Author Amber Lee Dodd worked at Blackwell’s bookshop in Portsmouth. Now she’s returning there to launch her first novel.
Many of us can remember that magical moment when we suddenly realise we are reading. Silently. In our heads.
That door into another world usually opens when we are about five.
For Amber Lee Dodd it did not happen until she was nine, pushing 10.
She says: ‘I really struggled to read because I was horrifically dyslexic.
‘I was the last child to come off reading books, but when I finally managed to pick up the skills to be able to read, it became something really important.
‘It was at the end of Year 5 when it suddenly all clicked and I started to become a confident reader, reading in my head not out loud, and the books I loved more than anyone’s were those of Jacqueline Wilson.’
Dame Wilson was the children’s laureate from 2005-2007.
She is hugely popular because of her understanding of modern children, the way they live and the problems they encounter. That, coupled with her sense of humour, have made her an extremely popular author, particularly with the nine to 11 age range.
Amber, who went to Court Lane and Springfield schools in Portsmouth remembers being particularly awestruck when the author visited the city when she was heavily into her books.
Now Amber is a published children’s author and her first novel is out on April 7. She is also a playwright who worked for the young playwrights’ programme at Chichester Festival Theatre. She is also about to appear in a BBC programme with poet Benjamin Zephaniah.
As we chat in Blackwell’s bookshop in the city, Amber has just received the first boxes of We Are Giants.
She is fizzing with excitement for on the cover is an endorsement from... Jacqueline Wilson.
It says Amber ‘is an exciting new author who writes sensitively and truthfully about an interesting, unusual family. We Are Giants is a total page-turner, very moving and touching.’
‘I couldn’t believe it when I got the letter from Jacqueline herself,’ says the 29-year-old, who still lives in Portsmouth.
‘She must be sent hundreds of new books every year and I imagine she only agrees to endorse those she truly likes.’
We Are Giants is unusual. It’s funny, heart-warming with a refreshing take on growing up (in more ways than one), moving home and living with a disability.
Sydney, a girl, so-called because that is where she was conceived, thinks her mum Amy is, of course, the best mum in the world – even if she is a bit different. For she stopped growing when she hit 124cm or four feet.
Sydney’s father died when she was five so she is being brought up by a single mother who happens to be a dwarf. There’s also her spiky, teenaged older sister Jade who sprays her hair pink and gets suspended from school.
The family are forced to move from Battersea to Portsmouth and the girls have to deal with school bullies and work out how to deal with the business of growing up.
But Sydney does not want to grow up, not if it means getting bigger than her mum.
Now you begin to see why Jacqueline Wilson took a shine to Amber’s work.
Amber says: ‘I worked with children with disabilities, including dwarfism, when I was younger. It made a huge impression on me.
‘I was always slightly shy so I rather stepped into the deep end working with children, especially those needing special treatment or care. But I found my feet and a passion for working with children.’
One specific inspiration for We Are Giants was a boy called Joe who had dwarfism. ‘I worked with him at a charity set up to provide physically disabled children and teenagers with activities during the summer holidays.
‘He was about three feet tall and in his early teens. He was very popular with other children because he was an ordinary, friendly lad with the usual interests of a boy his age.
‘But it was difficult to see how he was looked at and treated by other people when we went on trips.
‘He was an ordinary boy growing up who just happened to have dwarfism and he made me think about how all families share similar issues and challenges – challenges to do with identity, coping with loss and taking pride in who we are.’
Amber began looking at non-fiction that would help her connect with a wider social and historical context that included people with disabilities ‘people so often airbrushed out of history’.
That is when she discovered the story of the Ovitz family, the largest family of dwarfs ever recorded.
They were a family of Romanian Jewish actors and travelling musicians who survived Auschwitz concentration camp.
They were the largest family of dwarfs ever recorded and were the largest family (12, ranging from a 15-month-old baby to a 58-year-old woman) to enter Auschwitz and survive intact, despite the attentions of the Angel of Death, the Nazi camp doctor Josef Mengele.
Sydney finds out about them at school and their biography In Our Hearts We Were Giants. They make her proud of her own family.
‘The title is echoed in my own title as it was such an important book for me,’ adds Amber.
She started writing the book when she was 22 and when she was working with disabled young people.
‘I was looking for a book for one of my disabled students who said there was nothing for him. ‘‘If there are, they’re all about how horrible it is to be disabled and I don’t want to read that’’ he told me.
‘That’s when I decided to write a book with disabled characters in it, but not be about disability.’
She continues: ‘These children come from ordinary backgrounds with parents and siblings who deal with the problems we all deal with.
‘My book is not one about disability.
‘It’s a book about grief and growing up. It features a strong mother character who just happens to have a disability.’
n We Are Giants is published by Quercus Children’s Books on April 7 at £6.99.
The News has teamed up with publishers Quercus to offer copies of We Are Giants to three lucky readers.
They will be signed by its author Amber Lee Dodd.
To be in with a chance of winning, answer the following questions:
n What is the name of the novel’s main character who was conceived in Australia?
n From which area of London is the family forced to leave before setting up home in Portsmouth?
n Who was the children’s laureate between 2005 and 2007.
E-mail your answers to firstname.lastname@example.org with ‘giants competition’ in the subject field.
Or send your answers on a postcard to We Are Giants Competition, The News, 1000 Lakeside, North Harbour, Western Road, Portsmouth PO6 3EN.
In both instances please include your name, full address and a daytime phone number.
Entries must be received by 6pm on Monday, April 4, 2016.
Meanwhile, Amber Lee Dodd will return to Portsmouth University Blackwell’s bookshop, where she worked until recently and was the Bookshop Girl blogger, on Saturday, April 9 to launch We Are Giants.
The event runs from 2pm until 3.30pm and you will find the shop in Cambridge Road.