Monday, April 2, 2018

The challenge of writing a series that extends from Middle Grade to Young Adult: An Interview with John Owen Theobald, Author of the Ravensmaster Trilogy

I've never written a series, but have always wanted to. 

I adore a series, not just because a three+ novel arc allows a greater story to be told, but because we really get to know the characters.

And I've always thought that the most challenging must be taking a character from a young age to young adulthood; think Harry Potter, the Besty-Tacy Series, L.M. Montgomery's Anne and Emily books, The Penderwicks.

Well, let me introduce you to another author, John Owen Theobald, and his fantastic Ravenmaster Trilogy!

About the Books:

At the height of the Blitz, 12-year-old Anna Cooper is sent to live with her uncle, the Ravenmaster at the Tower of London, and discovers that the fate of the kingdom is in her hands. Book 1, These Dark Wings, is available now from Head of Zeus, UK.

In Book 2, What the Raven Brings, the Blitz is over but the war rages on, and Anna Cooper bluffs her way into the glamorous - and dangerous - world of female war pilots. 

In Book 3, A Kingdom Falls, the dramatic conclusion to the Ravenmaster Trilogy, Anna Cooper must find the strength to face her greatest fear in Britain's darkest hour.
I devoured these books, both for their attention to detail and their unforgettable characters.
But I was also intrigued, for Theobald ages his character through the series in the best, and most believable way. You believe that the Anne in book three is simply an older version of the Anna in book one, which is no mean feat.
So I had to interview John and ask him to share some of his secrets with us!

About the Author:

Born and raised in Eastern Canada, John moved to the UK to study the poetry of Keats, and in 2009 received a PhD from the University of St. Andrews. He lives in London, England.
Visit John's website:

The Interview:

First of all, I loved the Ravenmaster Trilogy! What made you decide to set the novels in World War II and specifically at the Tower of London? 

Thanks so much! I really enjoyed working on this series – both the research and the writing. I’ve always been fascinated by World War II, and I blame my family. My father is a history teacher, and my grandfather was in the Canadian Army – he landed at D-Day in a Sherman tank. But it was actually my grandmothers who inspired The Ravenmaster Trilogy. 

My British grandmother was the inspiration for my main character, 12 year-old Anna Cooper. She actually lived in London throughout the Blitz, so I grew up listening to her stories about it all – the fear and sadness, but also the excitement and the mischief, and I wanted to one day write a story that captured those elements. 

For Books 2 and 3, when Anna becomes a pilot, I took inspiration from my other grandmother, who was a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force, and one of the toughest people I ever knew. 

The Tower of London came separately. Ravens and crows are another fascination of mine, with all their accompanying myths and legends. I knew about the legend of the ravens at the Tower (‘If the ravens leave the Tower, Britain will fall’), and when I was daydreaming about story ideas, the two ideas merged – what better point in history to see this ominous legend play out than the Blitz, when the British lived in real fear of a German invasion? So I knew Anna would have to become responsible for them – and therefore the fate of the kingdom. 

The first book in the series, These Dark Wings, is a middle grade novel. How did you approach dealing with the war and significant losses for this age group? 

The novels change and grow as the main characters do. Since the story is told in first person POV, I had to stay very close to their thoughts and emotions. In Book 1, Anna Cooper is 12 years old, so the world of that novel is the fears and concerns – and grief – of a 12 year-old. In Book 2, Anna is a teenager, and her world – and the world of the novel – is shaped accordingly. By the end of the series, the two main characters are 18.

Loss and grief affects Anna throughout the series, and her understanding and awareness of loss is coloured by her age and her experience of growing up during the war.

I think a great error for authors is to ‘talk down’ to younger readers about issues like loss and grief – no one likes being patronized. So I tried my best to approach the material just as I would for any reader, albeit through the lens of the POV. 

Like other wonderful series (Hello Harry Potter), the Ravenmaster Trilogy switches from middle grade to young adult in books two and three. How did you handle that in the plotting, the writing style, the kinds of subjects you could explore?

The story changed to reflect the age of the POVs, but of course this enlarged the kinds of subjects I could explore as the author – particularly love, desire, and sense of self. 

This changed the plotting because as the characters age they become involved in more active roles, volunteering and flight training in Book 2 and actively leading other pilots and soldiers in Book 3. 

Although I never deliberately set out to do this, the writing style changes to match the change in the characters – shorter sentences, stronger verbs – but I think this developed naturally with the story. 

What advice would you have for authors who are interested in writing series that span the two genres?

My only advice to authors looking to span genres in the same series is to enjoy it. There is something fascinating in being able to chart the growth and transformation of the same characters over multiple books. (As a kid watching The Simpsons I always found it sad that Bart had to stay in Grade 4 forever.) 

I’ve never attempted spanning genres while using the more traditional 3rd person POV, but in a series like Harry Potter you can see a gradual darkening of tone (and thickening of book).

I know you’re Canadian like me – any chance of future books set in Canada?

am Canadian like you! Yes, I am currently working on a very Canadian novel, about Tom Thomson and the early Group of Seven. 

I am constantly shocked that no one has made a novel about the unsolved death (murder?) of Canada’s most famous artist – so I figure it’s time to throw my hat in the ring. We’re currently shopping it around, so hopefully the novel will be available in 2019. (Not MG or YA, but fascinating stuff.)  

In addition to the Tom Thomson novel, I am writing a new trilogy of books for Head of Zeus, who published the Ravenmaster Trilogy. The new trilogy is set in Britain’s distant past – way outside of my comfort zone (by about 5000 years). So I'm very excited to dive into all this new (to me) material. (Book 1 is published Fall 2020.)

Thanks John! And trust me - this series is wonderful! You can buy it from all the usual spots and you will be glad you did!

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