The Time-Thief is Book 2 in the Leap Cycle, a time-travel adventure series. It features 13-year-old Elle, a Leapling who has the rare ability to leap through time. Elle attends a secret school, Intercalary International, for Leaplings with the Gift and she’s a member of The Infinites, a youth group who fight crime on the time-line. Their sign is the infinity symbol: ∞.
The book begins on summer solstice 2021 with a school visit to the Museum of the Past, the Present and the Future. Disaster strikes when the priceless timepiece, the Infinity-Glass, is stolen. Fellow Infinite, MC2, is arrested for the theft and Elle must leap back centuries in time to prove his innocence.
Elle is autistic. Around the time she entered my consciousness, I was researching autism in girls. My older son is autistic and I’ve read a lot about autism but in recent years, the focus has shifted to women and girls where it manifests differently. Whilst not diagnosed autistic myself, I have enough traits to empathise. I looked for autistic girls in kids’ literature and found very few. It was time to create my own.
They say write what you know. Elle in Book 1, The Infinite, is a fictional version of a 12-year-old me, obsessed with wordplay, athletics and the Olympics. Elle’s favourite Olympics are 1968 when Bob Beamon broke the long jump world record. As the Olympics only happen in leap years, I decided to make her a Leapling. Then I took it one step further: what if she had the ability to leap through time?
Elle is one of many neurodivergent characters in the series. In my local community and extended family, I know several autistic children and those with ADHD, dyslexia or Tourette’s syndrome. Neurodivergence isn’t as rare as people think e.g. a recent report suggested one in 57 children is autistic. Elle’s best friend, Big Ben is autistic too, and dyslexic; GMT is undiagnosed autistic; MC2 has ADHD, manifested in his amazing ability to disappear and reappear on the spot. Elle uses the term ‘specialist needs’ rather than ‘special needs’. I wanted to show the challenges faced and simultaneously the high skillsets of my neurodivergent characters.
By the time I came to write The Time-Thief, I already had my neurodivergent cast and the expertise of an excellent autistic sensitivity reader who’d worked on Book 1. Then by pure coincidence, choosing to set some of the novel in 1752 (the leap year when 11 days were cut from the calendar) enabled me to include a real life neurodivergent character: the celebrated 18th century man of letters, Dr Johnson. Samuel Johnson had a formidable intellect, a remarkable memory plus involuntary repetitive movements and vocalisations that nowadays would give him a diagnosis for Tourette’s syndrome. He was always for the underdog and saw the humanity in social outcasts, including his irascible and talented blind housekeeper, Anna Williams. She also features in The Time-Thief.
Elle is Black, British-born and of Nigerian origin: Izon. Her full name is Elle Bíbi-Imbelé Ifíè. Ifíè means time in Izon. My time-travelling hero had to be Black, have a very Nigerian Grandma and like pepper soup. And my cast of characters had to be multicultural because I’ve spent my entire adult life living in urban multicultural environments. When I embarked on the series, I didn’t know that only 5% of children’s books had a person of colour as the main protagonist.
Whilst writing The Time-Thief, the year 1752 was a gift on another level: it was the year 10-year-old Francis Barber became servant to Samuel Johnson. Francis Barber was born a slave in Jamaica and his emancipative status in England was uncertain. The brilliant biography, The Fortunes of Francis Barber, enabled me to incorporate aspects of real life into my fictional narrative. Elle is centre-stage in the 21st century; Francis is the star of the 18th.
Diversity is intrinsic to my work; character is key yet it didn’t drive the narrative. What’s the The Time-Thief really about? Our relationship to time: how we divide it and find patterns in it; how it shapes our world view and how we might subvert it. Sometimes, you have to write what you don’t know in order to find stuff out. I let my imagination run riot in 24 chapters to mirror the 24-hour clock. The Time-Thief is about the theft of the Infinity-Glass in two separate time-frames; it’s also about the 11 days cut from the 1752 calendar, the stealing of time itself.
By Patience Agbabi