"There was a beautiful point where history hands you an absolute gem," says Emma Carroll of the research for her new Middle Grade historical adventure Secrets of a Sun King. The enigma of Tutankhamun’s missing heart, which was not embalmed and placed back in the body as Ancient Egyptian ritual dictated, "was just such a perfect way in." The project presented different challenges to that of her earlier books, she tells me when we meet in Somerset, not only in its need for meticulous fact checking, but also in how to tell it. "It’s so famous, there’s so much written about it, everybody’s got their own opinions. It’s not some quirky, obscure little piece of history." Carroll was seduced by the scale of the story, and the myths surrounding it. "The idea of the curse was irresistible. It’s such a rich story and I think that’s why I struggled to find the bits I wanted to tell and use." She found herself "rewriting the first 20,000 words a lot".
She settled on a dual narrative that moves from 1920s London to the Ancient Egypt of 1323 BC. In London, the world watches and waits as Howard Carter uncovers the tomb of the long-dead Pharaoh. The protagonist, 13-year-old Lil, discovers a personal connection to the drama when she finds an ancient canopic jar in her grandfather’s house. The artefact contains the translation of a secret manuscript detailing the final days of Tutankhamun’s reign. Lil resolves to return the jar to Egypt, giving her "a strong sense of purpose and identity" and the catalyst for an epic adventure.
Lil (who got her name from the winner of Carroll’s Authors for Grenfell pledge) is a working-class girl with a scholarship at a prestigious school, who finds herself pulled between the two worlds. "She’s trying to find herself. She’s been given these opportunities but that comes at a price. She’s a bit of a metaphor for the time, some of her is in the past, some in the future and she’s not sure which path to follow." Lil is initially dazzled by her glamorous new friend Tulip, who seems to have it all, but as the story unfolds, she realises that Tulip "has her own problems with finding her path and a way to fit in". Lil is ready to use her fists if she has to, Tulip can talk her way around any situation, and the girls learn from each other. Feminist themes are prevalent in Carroll’s books and the power of female relationships is central to Secrets of a Sun King. "It’s about girls playing to each other’s strengths, growing as a result of that friendship." Older female characters are inspirational in different ways. Lil is in awe of Tulip’s mother, the journalist Mrs Mendoza, "a really ambitious woman", while Lil’s own mum is quietly ambitious for her, "really loving and caring but she sees the importance of adventure."
The theme of recovery from trauma, in this case from the First World War, is key. A storyline about the Tomb of the Unknown Solider forms a vital link between the 1920s and Ancient Egyptian timelines. "It’s part of why the public were so consumed by Carter’s dig. The digging up of a grave of a young man was really going to resonate with people at that time." The sense of recovery, people moving towards a brighter life, is at the book’s heart. Much of Carroll’s writing touches on issues of social justice: what it meant to be poor, particularly a poor girl, in different times and societies.
"It’s about having a character who’s relatable; a character striving for something is important to a narrative. It’s also about values. Do you value someone who’s got nice clothes, or do you value someone with guts and heart, who knows what they care about?" Prejudice and racism are woven into the plot of Secrets of a Sun King, in the treatment of mixed-race Tulip by schoolgirl bullies and in the colonial attitude of Carter towards the Egyptians. The dig’s sponsor, Lord Carnarvon, emblazons the tomb with his coat of arms. "It’s also a book about taking things from other cultures," Carroll says.
Carroll was a secondary school teacher for just under 20 years. A long-held desire to write was reignited through creative writing work with her students, and a serious cancer diagnosis in her early thirties proved to be "life-altering". "It was one of those really life-affirming ‘wake up’ moments. If I’m not going to be around what’s the thing I really want to do? And that thing was writing." She began to write while on sick leave, eventually taking the Bath Spa MA in Writing for Young People which was "invaluable" for learning her craft and making industry contacts. Agent Jodie Hodges signed her up and Carroll quickly secured a two-book deal with Faber, which published her Victorian ghost story Frost Hollow Hall in 2013. Three more historical novels and a Christmas novella followed, all selling well without major promotion or awards.
In 2015 Chicken House commissioned Carroll to write Sky Chasers, a novel based on the winning entry of its Big Idea Competition, which was pivotal in Carroll leaving teaching for full-time writing. But it was Letters From the Lighthouse which really caught fire in 2017. The Second World War adventure was Waterstones Children’s Book of the Month. "That was such a joy. It was a game-changer. Because I’d been around for a while, I understood how big a deal it was. It came at such a lovely point in my career and exposes you to so many more readers." The book was the chain’s bestselling children’s book of the month last year and won the Books Are My Bag Readers’ Choice award. It also garnered strong support from indies "who are so vital and have been so important to my career", as well as schools and libraries.
Middle Grade is very much where Carroll’s heart lies. "When Frost Hollow Hall came out, all the focus was on YA, so it’s lovely to see Middle Grade having its moment. It’s what I love writing." She praises the vibrant writer community as being "so supportive" and puts the current success of Middle Grade down to the energy and originality of the writing. Much of the writing, she believes, "has its roots in something very classic but at the same time has something very fresh and modern about it." Her own love of historical fiction comes from writers such as Daphne du Maurier and Sarah Waters; she wanted to emulate that style "in a way that was accessible to children" and loves the world-building potential of writing about the past. In Secrets of a Sun King, a character writes because he "thought it might help [him] make sense of the world" and Carroll confesses it is the same for her. The xenophobia surrounding Trump and Brexit prompted storylines in Letters from the Lighthouse.
Making historical fiction accessible to modern children is always in mind for Carroll. "Part of being a teacher is knowing how to get a child’s attention." Carroll is a natural storyteller who can hold that attention, with a keen instinct for the details that will fascinate children. She does so to great effect here: the gruesome details of embalming, the idea of a curse, encounters with wild animals. "My 12-year-old self is never far away," she laughs.
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