Mark Illis on Running Away for Beginners and real world novels for early teens

Running Away for Beginners by Mark Illis
The second book we've sent our Macaw subscribers this month is a funny, heartfelt adventure that has a relatable real world setting, a brilliant cast of teen characters, and is packed with both empathy and humour. In Running Away for Beginners, Jasper has just been diagnosed with cancer and his friends help organise a weekend away to help clear his mind - except Jasper has a secret that he hasn't shared with them yet. Here author Mark Illis tells us about being inspired by his own personal experience of cancer and which other books with real world settings he recommends you read next.

What inspired you to write Running Away For Beginners?

I was inspired by my experience of having cancer as a teenager. Ages ago, my first novel – for adults - was about a young man with cancer, but after that I wanted to write about other things, like childhood, and families, and an unhappy assassin. Then, just a few years ago, I wrote my first book for teenagers, The Impossible. It was a weird adventure, featuring young people suffering strange and life-threatening mutations, but halfway through writing it I suddenly realised it was also a metaphor for my experience of having cancer. At this point, my wife, Sally, rolled her eyes. (Happens a lot.) ‘Maybe it’s about time you wrote about it more directly,’ she said. She was right - it felt natural to return to something that had had such a huge effect on my life. The challenge then was to write an exciting, funny and truthful book about a boy who discovers that he has cancer.

Are any of the characters or elements of the story based on real people or events?

This book partly comes out of the shock I remember when I first heard the diagnosis. What just happened? A stranger in a white coat has said a few words and shattered my life. Jasper’s experience isn’t mine, but my experience informs this novel, gives it a sort of heartfelt realism, I think. But Jasper and his three friends run away. Jasper goes in search of his almost-magical estranged Uncle Universe, and he’s stalked by a scary flat-faced man. None of that happened to me! That was all about giving Jasper an exciting journey that would make a great story, and would help him come to terms with what’s happened to him. I had to find different ways of coming to terms with what happened to me, and it was about wonderful friends and family, and of course the NHS, the same as for Jasper, but it was a different journey.

What do you hope young readers will take away from the story and how it unfolds?

First of all, I hope young readers will have an exciting time with my book and enjoy spending time with my characters. I hope they’ll laugh and gasp and maybe even shed a tear. But there are a couple of things they might pick up along the way. I’m sure some readers of this book will have fallen out with their friends, or with a member of their family. One of Jasper’s best friends - Maika - has somehow become his enemy, and Jasper’s mum and her estranged brother, Uncle Universe, aren’t speaking to each other. They all need to open up and communicate, try to understand what the other person is thinking and feeling. There are a lot of secrets in the book. When they are revealed, the characters are able to breathe, and make a fresh start. There is, rightly, a big emphasis these days on people opening up, talking about their feelings, and I think we’re all getting better at it, but empathy and honest communication are hard so I guess I’m saying – keep trying!

Besides that, of course, Jasper needs to realise that you can’t run away from your problems. If you do that, you just take them with you. So, what do you do when something bad happens to you? Ideally, you pick yourself up, you look for support from friends and family, you attempt to learn from what’s happened, and you find a way to move forward.

What would you say is the biggest or most valuable thing Jasper learns?

Don’t run away! Talk about your problems, be clear about what you’re feeling, and try to understand what your friends and family are feeling too.

Can you tell us anything about what the future holds for Jasper?

Well, he’s having treatment for cancer. He may lose a limb as a result, but judging from my own experience he’ll flourish, even if he does. I think he’s probably in a relationship with Maika, he’s getting on really well with Barney and Suravi, and with his uncle and his parents. I think he’s started thinking about his A levels, and he’s quite possibly intending to win a gold medal at the Paralympics.

Why did you choose to write books for this age group?

When my children were younger, I used to really enjoy reading to them. While I was doing that, I discovered stories and authors that I loved, and my inner child sat up and said: ‘This stuff is great!’ It made me feel like writing for young people. At the time I was writing soap opera for TV, which is all about big stories, cliff-hangers, vibrant characters and strong emotions. I’d also been writing novels for adults, so I thought I could bring together my skills as an adult author and a TV writer, and merge them with my excitement about children’s stories, and squeeze all that enthusiasm and experience into writing books for tweens and teens.

Do you have a favourite place to write?

I write in a little spare bedroom in my house with a bed, a desk and a skylight in it. There’s some left-over Marvel wallpaper on one wall, a corkboard with photographs, story-ideas and quotes on it on another, and two thick books which my laptop sits on. And there are papers everywhere, and a nice mug with a crack in it stuffed full of pens, and a little green plant which I water now and then. Often, there’s some Toblerone. I feel very comfortable and at home in that room and if I need a nap, I can have a lie down on the bed!

Which other books with real world settings for tweens and teens would you recommend our subscribers read next?

Ostrich Boys by Keith Gray is a lovely book about some friends on an amazing journey, while Two Weeks With The Queen by Morris Gleitzman is a funny and seriously moving book involving cancer. When The Sky Falls by Phil Earle is a gorgeous book set in World War II about a gorilla (among other things.) The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas is hard-hitting and just generally stunning and, for more of a laugh, The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd is lots of fun.

Copies of our Running Away for Beginners pack, including a copy of the book and loads of fun activities to go with it, are now available for individual purchase. Grab a copy while stocks last!

This post includes affiliate links to our page, meaning we receive a small percentage of the sale should you purchase through them. Additionally, a percentage from all sales on the platform goes directly to local UK bookshops which is an initiative we're delighted to support!



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