Oliver Sykes - Children's author Alfie’s First Fight: An interview with Oliver Sykes

Alfie's First Fight cover

Alfie’s First Fight: An interview with Oliver Sykes

Today we welcome Stories Of Care’s Lead Artist Oliver Sykes to talk about his funny and thrilling boxing adventure story, Alfie’s First Fight, which is illustrated by Ian Morris!

Pre-order your copy here

I wondered if we could start with you introducing yourself and telling us about Alfie’s First Fight!

I’m Oliver Sykes – silly loud-mouthed theatre performer and diehard boxing fan.

I’m also the author of ALFIE’S FIRST FIGHT – my debut piece of Illustrated Fiction about a motherless 12-year-old boy called Alfie who lives with his dad and his big brother Jacob. Money is very tight for them, and one night, moments before an all-important boxing match, Jacob goes missing. Alfie knows his dad needs the prize-money from the fight to pay off the bank; otherwise they might lose their home. If they lose their home and have to move away, Alfie’s convinced he’ll never see his mum ever again. While searching for Jacob, Alfie encounters two shifty-looking men who sound like they’ll do anything to get their dirty hands on the prize-money. Soon, Alfie finds himself trapped in the heart of a scandal. Can Alfie safely deliver Jacob to the ring on time? Or will he have to take his big brother’s place…?

What are the main themes in Alfie’s First Fight?

I’d say ALFIE’S FIRST FIGHT is perfect for fans of Jacqueline Wilson, Phil Earle and Anthony McGowan as its funny and fast-paced, yet it centres itself around a boy struggling to come to terms with the loss of his mum.

On the surface, it’s a simple adventure story. Think Crime-Thriller meets Rocky! But it’s also about love, loss, family and how to fight for what you want. At the time of writing this book, several publishers told me that boxing was not a suitable subject for a children’s book. But as a former-amateur boxer, and a qualified boxing coach who works with children and young people, and sees the difference boxing makes to their lives, I couldn’t have disagreed more. ALFIE’S FIRST FIGHT is inspired by my experiences in and out of the boxing ring, and ultimately, it has a very inspiring, hopeful message at its core.

That’s something I’m incredibly passionate about – empowering children and young people with the confidence, the tools and the courage to stand up, tell their own stories and make a difference about the causes they believe in.

What was your journey like to getting published?

My journey as a Children’s Writer began in 2015. I was working as Producer for a dynamic and rebellious outreach and writing organisation called Stories Of Care, which is founded by BAFTA-winning Actress, Comedian and Care Leaver, Sophie Willan.

During the project, my role evolved from producing to becoming a core member of the creative team, helping to deliver the writing programme and editing participant’s stories. I soon discovered I had a natural talent and flair for children’s writing. Not only that, but I really REALLY enjoyed it. It allowed me to be both silly and serious on the page, as well as the stage, and I’ve never looked back since.

Over the past seven years, I’ve become a Supported Artist with Z-Arts and Manchester Children’s Book Festival. I’ve studied with The Golden Egg Academy. I was shortlisted for Penguin’s 2020 WriteNow Programme and in 2021 I managed to secure mentorship with Dominic Berry and Phil Earle.

Over the past two years, I’ve written three books, secured three publishing deals, made my first children’s theatre show, had a second children’s theatre show commissioned, served as Stories Of Care’s Lead Artist, delivered a series of lectures on creative writing, created a key-note speech on how boxing can help us become better writers… I could go on and on and on!

Like most writers from backgrounds similar to mine, it’s a long, hard slog – and there’s still a long way to go – but I’m sticking it out, and with the help and support of lots of other incredibly talented friends and colleagues, I’m sure I’ll continue to produce lots of brilliant stories for children and empower other (young) writers to do the same for themselves.

Extract 1 – Alfie’s First Fight – Pages 12 and 13

What does a day in your life look like when you are working on your children’s books?

When I’m writing, I’m WRITING. I usually carve out six hours from 6am-12pm each weekday (weekends are my downtime!). I’m sat at my lovely desk on a comfortable chair surrounded by lots of pens and felt-tips, coloured post-it notes, flip-chart paper and my trusty Macbook! I also factor in lots of walks and tea breaks, as that’s when I usually get my best ideas!

Currently, a big chunk of my time is spent working to sustain my writing. I’m a Theatre Producer at Waterside Arts (an amazing arts venue in Trafford full of lovely passionate hardworking folk) and I’m also currently working as Lead Artist & Producer at Stories Of Care.

I’m very much like a plate spinner. Each project is a plate and I do a fairly decent job of keeping those plates spinning! Whether it’s answering emails, initiating projects, performing theatre shows, writing promotional material (like this!), doing school visits, running workshops and masterclasses, taking part in author panels and last but by no means least – writing!

What is the editing process like for you? What does it involve? What did you have to edit out of this book to make it work?

I love the editing process: it’s a privilege to step away from your story and see it through another’s eyes, particularly through the eyes of an experienced editor.

In early drafts, I made the mistake of prioritising historical truth over emotional truth, so in ALFIE’S FIRST FIGHT, Dad was a bit too harsh, Jacob was a bit too plain and Alfie was a bit too much like me. But through listening to others, I soon learned to tie everything to my all-important message and to go with what works best for the story.

Towards the end of the writing process, I started adapting ALFIE’S FIRST FIGHT into a one-man children’s theatre show, written and performed by myself, directed by Dominic Berry and supported by Stories Of Care, Z-Arts and Arts Council England. I performed six script-in-hand sharings to schools and family audiences, and their feedback was crucial – more references to Mum were needed for comprehension, a little bit more set-up at the start to ground the piece, and the ending changed completely when an idea came to me in the rehearsal room… All of this feedback found its way into the story.  

What’s the best thing about being a children’s author?

There are so many amazing things! I love the writing process! From scribbling little notes to creating character profiles to crystalizing the themes and the message to planning story arches – I love it all!

The process of turning a story into a published book is also fascinating. Collaborating with editors, illustrators and designers to deliver my artistic vision for a book is very, very special.

I also love doing readings and performing live. I recently performed a preview show of ALFIE’S FIRST FIGHT at Z-Arts in Hulme. The show is very with lots of call-and-response moments, and I’m always blown away by the enthusiasm of the kids – as well as the adults!

But ultimately, THE DREAM COME TRUE for me is giving kids who come from backgrounds similar to mine opportunities to actually see themselves and their experiences represented in books, because it opens up whole new worlds of possibility.

Extract 2 – Alfie’s First Fight – Pages 14 and 15

Did you have a favourite story when you were younger?

Danny Champion Of The World by Roald Dahl is my favourite children’s book of all time. Reading this book was a key moment in my childhood. It was first time I felt like I saw myself represented in a book: a young motherless child being raised by his single parent dad.

Seeing myself on the page made me realise I could write and tell stories too – children like me could even be the main character! – and it empowered me to start writing and telling stories of my own.

What advice would you give to teachers about how to develop reading for pleasure in their classrooms and schools?

I have it on good authority from my partner, who has worked in teaching for almost a decade now, that approximately 99.99% of public school teachers know exactly how to develop reading for pleasure in their classrooms and schools, but sadly, they aren’t supported to achieve it.

Our government’s obsession with exam rigour (squeezing their content-heavy curriculum into jam-packed timetables) leaves little time to pursue broader and more enriching goals, such as developing reading for pleasure.

That said, as a Literacy Champion for the National Literacy Trust, I work a lot with schools and libraries to promote the culture of reading. This is something that came to me pretty much wholesale from my partner: that it’s as vital to teach the culture of reading to children, as it is to teach the act of reading itself.

If I were a teacher today, I would therefore share books that have changed my life with my pupils, like Danny Champion of the World. I would demonstrate how reading is done – not just the act of reading itself – but reading aloud, performing the characters, adding sound effects and finding fun and interesting ways for the kids to get involved. Afterwards, I would encourage them to ask questions. I would facilitate discussions and get to know my pupils’ reading preferences in order to make their reading experience personal to them. Finally, I would make sure their lives and experiences were represented in the books that we read.

How would you envisage teachers using your book in their classrooms? What age group is it aimed at? Do any activities or ideas spring to mind?

ALFIE’S FIRST FIGHT is out in May 2022 but I’ve already given a lot of thought to how it can be used in the classroom. On one level, the story is funny and fast-paced, but on another level, its about about love, loss, family and how to fight for what you want, so there are a lot of themes that teachers can pull out.

It’s aimed at children aged 7-12 and if you check my website, you’ll soon find some wonderful free teaching resources and activities to download for Key Stage 2.

On a personal level, I want all children to be comforted and inspired by my work, and I want kids from low-income, single parent families to see themselves and their experiences represented in books.

Can you recommend a book you’ve enjoyed recently and one you’re looking forward to?

A book I loved recently was When The Sky Falls by Phil Earle as it’s an emotional and breath taking read. The backdrop of war-torn London is almost tangible and the characters stay with you long after you’ve finished reading it. I also recently read the final instalment of Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, and I thought that was brilliant too.

A book I am looking forward to reading is The Breakfast Club Investigators, the third title in the Marcus Rashford Book Club, written with Alex Falase-Koya, because I love how they blend Marcus’ child-food poverty campaigning and his own personal experiences into stories that are packed full of friendship, adventure, community and fun.

Finally, can you describe Alfie’s First Fight in three words?

Packs a punch!

For press interviews, review copies or images contact Publicist Liz Scott liz@lizscottpr.co.uk t: 07879 640 222 @lizscottpr

Alfie’s First Fight Written by Oliver Sykes Illustrated by Ian Morris | Paperback | £7.99 | for children age 7+ | ISBN 978-1-910029-72-9 | 12 May 2022 | #AlfiesFirstFight

To pre-order your copy, visit: https://oliver-sykes.com/product/alfies-first-fight/

The project is supported by Stories Of Care, Manchester Metropolitan University, Manchester Children’s Book Festival, Manchester Libraries, Read Manchester, Manchester City Council, Buxton Amateur Boxing Club, Greater Manchester Highers, Moss Side Firestation Boxing Club, Reform Radio, Stanley Grove Primary, Swiis Foster Care, The Frank Bruno Foundation, Trafford Council, Waterside Arts, Z-Arts and supported using public funding from Arts Council England and The National Lottery’s Community Fund.