A voice for a silent heroine

Penny Joelson's debut Young Adult novel tells the story of a girl who cannot communicate


It’s not often Israel’s cutting-edge technology plays a pivotal role in a thriller. But Penny Joelson’s debut novel for young adults, I Have No Secrets turns on a real-life invention by scientists at the Weizmann Institute which gives protagonist Jemma the chance to communicate.

Jemma has severe cerebral palsy and is completely dependent on others for everything. Almost all she can do unaided is breathe and swallow. Yet she has a lively and intelligent inner life, and Joelson rises to the challenge of putting her at the centre of the action, even though she cannot move or speak.

“Jemma’s voice was so strong in my head,” says Joelson. “Her mind is so active and she knows everything that is going on around her.” That includes a murder, a woman disappearing, a reunion with a long-lost sister and a foster family in which every child has his or her own difficulties.

Joelson, who lives in Potters Bar and is a member of Shaarei Tzedek synagogue in Whetstone, has long taught writing for children at London’s City Lit, and has published books for younger children in the past.

In writing I Have No Secrets, over three years, she drew on past experience as a volunteer working with severely disabled children. She was also inspired by a play put on by Chicken Shed Theatre based on the early life of Paula Rees, who was also in the play along with members of her family. Paula could not communicate at all until she was 10-years-old but, once she could, she wrote poetry and songs that were performed in the theatre.

Joelson feels strongly that there are too few representations of disability in books for young people, and hopes that there will be more written by disabled people themselves. “People with cerebral palsy need a voice,” she says. “I was surprised at how little was out there, how few books had disabled protagonists. I wanted to show that people with disabilities can be strong and positive.”

Jemma is a remarkable creation, in some ways slightly naïve, in others mature far beyond her years, observing and understanding the lives of her foster family, her carers and becoming the target for increasingly terrifying bullying. Her creator knew that at some point Jemma would need to find a way to communicate — but how?

Then Joelson discovered the “fascinating, amazing” work of the Weizmann Institute, which offers hope to people like Jemma — although sadly the breakthrough is currently considered commercially unprofitable and is waiting for development.

The book has been praised by reviewers, but for Joelson the most important response came from a girl who shared a name and a disability with Jemma, who tweeted thanking her for writing the book and saying that she had recommended it to all her friends.


Penny Joelson will be speaking at the Young Adult Lit Con on July 30 and at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on August 19

‘I Have No Secrets’ is published by Electric Monkey (£7.99)

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