Tamsin Winter Talks Selective Mutism in Children and Her Upcoming Novel
We spoke with children's writer Tamsin Winter about anxiety disorders in children, childhood bullying, mental health, and the importance of positive body representation for kids
6 January 2020
Behind the dazzling voice of some of the most unique and refreshing characters in children's literature today
Ahead of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature this February 4 to 9, 2020, we had a chat with award-winning children's novelist Tamsin Winter.
Loved for her empowering stories centring on children with complex problems, Winter spoke on the struggles she faced as a school student, selective mutism, body shaming, children's mental health, as well as her new, upcoming book!
Her first book, "Being Miss Nobody", is much-loved by school students and parents for its compelling take on selective mutism in children, a form of anxiety disorder where a child who is normally capable of speech, cannot find their voice. This childhood disorder hinders a kid's ability to communicate as they hope to in certain social settings.
"Jemimah Small Versus the Universe" is another hit that deserves a spot in any child's library. The book follows a big girl and her triumph over adversity - an equally funny and touching read for children in an age of body shaming online.
Parents, let our interview show you why Winter will become your child's next favourite author...
On which leading lass she relates to the most...
"That’s a very tough question! I have lived with anxiety my entire life, so can relate to how Rosalind feels in social situations. I definitely share her “worst-case-scenario” thinking. I didn’t grow up getting bullied for my size like Jemima does, but from about the age of eight or nine, I had a very negative body image which lasted well into my twenties.
Both Being Miss Nobody and Jemima Small Versus the Universe are ultimately stories of triumph over adversity, and of learning to hold your head high. I think, partly, I write the books I needed when I was younger."
On how she tapped into elements of child bullying, insecurity, and anxiety disorders...
"I’m kind of obsessive when it comes to research. There’s one joke Jemima makes in Jemima Small Versus the Universe about her brother’s pet tarantula for which I had to track down a pest control expert.
For me, research goes hand-in-hand with the creative stuff and is just as important. I draft and edit alongside reading fiction and non-fiction books on the topic; blogs and vlogs were particularly useful for the body shaming research I did for Jemima Small Versus the Universe.
Although I write fiction, in order for it to be authentic, it needs to be based very much on real experiences in the real world."
On how she studied selective mutism in children...
"I read a lot of medical journals, therapist guides, psychiatric reports, but nothing helped as much as the first-person accounts I read about what it’s like growing up with selective mutism. I’ve also worked with young people who have the condition.
Every child with SM is different, but it was important to me for Rosalind’s SM to feel authentic. What struck me throughout my research was how difficult it can be to show how bright, funny, kind and generally awesome you are when you can’t speak.
That was what I wanted to portray in Being Miss Nobody. Rosalind finally finds a way to have a voice at school - through her anonymous blog – although of course it’s not the fail-safe solution she imagines."
On her top tips for parents with children who have selective mutism...
"Since Being Miss Nobody came out I’ve been contacted by a lot of parents asking for help and advice about SM. I tell them pretty much the same thing.
The first and most important step is acceptance. After that it’s love.
No mental health condition has a magic cure.
Some mental health conditions don’t have a cure at all. Some get better with time and understanding. What always helps any young person going through a tough time is acceptance, support and love. And books of course!"
On the common behaviours of selective mutism in children that others may misinterpret...
"Every child is different, but the inability to speak (which happens with SM) can be misinterpreted as stubbornness, or even willful defiance.
I read about a girl who was only six or seven years old who fell over and broke her arm during morning break at school. She wasn’t able to tell anybody until her mother picked her up at the school gate at the end of the day. Two things stayed with me about that story.
Firstly, that someone can be in extreme pain but their SM means they’re unable to ask for help. And secondly, that no one noticed. None of her teachers, classmates, no one. She went almost the whole day with nobody noticing she’d broken her arm.
That feeling of being invisible was a difficult but important part of SM to include in the book. "
Oh how insightful and painful it was to revisit her inner teen...
"I think any author who writes for young people has to, at certain stages in the writing process, re-connect with their inner teen. My teenage years were not the greatest time of my life.
I had very low self-esteem, felt anxious, insecure, hated the way I looked. I felt self-conscious basically all the time. That’s probably one of the reasons I feel so passionate about writing for young people now.
Books reach you in a way that nothing else can.
I can vividly remember stuff from my own school days, how cruel people could be, how little I valued myself. But, I also remember the strength of the friendships I had. Whenever I look back on my teenage years there’s a lot of cringing, a lot of pain, a lot of questionable decisions, a lot of laughter, and also luckily a lot of good material for my books…"
On her best advice for kids who feel as though their size isn't good enough...
"We live in a world that places an extraordinary amount of importance on our appearance. We are judged for how we look, how much we weigh, even what our eyebrows look like.
I wasted a lot of my life caring about stuff like that. The truly important things about you can never be measured on scales or viewed in a mirror.
Kindness, brains, wit, ambition, determination - the invisible stuff is what really matters. That’s what gets you places."
On the type of student support every school should have...
"When I was growing up, no one ever talked about mental health. So, mainly I wish that was different. Young people now are more informed and open about how they are feeling.
My teenage years were kind of isolating. Luckily, I read a lot of books. (Mainly because I lived in the middle of nowhere and there was nothing much else to do.) But I’m glad books were readily available.
They gave me an insight into that vast emotional landscape we all have as humans. I think reading is a remedy for just about anything. "
On who she's excited to meet at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature 2020
"I am very excited about meeting Lucy Strange. I absolutely adore her books and she very kindly provided a quote for Being Miss Nobody. We’ve never met in person, so she’ll be the first person I’ll be seeking out.
I’m also hoping I get to meet Jane Goodall who is one of my childhood heroes. And if I can get a selfie with Sir Ranulph Fiennes I think my mum will be impressed! I’m also looking forward to meeting lots of young readers.
That’s one of the best parts of being an author for me. It’s a huge honour to be part of the festival – as one of the winners of the 2015 writing prize it’s where it all began for me. It’s kind of surreal to come back as an author, so I’ll be appreciating every moment."
On her third, upcoming children's book...
"My next book is about a thirteen-year-old girl called Dylan, whose parents are mummy-and-daddy bloggers. They have been blogging and You-Tubing about her since she was born, sharing even the most private moments – and in doing so have amassed a large following.
Dylan, however, finds her parents’ posts embarrassing in the extreme and, when her mum takes it one viral post too far, Dylan becomes even more desperate to step out of the social media spotlight.
But her parents, with sponsorship deals on the table, have other plans. However, so has Dylan. It’s a contemporary, funny, and maybe a little heart-breaking book that looks at what happens when “sharenting” goes too far. I’m hoping I can share the title with you at the festival!"
Where to meet Tamsin Winter at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature
- Workshop: Writing for Young Teens: Workshop with Tamsin Winter (Event No. 822)
- Date: Saturday, Februay 8, 2020
- Time: 9:30 am - 11 am
- Location: Al Baraha 2, InterContinental, Dubai Festival City
- Price: AED 199
- Buy your tickets.