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Written by Jenny DownhamAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Jenny Downham

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On Sale: September 13, 2011
Pages: 416 | ISBN: 978-0-375-98938-4
Published by : David Fickling Books RH Childrens Books
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

If someone hurts your sister and you're any kind of man, you seek revenge.
If your brother's accused of a crime but says he didn't do it, you defend him.

When Mikey's sister claims a boy assaulted her, his world begins to fall apart. When Ellie's brother is charged with the offense, her world begins to unravel. When Mikey and Ellie meet, two worlds collide.

This is an unflinching novel from the bestselling author of Before I Die. It's about loyalty and the choices that come with it. Above all, it's a book about love. 

Excerpt

One
 
Mikey couldn’t believe his life. Here was the milk on the counter in front of him. Here was Ajay, hand out expectantly. And here was Mikey, scrabbling for coins among the old receipts and bits of tissue in his jacket pocket. A woman in the queue behind him shuffled her feet. Behind her, a bloke coughed impatiently.

Anger stirred Mikey’s gut. ‘Sorry,’ he mumbled. ‘I’ll have to leave it.’

Ajay shook his head. ‘Take the milk and pay me tomorrow, it’s all right. And here, take some chocolate for your sisters.’

‘No. You’re OK.’

‘Don’t be daft, take it.’ Ajay put a couple of Kit Kats in the carrier bag with the milk. ‘And have a good day, yeah?’

Mikey doubted it. He hadn’t had one of those for weeks. Still, he managed a quick nod of thanks, grabbed the bag and legged it.

Outside, the rain was still going, a fine mist falling into light from the fluorescent strip above the door. He breathed in deep, trying to smell the sea, but the air smelled of fridges – something to do with the fans blowing warm from the shop behind him. He yanked up his hood and crossed the road back to the estate.

When he got back to the flat, Holly was sitting on the carpet in front of the TV, eating Cookie Crisps from the packet. Karyn had stopped crying and was kneeling behind her, quietly brushing her sister’s hair.

Mikey looked her up and down. ‘You feeling better?’

‘A bit.’

‘So, you want to tell me what happened?’

Karyn shrugged. ‘I tried to go out. I got as far as the front door.’

‘Well, that’s something.’

She rolled her eyes. ‘Crack open the champagne.’

‘It’s a start.’

‘No, Mikey, it’s the end. Holly needed milk for cereal and I couldn’t even manage that.’
‘Well, I’ve got some now, so you want a cup of tea?’

He went to the kitchen and filled the kettle. He opened the curtains, then the window. The rain was slowing down and it smelled fresh out there now. He could hear a child crying. A woman shouting. A door slammed three times. Bang. Bang. Bang.

Holly came in and dumped the cereal box on the counter. Mikey waggled the collar of her pyjama top. ‘Why aren’t you dressed for school?’

‘Because I’m not going.’

‘Yeah, you are.’

She collapsed backwards against the fridge, her head flung up towards the ceiling. ‘I can’t go to school, it’s the bail hearing!’

He frowned at her. How the hell did she know about that? ‘Listen, Holly, if you promise to go and get dressed, I’ll give you a Kit Kat.’

‘Is it two or four sticks?’

‘Four.’

He rummaged in the carrier bag, pulled out one of the bars and dangled it at her. ‘And can you wake Mum up?’

Holly looked up, surprised. ‘Really?’

‘Yeah.’ If this wasn’t an emergency, he didn’t know what was.

Holly shook her head as if the idea was crazy, grabbed the Kit Kat and ran away up the stairs.

Mum thought the police would help Karyn, that was the trouble. After taking Karyn to the station and reporting what had happened, Mum had stepped back, probably telling herself she’d done her bit. But the police were crap. They’d asked Karyn loads of personal questions, even though she was upset. Then the cop who brought her home frowned at the mess, like she was judging the whole family. Mum thought that was normal, but Mikey had bitten his tongue in frustration, tasted blood in his mouth, the rust and the thickness of it.

Later, when the cop went, Mikey got the address out of Karyn and told Jacko to bring the car. Jacko brought the lads with him too, but when they got to the bastard’s house they were too late – Tom Parker had been arrested hours ago and forensics were already scouring the place.

For nearly two weeks Mikey had tried to swallow the anger. But how did he stop his stomach tilting every time Karyn cried? How did he watch Holly stroking Karyn’s arm, squeezing her shoulder, giving little wet taps to her face, like she was a radio that needed tuning or a TV that had gone wrong?

Mum’s solution was to hide herself away. But an eight-year-old comforting a fifteen-year-old meant the world was upside down. And something had to be done about it.
He made the tea and took it through, put it on the table in front of Karyn. She’d made a nest for herself on the sofa. She kept doing that – covering herself with cushions, blankets, jumpers.

Mikey went over and sat on the edge. ‘How you feeling now?’

With the light behind her she looked so sad.

‘He’s probably out already,’ she said. ‘Just walking about having a nice time.’

‘He won’t be allowed anywhere near you. He won’t be allowed to text you or talk to you or anything. He’ll probably be tagged, so he can’t go out after dark.’

She nodded, but she didn’t look sure. ‘There’s this girl at school,’ she said. ‘Last term she had seven boyfriends and everyone said she was a slag.’

This again. ‘You’re not a slag, Karyn.’

‘And there’s a boy in my tutor group and he had ten girlfriends. You know what they call him?’

Mikey shook his head.

‘A player.’

‘Well, they’re wrong.’

‘So what’s the word for someone like him?’

‘I don’t know.’

She sighed, lay back on the sofa and stared at the ceiling. ‘I watched this programme on TV,’ she said. ‘What happened to me happens to loads of girls. Loads and loads.’
Mikey looked at his nails. They were all ragged. Did he bite them? When did he start doing that?

‘Most girls don’t report it, because hardly any boys get done for it. Something like six in a hundred. That’s not very many, is it?’

Mikey shook his head again, bit his lip.

‘When I opened the door just now, there were some kids down in the courtyard and they all looked at me. If I go back to school, everyone will stare at me too.’ She lowered her eyes and he felt the shame wash off her in waves. ‘They’ll look at me as if I deserved it. Tom Parker invited me to his house and I went, so how can anything be his fault?’ She pushed a handful of hair from her face. ‘That doesn’t even make any sense.’

He wanted her to stop talking. He felt a rising panic that if she didn’t stop right now, she was going to go on and on for ever. Maybe she’d even talk about the night it happened. He couldn’t bear to listen to that again.

‘I’m going to get him for you,’ he said. It came out loud and sounded very certain.

‘You are?’

‘Yeah.’

It was strange how words meant something when they came out of your mouth. Inside your head they were safe and silent, but once they were outside, people grabbed hold of them.

She sat up. ‘What are you going to do?’

‘I’m going to go to his house and smash his head in.’

Karyn pressed the flat of her hand against her forehead as if the thought of it gave her a headache. ‘You’ll never get away with it.’

But Mikey could tell by the sudden glow in her eyes that she wanted him to do this for her. He hadn’t done it and he should have done it. And if he did it, then she could stop hurting.
 


From the Hardcover edition.
Jenny Downham

About Jenny Downham

Jenny Downham - You Against Me

Photo © Rolf Marriott

A Conversation with Jenny Downham, author of You Against Me
 
Before I Die, published in 2007, was a huge success. Was it difficult to write another novel following that?
It’s very easy for a first time novelist to feel like an impostor, to fret that everyone who has shown faith in them will soon realise that they’ve made a horrible mistake and that coming up with a second novel is completely out of the question. I spent a lot of time worrying instead of writing.
 
Both of your young adult novels broach difficult subjects—the terminal illness of a teen in Before I Die and sexual assault in You Against Me. What is it that draws you to tackle such weighty topics?
I don’t know. I can’t seem to help it. I don’t really think in terms of themes or topics when I begin a project; I’m more interested in characters and the stories they have to tell. I seem to have a tendency to be drawn to the extraordinary in the everyday and vice versa. In Before I Die, the protagonist is dying, but the novel is actually an examination of what it means to be alive. In You Against Me, there has been an allegation of sexual assault, but at the book’s heart is a love story.
 
What inspired you to write You Against Me?
I actually knew very little when I started writing. I had a few ideas, but they were abstract, theoretical, as if I knew the tone of the piece, but nothing else. I always use free writing techniques when I start a new book, which is a bit like improvising in theatre—throwing words down and not planning anything in advance. Most of it goes in the bin, but the strongest themes and voices keep returning.
 
After months of this, I began to know more. I was haunted by a small seaside town, by a girl called Karyn who alleged something terrible had happened to her and by her brother, Mikey, who was out for revenge.
 
Your new novel handles a very tough topic that effects many teens. What was that responsibility like and how did it inform your writing?
I often felt overwhelmed with responsibility. I didn’t want any girl or young woman to pick up my book and think after reading it that they shouldn’t bother reporting an assault, and yet I wanted the novel to accurately reflect the very difficult realities of prosecuting a case such as this.
 
I tried not to let my fear inform the writing. The danger was that I would hold back on tackling anything too difficult in case I offended anyone. To counter the fear, I interviewed criminal lawyers, social workers, family support workers and police officers. I watched court cases and read lots of books. The research really grounded the novel, but it slowed me down a lot too. When the first draft was finished, every single one of the people who helped me with research read it and gave feedback. I wanted any gender bias or prejudice to come from the characters, not from the author. I wanted to be sure I wasn’t perpetuating any myths or stereotypes around sexual assault.
 
Were there any other young adult works that you found particularly helpful or inspirational while working on You Against Me?
I tend to steer away from fiction that is thematically similar when I am writing. I stick to nonfiction books about the subject instead.

The two main characters of You Against Me are not directly involved in the incident that the book centers around. Did you know from the beginning that you would tell the story from the perspectives of Mikey and Ellie, the siblings of the victim and the accused?
I originally started writing from Karyn’s point of view, but it became clear quite quickly that her perspective was too “hot.” In fact, she was a very unreliable narrator, often unwilling and mostly silent, almost as if she didn’t want to be in the story. At that point, her brother Mikey took over the narrative. In fact he ran with it. He was determined to avenge his sister and all I had to do was follow him.
 
I loved writing Mikey because he was a mass of contradictions—he’d left school with limited prospects, yet was hugely ambitious. The main carer for his family, he also managed to juggle a complicated love life. Bright, but often inarticulate, he had an innate distrust of authority, yet his family were dependent on police and social workers for support.
 
I thought I’d found the book’s narrative voice, but then Ellie appeared—clever, determined Ellie. She’d recently moved to the area and had no friends yet. She did, however, have a brother and she certainly seemed to know a lot more than she was saying about what had happened to Mikey’s sister.
 
With two voices, a more complex narrative began to emerge. I also knew that being one step back from what happened was a more interesting way to tackle the subject of assault and all the prejudice that surrounds it.
 
While dealing with sexual assault, You Against Me is much more than an “issues” book. Was the theme of finding love in unexpected places something that evolved during the course of your writing?
You Against Me is a love story, but the love is fought for under very difficult circumstances. It’s also about truth, about looking at someone you know really well and wondering if you know them at all. Those two threads evolved quite quickly as I wrote.  I don’t want my job as a writer to be about looking at “issues” or giving moral guidance. Teens don’t want to read about things adults think are good for them, or about how they ought to behave.
 
Of course, books can address difficult situations and confront social issues and help readers deal with real-life challenges. They can transport you, make you think, move you . . . the list is endless. Ultimately though, it’s the story—with all its complexities, with the emotional truths it uncovers, the experiences beyond the everyday that it gives, that will be the real reason why young people read.
 
The Parkers and the McKenzies are from different social classes. What inspired you to have these families, and Mikey and Ellie, come from such varied worlds?
I know it sounds odd, but I have no clue about character, geography, social class, or anything else when I begin a novel. After months of generating material, I begin to get a clearer idea of what a book might be about. I guess I had Romeo and Juliet in the back of my mind because I was interested in loving someone forbidden. But I also had Hamlet in my mind—something rotten in your own family.
 
It was important to me that my two central protagonists would never have met under normal circumstances. I wanted them to have to tackle their own prejudices about each others’ backgrounds, as well as their preconceptions about the assault. I wanted them to fall in love “despite themselves.”
 
What do you hope that readers come away with after reading You Against Me?
I was attempting to write a good story, one that moved readers emotionally, but also made them think. I hope that the book encourages debate for the very reason that I am not telling anyone what the right answers are.
Praise | Awards

Praise

Starred Review, Publishers Weekly, July 18, 2011:
"Well-drawn characters allow readers to sympathize with nearly everyone...With no tidy solutions, it's an unflinching portrayal of love under pressure."

Starred Review, Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 2011:
"A tender, complex character study...Crisp, revealing dialogue, measured pacing and candid, unaffected prose round out this illuminating novel in which any reader can find someone to root for or relate to. Unforgettable."

New York Times Book Review, August 21, 2011:
"As the story builds to its tumultuous conclusion, Mikey and Ellie have to make the inevitable choice between new love and old allegiances...The hard question at the heart of this book — what would you do? — doesn’t have a single answer. For her young readers, Downham frames it remarkably well.”

Starred Review, School Library Journal, November 1, 2011:
"Downham brilliantly captures the struggle of these two star-crossed lovers as they navigate the stormy waters of family loyalty, social workers and legal systems, job and school. With touching honesty, she brings her characters to life in this poignant story of love and choice. Mesmerizing."





From the Hardcover edition.

Awards

NOMINEE Bank Street Child Study Children's Book Award
NOMINEE Young Adult Services Division, School Library Journal Author Award
NOMINEE Texas TAYSHAS High School Reading List
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