We are delighted to welcome our first author, Joanne O’Connell, to the ELS blog. Joanne’s debut novel, Beauty and the Bin, is a warm, funny and timely story, exploring food waste, fast fashion, friendship, and very embarrassing parents. Full of quick and practical ideas for greener living, Beauty and the Bin is an inspiring read for young eco-warriors!
Follow Joanne on Twitter @byesupermarkets.
One day, sometime in the mid-80s, I jumped into a massive bin behind the school canteen. I’d had to climb over a wall first and lower myself into the rubbish (quite tricky in my pleated school skirt and clumpy shoes). Once in, it was hard to stand up straight. I remember flailing around, searching for something I’d lost and trying not to get covered in bin juice.
It didn’t seem like much at the time. I was always losing things, and it wasn’t as if I had a phone with me and could turn it into a comedy post on social. But fast forward thirty years and that experience sparked the start of my novel Beauty and the Bin.
I’d got the rest of the book pretty much planned out. I wanted to write about that awkward tug between family and friends, when you’re just trying to find out who you are.
So, I was going to try and write a story about a girl called Laurie Larksie who dreams of being a beauty entrepreneur – and who desperately wants to fit in at school – set against her family who were full-on eco warriors. I wanted the Larksies to be loving, fun and totally embarrassing. And I also wanted the book to be about food waste.
It was a subject I kept coming back to in my journalism work, and I wanted to find a way to weave some of those ideas into a novel for children. I’ve always been interested in sustainable ways of living. I grew up vegetarian (later vegan) in a family where there was a huge emphasis on sharing, and community, eating thoughtfully and putting other people and the planet first. We shopped at a zero-waste independent, we were into recycling and we shared what we had. And my work for the Guardian, writing about sustainable issues, inspired me further about new ways to grow, buy and cook food. Around the time I was thinking about writing some fiction, I was also learning a lot about food waste and the huge impact it’s having on our climate from conversations I had with people like: River Cottage’s Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, eco-chef Tom Hunt (awesome award-winning chef and author of Eating for Pleasure, People & Planet) and a brilliant foraging expert Fiona Bird (author of Let Your Kids Go Wild Outside).
So, in terms of the book, I had the characters, the basic plot and theme. I just I couldn’t get those first couple of chapters right. Where to start? Then I remembered the bins! And finally, I got writing. I upped the cringe factor up a bit – poor Laurie pulls some discarded pizzas from the supermarket bins, gets covered in garlicky pasta sauce and is caught by the most popular girl at school – and the story went from there.
I know you have lots of writing experience as a journalist for newspapers and magazines, but have you always dreamed of writing a book for children and young people?
When I was a child, I was an avid reader but my dream was to either be on the stage or a costume designer. I was in all the school plays, and took lots of ballet grades, and speech and drama exams. I still love going to the theatre. I also loved to write – so maybe the book dream was there in the background too, but it was only when I had my own children, and the house filled up with children’s books – so many brilliant stories! – that I decided to have a go at writing a children’s book.
Where did you get your ideas for the story?
There were a few different ideas in the Beauty and the Bin mix. I wanted to write about that tug between family and friends, and how awkward it can feel when you’re young, and I also got lots of ideas for the book from my journalism work, particularly when I was writing about food and social media.
Are the characters in the story based on people you know?
No! Definitely not. PROMISE! But I hope Laurie’s family, the Larksies, remind my own family a little of themselves, in that they are a warm, fun, supportive and loving bunch.
What does a typical day as an author look like?
A typical author day for me is getting up at 05.30am, and writing for a couple of hours, until it’s time to wake my children up for the mad dash for the school bus! After that, I do other writing work during the day. Sometimes, I come back and do an hour’s editing in the afternoon.
Did you write the book in lockdown?
Beauty and the Bin was actually written a while ago. I got my book deal in Spring 2019, and the book was due to be published in June 2020. It got delayed because of the pandemic, which is partly why I’m so excited that it’s finally out! I have been writing my second book, Binderella, in lockdown though.
Did you have to do lots of research for the book? Did you read any other books as part of the preparation?
By the time I came to write Beauty and the Bin, I think I’d already done a lot of the research. I was constantly reading books in this age range because my own children were at that reading age. The book also ties in with my journalism, about food waste, and a non-fiction book I wrote about food history. So, I think I’d done most of the research beforehand. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a huge learning experience! I had to learn lots about the process of writing a novel, from the structure to the pitch (in terms of the age I was aiming to write for) and find my style so that was the bit I researched and worked on rather than the subject area.
What were your favourite books when you were Laurie’s age, did you have a favourite author?
When I was Laurie’s age – she’s 12 – my favourite books included Archer’s Goon by Diana Wynne Jones and The Ghost of Thomas Kempe by Penelope Lively. I also loved the Trebizon series by Anne Digby.
Reading the book made me think a lot about eco issues, especially food waste and what we can all do to reduce this in our own homes. Can you think of ways that schools can help reduce food waste too?
At school, there are lots of different reasons why food is wasted, and I think it helps to understand them. Maybe a few things need tweaking, that’s all. Sometimes the canteen is noisy or there’s not enough time to eat and the result is those sandwiches in the bin. Or perhaps there’s not enough fresh cooking on the menu, or the portion sizes aren’t right for the age of the children? Some schools report having had success once they have got the children involved in the issue. They’ve got them weighing the food waste bins, for example, or making piles of food to show their classmates the extent of the problem or sharing out the leftover fruit at the end of the week. I think this sounds great.
Did you try all the Beauty and the Bin recipes out at home?
I do try the recipes. I’ve always loved making homemade beauty products – I used to shake jam jars of rose petals and water to make perfume as a child, and mash strawberries into face packs. I also make lime and mint lip balms, lemon drizzle lip sugars, and rose moisturisers. It’s so much fun!
You already have another story Binderella set in Silverdale High School which is due to be published next. Do you have lots of ideas for more stories – will they all link to eco-themes?
I do have ideas for more stories. I’m always thinking of ideas! I enjoy writing contemporary books and so as the climate emergency is a very real and relevant issue at the moment, I can imagine I’ll be writing about it in some way. You’re right that the next one is also set at the same school. Binderella has lots in it about clothes and fashion. It’s a hard one, when there’s pressure to fit in at school, and wear new, branded clothing but fast fashion has serious consequences for the climate. I would love it if even just one reader was able to take away the message that we still can make a difference and bring about change … and fit in with our friends too!
Once lockdown is finished would you like to visit schools to introduce children to your books in person?
I’d absolutely love to! I’m doing lots of virtual visits to schools for now, which is lots of fun. But I can’t wait to have the chance to visit children in schools and libraries, in real life.
Joanne was interviewed by ELS librarian Sarah. Thank you to Joanne for her brilliant answers!
Subscribing schools can order a copy of Beauty and the Bin via our online request form or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.