Uncovering Secrets with Sufiya Ahmed's Rosie Raja book series
With the Writer Spotlight Series, we create a positive image for young girls to refer to by having conversations with different writers and illustrators. This month we have been doing Q&As with many writers, to get to know more about them and their work. Here, we are showcasing all the questions we have asked author Sufiya Ahmed. We discuss her middle grade book series, Rosie Raja: Mission to Cairo and Churchill Spy.
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Welcome Sufiya. Tell us a bit about yourself. When did you discover your love for writing?
I loved reading and was known as a bookworm by my teachers. I started writing when I was about eight. It was my childhood dream to be a writer, and I started practising from an early age. I would copy the first few chapters of my favourite books word to word in my exercise book and then, halfway through, let my imagination present my ending. As I grew older, I became more confident with dreaming up my own stories and writing them down in my exercise books.
I grew up on a council estate and bang in the middle of it was my most favourite place in the world. My public library - my safe and happy place, which gave me access to all those free books that I could devour. It is why I feel so passionately about public and school libraries. I would not be the writer I am, or indeed have had my previous career working in the Houses of Parliament if it had not been for the aspiration that I gained from all those books. The stories allowed me to dream and imagine a world outside my council estate bubble.
Rosie Raja: Mission to Cairo and Churchill Spy series is filled with thrilling and empowering WWII adventures. What came first, the plot or characters?
Every story is different. With Rosie, it was a character because I wanted to write about a girl of dual heritage set in World War II and her experience in Britain and India during that time. Rosie has a foot in both worlds with a father who is English and a mother who is Indian.
I thought a lot about her backstory, which influences her choices and makes her who she is. Rosie loses her mother and tries to cope with the loss and grief. She also has an emotionally distant father who is a hero, but struggles to communicate with his daughter. All of this set in the period of the British Empire at the time of its decline, in the middle of a world war filled with danger.
While writing the series, did you want to do more research on the subject and time period discussed?
I had already done the research on WWII spies when I wrote my book about the real historical figure, Noor-Un-Nissa Inayat Khan. Noor was one of Sir Winston Churchill’s spies who was sent to occupy France to spy on the Nazis just like Rosie’s father. I had all that information in my head in terms of dates, settings, real people, Morse code etc. for the first book Rosie Raja: Churchill’s Spy. You could say Rosie’s character is inspired by Noor.
I did have to research Egypt during WWII for the second book, Rosie Raja: Mission to Cairo. Egypt was an important location for the British because of the Suez Canal. This is the waterway through which all our resources from the east sailed through. It had to be protected from the Nazis.
I read books on the battles that occurred in North Africa, the historical figures involved, and what the city of Cairo was like. I read a lot of non-fiction adult books about the war. It helped with getting the story setting right.
What do you hope young readers will take away from this book series?
I’d like young readers to walk away with a rounder view of WWII. The Rosie Raja books mention the empire’s soldiers that fought in the war. Most people do not know that 5 million soldiers from the British Empire came to fight in WWII. They came from African countries, the Caribbean, New Zealand, Canada and Australia. Of the five million, half that number, 2.5 million were just from India. That was the largest volunteer army in history, and they came to fight the Nazis for Britain.
I think it’s important that young readers see this side of the war too. It is not an alternative history. It is our shared history. Perhaps it could help British children of colour with their sense of belonging to their birth country, and also allow all children to see why our country looks the way it does. Personally, I have always felt that I belong to this country, but there were times as a little girl that I felt I was peeping into someone else’s history. It seemed that WWII was fought and won by people who did not look like me. But that is so far from the truth.
Who is the author you most admire in your genre? Why?
Oh so many, but if I have to name one, then Emma Carroll. I love her historical fiction. Her writing transports you into the past.
Are you working on any new projects?
I have a time travel book releasing in February 2024 which is currently being edited. I am also plotting a new Rosie Raja adventure in my head.
Quick Fire Round
What is one of your favourite memories?
Going to Blackpool beach in the summer with my cousins. We had day trips there when we visited our family in the northwest of England every year.
You have 3 wishes. What would you wish for?
Free school dinners for all the primary school children in Britain.
A library with a librarian in all primary and secondary schools
Copies of Rosie Raja in all the school libraries
What is your favourite place in the world?
About the author
Sufiya Ahmed was born in India and arrived in the UK as a baby. She lived in Bolton, Lancashire, before moving to London, where she still lives. Sufiya has worked in advertising and in the House of Commons, but is now a full-time author. In 2010, Sufiya established the BIBI Foundation, a non-profit organisation, to arrange visits to the Houses of Parliament for diverse and underprivileged school children. Sufiya also writes for The Independent newspaper.