Julie Bertagna (1962-)
Along with "Harry Potter" series author J. K. Rowling, Julie Bertagna is among the most prominent children's book authors to emerge from Scotland in recent memory. Her book Exodus was shortlisted for the prestigious Whitbread Children's Book Award and was a hit with both teenagers and adults, while her children's book The Ice-Cream Machine has been turned into a television series. Along the way, Bertagna has also written several other challenging, gritty novels about the lives of Scottish teens, including The Spark Gap, Soundtrack, and The Opposite of Chocolate.
Bertagna was inspired to write her first novel, The Spark Gap, by a group of eleven-year-old students she was teaching in a poor area of Glasgow, Scotland. The children were reluctant readers, and they were particularly frustrated because they could not find any books about contemporary Scottish children. Bertagna searched and, finding only one book that met that description, set out to write a story herself. The Spark Gap tells the stories of three homeless teenagers who live on the streets of Glasgow, in circumstances to which her students could easily relate. Making the story more appealing to her former class, Bertagna gave several of her actual students supporting roles in the tale.
Bertagna completed The Spark Gap in the months after her daughter, Natalie, was born, which made writing rather challenging. Bertagna laughed when she first heard Rowling's famous tale of writing the first "Harry Potter" novel while sitting in cafés with her child in another Scottish city, Edinburgh. "It's the easiest way to write," she told Gillian Bowditch of the Sunday Times. "As soon as the baby was asleep, I'd nip into a nice warm café and whip out my notebook. If I'd waited until I'd got the buggy home and unloaded, the baby would have woken up and I never would have written anything."
Bertagna's next book, The Ice-Cream Machine, was inspired by Natalie. Bertagna made up stories based on her own experiences with her uncles' ice cream vans as a child to entertain her daughter, and the stories eventually grew into a book. The Ice-Cream Machine stars Wendy and Wayne MacDonald as the children of an ice cream van owner—not just any ice cream van, but a magical one. The story reached a wider audience in 2004, when television adaptations of it in both English and Gaelic aired on British television.
Offering a change of pace, Exodus is a futuristic tale, set in 2099. Global warming has led to extensive flooding along the Scottish coast, and refugees from the lowlying Orkney and Hebrides Islands cluster on the hills around Glasgow. Affluent families live in shining, glass-enclosed towers built on the ruins of old Glasgow, but the refugees are not allowed to enter those buildings. One such refugee, a teenage girl named Mara, refuses to be so easily defeated. She sneaks inside the wall surrounding New Mungo and allies herself with the city's underclass, including the plastic-bag-clad Treenester tribe. Together, these dispossessed people steal vehicles and set off for a new land where they hope to find happiness.
Exodus is a book that asks big questions, as many reviewers and Bertagna herself have noted. As Anne Johnstone described the story in the Herald, "Bertagna explores the issue of what constitutes a fair and just society, examines how people exploit technology for good and ill, questions the invisibility of women in our political and cultural history, and takes a look at the way fear can undermine human rights and render a society oblivious to suffering." Bertagna told Bowditch, "It's difficult to write a book like Exodus because in a sense the injustice is so plain, but you also have to show the complexities of the issue.… There are no black and white answers. Nothing is clear cut."
Another book that tackles difficult issues and provides no easy answers is The Opposite of Chocolate, about fourteen-year-old Sapphire, whose life is turned upside down when she discovers that she is pregnant. The book was criticized by some for seeming to promote abortion, but Bertagna told Evening Times interviewer Sheila Hamilton that she was simply trying to make the story realistic. "Statistics show that nearly ninety percent of pregnant fourteen-year-olds go for an abortion," she explained. While unplanned pregnancy features prominently in the novel, Bertagna also explores teen-parent strife, not only in Sapphire's house, but in her arsonist friend Gilbert's as well. Writing in the Irish Times, reviewer Robert Dunbar thought that The Opposite of Chocolate "searingly depicts friction between parent and adolescent at its darkest and most uncompromising."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Evening Times (Glasgow, Scotland), November 14, 2002, "Writer Tipped for Glory," p. 6; January 4, 2003, Sheila Hamilton, review of Exodus, p. 8.
Guardian (London, England), March 16, 1999, Lindsey Fraser, review of Soundtrack, p. 4; October 7, 2003, Lindsey Fraser, review of The Opposite of Chocolate, p. 55.
Herald (Glasgow, Scotland), August 8, 2001, Julie Bertagna, "Myth and Magic," p. 14; July 27, 2002, Anne Johnstone, interview with Bertagna, p. 12.
Irish Times (Dublin, Ireland), October 18, 2003, Robert Dunbar, review of The Opposite of Chocolate, p. 61.
Mail on Sunday (London, England), December 8, 2002, Artemis Cooper, review of Exodus, p. 68.
Observer (London, England), May 30, 1999, Stephen Pritchard, review of Soundtrack, p. 13.
Scotland on Sunday (Edinburgh, Scotland), November 17, 2002, Julie Bertagna, "Notebook: Doing a Gwyneth Paltrow after Making the Shortbread Shortlist," p. 4.
Scotsman (Edinburgh, Scotland), November 14, 2002, "Scottish Writer on Whitbread Shortlist," p. 5; December 20, 2003, Sharol Ward, review of The Ice-Cream Machine (television series), p. 4.
Sun (London, England), December 18, 2003, Yvonne Bolour, interview with Bertagna, p. 68.
Sunday Times (London, England), November 24, 2002, Gillian Bowditch, interview with Bertagna, p. 3.
Julie Bertagna Home Page, http://www.juliebertagna.com/ (January 11, 2004).*
Brief BiographiesBiographies: Shennen Bersani (1961-) Biography - Personal to Mark Burgess Biography - PersonalJulie Bertagna (1962-) Biography - Writings, Sidelights - Personal, Addresses, Career, Honors Awards, Adaptations, Work in Progress