Q&A with Bali Rai, author of Mohinder’s War

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For our June Q&A we were lucky enough to interview author Bali Rai. A leading voice in UK teen fiction, he has written over 40 novels and is a passionate advocate of libraries, reading for pleasure and promoting literacy. Born in Leicester, his writing is inspired by his working-class, multicultural background.

Bali’s latest book, Mohinder’s War, is a thrilling World War II adventure set in occupied France, featuring an Indian RAF pilot and is a brilliant read for fans of Michael Morpurgo and John Boyne, and perfect for anyone looking for diverse historical fiction.

Can you tell us a bit more about Mohinder’s War and where you came up with the
inspiration for it?

Mohinder’s War is inspired by the story of Mohinder Singh Pujji, a Sikh RAF pilot during World War Two. Although it’s fictional, I wanted to highlight the role of non-white, British subjects during the war. Pujji was an ace pilot who survived a crash and was flying again just weeks later. After the war, he settled in Kent, and there is a statue of him in Gravesend. His story is not widely known, and I wanted to change that. My story uses elements of his life, but the plot is entirely my own.

With the 75th  anniversary of VE Day this year, many children and young people will be asking questions about World War II. What message would you like your readers to take away from your story?

I think the main message is to remember the sacrifices made by all those who helped the war effort. By that, I mean the factory workers, the “land girls”, the animals and their handlers, ordinary civilians across Europe and further afield, amongst so many others. And particularly those whose voices haven’t been heard very much. India contributed the largest volunteer force in history during WW2 (1.5 million), and then we have those who came from the Caribbean and across Africa, from places like Poland etc… These people deserve to have their efforts recognised. Sadly, that isn’t always the case. The British war effort would have failed without support from across the world. In our remembrance of this awful time, we cannot and should not ignore that.

Historical fiction is a brilliant way of getting children and young people interested in
history. Can you name any of your favourite stories that you think everyone should read?

Oh wow – where do I start? I have always loved Auslander by Paul Dowswell, and I recommend it continually. I adored Race to the Frozen North by Catherine Johnson, too.

Patrice Lawrence’s Divers Daughter is also excellent. Ruta Sepetys’ Salt To The Sea, The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge, The Somerset Tsunami by Emma Carrol, A Beautiful Lie by Irfan Master. Anything historical from Michael Morpurgo or Elizabeth Laird. I was also sent a novel called The Art of White Roses by Viviana Prado-Nunez, which is set in 1950s Cuba and was a delight. I’m a huge fan of historical fiction so I could go on and on. In fact, I’ve probably missed out loads!

As a child, did you always want to be a writer? What advice would you give young writers out there?

Yes, I always wanted to be a writer. I adored the books of C.S. Lewis, Roald Dahl, Douglas Adams, S.E. Hinton and others, but my role model was Sue Townsend. She was the writer that made me dream. After reading her first two books, I started to believe it was possible. Sue will always remain the most pivotal writer in my career.

The advice I give to young writers never changes. Read as much as you can, practice your writing every day if possible. Don’t worry about making mistakes, they are lessons that improve your writing. Don’t be afraid to copy the styles of your favourite authors – I mimicked my favourites until my own style appeared. You learn to play guitar by copying your favourite guitarist, you learn to paint by copying your favourite artists. Writing is exactly the same. Keep honing your skills and you will improve and flourish. And enjoy it, too. Before anything else, it should be fun.

Here at World Book Day, we’re all about sharing stories. Who do you most like sharing
stories with and why?

I love sharing stories with the pupils and staff I meet in schools across the UK. That’s always been a fun way to test new ideas. I also share with my two closest friends, and for the past couple of years, my little girl (Maisie’s seven now). Parenthood has given me a hundred ideas and Maisie and I will be putting a series together quite soon, based on her and her best friend, Stanley. Of course, social media is also a wonderful platform to share stories. I’m pleased for anyone to read mine, once I’m completely happy with how they read!

Mohinder’s War by Bali Rai, published by Bloomsbury publishes on 11 June.