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FEATURE Written in the

FEATURE Written in the stars WALSALL CHILDREN’S AUTHOR SERENA PATEL IS SET TO MAKE A SPLASH ON THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY WITH HER DEBUT NOVEL. SHE CHATS TO AMY NORBURY AHEAD OF HER APPEARANCE AT THE LITERARY WEEKEND OF KENILWORTH ARTS FESTIVAL LATER THIS MONTH For Serena Patel, it was Roald Dahl. As a youngster, she would while away countless hours immersed in the worlds of Oompa-Loompas and Everlasting Gobstoppers, snozzcumbers and gruesomely named giants, enraptured by the adventures of Matilda, Charlie Bucket and Willy Wonka, Sophie and the BFG. And now she’s hoping that her own literary creation will be as inspiring to young readers today as her childhood favourites were to her. The Walsall author’s debut novel, Anisha Mistry: Bridesmaid Detective, is set to be published next year by leading publishing house Usbourne. The hilarious book follows the tale of irresistible heroine Anisha, who is preparing to be a bridesmaid at her aunt’s wedding when Uncle Tony, Aunty Bindi’s husband-to-be, is kidnapped. Anisha turns her hand to detective work to find out where Tony is to try and save the Indian wedding of the year. “I wanted to write a story that I would have loved to have read as a child: a story about a girl who feels like she doesn’t fit in with her family or at school,” says 40-year-old Serena, who works as a training coordinator for a law firm. “I wanted to have her realise that, actually, her family really does need her: she doesn’t have to hide in the background; she can be the heroine and save the day. I feel very lucky that Anisha Mistry is being published by Usborne and hugely excited to see this, my very first novel, making its way out into the world and into the hands of children.” Self-confessed bookworm Serena has been an avid writer for as long as she can remember. “I’ve always written; when I was at school it was a lot of poetry, and I used to write a lot in my diaries, which were full of the usual teenage angst,” laughs Serena. “It was a real release for me; I don’t think I realised it at the time but writing has always been a kind of sanctuary for me, and a way to explore those things WALSALL AUTHOR SERENA PATEL that you don’t particularly want to talk to other people about, particularly as a teenager!” As she left those awkward teenage years behind, Serena’s writing endeavours went by the wayside. But her gift for storytelling and love of children’s books came back with a vengeance when she had her two children Alyssa, now seven, and Reiss, six. “I’ve got a young niece too and I was always making up stories for her, just chatting along and telling stories verbally, then it came to me that I should be writing them down,” explains Serena. “I had my two children close together, so I went back to work briefly after I had my daughter, but when my son came along I took a year off. During that time I found myself scratching about and finding that I needed to do something, and so I started writing again.” After googling creative writing courses, Serena 6

came across the Golden Egg Academy, which offers courses run by industry professionals who help aspiring children’s writers to hone their work and get noticed by publishers. After applying for their picture book programme and being rejected, Serena saw they were offering a year-long foundation course for novels. The only problem was that Serena didn’t have a novel to put forward. Yet. “I started putting together a rough idea for a novel aimed at readers aged eight to 12,” says Serena. “I wrote about 3,000 words and sent it off, and to my great surprise they really liked the idea and wanted to work with me.” With mentorship from an industry professional to help guide and read through her drafts and workshops run at Scholastic’s headquarters in London, as well as weekly online sessions with the rest of the budding authors on the course, Serena saw her novel take shape. Now with 5,000 words under her belt, Serena took a chance and sent off her budding novel to a competition called Undiscovered Voices, an initiative by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators British Isles to help fresh, new voices in children’s literature. “I got an email to say I’d been longlisted, which was amazing,” she says. “And then a few weeks later I got a phone call, which I honestly thought was a prank, saying I was a finalist for the competition.” The finalists’ work is published in an anthology which gets sent to major agents and publishing houses, which greatly increases an author’s chance of getting a book deal. “It’s really well thought of in the world of publishing and it opens a window of opportunity,” says Serena. “I was getting emails from agents and publishers wanting to read the full book, which I hadn’t even finished! “Golden Egg have a ‘first look’ deal with a literary agent called Kate Shaw, and because of all the publicity with Undiscovered Voices they wanted to show her the book in its current state.” Serena met with Kate, who loved the novel, and the duo started working together to hone Anisha Mistry until the story was ready to face the publishers. As a debut novelist, getting that big break which sees your work make its way into print and onto bookshelves up and down the country is the stuff of dreams - and for many budding authors, a dream is how it remains. But Serena’s story sparked a flurry of excitement in the publishing world, not only landing her a book deal, but seeing her creation become the subject of a bidding war between four publishing houses. “Because of all the interest in the novel we’d given publishers a one-month deadline to declare their interest,” explains Serena. “On deadline day I went to the cinema with my niece as a distraction because I knew I’d be climbing the walls all day if I didn’t do something. When I came out I had all these messages and emails, which were offers from publishers. “With four offers it went to an auction situation, which I never imagined would happen in my wildest dreams, it was an amazing situation to be in, just surreal.” With the first Anisha Mistry book due to be published early next year, Serena is now working on the second and third books in the series. “Anisha has really resonated with publishers and the children I’ve shown the book too,” says Serena. “There’s a big thing at the moment about representation in children’s books. When I was a child the books I read were wonderful, I loved reading and escaping into books. But I couldn’t see myself in those books as a British Indian child. And now the industry is working towards having more books with Black, Asian or other Minority Ethnic (BAME) main characters, so children can see themselves in the books they read. I feel it’s an important thing to do and I’m lucky to be in a position to do it.” This month Serena will be sharing tales about her journey into the world of children’s publishing at Kenilworth Arts Festival’s literary weekend on September 22, as part of a panel of industry experts looking at the challenges and opportunities in the book world. “When I started with the Golden Egg course I never envisaged any of this,” says Serena. “I didn’t ever imagine I’d actually get a publishing deal and be able to say ‘my book’s coming out next year’.” ROALD DAHL WAS SERENA’S OWN FAVOURITE AUTHOR AS A CHILD 7


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