‘Heartbreaking’ debut, The Space We’re In, launched in London

Posted on 12/09/2019

Katya Balen’s stunning middle-grade novel was launched last night at Bookseller Crow on the Hill, Crystal Palace, with lashings of crisps, cupcakes, and flying saucers (the fizzy confection, not the extra-terrestrial taxicab).  For those who couldn’t be there, this is the gorgeous launch speech by commissioning editor at Bloomsbury, Lucy McKay-Sim.

We’re here in this lovely bookshop tonight to celebrate the launch of The Space We’re In, the debut novel by Katya Balen – and with illustrations by Laura Carlin.

For anyone here who hasn’t already read it, I’m not going to give too much away… but you must read it immediately! Suffice it to say that it’s the story of Frank, who is ten. And it’s the story of Frank’s little brother Max, who is five and is autistic and it sometimes feels like he’s a whole universe away from Frank. And when something unimaginably awful happens to their family, it’s the story of how Frank and Max come to connect to each other in the face of the tragedy.

This book absolutely blew us away when it came to us on submission and once we’d stopped crying and pulled ourselves together again we knew we had to publish it.

It was clear right from the start that Katya’s is a really exceptional writing talent. She has a distinctive writing style that she has complete control over; she can say a lot in a just a few words; and those words are always lyrical, beautiful and perfectly chosen.

But it’s her complex and sophisticated portrayal of children’s emotions that I think is truly Katya’s superpower. One of the things that we started asking her as soon as we knew we were going to be publishing this book was ‘Who is your inspiration? Do you know a Frank? Do you know a Max? Are the characters based on people you know? They feel so real. They must be real!’ and Katya always said, no, no, they just popped into my head, but what became clear as we got to know Katya better and got wise to her inclination to minimise her achievements is that far from having no source of inspiration, this book is a synthesis of everything that Katya has seen and experienced working with children with special needs and their families but also, and perhaps even more importantly, a testament to her incredible perceptiveness and insight into human nature. And it’s this that makes Frank and Max feel not like characters in a book, but like real children we might have met.

The first word that everyone uses to describe this book is ‘heartbreaking’. But what we think is so wonderful about it is that though sad things happen, it’s not just a sad book. It’s funny, and affectionate, and fizzing with life. It’s a book about the huge unknowable confusingness of the universe, and about the family and friends that make that OK. It has an insight into the heart of a child that feels really rare in its accuracy and poignancy. It just takes your breath away with its sense of telling TRUTH. And it is beautifully, beautifully written.

I hope that you’re thoroughly convinced by now that you’re in the presence of greatness, but it’s important to note that there is not just one great creator here tonight but two.

Because a book isn’t just the words that are written inside it, and this book is really a pretty extraordinary package because the cover and case and interior illustrations were done by the amazing Laura Carlin. Right from the start we knew that the illustrations for this book couldn’t just be literal depictions of the events in the story, but needed to be as emotionally complex and tender as the writing and we thought immediately of Laura. When, to our delight, she agreed to work on this project we sent her a little questionnaire to fill in, and one of the questions on it was ‘What is your favourite thing to draw?’ and we knew as soon as she sent her response that she was beyond perfect for this book because her answer was ‘sad people. And dogs.’

And sure enough, the sad people, and the dogs, and every other amazing tiny detail that Laura has drawn for this book feel absolutely right, and I’m sure you’ll all agree that the finished product is spectacular.

Now, we’ve already had authors and reviewers alike heaping praise on this book, but I wanted to share a quote that I think is quite unusual. There are people who work behind the scenes on every book, often freelance, and they’re very busy and work on a lot of different projects at once and they don’t have time to connect with every project that crosses their desk. But every single person who has worked on this book has truly fallen in love with it, and have emailed back with not just an invoice for their work, but with glowing praise for the book. And these are reviews that won’t end up on marketing material or in our sales packs, so I wanted to share one of them here:

This is from the sensitivity reader, Rachel Lucas, who is a children’s author and speaker on autism. She wrote:

I enclose the report for the gorgeous The Space We’re In – what an absolutely heartbreaking, uplifting, beautiful story. The report is brief, simply because the book has been written so sensitively that there’s very little for me to comment on. I look forward to watching it being a huge hit, which I’m certain it will be.

We are certain it will be too, and we are so, so proud to be publishing it.

Not as proud as we are to be Katya’s agent, Lucy.