Mel spent a large part of her childhood inventing stories to keep her autistic brother happy on car journeys. Having worked as a theatre designer and freelance artist, as well as teaching young adults with learning disabilities and running creative workshops for teenage mums, young offenders and toddlers, Mel now writes young adult novels.
She is a recent graduate of Bath Spa's MA in Writing For Young People, where she found a channel to give voice to young people who otherwise might not be heard. Rosie Loves Jack is her first novel. [Image copyright Harry Crowder]
What the World Doesn't See (Usborne Books)
What the World Doesn't See, Mel Darbon's exploration of the relationship between Maudie and her disabled brother, Jack, gives a voice to young people who often have no voice and provides a rare and positive view of a family that fights ferociously to change people's perceptions of disability. While the novel also explores grief and mental health issues, its overwhelming tone is of warmth and optimism that this family will find its way through the difficult times.
Author Mel Darbon, who bases much of the novel on her own sibling experiences, tells us about what inspires her writing, the importance of giving a voice to all children and young people in books, and how she hopes learning more about disabilities will help change how society responds to neuro-divergent people.
Read a Chapter from What the World Doesn't See
Q&A with Mel Darbon
1. Can you tell us a little about yourself and what brought you into writing? What kinds of books do you enjoy writing?
My father is a writer and I realised from a very early age that I wanted to be a writer, too. I adored reading and would have lived in the local library if I could have. I loved that you could escape into so many different worlds and learn about other people's lives. I dreamed of writing worlds that others could escape to, and seeing these books on the library shelf.
I was five years old when I discovered a love for writing fairy tales. At school, if we'd completed our other work, we were allowed to write stories in a special booklet. I raced through that work just so that I could write, and then I went home and made my own story books. My younger brother Guy had severe learning disabilities and, at times, home could be challenging, so writing stories was a way to help me make sense of my world and to escape it for a little bit. I also used to make up stories to tell my brother on long car journeys as a way to calm him.
I wrote my first novel aged 12 about a young girl who woke up in a strange room and didn't know how she got there. I used to have a recurring nightmare that this would happen to me, so it was very cathartic writing it into a story! Writing is a part of me. I have always been my happiest when I've been lost in a world of make believe with a cast of characters taking me by the hand and leading me on unexpected journeys.
As I got older, my brother became a huge inspiration for my writing. Characters with any sort of learning disability rarely feature in fiction books even now; they didn't at all when I was growing up, which made me very sad.
My journey as a published writer began when I was in my fifties. I hadn't had the confidence to try to write professionally before that. It was my children telling me to get on with it or 'I'd regret it', that gave me the boost I needed. I applied to do an MA in Creative Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University and to my surprise, got a place on the course. I learned so much there and was inspired by the wonderful staff and students to have faith in myself as a writer. I left there with the start of my debut novel, Rosie Loves Jack, an agent - and six months later a book deal.
I like to write thought-provoking, contemporary fiction with characters that you don't usually see in books. I guess you could call them domestic fiction with a moral cause but it's important they make you laugh too! I have characters with learning disabilities because people tend to only talk about the negatives of a learning disability, as they can't see beyond the condition - or don't know how to. I made up my mind when I was in my teens that I wanted to give my brother, and others like him who can't speak for themselves, a story, so that they could be heard. I wanted to show all the positives and the laughter and joy that someone like my brother can bring to our lives. I won't always write these sorts of stories but for now it's what I feel I must do.
I like my stories to open discussions to help young people navigate their own circumstances and accompanying emotions. Grief and love are very important themes in What the World Doesn't See.
Overall, my focus is on writing a good story that will keep the reader turning the page. I might want to educate people, but I very much want to entertain them and, hopefully, make their lives feel a bit better.
2. What happens in your new book, What the World Doesn't See?
What the World Doesn't See is a novel about grief, disability and first love; a story about getting lost and finding yourself. Maudie and Jake's family is falling to pieces - their mum's been struggling with her grief since they lost Dad and one night she vanishes. When Jake is put into care, Maudie can't take it anymore. She comes up with a wild plan to pull their family back together - by kidnapping Jake. On the run in Cornwall, Jake and Maudie each find something unexpected - freedom and love. But Maudie and Jake's physical journey is also a transformative, emotional journey together, which they start to understand when spending time alone together. But can they find Mum and a way to heal together?
3. Why did you want to focus on a family falling apart, and the sibling bond between Maudie and Jake in this story?
There are two reasons I wanted to focus on a family falling apart. Primarily, because I saw the pain that my children went through when our family fell apart when my husband and I divorced. No matter how sensitively you think you've dealt with it, or are dealing with it, the fall-out is huge and can have long lasting repercussions. Sadly, it's something that a lot of children go through.
Quite often the children have very little choice in what happens or how to navigate their pain and confusion when their whole world is turned upside down. Children dealing with the death of a parent or sibling are even more vulnerable, so I wanted to give them a safe space, within the pages of a book, to work through their feelings. Grief is not something we talk about. When my grandma died, I was inconsolable. It took me years to come to terms with losing her, yet I never had anyone to talk to about it, as it was a subject people didn't discuss. It had an impact on my mental health and wellbeing, and I felt very lonely and isolated.
Then, devastatingly, my brother died while I was writing What the World Doesn't See, so it was particularly poignant to be working through Maudie and Jake's grief. I really hope that the book resonates with, and gives reassurance to, people who are grieving and allows them to talk about their emotions.
My second reason for focusing on a family falling apart was a practical one, as a plot device. I wanted my characters Maudie and Jake to be alone together, with Maudie entirely responsible for her brother, so that it gave them both a space to go through their transformative emotional journey together, without parental influence. Jake is able to demonstrate to Maudie what he is capable of when given the freedom and opportunity, and Maudie learns how to help Jake do things without always doing them for him. It also gave Maudie the space to be a teenager and not always be responsible or feel she must be perfect.
I wanted to focus on the sibling bond between Jake and Maudie to show how special their relationship is, because mine with my brother, who had learning disabilities like Jake, was wonderful. It feeds into my aim to dispel the myths of disability and to show all the positives and the laughter and joy that someone like my brother can bring to our lives.
4. Maudie and Jake, are very real personalities - Maudie caring and sympathetic, and Jake vibrant and full of humour. Do you need to 'know' your characters before you start to write, or do they develop as you write?
In this story I didn't need to know my characters, Maudie and Jake, in the way I normally would go about it because they are based on me and my brother Guy. Their characters were already formed! However, my brother was a lot less able than Jake, so a part of his character was taken from the teenagers with learning disabilities who I worked with at an inclusive college in Henley on Thames.
Character is the most important aspect of my books so normally I wouldn't be able to start writing unless I know my characters inside out, right from birth. I have to write their back story, then they become real to me and lead me through the story, often taking me to places I hadn't expected! The reason it's so good to do this is that people and events shape your character and will dictate the decisions they make and how they cope in different situations. For example, Maudie feels she must be the perfect daughter because she understood from the moment Jake was born that things would have to be very different, so she doesn't want to be a problem teenager for her parents and cause them heartache. Her parents never intimated this should be what she's like, she's taken this on board herself; but it dictates all the decisions that she makes.
Maudie and Jake developed around the story line that I gave them. They learn to move through their grief as well as growing emotionally; Jake understanding he can be more independent, and Maudie learns she can do things with Jake, and not just for him.
5. How important was it for you that Jake, as well as Maudie, is able to tell his story in What the World Doesn't See?
Jake's voice is the most important in the book. I want readers to understand that just because you have difficulty communicating, it doesn't mean you have nothing to say. That being different doesn't mean you don't have the same needs and wants as anyone else. Jake, like my brother, has limited language skills, so cannot easily have a voice for himself, but he so deserves to be heard. We need to learn to take time to listen to people who struggle in communicating; through Jake I show this and speak for my brother. It's important to say that I have never assumed that I knew exactly what my brother was thinking or feeling, though you learn to understand someone's needs when you live with them, like a parent learns to understand its baby's cries meaning different things. I came to understand what my brother was feeling and wanted to give Jake (and through him, my brother) his chance to be heard in the book.
Maudie is very caring and only wants what is best for her brother, but she learns on her journey that she doesn't always get it right and makes assumptions that are well-meaning but not necessarily right. Yes, she knows her brother but, like many carers, is over-protective, which can unwittingly prevent Jake progressing in some areas. Her voice is important, but no more so than Jake's.
6. You make some insightful comments about how people respond to Jake through the novel; were you drawing on any of your own experiences for this? Do you feel the world is changing in its response to neuro-divergent people?
I was absolutely drawing on my own and my brother's experiences through the novel. I have been an eyewitness on many occasions when my brother has been either verbally abused or completely ignored, as though he doesn't count as a normal human being. My family has even been told that he should never have been born. Up until the day he died, there were times he was treated like this. Where my parents live, the residents had decided to hold a street party to which my parents and brother weren't invited. When they discovered this, one neighbour told my parents it was because of my brother. My parents were devastated. Guy would have loved the street party as he enjoyed people-watching, and although things could unexpectedly upset him, in his older years this didn't happen as frequently.
There were also many kind, caring people who supported my brother. My family understand that, sometimes, people's attitudes towards my brother came from ignorance. Not understanding something can make you fearful. This is where I come in, wanting to write stories with disabled representation, to help people understand and empathise.
I definitely feel that the world is changing in its response to neuro-divergent people. They are becoming more visible in the media and in books and therefore more understood. Social media has given a welcome platform for people to be able to express themselves and help educate people. Wonderful children's authors such as Elle McNicoll, who is neuro-divergent, are making a huge difference in educating young people and helping them to see the world through new eyes.
7. Were there areas you needed to research, before writing What the World Doesn't See, for example into bereavement and depression, as well as neuro-divergence?
I always research thoroughly and never assume that I don't have to, despite having lived and worked with people with learning disabilities. It was important to me to ensure a positive and independent, but also realistic, picture of Jake's learning disabilities and neuro-divergence. I had to acknowledge some common characteristics, for example Jake's distress at loud noises, whilst avoiding reinforcing stereotypes. I must stress here that Jake's experiences, which I based on my brother's, are not every person's experience of their learning disability. In writing Jake's character, it was important for him to be a fully rounded individual and teenager, and not just a channel for his disability. It had to be about who he is.
I also undertook additional consultations to help ensure authenticity. I spoke to people, read articles and studied medical texts, in order that I might write from a position of knowledge and not just based on my own experiences and observations.
The themes of bereavement and depression in What the World Doesn't See were informed by my own experiences and those of my family and friends. Tragically, my brother died unexpectedly while I was writing this book which left me and my family devastated. I was writing out my own grief as I worked on this book. I also read a lot of articles about grief and depression, so I got a diverse and wide-ranging picture of them both. Everyone's experience of depression, and/or bereavement is personal, though there are common stages of grief that we tend to, but not always, go through: shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, processing and acceptance.
Depression is something that most people have experienced at some point in their lives, but clinical depression goes much deeper than that, which is what the character of the mother is going through in my story. I have immediate family members who suffer from clinical depression, so much of what I wrote came from my personal experience of witnessing this debilitating and all-consuming condition. I also read studies, listened to podcasts and talked to people who had experienced clinical depression. Everyone's experience of depression is unique to them, but there are common psychological symptoms: no motivation, tearful, sad, feeling hopeless and helpless and finding it difficult to make decisions.
8. What would you like your readers to take from What the World Doesn't See about Maudie and Jakes' journey through the novel?
That learning disability can be tough but is not tragic; you don't have to feel pity for someone
like Jake. There is as much love, laughter and joy in their life as anyone else.
That people with learning disabilities feel things as deeply as anyone else. Always remember that people with disabilities are human beings. Their disability is a small part of their complex and interesting lives.
That it is okay to talk about grief, that you are not alone and although you will grieve for the rest of your life, you will learn to live with it; and your loved one will live on in you forever.
That you don't have to be perfect. It's enough being just you, as Maudie comes to understand; it's okay for her to be just Maudie.
That we must never make assumptions about people and that by putting on someone else's shoes we learn to have empathy and from there navigate the world with love, and not hate or fear.
9. Where and when do you do your best writing? What are you writing currently?
I do my best writing in my attic room at home. I have to fit my writing around other work so I write at all different times. I live at the top of a hill, in a town called Bradford on Avon in Wiltshire, that is rich in Medieval history. I look out over the town to Salisbury Plain and the horizon. Being able to see that far gives you a better idea of where you are placed. I am lucky because every morning at dawn I watch two Peregrine Falcons hovering on the air currents, when they are here at the end of March. They live on the steeple of the old Saxon church, and the spire peeps through the trees below us. Then from May, I watch the bats flitting past my window at dusk, dipping and diving through the clouds of insects that they come to dine on. At night, when I'm working late, I listen to the owl hooting as she swoops across the Yew trees in the churchyard. All this is wonderful inspiration for my writing. I am incredibly lucky.
I'm on the last chapter of a Middle Grade historical adventure story, inspired by various objects from the past, with a female protagonist with Down syndrome. Ada has been a joy to write. She is feisty, fun and a fighter. What she must fight for will have to wait to be revealed…
10. What kinds of books do you enjoy reading? Any recommendations for our readers?
In children's books I love reading contemporary stories about people's everyday lives or books that address diverse issues. I am also a fan of historical adventures, though to be honest there are so many wonderful children's writers in every genre, and I love to explore them all. Where do I start? For this, I'll focus on children's writers from the present and a particular book of theirs I have loved:
Anthony McGowan, Brock, Rook and Lark: Anthony's books deal with complex emotions, as well as complex practical issues. He gets inside his character's minds so that you see and feel the depths of their experiences. You will laugh and cry equally; the raw emotions expressed through his characters is never held back. His love of nature shines through his books and elevates his stories to a different level of perception. Anthony's moving and realistic portrayal of Kenny, who has learning disabilities, is compelling.
Katya Balen, October October: Katya Balen has a very distinctive voice. She digs deep down into the emotions of the children she writes about. Her writing is beautiful: lyrical, poetic and infused with the sight, sound and smells of the natural world. You will always come away having learned so much about the people she writes about without being told it directly.
Liz Hyder, Bearmouth: A brilliant fantasy that is utterly original. Beautifully written, it is dark and compelling with unforgettable characters.
Lu Hersey, Broken Ground: A breath-taking coming-of-age story about the power of friendship and the pursuit of justice, interwoven with folklore, magic and the paranormal. This is a moving, deeply atmospheric drama that grips you to the very last page.
Chris Vick, The Last Whale: Chris writes powerfully and evocatively. His settings are beautiful, his characters strong and memorable. He combines nature and technology in an action-packed adventure that never loses sight of his powerful environmental call to arms.
Geraldine McCaughrean, Where the World Ends and The Middle of Nowhere
Penny Joelson, I Have No Secrets
Lucy Christopher, Stolen
Many thanks for interviewing me!