Book of Miriam shows teenagers don't want tough topics hidden

CHILDREN'S novelist Miriam Halahmy has proved you can take on tough topics for teenagers with debut book Hidden.

The issue of asylum seekers generates massive debate in the media, but the teacher turned writer has received rave reviews for Hidden.

"The Observer loved it and was it voted The Sunday Times' children's book of the week," she said.

"It's been non-stop the past three months. There is continual interest from young people and adults as there is a crossover element."

Two further novels in a three-book deal with Meadowside Books will be published next year as the mum-of-two makes her mark.

Born in West London, Miriam is the middle child of Londoners Daphne and Benny Berke. She has two brothers, Tony and Louis.

Religiously, the family was members of Greenford Federation Synagogue prior to joining a Reform shul. And she has fond memories of her Jewish upbringing.

"I always loved the whole period around the High Holydays," she said. "It's a long and reflective period where I enjoy the build up."

Educated in Greenford and Surrey, the road to writing began during her formative years.

"I've always written from childhood," Miriam recalled. "Reading was so important to me, but I also wanted to write, so I wrote stories, diaries and poetry.

"I was a voracious reader with anything I could lay my hands on, particularly adventure books.

"I read everything by Enid Blyton, especially the Famous Five books, Richmal Crompton's Just William series and loved Little Women by Louisa M Alcott.

"My mother also introduced me to writers like Emile Zola who wrote many novels, especially a large series on a French family. Zola is like the French Dickens.

"We'd sit together and read hour after hour."

An astute student, Miriam gained a teaching certificate and BEd degree at Goldsmith College, London.

Following her marriage to Raphael Halahmy in 1978, she continued her thirst for education with an MA at Middlesex University.

A teacher for 25 years in Barnet and Camden, Miriam's love of reading fed into her writing, but the break to be recognised as a serious writer was a slow burn.

Two poetry collections, Cutting Pomegranates and Stir Crazy, were well received, as was a début adult novel, Secret Territory that centred on a Jewish girl seeking Zionism and her father who joined the Irgun prior to War of Independence.

"In the mid-80s creative writing classes started in this country," Miriam recalled. "I went along to see what it was all about, whether I had anything.

"I had a short story published, which was translated into Dutch. The story went on to become the basis for Secret Territory.

"Although it was my first big publication, it was very difficult to get a publisher so I started doing book reviews.

"My teaching career took off again so it was difficult to keep writing.

"Throughout the 80s and 90s it was a case of establishing myself, but it was only when I came out of teaching around six years ago to focus on writing, things developed with a book deal in 2009."

Down the years Miriam had worked with asylum seekers.

Having finished a resources book on the subject for a school, she was well aware of heart-rending stories where families and children displayed incredible courage in adversity.

Miriam challenged a perceived view that the country was being flooded with asylum seekers and they did not need to be here.

"Many immigrants make positive contributions to society," she noted.

"Adults and children had to be part of a debate. There were many inaccurate statistics and rumours so I wanted to challenge them."

It was against this background that fortuitously Hidden came about.

Walking on Hayling Island's pebbled beach where her parents lived for 25 years, Miriam had a notion.

And listening to her love of the island, an idyllic setting overlooking the Isle of Wight, it's obvious why it provided to be the perfect setting.

"There is always an initial idea and it's almost a mystery where that comes from," she said. "But you can track it, and looking at Hidden, I'd done a lot of work with asylum seekers both as a teacher and mentor.

"Suddenly, I thought, what if a couple of teenagers are walking here and see someone thrown from a boat into the sea and almost drown.

"They rescue them only to discover they are an illegal immigrant refused entry to the UK and likely to be killed if they return home. They decide to save him from being deported."

She added: "Although I had the idea, it did not take off until the characters came alive.

"It's only when they start to speak to me and find a voice that you get the action and dialogue of the characters. That is when the plot takes off and the storyline runs by itself."

With a plot developing, Miriam's long standing knowledge and extensive research through numerous visits to historic sights, the internet and local publications developed a story of massive potential.

A popular holiday destination in the 70s, the tranquil island boasts fewer than 18,000 residents.

Behind its beauty though are hidden treasures, not least the fact that it has a unique place in sporting history as Peter Chilvers invented windsurfing in 1958 when he fixed a curtain to a board before surfing the waves.

And during the Second World War, five boats helped in the war effort when it departed from Hayling Island for Dunkirk where it rescued soldiers from the beaches in 1940.

Miriam traced one of the boats, Count Dracula, which is maintained for local tours. And one of her characters in the novel utilises this history to demonstrate courage when faced with hiding an illegal immigrant.

Compiling Hidden was painstaking.

"I've written the three novels in the cycle," she said. "Each book took six to nine months to get a first draft down with research and everything it entails.

"It's then a question of time with continual redrafting and working with the editor.

"The first book is out; the second, due out next March, is currently being edited. The third, due to be published next October, I'm still working on."

Regarding future projects, she noted: "I have lots of ideas and have a big, complicated novel I've been researching for a while and am hoping to start this summer."

Away from the world of writing, Miriam, who is in her 50s, keeps busy.

Not surprisingly after yearning for a novelist career, she utilises time within the industry. But the world of asylum seekers is not far away.

"I run small creative writing workshops and also mentor a group of asylum seekers through English Pen: Literature and Human Rights," she said.

"The organisation started in the UK and has become international. It's involved in human rights campaigning for writers in prison around the world. We give refugees and asylum seekers a chance to write their story."

Miriam also belongs to the Society of Authors, Society of Children Writers and Illustrators and Scattered Authors Society.

"They are really useful groups for networking," she commented. "You learn about the industry, swap ideas and meet editors. In fact, I met my agent this way."

© 2011 Jewish Telegraph