We are delighted to welcome Katya Balen as our first Guest Editor of 2023.

Katya is a lyrical storyteller, gifted at reflecting on difficult situations and emotions, and exploring how children can navigate them. She has spent much of her career working with neuro-divergent children, co-founding Mainspring Arts, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to making the arts inclusive, diverse, and accessible to all.

Her debut novel, The Space We're In, is a powerful story of love, terrible loss, understanding and recovery. It was widely praised winning a Commendation from the judges of the Branford Boase, an award that recognises outstanding new writing talent, describing it as ‘an important book, beautifully written...the insight into the family relationships is excellent’.

                                                                        Photo credit Patrick Simpson

Katya's next book scooped the Yoto Carnegie Medal 2022, the most prestigious award in children's literature. The judges hailed October, October as an “evocative exploration of what it means to be truly alive and wholly human” and felt the main character October was “expertly written with an incredibly authentic narrative voice, leaving the reader feeling great empathy towards her”.

Katya's most recent novel is The Light in Everything, a life-affirming story about blended families, learning to trust - and diving into the unknown with hope in your heart. Zofia and Tom couldn't be more different, one buzzing with energy the other quiet and withdrawn. Through the book we follow their stories in a series of contrasting short episodes as the children prepare to live together in a blended family. We asked Katya why she chose a dual-narrative style to tell this story and her motivation for addressing the issues of family dynamics in her beautifully told tales. But first Katya has written a letter to her readers...  

Hello! It’s such a joy to be the guest editor for January’s edition of LoveReading4Kids! It’s particularly special to have this role at the very start of the year – when the air is full of fresh possibilities and new starts. 

Writing books is always about possibilities – asking yourself what if? In my book October, October, I thought about the wild woods where my father-in-law had moved to, and I thought what if a child grew up here? What if that child had to leave? In my new book, The Light in Everything, I thought, what if two children who were polar opposites were suddenly thrown together? What if they had to unite for a bigger purpose?

Those what ifs are important for all writers. But they’re also an idea I’d love for my readers to take into everyday life. In The Light in Everything, we get two viewpoints: Tom and Zofia. I wanted readers to understand different perspectives, to get to know and appreciate ideas and views that they might not have considered. I think that’s the most important thing in life – to try to see something from someone else’s point of view. To think about what if? What if that quiet child in my class just wants to be asked to join in? What if my friend is being loud because actually she’s scared about something? Asking yourself those questions, and trying to see another perspective, is what makes the world kinder and braver. We don’t always think the same, but we can always try to understand. 

Have a fabulous start to this bright and hopeful New Year!


What was your inspiration for the unusual lifestyle of October and her father?

My father-in-law does actually live off-grid in 40 acres of woodland! It’s an interesting, brutal, unusual and beautiful way of living, and I found myself (like all authors do!) asking the question what if? What if a child lived here? What if they’d never left? What if they then had to?

Many reviewers have commented upon your ability to realistically convey the inner life of children facing very difficult problems or situations. What do you think has helped you to do this?

I have a good memory of my own childhood, and I’m a bit of a sponge when it comes to people. I have always, always loved reading, watching, learning, about other people’s lives. I think that really helped me form realistic responses and thought processes, because I’ve absorbed so many.

Stig the owl is such an important feature of October, October. Are you a keen bird watcher? Is there any reason why you chose an owl?

You know, I wasn’t much of a bird watcher before I started writing October. I could probably identify a pigeon, at a push. But I have become very keen in the last few years, and now I absolutely love it. Watching the birds in my garden is a proper joy. 

I chose an owl because for me, they seemed so wild and magical. There’s something special about owls. They don’t seem quite of this earth, and I wanted a bird that reflected a part of October and her journey.

The Light in Everything is such a brilliant exploration of the way in which many children struggle to come to terms with a new blended family. Did you set out with the intention of helping children in that situation?

Yes, I thought it was important because it’s the kind of situation that affects so many children. It’s really normal, and because of that maybe we can forget that it isn’t easy. I think it’s good for children to be able to read their own lives and feel less alone, and for children who aren’t in that situation to grow their empathy and understanding. That’s the best result I can ever hope for when a child reads my books.

This was the first book in which you have employed dual narrators. At what point did you decide this was necessary?

Before I started writing! My editor suggested it, and she was absolutely right to do so – seeing different sides of the same situation was so brilliant in terms of that understanding and empathy. 

Did you think it was important to have a girl in one family and a boy in the other? Do you think there is a special dynamic to that sort of sibling relationship?   And was it important for these characters to have non gender stereotypical characteristics?

Yes, I definitely wanted to avoid stereotypes, because I cannot stand the pigeon-holing of boys and girls and how they should and shouldn’t behave, and what they should and shouldn’t like. It’s so regressive. Other than that, I didn’t particularly plan to have a boy and a girl – it’s just what I decided as I started writing! I’m not a planner. I’m not sure if there’s a specific boy-girl dynamic – again, I think it depends on personalities more than anything.

What was the first book you fell in love with?

That I read myself - The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark, by Jill Murphy. That was read to me – Not Now Bernard! By David McKee.

Who is your favourite fictional hero from children's literature?

Pippi Longstocking!

What are you currently reading - and which books are in your to-read pile?

I’m reading a draft of the magnificent Struan Murray’s next book, and then I’m moving on to a proof of Safiyyah’s War by Hiba Noor Khan (Andersen, June 2023). After that, Giving Up The Ghost by the much-missed Hilary Mantel, and another proof – Catfish Rolling by Clara Kumagi. I love getting sent advanced copies!

One in three of all books sold is a children's book yet children's books only get less than 5% of review space in the media. Why do you think this is - and what can be done?

Because for some reason, people think children’s literature is lesser, despite the fact that if you ask most adults which book means the most to them, they choose a book from their childhood. The only way to change this is to give children’s books more prominence – more reviews, more publicity, more prizes. And to be frank, for celebrity books to stop taking up so much space. Those books give the public a false impression of what children’s literature is and can be, and they steal space from authors who have made writing for children their life’s work. I find it really depressing how passionate the voices in children’s books are – the librarians and teachers, publishers, writers, readers – and they’re largely ignored by the mainstream press.  

What does LoveReading4Kids mean to you?

It’s just a fantastic resource – it’s people who really, truly care about children’s literature. Given everything I’ve just said, it’s so important that we have sites like LoveReading4Kids so people can find out about children’s books and read reviews and find recommendations. As an author, I’m just so grateful it exists!

As our Guest Editor, Katya has given us her top five children's book recommendations and chosen a Book of the Month for January 2023;

Guest Editor Book of the Month; The Boy Who Didn't Want to Die by Peter Lantos.  A remarkable, vital, and heartbreaking true story of a young Hungarian Jewish boy's experience during the Holocaust. It's not an easy read, but it is an important one. It is also one that manages to find hope even in the darkest places. 

Finn Family Moomintroll – Tove Janson

The Moomins are my comfort read. Magical adventures, warm friendships, lots of heart and a little hint of darkness. There’s such a range of characters and opinions – from Moomin who wants to be a friend to all, to quiet and lonesome Snufkin, wild Little My and grumpy Hemulin. But everyone gets on and appreciates each other without trying to change them or argue. 

Julia and The Shark – Kiran Millwood Hargrave 

The writing in this story blew me away. It’s just so beautiful. Julia and her parents move to a remote Scottish island for her mother’s research project on the elusive Greenland Shark. Julia’s mother struggles with her mental health, and this book is such a poignant, gentle, and sensitive exploration of how that feels for her, and for those around her. 

Wished – Lissa Evans

A riot of magic and humour, with some real heart. Ed and Roo discover a box of birthday candles in their boring old neighbour’s house – and soon discover each one grants a wish. But magic is a tricksy thing, and their wishes don’t entirely go to plan. This book is full of adventure, fabulous writing, and a cantankerous talking cat. 

Jummy at The River School – Sabine Adeyinka

A modern and yet classic-feeling boarding school story set in Nigeria. Jummy gets a place at the prestigious River School, and faces all sorts of trials and triumphs in her first year. This book is so gentle and comforting, and full of wonderful food writing.

The Blue Book of Nebo – Manon Steffan Ros

This is a brutal and beautiful YA novel, translated from the original Welsh by its author. It is such a stark and terrifying story – the world is changed forever by some sort of event, and most people die or disappear. There’s no electricity or connection anywhere, and a boy and his mother have to find a way to survive and to live.

Katya receiving her Carnegie Medal, photo credit Tom Pilston

With huge thanks to Katya Balen. You can find Katya's published novels below, read a review and you can download the first chapter of each.