Emirates Festival of Literature 2019: Meet Lucy Strange

The children's author talks about her new book and tells kids what they except from her workshop

Emirates Festival of Literature 2019: Meet Lucy Strange

Lucy Strange is heading to the Emirates Festival of Literature to host a fun-filled workshop aimed at kids nine and over.

Her first novel The Secret of Nightingale Wood, a huge hit with tweens, successfully fused history with fantasy. And now Lucy Strange is heading to Dubai's Emirates Festival of Literature to give kids an insight into her second book, Our Castle by the Sea.

We catch up with the mother-of-one to talk literary heroes, villains and what we can expect from her seminar on Saturday February 8.

We can’t wait to hear all about your new book Our Castle by the Sea. Can you tell us a bit about it?
England is at war. The enemy is waiting on the other side of the Channel; the invasion could come at any minute. Growing up in a lighthouse, twelve-year-old Petra’s world has been one of storms, secret tunnels and stories about sea monsters. But now the clifftops that she knows so well have become a terrifying battleground, and her family is being torn apart. Our Castle by the Sea is the story of a girl who is small, afraid and unnoticed. A girl who freezes with fear every time she hears the enemy planes ripping through the skies overhead. A girl who is somehow destined to become part of the strange, ancient legend of the Daughters of Stone . . .

And what made you choose to set the story in World War II?
Our Castle by the Sea was originally inspired by an Eric Ravilious painting of the view from the Belle Tout lighthouse on the South coast of England. It is a magical painting that makes you feel as if you are standing in the lantern room of the lighthouse, looking out over the English Channel. The character of Petra came to me straight away, as did the wartime setting. There are so many wonderful Second World War stories for children, so I knew I needed a fresh perspective. Once I began my research, I found out about lots of things that went on to become important parts of the story, such as the internment camps we had in the UK, and the categorisation of enemy aliens. It wasn’t long before I created the character of Petra’s German mother and the terrible situation that faces Petra and her family.

What do you hope children will take away from your books?
I firmly believe that the main thing that separates children’s literature from adult literature is not a lack of complexity (as is often assumed), but a feeling of responsibility on the part of the author. As children’s authors, we have a duty to take care of our readers, and to show that there is always hope, even when the ideas in the book are difficult or sad. I often find that my stories push against the edges of the pages and want to be bigger than they are – so that they touch upon big universal themes such as grief or fear or prejudice. As the story of Petra’s family developed, I was aware of its relevance to the modern world. I try to be very careful about how I deal with these things because of course there are no easy answers and I don’t think writing for young people should be didactic in any way. I try to give my readers the space to feel and experience situations within the story and to make up their own minds. But I always show that there is hope. Always.

Who are your favourite children’s authors?
So many. I love Philip Pullman, J K Rowling, and authors I read as a child such as E Nesbitt, Roald Dahl, Dodie Smith or Frances Hodgson Burnett. There are lots of wonderful children’s writers around today – my favourites at the festival this year are Maz Evans and Tamsin Winter. I think Hilary McKay (winner of last year’s Costa Book Award) is an extraordinary children’s writer. A great deal of fuss is made of debut authors – and it is always exciting to discover someone new – but with a writer like Hilary, her lifetime of experience as an author is reflected in every word of her graceful, effortless prose. Whether the moment is funny, touching, clever or profound, her writing is always pinpoint sharp and deceptively simple. She is the writer I read when I want to raise the bar with my own work.

Any literary protagonists that you empathise with?
I think the mark of a good writer is that they help you to empathise with characters completely unlike yourself. It’s magical to discover aspects of humanity you have in common with a fictional wizard, an elf, a warrior, an evacuee or even an animal . . . Having said that, there are some characters I have truly missed after the story has finished, such as Cassandra Mortmain in I Capture the Castle or Clarry in The Skylarks’ War.

Who are your favourite literary heroes and villains?
I love villains like Miss Trunchbull or Dolores Umbridge who are genuinely frightening and yet so much larger than life that they are almost comical (I’m having great fun creating the vicious villain in my new book – The Ghost of Gosswater – which is out later this year). A favourite hero is Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden. Many writers, particularly children’s writers, set out to make their central characters as likeable as possible, so that the reader is instantly sympathetic and engaged with their story, but at the beginning of this novel Mary is brilliantly unlikeable – sullen, sulky and selfish, with none of the warmth, humour or courage we have come to expect from our literary heroes. But it is Mary’s development as a character that makes her so engaging. We witness those sparks that ignite her imagination for the first time, and see how a story that begins with loneliness and idle curiosity can end with something much more meaningful – the blossoming of the human heart. And, of course – very importantly – Mary is not allowed in the secret garden. As a heroine of classic children’s literature, she is a rule-breaking role model for us all.

What are you most looking forward to about your session at the Emirates Festival of Literature?
At my event, I’m going to be talking about Our Castle by the Sea and also my new ghost story which will be out later this year (top secret stuff!). I’ll talk about where my stories come from, how we set about turning them into books, some top writing tips and how we can play with genres such as historical fiction and magical realism. I’m always looking for interesting input from the audience too – about reading and writing and the books we love – I usually ask as many questions as I answer! – so it will be a really fun, lively discussion. Book your tickets now, fellow bookworms – I shall see you soon!

We can't wait!
Dhs39. Sat Feb 8, 3pm-4pm. Emirates Festival of Literature InterContinental, Dubai Festival City, www.emirateslitfest.com (04 355 9844).

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