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  /  News   /  Ask the Author: Alison D. Stegert talks about Her Majesty’s League of Remarkable Young Ladies

Ask the Author: Alison D. Stegert talks about Her Majesty’s League of Remarkable Young Ladies

By Lara Cain Gray

Alison D. Stegert is a US born, Queensland based author for children. She writes stories for all ages, but particularly enjoys writing historical fiction for middle grade readers. Her Majesty’s League of Remarkable Young Ladies won the 2021 Times/Chicken House prize for an unpublished manuscript. It was released in the UK in 2023, and in Australia in May 2024. Alison is a big believer in the power and joy of creative community, and she’s a tireless supporter of other writers and illustrators through her work with SCBWI.
You have been a teacher, writer and champion for books and reading for many years. What inspired you to start writing THIS story?
While I worked in the education sector for over a decade, my background isn’t teaching; it’s school counselling. Nevertheless, I was a huge champion of books and reading. When appropriate, I used books to start conversations with the students I worked with. I also discovered early in my career that the school library was a haven for kids struggling with overwhelm or out of place. Consequently, I carried out regular visits to the library to casually check in with students. I became friends with the TLs, and we ran the Inklings, a weekly writing group for kids who had an interest in creative writing.
Every year in term three, the school I worked at held the DaVinci Festival, a STEAM event that celebrated the intersections of science, technology, engineering, arts, and maths. Watching the amazing students showing off their creativity, innovation, and skills, sparked the idea of writing a STEM story that featured a girl-genius protagonist. That was 2015…
The kids at my school were lucky – their gifts were nurtured and celebrated. I wondered how I could set up a situation where my girl hero’s gifts are forbidden? A Victorian finishing school seemed the perfect foil with plenty of intrinsic conflict potential. For the first time ever, I tried pantsing, and whoa, missy! This sassy, brilliant Victorian girl-genius walked onto my page with a clear voice and her own ideas. I knew she was special, but the time wasn’t right yet.
The concept, then titled Winifred Weatherby Saves the Century, ripened on a back shelf for a few years. And then, in January of 2020, I knew it was the year to write this book, and I began honing the plot. At the end of the year, I was lucky to win the Historical Novel Society Australasia’s EJ Corbett Mentorship Prize and got to work with Dr Wendy Dunn in early 2021, during which it became a YA story.
One of things I loved about this book was the weaving of historical facts with wild – yet historically plausible! – inventions and adventures. Can you tell us a little about your research methodology and any highlights of the background research process?
One of the first gadgets I conceived was Winifred’s Multidevice Interchangeable Utility Chatelaine. It was this idea that set the story on its espionage trajectory and allowed the plot pieces to fall into place.
I wanted the development of Winnie’s inventions to show Winnie’s growth from a quirky, awkward girl to a more worldly, cunning young lady. Winnie’s first design, which she’s quite proud of, is outlandishly quaint, while the gadgets she creates for the league become more sophisticated – and deadly.
The trickiest matter to decide upon was Winifred’s father’s invention. For the entire writing of the final draft (when I rewrote it as a MG story), Papa’s device was literally an X, a place marker. Unlike Winnie’s whacky inventions, this one needed to be real and timely and significant enough for Winnie’s father to enter it in the Grand Prix at the Paris World Fair. I borrowed stacks of books about Victorian inventions. I scoured websites and listened to podcasts, and finally I stumbled upon an article about the “precursor to the fax machine.” A fax machine that used telegraph technology sounded very promising.
Elisha Gray’s telautograph ticked all the boxes, even the big one: it was developed in the late 1880s and released in 1889, the year of my story, which culminates in Paris at the World Fair.
The trouble was, I couldn’t understand how it operated. The schematic drawings I found at the Library of Congress website and the patent museum didn’t tell me anything, and I couldn’t find the specific information I needed. Of course, Winnie would not have “hit send” or “added toner.” Did she push a button, flip a switch, jiggle a toggle? Without knowing these basics, I feared I wouldn’t be able to use the telautograph after all. In desperation, I went to Twitter and sent an SOS, asking for help to find specific information about how it operated.
A librarian came to my rescue. Our very own Lara Cain Gray sent me a link to a university research paper, and it had exactly the information I needed. Remarkably, I found a footnote that said Elisha Gray’s invention was the winner of the Grand Prix at the 1889 Paris World Fair. *Mic drop* I had inadvertently picked the winner. I still gasp at the serendipity.
Publication of this novel came about after you won the coveted Chicken House Books prize. What advice would you give to anyone else seeking to enter?
I entered at least two other times previously, so my first tip is to keep trying. What some people might not know is the mission of Chicken House is to discover new talent, and their managing director, Barry Cunningham, is pretty good at it. He’s the editor who famously discovered Harry Potter and signed JK Rowling. I heard straight from the horse’s mouth that Barry likes animal stories. He told me he’s weary of the woodland magic trope. My observation is that Chicken House currently (at the time of writing) seem to be leaning towards edgy YA and away from MG.
What key themes or messages do you hope readers will take away from this story?
I hope readers will be inspired by Winnie’s determination and resourcefulness to pursue her dreams and her loyalty to her friends. It would be excellent if girls who enjoy STEM subjects feel empowered to pursue their gifts. And if I infect young readers with the Victoriana bug, I won’t be sad. The Victorian era is endlessly fascinating – the changes and disparities in society, the breakthroughs in medicine and technology, the swings in fashion, the imperial grasping, and a royal family with so much intrigue! Talk about dysfunction and fascination.
In recent years, research into the Victorian era has been revealing more about people of races, religions, and backgrounds other than white, Anglo-Christians, which is a fantastic change. In 2016, I stumbled upon the story of Queen Victoria’s African goddaughter, Sarah Forbes Bonetta, and I knew I had to find a way to include her in the story to introduce her to readers. I did so with Winnie’s colleague, Stella Davies, who was Sarah’s youngest daughter. (Sarah, or Sara as it’s sometimes spelt, had died in 1880 of tuberculosis.) To work her in, I shifted the story from 1899 to 1889, a year which also had a Paris World Exposition.
In an effort to entice kids to read the Endmatter where all this delicious history is unpacked, I wrote the historical notes from the point of view of the Queen’s smug pug, Bosco, who has a cameo in the story.
Can you suggest any extended reading for people who love this book – such as teacher notes, related websites or other stories that inspired your writing?
The book that set me off on this love affair with 19th-century Great Britain was The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. It was set in 1901, the year of Queen Victoria’s death, and it opened my eyes and heart to the Victorian era. For true grit, you can’t go past Dickens of course for a vivid experience of London.
Contemporary choices include Nancy Stringer’s Enola Holmes series and movies, Gail Carriger’s various paranormal steampunk series, e.g., the Parasol Protectorate, and Robin Steven’s series Murder Most Unladylike. The last one is set in the 1930s, but it’s a great example of historical fiction with a rich sense of time and place.
In nonfiction, Ruth Goodman’s How to Be Victorian is fascinating. I subscribe to HistoryExtra, and I receive their Victorian Extra newsletter, which sparks lots of ideas. I’ve read (or at least purchased and shelved) every book I can get my hands on about Queen Victoria.
I wrote an article about chatelaines here:
Some other wonderful online resources include:The Victorian Web: The Victorian Web: Linking Scholarship, Teaching and Learning since 1994
Kate Tattersall Victorian Adventures:
Thank you Alison for talking to StoryLinks
Lara Cain Gray’s book The Grown Up’s Guide To Picture Books is being published in September this year.
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