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Matt Ralphs on Little Sure Shot and the best historical books for kids

Little Sure Shot by Matt Ralphs. Book cover and author photo.

This month our Macaw subscribers are heading into the Wild West with Little Sure Shot, the inspiring real-life tale of sharpshooting Annie Oakley. This fictionalised account of Annie's life story is surprising, gripping and in places pretty gritty, too. We couldn't help but love courageous Annie and her big-hearted family. In this week's author Q&A, we ask Matt Ralphs all about putting Annie's life on the page and he also tells us about his favourite historical books for kids.

What inspired you to write Little Sure Shot?

I was asked by my publisher, Andersen Press, to send in some ideas of historical figures whose stories might make for an inspiring and exciting novel. I already knew a little bit about Annie Oakley – enough to know she was worth investigating. What I learned convinced me that her remarkable life story was one I wanted to share with a wider audience. This was a girl who, at only seven years old, picked up her father’s musket (which was considerably taller than she was) and went hunting to save her Ma, sisters and younger brother from starvation. A person who, whatever setbacks and deprivations she faced, always backed herself to get past it and survive. Simply, it was Annie who inspired me to write Little Sure Shot. I just hope I did her justice in the telling.

What research did you do?

I did a lot of research about Annie’s life. That wasn’t hard – she was famous, so her life story is well documented. My main job was to present the important parts of her life in a way that worked as a novel, but without changing much or leaving too much out. Again – not too hard because her life was so full of incident, drama and dynamism that the story was fairly plain to see.

The trickier part of the research was finding out about the specific place and time in which she lived. The little details that bring the world to life for the reader. For example, what trees grew in Ohio in the 1860s? What birds flew overhead? What jobs was a five-year-old expected to do on a farm? (An awful lot, it turns out.) What songs did they sing? What did they eat? What sort of phrases, swearwords and sayings did they use? How did people refer to each other? How, exactly, do you load, aim and fire a Kentucky long rifle? That sort of stuff, which should fill every page so that it fills the reader’s mind, was harder to unearth. My writing was often halted by questions that needed answering such as ‘What breeds of cow were raised in nineteenth century Ohio?’    

What do you think it is that makes Annie extraordinary?

The best way to gauge a person is to examine their actions and behaviour. And judging from how Annie responded to the hard and fast curveballs life threw at her I’d say she was an entirely extraordinary individual. Not to mention that she was a natural performer who could hold a crowd of thousands mesmerised by her unsurpassed shooting skills. At that time, hunting, shooting and outdoor pursuits were the domain of men; they were not considered ‘proper’ or ‘decent’ pastimes for women. Annie railed against this segregation between the sexes her whole life, knowing with absolute certainty that it was unjustified, unfair, and not to be indulged. Her achievement was to show everyone – men, women, boys and girls – that you can achieve whatever you want, just so long as you’re given the fair opportunity to try.

How many of the characters and events are based on what really happened and how much was fictionalised?

Everything in the book is rooted in truth. I portray things that really happened to Annie, and the actions and decisions she took along the way. As a writer, what I had to do was interpret the events as best I could, fill in the gaps, then turn them into scenes and chapters. For example, we know very little about Annie’s time with the couple she called the Wolves; she hardly ever spoke about it. We know she endured their abuse for two years, we know they beat and overworked her, we know she was left in the snow where she nearly died of exposure, and we know she eventually made her escape. Those were the bones I used to create an entire section of the book.     

In what ways do you think Annie’s story will resonate with young readers today?

Although Annie lived a long time ago in a world that in many ways was very different to our own, she had to deal with difficulties that sadly are still with us today: hunger, poverty, loneliness, sexism, and physical and mental abuse. But what I hope resonates with young readers is not so much the difficulties themselves, but Annie’s courageous response to them. She never became bitter, or cruel, or mean. Quite the opposite, in fact. She remained generous, caring and optimistic to her dying day. 

Why did you choose to write books for this age group?

I think it’s because I like reading books aimed at this age group. Simple as that!

Do you have a favourite place to write?

I have a desk with a comfortable chair and a view of the marina I live in. My music is close to hand, my books, and it’s really close to the toaster/kettle/fridge. I do most of my work there. But I can work pretty much anywhere so long as I’ve got something to write with.

Which other historical books for this age group would you recommend our subscribers read next?

Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian is a really emotional story set during the Second World War. Also, The Machine Gunners by Robert Westall. We Played With Fire by Catherine Barter is a creepy and fascinating novel about the Fox Sisters who claimed to be able to communicate with the dead in nineteenth-century America. And as an animal lover, Phil Earle’s While the Storm Rages really touched my heart.  

Copies of our Little Sure Shot pack, including a copy of the book and loads of fun activities to go with it, are now available for individual purchase. Grab a copy while stocks last!

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