“Everything is happening so fast,
puberty is like a runaway train.
Why can’t my body slow down for a second?
So I can catch my breath?” (Are You There Buddha?)
Pip Harry has a glowing backlist of YA novels – Because of You, Head of the River and I’ll Tell You Mine. She has followed these with The Little Wave – a popular and awarded verse novel for middle readers, and now another book for this age-group (upper primary to junior secondary school) – Are You There, Buddha? (Lothian Children’s Books).
Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords blog, Pip.
My absolute pleasure Joy! Great to catch up again to talk about Buddha.
You are based in Singapore. How does that influence what you write?
Writing about Australia from far away in Singapore makes my sense of place stronger and sharper. I transfuse all my longing and love for home onto the pages! Even as borders closed during Covid, I could transport myself to the Aussie coast, and go surfing, skating and swimming with my character Bee. It made me a lot less homesick!
I’ve been fortunate to find a couple of supportive writing groups here who have helped me stay honest and grounded with my work. I belong SCBWI Singapore and the Singapore Writers Group Children’s/YA group. We have regular critique meetups, author talks and writing retreats.
And of course, Singapore is incredibly diverse, with Malay, Chinese, Indian and Western influences, so I tend to pepper my books with minor characters from lots of different cultures.
Where is Are You There Buddha? set?
It’s loosely set on the Central Coast of NSW in a fictional town called Crescent Bay. I know this area well as my husband grew up there and we often spend time at beautiful surf town called Norah Head.
Why is life difficult for Bee, the protagonist of Are You There Buddha? when the story starts and what are some of her deep concerns?
Life isn’t great for Bee when we first meet her. She has just started Year Seven, and has yet to find her ‘tribe’. She tends to drift around at lunchtime without a friendship group. She’s also struggling to come to terms with the absence of her mother, who has gone to live in India. Her step-mum Kath is well-meaning, but Bee often feels like she’s meddling. She worries about the environment, and doesn’t want to grow up or get her first period.
Why have you chosen to feature Buddhism in this book? How does Buddhism help and hinder Bee?
Bee practises Buddhism to feel closer to her Mum, who also follows the religion in India. In some ways Buddha ‘stands in’ for Bee’s mum – helping to guide her and answer big questions about life. Buddhism also provides Bee with a set of morals and values to follow, which helps her deal with the ‘mean girls’ in her life, and her reluctance to grow up.
I’m not sure Buddhism really hinders Bee, but she does realise that talking to a stone statue has its limitations and at the conclusion of the novel, she makes a choice whether to follow Buddha or not. My sister was a practising Buddhist and I’ve been interested in yoga, mindfulness, meditation and some aspects of Buddhism for a long time.
How did you decide which of the changes caused by puberty to feature? How were you able to write these in a way to keep young people reading?
It was important for periods to be featured in this novel – not just as a casual reference, but as a major storyline. There aren’t enough period books out there for younger readers! Bee doesn’t want her period to arrive and when it does, she is aghast that she’ll have it during the state swimming champs. It’s a messy (pun intended!) situation. I also wanted to include stretch marks, cramps, bras, excess body hair….all the things that come with puberty! There is much more humour in this book, than any of my others. I hope that will keep kids reading!
How else have you incorporated humour into the story?
Bee’s voice is quite funny, and she often gets into humorous situations – like having her period pack thrown around the bus by schoolboys. It was important to me that this book have light moments, along with my usual dark side!
Kath is a lovely stepmother to Bee, even though she tends to overstep the mark. What makes her so real, as well as appealing?
Oh, Kath! I had so much fun writing her. She tries so hard to reach out to Bee, and keeps getting it wrong. But underneath her missteps is a kind, caring stepmother and friend. The heart of the novel is actually Bee and Kath, and if they can understand each other.
I love Bee’s friendship with Leon, the hot surfer. How do you develop their relationship in a way that stays true to Bee?
Leon is a wonderful kid – honest, laidback, and supportive of Bee. They have a sweet and special bond. But when feelings develop, Leon needs to be able to step back when Bee says she’s not ready for anything more. I think this respectful behaviour is important for boys to see in books.
Your previous book, The Little Wave, is a verse novel. Is Are You There Buddha? a verse novel or something else?
It’s not strictly verse. I’d describe it as a narrative in verse, with stanzas, interspersed with some prose dialogue. A hybrid model!
You have mentioned a few children’s books and authors such as Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes and Julia Donaldson in Buddha. Why these books?
Sadako because I had just seen a Year Seven class in Singapore perform it onstage, and I remembered how much I’d loved it as a 12-year-old. And Julia because her poetry for children is magic and demands to be read over and over…that highlighted Bee’s brother Max’s need to re-visit his favourite things and not move on (like Bee is trying not to move on as well)
Do you hope/expect that males will read Are You There Buddha?
YES, YES, YES! I really hope they will pick it up and understand what it’s like to go through puberty from a girl’s perspective.
What have you been reading and enjoying recently?
Recently I’ve read and adored Alice Oseman’s Heartstopper series, Elsewhere Girls by Nova Weetman and Emily Gale and Blood Moon by Lucy Cuthew.
Thank you for your wonderful responses, Pip, and all the very best with this insightful, brave book. It is a great read and will no doubt also help its readers navigate puberty and the embarrassments, uncertainties and joys of growing up.
Pip Harry’s website is https://www.pipharry.com/
Are You There, Buddha? at Hachette Australia