Robin Stevens is known for her million-copy-bestselling middle grade series Murder Most Unladylike. Her latest series is set during World War II and follows young spy recruits of a secret agency called The Ministry of Unladylike Activity. The second book, The Body in the Blitz, just came out and we have the honour of chatting with Robin about this latest adventure
1. As with The Ministry of Unladylike Activity, the story in The Body in the Blitz is based on real history. How do you usually select which part of history to feature in your books?
Yes, The Body in the Blitz takes place in London during the height of the London blitz. I wanted to write a book focused on the blitz, because it’s such an important part of the British experience of World War II. It’s something I studied a lot in school, and something children still study today, but something I feel I never truly understood. When I began researching for this book I discovered so many stories I hadn’t heard before – it felt like the perfect combination of the familiar and the untold.
2. Sometimes the timeline might not fit perfectly for your books, how do you deal with that?
I am writing fiction, so although I base it on true history as much as possible (for this book I used the real mission British museums carried out to keep paintings safe during the war, for example), I don’t force myself to make every single thing true! I’ve invented a fictional spy organisation called the Ministry of Unladylike Activity, so although it’s based on the real Special Operations Executive, I can let it be different in the ways I need. The real SOE didn’t manage to meaningfully get spies into France until the summer of 1941, for example – but I decided that my Ministry would be smarter than the SOE, and accomplish that earlier!
3. In The Body in the Blitz, we are just following Nuala’s perspective. Why did you decide to write this with a single narrator, and why from Nuala’s perspective?
The first book in my series, The Ministry of Unladylike Activity, is from both Nuala and her friend (or sometimes enemy!) May’s points of view. I loved being able to show their two conflicting perspectives about what was going on, but in this second book just writing from Nuala’s perspective felt right. She and May are slightly less at odds now, so May trusts Nuala to tell the story. I also think May is a character who’s more of a doer than a writer. She wants to get out there and fix things, not sit down and explain them, while Nuala is much more careful and meticulous. She feels like the more natural narrator, even though May does still pop up a few times with some input!
4. You included some LGBTQ+, disabled and neurodivergent characters in this book, which is awesome. Can you tell us what made you decide to do that?
It’s something I’m trying to do more and more in my books – bring in characters from different backgrounds and experiences. It’s something that’s so true to life (the latest estimate for disabled people in the UK is 24% of the population, and the percentage of people who are out as having queer identities is increasing generationally – 25% of Gen Z Brits identify as LGBTQ+) but something that we still don’t see enough of in media. I really want to help change that, and show readers that queer, trans, disabled and neurodivergent characters can be heroic, aspirational and completely normal.
5. Was it difficult to find information on how LGBTQ+ or disabled people lived during the war times?
I think the most important thing to remember is that people don’t really change! I did research on things like legal restrictions (it was illegal at this point for queer men to be open about their sexuality) and regulations (there weren’t provisions for wheelchairs to get down into below-ground public shelters), and also found some fascinating articles on early 20th century transitions, but my most important research was talking to friends and loved ones about how it feels to live as those identities now. This is especially important as things like neurodiversity were absolutely not understood in the 1940s. The first autism diagnosis only took place in 1943, two years after my book, and the kinds of autism and ADHD that my characters Nuala, Hazel, Daisy and May (and I!) have were still not widely diagnosed when I was a child in the 1990s. But of course, neurodivergent people have always existed, and that’s something I think is very important to show!
6. Did you have to change a lot about their lives given this is a children’s series?
No, which is great – I’m writing from Nuala’s perspective, and because she’s 11 she sees the world as an 11-year-old would – the adults around her are living their lives, and she picks up on some of it and misses some of it. It’s all there for readers to spot, or not!
7. Finally, what can we expect from the next book? Are we going to Bletchley Park?
Yes we are! I’m very excited about this, and can’t wait to begin my research properly. It’s going to be a very fun book to write!