Zohra Nabi is the author of The Kingdom Over the Sea, a Summer/Fall 2023 Indies Introduce Kids selection.
Nabi grew up inventing stories for her two younger sisters. She studied law at Cambridge and Oxford universities, but secretly dreamed of being an author. Now she lives in London, browsing bookshops and writing magical adventures.
Kathy Burnette of Brain Lair Books in South Bend, Indiana, and Liz Decker of Caprichos Books in Ocean Pines, Maryland, both served on the panel that selected Nabi’s debut for Indies Introduce. Decker described the experience as “A fast-paced, magical coming-of-age adventure in a world readers will be eager to spend time in,” and Burnette said of the book, “Over the sea, we discover that magic exists and the alchemists use it for evil. Yara wants to understand who she is. When her mother dies, she believes she will never belong anywhere. But, following her mother’s strange letter, she travels to Zehaira, hoping it will lead to her birth family. Yara finds she herself has magic, and she struggles to understand why her mother never told her. She teams up with Rafi and Mehnoor and travels to find her family and find the power to overthrow the alchemists.”
Here, Burnette and Decker discuss The Kingdom Over the Sea with Nabi.
Kathy Burnette & Liz Decker: Zehaira is such a fantastic land. What was your favorite part of the world-building process?
Zohra Nabi: Thank you so much! I absolutely loved the research process for The Kingdom Over the Sea — I read history books, and medieval encyclopedias, and fairy tales and cosmologies. I’ve been fascinated by the golden age of the Islamic world since I was a teenager, and I loved the idea of creating a city that could stand alongside the cities of that era. There’s a particular joy in creating a city, as well — they’re so intricate, they have so many different parts! There was so much detail about Zehaira that never made it out of my notebook and into the novel. But I think my favourite part of worldbuilding was where I tried to imagine I was Yara, getting off the boat and seeing Zehaira for the first time. One of the things I really love about worldbuilding in children’s fantasy is the sense of wonder — I remember genuinely aching with longing to go to my favourite fictional worlds when I was a child. I loved exploring what Yara would be sensing around her — what would draw her eye, what she would want to eat, how everything would make her feel.
KB & LD: Aside from the obvious, are there any authors or books you drew inspiration from or would suggest to readers of your book?
ZN: I love books about the magic of words. Being transported by a brilliant book, or moved by a poem is its own kind of magic, and I love it when an author has a magic system that takes that to the next level. Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart does this brilliantly, with Mo Silvertongue and his ability to read people in and out of stories. So does Anna James, in her wonderful Pages & Co series — who wouldn’t want to travel into their favourite books! And one of my favourite series with word magic is Angie Sage’s Magyk series, the spells are so clever, and I love the way magic responds to people’s emotions. And of course, Magyk has the magnificent Marcia Overstrand, the purple-shoe wearing Extraordinary Wizard.
There are lots of brilliant, transporting adventure stories in children’s literature too — from old school authors like Diana Wynne Jones, Joan Aiken and Eva Ibbotson, to more modern authors like Kiran Millwood Hargrave and Frances Hardinge. And I think really crucial to writing Kingdom were brilliant children’s books which explore women’s relationships, and taking responsibility for each other — beautiful books like Anne of Green Gables, and the wonderful Ballet Shoes. And if you’d like another book about a girl finding inner power and strength, look no further than Tola Okogwu’s brilliant Onyeka and the Academy of the Sun.
KB & LD: In hoping to learn more about you and the inspiration for this book we found several articles you've written. Do you have any advice for someone pursuing a writing career? Did you always want to write fiction/middle grade or do you enjoy all types of writing?
ZN: Oh no, the internet really is forever! So as (I think) you discovered, I used to write articles for a legal aid magazine called The Justice Gap. It was a volunteer position, and I would give up one day a week to look out for cases, and to write up any press releases we got. I’m really proud of the writing I did — legal aid cases often involve the most vulnerable and marginalised people in society, involving issues that might not be reported on otherwise. My background is in law, and I think The Kingdom Over the Sea has a really strong sense of justice going all the way through it. I really enjoyed all the legal writing I did. I learnt lots of really good things, about how to give people information they need in a short amount of time, and how to pose a question and answer it — both of which are really important when it comes to writing fiction. I also wrote some truly terrible articles for my student paper in my first year of university (I really hope you didn’t find those!) but I think it’s really important to allow yourself to write terribly.
Honestly though, I always did want to write fiction. I’ve written ever since I was a child, and even though I never thought of myself as a middle grade writer specifically, as soon as I started to write seriously I knew that was where my story and voice belonged. But I think the advice I’d give an aspiring writer is don’t be afraid to do other things! Everything you do will give you more perspective on the world, and that can only be a good thing for a writer. And also — write what you love, and what you enjoy. That’s the most important thing, in the end.
KB & LD: If you had a magic carpet, where would you go?
ZN: Ooh great question! I would love to visit some ancient cities — Pompeii, Persepolis, Carthage…I studied classics for a while when I was at school, and I love travelling to ruins and imagining cities as they must have once been. But if I was on a magic carpet I could sneak in at night and have the site all to myself...Then I’d probably fly to a really nice beach somewhere and swim in the sea, under the moon. And I would love to fly up somewhere really high — there’s a castle in Kyrenia that goes right up into the clouds, maybe I would sit on the roof of its tallest tower!
KB & LD: Part of Yara’s confidence comes from being an activist. What is some advice you’d give to young people who wanted to get involved today?
ZN: I would say write to your political representative, sign petitions, do everything you can to get your voice heard. I think sometimes it’s easy to look at all the problems in the world and feel hopeless, but if you start in your local area, and go in with the attitude that the best thing you can do is help the people around you to the best of your ability, I think things feel more manageable. Visit your local library; if you’re looking to get more involved you will find what’s going on in your community there. And call out bullying where you see it — sometimes all it takes for a conversation to shift is for someone to stand up and say: That’s not okay. Look after the people around you, and do the right thing where you can.
The Kingdom Over the Sea by Zohra Nabi (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 9781665931083, Hardcover Middle Grade, $17.99) On Sale: 6/6/2023
Find out more about the author on her Twitter, @Zohra3Nabi.
ABA member stores are invited to use this interview or any others in our series of Q&As with Indies Introduce debut authors in newsletters and social media and in online and in-store promotions. Please let us know if you do.