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Children's author Robin Stevens wins Cambridge Literary Festival award for Murder Most Unladylike

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Boarding school capers, midnight feasts and gruesome murder have proven to be a popular mix for best-selling children’s writer Robin Stevens, who has has won the Cambridge Literary Festival’s first ever Contribution to Reading Award.

Author Robin Stevens
Author Robin Stevens

The author of the Murder Most Unladylike series will receive her prize at the festival this weekend (April 5-7) where she will be talking about her latest book in the series that follows schoolgirl detectives Hazel Wong and Daisy Wells as they solve dastardly crimes to the amazement of the adults around them.

Robin grew up surrounded by books in Oxford, where her father, Robert Stevens, was the master of Pembroke College, and she believes that made her an avid reader as a child.

She says: “Kids should be able to see their parents reading. Often when I talk to parents who are struggling to get their kids to read I say ‘do they see you reading?’ and they always say, no. So how can you expect your child to read if you don’t do it yourself?”

The Cambridge Literary Festival Contribution to Reading Award rewards an author for their outstanding contribution to children’s reading. The selection is made by the festival with the support of Cambridgeshire Libraries and Heffers bookshop. The prize was launched just as the 2019 Childwise Monitor report revealed three in four children aged five to 16 never read books in their own time.

Death in the Spotlight (8000104)
Death in the Spotlight (8000104)

Robin urges parents who want their children to read more books to encourage any reading for pleasure, even if they think the books are not ‘educational’ enough. “There are obviously some things If the child you don’t want a child to read,” she says, “but if they are reading the same series over and over again they are reading something you think is too low for their skill level really don’t worry about that.

“I had an intense phase where all I would read was Animal Ark. There were 300 books in the Animal Ark series and they were much simpler than other books I could read. But I loved the content and I read them again and again, and my mother never said anything. The phase ended after a year but I loved it and I remember those books with fondness. They made me a reader. So don’t pressure your child to move up to stuff you feel is more suitable - they will get there in the end, but if they feel you are pushing them away from books they will just stop reading. Kids are really good at defying their parents.

“My parents were fantastic with me. They took me to the library and second hand book shops and bookstores. And they really encouraged me to follow what I was interested in.”

Author Robin Stevens (8000102)
Author Robin Stevens (8000102)

After falling in love with Agatha Christie novels at age 12 novels when her father gave her a copy of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, she realsied that she wanted to write detective fiction one day. Then in 2010 she took part in the National Novel Writing Month competition in which participants try to write 50,000 words in a month. At the end of 30 days she had her first draft of the first book in the series, which is set in a boarding school in the 1930s.

“I chose the 1930s because I love reading about history and it is an interesting time period stuck between two wars, two really big traumatic moments in British history,” says Robin.

“But that was also when Agatha Christie started writing and Dorothy L Sayers and we had all these fantastic golden age crime novels being published. I wanted to write my own version but with children as the main characters and with the attitudes of today.

“I wanted to talk about racism and sexism and homophobia and to deal with that in a slightly more fantastic way. I think writing historical books helps you talk about the present day in a more subtle way that people maybe won’t notice.”

The seventh book in the Murder Most Unladylike series, Death in the Spotlight, sees Detective Society members Hazel and Daisy at the Rue Theatre in London facing an entirely new challenge: acting. That is, until a body is found and the pair have to solve the crime before the murderer strikes again. The book has caused a stir because Daisy develops a crush on a girl at school. One Mumsnet contributor said it would no longer be stocked in their school library because of the storyline and because Robin supported the charity for transgender children, Mermaids.

“A lot of primary school children already know that they are LGBTQ. They do know their identity it is not something you just suddenly discover age 20 - they need to be reading books about characters like them, or characters not like them if they are straight. All children need to know LGBTQ identities exist. Also, my supporting a charity such as Mermaids doesn’t have anything to do with the books that I write.

“I am really proud to support Mermaids and I know I have a lot of trans readers. If I am suppoprting my queer readers, then I need to support my trans readers in the same way. And I know Mermaids are the most fantastic support to trans and gender non conforming kids and their families. So they are a great charity and I am proud to support them.My husband and I have just launched a site where you can buy t-shirts and hoodies with Thoughtful Wokery written on them, which is a play on the thing that the original poster said about my books, that they were thoughtlessly woke. All the proceeds will go to Mermaids.”

Author Robin Stevens (8000096)
Author Robin Stevens (8000096)

Although Daisy does not talk about her sexuality until the latest book in the series, Robin had been pondering the revelation for some time.

“I was really thinking about it as far back as book one,” she says.

“I have a huge number of friends and loved ones who are gay and bi and lesbian, so it is something very normal and real in my own life. I try to write about the world that I know in my books and so I think it would be weird if i didn’t have any queer characters in my stories. I always knew in my head that Daisy was a lesbian and wasn’t quite sure if I could write it down and then i thought about it; she is 15 and it is weird if she doesn’t think about her sexuality because all teenagers do and there aren’t that many queer characters in children’s fiction.

“I’ve had hundreds of messages from readers as young as 10 coming out to me or thanking me as an ally or parents saying ‘thank you so much, my child is queer and she has read this and she is just so thrilled’. So it is honestly one of the most positive things I have ever done in terms of the general response. As far as I know I have really only had two negative responses and both of them have been from adults. So I think I have done something very positive for my readers and I don’t really mind if adults are made to feel uncomfortable or shocked.”

Robin will be speaking at the Cambridge Literary Festival at 2.30pm on April 7. Tickets are £8. Box office 01223 357 851 or cambridgeliteraryfestival.com.

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