Bitten by a vampire

Most writers can remember the moment they started to compose their first story. For some, it started with an exercise book on the train. Others penned their first words in front of a blank computer screen. Successful children’s author Ann Jungman’s first attempt at literary creativity was slightly more public -- it happened in front of a class of unruly primary school children.

"I was teaching at a school in Central London, which was really wild. So much so that I didn’t dare read books to the children. If I was looking down at a book it would mean taking my eyes off them, and all sorts of terrible things could be happening.

"So I made up whole stories so that I could keep an eye on them. The children liked it. They would say: ‘They are cool Miss, them stories you do.’" And she started to write them down. At first, publishers were less enthusiastic than were her primary schoolchildren, and she built up a huge pile of rejections. Then, a tiny publishing house accepted one short book, Fang the Fiery Dragon.

Forty years and 120 titles later, not only is Jungman still writing -- she has three books out currently -- but she also manages to find the time to run a publishing company of her own, Barn Owl Books, which re-issues out-of-print children’s books.

The turning point in Jungman’s nascent writing career came when she took a holiday in Romania. She was amused by the fact that, while the British tourists were obsessed by vampires, the Romanians were totally indifferent. So she wrote a book about a different kind of vampire: Vlad the Drac -- a foot-high vegetarian vampire who persuades a group of visiting children to smuggle him back to England so he can work in films.

"When I sent the manuscript to publishers, they all said that you couldn’t have vampires in children’s books -- even harmless, veggie ones. So it wasn’t published for seven years, by which time Roald Dahl’s books were very popular and the feeling was that children actually got a frisson out of horror. And if it was laced with a bit of humour, they really liked it."

By 1982, with a series of Vlad books behind her, Jungman was making sufficient money to leave the job of teaching behind, if not the practice: "Most of my stories have a moral. Vlad the Drac is about what it’s like to be an outsider, which has a lot of Jewish resonance. It had relevance for kids as well," she said.

"I was teaching children at the time of a huge wave of immigration and many were simply bemused. I feel there should be a point to books. It doesn’t have to be a huge philosophical lesson… it might be something as simple as the fact that you will feel better if you apologise."

As a child in Highgate, Jungman never had an urge to write, although she did read voraciously: "My sister was much older so I was more like an only child. It was shortly after the war and everything was a bit bleak. So I went to the library every week and would take out a pile of books. It makes me sad that modern children don’t read as much as I did because of all the rival attractions." Her intention was to qualify as a barrister and it was only when she took on part-time supply teaching to finance her training that she discovered her innate creativity. "I would transform the whole classroom into an underwater world, or into ancient Egypt at the time of the Pharaohs.

"I tend to write for the age -- seven to 11 -- and the rough kids I taught. That’s probably why my books are not very literary. I’m not sure whether I could write a literary book." Or a grown-up one -- she enrolled in the Jewish Writers’ Group in order to try her hand at writing adult literature. "I was the only published writer but everyone was better at it than me. In a way it was a relief."

Despite writing for children, Jungman, who is divorced, has none of her own. "It just didn’t happen. A lot of children’s writers don’t have kids of their own, and, in fact, a lot are teachers. If you are a teacher in a mixed, multi-racial school, as I was, you have a very good sense of what children are all about."

She set up Barn Owl Books so that great stories could be revived for a new generation. The finance for the operation came from the ashes of the Holocaust: "My parents managed to get out of Germany but my grandparents died there. However, when the Berlin Wall came down, we got some of our property back. I received a sum of money and, as my great-grandfather had a bookshop in Berlin, I thought of the publishing idea as a link with the past."

But Barn Owl would struggle to survive without Arts Council funding, and Jungman was delighted when fellow writer and children’s laureate Michael Rosen offered to launch an appeal to save it. She berates publishers for being obsessed with the new, leaving children missing out on great stories their parents might have read, and her authors have included Lynne Reid Banks and Adèle Geras.

Latterly, Jungman has moved away from the world of dragons, vampires and trolls. "I’ve been writing more serious books -- about the Dutch Resistance, about the siege of Leningrad. I’ve moved from being light and funny and selling well, to being more serious and maybe not selling so well." There are exceptions to this rule it seems: children are still fascinated by the Second World War and, says Jungman, "books with swastikas on the front cover walk off the shelves.

"You can write about anything. It’s just a case of how you do it. There are things I have left out, like the fact that there was cannibalism in Leningrad. Children would love to read about that stuff but publishers get very nervous."

So, do children’s books always have to have a happy ending? "You shouldn’t duck awkward issues but I think one should always allow the possibility that things can change and you can play your part in it. There has to be a glimmer of hope at the end."

Ann Jungman’s three current books are Betrayal (published by Barrington Stoke); The Footballing Frog (Collins) and The Prince Who Thought He Was a Rooster, and other Jewish Stories (Frances Lincoln).


Snapshot Annn Jungman

Born: Highgate, North London

Family: Parents refugees from Germany who came to London in 1933. Father, Hans, a doctor; mother, Elfrieda, a chemist. Older sister, Eva.

Education: Grammar school; law at Exeter University. Trained as a barrister before becoming a primary school teacher.

Writing career: Prolific: first book Fang The Fiery Dragon published in 1970. Most famous creation is Vlad the Drac, the vegetarian vampire. Subjects include wolves, bandits, dragons, trolls, robots, monsters, witches and ghosts. Owns Barn Owl Books publishing house

Jewish Identity: "I had a very un-Jewish upbringing but gradually that changed. Now, half my friends are Jewish and I have become heavily involved in Independent Jewish Voices (she is the group’s secretary). My writing also reflects my increased interest in Jewish subjects."

Source: Simon Round / The Jewish Chronicle


Fanged Films

Romania / USA, 1997
Journal intime d'un vampire
USA, 2006
Mrs. Amworth

From the Library

As the 20th century evolved, rational man turned to science to explain mythology that had pervaded for thousands of years. How could a man be mistaken for a vampire? How could someone appear to have been the victim of a vampire attack? Science, in time, came back with answers that may surprise you.Anemia
A million fancies strike you when you hear the name: Nosferatu!N O S F E R A T Udoes not die!What do you expect of the first showing of this great work?Aren't you afraid? - Men must die. But legend has it that a vampire, Nosferatu, 'der Untote' (the Undead), lives on men's blood! You want to see a symphony of horror? You may expect more. Be careful. Nosferatu is not just fun, not something to be taken lightly. Once more: beware.- Publicity for Nosferatu in the German magazine Buhne und Film, 1922  

Drawn to Vamps?

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Vol. 2 No. 4
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