Interview with Non-fiction Author, Tracey Turner

Tracey Turner has been writing children’s non-fiction since 2000. She specialises in funny, fact-filled non-fiction for children aged eight and above, accompanied by black line illustrations. She has had over fifty titles published to date, including the highly acclaimedComic Strip series, illustrated by Sally Kindberg and published by Bloomsbury. Tracey used to work as a Non-fiction Commissioning Editor at Scholastic Children’s Books, where she worked on the Horrible Histories series and many other titles.

What got me started as a children’s non-fiction author? The experience of being an editor, editing children’s non-fiction and really liking the creative side of it. I loved thinking up titles and ideas for books for authors and writing chunks of things myself. Because I was working on non-fiction there was much more leeway to come up with creative ideas for new titles and new series. I think there’s less scope for that kind of creativity if you’re working as a fiction editor, although sometimes I wish I’d worked on fiction too. That’s what I enjoyed about editing non-fiction – you get really involved in it. And I discovered that I liked making things up myself. I left publishing after ten years to become a freelance editor, and gradually writing took over from editing.

I usually write for seven–eight-plus year olds, although the 101 books (101 Things You Need to Know and Some You Don’t and 101 Things You Wish You’d Invented and Some You Wish No-one Had with Richard Horn) were crossover titles – bought by readers from age twelve to adult. Their design is fairly sophisticated, so many people buy them thinking they are adult books. I’ve also written books for adults, though not recently. In fact, one of my very first published books was The Failure’s Guide to Flirting – which is still in print! And one of my favourite jobs was to write funny captions in a book for adults which was full of naff 1970s photos – I really didn’t want to do it, but I ended up enjoying it, and it still makes me laugh. MyLost titles – Lost in the Jungle of Doom, Lost in the Desert of Dread, etc., are also a slight departure from non-fiction for me, and I have really enjoyed writing them. They’re a choose-your-own-adventure series for Bloomsbury, and ended up being very complicated and time-consuming to work out, but I’m very proud of the results.

I like thinking of new ways to present material, ways to make things funny. I don’t do many books that don’t have some element of humour. One exception is a book published in June 2014, written in conjunction with the Imperial War Museum – How Can a Pigeon Be a War Hero? – which is filled with questions and answers about the First World War. Researching this title was a different experience for me. I read lots of interesting books and talked to historians and I enjoyed finding out as much as I could.

I find inspiration and huge satisfaction in researching my books and in explaining subjects to children in new and different ways. At the moment the title I’m most excited about is How to Make a Human Out of Soup, which will be published by Little Brown in 2015. I’m really pleased with that title! It’s going to be all about evolution. I love the idea of explaining evolution to children in my way, and I find it really exciting to research completely new subjects like this – at the moment I know absolutely nothing about evolution, however, at the end of July I’m going to know an awful lot! I love all this kind of stuff, especially when I find funny or surprising things – for example, did you know that some very basic organisms have far more chromosomes than humans? A type of fern has the most.

Researching for books can be a very long and drawn-out process. So having a long lead-in time is brilliant. At the moment I’m researching Lost in the Mountains of Death, which is going to take place in the Andes. I like to narrow things down in terms of setting, so I’m concentrating on Patagonia, rather than the whole of the Andes, which stretch all the way to the southern tip of South America. As well as homing in on one area, I’m trying to make my research as wide as possible. At the moment I’m reading the Rough Guide to the Patagonian Andes and I’ve recently watched a YouTube video of pumas from that area. When I’m researching I’ll do as much as I can in the time – I’ll get books from the library or buy them; watch films and documentaries. I really like it if I find something I haven’t seen anywhere else. The New Scientist is great for science – and as a subscriber you have access to its back catalogue. There are often good programmes on TV to watch – for example there was a historical programme about Roman women recently which was useful research for writing one of my Hard Nuts of History series.

What do I draw on when I write? I think that inside the exterior of a forty-something woman strongly beats the heart of an eight-year-old boy. I have a very strong sense of what kids that age enjoy, and I love all that stuff. So I draw on myself, and my eight-year-old son (though he’s more of a fiction fan, really). I don’t get out and about much – in the past I’ve done three or four author visits to schools, and I’ve done presentations at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, promoting 101 Things, the Comic Strip series, and a book called Dreadful Fates – but at the moment I’m just writing.

In terms of sounding boards for my work, I sometimes ask my partner Tom and our son, Toby, for their opinions – with varying degrees of success. Toby is sometimes really interested in a book, sometimes not at all. For example, he loves the Lost books because of their game element, although he does really enjoy ‘straight’ books too. He was excited by the idea of being lost in the rainforest. I’m not part of a circle of writers who compare work – I’m quite happy with things as they are. Editors are extremely helpful, but I never call them up halfway through writing a manuscript and say I’m having a problem. I just try to get on. Very occasionally I’ll ask them a question. But as the writer, you’re the one who’s really into it, in the middle of it all, so it’s difficult to ask an editor, who hasn’t done any of the research and has many other books and things on their minds, for their input. I think it can actually be annoying for them, so I try not to.

Sometimes I find being on my own for most of the day, writing, a bit of a challenge. I find myself talking to the dog, and venturing out to make conversation with people in shops, who probably think I’m a bit mad. You do have to deal with some isolation. But you have to accept that you can’t do this kind of job if being alone a lot upsets you.

I think it’s absolutely essential that children’s non-fiction titles are illustrated. There are very different ways of doing this – my books tend to have funny, black and white illustrations which support the text. In Dorling Kindersley books, on the other hand (I wrote part of 100 Inventions That Changed the World for them last year), the full-colour illustrations are the most important element of the book, or hold equal importance with the text.

Generally speaking, working with illustrators on non-fiction children’s books is a total joy. Each book is a very different experience. For example, with the Lost series, Bloomsbury found a wonderful illustrator called Nelson Evergreen. All I saw was his finished artwork and it was lovely, just right. Sometimes there’s more involvement – me and Sally (illustrator of the Comic Strip series) got together loads and worked out how things were going to look together. She’d have some input on the text, and I’d have some input on the illustrations. I want to give Sally a big mention here – her pictures are just fantastic, she is very funny. The whole experience was very collaborative, and we’re hoping to work together again soon. There was much more collaboration here than with other titles, where the editor or designer breaks up the text and an illustrator does the artwork to fit.

I don’t think there’s an illustrator I’ve worked with that I haven’t liked. Without them the books wouldn’t be books! It’s lovely, and a privilege to have an artist interpret your words. Clive Goddard, who illustrated some of my Scholastic titles, is brilliant. And Dead Famous Writers, for which he did the artwork, is possibly my favourite book! It’s the first one I wrote for children and I put so much into it. He illustrated that and the Bonkers series: Wee on a Jellyfish Sting, How to Make Stonehenge Out of Biscuits and How to Tell a Wizard from a Warlock.

Sometimes the title comes first when I’m thinking of ideas for a new book, but not always. Sometimes I just know I would like to write about a particular subject. It’s usually a bit of both – an idea for the book, and an idea for a title. With How to Make a Human Out of Soup – yes, the title came first. Something I’m going to write soon is Stat Attack, and I came up with the title of that before I thought of anything else. With the choose-your-own-adventure series, the Lost series, it took me and the publisher ages to come up with a title that worked across the series.

Finding the right title for a children’s non-fiction book is very important. You can see from the disparity of sales within a series that some titles work and some don’t. For example, one of my favourite titles from the Bonkers series for Scholastic – How to Make Stonehenge Out of Biscuits – hasn’t done well, and so the publishers are going to change it to Bonkers Things to Do For Every Day of the Year. Likewise, How to Tell a Wizard from a Warlock is going to be changed to What’s the Difference between Snot and Bogies? These changes are happening partly because the first title in that series, about popular misconceptions, was changed to Wee on a Jellyfish Sting from my working title, Lies Grown-ups Tell You, and has done well. I’m glad they changed it. The outcome of titles that you think are great are not always what you expect.

Editors only suggest ideas for new books if they’re asking me to do something for a fee (ie without a royalty). For example, a joke book that I wrote last year, which was really more an editing job; the Dorling Kindersley book about inventions, which I wrote some chapters for; and How Can a Pigeon Be a War Hero? which Macmillan asked me to write. Otherwise it’s all down to me. I’m quite active in coming up with ideas and going to publishers with them – as it’s virtually the only way to get work. If I relied on people asking me to do things I wouldn’t be making a living.

Most of children’s non-fiction is published in series, which are not always by the same author. I don’t always think in terms of series, but a lot of publishers want series or the potential for a single title to become the first in a series. Hard Nuts of History, for Bloomsbury, was conceived as a one-off book, but there will be eleven more Hard Nuts by the end of this year.

I work for several publishers, and I like working for a lot of different people. They all have slightly different ways of working, and bring different things to the books. I recently worked for Macmillan for the first time on How Can a Pigeon Be a War Hero? It’s beautifully laid out and illustrated with black-and-white line drawings and photographs, and the ideas the editors and designers brought to it are fantastic. So it’s always good to work with different people, I find.

The way I pitch a non-fiction book varies – sometimes I’ll present the editor with just the bare bones of an idea, and if they like it I’ll flesh it out. But with something like the Comic Stripseries, I did a plan, wrote the text for a number of spreads, Sally Kindberg and I got together, and she drew (beautifully) the comic strips for a couple of spreads. Usually it’s somewhere in the middle of these two approaches.

I think the market is still buoyant for certain types of children’s non-fiction. Publishers are saying they want funny/fun non-fiction books, and certainly I’m extremely busy at the moment. But the library and schools market is really feeling the pinch, for obvious reasons.

My favourite children’s non-fiction? I really like the Usborne Official Handbook series by Sam Taplin, which features a knight, a pirate and a pharaoh, among others. They’re funny, well-written and beautifully illustrated.

I have lots of favourite children’s fiction titles – anything by Philip Reeve is a joy, but especially the Mortal Engines series. I’m just discovering A Series of Unfortunate Events for the first time, which is great. I loved the hilarious Mr Gum books by Andy Stanton. Picture books – theEmily Brown books by Cressida Cowell are lovely.

My favourite non-fiction title as a child? The only one I can really remember was called The Love of Horses – I was a bit obsessed.

Advice that I’d give to aspiring non-fiction children’s writers: write about things you enjoy, or feel strongly about, or are desperate to find out about – it’s very hard to fake enthusiasm, and that usually comes across. Also, keep your research notes!


Tracey’s publications include:

The Comic Strip History of the World

101 Things You Need to Know and Some You Don’t (part of Richard Horn’s best-selling 101 Things series)

Lost in the Jungle of Doom

Whitaker’s World of Weird

The World’s Worst Jobs

Deadly Peril and How to Avoid It

Books coming out later this year include: 

How to Make a Human Out of Soup: The Story of Evolution

The Stat Attack series, packed with facts, figures and quizzes