From a very young age I knew that I wanted to write. I filled my notepads with stories and poems, and employed my younger sister and her friends with the job of bringing my play scripts to life.

“She’ll be a writer, that one,” my Year 3 teacher cheerfully told my parents. I can even clearly remember my first experience of writer’s block.

I was seven, and to end my story I needed to figure out a way of blocking out the sun during the day. At last—after a tortured five minutes—the answer came: all the birds in the world would fly up and hover in front of the sun—perfect! 

Fully immersed

I am fortunate to be able to combine being an author with working as a secondary school librarian. I run a creative writing club for Years 7 and 8 and I always tell my club members that writers are readers.

I was lucky enough to grow up in a house with plenty of books, including children’s books, many of them salvaged from my mother’s own childhood; some of them still containing handmade library tickets with 1960s dates from a time when my mum played libraries. 

At home, my dad would often read to us before bed: Stig of the Dump, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Milly-Milly-Mandy, The Famous Five, Catweazle.

Occasionally, he’d make up his own stories and encourage us to do the same. I can also vividly remember being read The Hobbit by my class teacher in Year 6.

I loved the feeling of being fully immersed in another world over a number of weeks and of returning to the characters at the end of each school day to see where they were on their quest. 

Although I grew up in a small village, we had a local library and after I’d worked my way through the children’s section, I moved on to the teen shelves—which consisted of the Sweet Valley High series and The Babysitter’s Club.

I loved those books even though they weren’t literature with a capital L (far from it) and I try to remember this when helping students in the library.

As long as they are reading, that’s what’s important. A love of literature can be built by keeping a child enthused about reading; once they’re interested, then you can begin to gradually introduce more challenging texts.

I want young readers to experience that feeling of not being able to put a book down, of having to turn the page to find out what happens to a character they care about; the joy of losing yourself in another time and place. 

Reading is a muscle that needs to be worked, and yet it should also be enjoyable and doesn’t always have to be an upward trajectory.

If a student has completed a more challenging book but then wants to take out a Manga or a Wimpy Kid, that’s fine. How can we do otherwise when our own reading can be so eclectic and can depend on our moods?

As long as they have a book for class that is a more appropriate reading level, it’s fine to take out a book for fun, I tell them. 

Difficult years

Although introverted and bookish, I was a happy, creative child. Unfortunately, everything changed for me when I entered into Year 8 and was subjected to bullying.

One girl attacked me physically and I was even allowed out of class ten minutes earlier at the end of the day in order to avoid the bullies who followed me home from school.

I stopped writing stories and I no longer enjoyed any of the activities I used to. I become withdrawn and extremely unhappy. 

I don’t believe it’s any coincidence that the protagonists in both of the books I’ve written for young people are being bullied at school.

I always feel, when writing for children or teens, that I’m writing partly for them and partly for my younger self. I want to show myself, stuck in that awful time, that there is a way through.

I also include humour in my books because I believe it is so important, even healing. Providing moments of comedy to the reader can offset against more serious themes, helping us to deal with and digest topics that might be painful.

My latest book does, after all, feature a large talking polar bear who has a habit of quoting Oscar Wilde, and who devours tinned sardines. 

The importance of friendship, and of having one good friend, is another important topic for me. Having someone to speak up on your behalf and help you find the courage to realise that it’s okay to talk about what’s bothering you is a wonderful thing.

I wish I’d had friends like that when I was being bullied. What I did have, though, was a teacher who noticed, listened and intervened.

Just knowing I had someone who would take the time to listen and sympathise was hugely valuable to me at that time. It’s amazing what important roles teachers can play in pupils’ lives, far beyond classroom teaching. 

The comfort of books

Although as a teen I read a lot of what I would now consider to be terrible books, I can see now that both reading and writing helped me through a difficult time.

I read and re-read Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul and those mini real-life stories and poems made me feel there was someone else who had felt as I did.

Because of this, I believe it’s important that children can not only access books that can be used as escapism but that they can also find books in which they can see themselves and elements of their lives.

Reading can help a child feel less alone. It can also help them to process their emotions through a guise of a fictional character.

When students have a lot to cope with outside of school it makes their achievements even more inspiring, and I feel determined to make sure I am doing the lives of young people justice when creating and writing about them.

After all, the magic of books, whatever they’re about, is that they can leave children – and us all – with a sense of hope. 

The Bear Who Sailed the Ocean on an Iceberg by Emily Critchley is out now in paperback (£7.99, Everything with Words). Follow Emily on Twitter @EmilyMCritchley