Bright Sparke - Ali Sparkes interview

Ali Sparkes was a popular winner of the Blue Peter Book Award this year for her novel Frozen in Time. Sion Donovan finds out how her home county proved to be inspirational

A great tale begins when two modern day children discover a brother and sister cryogenically frozen since 1956. Ali Sparkes’s novel Frozen in Time has delighted thousands of young readers with its humour, jolly romps and adventurous spirit. Judges for the influential Blue Peter Book Award were clearly taken by it, giving the book its top prize in March.Reawakening children from the 1950s is the imaginative arc of the story, but the core of the book will have a familiar reality to it for county readers as it is a Hampshire novel through and through. It’s not only been crafted by a writer from Southampton, but is set in the county and has been inspired by childhood memories of its people.  The tale takes place in a fictional town called Amhill. But it bears a close resemblance to a north Hampshire village.

Inspired by Overton“I wanted to set it in a small, rural town or large village,” Ali explained. “I didn’t want the 1950s characters of Freddy and Polly to be blown away by modern life, gasping at all the changes of the past 50 years. I wanted a river to run through it and I wanted it to be based on a real place. I found it in Overton near Basingstoke. I’ve been there before and I remember this lovely winding river. I spent quite a few months looking at Overton on Google Earth so that the logistics of the book are right, such as how long it takes to travel there from London.”They say you should write about what you know. In Frozen in Time, Ali had a little help from local listeners of Radio Solent, with their stories of childhood adventures swimming in rivers and climbing trees.But the biggest local influence were her parents and their childhood growing up in Southampton in the 1950s. The characters Freddy and Polly are even named after them.“In 1956 my dad was 13 and mum was 12, the same ages as Freddy and Polly are in the book. One of my favourite scenes in the book is when Freddy roller skates. My dad is an ace roller skater, even at the ripe age of 66. He also has a very competitive, can do nature, like Freddy in the book has.“My mum used to read a girls magazine when she was young, literally called Girls, which gave all sorts of practical advice. Polly is similar in the book.”The mum of two had already enjoyed great success as a children’s writer with her Shapeshifter and Monster Maker book series. Her two boys Jacob, 15, and Alex, 12, have often proved to be the perfect sounding boards for her stories while in development.

As seen on TVBut the Blue Peter Book Award has taken her career to another level.She said: “It’s very exciting. It’s made a huge difference. Sales have quadrupled because of it and your profile goes up so much higher. I was at London Book Week and pretty much everybody came up to me to say congratulations. “The BBC have also offered me an audio book contract on a new series I’m working on and that’s a result of the Blue Peter award. I’m also writing a story for World Book Day next year which is fantastic promotion for me.”Her next novel, Wishful Thinking, comes out in July and again includes a Hampshire reference. The book is about a boy called Kevin who goes out on a day trip with his nan only to bring back some fudge, a lavender scented candle – and his own god. In fact, there are quite a few small, bored and malworshipped gods in the book including Ancasta, the Celtic goddess worshipped locally and associated with the River Itchen.

Book wormWishful Thinking will be her 14th published book in four years. But her love for writing started early. Books like the Famous Five stories inspired her to make her own adventure stories called the Webster books, complete with front cover illustrations.But after she finished at Bitterne Park Secondary School in Southampton, she moved to London and tried unsuccessfully for places at drama colleges.Ali tried a variety of performing jobs including working as a Bluecoat at Pontins and as a sequin-clad assistant to a unicyclist. But by her early 20s she returned to her first talent as a writer, getting a job as a journalist for the Southern Daily Echo back home in Southampton. She married IT manager husband Simon Tilney in 1991 and settled down in Southampton.At work Ali soon had her own page called Sparkes Page. Ali said: “The editor Pat Fleming really encouraged me and gave me licence to do my own thing, write some comic stuff and really go for it. I did cartoons, wrote stories, interviewed bands. It was a hoot.“The paper also had a close relationship with Radio Solent, and there was a cross germination of talent between the paper and the station.” Starting in 1997, Ali then went on to work at Radio Solent for seven years, from putting together what’s on bulletins, producing shows and co-presenting Sunday morning shows. Ali also wrote pieces and comedy monologues for Woman’s Hour on Radio 4.

From radio to writingBut after the birth of her second son, Ali turned her attention to becoming an author.Ali remembers: “There were quite a few false starts but eventually after some time I got an agent. Eventually that lead to my first book Finding the Fox being published in 2006.”Since then Ali has enjoyed great success in children’s literature. And seeing some of her work turned into film or television is not out of the question either.She said: “I’ve had some interest from a few film producers for my next book. It doesn’t seem beyond the realms of possibility. But unless the ink dries on the contract I don’t take it too seriously.”

‘What I love about Hampshire’

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Most breathtaking Hampshire viewThe road that runs along to Lynwood from Fordingbridge in the New Forest. It goes across a high plateau. It’s breathtaking. Favourite childhood memory Every Good Friday we used to go for a big picnic and great long walks through the New Forest as a family. Looking forward to it the day before was as exciting as Christmas. Favourite restaurantThe Cow Herds on Southampton Common. It’s our regular haunt. It’s got good food and fabulous Sunday lunches. Favourite Hampshire character or real life inspirationRhys Jones the mountaineer. I’ve known him since he was little. He has an incredible sense of adventure. He embodies the spirit of many of my male characters.

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