Cath Howe's new book, My Life on Fire, follows what happens when a child's home and possessions are destroyed in a house fire.
Cath is an author and teacher working in South West London writing for, and working with, Key Stage 2 primary age children. Cath runs workshops in schools on everything to do with writing and performing. She has won prizes for stories, poems and monologues and has even written a musical.
My Life on Fire (Nosy Crow)
In My Life on Fire, author Cath Howe explores the impact of a house fire on a child, Ren, who starts to steal after the loss of her home and possessions - and how an unexpected friendship offers a way to put things right. Cath Howe talked to ReadingZone about her writing, the themes she explores in her stories, and her new book, My Life on Fire.
Cath Howe introduces My Life on Fire
Q&A with Cath Howe
In this Q&A, Cath tells us what inspired her novel and its theme of kleptomania, how she gets to know her characters, and why friendship is such an important theme in her novels.
1. How did you become a children's author? What kinds of books do you enjoy writing?
I became a children's author through working as a secondary and then primary teacher. I created drama scripts and plays for my clubs to perform. I had lots of great encouragement and feedback and began to write seriously for young people. It took a while to find the stories I really wanted to write. My MG books are all about family, friendships and school. My books so far have been in a single child or several children's viewpoints. It helps that I regularly work with the age group I write for.
2. Do any of your published books stand out for you for any reason?
Ella on The Outside launched my career. The responses to the book from children, teachers and librarians have been amazing.
3. If you could meet any of your characters, who would it be and why?
I would have to pick Caspar from My Life On Fire. I based Caspar on some real children I have taught. He is a generous, enthusiastic and very honest person. He wants to make life better - he would be really cheery company.
4. What happens in your new book, My Life on Fire? What inspired the story?
Ren and her family lose everything in a house fire. An art project when she returns to school asks the class to collect things for a box, 'all about me'. Ren has no possessions and she starts to steal. I wanted to write about someone stealing not for physical need but for a psychological reason.
I came across kleptomania in my first teaching job. I was told not to let one of my year 9 pupils leave the classroom unaccompanied because, if I did, the boy would take things from all the pockets in the cloakroom. At the end of the school day he had to be frisked by the head of PE and empty out his bulging pockets into a tray.
I often teach creative writing and take a selection of props for children to work with: carved animals, odd old kitchen things, candlesticks and photos. I remember doing a workshop and realising someone had taken something. The object was a brass bulldog that had been a present from my grandad. It probably wasn't super valuable (I wouldn't take something like that into a school!) but it was special to me and I had told them so. Sharing my own objects with children opens up talk about what things they love and care about and the power of old objects. My point is, someone took it right under my eyes and I think I know who it was but I couldn't prove it so I let them all go back to their class and went home without it.
I started thinking about why a child might do this. I thought about a powerful event in someone's life that set them off on a strange path. Ren loses everything in the fire. She is one of those children who collect things and she has a little cupboard with them all inside. She looks through her collection often and moves things around inside her cupboard. After the fire, her precious things are never found. She desperately wants more things around her that feel like hers - in some way, she feels as if she has lost herself.
5. Why did you decide to have the story told by two narrators, Ren and Caspar?
Ren is in a dark place and struggling with a really tough family situation. Caspar is like the light pouring in. He was vital to my story in many ways. He shows the power of friendship. His reaction also makes it clear that Ren's stealing is never OK.
6. How do you get to know your characters so well?
I write monologues for everyone in my story, including all the adults and minor characters. They must all feel three-dimensional for the story to work.
7. With Ren's compulsive thefts and Casper's honesty, was it difficult to thread their stories together?
Yes, plotting this story was hard and there were lots of rewrites. It felt very tense writing it and people are telling me it's a tense read - that means it's worked!
8. The story develops around the 'all about me' idea of children creating 'boxes' filled with important things from their lives in the novel. Is this an exercise you have done with children? How could teachers adapt this for their own classes?
This is a great ice-breaker for a new group. I have done it a few times in workshops. You could create this in a simplified way: find the following -
1. An object connected with something you love to do (eg a football, a picture you have drawn..)
2. A piece of clothing you love to wear
3. Something from when you were a very young child (a teddy, a toy?)
Talk to your class about these objects. Create a wall display.
9. Other than a great story, what would you like your readers to take from My Life on Fire?
My Life On Fire is about the power of friendship. It carries the message that we will come out of dark times, especially when we begin to trust others. I'm a huge optimist and always hopeful about human connection and kindness.
10. Where do you most like to write, and what are you writing currently?
I write standing at a very old clerk's desk. I am currently working on a new book for 9-12's about a family undergoing sudden change. I am also creating the next in a younger series Call The Puffins! for Welbeck Flame.
More about Cath Howe
i. What is your favourite part of your day?
I write best in the early morning- that's when I have the most ideas for my work.
ii. Where do you go when you're looking for inspiration for your writing?
I walk. I love green spaces. I also get ideas on journeys, especially on buses. I really enjoy working with writers of all ages, especially in schools.
iii. What would you be if you weren't an author?
I love everything to do with theatres. I think if I wasn't an author I would be involved with a theatre in some way. I love painting and drawing characters and ideas, too.
Exploring The Insiders by Cath Howe (Nosy Crow Books)
In The Insiders, Cath Howe follows the lives of three children and explores what happens to their friendship when misunderstandings cause divisions between them, leading to a near-tragedy.
Author Cath Howe's books explore the everyday lives of children and the situations and emotions that they might experience. In this video, she talks about the kinds of stories she enjoys writing, and introduces her latest novel, The Insiders, followed by a reading.