Katya read English at university and then completed an MPhil researching the impact of stories on autistic children's behaviour. She has worked in a variety of special needs schools as a teaching assistant, and more recently co-founded Mainspring Arts - a not-for-profit organisation that provides mentoring and creative opportunities for neurodivergent adults. Her earlier novel, October, October, won the Carnegie Medal 2022.
Foxlight (Bloomsbury Children's Books)
Katya Balen, whose novel October, October won the Carnegie Medal, tells ReadingZone about her new book, Foxlight, about two sister, both very different characters, who decide to go in search of their birth mother and through their adventures, learn about the strength and love in 'found families'.
Review: "At its heart, this very moving and thought-provoking story is about family, love and identity."
Q&A with Katya Balen
"I like writing about the wildness in all of us, and about how that wildness can connect us to ourselves and to others."
1. Can you tell us a little about yourself, loves and hates, what makes you laugh, and what brought you in to writing for children?
I'm Katya, and I am a writer from South London. I love stories in any form - books, plays, chats with friends, comics, TV, films. I also love crisps, wild places, and my ridiculous dogs. The dogs also make me laugh, although sometimes it's so I don't cry (looking at you, small whippet chewing my slippers).
I write for children because those are the books that made me a writer. I also worked directly with children for a long time, in special schools and hospices. So I always felt a connection to my audience, and that drives me to make my books as good as I can.
2. What kinds of stories do you enjoy telling? Have any of your novels stood out for you for any reason?
I like writing about the wildness in all of us, and about how that wildness can connect us to ourselves and to others. I also like writing about stories themselves and how they do exactly the same - stories can be our own, they can be shared, they can change us, and they can keep up steady. I think October, October probably shows these things, and so does Foxlight.
3. Can you tell us about Foxlight, your latest book, and where its title comes from?
Foxlight is a story about two girls who feel like they don't have a story at all. Fen and Rey live in The Light House, full of children who were left by their mothers. Every other child knows where they came from and why they are there. But Fen and Rey were found at 'foxlight'. That's the time when the night is starting to turn into day, and you can see foxes moving between the shadows.
I made the word up, but it fits with the idea of things changing, of nothing being quite clear, of mystery and the blurring of worlds. Fen and Rey were found curled up with the foxes, at the edge of the wildlands that border the House. One day, they decide to follow a fox and discover their true story…
4. What helped inspire the novel and its setting, which forms such an important part of the book?
I was inspired in part by all the beautiful wild places I've been lucky enough to visit in the UK. There are so many secret spaces, so much brutal and beautiful nature. I was also inspired by the foxes who live in my garden! They would be bold enough to come inside, or stare in at me through the window with these huge eyes. It was like they were trying to tell me something.
5. Do you feel that Foxlight has its 'roots' in any of your earlier books?
I'm always finding my voice, in every book. But as I write more, I get better at knowing the stories I want to tell. So every book builds upon the last one!
6. Why did you want to explore 'found families' through this story of abandoned sisters?
I think we are all so connected to those around us, through stories and life and love and fury. We don't have to be a blood relation to share that with someone. So I wanted to write about that, and what it means to be belong. How our stories twist together with others by chance and by circumstance and by choice.
I wanted the sisters to be different and to want the same things and different things all at once. I wanted them to love each other fiercely but also realise who they were as individuals. They grew from there!
7. If you had a writing hut in the world of the Light House, what would it look like and what would you want inside?
What a great question! I'd want a huge desk because I like space for notebooks and post-its and pictures. It should have a view of the endless sky so I can watch the day change. I'd want a dog basket under the desk because writing is lonely sometimes and I like the company of a snoring whippet. I'd also want a coffee machine and an endless supply of Wotsits, the cheesy snack of champions.
8. What are you writing currently? What do you do when you need a break from writing?
I am writing a story about a girl who lives on a remote island, and who is haunted by mistakes she thinks she's made. It's another story about relationships and stories and our pasts and nature!
When I need a break I watch a lot of TV or go to the cricket if it's summer! I also walk the dog for hours, and bake cakes. I don't even like cake. It's just relaxing.