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True Adventures: Simon Mason on the brand new series

Posted 6th Aug 2020

Pushkin Children’s books are proud to present the first two in a brand new series of historical fiction books for 8-to-12-year-olds: the True Adventures series. As the adventure begins this week, we asked series editor Simon Mason about his inspiration for the series, and what he hopes young readers will get out of it.

Can you tell us a little bit about the True Adventures series? Where did the inspiration from the series come from, and what do you hope to achieve with it?

Simon: I was thinking about history books – how many different ways there are to ‘do’ history: chronologies, fun facts, biographies, King and Queens, social studies, monographs, and so on  and so on – and it came to me that the very best way – the most powerful and entertaining way – is through stories. We’re story-telling animals and we respond to stories instinctively. If you read in a book ‘The Tudor Age began in 1485 when Richard III was defeated at the Battle of Bosworth . . .’ we know we’re going to get some good sober facts. But if you read ‘The soldiers were hurrying through the wood at dawn when all at once a girl stepped out onto the path in front of them . . .’ we can’t help ourselves responding with all sorts of questions. Who are those soldiers and why are they hurrying? Who is that girl? And, above all, what’s going to happen next?

Each book in this series brings to life an incredible true story, featuring protagonists from all over the world. What do you think makes a great piece of historical fiction?

Simon: It must have a satisfying story shape – a  beginning, middle and end. Lots of important bits of history don’t have that shape. It must have a charismatic, inspirational central character. The events must be connected in some way with something we already know – World War Two, Ancient China, The American Civil War, etc. I find that if they are totally obscure, there isn’t enough for readers to get hold of and feel excited about. Above all, does it excite you, does it involve you?

As series editor, you’re seeking out the real-life figures that these books are about. What sort of characteristics are you looking for in a True Adventures protagonist?

Simon: We have to be fascinated by them. We need to connect with them, to be emotionally engaged with them, to care about them. That’s not the same as liking them. I’m not sure I like Dr James Barry, the hero of The Mysterious Life of Dr Barry – but I’m fascinated by him, I really care if his secret is going to be discovered. If they are also inspirational, all the better. Sophie Scholl stood up for what she believed despite the appalling danger. Queen Nanny inspired her people to make a life of freedom for themselves. Their bravery brings tears to my eyes – and also encourages me to be that little bit braver in my own life.

The authors of the True Adventures books live and work all over the world. Can you tell us a bit about the process of commissioning these authors – how did you go about finding and approaching them?

Simon: This has been one of the most exciting aspects of the series for me.  From an early stage we felt we should match up subjects and authors as much as possible. For a very diverse range of historical subjects we wanted a range of very diverse authors to go with them. And I literally could not have been happier than working with Catherine Johnson, who is half-Jamaican, on Queen of Freedom: Defending Jamaica, and the Indian author Devika Rangachari on Swordswoman! The Queen of Jansi in the Indian Uprising of 1857, and the South African writer Zukiswa Wanner on The Black Pimpernel: Nelson Mandela on the Run – it turned out that Zukiswa’s Dad was actually in the ANC with Mandela! How cool is that? And with Kekla Magoon, an African-American writer, on the all-black 54th Massachusetts regiment in the American Civil War. These writers bring special insights to their subjects. My tactic in locating them was to ask advice, get recommendations and, above all, read their stuff. Every single author in the series is a master story-teller. That’s the most important thing.

The stories in these books are also brought to life with illustrations by Amerigo Pinelli. What do you think this will add to the reading experience?

Simon: We really lucked out with Amerigo: we loved his work as soon as we saw it. Originally we thought we might use different artists for different books – but when we saw his roughs we knew we had to have his stuff in every book. His sense of drama is fantastic – his use of startling perspectives, expressive gestures, atmospheric settings. He can do anything: dangerous, sad, hilarious, wistful, tragic, risky, shocking – and all his pictures amplify so strongly the drama in the stories. Catherine has blown up the first of his illustrations for her own book as a poster.

Each of these books contains a lot more than just the story itself ­­– it’s an educational resource. Can you tell us a little bit about the extra material?

Simon: Above all, the stories are exciting. But they are also thought-provoking, of course. We wanted to provide some extra information in each of the books to help readers explore the historical subjects further. Where exactly are the Blue Mountains of Jamaica and what do they look like? How were the Nazis and when did they come to power in Germany? What happened to Lakshmibai after the Siege of Jansi? So in each book we have a historical map (drawn by Amerigo, of course) and features such as a Timeline, a ‘What Happened Next’ section, a Glossary (What is a ‘gris gris’ worn by Queen Nanny?), a Guide to Pronunciation and a Historical Contexts section (When did women first get to qualify as surgeons?). If readers are interested in a story, and in the characters in a story, they’ll want to know as much about it all as possible – and these sections will help satisfy their eager curiosity.

What do you want readers to take away from these books?

Simon: A sense of wonder. These people really did these things! A sense of discovery. Ancient China was a wholly different sort of place! A sense of shock. Apartheid South Africa was a terrible place for black South Africans. A sense of belief and self-belief. These people did incredible things – and I can too! A desperate urge to get hold of another book in the series.

Thank you, Simon! Doesn’t that sound amazing? Well, you can dive into these adventures right now, beginning with Queen of Freedom by Catherine Johnson, and The Girl Who Said No to the Nazis by Haydn Kaye – out now with Pushkin Children’s. Watch the series trailer here!