Anthony McGowan’s remarkable quartet of interrelated but stand-alone titles—Brock, Pike, Rook, and Lark—are being released in the U.S. on April 2 as part of Union Square & Co.’s Everyone Can Be a Reader series of dyslexia-friendly titles for children and teens. In 2020, Lark won a Carnegie Medal, the most prestigious British award given to writing for young readers. These books stand out for their robust character development, vivid sense of place, propulsive plots, and deep emotion. The close-knit brothers at the heart of the stories face family trials and local bullies but also have glorious (and risky) adventures in the wild places near their home. McGowan spoke with us over Zoom from his home in London; the conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What were you like as a teen reader?

The small town where the boys live is a real town in Yorkshire called Sherburn in Elmet. I was brought up there, but I went to school in Leeds. I was geographically an outsider because I lived 15 miles away, and I was thought to be quite posh—both of my parents were nurses, so not posh in any real objective sense, but [posh] compared to the really poor local kids. Also, there wasn’t a great culture of learning at my school. I liked learning; I was a reader quite early on. So as a bit of a weird character, I should have had a terrible time. There was lots of violence, but luckily, I was quite good at sports and quite tall for my age. So I didn’t really get sucked into that terrifying inferno—it was a tough school, a dangerous school, but one in which I kind of thrived.

I heard about the tragic death of your former teacher.

Back when I was at secondary school, no one ever got really badly hurt, because there were never any knives involved. In the U.S., you have issues with guns; in the U.K., our version is knives, but that’s quite a recent phenomenon. I did lots of research on this issue for an earlier book I wrote called The Knife That Killed Me. Twenty years ago, knives started to be part of school culture in England, and [in 2014] my teacher was stabbed to death—the same teacher I’d had all those years ago, back in 1976. [She was] near retirement, and then this terrible tragedy happened.

What led you to write for this audience?

The early teenage books I’ve written are quite difficult—they’re intellectually challenging [and] not for reluctant readers at all. They’re set in my environment, but they’re not the kind of books that will draw in the kids who don’t normally read. But there’s a publisher called Barrington Stoke in the U.K. who produce books for young people with dyslexia. I was asked to write for them, so I decided to adapt my style to become more direct and to spend less time trying to show off and prove to the world how great I am at complex metaphors and similes and how many other books I’ve read. It’s certainly made me a better writer. I’ve always wanted to drag in boy readers, which are a subset of that reluctant reader group. The Barrington Stoke way is to have quite straightforward language, quite short chapters, quite short books, so that those reluctant readers get that satisfaction of finishing a chapter and then finishing a book and having a lovely moment of silence when the book finishes.

How did these books make you a better writer?

In my early books, a lot of the language is kind of over-the-top comic-grotesque language or exuberantly violent language—and perhaps I just took my eye off the ball about why people really want to read. They fall in love with characters, they care about them, they get invested in them, and they want to find out what happens to them. It made me think about those core issues that make a great book a great book and [made me] stop showing off.

What comments from readers have meant a lot to you?       

My favorite responses are from those readers we’re talking about, the people who have perhaps never read a book before: “I’m not a reader, I don’t like books. I liked yours, though—that was all right.” The hairs on the back of your neck stand on end; that’s brilliant. But also, I wanted to make the appeal of the books as wide as possible, so I’ve heard of plenty of more enthusiastic readers who’ve enjoyed them as well. I’m fundamentally a bad person—I like making people cry. Particularly [while reading] the last one, Lark, people have cried, and that’s given me a great sense of joy. The more serious version is that as a writer, you want to get that strong emotional response from your readers.

The tie between the brothers is really powerful; it made me think about how few representations there are in books of caring male friendships and family relationships.

The relationship between Nicky and Kenny was always absolutely the core for me. I wanted that slightly unusual relationship where the younger brother is the carer for the older brother because of his learning difficulties. They’re so tightly bound together by these bonds of love. I always wanted to make Kenny a proper character—he has his own growth, his own arc as well. And Nicky has to learn to let him go, in a sense; he’s going to have his own life.

But you’re right that male friendships or sibling relationships are underrepresented in fiction. It’s curious, that. I talk a lot to teenagers in schools, and I try to point out that, in fact, what you feel for your friends is love. I think that slightly embarrasses them, but you remember your friends at school forever; you never forget them. And as boys you spend most of your time attacking your friends, taking the piss out of them, but these are manifestations of love. You love your friends when you’re a teenager in a way that perhaps you don’t when you’re older—your feelings are so raw and so intense. All the way through all my YA books, [I’ve written] characters who were burned into my mind as a teenage boy. I loved them, and I still do, and occasionally I’ve had terrible feelings of guilt about not being a good enough friend. Maybe in some way, I partly wrote these books to atone for some of those failings. Genuinely, seriously, I’ve got a younger brother, and I was a terrible brother to him. I was a horror. He wasn’t a bookish kid. He’s been very successful in life. He’s utterly, totally loved by his friends and his family. But he wasn’t like me, and I tried to bully him to be like me. We’ve kind of bonded since, and I’ve begged his forgiveness—but still, I have that guilt, and so I suppose I wanted to make Nicky a better brother than I was.

Laura Simeon is a young readers’ editor.