Helen grew up in a wild and unruly corner of the internet, where she dodged flames, crafted websites and led a guild of magical wolf-tamers. From a young age she realised that technology gave children superpowers.
Besides writing, Helen has had many jobs including building jousting arenas, getting children lost in hedge mazes to teach them about poetry, and guarding the children’s library dressed as a glittering dragon. When she’s older she hopes to be a mermaid or a witch.
Helen completed the Bath Spa MA in Writing for Young People with Distinction and won the United Agents Prize for Emmy Levels Up, which was published by Oxford University Press in April 2021. She lives near Cambridge with her gaming partner and two furry writing buddies. She likes adventure games, stormy seas, rock climbing and cats.
Emmy Levels Up (OUP)
The perfect read for young gamers and children who enjoy real life stories, Emmy Levels Up follows Emmy as she uses her gaming skills to navigate her real life problem - the bullies at school. Author Helen Harvey tells us more!
Q&A with Helen Harvey
1. What brought you into writing for children?
I have always liked writing. When I was 10 I wrote a cat version of Watership Down and when I was a teenager I wrote epically long fanfiction. I thought I would eventually write adult stories, but I soon realised that, though I'd grown up, I'd never grown out of reading children's books.
I have had lots of jobs, but these days I work in libraries. That doesn't mean I get to spend my days reading, though! I spend most of the day on my feet, shelving books and answering queries. Doing an active day job is the perfect contrast to sitting down quietly to write and it gives me plenty of time to think up new story ideas.
2. What is Emmy Levels Up about?
Online, Emmy is a superstar gamer and her gaming videos have hundreds of fans, but at school she's friendless and bullied. She has to use the skills she's learnt from gaming to beat her bullies once and for all.
3. What has your writing journey been like, and what inspired you to write this book?
As a teenager I used to write all the time. Then I became a teacher and I soon realised I had absolutely no time to write! (Teachers work very hard.) It made me quite sad, so although I loved working with children, I left teaching to do a Masters degree in Writing for Young People. It was lovely to spend an entire year doing nothing but invent stories!
One of the fantastic things about the Masters was being challenged to write stories for different age groups in different genres each week. One of the first challenges was writing about something that really happened to us as if it were a scene in a children's book, and it was this challenge that gave me the idea for Emmy Levels Up.
4. Often boys are depicted as gamers, girls less so, so why did you decide to make your lead character a girl?
I didn't even think about it - I am a girl! And I'm a gamer!
When I was a kid I played loads of videogames: Zoombinis, The Sims, Neopets. But I didn't call myself a gamer because I didn't think I played the "right" sort of game - the sort that boys played. That's nonsense, obviously - if you play games, you're a gamer.
I think things are better now, but some gaming spaces can still be hostile to women and anyone seen as "different". The more we speak up and say that we game too, the harder it will be for anyone to claim we don't belong.
5. How old were you when you started gaming? What are the highs and lows of your gaming career to date?
My family got a computer when I was in primary school in the '90s and my first computer game was Civilization II. I didn't play many games in my late teens, but in my early twenties I was introduced to Portal, a first-person shooter puzzle game which I absolutely love. From there I discovered lots of new story-based games by indie game studios and I haven't stopped gaming since.
Possibly my biggest gaming high was writing for a game called Eagle Island, uniting my two passions of gaming and writing. My lowest low was trying Fortnite. Trust me, you do not want me on your team!
6. Can gaming skills help us navigate real life?
When I was eleven I led a guild with seventy members on Neopets. I advertised my guild, made graphics and coded a website for it and shared information about how to maximise your daily Neopoints income to make my guild attractive. At the time, I just did it because I wanted to and didn't think it was anything special, but look at all the sensible adult skills I developed in the process! Leadership, coding, marketing, community building, all while practising my writing and maths…
I think gamers can develop a whole range of skills from games, and it really depends on the game they're playing and the way they play. Some games are stories, and develop children's literacy, while others involve complex mathematical puzzles (and many do both). Games like Minecraft enable children to embark on complex building projects while games like Cities: Skylines teach more geography than most of the geography lessons I did in school.
7. Why did you decide that this story would link gaming with your character's real life issues?
Whenever my real life has been a bit rubbish, I've gone online. I have online friends and communities and projects and they give me a place to belong and a feeling of achievement. So it made perfect sense to me that when Emmy's real life goes wrong - when she starts getting bullied - that her online life, where she has friends and a successful gaming channel, would become more important.
I still have an online community. These days it mainly consists of friends who are writers. I haven't met most of them in real life, but we discuss the highs and lows of writing and life and they're there for me whenever I need them.
8. One of the problems Emmy faces is bullying, why did you want this to be part of Emmy's journey? Was it something you experienced as a child?
Yes. Actually, that's where the story started. I experienced verbal bullying in primary school. It got so bad that I spent every break time trying to find a place to hide, and when the bullies found me anyway, I usually ended up in tears. But when I told my teacher he didn't get how serious it was and he didn't do anything.
The thing is, the bullies did it all with words, and most of the words didn't even sound that mean on their own. But put together, they had a very clear message: you're weird, you don't belong, and you couldn't even if you tried.
I wanted to tell a story where readers can see how it all builds up and becomes unbearable - and I also wanted the bullies to get their comeuppance. One of the things I fantasised about as I was crouching behind the wall in the playground was how I would pay the bullies back when I was older. This book is me making my own dreams come true.
9. What would you like children to take from Emmy Levels Up?
Mostly I want children to read a story they enjoy. I wanted to share my love of gaming with an audience who loves gaming too. And I want them to share Emmy's highs and lows as she deals with evil Vanessa and makes new friends.
But I also wrote this story for anyone who is going through verbal bullying. Verbal bullying is subtle and insidious and it can be hard to tell an adult about in a way that makes sense, because you often can't point at one bit of it and say "that's obviously bullying". It's bullying because of lots of little things, happening all the time, constantly wearing you down.
I wanted to give anyone going through the same thing a book they could point to and say "this is what's happening to me". And if - as I sincerely hope! - readers haven't experienced this sort of bullying, I wanted to give them an insight into what it's like and why it hurts.
10. Would you like to see more schools setting up gaming clubs for children?
I think there are so many skills we can learn on computers that spending an hour a week learning some of those skills and directing children's screen time to show them the possibilities is no bad thing.
At the last library I worked at there was a weekly coding club, and it's amazing what some of the children could create! Computers, games and the internet are all fantastic tools and it makes far more sense to help children navigate them safely and constructively than to lock screens in a cupboard because we're afraid.
11. What is your favourite computer game of all time, and what are you currently playing? Any recommendations?
The Sims series has been a constant gaming companion my whole life. When I was revising for my GCSEs, I would let myself play an hour of The Sims each time I finished a practise essay or a topic in the revision guide - and I got great results, so it clearly worked!
I am currently playing a lot of Monster Train, which is a deck-building card game where you defend a hell-bound train from attacking angels. Each game is a challenging puzzle and there's loads of variety in the decks you can build, so I keep going back for more.
I want to recommend Stardew Valley. This game has everything. It's like a cross between Terraria and Animal Crossing, but in my opinion it's better than both. You inherit a run-down farm in a remote village, and you get to explore, meet villagers, fish, forage and go down the mines. There's so much to create and discover and the soundtrack always makes me feel happy.
12. Other than gaming, what are your favourite escapes?
I love rock climbing, especially bouldering. I love that each route is like a puzzle you have to solve. During lockdown I've learnt how to knit and how to make polymer clay jewellery. It's great to have something to keep my hands busy while I watch the latest Netflix series. And of course I love reading books!
13. When and where are your favourite times to write, and what are you working on currently?
I work best first thing in the morning or last thing at night. If I try to write in the afternoon, nothing comes out and I end up needing a nap. Usually I like working in cafes and libraries: public places where I could people-watch in between writing, but at the moment I do it all at my desk at home.
I'm working on a few ideas at the moment. Some have gaming, some have magic, some have other worlds… wait and see!