Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, loved reading as a young child. First fairytales and the likes of Peter Pan, Peter Rabbit and Winnie the Pooh, then later, Alice in Wonderland, the Famous Five and Tales of Narnia.
“My love of horses was also reflected in my literary choices,” she recalls. “Little Black, A Pony by Walter Farley, Mary O’Hara’s My Friend Flicka trilogy, and Ruby Ferguson’s Jill’s Gymkhana’s Series.”
Like so many book-hungry kids, the duchess would often hide under her bedcovers to read by torchlight, “but often gave myself away by laughing too much!” So, it’s of little surprise that her latest publishing deal is for seven children’s books, with the Australia-based Serenity Press.
“I love telling stories,” she says, “and then people reciprocate by telling me their stories which then inspire me to tell new ones. I surround myself with creativity. I am always playful and encourage everyone around me to be so. I love to laugh and make people laugh. I bring play and humour into everything I do. I am always doodling and writing – my nickname is Duchess Doodles!”
It’s not the first time the royal has turned her hand to writing, having penned just shy of 30 books over a 30-year literary career, including memoirs, lifestyle guides and historical non-fiction. Her previous children’s books include the Little Red series and the Budgie the Little Helicopter, all of which she read to her girls, Beatrice and Eugenie.
“As you can see from the dedications at the beginning of my books many of my stories are dedicated to my girls, who are my inspiration,” says the duchess. “I would often tell them impromptu stories, and this could lead to plots for my existing characters or new books.”
In 1993, Sarah climbed the 5,806m Pokalde Peak in Nepal, near Everest, with climbers with disabilities for charity. So determined was she that her daughters were not to miss their bedtime tales, the duchess taped three weeks’ worth, along with personal messages such as “time to snuggle down and go to sleep”, all the “usual things” she’d say each night.
“I think story time is an important bedtime ritual,” Sarah tells Verve. “A time to share adventure and imagination, but also a time for your children to know that your attention is wholly given to them and that they can open up to you.”
Do you still test out stories on children in your family?
“Yes, they are the inspiration. It was telling stories to my girls when they were children that started me on the path. I love the honesty, excitement and intensity of belief that children bring to the stories they hear. Children have a unique view of the world and I find much of what they imagine and say inspires my creativity.”
The duchess believes that there’s still much to learn from seeing the world through youngsters’ eyes.
“I love answering a question with, ‘What would a child or young person think?’” she says. “Children are grateful to have an adult enter their world and paint a picture of things as they see them. I believe that as their guardians we have a great responsibility to be honest and true in helping them to navigate what is often a challenging world.”
From the fear of being overweight to the fears of being a people-pleaser, a saviour or a victim, Sarah recounts her own challenges, and says that helping children face their fears at an early age is useful tool in helping to overcome them.
“I always include a message in my stories to help children learn life lessons,” she continues. “I wrote a series of books called Helping Hand with Lloyds Pharmacy to help parents address a number of issues with their children through stories such as eating healthily, starting school, having a new sibling, bullying, and going to the doctor or dentist.”
Through her writing, Sarah also aims to encourage “kindness, empathy and respect”.
“Unkind remarks or treatment can impact upon your self-confidence and mental health into adulthood,” she says. “My dream is for children to grow up in a world where differences are celebrated rather than mocked. The world would be a boring place if we all ate the same food, wore the same clothes, followed the same routine in our lives. It is diversity that colours our world for the better.”
She reveals her stories to be a combination of her own childhood and those of her children, “peppered liberally with imagination”. The idea for Budgie, for instance, arose from her desire to share and understand her then husband’s role as a helicopter pilot.
“I studied to become a helicopter pilot myself. I wanted to share the excitement and joy I felt at being able to fly with my children and to show them how even a little helicopter can make the world a better place.”
Another book, Ballerina Rosie, came from her experiences dancing while at school: “I loved to dance, but lacked confidence and my ballet teacher, Miss Natalie, inspired me with belief in my ability to dance. I wanted to show children how important it is to believe in yourself.”
As for her upcoming books, The Enchanted Oak is based on her “kind, wise and bushy-eyebrowed father”, and addresses issues around loneliness. “It’s fairytale about a tree that feels lonely—as I did when I first moved to London before I got married. People walk past and ignore the Enchanted Oak, in which live The Frolicking Fairies. He instructs them to rescue a lamb that’s in trouble and in turn is recognised as the secret heart of the garden.”
Another offering, Genie Gems, was inspired by Eugenie’s passion for reducing single-use plastics. “Eugenie is strong, determined and always looks for the truth in everything she does,” beams Sarah. “In her work with the Anti-Slavery Collective she steadfastly campaigns to give everyone the chance to have a voice, as does my heroine Genie. This encouraged me to visualise Genie Gems and how I could use her as a vessel to educate children on the importance of looking after our planet. Her first project is to help the fish made sick by micro beads in the river, but she will continue on her crusade to help the environment and make a better future for our children and grandchildren.”
We finish up by asking the duchess if, with so many books now under her belt, she still gets as much of thrill from seeing them on the shelves. She does, of course, but not as much as seeing “a child drawn to them”.
“I am very lucky to receive many letters from members of the public who have read my adult books and said that my experiences have helped them find a way forward in their own lives,” says Sarah. “I am grateful that I can help in any way. Funnily enough, it is often these wonderful letters that have helped me when I have experienced my own challenges.”
A Fountain of Inspiration
Refreshingly, in this digital age, the duchess reveals that she still loves to write her stories by hand in longform, with her favourite Montegrappa fountain pen.
“I carry it everywhere I go with my notebook to jot down inspiration as it comes,” she says. “It gives me great pleasure to see the story taking shape in front of me and helps me to organize my thoughts.”
Sarah, the Duchess of York has recently collaborated with Montegrappa to design a collection of exclusive fountain pens from its famous organic Mazzucchelli celluloid. Each design is inspired by nature: Ocean, Forest and Garden.