Alison’s session focused on her book Wicked Warriors and Evil Emperors, illustrated by Terry Denton, which was shortlisted for the 2011 Children’s Book Council Award. The book is her first straight non-fiction book and retells the life and times of Qinshi huangdi, China’s first emperor who was responsible for the existence of the Great Wall of China and the terracotta warriors.
In an earlier session with Carole Wilkinson, Alison focused on writing historical fiction and her love of research.
Alison started this session by giving us a non-fiction pep talk:
“Non-fiction has a proud literary tradition and is a far older literary form than fiction, dating back to 800/900 in China.”
There is a rich variety within non-fiction ranging from auto biography to dictionaries.
Nonfiction does not need to be boring or straight out fact, “Non-fiction can be storytelling,” she said.
She read out a short section of the book titled A Wicked Warrior’s Job Interview about Sun Tzu who wrote the The Art of War. Even in this small passage heads rolled spectacularly and rather unexpectedly, making quite a few listeners in the room gasp out loud.
“Did that really happen?” Someone asked when she finished. (This is also an often asked question during Alison’s school visits). When people question the truth of carefully researched facts this session’s title Stranger than Fiction was certainly fitting and shows the sublime storytelling ability of Alison within nonfiction.
Alison started writing Wicked Warriors and Evil Emperors after reading the Horrible History series with her children and realised that the series did not cover Asia, focusing mostly on Europe. Alison wanted to fill this gap and was more than qualified. After writing her other books, Year of the Tiger and Battle of the Jade Horse, which are historical fiction, she had a whole range of interesting facts left that she had not been able to weave through these books.
She sent out a proposal to Penguin, her publisher, who usually don’t publish non-fiction. (Though it looks like they do now!)
Alison says that non-fiction can often be thought of as educational but it can be just as literary and entertaining as fiction.
Wicked Warriors and Evil Emperors for example has a story arc, as well as sub-narratives. The books is also great for reluctant readers as you can open any page in the book and read something interesting that does not require long concentration. The book includes lots of columns, tables, poems, maps, recipes and lists.
“Everything is written in short parts, with many illustrations and nothing over a spread.” As opposed to other non-fiction books for children the illustrations by Terry Denton are not there to instruct but rather to entertain.
Having bought the book for my growing sons, and skimming through, I found the illustrations (with accompanying text) hilarious with its heavy touch of irony and sarcasm.
One of the problems Alison encountered is the limitations of the facts, “Nothing can be made up.” Research has its limits after all. In these cases Alison flags this in her book, by writing things such as “maybe this is what happened,” when she goes into information that is not strictly factual.
The book is written mostly in third person but the narrator’s voice surfaces at times throughout.
There was a discussion about the amount of violence, blood and gore in the book. This has a particular appeal to boy readers but interestingly enough was never flagged as an issue by the publisher.
Alison’s books include Year of the Tiger and Battle of the Jade Horse, both set in ancient China. She has also written four books for the Australian Girl Series. Alison grew up in Australia but has lived several years in China and was there during the student revolt on Tiananmen Square.
You can find out more about Alison here