Mel Darbon on What the World Doesn't See and the best books for teens & tweens

What the World Doesn't See by Mel Darbon. Book cover and author photo.

One of the books we've shared with our Macaw subscribers this month is a powerful family drama with a real world setting. It tells the moving story of Maudie and her brother Jake, who has a learning disability. When their mum disappears, Jake is taken into care, but Maudie believes the best place for him is with her, so she sets in motion a wild plan to kidnap Jake and run away to Cornwall, a place that is particularly special to their family. It's a story packed with empathy and relatable characters. It's about giving a voice to young people, empowering them to stand up for themselves and others, often against the odds. We loved it and we think our tween and teen subscribers will too. Here author Mel Darbon tells us about being inspired by her brother, Guy, and which books for young people she recommends you read next.

What inspired you to write What the World Doesn’t See?

It was my brother who inspired me to write this book. Guy had severe learning disabilities. Characters with any sort of learning disability rarely feature in fiction books and did not at all when I was growing up, which made me very sad. Quite often people tend to only talk about the negatives of a learning disability, as they can’t see beyond the condition – or don’t know how to. I made up my mind that I wanted to give my brother, and others like him who can’t speak for themselves, a story, so that they could be heard. I wanted to show all the positives and the laughter and joy that someone like my brother can bring to our lives.

It’s hugely important because Jake voices the most important messages in the book; that just because you have difficulty communicating, doesn’t mean you have nothing to say and that being different doesn’t mean you don’t have the same desires as anyone else. Jake, like my brother, has limited language skills, so cannot easily have a voice for himself but we need to learn to take more time to listen to people who struggle with communicating. Through Jake I could demonstrate this and speak for my brother.

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

Yes, the two main protagonists are based on myself and my brother, so Maudie is me and Jake is my brother Guy.

I was absolutely drawing on my own and my brother’s experiences through the novel, both the positive and the negative. I didn’t want to show just the negatives, but it was important to highlight some of these situations my brother had been through in his life, in the hope it might stop people in their tracks and help them think about what they say or how they react to someone like him.

I have been with my brother on many occasions when he’s been either verbally abused or completely ignored, as though he doesn’t count as a normal human being. My family has even been told that he should never have been born. Up until the day he died there were times he was treated like this. There are many scenes in the book that happened including the cinema scene, the bowling scene and the coach scene.

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

That learning disability can be tough but is not tragic; you don’t have to feel pity for someone like Jake. My character Jiera in the book says that ‘disability isn’t a bad thing – it’s what makes us, us.’ I wanted this to help people look at disability differently. There is as much love, laughter and joy in their lives as anyone else.

That people with learning disabilities feel things as deeply as anyone else. Always remember that people with disabilities are human beings. Their disability is a small part of their complex and interesting lives.

That it is okay to talk about grief, that you are not alone and although you will grieve for the rest of your life, you will learn to cope with it and the happy memories will be the ones you remember most.

That you don’t have to be perfect. It’s enough being just you, as Maudie comes to understand.

That we must never make assumptions about people and that by putting on someone else’s shoes we learn to have empathy and from there navigate the world with love, and not hate or fear.

What would you say is the biggest or most valuable lesson Maudie learns?

I think that there are three very important lessons that Maudie learns.

That you don’t have to be perfect. Maudie learns by the end of her journey that it’s more than good enough for her to be herself and be true to who she is.

That it’s okay to have her own life and not feel guilty about it.

Maudie is very caring and only wants what is best for her brother, but she learns, very importantly during the time she is sole carer of Jake, that she doesn’t always get it right and makes assumptions that are well-meaning but not necessarily right. Yes, she knows her brother extremely well but, like many carers, is over-protective, which can unwittingly prevent Jake progressing in some areas.

Can you tell us anything about what the future holds for Maudie and Jake?

The future is exciting for Maudie and Jake!

Jake will have the opportunity to stay with his foster carer and expand his life beyond school and home, where he has been very dependent on his family and teachers. Jake will never be able to live independently, but he will grow in confidence and in his ability to do more things for himself. Life will always have its challenges for him, and many fears, but he will start to navigate these more easily. Jake will grow close to Gerren - but will always make sure he knows his place!

Maudie will get a place at her chosen art college in London to study fashion design and live with her best friend, Liv, in student accommodation with three other students. She will start to believe in herself more and have the confidence to push herself forwards to get what she wants. She will come to terms with her guilt at leaving her mother and realise she doesn’t need to feel that way, as she deserves her life as much as anyone else. Of course, she will be back home frequently, as nothing can break the bond between her and Jake, especially after their journey to Cornwall together.

Both Maudie and Jake will learn to navigate their grief over their father’s death and come to terms with it, knowing he will always live on inside them.

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

I think it’s a wonderful age – an age where you are learning to be the adult you want to be in your quest for identity, which is very exciting. I love their potential and also the uncertainty, as they head into adulthood. In my books I like to try and offer them something they wouldn’t have access to otherwise, in the knowledge they’re open to hearing it – and discussing it. It’s wonderful to be able to show them that things like making mistakes aren’t the end of the world, if you learn from them and deal with the consequences. I hope through my stories they can see themselves and not feel so alone. Teenagers love to question, so I like giving them a forum to do that and to show them they’re not the only ones asking them. They are mature enough to tackle tricky subjects, but everything is untrodden territory, so they need books to help them navigate this. 

Do you have a favourite place to write?

My favourite place to write is in my attic room in my house. I live at the top of a hill, in a town called Bradford on Avon in Wiltshire that is rich in Medieval history. I look out over the town to Salisbury Plain and the horizon. Being able to see that far gives you a better idea of where you are placed. I am lucky because every morning at dawn I watch two Peregrine Falcons hovering on the air currents, when they are here at the end of March. They live on the steeple of the old Saxon church, and the spire peeps through the trees below us. Then from May, I watch the bats flitting past my window at dusk, dipping and diving through the clouds of insects that they come to dine on. At night, when I’m working late, I listen to the owl hooting as she swoops across the Yew trees in the churchyard. All this is wonderful inspiration for my writing. I am incredibly lucky.

Which other books exploring real-world family issues would you recommend our subscribers read next?

This is a difficult choice to make but here goes!

Anthony McGowan: The Truth of Things is the story of two brothers, Nicky and Kenny, who has learning disabilities, and their struggles to cope with the tough life they lead once their mother has vanished. People can be cruel to Kenny and Dad drinks his troubles away, but the brothers stick together sharing adventures and managing to find humour in the most difficult of circumstances.

Brian Conaghan: The Weight of a Thousand Feathers is a moving and thought-provoking story about the lengths teenage Bobby will go to for the person he loves most. Highlights the pressures a young carer must deal with.

Lu Hersey: Broken Ground is a breath-taking coming-of-age story about the power of friendship, LGBTQ issues and the pursuit of justice, interwoven with folklore, magic and the paranormal. Deals with domestic violence but handles this in a safe and sensitive way.

Yasmin Rahman: This is My Truth is a powerful, sometimes shocking story about domestic violence, family trauma and living in foster care within the Muslim community. Yasmin treats the subjects with the utmost sensitivity, and it is ultimately a hopeful book.

Kel Duckhouse: The Bones of Me is told in verse and prose, and follows the life of fifteen-year-old Molly who lives on an East London council estate and dreams of becoming a boxer. An assault outside her local boxing club changes everything.

Copies of our What the World Doesn't See 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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