Once upon a time, Sara Ella dreamed she would marry a prince and live in a castle. Now she spends her days homeschooling her three Jedi in training, braving the Arizona summers, and reminding her superhero husband that it’s almost Christmas (even if it’s only January). When she’s not writing, Sara might be found behind her camera lens or planning her next adventure in the great wide somewhere. She is a Hufflepuff who finds joy in the simplicity of sipping a lavender white mocha and singing Disney tunes in the car. Sara is the author of the Unblemished trilogy and Coral, a reimagining of The Little Mermaid that focuses on mental health. Sara loves fairy tales and Jesus, and she still believes “Happily Ever After is Never Far Away.”
In this interview, Sara talks with us about her new book, The Looking Glass Illusion.
FF: What inspired the story in your book?
I knew I wanted The Looking-Glass Illusion to be based on the game of chess to mirror Lewis Carroll’s original Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. The problem was I didn’t actually know how to play chess. Thankfully, I have a dear friend (Hi, Janelle!) who’s been playing chess all her life, so she graciously and patiently taught me the basics. What fascinated me about the game was that the Queen is the most powerful piece on the board, but the point of the entire game is to protect the King. It is that principle in chess that sparked some inspiration for the storyline in The Looking-Glass Illusion.
I wanted to explore the idea of queens and kings and who the REAL ruler of Wonderland was, which is really just a continuation of the storyline from The Wonderland Trials. I love the idea of believing in the impossible and the unseen, all while trusting that there is something (someone) greater than we are. I won’t give spoilers, but there’s definitely a twist at the end that was inspired by my faith and what it means to surrender to the one true King.
FF: What can you tell us about the main characters in your book?
Alice has grown so much since she entered Wonderland. In The Wonderland Trials, she’s really just figuring out who she is and where she belongs. She’s unsure of whom to trust in the first book, but in the sequel, she’s much more confident in her position as Team Heart Queen. She still has a lot to learn about facing her fears and believing in what she cannot see, yet there’s more of a willingness in her to trust others and open herself up to new possibilities and friendships.
What I love most about book two, though, is that Chess Shire gets his own point of view. In book one, we get to see his fun, confident, and humorous side from Alice’s perspective. In The Looking-Glass Illusion, though, we see his humanly flawed side. I loved peeling back his layers and exposing his fears and doubts, revealing that, in many ways, he’s just as unsure about some things as Alice is. I think, in a way, their stories are almost flipped in the sequel. We see Alice coming into her own, and we see Chess tormented by his past and unsure how to move forward.
FF: Which character surprised you the most?
I didn’t even have to think about my answer to this one—Knave Heart. To explain why would give spoilers. Let’s just say Knave’s storyline took an unexpected turn, and I was satisfied with the direction he chose to take me as I wrote.
FF: Why do you think storytelling is such a powerful way to share truth?
How much time do you have? Ha ha. I could spend hours (or in this case, paragraphs) talking about this topic. I think when we share truth through storytelling, it’s further proof we are made in the image of God—the ultimate Creator, Storyteller, and Author of everything. Jesus used stories through His parables as a way to convey hidden truths, and the entire story of the Bible is really one big fairy tale—but it’s all real! The King came to slay the dragon and save His princess. It’s the greatest story of all time and, as Christians, it’s ours. I think when we use stories, and particularly fiction, to share truth, it gives us the chance to show readers who God is. Stories show flawed characters in need of hope. Hope for a better life. Hope for love. Hope for reconciliation. And hope, as we know, comes from Salvation through Jesus Christ. So when we use stories to share that there is hope at the end, what we are really saying underneath it all is, “There is One who offers the greatest hope of all.”
FF: What can you tell us about your next book?
The Looking-Glass Illusion concludes The Curious Realities duology, so I am working on a new series outside of Wonderland now. I am sworn to secrecy, so all I can say about it at this point is I have signed a four-book contract with Enclave for a series of YA Fantasy companion novels all set in the same world. Each story in the series is inspired by a fairy tale paired with a novel from classic literature. The first book in the series will release in 2025 and is inspired by two of my favorite stories of all time.
FF: What kind of research did you do for this book?
The Looking-Glass Illusion was fun to research because it involved two things I love—playing games and listening to podcasts/audiobooks. I already mentioned how my dear friend taught me the basics of chess, which was huge in helping me map out what a real-life game of chess would look like in my story. But I also gained so much from listening to the original audiobook of Through the Looking-Glass as well as listening to Paul J. Hale’s Cinema Story Origins podcast. He compares classic stories with various updated or modern/Disney versions. The compare-and-contrast style of his podcast truly made my job so much easier. I loved being able to listen and take notes as he compared the differences and similarities between Lewis Carroll’s original books versus the Disney or Tim Burton takes on the classic tale.
FF: What do you want readers to take away after reading your book?
I always want readers to walk away with a sense of hope and wonder after reading any of my stories. For The Looking-Glass Illusion, in particular, I hope it leads readers of faith to see the power and truth their faith holds. For readers who may not know the true King, I hope this book leads them to want to know Him and dig a little deeper into what believing in the impossible and unseen really looks like.
I also want readers to feel seen and understood through the characters and what they experience. Maybe you’re like Alice, finding where you belong and what you’re truly capable of. Maybe you’re like Chess and you display confidence on the outside, while you’re really at war with something on the inside. Or maybe you’re misunderstood like Knave Heart or ever the optimist like Madi Hatter. Wherever you’re at, I hope you relate to at least one character and know that you are not alone.
FF: What are the biggest challenges for you as an author writing in your specific genre?
Writing in any genre and for any age group has its challenges, but I think writing YA is difficult because I am writing for two different audiences. I am writing stories with teen characters whose situations and experiences will hopefully resonate with young people, but I am also writing for the women in their 20s and 30s (and beyond) who still remember their teen years and find something nostalgic and hopeful about a coming-of-age story. I’m writing for parents who are on the hunt for clean and safe reads for their kids. And I’m writing for my own children, hopefully providing stories they will see themselves in one day.
When you write YA, you have to appeal to teens and adults alike, as well as to middle-grade readers who are at a higher reading level than their age group. It’s really about finding a balance and exploring the story in a way that resonates with multiple generations. I have the teen characters, but I also include parental figures like Alice’s overprotective sister, Charlotte. The beauty of stories written for children is that they still mean something to us as we get older. Just as C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia or A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh speak to readers of all ages and backgrounds, YA books have the unique opportunity to reach more than just the young adult. And that’s what I hope for most when I write in this genre.
FF: What authors or books have inspired you as an author?
There are too many to count. Of course, the Bible is full of inspiration and themes that find their way into my stories. For fiction authors, I have always been inspired by Francine Rivers because of her courage to write stories about real people and hard topics that still offer the reader hope at the end. C.S. Lewis is also a timeless author I have turned to time and time again for a dose of fiction paired with truth.
Some of my favorite modern YA authors include Kasie West, Kiera Cass, Ashley Townsend, Shannon Dittemore, Nadine Brandes, Ashley Bustamante, Erin Phillips, Victoria Lynn, Tabitha Caplinger, Lindsay A. Franklin, and S.D. Grimm. I could make this list much longer, of course, but I suppose we would need an entirely separate article for that.
FF: How has your faith or worldview impacted the way you tell stories?
I think the real question is, “How could my faith or worldview not impact my stories?” As an author of faith, I truly believe spiritual themes are the natural fingerprints a Christian author leaves on every story they write. My faith and worldview come through my writing in a way that just is—it’s there. It’s there in my values, in the standard I hold for clean and safe content, in how I believe every Christian is living out their own story arc with a “happily ever after,” despite the pain and suffering we may face in this life. It’s impossible for my beliefs to not impact my stories because my faith is at the core of my identity and who I am. Without it, my stories would look very different, indeed.
The Looking Glass Illusion
The Looking Glass Illusion Series #2
Genres: YA/Teen, Fantasy/Folk Tale
Release Date: September 19, 2023
Step through the looking glass. Slay the Jabberwock. Seek the King.
Alice is not prepared to face what awaits beyond the Tulgey Wood. When she and the rest of Team Heart enter the fourth and final Wonderland Trial, it’s up to her to lead them to victory. But this Trial is more than a game. If Alice and the others fail to defeat the Jabberwock and reveal the truth about Wonderland, more than points and fame will be lost.
Chess Shire never believed he’d make it this far. Now he’s stuck navigating a Trial he’s seen but doesn’t remember, all while searching for the brother he left behind. Not everything is as black and white as the game that shares his name. And if Alice discovers his deepest regret? Chess might just lose her too.
Apart, Chess and Alice scour the eight squares of the Heart Trial in search of memories, truth, and an Ivory King who seems more illusion than reality. Will they learn to lead together to face their greatest fears? Or will they remain pawns in a queen’s game, never truly seeing the Wonderland they’ve come to believe in?
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