How do you make teaching subordinate clauses to kids fun? Flirty Dancing author Jenny McLachlan knows, as Damian Kelleher discovers.
It’s really no accident that Jenny McLachlan’s Ladybird series makes teen readers laugh out loud. Flirty Dancing, the first book in the sequence, was published in 2014 and set the tone for three sequels. It features a friendship group of four girls – Bea, Betty, Kat and Pearl – whose crazy antics and hilarious school shenanigans continue in Love Bomb, Sunkissed and now Stage Struck. But while the books are funny – and they are very funny – there’s also an edge to this writing. Each book is narrated by a different girl within the group, and from the outset when shy Bea takes the spotlight in Flirty Dancing, its group leader is the undisputed bitch of the bunch, the bullying, bolshy Pearl.
Author Jenny McLachlan knows a lot about her audience. An English teacher in a rural comprehensive school in Sussex for 14 years, she was Head of English when she finally gave up her post to concentrate on writing full time. Jenny has a first hand understanding of the dynamics of female friendship groups and girls like Pearl.
‘When I was a pupil at secondary school, I kept my head down,’ she explains. ‘I wasn’t exactly bothered by bullies – I was very scared of them, they were just so tough and hard – but I can still remember that feeling of dread when they decided to focus on you. But then as a teacher I saw another side. I know people say it’s a cliché that a troubled background can lead to becoming a bully, but I was usually in awe of these children who came from very difficult backgrounds and how they survived and coped.’
In the latest book, Star Struck, we discover the real reasons behind Pearl’s prickly, tough and at times downright evil behaviour. Back at home, a fractured family has led to all kinds of relationship difficulties, and Pearl finds herself trapped in an abusive relationship with brother Alfie that she keeps to herself.
‘I had a very vivid and clear idea of their relationship. I think that idea of a horrible relationship between siblings can be quite common, and perhaps it’s not discussed as frequently as abusive relationships with parents. But I knew this was a story that people would relate to. I’m also aware of the age of my readers, though – they start at 11, maybe a little younger. One thing I learned from teaching is that young adults are still relatively innocent; they’re looking towards this point where they’re going to start to do various things. In that way, I think it’s really helpful to read about those things in advance in books; I suppose it’s a sort of rehearsal in your head. I know that’s what happened to me with Judy Blume. I’m very conscious of trying to get the balance right.’
Teaching has obviously been an important part of Jenny’s life and contributed to her unique voice. So how challenging was it to juggle the stresses of teaching – lesson planning, marking, running an English department – and writing?
‘The only one I had to write when I was teaching was Love Bomb,’ Jenny explains, ‘and I had the biggest golden carrot dangling in front of my nose to get it done! I just knew that it was going to be six months when I could do nothing except work and write. After I’d put my daughters to bed, I did my marking and then I’d write until 10, 11pm at night. I’d do that every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night as well, and on Sunday I’d go and spend the day writing at my mum and dad’s. My dad would bring me in a cup of coffee and say “You’re not Jane Austen, you know Jenny!” just in case I was getting too big for my boots.’
Getting laughs out of an audience is a pretty daunting task for most writers, but getting a notoriously tricky teenage audience to enjoy the funnier side of life can be an even tougher call. How much of the comedy in the books is linked to her experience in the classroom?
‘Actually for 14 years I got to practise finding out what makes teenagers laugh,’ Jenny admits. ‘Part of the reason why I liked teaching so much was that we all got to laugh a lot in the classroom. How do you make teaching subordinate clauses fun? Do it with humour! I suppose that was the perfect training ground.’
There’s a lack of compromise in Jenny’s writing that makes her books such an obvious hit with its growing readership. ‘I really want to focus on the young adults who are reading them and not adults who might be reviewing them. That’s an unusual aspect of writing for teenagers and children; your reviewers are not your intended audience. I really admire Jacqueline Wilson for doing that – she clearly knows the age of her readers, and writes for them. I’ve had real confidence about what my readers wanted and what they liked and I’ve had to keep that in my mind. Now I’m starting to get feedback and it’s very reassuring.’
I point out that her teaching experience gives her a distinct advantage when it comes to going into secondary schools to meet her readers and talk about the Ladybirds series.
‘Yes, that teenage face!’ she explains and pulls a typically blank, sullen teenage classroom ‘face’ to demonstrate the point. ‘Those faces are brilliant but it doesn’t mean anything. I’ve seen authors coming in to talk to kids and the children are pulling ‘that face’. And afterwards they’d come up to me and say “that was the best thing I ever heard in my life, Miss!”. So often it’s just a mask they’re hiding behind.
So what’s next for Jenny McLachlan now the Ladybirds series is concluded?
‘I’ve diverted with my next book – I’ve moved into stem cell research! – science and physics and maths, deeply out of my comfort zone. Back when I started my dad said to me, I wish you could write a book about a girl who wants to be an astrophysicist. So I thought, right fine. I’m obviously still trying to impress him! I was interested in why fewer girls will do science in mixed sex schools, whereas in single sex schools the figures are much higher.’
I can’t wait!
Flirty Dancing, Love Bomb, Sunkissed and Star Struck by Jenny McLachlan are published by Bloomsbury, £6.99 each.
Damian Kelleher is a journalist and writer.