Can she be a supermodel and a super-sister? She finds her answer in just one look.
Two sisters, both beautiful in different ways: Fifteen-year-old Ted has got “The Look.” That’s what the scout for the modeling agency tells her, and she can’t believe her luck. But just as Ted’s jet-setting off on her new career, Ava is diagnosed with cancer. Can Ted be a supermodel and a super-sister? Or will she have to choose between family and fame? With their worlds turned upside down, the girls have to look past appearances, look deep inside, to figure out what really matters.
Here’s a bit of background about how I came to write about cancer in The Look.
When I was a teenager, my younger brother was taken to hospital with … something, they weren’t sure what. But there was an infection deep in the bone and it didn’t look good. By the time they’d worked out what was wrong, his blood was toxic and the damage was getting worse. He needed an operation and his chances weren’t good. It was Christmas. The hospital consultant was so dedicated she let us stay in her own house while they operated. All I remember is that I was allergic to the Christmas tree in her living room and I was desperate not to sneeze because there was so much more wrong with the world than my inability to cope with indoor fir trees. He got better, but during that time, it was as if time stopped and we felt very, very alone.
Only one family – neighbours, but not people we knew very well – seemed to understand what we were going through. They were kind and sympathetic. They somehow knew what to say. They provided us with hot meals. They got us through. And then, a few months later, my mother told me their daughter had been diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma: a type of childhood cancer. I remember how shocked I was by that word, ‘cancer’. And even after what we’d been through, that felt worse. If any family didn’t deserve it (and of course no family does), they didn’t. I worried for years about that girl who I hardly knew, until I heard that she was well again. ‘Cancer’ seemed such a bad word that news of her recovery was a shock too although, statistically, it shouldn’t have been.
So, when it occurred to me to write about cancer in the new book I was thinking of, my brother’s illness and that girl’s diagnosis came flooding back to me. I felt (this was before ‘The Fault In Our Stars’, ‘A Monster Calls’ and ‘Before I Die’) that there wasn’t nearly enough writing about cancer for teens. It’s such a frightening issue. What happens if you’re diagnosed with it, or a friend is, or someone in your family? What do you do? What’s it like? What do you say?
I wanted to write about the effects of serious illness on a family: quite a close family – one that has a chance of pulling through. About how alone you feel, how time seems to stop, how you carry on anyway, because you have to, and how life goes on. But I didn’t want to write from the point of view of the person actually battling the disease. I suppose I was thinking about my own experience, and I wanted to capture what it’s like to be one of the people watching, desperate to help and not sure how.
I nearly didn’t have the courage to do it. Cancer is such a serious subject and I wanted to be honest and accurate and not belittle the experience – but all within the confines of a book that was written to be entertaining and educational about a totally different subject, too: modelling, fashion and discovering your creative self. It helped that someone very close had been through the same experience as Ava, the sister who gets the diagnosis, and I knew I could trust that person to tell me if I was getting it wrong. Of course I did lots of research, and got an expert in childhood cancer from a big London hospital to make sure I got the basic facts right. He could help me with the latest treatments and outcomes, but not so much with the psychology of the patients and their families. For that, I relied on some fascinating academic research and on my own experience, which was not identical, but was very similar. When The Look talks about ‘three grey faces’ in a room, those were the faces of my family.
I also relied on serendipity. One of the key scenes in the book (which I’ve spoken about elsewhere) is when Ava has to get her head shaved because of the chemo treatment. For doctors, this is quite a minor side effect, as the hair will grow back, but for patients it can be the thing they most fear. Discovering this, and knowing how central it was to the book, made me feel that I was going in the right direction.
Since the book came out in the UK, some people have written to me to tell me that it helped them cope when a friend was diagnosed with cancer. It goes into quite some details about the symptoms of Hodgkins disease, which can often be missed for quite some time. If, one day, it helps someone discover it earlier, and get treatment sooner, that will be wonderful. I’ve also had the honour of judging a hat competition at a North London school, where the winning design each year is put into production to give teenage cancer patients something cool and practical to wear.
‘The Fault In Our Stars’ is brilliant, by the way – in my humble opinion. One of my favourite books from last year, and Augustus is one of my absolute favourite characters. This is a very different story. It is not about dying of cancer. It’s about living with it and moving on.
And so, at seven o’clock, I draw up in my paid-for black cab outside a classic, tall Georgian house with five floors of glimmering windows. It is indeed so close to Buckingham Palace that I bet they get woken up by the sound of horses’ hooves clopping by first thing every morning to guard the Queen.
I step out in my new skinnies and the long, shaggy waistcoat they gave me at the Miss Teen shoot. I know I look a million times better than my hiking shorts days, but I’m still not sure I’m ready for Cassandra “at home”. I mean, I’m not wearing anything made out of silk, or gold, or by a famous designer. This must be the house that houses the über-wardrobe. It looks as if it could house several. It also houses Nick Spoke, of course, but I tell myself to assume that he won’t be there, because he’s probably at art college by now, or out with his mates, or painting, or “dabbling in photography.” And besides, he’s not interested in me. So it wouldn’t make any difference if he turned out to be the person who opened the door.
I stand there for ages after ringing the bell. Have I got the right house? Is anyone coming? Then I hear the sound of bolts being drawn. The door opens. He’s standing there. In a paint-spattered shorts made out of an old pair of jeans, cut off at the knees, an old polo shirt and bare feet. He makes me look positively over-dressed. He sees it’s me, with my mouth opening and closing like a goldfish, and smiles slowly. I guess at least I’m not semi-naked this time. It’s a start.
“Come in.” He turns back and shouts. “Eugenia! Guest for mum!” Then he stands aside so I can enter the large hallway, which is lined with paintings. Away from his mother, he’s more relaxed and positively polite. “Sorry. Big house,” he says. “Nobody ever hears the door. Got a meeting?”
I nod. I am so articulate.
Nick looks at his watch and nods to himself. “She’s working late again. Haven’t seen her all evening.” He hesitates and looks at me through his owlish glasses. “I like –“ He stops.
“Yes?” I ask, hopefully. I’ve never heard him say he likes anything before. Except Abstract Expressionism. And natural light.
He laughs. “I like your … shaggy thing.”
I can’t help smiling. He perhaps has an eye for fashion, despite himself, but certainly not his mother’s vocabulary for it.
“Thanks. I like your …”
He stares at me. What was I going to say?
I indicate the artful spatter on his top and shorts. I am pointing at his shorts. I just said I liked his paint. Oh god oh god oh god oh god oh god.
His smile turns to a grin. Not Nightmare Boy at all, right at this moment. Although I am possibly Nightmare Girl. I like your paint. Honestly.
“Come on up,” he says.
I follow him up a grand, curving staircase, so close we’re almost touching. I can hear the sound of running steps on the landing above us. A woman in a comfy t-shirt and track pants meets us at the top of the stairs.
“So sorry!” she echoes. “I was doing the ironing …”
“No problem,” he tells her. “Ted, this is Eugenia. She’ll take care of you. Eugenia, this is Ted Trout. Actually, you’re Ted something else now, aren’t you?”
“Trout will do,” I say. Knowing what I know about him, I’d rather he thought of me as Ava’s sister than ‘aspiring model’.
As if reading my mind, he looks concerned. “About your sister … Is she …?”
“She’s …” I shrug. I’m not going to tell him she’s fine when she spent most of the afternoon trying to eat a tiny bowl of salad without throwing up.
He understands and nods sympathetically.
From a nearby room, Cassandra’s voice booms out. “Is she here yet? Show her to the study, would you?”
“Right,” Nick says to me, with a small, awkward pause. “Anyway. See you.”
“Yes. Great,” I say – keeping up my reputation for witty conversation.
He heads on up the next set of stairs. I watch him go. Note to self. Do not point at the shorts of any boy you find interesting and admire their decoration. But definitely wear the ‘shaggy thing’ again.
I’ve written for The Times and The Guardian, and also four unpublished detective stories, but my breakthrough was winning The Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction competition with Threads. It’s about fashion, celebrity watching, being a teenager in London, conflict survival and, above all, friendship. Basically, it’s my manifesto and I’m amazed and thrilled that the likes of Barry Cunningham, Amanda Craig, David Almond and Jonathan Douglas liked it, understood it and didn’t think it was too weird.
I’ve also written two sequels to Threads – Beads, Boys & Bangles, and Sequins, Stars & Spotlights. My latest book, The Look, is about a girl who’s scouted as a model and has to choose between fame and family.
Occasionally, people ask me what my advice would be to aspiring writers. Check out my writing tips page, on my website. Write every day, and rewrite even more. Follow your heart.
Since this book looks so fabulous, I’ve decided to throw a giveaway for my tour stop for one paperback copy of The Look
Open internationally (as long as The Book Depository ships to you)
Giveaway ends March 28th, 2013
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