Under the Covers July 2023: Meet local prize-winning children’s author Ali Sparkes 

Under the Covers July 2023: Meet local prize-winning children’s author Ali Sparkes 

By books editor Carolyn Thomas

As the long summer holidays approach, parents all over Southampton will be juggling jobs and other commitments while keeping their children entertained.  So it seems a good time for some reading recommendations! 

Not only is time with a book immensely enjoyable – when it’s the right book of course  –  but regular reading helps prevent learning loss during the long break from lessons, and improves children’s vocabulary, verbal fluency, and comprehension skills.  Best of all is a book with some local links which can lead to other outings and investigations.  In this respect Southampton is lucky to have a leading children’s author living in Woolston. She is Ali Sparkes, a prize-winning author of over 50 children’s books, and a born and bred Sotonian who has drawn inspiration from our city for some of her stories.

Ali specialises in action-packed adventures with a supernatural twist, stories set in the here and now, but with something bizarre happening.  There are dashes of science and nature, lots of animals, characters with paranormal powers and even aliens.  Her books are frequently described as ‘engrossing’ ‘funny’ and ‘exciting’ while her latest, My Sister is a Dog, explores ideas around reincarnation. ‘Although it’s a comedy, it is unavoidably emotional and poignant,’ Ali told In Common. ‘The doggie hero is my own Labradoodle, Willow, and the story was inspired by our dog walking around Woolston. The other dogs in the story are all based on the real dogs and their owners who are our mates at their local park’. 

Formerly a journalist with the Southern Evening Echo and Radio Solent, Ali wrote her first children’s book in 2006.  That debut book The Shapeshifter – Finding the Fox, was the first in a series of six Shapeshifter stories about Dax Jones and his friends at a government run-school for Children of Limitless Ability (COLA). 

In 2010 she won the Blue Peter prizes for ‘Best Book’ and ‘Book I Couldn’t Put Down’ with Frozen in Time, her first standalone novel. This is an inventive story about cryogenics, featuring children who were put into suspended animation in 1956 ‘waking up’ in 2009, where they negotiate the modern world and try to unravel their own mystery. 

‘I’m always asked where I get my ideas and the honest answer is that it can come from anywhere,’ said Ali. ‘It maybe that something I’ve watched, or heard, or seen, can lead me to a story. And with my new book it was from my dog!’

Other of Ali’s books reference Southampton and the surrounding areas – although usually she will change the name, or the reference will be oblique.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, given her journalistic background, one of Ali’s favourite things about writing books is doing the research. Her novel Wishful Thinking (which does reference Southampton) involves a young boy who suddenly finds he has his own personal ‘god’  who can make his wishes come true.  While researching ancient Celtic river deities – ‘as you do’ she says –  Ali discovered that the River Itchen has a goddess called Ancaster and there is still a shrine to her in Southampton. 

In the science fiction action thriller Destination Earth, an alien girl called Lucy arrives on the Isle of Wight after a 10-year journey from her devastated home planet, from which she is the only survivor. She’s spent her time alone on the spaceship learning how to be human. ‘When I worked at Radio Solent I became slightly obsessed with the Rowridge Transmission Station we used in the centre of the island,’ said Ali. ‘You can see it on a clear day, and I could just imagine a space craft docking there. So when I came to write the book I set it there. 

‘But the uncanny coincidence was that I’d written about how Lucy had been studying Earth for some years and had come to really like the music here. I’d first written that she liked the Beatles, but then I was told by my publisher that we couldn’t afford to pay for the rights to their lyrics, so I started thinking about other bands I could use instead. Next thing I hear my son playing guitar, slapping away to Level 42. Now not only do they have a song called Starchild and other apt lyrics, but they are from the Isle of Wight. So I contacted Mark King, their lead singer, and he supplied me with some lyrics and, naturally, I gave him a cameo in the story.

‘I also had to do lots of research around terminology and work out a reason why, given the technological advances, Lucy had not just arrived via a worm hole. My eventual idea was to do with the human body’s physiology.  Lucy needed time to acclimatise to the gas mix. I was delighted when I got a review from a proper scientist who appreciated this information!’

More local inspiration came from the true story of 18-year-old Douglas Lane who was killed by lightening on Southampton Common while sheltering from a storm in 1955. Ali used this sad event as a prompt for her novel Thunderstruck, set in Southampton, renamed as Easthampton, and dedicated to Douglas. In her story two children find they can see and befriend two ghosts who had been struck by lightning and together the children and the friendly ghosts deal with other phantoms, including some which are not so friendly. ‘I went to the Echo and read the actual coroner’s reports about Douglas,’ said Ali. ‘The whole thing was so sad, more so because of the restraint of such reporting at the time. I wanted to make sure that what I wrote, although it’s a fun book, was absolutely respectful to the memories.’

This book also includes a mention for Ali’s real junior school, Beechwood Primary in Bitterne.  She visited Beechwood again recently to help celebrate the school’s 70th birthday.  Visiting schools and libraries to promote books is another favourite part of author ‘duties’ for Ali, who well remembers the importance of reading during her own childhood.

‘My family wasn’t particularly well off when I was growing up and we didn’t have many holidays, nor go very far,’ she said. ‘So my school holiday was mostly spent at home and books were where I ‘went’. If I wasn’t re-enacting the book, burying treasure or something, I was traipsing to the library in Cobbett Road.’

A favourite book from those days is the adventure novel My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George. ‘It’s about survival and definitely influenced my writing. It’s certainly responsible for Dax from Shapeshifters’, she said.  

Dax and his shapeshifting friends at COLA could be a good place to start some summer holiday reading.  For other ideas a complete list of Ali’s books is on her website www.alisparkes.com


PS for parents. Under the alias A D Fox, Ali writes crime thrillers for adults, notably the Henry & Sparrow series.

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