A few months ago Kate joined us to chat about her writing journey. At that time Gangster School was only published in German. It sounded like such a rip-roaring tale that we wished we hadn't dropped German in year nine!
But fear not, Gangster School proved so popular that it's now been published in English by Zuntold and we're thrilled to be part of the UK blog tour.
I was going to call this article From Hellhole to Haven, which I thought had an impressive, academic ring to it. I thought it raised expectations of well-reasoned arguments and learned insights. Hmmm. If that’s what you’re seeking, stop now. All you’ll find here are the musings of a slightly potty writer.
I'm writing about fictional schools because I write fiction about a school. In my case, it’s Blaggard’s School for Tomorrow’s Tyrants–the world’s top educational establishment for young felons. Like most fictional schools these days, it’s not a perfect place but it’s certainly fun. But fictional schools haven’t always been like that.
Like many people, I love Jane Eyre. She’s determined and brave and uncompromising – a real fighter. Jane’s character is forged in the horror of Lowood School, where students are humiliated, half starved and wholly neglected. No wonder the saintly Helen gives up and dies! I have to admit that she’s no great loss; overtly virtuous characters are weirdly unattractive. Let’s face it – she’s just too holy to live. Charlotte Bronte describes a graveyard full of Helens so we have to accept that Lowood School’s childcare policy was pretty terrible.
Then there’s Dotheboys Hall, the hellhole of a school in Dickens’ Nicholas Nickelby, where poor old Smike has somehow managed to stay alive. Apparently it was based on a real school that Dickens visited in 1838. Anyway, the point is that both Lowood and Dotheboys are dumping grounds for unwanted children. To be sent away to school in Victorian fiction meant being rejected by your family and, if you were particularly unlucky, being sent away to die.
Perhaps mid century kid’s fiction from the likes of Enid Blyton was a lingering reaction to this. The most noticeable quality of her fiction, (at least as far as this article goes) is that schools don’t feature much. Adventure happens on holiday – on remote beaches and craggy islands covered in gulls where the protagonists must have got covered in copious amounts of seagull poo while they were swigging their ginger beer.
Fast-forward to the late twentieth. Crikey, what a difference! Schools are fun and they’ve branched out into very interesting specialisms. There are schools where you can learn to be a spy, to be a witch or wizard, to dance, to sing or be famous in a general kind of way and where you’re free to revel in your weird mutant gifts. In other words, they’ve become havens – places where any sensible kid would love to go and the antithesis of Lowood and Dotheboys.
I’ve been trying to work out what has caused this change and I guess it’s something to do with the changing attitudes to children generally. Victorian schools reflected Victorian attitudes. Kids were expendable and you had lots of them not only because not having lots was difficult, but because that way, when you lost a few (as you expected to do), you still had some left.
Modern kids have rights that Victorians wouldn’t dream of. These days, fictional boarding schools (and they pretty well have to be boarding schools to get rid of protective parents and give the child a chance to shine and learn about themselves) have become dream destinations – places we wish we’d been able to attend.
So, I hope you’re asking, what about Blaggard’s? Who would want to go to such a place?
Well, Blaggard’s is a place where normal expectations of acceptable behaviour are turned on their head. At Blaggard’s you get told off if you apologise to a teacher, and quietly studying in the school library is forbidden. Kids are mini anarchists and I think they’ll enjoy this, but they’ll still recognise it as a bad system. As secret Dependables (non criminals) Milly and Charlie are non-conformists standing up for what they believe in. The fact that the establishment in which they find themselves is bonkers and fun doesn’t make it good.
So in rebelling against it, are Milly and Charlie, my protagonists, good kids or bad? Rebels or killjoys? I suppose that’s down to the individual reader. I see them as semi-anarchists themselves. It’s just that they channel their anarchic tendencies towards - if not doing good, exactly, at least towards not doing anything too bad.
I guess other readers may view them differently. That’s the joy of reading, isn’t it?
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