Sarah, Duchess of York confesses that as a child growing up in rural England she was “a dreamer” with “an incredibly active imagination”. When the going got tough – which it did when her mother, Susan, left the marital home for Argentina to live with her polo player lover, Héctor Barrantes – Sarah, age 12, would escape into the surrounding countryside and conjure fantastical worlds in her head.
“From a young age I figured out that the only way I was going to survive was to retreat into other places and stories,” she explains. “I loved nature – especially oak trees and flowers and ponies. I’m so lucky that I was able to go into a world of make believe. The extraordinary sense of loss and loneliness that I felt when my mother left, which I can never really describe properly to anyone, was so petrifying that I made up my own world to compensate, and that’s how I got through it.”
Looking back, it was a pretty shocking day in the Ferguson household, and one that still haunts Sarah. Her mum literally turned her back on her family and walked out of the front door, leaving her two girls to cope with the fallout and soothe their devastated father, Major Ronald Ferguson. But while pivotal and painful, the one positive to come out of those dark times was the private world of creativity that was sparked in young Sarah.
“My father told me I was always reading and loved making up stories,” she recalls. And it is with this self-made and rather charming universe in mind that as an adult Sarah turned to writing children’s books, with notable success. “Because I have such a sense of childlike joy, it comes easily to me to write and be descriptive. I only wish I could illustrate,” she quips.
Today, the Duchess has some 25 or more children’s books to her name including the Little Red and Budgie the Little Helicopter series which were both bestsellers, and now she has signed a seven-book deal with Australian publisher Serenity Press comprising five picture books and two young chapter books. And more than ever before I feel this new portfolio of work is a direct reflection of those early memories.
“I remember making little imaginary tea cups from rhododendron leaves. The books allow me to express the imagination that I have had since I was a little girl when I used to play for hours outside, appreciating birds, animals, flowers and trees,” she says. “I feel very fortunate to be able to share the magic of my childhood and my journey to 60 years, as I am now. I also have learned so much from the children I have met over the years. They have taught me courage, forgiveness, love, gentleness and kindness, and I try to share all of this through my children’s books.”
After her mother’s departure and four years later when her sister, Jane, also left for love to move to Australia and get married, Sarah became very close to her father. “I was brought up on a farm in Hampshire with oak trees surrounding me. I have a fascination with the oak tree, which seems so reliable, and I always feel safe near them,” she says. The Enchanted Oak Tree is one of Sarah’s new tales. The tree is the beating heart of a secret garden, where “frolicking fairies” go about urgent missions. On its front cover is an illustration of the wise oak, a face staring from its trunk. “The eyebrows on my oak tree are a tribute to my late father’s very bushy eyebrows. I wanted to honour the fabulous childhood he gave me playing amongst the oak trees at Dummer,” she says.
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