Friday, 17 March 2023

Taking a look behind What the World Doesn't See by Mel Darbon - Tracy Darnton

This week’s blog peeks into Mel Darbon’s much-anticipated second book What the World Doesn’t See published this March by Usborne. It’s already had many fabulous reviews. For me it was a multi-layered, beautiful story as you’d expect from Mel but also about unconditional sibling love, being brave and letting go. You will need tissues for this one.

Stack of What the World Doesn't See Books

Mel, tell us about the latest book.

What the World Doesn’t See is a novel about grief, disability and first love; a story about getting lost and finding yourself. Maudie and Jake’s family is falling to pieces - their mum’s been struggling with her grief since they lost Dad and one night she vanishes. When Jake is put into care, Maudie can’t take it any more. She comes up with a wild plan to pull their family back together – by kidnapping Jake. On the run in Cornwall, Jake and Maudie each find something unexpected – freedom and love. But Maudie and Jake’s physical journey is also a transformative, emotional journey together, which they start to understand when spending time alone together. But can they find their mother and bring their fractured family back together?

My brother was my main inspiration behind writing this story. Characters with any sort of learning disability rarely feature in fiction books and are the most under-represented group in adult and children’s publishing. I didn’t see my brother, who had severe learning disabilities, in any stories when I was growing up. This made me sad, and I wanted to do something about it when I grew up. I decided to write my brother, and others like him who can’t speak for themselves, a story, so that they can be heard.

Mel's brother Guy with a bus-shaped biscuit tin

Any representation they get now tends to focus on the negatives of a condition, because generally people can’t see beyond a label – or don’t know how to. It became increasingly important to me to show the positives – the laughter and joy – that someone like my brother can bring to our lives, through my writing. 

How hard was it to write something so personal and close to home?

It was a roller coaster of emotions because I was revisiting memories that I hadn’t thought about for a long time. When I first started to write the story, I was able to detach myself from it to a certain extent, because even though Maudie is based on myself and my brother Guy is Jake, it was set in a story that had no relation to my life, although various events within the book are true. As the novel progressed, those memories felt like I was reliving them and not just observing them, such as the bowling scene, Maudie and Jake doing art together, the coach journey and the cinema scene. At times I felt very sad at the way my brother had been treated, though equally happy at the fun times and precious memories.

Jake is more capable than my brother Guy was, but his care needs are the same as my brother’s. It made me realise what a lot my brother had to deal with, but also, how my family made sure he lived the best life he possibly could, which was good to recognise considering what happened next.

Guy and Mel celebrating a birthday

Tragically my brother died unexpectedly while I was finishing this book. I was devastated, so this story and representation of someone like Guy became even more important than it already was. I’d written it to make him visible and to give him a voice he couldn’t possibly have for himself, but now it became my eulogy for him. The grief at the death of Maudie and Jake’s father became my grief. I struggled to get the words down and didn’t even know if I could or should, but I knew my brother was too special for me not to finish my story. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without having known him. Guy wasn’t put on this earth to teach anyone anything, but he showed me love, kindness and empathy. The last thing he said to me before he died was, “You alright, Mel?” I wanted everyone to know this kind, generous, gentle giant of a boy. I had to finish the book.


How are you tackling this for school visits and what’s the reaction been from students?

My first school visits for What the World Doesn’t See were cancelled due to the teacher’s strike and haven’t been re-scheduled yet, so I can’t tell you any student reactions yet, but it will be interesting to see. My policy on these visits is to be open and honest, which I found with my first book, Rosie Loves Jack, was the best way to be with young people. They respond brilliantly and are always super-interested to know more about my work with people with learning disabilities and their lives. It’s amazing how much they open up themselves and talk about their thoughts and feelings on this subject – and their own lives.


Your first book Rosie Loves Jack came out in 2018. What have you learnt to use this time around in 2023?

Patience! Primarily, self-belief and to fight for what you believe in and never give up.

Rosie Loves Jack books

What’s left on your author bucket list that you’d like to tick off with What the World Doesn’t See?

To reinforce that learning disability can be tough but is not tragic; you don’t have to feel pity for someone like Jake. There is as much love, laughter and joy in their life as anyone else.

To show that people with learning disabilities feel things as deeply as anyone else and to always remember that people with disabilities are human beings. Their disability is a small part of their complex and interesting lives.

That it is okay to talk about grief, that you are not alone and although you will grieve for the rest of your life, you will learn to live with it; and your loved one will live on in you forever.

That you don’t have to be perfect. It’s enough being just you, as Maudie comes to understand by the end of the novel.

Finally, to reinforce again that we must never make assumptions about people and that by putting on someone else’s shoes we learn to have empathy and from there navigate the world with love, and not hate or fear.


Do you have some recommended titles if we’d like to read more books with disability inclusion?

Anthony McGowan: The Truth of Things 

The story of two brothers, Nicky and Kenny, who has learning disabilities, and their struggles to cope with the tough life they lead once their mother has vanished. People can be cruel to Kenny and Dad drinks his troubles away, but the brothers stick together sharing adventures and managing to find humour in the most difficult of circumstances.

Katya Balen: October October 

Katya Balen has a very distinctive voice. She digs deep down into the emotions of the children she writes about. Her writing is beautiful: lyrical, poetic and infused with the sight, sound and smells of the natural world. You will always come away having learned so much about the people she writes about without being told it directly.

Elle McNicholl A Kind of Spark

As a neurodivergent writer Elle is passionate about disability rights and representation. This book is a wonderful story about friendship, courage and self-belief. Eleven-year-old Addie challenges how the people of the town see her and her autism.

Thank you, Mel.

I’m ending this blog with a picture of a bus I like because I know Mel’s brother Guy absolutely loved them.


He did! I think I’ve spent more time on the top deck of a double decker bus than anyone else I know. Guy always carried a M & S felt bag around with him and inside it was his bus magazine, which he went to get every Saturday at W H Smiths. It never left his side and was buried with him, where it belonged.

Young Guy wearing bus T shirt

 You can follow Mel on Twitter @DarbonMel and @meldarbon on Instagram.


Tracy Darnton is the author of YA thrillers Ready or Not, The Rules and The Truth About Lies. Her first picture book My Brother is an Avocado is out with Simon & Schuster in May. She is very honoured to be filed on the bookshelf next to Mel Darbon. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram @TracyDarnton


LuWrites said...

This is a wonderful interview, Tracy! However often I hear Mel talk about Guy, it always brings a tear to my eye...

Anonymous said...

What an amazing interview - thank you Mel and Tracey. Such a story 🤗

Anonymous said...

What a great, heartwarming interview. I loved Mel Darbon's first novel and can't wait to read this one.

Sue Purkiss said...

What a moving article! Another book to go on the tbr pile...