Teens’ fantasy novel is a dream come true

Alexandra Hart and Phoebe Sleeman began writing their debut book at 12


Some 12-year-olds spend their after-school-hours deep in video games or with their faces glued to their mobile phones.

But best friends Alexandra Hart and Phoebe Sleeman, from North-West London, sat down to plan a novel at that age — and seven years later, it’s been published.

Targeted at readers in the “tween” (about 9 years old to the early teens) age group, the fantasy novel Alight is set in a world in which science and magic blur. It is the book that the pair, now 19, both longed to read when they came up with the idea in Year 8.

In the novel, the protagonist, Emile Lewis, an adopted tweenager, hates the fact that there is apparently nothing special about her.

She then discovers a magical world of mansions perched on cliff edges, bedrooms that hum and old ladies who are as strong as oxes. But as she explores the new reality, she finds herself plunged into danger alongside friend Alphie.

Ms Hart, who is Jewish, from Edgware and Ms Sleeman, who is from a Christian family and lives in Southgate, suddenly found themselves with more time to focus on the book when the pandemic struck in early 2020.

Ms Sleeman, who attended Haberdashers’ School for Girls in Elstree with Ms Hart, told the JC: “We had probably written about 50 pages max over our years at school, then when lockdown hit and our A-levels were cancelled, we didn’t have anything to do.

"We thought: let’s keep writing. We would wake up in the morning, write for a few hours, then go out for our daily walk. It gave us something to do, a sense of purpose.”

As lockdowns exacerbated the emotional turbulence teenagers endure, the pair also saw their novel as a way of reaching out to others going through similar experiences as their own.

Ms Hart, who attends the Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue, and Ms Sleeman met on the first day of secondary school at the age of 11 and became best friends soon after. They say that wanted their book to reflect their different backgrounds.

They said: “We want everyone to feel included and be able to empathise with our characters.

“We have tried our best to not make our characters merely tokens either. Alphie is half Filipino, and two twins in the story have Nigerian heritage.”

Introducing Jewish characters is something for the future, Ms Hart added, saying a potential sequel is in the works. Born from a game Ms Sleeman played with her siblings, the novel began to take shape over a series of playdates when the girls were both 12.

The authors said: “As young teenagers we too went through a period of trying to come to terms with the difficult emotions life brings.” Ms Hart’s Jewish background played a major role in shaping the book’s focus on family, she said: “A large part of Judaism for me is about the traditions and culture. That’s something that connects me to my past and my family who are around me.

“A lot of the book is about families and trusting what you know to be true.”

Gradually piecing the novel together over the coming years brought the two schoolgirls closer together as they shared the innermost secrets of their imaginations. But, they say, after seven years of work it was only thanks to the coronavirus pandemic that they were able to finish the novel.

They said: “This book is a silver lining of the Covid cloud, an example of how you can turn an obstacle into an opportunity.

“It was only the empty time of lockdown that allowed us to complete it.

“Our book is the product of many years, tears, and laughs, and has been a passion project for the two of us for more than seven years.”

Still inseparable, the authors are now both studying at Durham University. Since September 2020 Ms Sleeman and Ms Hart have been reading English and History respectively. They are keeping their quills sharp at the same time, penning poetry and writing for online magazines in their spare time.

“Alight” (Cranthorpe Millner) available in paperback (£8.99) and on Kindle

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