In the wake of Anti-Bullying Week 2019, today we feature a Q&A with John Hickman, whose new book Don't Feed The Troll (available here) explores the topic of bullying in the online world.
Don’t Feed The Troll is a honest, page-turning account of the potential pitfalls of social media and the effects of cyber-bullying on young people’s mental wellbeing. It deals with the very relevant topic of how easy online 'trolling' is to initiate and how difficult it is to control the consequences.
It is a raw account from the point of view of the 'troll' and it makes for a quick read with a high impact. The story also deals with first romance, heartbreak and rejection, friendships, and Year Ten ‘pile-ons’ and is suitable for Upper KS2 or Lower KS3.
Q&A with John Hickman
Author of Don't Feed the Troll (available here)
How did you become inspired to be an author?
When I was young – I loved reading. I devoured books. Sci-fi and horror. Robots and dinosaurs and aliens. Comics, story books, magazines, whatever I could my hands on. That love of reading translated into a love of writing – and I'd spend hours designing Choose Your Own Adventures and writing fantastical tales about me and my mates fighting aliens in the school toilets. The school toilets were my go-to setting (no idea why!).
But as I got older and went into secondary school, I realised reading wasn't cool. It wasn't what my mates were doing. And not only that, when I looked for books, I found there were no stories that reflected my life. No characters for me to identify with. It's hard being a teenage boy, especially when people see you as being “from the wrong side of the tracks”. You don't see yourself in books, so you don't think it's something that's meant for you. And because you don't read, you don't get the positives that reading offers. So, I gave up on reading.
I was from an estate where no one had much money and people didn't go to university. But, even though I was young, I realised education could offer me a route to better things. So, while I might've been a bit of a tearaway – I did my best at school and did go to university; eventually, I decided it was the only way I'd ever get a job I really wanted, which back then, was an animator.
So, I trained as an animator. Obviously, I needed something to animate, so I started writing scripts. I enjoyed the process, remembering how much I loved doing it as a kid. And it wasn't long before I was writing all the time. It was all I wanted to do. The only thing I could do. At first, I wrote about my own experiences. If something bad happened, I wrote about it. That way, even the bad experiences became something I could draw on and use positively. But I quickly realised if I wanted to write anything someone might want to read, I'd have to make some stuff up too. I'd have to use my imagination.
The problem was I didn't think I had one. It might sound crazy to say now, but when I first started writing, I didn't think I had an imagination. My story-telling muscles had withered over the years – they'd been out of practice. But as I started putting them into use and training them, all those ideas I'd had as a kid started finding their way back to me. And that's a big reason I wanted to write for kids. Because the way I saw it – I could push my imagination as far as it would go – and young people would come along with me, wherever I took them.
What are the challenges of being a writer from a working-class background?
It's hard being a writer full-stop. That's the truth. Writing is hard work. And it takes a lot of time to get good at it. But there's no doubt in my mind - it was much harder coming from a poor background. And was not just about having no money; it's not having role models, not having confidence and belief in yourself. It's not having the fearlessness to take a risk and go all in.
There's a perception – it's not what you know, it's who you know. And there's some truth to this. A writing career is built out of relationships. So, if you come from a connected family, and someone can put you in touch with a friend in the business, that has to help. It has to. But it's more than that. It's going into a room and feeling that you belong in this creative world. And that's hard when you come from a council estate and you know, deep down, the people sat opposite probably do come from a different world. Of course, that might not be true. You might not know. But that's definitely how it feels.
Look at the statistics – those from working-class backgrounds make up a tiny proportion of the creative industries. So, the odds feel very much stacked against you. When I started out, I knew I was disadvantaged. I knew the odds were against me and it made me angry. And I was right to be angry – the system is rigged. But all that anger did was get in my way. I had to move past it to get on, to make something of myself.
This is why I've written a lot for kids. Not only do I love telling fun and entertaining stories, I want to encourage young people to write themselves – especially those that come from tougher backgrounds. Because they've got stories that should be heard, that need to be heard. And I want to show these kids, that if I can become a professional writer – it's possible. There's no reason they can't do it too. There's no reason they can't do anything. Yes, it'll be harder. There'll be more barriers and obstacles along the way – much more sometimes – but if there's something they want, there's always a way to do it.
What's your inspiration behind writing ‘Don't Feed the Troll’?
Before we go any further – I should probably tell you what the book's about. Jack really likes Chloe. She's not like any other girl at school. But when Jack feels rejected by her, he does the unthinkable and becomes an online troll. But he soon finds himself in deep trouble, when an actual troll begins to stalk and insult him...
Don't Feed the Troll was an idea that was brewing in my head for quite a while – the way ideas often do. There have been so many news stories about young celebrities and the abuse they suffered online over recent years, and I know from experience – working as a social worker and in my own life, with my nieces – this is something that seems to be happening all the time. The thought of these “trolls” made me so angry. How dare they say these terrible things and make people feel awful about themselves – all behind the anonymity of the internet.
I wondered about these bullies – who were dishing out this abuse – and I questioned whether they'd say the things they said online in real life. My feeling was no. But what if they had no choice? What if their online antics caught up with them? That was where Troll came from – a nasty little character who grows and grows, the angrier he makes you and the more attention you give him. I wanted to write something that might help young people deal with this stuff, and do it in a fun, entertaining way.
My advice to young people going through online trolling, would be not to give it any attention. While I know that can be easier said than done, if you don't give trolls what they want – the attention – in most cases they'll give up. Starve them of that and they'll wither away, much like Troll in my book. However, I also think if anyone finds themselves subject to any sort of bullying, they should speak up and seek out help. Bullying is something most people have been through – myself included – so you're not alone and people will understand.
About John Hickman
John Hickman is an award-winning screenwriter, director and author, based in Newcastle upon Tyne. In addition to his books for children, John also writes for a number of television series, including EastEnders for BBC One, and The Dumping Ground for CBBC. His children’s television script, The Things, won the BAFTA Rocliffe New Writing Competition, and his first book, Freaks United, was shortlisted for the 2017 James Reckitt Hull Children’s Book Award.
Many thanks to the publisher for sending us a review copy of this book and to John for answering the Q&A.
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