As UK YA readers flock to American writers, Lucy Bryson discovers a Great British hidden treasure in Petra Delahunty.
Close the borders: Young adult (YA) readers are emigrating, figuratively speaking. According to recent figures, they’re flocking to American writers whose books (to be fair) made up all five spots in last year’s charts. Just one UK author reportedly made the 2018 Top 10: Michelle Magorian, for Goodnight Mister Tom.
If that wasn’t bad enough, The Asian Writer reports its disappointment in a lack of homegrown British-Asian writers. Much of what it being published here has, it says, “been imported from the US”.
A double whammy for Great British talent.
How wonderful, then, to hear about Petra Delahunty, a British-Asian YA novelist whose stunning fantasy debut A Legend of Firdous (out today) rivals – and in my view, thoroughly defeats – anything Stateside.
Her magical adventure flawlessly merges influences from traditional British children’s writers with Arabian mythology (Firdous means ‘Ultimate Paradise’ in Arabic) and Christian theology. Delahunty’s fondness for classics like the Narnia and Harry Potter series shines also through in the occasional post-modern nod: “Having slipped through what appears to be a portal to another dimension, human schoolboys Toby and Dorian ask: ‘What is this place? Should we be expecting a lion to run through the door soon, or a wand-wielding wizard?’”
The story focuses on James Neil, a 13-year-old schoolboy whose parents have little sympathy for his plight at the hands of school bully, Barny. Having found the courage to stand up to his nemesis, James finds his life changed forever as he is drawn to a mysterious green glow that transports him to Firdous - a world entirely unlike his own. James discovers that, together with 14 others (collectively, the soon-to-be-famous ‘Mortal 15’), he has been summoned to Firdous for an exciting mission - to overthrow the unjust King Cane Hurayn and to discover the truth about a series of child disappearances. In a land of talking animals where a bear becomes a close friend and ally (there no communication barriers in Firdous; every being is able to communicate in a ‘free language’), suspicion falls on the notorious ‘Ogre’, the physically hideous head of national security who protects the haughty Queen Notrabella. But as their mission takes them from one hair-raising scene to another, the Mortal 15 soon discover that they should not take people at face value.
The action romps along at pace, with the plot taking some unexpected twists and turns en route. James and his pals learn to expect the unexpected and that true teamwork, friendship and trust can help them complete their quest.
Like many of the best adventure stories aimed at children and young adults, A Legend of Firdous successfully blends the everyday with the fantastical. Unlike many YA novels, however, it goes one further by addressing weighty, contemporary issues - from bullying to grief and loss - with an admirable sensitivity and lightness of touch. The book also provides a good, strong dose of moral message: the importance of fighting tyranny, standing up for what’s right, finding one’s identity and, perhaps most importantly of all, learning not to judge a book by its cover.
There’s a cosy, British familiarity to Firdous thanks to its manicured lawns, daintily-cut sandwiches and traditional taverns. Elsewhere, the story dips its respectful hat to well-known books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; Delahunty’s “cats with nine lives”, for instance, sweet treats that reappear as soon as they are eaten, echo Willy Wonka’s whimsical creations.
Delahunty’s subtle wit and smart dialogue – most especially in the form of teenage banter - is also on point, IYKWIM *
There’s some low-level violence (think swinging swords and ear-removing swipes rather than graphic, gratuitous bloodletting), and the intended 11-25 age group seems about right. That said, I read parts of it aloud to my seven-year-old daughter over three successive evenings and she delighted in the action, seemingly unscathed.
It’s become de rigueur to describe any new children’s fantasy author as the “next JK Rowling”, so I’ll try to avoid it, however much I’d like to. I was, however, deeply drawn into Delahunty’s mystical world of dimension-jumping mortal schoolchildren, shape-shifting ethereal beauties, and child-gobbling ogres. So much so that I was genuinely sad to reach the last page.
Verdict: Five stars. Delahunty is an author to watch. Grab a copy and keep an eye out for the planned sequels.
* If You Know What I Mean, in case you’re wondering.
A Legend of Firdous hits the shelves today on AMAZON UK priced £15.99 in hardback, £11.99 in paperback and £4.99 as an eBook.
Exclusive Q&A with Petra Delahunty
We sit down with the acclaimed British-Asian YA novelist Petra Delahunty to talk more about her spellbinding debut, the importance of cultural diversity in literature, and how her day-job as an English teacher influenced her work.
Q: A Legend of Firdous is the first in what promises to be an exceptional series. How many books do you envisage writing and what can readers expect from the sequels?
A: I plan to write three for definite. However, of recent I have been toying with the idea of four, only because the intricacies of the characters and some major storylines may benefit from being explored especially at the dénouement stage. I have all the mains plots and other details fully mapped out and I’d like to believe I’m going to stay faithful to these plans with some extemporaneous improvisations as we go long. I’m getting ideas every day!
Q: As a teacher you have significant experience of young people. Do you think it is important for an author to have this sort of experience if they are going to write for a young audience?
A: Absolutely – I have worked with thousands of young people over the past few years and have multiple nieces and nephews that I’m very hands on with. For this reason, I have grown extremely familiar with what young people expect, desire, feel and experience in their day-to-day lives. Not least because I’ve developed extremely positive relationships with many young people. This knowledge has definitely contributed to my story writing and creating protagonists in their teens in the sense I have understood the insecurities young people feel in that transitional period of their lives, the flaws, the need to rebel. I think any YA author would agree this is a fundamental foundation to write upon.
Q: You teach English at secondary level. Do you feel the syllabus should be expanded to better reflect modern Britain’s cultural diversity, and in what respects?
A: I’m very much a patriot and absolutely love the fact we study our homegrown literature at GCSE level – I think that’s highly important. However, to embed some cultural diversity into the curriculum so that we can explore all the beautiful works of literature across the globe would be amazing! I think it’s equally as important to teach young people that all sorts of authors exist from all kinds of backgrounds.
Q: Your novel draws upon and expertly blends Arabian and Western mythology. How do you think Arabian mythology differs from Western mythology, and why have you found it so fascinating as an
A: Yes, I dabbled in a bit of everything – I got rather greedy. But my covetous streak contributed to the diversity of my book I’d like to believe. In terms of how they differ – well not so much really except perhaps Arabian mythology derives from a range of beliefs like Zoroastrianism, Paganism and the Islamic religion whereas western mythology is a mixture of Irish folklore, Christian theology and eschatology and much more. Both offer brilliant and fascinating details – I wanted to bring the Arabian variety to the table to make an audience appreciate how wide a spectrum literature is and how beautiful the history of cultures around the globe can be. This isn’t completely unprecedented – C. S. Lewis drew on much Arabian mythology for his Narnian novels which I always found compelling and colourful as a child. It also contributed hugely to the mystery and intrigue that the world of Narnia boasted.
Q: What can you tell us about how magic will be explored in the A Legend of Firdous series?
A: In terms of magic, a vast realm is to be explored. I’m going to delve deep into the philosophy of magic, the variety of spells, the history, and potions. The characters will also be dabbling in all the fun bits I thoroughly enjoyed reading as a child in books like Narnia, The Potter series, The Worst Witch and such like. Magic is a crux of the novel that I cannot and wouldn’t want to avoid so readers can expect much more details of Firdousian magic in future novels.
Q: J. K. Rowling once said, somewhat surprisingly, that “Fantasy is not my favourite genre”. You are clearly a fan of fantasy fiction. What do you think the value of the genre is, especially to young readers?
A: I feel compelled to put my book into a category – for that reason it is a fantasy/mystery/thriller novel. But what I’d like to really categorise it as is reality with an infusion of magic. Firdous is a replica of our world and lives side-by-side with Earth with many gateways into one another. But it is an idyllic version aesthetically and with all its magical quirks – the possibilities are endless. I loved books that explored magic as a child and still do as an adult. I always wanted to create a book like those that I read as a child but with my own stories and focus points. That’s quite probably my favourite genre although I don’t think it fits under any particular nomenclature.
Q: You are at the crest of a wave of talented new Asian-British authors who are creating new and exciting hybrids of fiction. What do you most want to bring to the traditional fantasy genre?
A: I want to bring a flavour of cultural diversity and would like to do the tales my parents told me growing up some justice. It’s crazy – in South Asia people believe in the supernatural and folktales as fact and in the west, it is shunned as illogical. Merging those two perspectives together is a recipe for an explosive tale – one that I’d like to tell.
Q: A Legend of Firdous is your first novel. How did you find the experience and what are the key lessons you’ve learned for future books?
A: I learned that patience is key in developing a book and I also learned that I can turn into a mad inventor when I get small or large bursts of creativity. My writing process didn’t allow me to eat or sleep for an extended period of time – Firdous was all I could think of and about. For future books I am going to continue to use my personal chapter chunking process where I compose plans for every chapter on cards (chapter chunk cards) and adhere to these throughout my writing of a novel. I’m very much an obsessive with details so I don’t limit myself to just the cards. There are also maps, diagrams, notes. Thankfully I have a fairly thick skin because of all I’ve experienced in life so I can meet the criteria of what is demanded and expected of a writer.
Q: Writing is a time-consuming activity, especially when you have a full-time job as well. What motivates you to write?
A: I can’t think of anything better to consume my time with – writing to me is a stressful, strenuous joy. It’s riveting, heart-breaking, enlightening, draining and invigorating all in one! Everything around me motivates me to write – but most of all the complexities and the majesty of the Firdousian world are something I absolutely love delving into and exploring. To venture into a world I’ve created is why I write. I’ve always been a bit of an escapist.
Q: Is there any one character in your novel that you most particularly identify with, and for what reasons?
A: Yes, Cleopatra Comtois. She’s a character that’s a bit of an isolated soul. Not to give too much away but her upbringing and the reasons she finds herself embarking on the quest along with James resonate with particular decisions and pathways I had to take in life. There is one particular journey she takes that was inspired almost entirely by one of my own. She is a character that is bold and courageous but also sensitive, genuine and deeply loyal. Her deep insecurities and uncertainties about herself are similar to what I felt growing up and she’s just about to establish herself in the world – and I’d like to think she will leave a lasting imprint.
Meet the Author: Petra Delahunty
“I turned into the proverbial mad professor,” Petra Delahunty tells me with a wry smile. “I was consumed by Firdous. I ate and slept Firdous.”
We’re sitting in the cosy lounge of her home in West Yorkshire, UK, where she first imagined A Legend of Firdous, her debut novel and the first instalment in what promises to be an epic trilogy. A mahogany writing desk, piled high with textbooks, sits alongside a floor-to-ceiling bookcase crammed with titles which influenced her novel: books by C.S. Lewis, J.K. Rowling, Enid Blyton, J.R.R. Tolkien and Roald Dahl, and academic texts on Arabian mythology, Christian theology and eschatology.
Petra, 25, chats comfortably as I ask her about her childhood, her education and the events that led to her becoming one of most promising British-Asian YA fantasy authors.
“I read fantasy from a young age,” she says. “I was a book worm and got a taste for the mystical, metaphysical and supernatural. That appetite grew, at an unrelenting pace, for much of my childhood.”
That hunger, fuelled by English, Arabic and Arabian folktales read by her father, naturally progressed to the written word. By the time she was eight, Petra was writing short stories that combined sophisticated plotlines with a healthy dose of teenage wit. It was a talent that drew praise at primary school and became a passion at – and an emotional escape from – secondary school. Whilst she was academically brilliant, school life “wasn’t easy,” she explains. “My childhood and teens were a time of exceptional turmoil. I faced extreme knocks and setbacks. It was a perilous and distressing period of my life.”
Her passion for literature led, perhaps unsurprisingly, to an English Language and Linguistics and Literature degree. She graduated from York St John University in 2016 before entering teacher training at the University of Leeds. Petra graduated with a post-graduate certificate of education in December 2018. “Teacher training was the most worthwhile thing I’ve ever done,” she says. “Young people are incredible, and I hope I have given to them as much as they have given to me.”
Throughout the ups and downs, she tells me, one thing remained consistent. “I knew from the moment I could properly write that I wanted to become an author. I was attracted to it like a moth to a flame.”
Over the course of several months, Petra mapped out the framework of a story that combined everything she knew and loved – from Christian and Arabian mythology to theology, magic and fantasy. By the time she graduated from the University of Leeds, much of the legwork was complete. The result, A Legend of Firdous: The Next Great Magical Adventure Has Begun, out this week, has won widespread acclaim.
“Most importantly of all,” she adds, “my pupils in the school where I teach really like it. That, for me, means everything.”