I had the pleasure of meeting Sarah at a book tour event hosted by the Black British Book Festival, where I volunteered. I enjoyed her session with the kids and loved the interactive and practical approach she adopted in interacting with the kids. I immediately knew that I had to invite her to share her incredible journey with us.
I hope this interview inspires you to SHINE! Enjoy!
1) THE AFRO READER: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background? How did you get started on your writing journey? At what point did you realise writing was for you? Why Children and Young Adults?
SARAH: I’m a Nigerian, East ender at heart, who lives in South London. An English Teacher, whose passion for writing began when I became an aunt and wanted to buy some books for my nephews for Christmas and struggled to find any with a black protagonist. My writing is influenced by the experience I have had with the amazing children I’ve been privileged to encounter over the years and I aim to write books that help children understand challenging circumstances, empower them with self-belief, while reflecting our multicultural society in a positive and inspiring manner.
2) Your book, “SHINE” was recently part of the Black British Book Festival Tour – What inspired you to write this particular story? Is there a personal connection or a specific message you wanted to convey to young readers?
I wrote ‘Shine’ for my nephews and nieces. I wanted to write a book with a message I needed when I was a child: “Be proud of everything that makes you who you are and always let your light shine.” Once I knew what the message I wanted to convey was, everything else fell into place.
3) Tell us about your book BREEZE, what birthed the story? How has the response to BREEZE been so far?
‘Breeze’ is dedicated to all the students I have worked with over the last 10 years. As an English Teacher, I’ve taught a range of incredible literature to my students, but there has been a real lack of diversity in the texts in the curriculum. Thankfully, things are improving. I wrote ‘Breeze’ to reflect the community I grew up in and the experiences of being a teenager in London. Many books that include black characters in secondary schools are based in America and deal with themes of hardship and oppression. The narrative of ‘Breeze’ is fun and positive. Breeze is the hero! This is an image that I didn’t see of a black girl growing up.
4) Could you share your publishing experience with us? What were some of the challenges and rewards?
I couldn’t get a publishing deal after writing ‘Breeze’ and ‘Shine’, so I self-published both books. I did a lot of self-promotion such as assemblies and workshops in schools, which was so rewarding and exciting to see how much children enjoyed the story. The feedback from teachers has been incredible and over 40 primary schools across the country have ‘Shine’ in their classrooms or libraries. That’s an amazing feeling. However, I was in an unfair self-publishing deal, which meant that despite my successes and the sales I made, I didn’t make any profit and actually lost money. I’m thankful that ‘Shine’ has gained a publishing deal with Scholastic and I am hopeful that ‘Breeze’ will follow suit.
5) Writing rituals can be essential for authors. Do you have any specific routines or habits that help you get into the writing zone when working on children’s stories?
I wish I could say I did, but writing has always been spontaneous to me. I could get an idea when I’m on the train or out with friends. I always note things down and these notes become paragraphs, these paragraphs become pages until a first draft of a book is formed.
6) Children’s literature is a unique genre that requires a special approach. What techniques do you use to engage and captivate young readers in your storytelling? Also, seeing as you have a book for Young Adults, what differences did you note with writing the two genres.
I like to use rhyme in my children’s books as I feel like it makes reading them more memorable and fun – like a song. For my YA book, I based it on scenarios I believe are relatable to teenagers and used a lot of humour as well.
7) “SHINE” seems to have vibrant and colorful illustrations. How did you collaborate with the illustrator to bring your story to life visually? What role do illustrations play in children’s books?
The communication between my illustrator and I was really important. I explained exactly what I wanted. From the mother’s headscarf to a girl in a hijab – representation was really important to me. Fortunately, Nadia Fisher shares the same passions about representation as I do, so not only did she encapsulate all of my thoughts, but she added her own style and ‘shine’ to the book. I’m really pleased with how beautiful the book is.
8) You’ve had a diverse range of roles in education, from volunteering in primary schools to teaching English in secondary schools. How have these experiences influenced your writing and storytelling style?
Young people have so much character! They are hilarious, resilient, intelligent and although I strive to inspire them daily, they have been an inspiration to me, too. ‘Breeze’ is set in a secondary school and is influenced by the incredible young people I have worked with. I had a lot of fun writing it and bringing both my own experiences alongside the experiences of my students in the characters and plot of the book.
9) What strategies or approaches do you use in your teaching and mentoring roles that you believe also apply to creating engaging and impactful children’s literature?
I encourage my students to read as I believe the best writers are readers. I also promote creativity as much as I can in the classroom. Teaching English allows students to explore multiple interpretations and ideas and express themselves in a way that not all subjects are able to do. Developing their creativity is key in building their writing skills.
10) Are there any specific cultural elements from your Nigerian heritage that you incorporate into your stories to introduce young readers to different cultural perspectives and traditions?
‘Breeze’ is a Nigerian girl and there are parts of the story that reflect my own experiences growing up in London whilst being raised in a Nigerian home. There are also characters in the story from other cultures to reflect the diverse community I grew up in.
11) Can you share any future projects or books you’re working on? Are there more adventures or stories in the pipeline for your readers to look forward to?
At the moment, I have lots of ideas that are very sporadically noted in my notepad. They will become books one day, but I have no idea when! I’m just going with the writing flow and seeing where it takes me. However, I wrote another children’s book a few years ago that also gained a publishing deal with Scholastic and that will be released next summer.
12) What advice do you have for aspiring children’s authors who are just starting their writing journey? Are there any valuable lessons you’ve learned that you’d like to pass on?
Write your ideas down. Don’t worry about it being perfect or making complete sense-just write it down! Enjoy the process of creating and the editing can come afterwards.
I would also recommend that children read books within the genre that they want to write in. This will help them learn about the conventions of the genre and how to craft their own work.
13) The AfroReader focuses on promoting African literature. How do you see your work contributing to this literary landscape, and what impact do you hope to have on young African readers?
My work celebrates black protagonist and cultures. They are books that black children can look at and see themselves in a manner that is positive, inspiring and most importantly, accurate. I believe this is very important and empowering for young African readers.
14) Finally, could you share a favorite passage or moment from “SHINE” and “BREEZE” that you think encapsulates the essence of the story or the message you want young readers to take away?
My favourite moment in ‘Shine’ is when his father uses the metaphor of the moon and the stars to explain how although they are different, they both shine beautifully. This analogy aims to teach the reader that we are all different and rather than being unkind to people who are not the same as us, we should celebrate our differences and how we all shine in our own ways.
My favourite moment in ‘Breeze’ when she goes to her first house party with the most popular boy in the school. She had never been invited to a party by anyone at school and it’s funny how she doesn’t know how to act. She soon realises that being “cool” isn’t all it seems. This part of the story aims to teach teenagers that being “cool” is just being yourself.