When Ann Turner is asked which of her books is her favorite, she’s torn like a mother choosing her favorite child. “I don’t have a favorite, but I do have special feelings about some of my books. Grass Songs [Harcourt, 1993], poems about women traveling west in the 19th century, is one of the most beautiful books I’ve written. Rosemary’s Witch[Harper, 1991] appeals a lot to kids because it’s funny and spooky. Nettie’s Trip South[Macmillan, 1987] is one of the more powerful books I’ve written.”
Ideas come to Turner from a variety of places: her own experiences as a child, her own emotional history, her losses as a child, God, the air, the beach, sometimes her own two children, and sometimes family history. “Living in the country and having an artist for a mother gave me a certain way of seeing, an eye for beauty and interest in what others might think ugly or dull: dead weeds, old men and women, fat ladies at the beach, ancient and venerable crows, and vultures.” Turner’s first break into publishing was a nonfiction book entitled Vultures (Harper, 1976), which was illustrated by her mother, Marion Warren.
Turner remembers wanting to be a writer since the age of eight. Her favorite author, even now, is Laura Ingalls Wilder. “Absolutely bar none. I grew up on her.” Turner describes Wilder’s books as her own “heart books. They are woven into the fabric of my life. I admire and love Wilder’s stories about a bygone world. . .how tough she and her family were.” According to Turner, Wilder shows children they can survive some terrible times “mostly intact.”
Turner’s own characters are as tough and deep as Wilder’s; Nettie, who journeys south in 1859 and gets a first-hand glimpse of the cruelties of slavery; Sarah Nita, a young Navajo in The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow (Scholastic, 1999), who survives the Long Walk to Fort Sumner in 1864; the woman from Dakota Dugout (Macmillan, 1985) who recalls the hardships of settling the West in the late 1800’s; and Turner herself as she recalls an incident in her life in Learning to Swim (Scholastic, 2000). Turner reflects, “Perhaps because I was small and skinny with frizzy hair and an unusual family, I grew up thinking a lot about survival.”
Turner describes creating a character like an “out of body experience. You go into this person’s head and her life and then you come up for air a couple of hours later wondering where you are and who you are.” The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow was a three year project. Turner mapped out Sarah Nita’s journey, learned several Navajo words, and posted the Navajo seasons, months, and a cosmology chart in her office for constant reference. She also contacted a ranger at Fort Sumner who sent her copies of actual letters, lists of food, items traded, and other material from which she wrote the story. “I was physically exhausted after I spent the day with Sarah Nita. . .When a character is going through a lot of struggle trying to get places, it’s exhausting.”
Turner lives in western Massachusetts with her husband, Rick, and their two children, Ben and Charlotte. Her writing schedule depends on her children and her chores so she is “not an all day writer. I can’t sit still that long,” quips Turner. “Generally I try to write about four hours per day in the mornings. I get foggy in the afternoon.”
Turner tries to impress upon her readers that she works hard and never stops trying. For those children who struggle with editing and revising school work she says, “Even after a book is printed, I still find things I’d like to change.” Turner compares her books to children. “They’re not perfect, but I have to let them go out into the world.”