi (London, England), 1968.
Jean Bruce, Strip Tease, Corgi (London, England), 1968.
Noel Calef, The Snare, Souvenir Press, 1969.
Sven Hassel, March Battalion, Corgi (London, England), 1970.
Sven Hassel, Assignment Gestapo, Corgi (London, England), 1971.
Laszlo Havas, Hitler's Plot to Kill the Big Three, Corgi (London, England), 1971.
Sven Hassel, S.S. General, Corgi (London, England), 1972.
Sven Hassel, Reign of Hell, Corgi (London, England), 1973.
Contributor to television series Dramarama, 1983. Contributor of articles to periodicals, including Vegan, Writers' Monthly, Books for Keeps, and School Librarian.
While Jean Ure has written fiction for audiences of all ages, she is best known for her young-adult books, in which she combines her lively sense of humor with unique stories that feature off-beat situations and characters. Ure is a vegetarian who is avid about animal rights, and while her books make references to these tendencies among her characters, they are not considered preachy. Class struggles, homosexuality, sexual wakenings, and feminism are among Ure's topics, all of which she discusses with freshness and immediacy.
Ure does not remember a time when she did not want to be a writer. While growing up in Surrey, England, she would steal notebooks from her school to fill with imaginative stories. She was also happy to read poetry or dance in front of a room of adoring relatives.
Going to school, however, was painful for Ure. She constantly felt that she did not fit in. Being outside of the popular crowd caused her to fantasize about many things, including being in love and dancing. Being a compulsive writer, Ure wrote down these fantasies. She sent the manuscript off to a publisher and, at the age of sixteen, she became a published writer with Dance for Two. Writing the novel "was a very cathartic exercise and brought me great solace," she once recalled. "I almost managed to believe that … I really did have a sweetheart called Noel, that I really was a ballet dancer."
Ambition and not wanting to continue with the pain of school life were reasons why Ure chose to try writing as a profession rather than go to college, and she worked several menial jobs while trying to get her work published. Discouraged by her lack of success, she enrolled in a drama class and found that she had a talent for entertaining. While attending drama school, she met her husband, Leonard Gregory, at one of the few parties she attended, and he became a major influence in her life. Shortly afterward, Ure's writing career suddenly took off, and she started writing romance novels and translating books. While these did not stimulate her intellectually, they helped her learn her craft and earn a living at the same time. After a few years, however, she began to feel that she was compromising herself by writing such books.
Her book See You Thursday was a turning point for Ure. The novel focuses on a blind pianist named Abe and a sixteen-year-old rebel named Marianne. Although Abe is eight years older, wiser, and from a different background than Marianne, the pair become attracted to each other, and the relationship blossoms as Marianne sheds her shyness and finds a new maturity. In After Thursday, the sequel that followed, the romance of Abe and Marianne is further tested by their differing perspectives on independence.
Ure was extremely happy to have found a fresh audience for her writing. "The reason I turned to writing for young adults was, basically, that it offered a freedom which ‘genre’ writing does not allow," she later related. She also commented: "When I created Abe, my blind pianist, I did the very minimum of research into blindness, but was able to gain direct knowledge, albeit to a severely limited extent, of how it would be to be blind by tying a scarf about my eyes and blundering around the house." See You Thursday won the American Library Association's Best Book for Young Adults citation in 1983.
Ure returns to the themes of autonomy and awakening sexuality in the "Vanessa" trilogy, which includes Trouble with Vanessa, There's Always Danny, and Say Goodbye, as well as in The Other Side of the Fence. Describing the first two books of the "Vanessa" trilogy as more than a romantic tale, Stephanie Nettell in the Times Literary Supplement labeled Ure's novels "intelligent, spiky and imaginative." Similarly enthusiastic about The Other Side of the Fence, reviewers such as Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books contributor Zena Sutherland praised the same novel as a "mature and sensitive" work that is "told with both momentum and nuance." This romance is unusual, however, because it concerns a young homosexual, Richard, who meets and finds friendship with Bonny, a girl who is attracted to him but cannot understand, until the end, why her sexual interest is not returned. Although School Library Journal writer Karen K. Radtke questioned Bonny's "naiveté" regarding Richard when she is otherwise street-smart, the critic also admitted that the novel may be satisfying to teenagers who "harbor secret fantasies about … flaunting parental authority."
Ure's sensitive treatment of relationships is often praised by critics. The special rivalry among sisters is explored in Supermouse, as a shy but talented girl, Nicola, is offered a dancing role over her more favored younger sister, Rose. Mary M. Burns wrote in Horn Book that even though the story is told from the point of view of an eleven year old, "the author has managed to suggest subtle emotions which underlie the family's values and actions." The story is continued in The Most Important Thing as Nicola, now age fourteen, must decide whether her future career will include ballet or whether she should concentrate instead on science and become a doctor. Cynthia K. Leibold concluded in School Library Journal that "Ure is skillful at creating colorful characters … and her characters execute their roles perfectly."
Using insight and sometimes humor, Ure's novels often question values and touch upon subjects such as social standards. In one such book, What If They Saw Me Now?, an athletic young man is caught in an amusing dilemma when he is asked to dance the male lead in a ballet. Described by Zena Sutherland in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books as "a funny and liberating" tale, Ure's novel may appeal to both boys and girls as they appreciate Jamie's predicament: how to overcome his own and others' "macho" stereotypes.
Coping with illness is the theme of two of Ure's contemporary works, If It Weren't for Sebastian and One Green Leaf, the first focusing on mental illness, and the latter on a fatal physical sickness. In If It Weren't for Sebastian, the title character is an intense, but peace-loving, young man whose "strangeness" is an object of scorn and misunderstanding to others. Maggie becomes his friend and soon discovers that Sebastian is being treated as an outpatient at a mental health clinic. Ure "explores the borderline psychotic and his relationships with great sensitivity and understanding," declared Zena Sutherland in a Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books review. Fatal illness is treated with similar sympathy and skill in One Green Leaf. After an unsuccessful surgery, it becomes obvious that David's cancer is terminal. Ure's emphasis, however, is on how David copes, and on the affection of his friends during his illness. According to Tess McKellen in School Library Journal, the author "dramatizes successfully the effect of unexpected tragedy on young minds and emotions" in the novel.
Always Sebastian brings back the unique character from If It Weren't for Sebastian and follows the relationship between Sebastian, now deeply involved in the animal-rights movement, and Maggie, a single parent with two daughters. That same year, Ure also authored a science-fiction thriller for teens, A Place to Scream. The work is set in 2015, a near future in which social problems caused by incautious economic policies have worsened immensely. The protagonist is the teenage Gillian, who has been fortunate enough to grow up in an affluent household, but feels overwhelmed by the world outside. Her involvement with a maverick new friend brings both romance and a sense of purpose to her life.
Ure's teen novel Has Anyone Seen This Girl? is told in diary form. The book begins with fourteen-year-old Caroline riding in a train to her new boarding school. Aboard the train, she meets Rachel and the two become fast friends. At school, however, the quirky Rachel is relegated to the role of outcast, and Caroline is torn between peer pressure to reject her and a sense of loyalty to her first friend. Rachel makes friendship difficult, however, as she proves to be a demanding, asocial friend, and Caroline suffers tremendous guilt when Rachel runs away from the school. "Ure once again writes with a sympathetic understanding of young people," attested Maggie Bignell in Quill & Quire.
Ure won critical plaudits for her "Plague" series, which includes the postapocalyptic tales Plague 99 (published in the United States as Plague), Come Lucky April, and Watchers at the Shrine. Plague 99 opens in the twentieth century in a world where biological warfare germs have triggered a contagious and deadly illness. Returning from camp, Fran Latimer finds both of her parents dead and her best friend looking to her for help. The two girls team up with Shahid, a schoolmate and, as the plague worsens in their hometown, with death seemingly everywhere, they journey across London in search of Shahid's brother, only to find the family there decimated as well. When Shahid becomes sick, Fran nurses him as they hide out in an old bookstore until he recovers enough for them to once more begin their journey to safety. As Plague 99 concludes, they are on their way to distant Cornwall, where Fran's grandmother lives.
Plague 99 proved to be so popular with teens that Ure decided to continue the story. After the Plague follows Fran and Shahid's great-grandson, Daniel. A hundred years after the fateful flight to Cornwall, Daniel learns of the existence of Fran's fascinating journal, which she wrote during the plague. He travels to Croydon where the ms. was left, but the London suburb is now an entirely feminist-governed community in which new births are the result of artificial insemination, and male offspring in Croydon are routinely castrated. A virtual outlaw in this community by reason of his gender, Daniel falls in love with one of its members, April, and she must choose between remaining in her society or leaving with him and entering the outside world.
Watchers at the Shrine, Ure's third installment in the "Plague" series, reveals that in 2099 April did not leave Croydon, but remained behind and gave birth to a son, Hal. When Halnears puberty, he is sent to Cornwall to escape castration, but he has trouble adjusting to the vastly different patriarchal community. A large number of birth defects occur in Cornwall since an abandoned nuclear power plant nearby is still emitting radiation. Hal is shocked to discover that people both in the greater Cornwall community and those inside the odd religious sect known as the Watchers, with whom he is sent to live, display an ignorance of history and science, and, in contrast to Croydon, women are treated quite brutally. He falls in love with a Watcher's daughter who, born with a birth defect, will soon be relegated to the community's brigade of officially sanctioned prostitutes. Instead, the pair escape to Croydon where a crisis has brought some positive changes to the feminist community's system of social order. In a review of Watchers at the Shrine, a Junior Bookshelf critic commended Ure's powers of description in creating a desolate, postplague Britain, as "intriguing as well as shocking and forbidding, and she contrives associations for Hal which increase the horror of societies which have lost their way."
Other topics benefitting from Ure's creative energy often center around her passions: music, vegetarianism, animal rights, books, and theater. Her main motive is not to convert people, but to stimulate thought. Having published many books during her career, she offered this advice to aspiring writers on her home page: "Basically, try to become as a child. Think as a child thinks. See through a child's eyes. Experience a child's feelings. Keep the adult part of yourself in the background—whilst always making sure that you keep a tight hold on the reins. In other words, let the child in you do the speaking while the adult shapes the words."
Ure's goal as a writer, she maintained on the Conversations with Writers blog, remains "to entertain. I see no point in indulging and amusing myself if no children are going to read what I write. I do want to indulge and amuse myself, but I also want readers to identify with my books, to recognise the concerns of the characters as their concerns, to take heart, gain solace, to laugh, to cry and maybe, along the way, to learn a bit about life."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Children's Literature Review, Volume 34, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1994.
St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers, 2nd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Booklist, January 1, 1996, Hazel Rochman, review of The Children Next Door, p. 836; January 1, 2001, Ilene Cooper, review of Skinny Melon and Me, p. 961; December 15, 2001, Ilene Cooper, review of Plague, p. 729.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, June, 1984, Zena Sutherland, review of What If They Saw Me Now?, p. 195; June, 1986, Zena Sutherland, review of If It Weren't for Sebastian, p. 198; February, 1988, Zena Sutherland, review of The Other Side of the Fence, p. 127.
Horn Book, June, 1984, Mary M. Burns, review of Supermouse, p. 334.
Junior Bookshelf, October, 1994, review of Watchers at the Shrine, p. 191.
Publishers Weekly, September 27, 1991, review of Plague, p. 59; November 27, 2000, review of Skinny Melon and Me, p. 77.
Quill & Quire, August, 1996, Maggie Bignell, review of Has Anyone Seen This Girl?, p. 121.
School Library Journal, May, 1986, Cynthia K. Leibold, review of The Most Important Thing, p. 110; April, 1988, Karen K. Radtke, review of The Other Side of the Fence, p. 114; May, 1989, Tess McKellen, review of One Green Leaf, p. 128; January, 2001, Ashley Larsen, review of Skinny Melon and Me, p. 134.
Times Literary Supplement, June 9, 1989, Stephanie Nettell, reviews of Trouble with Vanessa and There's Always Danny, p. 648.
Conversations with Writers,http://conversationswithwriters.blogspot.com/ (December 4, 2006), "Interview with Children's Author Jean Ure."
Jean Ure Home Page,http://www.jeanure.com (September 29, 2008).
Jean Ure contributed the following autobiographical essay to SATA:
If there is one thing I find tiresome when reading a biography it's having to wade through an entire first chapter dealing with a person's antecedents before coming to the actual person herself. For this reason, dearly though I loved both of my parents, I am going to devote no more than a few short paragraphs to family history. I know they would understand—my father because he was a very modest, retiring, truly gentle man, my mother because she was of an impulsive turn of mind, always eager to get on with things, impatient of preambles.
Briefly, therefore, I will say that my grandparents on my father's side—Wee Granny and Grandpa—were working-class Scots who came south of the border during the Depression. Wee Grandpa was short, dumpy, and phlegmatic—to the point where he once sat contentedly puffing on his pipe on the family's one remaining chair whilst the bailiffs stripped the house bare and poor Wee Granny wrung her hands and cried that the shame would kill her. Phlegmatic also to the point of standing in the kitchen shouting, "Sarah, Sarah, the milk's boiling over!" whilst the milk did indeed do just that.
Wee Granny was just the opposite: also short, but thin and wiry, ceaselessly on the go, up and down twenty times during the course of any meal, gaily sliding down the banisters at the age of eighty. Too excitable, also, to be quite as diplomatic as she might. I don't think, for a start, that it was altogether diplomatic to christen her only daughter Agnes Proven Benny Bleakley, nor to saddle her youngest son with the name of Alexander Workman. When Agnes Proven Benny Bleakley married and became Agnes Proven Benny Bleakley Dredge and went on a crash diet to prepare for the great day, Wee Granny really ought not, in response to her daughter's anxious "I didn't want to slim down too much," have come back with her unthinking "Och, no! It would look silly with that great fat face." Many family upsets were caused by Wee Granny's tactless tongue. It must, I am sure, have been a source of great sadness to my peace-loving and family-oriented father that for the last ten years of his mother's life my own mother refused to speak to her or have her in the house.
My grandparents on my mother's side—Big Granny and Grandpa, or Popsy—definitely considered them-
selves a cut above the working class. Popsy was an official of the Bank of England (not just a bank clerk: an official—though I am never quite sure what the difference was supposed to be). He was also a church warden; a most honest and upright man whom as a child I always strove to impress. He had been gassed and shell-shocked in the First World War and died, alas, when I was only eleven. He left me his Roget's Thesaurus, annotated in his own hand. I treasure it to this day.
Of my parents, I have always felt closer in spirit to my father than to my mother, though in temperament I am an amalgam of both. By nature a scholarly man, whose education was cut short by economic circumstances, my father always encouraged me in my early efforts at writing. Today's feminist ideology would, I think, be- muse him. I'm pretty certain he would consider it "against nature." By both class and upbringing he has to be labeled a male chauvinist, yet never in the sense of believing men to be superior to women. Superiority formed no part of his makeup. But he had been taught, and genuinely believed, that it was a man's duty to provide for his family and that any man whose wife had to go out to work had failed in that duty. [He came] from an unbroken line of labourers ("Workman" was a family surname). For his part, after years of correspondence courses dutifully Undertaken—and patiently endured, it has to be said, by my mother, who sat reading or knitting in silence whilst he studied: totally against her nature—he succeeded in making a career for himself in a specialised branch of insurance, but it was not the career he would have chosen. The law was what interested him.
My father died of stress-induced emphysema when I was in my early twenties, and I have never ceased to regret that I knew him so little. He was a shy man, and I was too immature, and made too awkward by his shyness, to break through the barrier. There are a wealth of subjects I should dearly loved to have discussed with him.
My mother, though subscribing, as her class and generation did, to the notion that a woman's place was in
the home, was nonetheless in many ways a stronger, certainly more resilient figure, than my father. She had no great depth, either emotionally or intellectually, but was a born fighter and incurable optimist, forever cheerful in the face of adversity, particularly at the end of her life. Her courage in her last days has immeasurably enriched my memory of her.
I had a happy, totally unremarkable childhood, born in 1943 in Surrey, brought up in London suburbs—North London until the age of eleven, South London until I left home at the age of eighteen. I wish I could have been raised amongst scenes of either architectural or scenic beauty, for then I should perhaps have more sense of "place" in my books. London suburbs are dreary and monochrome—endless streets full of endless houses, all very much the same as one another. As a teenager I was filled with angry contempt for the suburban, lower-middle-class way of life. Bourgeois, I thought it small-minded and complacent. I realise now that small-mindedness and complacency are not confined to either the middle classes or the suburbs. I appreciate, which I did not when I was younger, the struggle that it took for my father to pull himself from the pit of working-class poverty in which he began. He could not have done it without the support of my mother; and if he had not done it then I very much doubt whether I should be writing this autobiographical sketch today.
During the years of my early childhood—my father believing passionately, as he did, in the value of education: my mother, somewhat less exaltedly, but no less passionately, in the value of learning how to speak nicely—they denied themselves not only luxuries but even, sometimes, necessities to send me to what they considered a "good school." As a socialist I might possibly consider this misguided, but it was certainly well meant; and who knows whether it might not have been thanks to that "good school," with its Latin and its French and its emphasis on academic excellence, that I was awarded a scholarship at the age of eleven to go to yet another "good school," where, alas, I turned out to be a total misfit for reasons quite unconnected with either class or academic achievement. I am inclined to believe now that I would have been a misfit at any educational establishment, but my parents were not to know that. I am sure it was no fault of theirs.
One other member of my family, apart from a succession of beloved dogs, whom I have not yet mentioned is my brother. He is two years younger than I am, and as children we fought almost continuously whilst yet remaining the best of friends. I have a vivid memory of us kicking each other quite viciously under the table as my parents attempted to eat their dinner with some semblance of dignity, and of my poor long-suffering father saying piteously to my mother, "They're at it again!" (It was my mother's job to discipline us: he left child rearing strictly to her.) My brother tells me that as a child he was jealous of me for seeming to be more of an academic high flyer than he was, yet by dint of application he has ended up with a university degree whilst I was totally profligate of every educational opportunity offered me. I only confessed recently that I in my turn was jealous of his social prowess. "Perfectly normal teenage behaviour," he says; and so it was—and how I yearned after it!
Looking back, I see our relationship as being one of school-teacherly bossiness on my side, brazen rebellion on his; but it is possible that had I not had a brother I should find it difficult to get under the skin of my male characters and write with any degree of insight about them. As it is, my brother appears in many of my books under various guises, though generally, it has to be said, as a rather revolting small boy.
One of my most enduring, and happiest, memories from childhood is the ritual gathering of the clans at Christmastime. The gathering always took place in one of my parents' houses—though when I say one, it must not be imagined that we grandly had several residences all at once, only that my mother had inherited Big Granny's propensity for buying and selling, with the result that we rarely lived anywhere for more than a couple of years. These were the days before the rupture with Wee Granny, when all the Scots side of the family would meet to make mayhem and play games, in which my very private and reserved father, surprisingly enough, was a leading light. Charades was our favourite. I still cherish the memory of portly and dignified Aunt Aggie disporting herself in a frilly lampshade and a red silk bedspread. I have put this scene into one of my books, You Win Some, You Lose Some. I have also plundered it for The Most Important Thing (the sequel to Hi There, Supermouse! and known in the U.K. as Nicola Mimosa).
I was brought up in a tradition of writing, inasmuch as my father's family were inveterate ode writers, sending one another long screeds of poetry on every possible occasion. They also, for several years, ran a family drama group, writing and staging their own plays. I was no stranger, therefore, either to the idea of setting pen to paper or of showing off, which I did repulsively and precociously and at the drop of a hat, feeling no shame, for instance, at reciting Burns's "Ode to a Mouse" in a Scots accent before an audience of genuine Scots, or treating them to a dance of my own invention whilst belting out one of Wee Granny's favourite songs, "My Am Folk," at the top of my not-very-melodious voice. Memories of Shirley Temple still lingered on, and such loathsome behaviour was not only tolerated but actually encouraged.
I started my writing career at a fairly young age, being about four or five when I produced my first opus. This was a poem, observed from the life:
M'Daddy had a boot lace,
M'Daddy did lose it.
And when the rain began to pour,
There it was a-hanging on the door.
I stopped writing poetry pretty soon after that and took up the novel instead. I wrote my first novel when I was six. It was about a little girl called Carol who went off to collect her friends for a party. The novel went on for two pages and consisted of a long list of all my favourite names—Carlotta, Bianca, Natasha, Patricia. (I regret to say that no boys were invited to the party: at six years old I was instinctively sexist.)
This story was written in an outsize scrapbook which my Auntie Grace, who had once wanted to be a nun but had gone to live in Chicago instead, had brought back with her on a visit, but most of my early writings were done in tiny spiral-bound notebooks bought from Woolworth's. Later, when I was at senior school, I graduated to proper exercise books filched from the school stationery cupboard. Down in the cellar I still have a vast pile of such books with the name of my school printed on the label and the name of one of my stories written beneath it in inks of various hues. (I went in for inks. One particular story, "The Big One," is written in no fewer than fifteen exercise books in a whole variety of different colours: radiant blue, blue
black, red, brown, green, magenta … all part of the creative process. To this day I write all my preliminary drafts by hand.)
I must always, I think, have wanted to be a writer, though I am not sure I considered it a matter in which I had any choice. I wrote instinctively: it seemed to me as natural as eating or sleeping. But I also had ambitions. Some might say, overweening ambitions. At the age of nine, I told my first writer's lie: I told a little friend (who was rightly sceptical) that I had had a story published in a magazine. The story was called Jam Pot Jane. Maybe one of these days I shall actually get around to writing it….
Most of my MSS from those early days have been lost over the years. Of the few which survive, there is "The Big One"—he was a very big one: he stood 6'6" in his big bare feet—written in its variegated inks. "The Big One" is a spoof detective story whose style derives partly from Caryl Brahms and S.J. Simon (No Bed for Bacon, A Bullet in the Ballet) and partly from the tabloid press—Last night an odious thug arrived at London Airport. A bright red tie leapt from his neck like a burst blood vessel. The odious thug was called Keef Guggisberg, and at the risk of souring international relations I have to reveal that he came from America and was a crook.
Other MSS down in the cellar are "Me"; "Form Prefect," 109 pages of unmitigated boredom, written in the style of an author called Joanna Cannan (all my early books were written in the style of other authors); "Hump's Diary" (a direct crib from Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat, a Ruritanian novel, whose chapters are pretentiously numbered [in] Latin, which I doubtless felt bestowed an air of quality, and whose characters have a quaint habit of drinking "powerful potents"; and "Women's (Very) Cheaply, Xmas Edition," an extended joke of unrelieved corniness. Amongst the contents are "The Man with the Gong," by J.R. Thrank; "Abstractions," by D. Pinthorte; "Hairy Styles for Xina," by Mr. Squeeiy Deezy; "Off the Disc," by D. Fenning-Row; "The Wind in the Chimbley," by Kathy du Laurier; and "On Second Thoughts," by Candy Stripe—yes, well, I was only eleven!
Thinking back to my childhood it seems I must have spent far more of my time scribbling in my filched notebooks than going out and enjoying the more routine pursuits of my peers—parties, youth clubs, pop concerts. Indeed, I can remember Big Granny complaining that "it's not natural, shutting herself away in her room all the time. Why doesn't she get out and join the Girl Guides?" Under pressure I did join the Girl Guides, for about a month, but it was not my scene. Throughout my youth I had a total inability to go with the crowd. I still have it today, but today it doesn't bother me. When I was young it troubled me most desperately. I felt I was doomed to be perpetually excluded, to peer forever through the windows at the party going on inside and never being asked to join in. The problem was that on the occasions when I was asked to join in I ended up even more miserable than before, because if there is one thing worse than not being at the party it's being at the party and not fitting in. I never fitted in.
I have often pondered the reason for this, and I believe I have finally come up with the answer. One of the questions people often ask writers in their mature years is, "What were your major influences?" Meaning, in other words, who or what helped make you the person you are today, treading the particular path that you have trodden. A frequent answer is, "I had this most wonderful English teacher." Well, I had a pretty good English teacher, and doubtless I owe her a great deal, but she was by no means the main influence on me. I'm willing to bet that my answer to this question is unique: my main influence was hair. Ordinary, common, or garden hair that you wear on your head. In my case, very common or garden.
I have had this hair all my life long. It has plagued me ever since I can remember. It is fine hair, it is straight hair, and it is mousey hair, and its overwhelming preference is to hang about in lank, lethargic wads doing nothing. Indeed, hanging about doing nothing is virtually its only activity. It refuses even the most minimal attempt at cooperation: beat it, coax it, curl it, brush it, it simply sinks back, sighing, into its normal state of energy-drained torpor.
Trouble with hair has been the recurring theme of my life. When I was at school it was the fashion to be home-permed. Home perms, however, did not work with my particular brand of hair. Twink, Twonk, Toni, and all the rest, they simply transform it into a dismal dry frizz. Whilst others paraded with luscious thick waves, I hid in the corner looking as if I had a pot scourer attached to my head. But to be without a kink of some kind in one's hair was unthinkable. When not home permed and pot-scoured, therefore, I suffered torture by night in metal rollers secured to my scalp with inch-long spikes—and torture by day as slowly but surely my beautiful curls unraveled themselves, drooping ever lower as the hours passed by. And oh! the misery of a misty morning! A thirty-minute bicycle ride through fog and drizzle and there was my precious coiffure all limp and soggy, not a trace of curl to be seen. But even worse was a day which started dry and treacherously turned wet halfway through a game of net-ball … the hideous and ghastly shame of it! To have bounced out on court all carefully crimped, only to slink back again forty minutes later be-sodden and rats'-tailed, thus to remain for the rest of the day. Knowing that everyone was looking at you. Whispering about you. "Her hair's come out of curl…."In fact, as old school photographs all too plainly show, even when it was in curl it was hardly anything to write home about.
Dead straight it hung, until the final half inch, which just occasionally turned under but more often stuck out at right angles, or, having escaped during the night, continued on its journey straight down. On more than one occasion, such were the depths of self-consciousness and despair into which I was plunged; I took refuge in the sick room with unspecified aches and pains. All I wanted was to dig a hole and bury myself.
Decades have passed since then. Decades of wanting to dig holes and bury myself. I have learnt that my hair goes in cycles. Cycle I lasts, on average, for about a week. During this week my hair looks almost presentable. I gain confidence; I am almost happy with it. No longer do I feel the need to be forever touching at it, patting at it, holding it down in high winds, fluffing it up in damp weather. But, alas, and all too speedily, we pass to Cycle II. Cycle II can either set in insidiously, or it can begin quite abruptly and without any warning: the hair which yesterday looked almost presentable has become, overnight, unmanageable and grotesque. Wash it, brush it, beat it, comb it … something has happened to it. Something has gone wrong. This cannot continue! It is time something is done, once and for all. This hair trouble must be remedied.
At this stage, one of two things can happen. Either one panics and reaches for the scissors, or one plucks up one's courage and marches oneself down the road to a hairdresser. (A hairdresser, you note: not the hairdresser. One wouldn't have the nerve to go anywhere more than once.) Whichever course of action one takes is really immaterial, since either way the result is the same: in brief, disaster. Faced with hair like mine, even the professionals tend to panic. Many is the time I have slunk from the salon with the words of the hairdresser ringing nervously in my ear: "It'll look all right when it settles down…." It doesn't, of course. You can't make a good roof out of inferior thatch. By now, we are well launched into the third cycle. This is the cycle where we wish to dig holes and bury ourselves. (I address myself now to fellow sufferers. I never seem to see any of them—I only ever seem to see people with hair that is immaculate—but surely there must be some? Some where? Or are they all living in their holes underground?)
Cycle III can last anywhere from a month, if one is lucky, up to half year if one is not. The half-a-year jobs are caused mainly by attempts at perming (does one never learn? It seems not. Blind optimism springs eternal). The lesser catastrophes are caused by a too-cavalier use of the scissor. Between chance and design I must by now have sampled just about every kind of hairdo that has ever been invented. By design I have been bubble cut and razor cut, club cut, feather cut, layered, lacquered, shaved, shorn, permed, frizzled, plaited, pleated, beehived, bunned, and ponytailed. By chance (self-inflicted) I have had what might be termed "the frilly cut," "the upward slope," "the off-the-head look," and, a particular favourite, "the crenellated effect." Punk has got nothing on what I can achieve with a pair of scissors. I haven't yet resorted to dyeing what little is left to me after the carnage in multicoloured strips, but then I reckon I don't need to: the effect is quite startling enough without.
The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that hair was the root cause of all my problems; I am almost seriously persuaded that had it not been for hair I would have gone to the party along with everyone else. I would have done what was expected of me and trotted meekly off to read English at university. I make the excuse now—and this shows how one can rewrite the story of one's life—that the reason I didn't go to university was that I had my first book published while I was still at school and that this prompted me to turn my back on formal education and go hawk myself around the marketplace.
It is perfectly true that I had my first book published while I was at school, but to blame this for my failure to pursue my studies is to rationalise. I didn't leave school to compete in the marketplace (a venue I have always abhorred) but purely and simply to escape from the, to me, hell of communal living. I'd been watching the party go by for seventeen years; what hope of ever joining it now? And if I hadn't been able to join the party going on at school, what chance of joining the bigger and better party that would be going on in the halls of academe? If only I had not had the hair….
Not surprisingly, my characters' hair is very important to me. Heroes and heroines alike are always exceedingly well-endowed. Only one character has been saddled with my limp locks, and that is poor Nicola from Hi There, Supermouse! and The Most Important Thing: "Her sister Rose's hair was bright chestnut and springy. Nicola's was dark, and limp, and straggled."
Nicola is largely an embodiment of me. Many of my female characters, and indeed quite a few of my male ones, are aspects of myself—rebellious, prickly Marianne, from the "Thursday" books, for example: self-conscious, introspective Christopher from Play Nimrod for Him. Colleen, on the other hand, in the book I published while I was still at school—Ballet Dance for Two (just Dance for Two in the U.K.)—goes one stage further and is not so much an embodiment as a wish-fulfillment.
At the age of eleven I was taken for the first time to the ballet, to see Coppélia, and knew instantly that it was my destination to become a ballet dancer. Week after week (after month after month) I begged my mother to let me take ballet lessons. The answer was always the same: "I'm sorry, we can't afford it."
Were my parents really as hard up as all that? Money was not plentiful, I know; but oh, I did so long to do ballet! Big Granny, like some Greek chorus in the background, did nothing to help my case. "Take no notice of her," she advised my mother. "It's only a phase she's going through."
Everything was "a phase." It was "a phase" when I wanted to have piano lessons. When I was finally given an old piano by one of my aunts—funny little Auntie Kitty, known in her youth as Little Miss Dingle Dangle from her habit of smothering herself in jewelry—my joy knew no bounds. I was at that piano day and night, no doubt driving the family mad, for they were not musical. I had just taught myself, by means of a gramophone record, to play the opening bars of Debussy's Cakewalk, when my mother happened to look through a magnifying glass and horror of horrors discovered a woodworm. Everyone knows that where there is one woodworm there will shortly be ten thousand woodworms, they will eat up the floors and the walls and the ceiling and before you can say Jack Robinson the house will be down about your ears…. Result: piano chopped up. Taken into garden and burnt. I never did get to have my piano lessons.
Nor did I ever get to have my ballet lessons. (Not until I went to drama school, some years later, but by then I was too old.) And so, to solace myself, I wrote Dance for Two, which is all about Colleen, who is desperate to learn ballet but is not allowed to on account of the family finances being straitened. Colleen, of course, is me; but being a wish-fulfillment she gets lucky: she ends up dancing the lead role in Coppélia with her childhood sweetheart (the Hero).
Colleen's childhood sweetheart was also my childhood sweetheart. I spent the years from fourteen to fifteen, which were the years when I wrote the book, being passionately in love with one of my own characters. It is true to say that he was more real to me than any boyfriend I could have had—I say could have had advisedly, since all the time I was at school I never knew any boys. Too shy, too introverted, and trouble with hair. I did, however, have lots of passions. My first (peculiar) passion as an extremely small child was for a film star called George Raft. My next was for Roy Rogers, and my next for a balding, freckled English cricketer, of no conceivable charm that I can now see, called Tony Lock. Following closely on his heels came Mary Bigg, the school sports captain (such names! George Raft, Tony Lock, Mary Bigg …) followed, although at this distance I am not quite sure of the running order, by Dirk Bogarde, Sir Malcolm Sargent (Flash Harry was his nickname amongst musicians and he was very flash), a ballet dancer, David Blair, my own hero, Noël, from Dance for Two, the Spanish dancer Antonio, and the French singer Gerard Souzay, who opened my ears to the beauty of lieder and chanson, and of Strauss and Fauré in particular, and who remained the Great Love of my Life until I went to drama school and fell in love with my husband, with whom I have remained in love ever since. A rich romantic life for one who never properly kissed a boy till she was over twenty-one!
Writing Dance for Two was a very cathartic exercise and brought me great solace. I almost managed to believe that I was Colleen, that I really did have a sweet-
heart called Noël, that I really was a ballet dancer … such is the intense power of make-believe that I even carved the name Noël into the top of my desk lid and inked it in on my ruler. I recently met up with an old school friend who remembered that I had had "a foreign boyfriend, called something like Noël…."
The book was published in the U.K. when I was sixteen, and in the States a year or so later. In the U.K. version, for what strange psychological reason I cannot even begin to guess, I describe my hero as being short of stature: in the American version this had to be deleted. In America in the sixties it seemed that heroes could not be small.
Having a book published while I was still at school was a bit of a double-edged blessing since it gave me the excuse I needed for running away from that party I never seemed able to join. Pride would never have allowed me to admit my miserable inability to lead a normal social life with my peers. It was with immense pride, however, that at the age of seventeen I rose up, grandly declaring myself a writer—A Writer—and flounced out into the world to pursue this vocation.
Over the next few years, "being a writer" consisted mainly of scrubbing floors, waiting at table, selling groceries, having fits of temperament in people's offices. … I also did a short spell at nursing, a short spell at the BBC, a short spell at NATO, a short spell at UNESCO, a short spell as a translator, a short spell at pretty well everything that didn't require any actual qualifications. Even today, when I look back on it over a distance of three decades, I can still all too clearly recall the sense of desolation and, yes, of terror, which all too often engulfed me in the years of my young womanhood. The party still went on—and I still wasn't at it. The low-grade jobs I was forced to do not only bored and insulted me but contracted my already none-too-healthy ego to the size of a pinhead. Before ever I entered a room full of people I would recite, like a litany, "I am Jean Ure and I am a writer," to bolster my flagging courage.
But was I a writer? How could I call myself such when I had had nothing but rejections ever since Dance for Two and was rapidly discovering that I really didn't have anything very much left to write about? Frenziedly I would force myself to start books which fizzled out after only a couple of chapters for want of anywhere to go. (The character Christopher, from Play Nimrod for Him, cropped up frequently in these abortive attempts: Christopher, angry, scared, and isolated,
seemingly arrogant, totally confused, was me in masculine guise. When I wrote Nimrod a couple of years ago and looked back to see if I could plunder any of those early writings, I found them, for all their immaturity, still extraordinarily raw and painful.)
Panic set in. I had visions of ending up, alone, unloved, and unlovely, starving in a garret at the age of fifty … This is a piece of sub-T.S. Eliot from those years:
The Lament of a Rebel with Cold Feet
How do people do it?
They stay there forty years
They stay there forty years
Or more. The same place
Day in, day out. Why
Don't they go mad? How
Is it they keep alive?
Or do they? In reality,
Perhaps they're all a little
Dead, a little near
Fortunately, I did not totally inherit my father's rather defeatist nature. I had just enough of my mother's spark to pick myself up and realise, finally, that no one was going to come along and lead me by the hand. If I were ever going to make anything of my life, it had to be up to me. As a start along the road, I enrolled for a part-time drama course. Amateur acting is an excellent way for misfits to join the party, even if under slightly false colours. It takes you out of yourself, as my Wee Granny would have said. Flushed with success as an amateur, I decided to try for a full-time course. No one was more amazed than I when I was accepted for the grandly named and highly respected Webber-Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art, Gloucester Road, London.
From that point on, I can truly say that life blossomed. To begin with I discovered in myself an unsuspected talent to amuse. As a straight actress, certainly as a dramatic actress, I was pretty well a disaster. I remember the principal, a terrifying man, snarling at me because I wouldn't open up. "Scared of emotions!" he snarled. He was doubtless quite right. My way of handling emotion was, and to an extent still is, to turn everything into a joke. This is why, although many of my books handle subjects which can only be described as weighty—in One Green Leaf for instance, the hero, David, has a leg amputated because of cancer—humour is always one of the chief ingredients. Thus all my best parts at drama school were character cameos—Miss Prism, in The Importance of Being Earnest, Verges, the ancient night watchman, in Much Ado about Nothing, Mrs. Dainty Fidget, in the restoration comedy The Country Wife.
It was this minor talent to make people laugh which kept me afloat, as it has so many other of society's misfits. I still wasn't at the party; I still couldn't truthfully be described even as a writer, never mind A Writer, but I felt that I was at last beginning to acquire the protective covering of some sort of normality.
Two things happened while I was at drama school which influenced the future course of my life. The first was that I put some of my post-school experiences to good use and wrote a book about a girl who was a nurse and fell in love with a boy who was an actor. This was supposed to be a book for teenagers, but my agent (I acquired a literary agent right at the beginning, with Dance for Two), no doubt hoping she might have a future Barbara Cartland on her hands—even agents can get it wrong!—sent it to Transworld, who said that if I were willing to beef it up a bit and put some more romance in, they would be willing to publish it.
Desperate as I was to get back into print, I stuffed romance in at every pore. It was published as The Other Theatre, and today I would much prefer to forget it, along with the two or three which followed. They are what might best be described as "pre-feminist." I had not yet thrown off the influence of my very conventional upbringing. The Other Theatre led, however, not only to a succession of contracts for more novels but also to a great deal of lucrative translating work. The reason the translations were so lucrative was that they were paid per thousand words. It was pretty low-grade stuff (though still in the bookshops even today) and thus I had no compunction, having finished a book, in going back and doing a bit of creative writing on my own account. "Just enough to cover the rent, to clear up the overdraft…."
The other thing that happened was, and remains, the best thing that has ever happened, the thing that has shaped my life more than anything else: I met my husband. The first time we actually noticed each other, being in different classes, was, ironically enough, at a party. I so nearly didn't go to that party. I had promised a classmate that I would, but as I arrived on the doorstep all the old familiar feelings of inadequacy swamped over me and I turned and walked away. If my life were a romantic novel I should no doubt say that it was at this point that a mysterious something called me back, but in fact it wasn't a mysterious something so much as a sense of shame. And also anger at my own feebleness. I stood on the pavement, in the Earls Court Road, and lectured myself: "You can't spend all your life running away. There comes a time when you have to face up to things."
And so for once I did, and have been thanking my lucky stars ever since. Even today we sometimes go cold when we speculate where we should both be if we hadn't gone to the party, for Leonard also, for different reasons, very nearly didn't make it, and after twenty-five years of being together, and despite all our right-on views—"so far left," my mother once complained, "they're nearly out of sight"—we still manage to be that strange old-fashioned and now-endangered species, the happy couple. Even happier now than we were then. A rarity indeed in the theatrical profession, but I had never seriously wanted to become a working actress and as soon as we graduated from drama school I left the acting to Leonard whilst I got on with my writing.
For many years, to keep us afloat as Leonard moved from rep to rep and had the usual "resting" periods, without which no actor's life is complete, I continued to translate French novels into English and write my so-called romantic novels—so-called because things happened in them which were not supposed to happen. Not in the romantic novel; not in those days. It worried my poor editor tremendously. "Jean, you can't say that!" she used to wail. "You'll upset Mrs. Jones from Saffron Walden!"
No one ever knew who Mrs. Jones from Saffron Walden was, but whoever she was she sat on my shoulder like a malignant parrot, squawking her distaste. Ultimately I found the formula just too frustrating, but not before I had managed to slip a few unorthodoxies past the glittering eye of the Saffron Walden parrot. I don't expect, even today, there are many romantic novels with homosexual heroes, or heroes who have multiple sclerosis. How the parrot squawked!
But if romantic novels eventually wore out their charm, at least they taught me my craft. They didn't make me rich, but to be rich was never my aim. I should like to be rich now, as this would allow me to fulfill another and more recent ambition, to open an animal sanctuary, but in those days to be able to earn my living as a writer was all I ever asked.
Following my romantic-novel period, which lasted from the late sixties through most of the seventies, I wrote a series of Georgian romances using my Wee Scots Granny's name of Sarah McCulloch. (Much better than Jean Ure, incidentally, if only for the practical reason that M is in the middle of the alphabet and thus generally comes in the middle of the shelves, rather than down at floor level where nobody ever stoops. We T's and U's and W's also suffer from the fact that most people seem to get eye fatigue as they work through the alphabet. I have a writing friend who swears his next novel is going to be under the name of Aaron Aardvark….)
I greatly enjoyed writing my Georgian romances as they allowed me to pretend that I was Jane Austen. Whenever I go to give talks in schools I am asked the question, "Who is your favourite author?" and I always reply, "Jane Austen." This mystifies today's thirteen year olds, as most of them have never heard of her. One young lad recently was under the impression that she was a tennis player. Plus ça change, plus ce n'est pas la même chose. … Conversely, the thirteen year olds I speak to are far more aware of world affairs, of animal rights, of feminism, of all the really important issues than I was at their age, so it is not all loss.
It wasn't until 1980 that I really emerged as myself, with a book for young adults called See You Thursday. The characters of Abe, the blind pianist schoolteacher, and Marianne, the sixteen-year-old rebel, are still my personal favourites. I have since written two sequels, After Thursday and Tomorrow Is Also a Day. The rea- son I turned to writing for young adults was, basically that it offered a freedom which "genre" writing does not allow. No parrots these days sit on my shoulder, though I have noticed an ominous gathering of psittacine creatures over these last few years. I first noticed it when I started to be published in the States, when my American editors would request the deletion or changing of certain words or phrase to suit the demands of the moral majority. It is a truism, but none the less true for all that, that what happens today in the U.S. happens tomorrow in the U.K. I begin to fear that tomorrow may already have arrived, especially in the field of younger fiction, where my publishers are receiving more and more letters complaining of language—"the custard tasted like horrible yellow snot," to take just one recent example. "To find this sort of language," writes Outraged of Chatham, "in a young child's book is beyond belief." I was told that one parent recently confiscated one of my books for eleven year olds because it contained the word "bum." This is worrying, enforcing as it does a censorship on authors. I have no desire to have my eleven year olds go round mouthing obscenities, but if they are to be sanitised into saintliness they will bear no relation whatsoever to any living child, and no living child worth its salt will wish to read about them. Perhaps more importantly, no living writer worthy of the name will wish to write about them. In essence, it is not so much morals which are at stake here as monetary considerations. I have never met an editor who wishes to produce books so vapid, so shorn of all subversive matter, that they will offend none and fulfill the same emotional function as Muzak. It is those who hold the moneybags who insist on publishing literary wallpaper.
I am very much a writer who writes from within rather than without, by which I mean that I tend to look inwards for my inspiration. As a result, I can write only about those things which instinctively interest me, or about which I know. I could not, for instance, go and research a subject about which I had no firsthand knowledge and then write about it. When I created Abe, my blind pianist, I did the very minimum of research into blindness but was able to gain direct knowledge, albeit to a severely limited extent, of how it would be to be blind by tying a scarf about my eyes and blundering around the house. This taught me more than any amount of talking to blind people or studying blind people. My most passionate interests, other than reading, are music and animals. For this reason, many of my characters are musicians, or at any rate musical—Abe, of course; Nick, in Play Nimrod; Larry, in Dreaming of Larry—and the subject of animal rights and/or vegetarianism crops up frequently.
I became a vegetarian, and subsequently a vegan, several years ago, and most of my characters in recent books have a tendency to follow suit, and eschew both the eating and wearing of murdered animals. I have, however, written only one book, If It Weren't for Sebastian, which deals directly with the subject. One of the most gratifying letters I have ever had from a reader came from a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl who wrote that "reading Sebastian has made me become a vegetarian!" Not that I set out with the deliberate intent to convert, as I don't believe this is the way to write books. What I do set out to do is to make people think: to make them examine their motives and question their assumptions. Someone once described my books as "good campaigning books," but they are never, I hope, didactic.
Other subjects which tend to recur in my work are ballet and theatre, obviously because I know about them. I have lost my youthful passion for the ballet, but it still intrigues me as a subject to write about—I find the discipline and dedication of its practitioners as fascinating as those of nuns in a nunnery, another perennial source of wonderment to the uninitiated. I am somewhat less starry-eyed about the straight theatre, having a far closer acquaintance with it, and it is a fact that none of the books that I have written with a theatrical background—mainly the "Vanessa" trilogy, Trouble with Vanessa, There's Always Danny, and Say Goodbye—have quite the same joyous naivety as, for instance, Dance for Two or What If They Saw Me Now? (published in the U.K. as A Proper Little Nooryeff).
Whatever the background subject, however, I am mostly interested in writing about young people who are striving either to achieve something or to make something of themselves, not necessarily in a worldly sense and certainly not in any monetary sense. I find it difficult to empathise with those who have no aims or ambitions. I can sympathise; but I cannot enter into their personality and imaginatively experience their experiences, and thus I cannot write about them.
Having shaken the dust of South London off my feet forever (as I thought, at the age of eighteen), ten years later I found myself back here by necessity, I may say, rather than by design. Penniless writer married to penniless actor equals not very much choice in the matter of roof over head. To begin with we rented accommodation—one room and a kitchen in an old house, subsequently purchased by the local authority and scheduled for demolition. This meant that whether we liked it or not we were now tenants of the local authority. Still being penniless, we did our best to fight for our rights, protesting most strongly at the suggestion we be re-housed in a concrete tower block. The ideal solution was found: the sprawling top floor, complete with secret passage, of a Victorian mansion. The authority were glad to be rid of it, while we felt we could happily stay there for life. It was not to be. Five years on and the authority came marching in again with yet another demolition order. Battle resumes….
We live in a conurbation of steel and glass, the Home Office towering on concrete stilts, multistorey car parks, flyovers and underpasses. It is a town devoted almost entirely to the pursuit of Mammon, in which any build- ing more than fifty years old is almost routinely demolished. We are now currently in possession of the one—the one—that got away. Built in 1690 and condemned as uninhabitable, it had been compulsorily purchased by the authorities as far back as 1938 for a local road widening which never took place. We were told that we could "buy it if you really want," the implication being that we were stark mad.
Over the years we have lovingly restored the house to its original condition, until now it is a listed building, under government protection, safe (almost) from demolition, a perfect specimen of its period. There is only one problem; it is in the middle of a town, where we no longer wish to be.
We have until very recently been resistant to the idea of moving, partly for love of the house, partly for the convenience of being only twenty minutes away from the heart of London. Charing Cross, Trafalgar Square, Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament … who could ask for more? When I first discovered London, the real London, the London of bookshops and record shops, of Covent Garden and the ballet, of Shaftesbury Avenue and the theatre, at the age of about fourteen, I thought it the most wondrous and exciting place on earth. Dr. Johnson once famously said that when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life. I hesitate to disagree with the great doctor, but I have long grown tired of what the eighteenth-century writer and lover of the countryside, William Cobbett, was wont to refer to as the Great Wen, whereas I am not in the least bit tired of life. But I yearn now, we both yearn, for green fields rather than tarmac, for fresh air rather than petrol fumes, for bird song rather than the constant roar of traffic. The quality of city life has been degraded to a point where even Dr. Johnson, I feel, would be disenchanted. Our ambition, in any case, is to start up our animal sanctuary.
We already have seven animals of our own—two rescued cats, both pure white, called Humphrey and Smudger; three rescued dogs, Benny, Beth, and Gusset; and our two original smooth-haired fox terriers, William and Becky. Benny and Humphrey were both born deaf. Humphrey is a thug, Benny is a goon; both crave
affection. Smudger is a cat of immense consequence, with a highly developed sense of his own importance. Gusset, named after her puppyhood penchant for chewing people's underwear, is a tiny pop-eyed muppet. Beth is an overexcitable Border collie of great intelligence and charm. Little Becky is a worrier, who takes life rather seriously, while William, variously known as Bill, Billy, the Beast, is the boss dog who keeps them all in order. If we could only move to the country, we could have half a dozen more….
Our animals are, I suppose, our greatest joy in life. Some of our happiest hours are spent walking with the dogs, and we think it is about time we started to walk in open fields rather than in city parks. Maybe then my books would cease to be quite so clamorous, quite so rebarbative, full of disgusting urban words such as snot and bum, and acquire a more decorous rurality. They might even achieve a sense of place.
But wherever I live and whatever I write about, it will always be my characters who interest me the most; and my aim, if conscious aim I have—though it becomes conscious only when I force myself to stop and think about it—will still be to stimulate and entertain, and hopefully, for the receptive few, to unlock the door to that same lifetime of spiritual and intellectual nourish- ment which was unlocked for me nearly forty years ago by a book called Little Women … as dear to me now as it ever was then!
Ure contributed the following update to SATA in 2007:
It must be getting on for fifteen years since I wrote my first installment for SATA. It seems a lifetime ago! When I look back at the books I was writing then, they might almost have been written by a different person, and yet there have been no dramatic changes in my life. I am still, for instance, married to the same husband, we still live in the same house, I still have the same hair, we still have a large family of rescued animals.
Husband is no longer an actor. Having decided that he wished to exercise rather more control over the direction his life was taking, he finally turned an absorbing passion into a highly successful business venture and now operates internationally as The Cartridge Man, a specialist in the field of top-end hi fi—strictly analog. This means that my study is no longer exclusively my study, and that my sea of paper and husband's stacks of boxes are now in line for a head-on collision, but there you go. I do occasionally rise up in self-righteous rage, but husband sternly reminds me that Jane Austen didn't even have her own private corner, never mind half a study, so who am I to complain?
As for House, this was on the market for so long we actually forgot we had ever put it up for sale, until the day we received a telephone call from persons unknown and upon inquiring "Who exactly are you?" were informed in injured tones that "We're your estate agents!" Whereupon we gazed at all the accumulation of clutter and cravenly decided it would be far simpler just to stay put.
We also gazed at Animals, whose number has now increased to eleven: seven dogs, and four cats. None of the original crew, alas, but just as beloved. Anyone, however, who has tried showing prospective purchasers round a house with a horde of excited canines—including two outraged Jack Russells—yammering to get out and be part of the fun will possibly understand the sudden waning of enthusiasm.
And then we come to Hair, and here, perhaps, there has been a bit of a change. I have not taken the scissors to it for six whole months. For the record, that is a record. And as a result, I now have absolutely no sympathy whatsoever with smokers. Breaking the nicotine habit has nothing on managing to keep one's hands off a pair of scissors. Yup! I am feeling pretty proud of myself. If I could now just stop pulling out the gray hairs—well, if I don't I shall probably go bald, so that means yet another battle. Dear God, is there no end to it?
Seemingly not. In the early days I myself was a smoker; couldn't possibly write without a fag in my hand. Then I quit smoking and moved on to chocolate: couldn't write without a constant supply of the stuff. With the advent of middle age and the dreaded spread, the chocolate had to go and the scissors came in. Now it's the tweezers.
It would be easier to cure myself, I guess, if I were to do what most authors do and write directly on to a computer. I still sit at the kitchen table, surrounded by animals (and tweezers). Partly this is habit, partly it's because I enjoy the organic feel of pen on paper, but mostly it's a cunning ploy to kid myself that I am just having fun. To sit down, formally, in front of the computer, would be too much like admitting that Writing is Work.
But at least, and at last, I did succumb to the lure of the PC. A couple of years ago I even caved in and got myself a Web site (www.jeanure.com), which has transformed my relationship with readers.
"All those e-mails!" said a non-writing friend recently. "All from your fans! It must be so gratifying."
I agreed that it was; it would have been churlish not to. And, besides, it can be gratifying, and indeed mostly is. I still have a warm glow of satisfaction when some eleven year old tells me she's my number 1 fan, or she's read all my books, or better yet has bought all my books. Of course I do! I love it. Yet there is no denying, e-mails from young readers can be a bit of a mixed blessing. You need to be strong. E-mails from adults are, on the whole, more temperate, less blunt, rather more discreet. Eleven year olds just come straight out with it.
"Hi, Jean Ure! You're my fave author. Do you know J.K. Rowling?
"Dear Jean Ure, I'm your no.1 fan. I was wondering can you give me J.K. Rowling's e-mail address?
"Dear Jean, Your books are great. Me and my friend both love them. We also love J.K. Rowling. We would so like to meet her! Can you arrange this?
I guess I receive at least one J.K.R. e-mail per week. On the other hand I do occasionally receive e-mails saying "I used to read Harry Potter, but now I prefer you," or "I like your books better 'cos they're more realistic." I don't receive these quite so often. Well, OK! Nowhere near as often. But now and again.
Here from the bag of mixed blessings, are a few non-J. K.R. ones which have come in during the past few weeks.
"My friend says you watch porno. Is this true?"
"Have you heard of Ellen Potter? She is my all time favorite author."
"Why haven't you ever turned any of your books into movies? You should think about it. I'm sure you could if you tried your best."
"Are you rich? You must be rich because if you were not rich you would not be able to publish books."
"I went into a shop today and saw a copy of your new book but it was too late to buy it as I had spent all of my money."
And, of course, the famous "My teacher said we had to write to authors and I got you."
Sometimes I find myself caught up in mad exchanges. This from a reader in Malaysia:
"Hi, Jean Ure, Wot UR opinion of your book Boys Beware?
(me) "My opinion is that it is funny. What is your opinion?"
"No, I want UR opinion."
(me) "I just gave you my opinion! Why not give me yours?"
"I want know whats UR opinion Tash 'n Emily" (characters in the book)
(me) "Give me your opinion first and then I'll give you mine. Your opinion is more important than mine."
"My opinion is UR very lazy person."
OK, OK! I surrender. Had the computer been in such everyday use fifteen years ago as it is now, would I still have received such shoals of e-mails from readers? Somehow, I doubt it. In those days I wrote mainly for older teens and young adults. My reputation was high, but my sales were low, yet still I clung on, reluctant to move down the age ladder. And then I had an epiphany. Or perhaps, on second thoughts, the words salutary experience might better describe it.
I went with a fellow author to visit a school on an American airbase in the east of England. I was talking to Year Nine students, my fellow author to Year Six. My fellow author sold so many books after the event that a fresh supply had to be hastily brought in from the nearest bookshop. I sold precisely one—and that was to a member of the teaching staff.
It is received wisdom that teenagers do not buy books. I had always been aware of this, but had chosen to ignore it. I loved writing for teenagers! And teenagers loved my books! The few who read them. On that day at the American air base the truth was brutally and humiliatingly brought home to me: it was only the few who read them.
I knew, then, that I had to make a decision, but desperately not wanting to make it I would probably have hung on had I not, in the end, been pushed. From having been enthusiastically embraced in the 1980s, teen/YA fiction was now falling like flies from publishers' lists. A book I had been contracted to write—had indeed written—was axed, others looked like going out of print. Change was forced on me whether I liked it or not. I allowed myself a short period of mourning, then somewhat aggressively embarked on a new phase of my writing life. From now on, I would concentrate on the preteens. The Year Fives, the Year Sixes. I had an Ideas Folder bulging with ideas—for YA books—which I was determined not to waste. The authorial mind needs to be flexible, so I went with the flow and made the, to me, surprising discovery that almost any idea can be adapted for younger readers.
For instance, a gritty plotline about two girls who run away from home and get drawn into prostitution turned into my latest book, Gone Missing. The prostitution had to go, but that still left me plenty to explore.
An Internet idea, a girl and her best friend meeting someone in a chat room and being enticed into meeting him only to discover they have put themselves in deadly peril, became Secret Meeting. The girls are slightly younger, and the "him" has become a "her," so that the sexual angle has gone, but they still manage to end up in a dangerous situation.
The adventures and misdeeds of three sixteen year olds sharing an apartment gave me a bit of a battle. How to turn my sixteen-year-olds into thirteen year olds and still maintain plausibility? I wrestled with this one for several months, reluctant to give up on a book I had long wanted to write. But no problem is insoluble, as Boys Beware will testify.
In essence, I am writing the same kind of books as I have always written, the kind of books I love to write and which best suit both my ability and my temperament. Quirky, realistic, and character-led. Sometimes lighthearted, as in The Secret Life of Sally Tomato; sometimes tragic, as in Becky Bananas; but always with humour, always accessible, always with the odd unexpected word or turn of phrase to keep readers on their toes. I have frequent tussles with my editors on the subject of language. "Teenagers wouldn't use that word!" they wail. No? Well, tough! Mine do. I refuse to write in unregenerate teenspeak. Not only is it manifestly impossible to keep up with the latest in-phrase, which in any case would almost certainly be well on its way out long before publication date, it also makes for a threadbare text: unimaginative and unchallenging. It is perhaps for this reason that I have never been comfortable writing for the very youngest readers, where it is not always the case of using the best word so much as the simplest word; and, of course, where story has to be paramount. I think I have never been a story-teller per se. For me, it is the characters who provide the inspiration: any action flows directly from them.
One happy result of writing lower down the age range is that my school visits are now mainly centered on years Four through Seven. I remember when I wrote my first YA novel, back in the dim and distant 1980s, I actually had this vision of eager, enthusiastic, bookloving Year Nines queuing up to read it. I remember how my agent—who possibly at that stage shared my rose-tinted vision—arranged for me to travel up to the wilds of the English Lake District to do a talk in a large secondary school. I had never done a book talk before, I hadn't set foot in a school since I was eighteen, and I was frankly so petrified with fear that my entire life was blighted for days beforehand. All that buoyed me up was the thought of those eager, enthusiastic, bookloving fourteen year olds hanging on my every word.
Well, the big day came and off I went, sweating at every pore. It was November, I recall, and pitch black when I got off the train at some deserted wayside halt where a teacher was supposed to meet me. But where was the teacher? Where was anybody? Not a soul in sight! No phone on the platform, and this was before the days of mobiles. Panic speedily set in. I am a Londoner, born and bred, and all this sinister open space, surrounded by darkness, was most alarming. But there's nothing worse than kicking one's heels and doing nothing, so by and by I struck out blindly into the night, turning left for no better reason than that is the way I instinctively turn. I could have gone right, and then where would I have ended up? The northernmost tip of Scotland, maybe. Who knows? Fortunately, left led me to a bit of habitation, including—oh, bliss!—a pub. I understand about pubs.
When I finally tore myself away from the open hearth to use the telephone, I found that "my" teacher was in the middle of his dinner, having forgotten the time I was due to arrive. Not a good start to my speaking career. Still, those kids in the Lake District, being out in the sticks, were at least pretty meek and mild. They showed no interest in reading my book, but at least they didn't boo or hiss or throw things at me. Over the next few years I became rather better acquainted with the denizens of Year Nine, especially the inner-city variety. The ones who conduct private conversations while you're talking to them. The ones who paint their nails or do their neighbour's hair. The ones who fight each other. The ones who ostentatiously go to sleep. The ones who shout out four-letter words, knowing that you can't shout them back.
And then there are the teachers … the poor, defeated teachers. The ones who scowl, forbiddingly, throughout your session. The ones who stare into space, seemingly brain-dead. The ones who totally ignore you and get on with marking homework. The one who greeted me with, "I can't say I've ever heard of you, but someone said you'd be good." The one who solemnly informed me that "I've shut them in the hall. I didn't tell them you were coming, in case they bunked off." The one who introduced me to the class as "This lady who has come to talk to you. I don't know who she is, but I'm sure she'll tell you." The one who jovially inquired whether
I was famous, and jovially supplied the answer: "Well, no, I suppose you can't be, or I wouldn't have to ask, would I?" Ha ha. Even the kids thought that was a bit off.
Oh, I have suffered for my art! But no experience is ever wasted. One particularly forbidding school I went to, where the walls were topped with razor-wire and covered in graffiti and I literally had to shout to make myself heard above the continuing hubbub, became the inspiration for a recent book, Sugar and Spice. There is the school, in all its glory: razor-wire, graffiti, rampaging pupils—and one small, sad, eleven year old whose ambitions are slowly being crushed. I once met such an eleven year old, and she has remained in my memory ever since. I should like to think she found an ally and managed to pull through, as Ruth does in Sugar and Spice.
Maybe, upon reflection, the only downside to visiting junior schools is that they tend to be friendly, welcoming places, with—on the whole—friendly, welcoming kids who are both willing and eager to be pleased. There is not a lot of material there. But lots of readers!
The first of my "new generation" of books, Skinny Melon and Me, was published in 1996. What goes around, comes around, and teen/YA fiction is now back with a vengeance. Most of the prizes, most of the reviews, almost all of the kudos are reserved for this section of the market. Books which appeal to nine-through-thirteen-year-old boys are eagerly sought after and much lauded and magnified—and, of course, made into rip-roaring movies. Books, however, which appeal to girls in that age group are very largely ignored, or even slightly sneered at. Girl stuff! I would seriously suggest that there is still a lot of rampant sexism about.
So, with the YA market back in full swing, am I ever tempted to return to my first love? The answer is a very definite no. I can live without reviews, I can live without kudos, but I cannot live without my readers! For all that I sometimes smile, and sometimes groan, at the flood of eager e-mails, I wouldn't be without them. Just this very morning I had an e-mail from an eleven-year-old girl who told me that her mum wanted to thank me for getting her into reading. "I never used to read at all but then I discovered your books and now I can't stop." It makes it all worthwhile!
"Ure, Jean 1943- (Ann Colin, Jean Gregory, Sarah McCulloch)." Something About the Author. . Encyclopedia.com. 26 Feb. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.
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