Ann Turnbull tackles Plague and Fire for young readers

Richard Lee

Unknown-65RL: How did you come to write about the Plague and Fire: I know it’s a Year 2 (6/7 year old) history topic in the UK?

AT: A&C Black contacted my agent and asked if I would be interested. I’d written about the Plague and Fire before in my YA novel Forged in the Fire, so I already had quite a lot of research material. I deliberately did NOT re-read Forged in the Fire as I was afraid of repeating myself!

RL: How do you convey the horror without terrifying your audience?

AT: I suspect that for most children this sort of thing fascinates rather than terrifies them. However, in order to reduce the emotional impact, I decided against having any close family members who die.

RL: What kind of historical fact or artifact most appeals to children? Does this change as they get older?

AT: Children vary, so it’s hard to say. However, dinosaurs and cavemen seem to be universally popular with younger children. When I was young I liked visiting castles and seeing the arrow slit windows and the battlements. I liked knights in armour, swords, bows and arrows, and sailing ships. Of course all these were influenced by what I read. In my teens I was more interested in stories of the lives and loves of queens and princesses.

plague150RL: What engages you most about the story of the Plague?

AT: The thing that most horrifies me (apart from all the deaths) is the thought of being locked up in a plague house – though I had to tone down the horror for this young age group. The thing that most interests me is how people reacted to it and tried to avoid catching it. Most of the methods used – including killing cats and dogs – seem quite rational and sensible given the knowledge they had at the time. And given the scale of the catastrophe, it’s amazing how well the authorities coped with it, and how resilient Londoners were in re-building their lives.

RL: Are there guidelines for what you must or cannot include in a book for this age group?

AT: I wasn’t given any. I was guided by instinct, and obviously worked with an editor. I hope we got it about right.

RL: Are any of your books published outside the UK? What do you think makes a children’s or YA book travel?

greatfire150AT: Yes, a few. In recent years, the first editions of No Shame, No Fear and Forged in the Fire were published in America, and No Shame, No Fear was also published in a Serbian edition. The Historical House series also sold to America. One of my books, Maroo of the Winter Caves, was ONLY published in America, and has been continuously in print since 1984 – but I’ve never found a British publisher for it. I don’t know what makes a book travel – wish I did!

RL: I loved your Quaker sequence. Do you have anything similar planned? (In time, readership or theme)

AT: I would love to continue writing books of this kind. I have one or two ideas, but haven’t settled on anything yet.

RL: What is your writing day like?

AT: The morning is the best time. If I’m actually writing a book, rather than researching or other activities, I often don’t switch on my computer until after lunch. I write initially by hand, in pencil, then type up a few pages at a time. Then I’ll edit in pencil, and type again when it gets illegible. I’m very slow. In the afternoon, after word-processing and saving, I’ll do emails and check a few blogs. I usually switch off and go out for an hour or so in the afternoon, then do a bit more work in the early evening.

Posted by Richard Lee

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