Guest Post by Miriam Halahmy
My new novel, Behind Closed Doors, (Firefly Press, July 2018) deals with the growing problem of teenage homelessness. According to the Joseph Rowntree Association, around 75,000 young people contact homeless services each year. The main trigger for youth homelessness is relationship breakdown. Young people are so vulnerable on the streets that some schools have even opened accommodation for students forced out of home. Many young people ‘sofa surf’– sleep on a friend’s couch – to avoid sleeping rough.
I was a teacher in London for 25 years and taught children from homeless families living in bed and breakfast accommodation. Mothers told me that teenagers were often put on a different floor from the parents. Today this problem is solved by cramming families into one room which is not a real solution.
My previous Y.A. novels have dealt with some of the most challenging issues of our time and readers often comment on how they enjoyed reading about ‘real people with real issues’. Therefore I decided that I would write a book about teenage homelessness and ask the question, What happens when you are only fifteen and home is no longer a safe place to be?
Behind Closed Doors is told through the voices of two fifteen year old girls, Josie Tate and Tasha Brown, who go to the same school but are not friends.
Josie’s mother calls herself a collector and she is saving the planet by ‘recycling’. The truth is that Josie’s mother is a hoarder and Josie is saving up to move out. Children of hoarders often leave home by the time they are fourteen or fifteen years old, rendering them homeless and vulnerable at a young age.
By contrast Tasha’s mum provides a clean home and plenty of pocket money. But Tasha’s mum has a new boyfriend and he is starting to take an unhealthy interest in Tasha. One night during a terrible thunderstorm, Tasha runs away. She ends up in Josie’s house. This is the start of an unlikely friendship between these two girls, both threatened with homelessness and both without the safety net of responsible parents/carers.
“We stare at each other and in that moment everything between us changes. Tasha with the mum who doesn’t protect her and me with the mum in prison, neither of us with a proper home.”
I set my book in an unnamed town in the middle of England, so that it could be anyone’s hometown. However, I wanted to reflect our multi-ethnic society in the UK. Both Tasha and Josie are white but I had read comments that mixed-race characters didn’t appear very much in UKYA books. I therefore made a conscious decision to make Josie’s love interest, Jordan, a boy of Japanese/American background. Japanese characters also do not appear very much.
Jordan is training to be an Olympic swimmer. Like Josie he is lonely and like Josie he has never had a romance. In many ways, Jordan is like any boy in town but his background means that, for example, he eats sushi with chopsticks which Josie finds utterly impossible. I feel that this blend of the everyday with the specific is a way to reflect diversity so that ultimately every child can find themselves in a book.
Tasha’s love interest is Dom, who comes from a black British background. In my mind Dom was always black and very gifted. He is taking A levels two years early. Dom comes from a large family with a modest income and, for most of the book, Tasha has no idea she is in love with Dom.
British Indian characters have a couple of minor roles in the book but my aim was not to turn my book into a microcosm of multi-cultural London where I live. That is simply not realistic even in the UK in 2018. However if we are to continue to develop modern children’s literature as an inclusive literature for all, then I believe writers need to consider their characters in the widest possible sense – diversity for all means not simply colour or religious background, but every kind of difference.
I believe that in Behind Closed Doors I have remained true to this ideal and written a range of characters who can speak to all my readers and perhaps a Japanese teenager living in the UK will see themselves in a book for the first time.
Josie has a secret: her mother is a hoarder. Tasha has a secret, too: her mother’s new boyfriend keeps trying to sneak into her room and seduce her. The two 16-year-olds don’t get along at school, but one night Tasha bolts from her dangerous home and finds herself at Josie’s door. Josie’s mother is in jail for debt, and the girls are alone in the cramped, crowded, bursting home. Slowly, they begin to talk about the challenges they face, a process of sharing that lessens their shame, guilt and fear. With each other’s support, they may even find a way to save themselves from their parents’ demons. Behind Closed Doors is an unflinching examination of the stigmas surrounding mental illness, abuse and poverty, and an affirming portrayal of the power of female friendships and the power of honesty to heal.
Begin Closed Doors is published on 12 July by Firefly Press (PB £7.99)