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Monday, March 11, 2019

A Great Escape: An interview with Felice Arena!

Felice Arena is the award winning author of many children’s books, including the Specky McGee books and several other series. A few years ago, he was interviewed on this blog by some of my students, who had studied Specky McGee in Literature Circles. 

 In recent years he has started writing historical fiction for children. The latest is the wonderful A Great Escape, set in Germany immediately after the Berlin Wall went up. The hero, Peter, is stranded on the East German side while his parents and little sister are on the West German side, split as were many other families in this era. I couldn't help thinking of North and South Korea, where split families finally got to meet again a while ago. 

Felice has kindly agreed to be interviewed about his new book, which I enjoyed very much and which will almost certainly make it into next year’s CBCA and YABBA lists! 

Take it away, Felice! 

GR: This is your third piece of historical fiction for children. The first one, The Boy and The Spy, was set in wartime Sicily, the second, Fearless Frederic, was set in Paris in 1910, during a flood, this one is set in Berlin at the very beginning of the Berlin Wall. Why did you choose these particular times and places in history to write about? (Each seems to be a time in history when something dramatic was happening!) 

FA: This might sound strange – perhaps a little out there – but I believe that characters and stories choose their writers. Well, they do for me. With The Boy and the Spy, a simple conversation with my parents about my mother’s uncle who had a friend who was an orphan boy during the Second World War led to that character calling out to me: “Write my story!”  

A visit to Paris a couple of years ago, during a flood in that city, led Frederic to me and his adventure in Fearless Frederic. And as for Peter in A Great Escape… he sought me out not via my past travels to Berlin but my chats with my German neighbour here in Melbourne.

GRIt must have been fascinating to do research for this book - there would have been a lot of families broken up by the wall, like your hero, Peter, and his friends. Can you tell us a bit about your research for this book? Did you get to speak to anyone who was affected by it? 

In the previous answer I mentioned my German neighbour. He’s 76 years old and grew up in Berlin. And, he was also a guard on the wall! What are the chances!? (I did not find this out until I was about to write the story). He naturally turned out to be a fantastic resource while writing this book. Plus, there is so much documentation about the Berlin Wall online, and as a result the research was a little easier than it had been for learning about Fearless Frederic’s world of 1910. It’s modern history. People affected by the Berlin Wall are still very much alive today. I also got to talk with my Berlin friends and get their perspective on it. 

GREach of your three historical novels has a strong, intelligent girl to interact with the hero. Elke is certainly smart and brave. What did you have in mind when you created her - and the other two girls in your novels? 

FA: Generally, the protagonists in my books tend to be boys, only because I see myself in these characters. As for strong, intelligent girls in my books, I’ve been blessed to have strong women in my life – and I always want to represent and reflect them in my female characters – like Elke, Simonetta, and Claire.

GRYou have certainly proved that it’s possible for an author to move between genres - sports fiction, humour, adventure, historical fiction, picture books. Is there something you particularly enjoy about trying a new type of fiction? 

FA: We all want to feel we’re evolving in whatever work we do. My love for travel and history and movement in my stories has always been there. I just haven’t really had the opportunity to write stories like these until now. Saying that, if you’d go back to my sports books, like Specky Magee, the dynamics and emotional layers of how kids relate to each other have always, I think, been the common denominators in my stories. Only the backdrops have changed. 

GRAre you thinking of doing some more historical fiction? If so, does any particular era appeal to you? 

FA: Yes. I’m thinking something closer to home. But I’m waiting for that character and his/her story to find me. There’s a boy calling me from St. Kilda at the moment. I might just have to find a quiet spot to reflect and daydream and see what he has to say. 

GR: What are you working on now?

I absolutely loved writing the Sporty Kids series for beginner readers. I’ve also gotten so much joy out of presenting to that age group in schools that it’s prompted me to write a new series for the little ones. 
The first two books in that series is due for publication early next year. More details can be found at my website:  or over at my Instagram account:

And congratulations on your CBCA long listing for Fearless Frederic

FA: Thank you. It’s a real thrill and an honour!

A Great Escape is now available at all good bookshops in Australia and on line, at Booktopia, or in ebook. His previous historical novels The Boy And The Spy and Fearless Frederic are both available on Book Depository. If you live outside Australia and want to read this new book, be patient! It will be released soon.


Brian Joseph said...

Great interview. The plot of The Great Escspe seems unique for s children’s book. It is particularly interesting interesting how these stories “find” authors. I have heard similar sentiments expressed by several writers. .

Sue Bursztynski said...

It’s certainly an interesting idea for a children’s story! And it doesn’t mess around - we are told exactly what happened to people who tried to flee to the west and got caught!

AJ Blythe said...

Fab interview, Sue. My youngest absolutely loved Felice's Andy Roid books when he was younger.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Glad you enjoyed it, AJ! It’s nice that he writes such a wide variety of stories, something for everyone,

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