Congratulations Nizrana on the publication of The Boy Who Met a Whale (Nosy Crow, January 2021 and Peachtree, Feburary 2022)! What was the original inspiration behind your new book?
Thank you! I came to this book after writing The Girl Who Stole an Elephant, so I was trying to think of an animal that was comparable in some way to join the children on their adventure. Since elephants are the largest land animals I thought of the ocean and the largest sea animal. That’s how Maalu the blue whale was born. I’ve lived by the sea all my life until I moved to the UK, so it felt like a great place to go back to through my book.
What was your favourite part about writing The Boy Who Met a Whale, and what was the most challenging?
The entire book was challenging! Second books are famously hard to write, and mine was no exception. Each draft was a completely different story. Everything fell into place right at the very end only, so I was on my toes throughout. My favourite part to write was the scene where the main character and his sister meet the whale for the first time. I felt its magnificence as I wrote, and it gives me the chills just thinking about it.
I’ve been so lucky to have actually met a whale myself! I had the honour of meeting a magnificent humpback whale and her baby just off the coastline of Byron Bay, Australia, and it was one of the most breathtaking, awe-inspiring moments of my life. I’d love to know, have you ever met a whale?
The photo of your whale is stunning. They’re such spectacular creatures aren’t they? Unfortunately I haven’t had as good a look. I’ve seen plenty of dolphins but the whales were more elusive and I’ve only had glimpses. The ocean is such a mysterious and amazing place anyway. But during the writing of this book I lived vicariously through other people’s videos!
Your writing is heavily rooted in the wonders of the natural world, from the hatching of tiny turtle eggs to swimming in the shadow of a gentle blue whale. How much of an impact do you think storytelling for children can have on protecting and preserving the environment?
I think it can have a huge impact. You’re right, I have tried to convey the wonders of the natural world in the telling of this story. There are no messages about protecting the environment, but seeing the beauty and grandeur of nature is the first step to wanting to preserve it forever.
What do you hope readers take away from The Boy Who Met a Whale?
First and foremost, I hope they feel like they were on an ocean adventure with a huge blue whale! I write primarily for the escapism, and that’s what I want my readers to feel. Everything else is a bonus. I hope they experience a part of the world they may not know much about and see the beauty of the sea and its creatures.
Where and what do you envision Razi, Shifa and Zheng getting up to in the future?
I think Razi grows up to join Zheng on his adventures at sea, but eventually comes back home to where he felt he always belonged. Shifa would of course grow up to be a famed medicine woman, and Zheng would continue to have his very-exciting-but-not-quite-100%-true adventures, rising from ship’s boy to captain of his own ship.
Are you more like Chaya (from The Girl Who Stole an Elephant) or Shifa (from A Boy Who Met a Whale)?
Great question! I think I’m a bit of both. I do have some doggedness when it comes to getting something I want. Being published is a test of perseverance after all! Happily, I didn’t have the kind of challenges Chaya had to overcome. Like Shifa, I’m the pragmatic one, and judge things based on evidence.
Both The Boy Who Met a Whale and your debut, The Girl Who Stole an Elephant, are both set on the stunning shores of Serendib, a fictional island inspired by your home country Sri Lanka. How easy is it bringing Sri Lanka to life on the page, and has travelling always had a big impact on your writing?
Bringing Serendib to the page is the easiest part of the writing process for me. I wish everything about writing could be that easy! I think making it a fictional version of Sri Lanka meant that I could have the best of both worlds. I could write in my observations and experiences and make the rest up. I think travelling does have some impact on my writing. The idea for the turtles originally came from a trip to Egypt. We were waiting to board a plane in Marsa Alam airport and there was a massive turtle scene on the wall. I was mesmerised by that turtle and I stole it (metaphorically!) to put in my book. That’s how Razi came to be watching baby turtles on the beach when he met Zheng.
What’s one of your favourite memories from growing up in Sri Lanka?
My best memories are the ones with my cousins. I grew up in a very large extended family and I had a lot of company and friendship through my cousins. It was like having a whole other set of friends out of school. I have 36 first cousins. The memories that stand out are the trips we went on together, and also occasions like Eid.
Have you always wanted to write children’s books, and what gravitates you to writing action-packed adventure stories rooted in the natural world?
I feel like I came to it quite by accident. What I intended to write was cosy mystery stories. Something like Enid Blyton’s Five Find-Outers. But what I ended up writing is more Famous Five than Find-Outers. Once I was writing my first adventure (The Girl Who Stole an Elephant) I thought it was a very exciting thing and wanted to stay there. The plan is to have four Serendib adventures!
So you now have two gorgeous books under your belt and a master’s degree in writing for young children. Do you have any tips or advice for aspiring children’s writers?
My biggest tip is to read a lot. There’s nothing better you can do for your writing than reading. It gives you inspiration, it shows you how other people do it, it teaches you about plotting and structure, and it gives you enjoyment. And, of course, keep writing. Never give up.
What’s next for your writing journey? Will readers get to return to Serendib once again?
Yes they will! In fact, they’ll get to return twice. My next book is out in April 2022 and it’ll be another Serendib adventure. And then there’s the last one in 2024. You can expect a cameo or two!
Let's talk books! What’s a book you loved as a child, a book you love now and a book you can’t wait to read?
A book I loved as a child is Five Go to Smugglers Top by Enid Blyton. There’s so much atmosphere in it, I absolutely loved it. A book I love now is Boy, Everywhere by A. M. Dassu. It’s a harrowing read sometimes but it’s important and it ends with hope. A book I can’t wait to read is The Lost Whale by Hannah Gold. I loved her first book about a polar bear and I’m so impatient for this one.
If you were stranded on a desert island and could only bring one thing with you, what would you bring and why?
Assuming I can’t bring family, a stash of KitKats. It’ll probably get tedious eating the limited food on the island so a bit of chocolate would be nice.
If you could invite any five people – past and present, real and fictional – to a dinner party, who would you invite and why?
Enid Blyton, because I’m fascinated by her and can’t figure her out as a person from what I’ve read. Muhammad Ali, because he was so interesting and articulate and confident. Zheng from The Boy Who Met a Whale, because I’d like to see him speak. George Michael, to hear his voice. And Professor McGonagall, because she seems so enigmatic.
"The Boy Who Met a Whale is adventuring at its absolute best – dazzling, daring and deliciously dramatic, it’s the perfect rival to the great literary classics Treasure Island, The Famous Five and Swallows and Amazons."
Read my full review of The Boy Who Met a Whale here.
Nizrana Farook was born and raised in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and the beautiful landscapes of her home country find their way into the stories she writes. She has a master’s degree in writing for young people, and lives in Hertfordshire with her husband and two daughters. Her debut, The Girl Who Stole an Elephant, was Waterstones Children’s Book of the Month for January 2020. The book was shortlisted for the inaugural Joan Aiken Future Classics prize.