Sarah Hagger-Holt is an award-winning and critically acclaimed author. Her debut novel for children, Nothing Ever Happens Here, was nominated for the Carnegie Medal, and her second, Proud of Me, was the winner of the Little Rebels Award for Radical Children's Fiction. She is the author of two adult non-fiction LGBTQ+ books and has written for the i paper, the Huffington Post, and spoken on Radio 4's Woman's Hour about LGBTQ+ parenting. Sarah lives with her partner and two daughters in Hertfordshire.
Just Like Everyone Else (Usborne)
Aidan feels like his life has been thrown apart when, aged 13, his parents announce to their large family that mum will be having a surrogate baby for a gay couple. Just Like Everyone Else explores Aidan's feelings about his family and surrogacy, as well as negotiating his complex feelings around whether he is gay or not, and how he should respond to the changes in his life.
Review: "Ironically, one of the strengths of the book, I think, is just how ordinary and relatable Aidan is. His gift for fell running is the most unusual thing about him; he's certainly anything but a gay stereotype."
Author Sarah Hagger-Holt tells ReadingZone what inspired her to write Just Like Everyone Else, exploring unconventional families and surrogacy, gender stereotypes, and personal passions that help us become "more than ourselves". In this video, she also gives a reading from her novel, introducing us to Aiden and his best friend Jack.
Q&A with Sarah Hagger-Holt
1. Can you tell us a little about yourself as an author, and what brought you into writing books for children and young people? Do any of the books you have written so far stand out for you for any reason?
I've always been a huge reader, and I've always worked with words, as a copywriter and editor for charities and campaign groups.
My own experience as an LGBTQ+ parent with few role models sparked me to research and co-author a book about LGBTQ+ parenting called 'Pride and Joy'. It involved speaking to around 70 families about their experiences. They had fascinating stories which stuck in my mind. My first book for children and young people, Nothing Ever Happens Here, was inspired by a mixture of these stories. It centres a family where one parent comes out as trans.
My own family is a little unconventional, and I love writing stories about families of all kinds, which I hope resonate with young readers.
2. What is your new book, Just Like Everyone Else, about?
The main character is Aidan, who lives with his loud, large and loving family, down the road from best friend Jack. When Aidan's mum agrees to be a surrogate for gay couple, Justin and Atif, Aidan worries about what this will mean for himself and his family. It pushes him to think more about his own identity and whether or not he is ready to come out as gay.
Meanwhile, Jack is bullied at school for seeming gay, and Aidan's reaction threatens to drive the two friends apart, just when they both most need a friend.
So, it's about friendship, identity, family, bravery, challenging stereotypes, bullying and more. There's also a school play, a couple of nail-biting races and a party!
3. What inspired you to write this story?
So many different things that it's hard to pin it down! I find with each book I write, even if I begin with one idea, other experiences, as well as things I read or see or overhear, come along and make themselves at home in the story.
With Just Like Everyone Else, I started with the real-life experiences of families formed through surrogacy. I gradually realised, as the characters developed, that this book was also going to be about coming out, how gender stereotypes are enforced, and the joy of finding something you love.
4. Although he is surrounded by very accepting family and friends, Aidan feels confused and even ashamed about possibly being gay; do you feel many LGBTQ+ children would identify with these anxieties?
Yes, even though young people are coming out younger and there is less stigma around being LGBTQ+ than when I was at school, recent research from charities like Stonewall and Just Like Us shows that LGBTQ+ young people can still experience significant issues around self-worth and bullying. Coming out always involves risk, even if it's highly likely those around you will be supportive, because it involves uncertainty.
Being a person, but especially being a teenager, means worrying about fitting in and what people think of you. Aidan worries about his sexuality, but other young people will worry about different things. I hope that readers can see a bit of themselves in Aidan's struggles and in how he overcomes them, whatever issues they are dealing with.
5. Aidan wonders how he can be gay if he doesn't fit what he sees as gay norms. Why is it important that children see representations of people who are LGBTQ+ but who don't reflect gay stereotypes?
Definitely. That's why I love campaigns like Stonewall's Rainbow Laces, which show LGBTQ+ people succeeding and enjoying sport at all levels.
A lot of stereotypes about LGBTQ+ people are rooted in wider gender stereotypes. The characters in Just Like Everyone Else, especially Jack and Aidan's sister Bells, also explore and challenge everyday stereotypes about what girls and boys should be like.
6. You've made Aidan a fell runner, and it's inspiring to hear how much he loves it. Is running something you've done and enjoy?
I did 'Couch to 5k' when I turned 40, despite barely having run before. I loved the sense of achievement. My partner has run the London Marathon a couple of times, so I have a small insight into the commitment and training that requires.
I've never done fell running, but when I lived in Sheffield I walked a lot in the Peaks, and was impressed whenever one of these amazing athletes zipped past me. I wrote Just Like Everyone Else during lockdown, so I enjoyed researching by watching fell running videos, when I couldn't get out and about.
7. Aidan's friend, Jack, has some powerful messages about not conforming and also being brave enough to talk about your feelings. What would you like readers to take from his and Aidan's stories?
I love Aidan and Jack's relationship. They are different in so many ways, but so comfortable together. Just by being friends, they push each other to see the world in new ways and to do things they wouldn't otherwise do.
The theme of openness and talking about your feelings is explored in lots of different ways in the book - from Aidan's parents who are maybe a little bit too open, to Jack's gentle nudging of Aidan to express himself. While opening up can be healthy, and privacy is important too, it's not always easy to get the balance right!
8. Why did you want to explore surrogacy in this novel as part of Aidan and his family's experiences, and again, where did you go to find out more about this?
When I wrote Pride and Joy, I interviewed several families formed by surrogacy to find out about their experiences. Once I had the idea for Just Like Everyone Else, I went back to those interviewees to find out more, speaking to the surrogate as well as to the parents.
Family is about far more than biological connection. I loved having the opportunity, through Aidan's family, to explore how families can stretch and grow to include more people and form their own ways of relating. Aidan's family, due to the warmth of his parents, also includes friends, as well as Atif, Justin and their baby. The kind of surrogacy in the book, where surrogates and intended parents become friends, is a model that not many people are aware of. I learnt more about it from Surrogacy UK's excellent podcast.
9. Are there any parts of the novel that you are particularly pleased with, or would like to highlight to readers?
Dialogue is my favourite thing to write, I love listening to how the characters sound and how they interact with each other. Perhaps my favourite scene is where the whole family go out for a Chinese meal and Aidan's mum tells them she is pregnant. It was fun to think about how each character would react, what it revealed about them and how those feelings developed during the course of the book.
10. Where and when do you prefer to write, and what are you writing currently? What are your favourite ways to relax when you're not writing?
I'm currently editing my next middle grade book. This one will be out in February 2024 and I can't wait!. It's a departure from the previous books in some ways, but still centres LGBTQ+ stories and the dramas of family life, with a focus on how we can come together to overcome prejudice.
I can write pretty much anywhere - I wrote Nothing Ever Happens Here on my commute - whether that's on the train on my way to a school visit, in a cafe or in the park. I prefer writing at home though, so I can read stuff aloud as I go without disturbing anyone else!
When not writing, I read, swim, go for slow runs and spend time with my family. I'm not a full-time author, so most of my days are spent copywriting for charities and businesses. I also work for a funeral director.