Saturday, 27 August 2016

Ibby 2016: thoughts on writing about war for children

I’ve just been lucky enough to attend the Ibby 2016 Congress. Ibby stands for International Board on Books for Young People. It’s an international organisation (as the name suggests), founded in Switzerland in 1953, and this is the first time that the two-yearly congress has been held in New Zealand. The theme was Literature in a Multi-Literate World.

You can read more about Ibby here. And you can find out more about the Ibby 2016 Congress here, including the programme and speakers.

As well as meeting people from around the world, all deeply passionate about children’s literature, I presented a paper in a session called “The past informs the present” with two other speakers: Kestutis Urba from Lithuania, describing short stories from his country set in World War One, and Hisako Kakuage from Japan, talking about how the Japanese branch of Ibby has supported children in Fukushima after the nuclear plant accident in 2011. 

I’m very grateful to everyone who came along to hear my talk on Children’s war books: helping children make sense of war and peace, and to those who asked questions or came up to talk to me afterwards. It was especially moving to meet a Turkish delegate who has written a children’s book about war (which I’m hoping to review) and to discover that both of our grandfathers had served at Gallipoli – on opposite sides, of course. 

As a result of these questions and discussions, I’ve come away with some interesting points to ponder. They fall into three main categories:

1. There have been many children’s books written about World War One and World War Two, but what about more recent wars – Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq? How do we write about those?

When I check my list of books by date and setting, I can only find three about Vietnam and Afghanistan, and two of those are by Australian writer Mark Wilson. He wrote about Afghanistan by focusing on a lost puppy (and coincidentally, I met someone at the Ibby Congress from New Orleans, who said that after Hurricane Katrina, stories about animals, such as Two Bobbies, helped children to make sense of what had happened). 

We have more historical distance from WW1 and WW2, and more historical and military research to draw on. The Allied nations have a clear narrative that has become generally accepted, in that we see ourselves on the “good”, winning side in a battle of good vs evil (albeit clearer for WW2 than for  WW1).

For WW1, New Zealand also has the “nation building” narrative where we see ourselves as having “come of age” as a nation during that conflict, and especially at Gallipoli. We concentrate on qualities such as mateship, friendship, courage, loyalty, self-sacrifice and family love. The WW1 centenary commemorations and renewed interest in family history has seen many people wanting to know how their family was affected by WW1, which had such a huge impact on the whole country. 

But in the later wars, the narrative is more confused – and was even at the time, for example, when there was much opposition to the Vietnam War.

So I can see the difficulties and challenges in writing about those later wars, but it also makes me think more (again) about how, and why we are telling the story of war. 

2. How do we write about refugees, especially the current refugee situation in Europe (and also Australia)?

I know there are some excellent books coming out on this subject – memoirs, novels  and picture books like  Flight written by Nadia Wheatley (who was at the Ibby Congress) and illustrated by Armin Greder.

In New Zealand we do have refugees but not in such numbers. But are there any books written about them? I have to find out. (And who can write those books? We also talked at Ibby about whether people from outside a culture can write about it, and if so, how best to do that.)

3. How do countries that were on the losing side in wars (for example, Germany or Japan in WW2) present that history in their literature for children?

This is another aspect of writing about war for children that I’ve never considered before.  

A Japanese delegate at Ibby said that there is a big gap in books written for children about their country’s WW2 history and they know very little about it as a result. When I cited the books written about Sadako, she said there are books about Hiroshima and the bomb (in which the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were innocent victims) but very little about other aspects of the war. Now I wonder if that is also the case for Germany. I can see that the overall narrative for those countries is quite different, even though many aspects (eg young people going off to war) were the same, leading to German classics like All quiet on the Western Front.

So far I have lots of questions and few answers, but I’m definitely going to think more about these topics. And your thoughts are welcome!

Monday, 22 August 2016

Toitoi: Anzac special issue

Toitoi: Anzac special issue (February 2016)

92 pages with full page colour illustrations

Subjects: World War One, World War Two, Gallipoli, France, trenches, junior fiction, children’s writing (Year 5-8)


Toitoi is a quarterly journal for young New Zealand writers and artists, aged 5-13, which publishes “material with an original and authentic voice that other young people can connect to and be inspired by and that reflects the cultures and experiences of life in New Zealand.” It encourages creativity and can also be used in the classroom with teaching notes for each issue.
You can read more about it here
And they also have a Facebook page.

This Anzac special issue is filled with highly imaginative work that tells the story of war in many different forms: stories, poems, letters, diary entries and even a song, with accompanying full page illustrations. One piece in French (Poilu by Tristan Hosking, aged 9) manages to be an acrostic poem as well.  

They cover topics such as leaving NZ by ship (from the point of view both of those leaving and those left behind), posting a tin of Anzac biscuits, Gallipoli, France, the trenches, seeing friends die in battle, losing a loved one and remembering the war years later in Anzac Day ceremonies and small family interactions. Many of the writers show great sensitivity and they also use some powerful sensory descriptions.

I liked so many of these pieces that it’s hard to single any out, but here are a few lines that particularly moved or impressed me with their thoughtfulness, empathy and imagination:

“Imagine having great valour then slowly having a disheartened mind.”
                (from Imagine by Kareena Dunlop, aged 11)

“It looks like we are winning which is quite good so I might be home in time for Christmas”
                (from April 1915, a letter, by Alice Kelsall, aged 7)

“In Flanders Fields I see death / In every second and every breath.”
                (from In Flanders Fields, a poem by Kyuss Williamson, aged 12) 

“How still you die / When you are dead / How still you lie…
I know both sides / Both stories / Both losses / I know both sides.”
                (from My people, a poem by Ilana Kizildere, aged 10)

“I am ashamed that I killed people. But then again, I’m proud that I ought for my country. That’s why I just sit here. The Second World War haunts me every day.”
                (from Grandpa’s story by Megan Foster and Madison Blackwood, aged 11)

Similarly with the many wonderful illustrations, it’s hard to select just a few, but I was especially impressed by Alisha Sangster’s illustration for Grandpa’s story, showing the old man leaning on a stick with a soldier’s shadow looming behind him. I also liked Aisha Tanaka-Avers’ departing  ship, Apple Minoza’s white cross on a swirly coloured background, Pieta Bayley’s woman packing up the tin of Anzac biscuits, Anna de Boyett’s dramatic portrait of a horse, Stella Hinton’s soldier silhouette (reproduced on the front cover above) and Shahni Tagatoa’s muted graveside scene.

Have you read it?
Have you read this issue of Toitoi? Let me know what you think!
Have you submitted anything to Toitoi? Check out the dates that the next submissions close and have a go. It's such a great magazine and a wonderful opportunity to see your work in print.  

Friday, 5 August 2016

Bravo! by Philip Waechter and Moni Port

Bravo! by Philip Waechter and Moni Port, translated by Sally-Ann Spencer (Gecko Press, 2011; original title Der Krakeeler)

32 pages with colour illustrations

Subjects:  anger management, anti-war books, peace, animals, fable, picture books (Year 3-6)

I wouldn’t have thought to review this book, if not for finding it on Raymond Huber’s excellent list of Anti-war books for children.

It tells the story of Helena, “a little girl” who “lived in a crooked house, deep in a valley, beside a turquoise stream”. (I love the hint of fairytale in the word “crooked”, and the exactness of “turquoise”.)

Helena’s life is almost perfect, apart from her loud shouting father, and the book follows the decisions she makes, and the outcome of those decisions.  (As Raymond says, “Children have to find peace within themselves before they can change the world".)

Raymond also provides teaching notes – on words, characters, story structure and illustrations - here.

Publishers Weekly calls it a “spare, delicately drawn offering” in which “Helena’s decisive act allows her to find her own voice and to mend her relationship with her father, too.” 

Curled up with a good kid's book says it "delivers a thought provoking message about positive behaviour and making socially acceptable and positive choices". 

Raymond Huber poses some excellent questions in his teaching notes:
  • What does Helena think of her father? 
  • Is she scared of him? 
  • Is it his loudness she hates or something else? (Remember she plays the trumpet).

About the author and illustrator
This book was originally published as Der Krakeeler, which means “rowdy type”, “brawler” or “roisterer”. It’s interesting that the translator and publishers (the wonderful Gecko Press) have chosen a different sort of title for the English version, focusing more on Helena and her actions than on her father.
It’s also interesting that the cover gives both names equal weight, with no clues as to which is the author and which the illustrator. A bit of sleuthing reveals that it is written by Moni Port and illustrated by Philip Waechter (so the names on the cover are in the opposite order to how you would usually find them displayed on a NZ picture book). 
According to Gecko Press, Moni Port was born in 1968 in Germany. She has worked as a bookseller, then studied communication design, focussing on illustration and book design. 
Philip Waechter was born in 1968 in Germany. He now lives as a freelance graphic designer and illustrator in Frankfurt am Main. In 1999, Philip and Moni co-founded the community studio LABOR. You can read more about Philip here.

Other books you might like:
Other anti-war books for children include The story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf and The general by Janet Charters, illustrated by Michael Foreman.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Soldier in the yellow socks by Janice Marriott

Soldier in the yellow socks: Charles Upham, our finest fighting soldier by Janice Marriott, illustrated by Bruce Potter (HarperCollins, 2006)

8 chapters; 48 pages with black and white illustrations

Subjects: World War Two, Greece, Crete, North Africa, prisoners of war, non fiction (Year 5-8)

I didn’t know anything about Charles Upham before reading Janice Marriott’s book. In 1939 when war broke out, Upham was a Canterbury high country farmer. By the end of the war he had fought in Greece, Crete and North Africa, been awarded the Victoria Cross (VC) twice - a very rare achievement, been taken prisoner, escaped (sometimes from moving trains) and taken prisoner again several times, and finally ended up imprisoned in the top-security Colditz Castle.

Charles Upham’s reaction to winning the VC was similar to that of Cyril Bassett in World War One. Both insisted that the award was as much for the men as for themselves and were almost embarrassed to be singled out. (I don’t know if that is a peculiarly New Zealand reaction.)  Cyril Bassett famously said, “All my mates ever got were wooden crosses”.

I thought the yellow socks in the title might have more importance, but they were only mentioned once; however, they did seem to symbolise his non-soldierly qualities (we are told several times how bad he was at marching) as opposed to his amazing bravery, courage and calmness under fire.

The book was shortlisted for the NZ Post Children's Book Awards in 2007.

Was Charles Upham our "finest fighting soldier"? What makes a fine soldier? What do you think?

About the author
On Janice Marriott's website, she has this lovely description of herself and her current work: 
"After years spent writing fiction, plays, memoir, gardening books and newspaper columns, I became a grandmother, a very involved grandmother. Now life is a discontinuous narrative. Time for writing is unpredictable and starts with clearing clutter off the dining room table. Increasingly I spend my non-family time teaching others what I have learnt about writing and the publishing industry. And in my own writing life I have turned to poetry to express my new self. I think of the poems as small wild animals I have captured for a few moments in my hands and then released."

About the illustrator
You can read more about Bruce Potter and his impressive output of work here on his website

Things I didn’t know
After the war, Charles Upham bought a farm in North Canterbury, married and had three children. He lived on the farm until the year he died, in 1994. Crowds of more than 50,000 people lined the streets of Christchurch for his funeral.

His obituary in the Telegraph has a comprehensive overview of his life and the actions which won him his VCs, and includes his statement that "the military honours bestowed on me are the property of the men of my unit". 

There is more info about him on the nzhistory and te ara sites. 

Here is a list of the 22 New Zealand VC winners (Willie Apiata is the only post-WW2 VC winner. I didn't know that Charles Heaphy won one in the New Zealand Wars!)

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Brave Bess and the Anzac horses by Susan Brocker

Brave Bess and the Anzac horses: a true story of courage and loyalty by Susan Brocker (HarperCollins, 2010)

12 chapters; 160 pages with black and white photographs

Subjects: World War One, Middle East, Egypt, Palestine, Mounted Rifles, horses, animals, junior fiction (Year 5-8)

Bess was a real horse, one of the thousands sent overseas in World War One, of which only four (including Bess) returned to New Zealand. Susan has told the story of the horses and the men who rode them and cared for them, using the facts of the campaigns backed up by descriptions of the land and scenery, seen through the eyes of both Bess and her master.  

As well as Bess, we meet two other horses – Jack and Flame, the mascot, a dog called Hawker, and a lot of smelly camels.

Susan’s research is impeccable and she includes a map, timeline, historical notes, bibliography and glossary, as well as short summary notes at the start of each chapter.

Bobs books blog calls it “A well written, well researched novel about a little known battle field of World War One in which NZ soldiers and their horses took a vital part.” 

About the author
Susan is a wonderful writer with a real love for horses, as shown in her other books such as 1914: riding into war, The drover’s quest and Dreams of warriors. You can read more about her and her work on her website.   

Other books you might like:
Other books I have reviewed about horses in WW1 include The horses didn't come home by Pamela Rushby and Light Horse boy by Dianne Wolfer.

Find out more about:

Friday, 17 June 2016

Pandemic: Spanish flu 1918 by Sally Stone

Pandemic: Spanish flu 1918 by Sally Stone (Scholastic, 2012; part of My New Zealand story series)

159 pages, written in the form of diary entries

Subjects: World War One, influenza, armistice, New Zealand, junior fiction (Year 5-8)

This book follows the fictional diary format of the My New Zealand story series. Eleven-year-old Freda Rose starts her diary after a falling-out with her best friend Pearl. She lives with her parents and grandmother on a farm and her older brother Bobby is serving overseas as a stretcher-bearer in World War One.

The story is primarily about the influenza epidemic, but I’ve included it here as the epidemic was so closely linked with the war and the armistice celebrations, and because Freda’s diary also describes the homecoming of her brother Bobby, and how they all (Bobby included) struggle to cope with how changed he is.

There is a short historical note at the back, a description of what to do in a pandemic and some historical photos.

Bob Docherty in his invaluable Bobs book blog says that the author "gives an excellent portrait of life in these times that will astound today’s kids". 

Teacher notes are provided here

About the author
The Scholastic blurb says that Sally Stone lives in Queenstown with her husband and three children. This is her first book with Scholastic; she has previously written school journals for Learning Media.

Other books you might like:
Black November by Geoffrey Rice (Canterbury University Press, 2005) provides the most comprehensive coverage of the influenza epidemic in New Zealand.

My book Armistice Day also includes a section on the influenza epidemic. 

Things I didn’t know
I did know this, but I always forget the difference between an epidemic and a pandemic. 
So here's a definition from Info please: An epidemic occurs when a disease affects a greater number people than is usual for the locality or one that spreads to areas not usually associated with the disease. A pandemic is an epidemic of world-wide proportions.
Excellent info and photos of the 1918 influenza pandemic here on the NZ history site. 
And also on the Christchurch city libraries site and Te ara.

There's an amazing story on Puke ariki about a four year old boy from Inglewood who survived by chance when it was discovered in the morgue that he was still breathing.

Friday, 3 June 2016

Stay where you are and then leave by John Boyne

Stay where you are and then leave by John Boyne (Doubleday, 2013)

14 chapters; 247 pages

Subjects: World War One, England, London, hospitals, shell shock, conscientious objectors, junior fiction (Year 5-8)

Alfie Summerfield is five years old, living on an ordinary London street called Damley Road, when the war starts. His father, Georgie, signs up almost straightaway. Four years later, Alfie is nine, the war is still going on and there is no word from his father. His letters have stopped arriving and all Alfie knows is what his mother Margie tells him: that his father is on a secret mission for the Government, and that’s why he can’t write any more.

The community of Damley Road is a close-knit one, and we find out what happens to a number of its other occupants during these four years. One of the most powerful moments is when two men in military uniform knock at the door to (slight spoiler alert here) deliver the news of a soldier’s death. Margie’s emotions skip from shock to horror to outrage as she realises they have the wrong house, and every other woman along the street stands in fear on her doorstep, waiting to see where they go next.  

Money is tight and Alfie decides to help out by skipping school (except on the days when they have history or reading) and working as a shoeshine boy at King’s Cross Station. This is where he finds out where his father actually is, and where he starts to dream up a plan to get him home again.

The Guardian review points out some of the coincidence in the plot, and there are some events that stretch credulity. I found it hard to believe that Alfie could get around the hospital without being detected, or that he could escape so easily when finally spotted. But it is still a story that pulls you along, and John Boyne does an amazing job of telling it from the point of view of a young child – for example, the way that Alfie views anyone aged 21 or over to be unimaginably old. There are some lovely insights into the nature of loyalty and friendship, especially that shown by Georgie’s oldest friend, Joe Patience, who is ostracised by everyone else in the street for being a conscientious objector. And I loved any scene with Mr Asquith in it!

The Guardian book review (mentioned above) says "There may be a fairytale feel to this wartime tale of a boy's quest to find his father, yet it's a solid, engaging read." 
The Pretty Books blog also comments on the fact that "it is fascinating to see the world through the eyes of a child." 
Finally, the reviewer in The Book zone for Boys loved the book and says it is "much more than just a story about a victim of shell shock" and which "really brought alive the everyday travails of the people left at home".

About the author
You can read about John Boyne on his website, which has a special page for this book (although this older link is also quite amusing). 

About the illustrator
The chapter titles were hand lettered by Oliver Jeffers

Other books you might like
I can’t think of many similar books to this one. The way John Boyne gets into the head of a five-year-old, then a nine-year-old is hard to replicate. If you haven’t read The boy in the striped pyjamas, you should definitely read that.

NZ connections
Only to say that I heard John Boyne speak a year or so ago and was fascinated by his account of how he wrote The boy in the striped pyjamas in about three days, virtually non-stop. You can read about it here in this transcript of a talk with Dublin Public Libraries

Things I didn’t know
I didn’t know much about shoe shine boys, but now I've found out that the Shoeblack Brigade set boys up as shoeblacks in London in 1850. More than a dozen brigades were formed, each with their own uniform, and the boys often lived in hostels. The Shoeblack Brigades had mostly disappeared by the start of World War One. “Shoe shining continued as a London street trade for many years” but had virtually vanished by the 1960s.
Shoe shine boy, London. Photo by Frederick J Wilfred (Museum of London) 
You can see more of Frederick Wilfred's evocative photos of London here

Have you read it?
Have you read this book? Let me know what you think!