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Alake Pilgrim on Zo and the Forest of Secrets and her favourite fantasy books for teens and tweens

Zo and the Forest of Secrets by Alake Pilgrim. Book cover and author photo
One of the books we've sent our Macaw subscribers this month is a mysterious, thrilling and hugely atmospheric journey into the islands of Trinidad & Tobago. Alake Pilgrim has written an astonishing, immersive debut, a fantasy that had us on the edge of our seats. We love the setting almost as much as we love Zo herself! And with many unanswered questions left at the end of the book, we can't wait for the rest of the series. Here Alake tells us about what inspired the book, re-reading childhood favourites and which fantasy books for tweens and teens she would recommend you read next.

What inspired you to write Zo and the Forest of Secrets?

My own child was born with a severe illness. When, after almost two years, he was miraculously healed, I was inspired to write a series of books that star children like him – who face all manner of challenges, but fight to live, and find some new friends along the way.

We love the setting! Can you tell us a bit more about what (and where) influenced it?

This book is set in the uncanny islands of Trinidad & Tobago, where I’m from. Trinidad is the southernmost island in the Caribbean, just off the coast of South America and some of the plants and animals from South America, make their home here. It’s a special place, a real blend of cultures, where people have come from around the world, including Africa, India, China, the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas. It’s also a place where beaches, caves, swamp and forests meet technology, futuristic buildings and lots of change. All of this made its way into the book.

Are any of the characters based on real or mythical people or creatures?

Some of the book’s creatures are fantastical versions of animals on the island. However, one of them, the Flesh-skinner, is influenced by my child’s love of dinosaurs!

The hilarious and smart-mouthed crew of spiders are my take on Anansi – the mythical West African character who is part-spider, part-human, part magical being. I grew up hearing Anansi stories in which he takes on much larger and more ferocious creatures with his wit, tricks, and storytelling. This book features my take on Anansi, in a new and exciting way.

Which of the creatures Zo encounters in the forest is your favourite?

Cap’n Peg – the smart-talking, eye-patch-wearing, semi-robotic spider, is one of my favourites. How did she get a mechanical arm or leg? When was she a pirate? So many questions that I might need to answer in a book of her own!

Can you tell us anything about what the future holds for Zo and Adri?

Book 2 in the series is out in 2023! In it, Zo and Adri need to find and rescue each other from the Council’s schemes. This time, though, they’re joined by a group of children who each have their own special powers.

Why did you choose to write books for this age group?

The books I read between the ages of 9 and 12 made a huge impact on me and the way I see the world. I still go back and re-read some of them, including The Chronicles of Narnia! But none of the fantasy adventures I read back then starred children like me or those around me, and none came from the Caribbean. So, I wanted to write a magical adventure for the children around me now, and for the little child inside of me as well.

Do you have a favourite place to write?

I love to write in my room at night when it’s quiet and I can be present with my thoughts.

Which other fantasy books would you recommend our subscribers read next?

There are so many great fantasy books now starring characters from different backgrounds and cultures! As a start, I’d recommend:

Josephine Against the Sea by Shakirah Bourne – a delightfully spooky MG fantasy set in Barbados, with a feisty girl facing a watery antagonist.

Like a Charm by Elle McNicoll – in which a neurodivergent girl encounters magical creatures on the streets of Edinburgh.

Onyeka and the Academy of the Sun by Tolá Okogwu – starring a girl with telekinetic hair, who leaves England to go on an adventure with new, gifted friends in a futuristic Nigeria.

Copies of our Zo and the Forest of Secrets pack, including a copy of the book and loads of fun activities to go with it, are now available for individual purchase. Grab a copy while stocks last!

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