Sufiya Ahmed worked in advertising and in the House of Commons before becoming a full-time author. In 2010 she set up the BIBI Foundation, which arranges visits to the Houses of Parliament for children from underprivileged backgrounds. Sufiya has written several children's books including My Story: Noor-Un-Nissa Inayat Khan, Secrets of the Henna Girl and Under the Great Plum Tree which was longlisted for the UK Literacy Association Book Awards, and Rosie Raja: Churchill's Spy. Image: Asif Patel Photography
Rosie Raja: Churchill's Spy (Bloomsbury Education)
Rosie Raja: Churchill's Spy is an adventure-packed historical fiction novel about a girl, half Indian and half English, who finds herself working as a spy in Occupied France.
We asked author Sufiya Ahmed how her earlier research for her novels based on real people such as Noor Inayat Khan helped the ideas for Rosie Raja develop, and what she would like today's children to take from her books about these historical figures.
Read a Chapter Extract from Rosie Raja: Churchill's Spy
Q&A with Sufiya Ahmed
1. Can you tell us a little about yourself, and what drew you into writing for children?
It was my childhood dream to be a writer. I grew up on a council estate and in the centre of that estate was a public library filled with children's books. It was the only place that my mum allowed me to be on my own and it was my safe and happy place because I was a complete bookworm. I'm a big supporter of school and public libraries because I don't think I would be the reader or writer I am without them.
I started writing when I was about eight. I'd copy the opening chapters of my favourite books word for word in my exercise book and then halfway through, let my imagination come up with my own ending. As I grew older, my own stories developed. At the age of 14, I convinced my mum that I needed a typewriter so I could type out my stories and send them off to be published. My mum saved money from her housekeeping and purchased one for me. It was the best present ever! I typed out a story, sent it off to Puffin Books and never heard back. That was when I was 14. Years later, my debut Secrets of the Henna Girl was published by Puffin Books. I did take some pleasure in mentioning that little story at my book launch.
What drew me to writing for children? The books I read gave me so much pleasure, transporting me into worlds where mysteries were solved, adventures were experienced and fantastical settings were explored. I think it's the escapism that grabbed me really, and I want children today to have that.
I think I should also add that my books are a reflection of the issues that matter to me. My first book was about forced marriage and girls' rights, something I care about deeply. Then of course, the historical stories because I think it is important that the history taught in our schools is inclusive.
2. What is your new book, Rosie Raja: Churchill's Spy, about?
I'm very excited about it. It's July, 1941. Rosina Raja is half-Indian and half-English. She has always lived in India, so when her mother passes away and she moves to England (where it rains all the time) she is miserable and doesn't have any friends. Life changes dramatically for Rosie when she discovers that her army captain father is actually a spy for the British government. She can't bear to be left behind so she stows away in his plane.
Finding herself in occupied France, Rosie is soon drawn into the struggle against the Nazis. With new allies and new enemies at every turn, she must help her father complete his mission, and more importantly…make sure they both get home alive.'
3. What inspired the story and the idea for a child spy?
It was actually inspired by all the research that I did for my children's book on real life WWII heroine Noor Inayat Khan. Noor was one of Prime Minister Winston Churchill's real life spies who was sent as a radio operator to occupied France. She was amazingly brave and courageous and was awarded the George Cross medal, the highest bravery award for a civilian in a war. The more research I did about Noor and all the other spies, the more the story of Rosie took hold in my imagination. I thought children would enjoy this thrilling, and sometimes dangerous world through the eyes of the 11 year old Rosie.
4. What draws you to writing about the past?
I guess I'm really interested in our place in the past. I loved history at school but I never learned about the British Empire and its relationship to the land of my heritage, India. As a Brit I have always felt that I belonged, but as a little girl there were times when I felt that I was peeping into someone else' history. All the pivotal moments like WWI, WWII and the suffragettes, for example, seemed to be fought for by people who did not look like me. And that is so far from the truth.
During WWI, 1.3 million Indian soldiers came from India to fight for King and country. During WWII, 2.5 million soldiers came from India to fight for Winston Churchill against Hitler and the Nazis. A leading figure in the suffragette movement was Queen Victoria's god-daughter, Princess Sophia Duleep Singh. Yet all these people are not mentioned in our history books, or at least they weren't when I was at school.
I guess I'm writing stories about our shared history. I want young people to know about our shared history and have a better understanding of the contribution of South Asians to Britain. There is four hundred years of history between Britain and India.
5. Did you still need to research British spies, WWII and occupied Paris in order to write this book?
My research was already done when I wrote my book on Noor Inayat Khan. It was fascinating to learn how Churchill set up his war spy agency called the Special Operations Executive, the SOE. The spies who were recruited were fondly known as Churchill's Army of Spooks.
A total of 480 spies were sent to France, and 39 of them were women. They all knew that they might not return from enemy territory because of the danger involved. Yet they went ahead with their missions because it was the right thing to do. I referenced my notebook on key dates and places for the SOE, and then just let Rosie's story take over.
6. Can you tell us about your lead character, Rosie Raja - did you draw on any historical figures for her background? Why did you decide to give her a dual heritage, Indian and British?
Rosie is completely from my imagination. An 11-year-old who is trying to cope with losing her mother in India and then trying to adapt to England where she has no friends. She has a foot in both worlds. At the time of the war, India was still ruled by the British Empire and I wanted to show Rosie trying to balance both her identities. To be part ruler, and part ruled.
7. In the book, you reflect on two parts of Britain's history - its rule in India and its role in Occupied Paris during WWII. Why did you decide to bring these parallel histories into this book?
The story is told through Rosie's eyes. Her Indian family support Mahatma Gandhi's campaign for freedom from the empire. At the same time, her English father is fighting the Nazis to stop them from taking over and ruling Britain. Both events affect Rosie. It is part of her story.
In our real history, the Indians (like the 2.5 million soldiers) who contributed to fighting the war did it because it was the right thing to do, but they were all still supporters of an independent India and wanted an end to British rule.
8. You have written about other historical figures; why do you want today's children to have access to their stories?
Let me tell you why I wrote about the historical figures. I've been doing author visits for years in schools and I run a Girls Rights Workshop. I do a quick run through of British women role models before the practical, and Noor Inayat Khan and Princess Sophia Duleep Singh are included. None of the children and hardly any teachers knew about these two fantastic women. Over time it just saddened me, and I wanted to change that. Of course, the best way to do that as a children's writer was to write a book on them, and I did.
Now these books are used in schools and more and more children are learning about these historical figures who made valuable contributions to Britain. Noor sacrificed her life for this country and Sophia is one of suffragettes who made the vote possible for women. I think their stories should be known, but not just by children of colour but by all children.
I do believe that in order for us to strive towards a society which accepts people as belonging to this country, rather than merely tolerating people, books should never be seen as only for one type of reader. All school children should be given the opportunity to read and learn about our shared history.
9. Other than a great adventure and a glimpse into the past, what would you like your readers to take from Rosie's story?
Hmm, I think they should try out Rosie's favourite snack. Pakoras. The fried spicy dough is perfect for rainy days washed down with tea. There is also code breaking exercises in the book which can inspire readers to become top secret spies. The SOE may no longer exist, but MI5 and MI6 are ready to recruit, lol.
10. Where and when do you do your best writing? What are you writing currently?
My best writing is in the mornings when my mind is fresh - that is provided I haven't fallen down the Twitter hole of news and debates.
I'm currently writing my second Rosie Raja story as it was a two-book deal. It's set in Egypt during the war. Rosie and her papa have been sent to Cairo by Mr Churchill for a secret plan. That's all I can tell you now.
11. What are your favourite escapes from your desk?
I love going to the movies and eating out with friends. I'm still happiest with a good book in the corner though.