Guest Post: ‘Something I Should Know’ by alumna Siobhan Kalli

Siobhan Kalli is a writer and Goldsmiths alumna (MA Children’s Literature, 2019). After graduating in English and Linguistics (BA) from the University of Nottingham, she completed a PGCE at Keele and taught English GCSE and A level in the UK.

Siobhan also taught English in Greece and worked as an editor in an ELT publishing house based in Athens. When she returned to the UK, she worked as an editor at Heinemann ELT, HarperCollins Primary Education and BBC Children’s Books.

After having children, she worked as a freelance feature writer for several publications, including the Evening Standard, Greece magazine, Ms London magazine, and travel, health and fitness/lifestyle publications. She later retrained as an Adult Education Tutor and taught adult literacy courses in FE settings. Siobhan fits creating fiction around the reality of housework, childcare and a pay-the-bills job and currently works in Westminster at the Department for Education, as part of the ministerial communications team.

Siobhan reflects on Goldsmiths…

I completed my MA in Children’s Literature at Goldsmiths in 2019 after studying part-time over two years. When I think back to my time at Goldsmiths, two things come to mind: food and fear. Food, because I was always hungry, having rushed to my 5.30-seminar straight from work, and fear, because returning to an academic environment after a gap of twenty-plus years left me feeling terrified, but also excited and determined to push myself out of my comfort zone to realise a long-held ambition. The fear soon subsided, and the food dilemma was quickly resolved when I discovered the delicious falafel wraps at Beirut Canteen, a fabulous Lebanese place just opposite the University in New Cross.

Why Choose an MA in Children’s Literature?

It’s a good question and the answer is that, having spent several years teaching and working in children’s publishing, it really was an obvious choice. What drove me was the conviction that what we read as children shapes our beliefs, our understanding of the world and our relationship to it in powerful and intangible ways.

This course offered the chance not only to ponder these truths but also dissect and interrogate (or problematise, as Professor Michael Rosen would remind us) in a way that I found hugely satisfying. Is, for example, all children’s literature didactic? Can it be subversive? Is reading the gateway to intellectual freedom?

Is, for example, all children’s literature didactic? Can it be subversive? Is reading the gateway to intellectual freedom?

Highlights for me (apart from being treated to a spontaneous rendition of the Michael Rosen Rap by the eponymous poet as an end of term treat) included deconstructing Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, one of my favourite childhood reads, through the lens of Marxist critical theory.

It was equally rewarding and alarming to analyse what I now know to be termed the author’s ‘unexamined assumptions’ and consider the power authors wield when it comes to delivering subliminal beliefs through fiction, whether consciously or not. We were encouraged to unpick our own suppositions, too, dissecting texts in a bold and unflinching way unparalleled by my earlier experiences of the academic study of literature at undergraduate level.

What did you find most useful?

Having chosen the Creative Writing Pathway, half of my assignments comprised academic essays and the other half, including my dissertation, creative pieces. The idea for my recently published novel Something I Should Know took shape in the creative writing workshop course, ‘Writing for Children and Young Adults’, taught by established children’s author Sara Grant.

I had previously completed the ‘Creative and Life Writing’ module with Ardu Vakil, who memorably asserted that ‘yearning’ is a central element common to all fictional characters, something I took to heart in my writing. This, along with Sara Grant’s reminder to keep asking yourself ‘What is at the heart of this story?’ resonated with me during the creative process and kept me on track when unsure of where I was going with my plot or character development, echoing through numerous drafts and revisions.

What was the most challenging part?

Suffice to say, the creative writing process is neither simple nor linear. Many, many words were written and many, many words were deleted. What ended up as a 40,000-word novel underwent several iterations, starting as something quite different and even, at one point, taking the format of a dual viewpoint back-and-forth series of diary entries (maybe I’ll come back to that format one day).

The deadlines and the support of the workshop environment at Goldsmiths ensured that I kept on track and pushed myself to improve. Likewise, my dissertation supervisor, award-winning author Jenny Downham, patiently encouraged me to ensure every chapter had a narrative intention, included an element of a ‘ticking clock’, reminding me that my story required jeopardy, an escalating problem and an active hero.

These were things I had studied, but to put them into practice in my writing required new levels of focus and drive. Jenny’s firm but fair, forensic analysis of my chapters demanded that I take an increasingly disciplined approach to justify every word on every page. Having my book brought to publication is an enormously satisfying conclusion to my MA course at Goldsmiths. I had written some fiction before but the course was key in aiding my pathway to success.

I had written some fiction before but the course was key in aiding my pathway to success.

What is Something I Should Know about?             

Something I Should Know is an ‘uplit’ story for 9-12 year olds. The premise is Mamma Mia meets reality TV show Long Lost Family and the protagonist, Olivia, is a thirteen-year-old who desperately wants to find the father she has never met.

In a light-hearted way, it touches on the weightier theme of children’s rights: the heart of my story is a person’s right to know their birth parents and their heritage. It is also about adults’ deception born of a misguided aim to shield children from difficult truths.

The book is currently available at the Candy Jar Books website, pending wider release in the summer.

You can follow Siobhan Kalli on Twitter.