A Pocketful of Stars by Aisha Bushby

Writing.ie | Magazine | Children & Young Adult | Interviews
Pocketful of Stars

By Olivia Hope

Aisha Bushby was born in the Middle East and has lived in Kuwait, England and Canada. Her short story, Marionette Girl, was featured in the Stripes award-winning anthology, A Change is Gonna Come. Olivia Hope, from Flourish and Blogs, speaks to her about A Pocketful of Stars  her debut middle grade published this week by Egmont. She talks about writing honestly, the hidden blessing in publishing delays and the huge potential of the human spirit.

Did you always want to be a writer?

I think I wanted to be a writer before I really knew myself that I did. It was just something I said I would do. I remember declaring, when I was younger, that I was going to write fantasy novels when I grew up. It was during the time I first discovered Harry Potter and Eragon.

That said, I’m pretty sure I thought I would be a vet, too, even though I’m allergic to most household pets.

What writers from your childhood did you love? What writers do you love reading nowadays?

When I was younger I didn’t really follow authors, but rather series. I loved Harry Potter (and I still do), Eragon, Warrior Cats, and also The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants and The Princess Dairies. I did collect Jacqueline Wilson books, and my firm favourites were The Illustrated Mum and Lola Rose.

Now I tend to follow authors much more closely than I did. My favourite MG author at the moment is Katherine Rundell; I always look forward to her next publication. I am also really excited to keep on reading Anna James’ and Cat Doyle’s books.

What was the best advice you received as a writer?

I remember once (and still) fearing everything that comes with publication. I voiced this to my dad who said: ‘Well, at least you’re not an actor. They’re judged for who they are, you’re just judged for what you write.’

That has stuck with me, because I don’t think advice about the writing process necessarily works for everyone, but advice on how to look at things a little bit differently just might.

When did you first write A Pocketful of Stars and what was the moment that the idea evolved into a story?

I first wrote A Pocketful of Stars in early 2017 and, though I was lucky enough to get my deal in the same year, it has had a rather bumpy journey, and we ended up delaying publication for a couple of months. I think it’s important to say this, because when it happened I felt like I had failed, and I want other writers to know that it’s OK to make mistakes and struggle with the process. And, actually, sometimes it can be a blessing in disguise.

The story I wrote from the very start has always been about Safiya and Aminah, and the fact that Safiya experiences her mother’s memories whilst she’s in a coma; but almost everything else has changed.

The moment A Pocketful of Stars evolved into the story it is now was several months and structural edits into the process. I had just come to the end of an edit, but something felt off. Instead of handing in the draft, I had a chat with my agent and, along with my editor, we agreed to tear it apart and essentially start the process again. I think this decision is one of the best I’ve made. Once I got past the immediate hurdle of having just finished a huge edit, only to start all over again, the book started falling into place in a way that it hadn’t done, and A Pocketful of Stars became the story it is now.

The world-shifting moment for Safiya is her mother’s sudden illness and subsequent coma, although this is not a book about dealing with tragedy, there’s a lot of forward momentum – a bit like life. In some cases, Safiya is helpless to the events around her and is carried along – such as the change in her friendship dynamics will Elle but then she actively pursues her mother’s dream memories which ultimately dealing with her mother’s illness. How did you approach framing a story where a character has to deal with a major traumatic event?

I started by writing honestly, without thinking about it too much. I have been through something similar (though with no magical perfume bottle, sadly) and what struck me most about grief and trauma is that it is never what you expect it to be.

It was my agent who helped me understand what all of this meant for Safiya, and we worked on that for a while before submitting to publishers.

After that my editor, Liz Bankes, was instrumental in adding some really crucial moments to the story that counteracted the sad ones. There were definitely drafts of A Pocketful of Stars that felt too heavy (to the point where I struggled to read it back). One of our later edits focused a lot on fixing my awful grammar, but also on adding lighter moments to some of the scenes. Now I see these as very necessary checkpoints.

There’s a nervous energy in Safiya – we see her we see an uncertainty in her around school friends but a steady strength in her as a gamer. Her dealings with a certain less than helpful nurse in the hospital and the constantly bottling of her true emotions around Elle’s crass boyfriend are very real. Those emotions are very relatable for teens and adults. The scene in McDonald’s where she spoke up and out for the first time left my cheeks bright red  – I was equal part thrilled and anxious for her. How do you see Safiya? Why do you think she may appeal to readers?

I never struggle for something to say, my mind is always busy with thoughts, and I am quite acutely aware of my emotions. Safiya is different. She’s not always aware of how she’s feeling, and she often can’t find the words to express it. But she also has a strength inside of her that I know we all hold, waiting to come out when it matters, and that’s why I hope she will appeal to readers.

I want to say that growing up is difficult, particularly when you have to deal with people who are a little less than kind to you, but being an adult is too. If you haven’t ever been the Safiya in a friendship, then you might’ve been the Elle. Either way, we all have room to improve ourselves, and I think that’s one of the best things about being human: potential.

The evocation of memory from perfume, the vivid colours, sights and sounds of Kuwait were incredibly vivid. This is a story of senses – from the lush food at Eid to the silk mermaid outfit. What experiences were you drawing from here?

We moved to England the year I turned eight, and this has really helped me punctuate my childhood memories because of the shift in environment. I see a lot of my life as ‘before’ and ‘after’ the move and it often feels like two different people living two totally different lives… That’s kind of Safiya and Aminah in A Pocketful of Stars.

A lot of nostalgia, for me, is tied into my formative memories of Kuwait, but it feels so distant now that it’s almost like I made it up. Whenever I discuss my early childhood, I realise it was very different to the one a lot of my peers have had.

When I wrote A Pocketful of Stars, I wanted the perfume to feel like it was a portal to a magical world, except instead of Narnia, or Hogwarts, or Neverland, I wanted it to be Kuwait.

What I found appealing in this book were how many ways the teens were creative – as illustrators, writers, game players and makeup artists. Having a form of creative output helps them bond as well as being a constructive pastime. How much do engage in being creative in other ways and how do you let off creative steam in other forms?

Before I got an agent and book deal writing was my creative escape, and so I spent all of my free time, when I wasn’t at work, reading and writing. I didn’t do much else for a long time!

I’m currently working on my second book, and it’s interesting to see how that has shifted. Writing is now, rather bizarrely, my job, and one I love more than I can say, but there are also expectations and deadlines and, with all of that, stress. So, I’ve tried my best to turn to other creative outlets, to help me when I’m struggling to write.

I’ve recently started doing macrame, and I’ve been obsessively making plant hangers and tapestries. I spent a few hours the other day working on a tapestry, and by the end of it, I had managed to develop a rather crucial strand to my second book. Plotting, for me, happens when I’m doing other things. If I actively think about my story for too long, I rarely come up with anything good.

By the end of the story Safiya’s relationships with people in her life are different to those at the beginning. As a teenager, which one was most crucial for her to deal with the changes around her?

Elle is the symbol for so many of the changes that are happening in Safiya’s world. Standing up to Elle, pursuing her own interests, and not being afraid to express herself all feed into the other aspects of Safiya’s life. And it’s in acknowledging the toxicity of their relationship that Safiya is able to start healing.

Alongside that, I wanted there to be one constant in Safiya’s life, something to ground her and make her feel safe: Dad. A lot of Safiya’s strength comes from her father’s stability, even though her fire comes from her mother.

And finally, what bookish delights are ahead for Aisha Bushby?

I am working on my second book, which I am currently drafting, and I’m very excited about it! I can’t say too much just yet, but I can say that there will be a new magical place to explore.

I think I can start properly start talking about it in October, so, watch this space…

(c) Olivia Hope

About A Pocketful of Stars:

This place is magic . . . but it’s not the sort of magic that comes from wands and spells . . .

Can piecing together the past help you change the present?

Safiya and her mum have never seen eye to eye. Her mum doesn’t understand Safiya’s love of gaming and Safiya doesn’t think they have anything in common. As Safiya struggles to fit in at school she wonders if her mum wishes she was more like her confident best friend Elle. But then her mum falls into a coma and, when Safiya waits by her bedside, she finds herself in a strange and magical world that looks a bit like one of her games. And there’s a rebellious teenage girl, with a secret, who looks suspiciously familiar . . .

A Pocketful of Stars is a story about family, friendship and finding out who you are . . . with a sprinkling of magic.

Order your copy online here.

And read Olivia Hope’s review of A Pocketful of Stars here.

About the author

Olivia Hope is a children’s writer from Killarney, Co. Kerry. She was once an international athlete, has been a teacher of all subjects; from English to ice-cream making, and has worked in a variety of scenarios from nurseries (plants and children, although not at the same time unless you count the daffodil incident) to nursing homes. She writes for all ages and her picturebook ‘Be Wild, Little One’ will be published by Bloomsbury in 2020. Follow her on twitter @OliviaMHope.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Get all of the latest from writing.ie delivered directly to your inbox.

Featured books