Ella on the Outside sprang from three big factors: my childhood, a visit, and my teaching.
As a child, I moved schools twice within the Scottish system and then, aged twelve, moved to Cambridge. I vividly remember the struggle to make new friends and a sharp, difficult time of loneliness. The girls in my new school made fun of my Scottish accent to the point where I shut up completely until I had ‘learned’ to talk like them and dropped all my Scottish words. I remember powerful girls who decided what we were going to do, where we would sit at lunchtime, and who would be allowed to join us. I couldn’t decide who was OK to trust and I ended up, for a while, trusting nobody. Once I started working on Ella on the Outside, I talked to lots of children about that feeling of being on the outside, which I think we all have from time to time, but, when you’re new in a school, it can feel like there’s a mountain to climb every day. I had always been the kind of person who had one, or perhaps two, key friends and, when we moved, I felt as if I had lost part of myself. Although the Ella in my story is not me, there’s a lot of me in this girl who stands round the edge of the playground, watching the groups, wondering who she might go up to but not really daring to.
I suffered badly with childhood eczema and this a problem for Ella too. It played a big part in my lack of confidence. I was embarrassed to change for PE. Other kids like me hung back until last and got told off for being slow because we didn’t want to get undressed in front of everyone else. I used to dread this bit of the week. Most of my eczema was covered up by long socks and sleeves but, in PE, the rules meant I had to be in shorts and short sleeved shirt. The backs of my knees were always raw.
The second big element arrived in my book as more of a shock. I visited a men’s prison in Woolwich, where my daughter was working with other drama students on a project. The inmates were developing a folk tale with singing and dancing. The men would perform the final show for their families, with special time afterwards and a tea for their children. Because I helped to work on the plot and songs for the show, I was invited to go along to the final show too. It was a hot sunny day, I remember, and we lined up and were security checked and marched through lots of buzzers and sealed doors to the education centre. A place had been reserved for the children at the front on mats.
In the show, the men told the story of children whose dad has gone away one night. They wake to find all the colours gone from the world. Animals help them to find all the colours again and make their dad proud when he returns. The men and drama students put on a great show. I watched the families. It is hard to describe the power of seeing a small girl, aged about nine, sitting ramrod- straight in her best yellow dress, so caught up in watching her dad that it looks as if she can barely breathe. So proud of him! She must want so much to be part of her dad’s life, I realised. I started to think about how she would cope when she returned home. I started to think about the complicated feelings she must have about visiting him here.
Ella’s love for her dad is in every letter she writes. It is the still heart of my story. It is as if another story is playing out all the time for Ella – a story of imagining him and his world and trying to make sense of it and keep him central in her life. Many children are thrown into Ella’s position. They can be the unsung victims of messy adult lives.
Writing, for me, springs a lot from my teaching too. I teach in primary schools for part of every week. It helps me hear the children’s voices in my head. That’s probably why I always write down the dialogue first. I love the sense of humour of the age group I write for. It has been fascinating to see Ella on the Outside through the process of being published and out in the world. I hope, in some small way, it offers a boost to some readers who feel on the outside. Ella starts to find ‘a new kind of stubborn’. I think I found that too!
Thank you, Cath!
With an incredibly authentic voice, hugely relatable characters and relationships (with real psychological depth), and a gripping story with heart and warmth, Ella on the Outside is a beautifully-written middle grade novel. Here’s a look inside the book:
And here’s a preview of the audiobook edition, read by Louiza Patikas:
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