Saturday, 28 December 2013

Light Horse Boy by Dianne Wolfer


Light Horse Boy by Dianne Wolfer, illustrated by Brian Simmonds (Fremantle Press, 2013)

ISBN 9 781922 089137

120 pages with charcoal sketches and facsimile letters

Subjects: World War One, Australia, Palestine, Egypt, horses, animals, junior fiction (Year 6-10)


Synopsis:
Jim is a young Australian boy, not yet 18, who works as a farrier (someone who trims and shoes horses’ hooves.) His best mate Charlie reckons that when the army recruiting officers see how well they can ride, they won’t ask for a birth certificate, and so it turns out. Jim and Charlie sail with the fleet from Albany in 1914, and wave goodbye to the lighthouse keeper’s daughter, Fay, who features in Lighthouse girl

The story is told in a mixture of narrative, illustrations, photographs, and Jim’s letters and postcards back to his younger sister Alice, who is working as a governess. On the way over, Jim is chosen to work as a farrier on the flagship Orvieto. That means he has to leave his mates and his own horse, Breaker, but on the Orvieto, he looks after Major General Bridge’s horse Sandy, and gets to know the Major himself.  He meets up with Charlie again in Egypt, where they camp in the desert, walk alongside the River Nile, visit the pyramids, race camels and leave their kangaroo mascot Rufus at the Cairo Zoo. They are sent to Gallipoli (without their horses) where they see the first of their good mates die in the landings on April 25th 1915. Later Charlie dies in the battle of Lone Pine.

Back in Egypt, Jim takes part in the battles of the Desert Campaign. After being wounded in an explosion, he ends up on a hospital ship on his way to England, and is transferred to a hospital for the blind. Eventually, on his way back to Australia, he finds a surprise below decks that helps him start the process of inward healing. There are a couple more surprises in the final pages.

The book is full of good Aussie slang (Charlie says they will make ”crackerjack soldiers”, and Jim says it’s “bonza” being back with  his mates) and the story of the Light Horse soldiers is a fascinating one, that is less familiar than the stories of Gallipoli and the Western Front. Children who like horses will find it especially interesting as there are lots of descriptions of how the horses are cared for.

Reviews:
There are reviews of this book on the Aussie Reviews site and on Buzz Words books. (This latter reviewer points out that the black charcoal sketches suit the story because they capture "the seriousness and sadness of war".)

This interview and review describes some of the research behind the writing of the book. 

Questions:
At the end of the war, “many soldiers chose to shoot their beloved Walers [horses] rather than leave them behind to an unknown fate.” Why did they do that? What would have happened to the horses otherwise?

Author’s website:
Dianne Wolfer sounds like such a nice person!

Dianne with Han the Possum

Her website includes teaching notes about the book.

There is a bio of her on the Fremantle Press site.

The illustrator is Brian Simmonds and you can read about his work here

Other books you might like:
Light Horse Boy is a companion novel to Dianne Wolfer’s earlier book, Lighthouse girl, which is based on the true story of Fay Howe. Fay lived on the Breaksea Island lighthouse, near Albany where the troopships departed from. She was proficient at semaphore and used to take down messages for the troops and send them to their families, as their last farewell before they left Australia. 


Evan’s Gallipoli tells a very different story, but one that overlaps in time and sometimes in location.

NZ connections:
The New Zealand Mounted Rifles fought with the Australian Light Horse in the deserts of the Middle East during World War One. You can read about the different units here.

The New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade left New Zealand with the Main Body of the NZEF in October 1914. The mounted riflemen fought in Gallipoli, Egypt and Palestine. They sometimes fought from horseback, and sometimes (as when they went to Gallipoli) they left their horses behind. But usually they would ride to the scene of action and then dismount before going into battle. One man in each group of four would then look after those four horses, as happens in Light Horse Boy.

They were fine horses, and not many of them ever came back to Australia or New Zealand. Dianne Wolfer says in her introduction that of the 136,000 horses that left Australia, only one returned. That was Sandy, the horse belonging to Major General Sir William Bridges. The Major General was killed at Gallipoli and was the only Australian to be returned to his homeland for burial. 

Sandy's head
'Sandy's Head' -  this display case shows its original installation at the Australian War Museum. ID JO2105.

Four of the 10,000 New Zealand horses returned home, and the most famous of them is Bess. You can read about her on pg 32 of Anzac Day:the New Zealand story. There is a memorial to her near Bulls. 

 'Memorial to Bess the horse', URL: http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/media/photo/memorial-bess-horse, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 19-Sep-2013

Bess was also the model for the horse on top of the Cenotaph in Wellington.

Other links:

A mounted rifleman in uniform sits among a group of farriers, photographed by Laurie Mackie in the World War I military camp at Zeitoun in Egypt, 1914. The farriers are holding equipment for horse shoeing, including hammers and bars.

The farriers, Zeitoun camp, Egypt
The farriers, Zeitoun camp, Egypt. Ref: PA1-o-308-10-3. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22534019

Members of the Mounted Rifles Regiment in Nelson during World War One
Members of the Mounted Rifles Regiment in Nelson during World War One. Ref: 1/2-026531-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23081874






Monday, 2 December 2013

The Great War by Joe Sacco

This post is a bit of a cheat. I haven't seen this book yet; I've only been told about it and read about it online. But it sounds so fascinating I wanted to mention it straightaway.

Someone said to me recently that they hoped I would be covering books written some time ago as well as books that are being published now, and that is certainly my intention - but it's hard to keep up! I just checked out a list from Publishers Weekly about children's war books coming out in 2013 and the list is enormous.

The Great War is a graphic novel (whether or not not you like that term) showing the first day of the battle of the Somme in fold out pages: "an epic 24ft portrayal of the events of 1 July 1916." It's one long drawing with no speech bubbles or words, taking us through the events of that first day.  


You can see some of the pictures here


Joe Sacco take 2: war pic 1
Most of the men sent to the Somme are New Army volunteers. At the height of every recruitment, 30,000 men enlisted each day

It's a stunning idea, described in this Guardian interview with Joe Sacco as "the Bayeux Tapestry as a silent movie". The descriptions in this interview of how he did it are fascinating (he broke the photocopier at London's Imperial War Museum by copying so many research photographs and images.)  

Joe Sacco is described as "a Maltese-American comic book artist and journalist" although in this interview he tells how he grew up in Australia, the impact that Anzac Day services had on him as a child and his childhood interest in World War One with its new technology. He also has some great stuff to say about the advantages of his style of illustration in telling stories - for example: "With the written word, you can describe the architecture, but you’re not going to keep mentioning it as a figure is walking down the street, you’re not going to keep mentioning what the background is. With comics you can do that."

And also this: "The other thing I think a comic does well is that it can take the reader into the past, very seamlessly. Because your drawing style is the same now as if you’re drawing something a hundred years ago, and so the reader has an easier transition, which can be difficult to do with a documentary film; sometimes documentary film relies on acting to bring the past to life, and that always seems strange — it rubs up against the nature of documentary film.

You can read another review from the Washington Post here. I'm really looking forward to seeing a copy of this book and I'll try and track down some of Joe Sacco's earlier work as well. 

Cartoonist Joe Sacco:
Joe Sacco (Credit: Don Usner)

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Code name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Code name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (Electric Monkey, 2012)

Cover title: Code name Verity – I have told the truth

ISBN 978 1 4052 5821 0

452 pages

Subjects: World War Two, France, Resistance, pilots, women in war, young adult fiction (Years 10-13)


Synopsis:
Part 1 (just over half the book) is titled Verity and takes the form of entries – like diary entries, but not quite - written at a place called Ormaie in France over three weeks of November 1943. Gradually we piece together the story, which is being told by a captured female English Flight Officer who has (apparently) made a deal with a German officer to put down in writing “anything you ask, everything I can remember” – wireless codes, facts about English aircraft and air fields etc. She seems to be spilling all these secrets quite blithely; the other prisoners certainly think so, and despite her for it.

She interleaves this sequence with the story of the growing wartime friendship between two girls, Maddie and Queenie, as Maddie becomes a pilot with the Air Transport Auxiliary and Queenie becomes a radio operator (and possibly something else, more secret), and with day to day accounts of what is happening to her in her captivity and her relationship with her captors, especially the German officer von Linden. She lives in a state of almost constant terror and dread, under threat of being sent to one of the worst Nazi concentration camps, but maintains a black sense of humour throughout. Her last entries describe her flight into Nazi-occupied France, soon after which she was arrested, and a horrible public execution of another female prisoner. Almost right at the end, she reveals her real name. Many aspects of her story, however, turn out to be not quite what they seem.

Part 2, titled Kittyhawk (Maddie’s code name), takes up the story from Maddie’s point of view after she has to make a  crash landing, and while she is being looked after by the local Resistance while waiting for rescue. The two stories start to merge as they realise “Verity” is being held by the Gestapo in Ormaie.

It’s a book about friendship, bravery and courage – not only the courage to face fear and stay calm and level-headed in terrible circumstances, but also the courage needed to make the most difficult of decisions, based on that friendship.

Reviews:
Be careful what reviews you read, because it’s a hard book to review without giving away crucial plot details. (As the NY Times reviewer below explains: "I have to review a book in which even the hint of plot summary could ruin everything."

"The pilot and the spy" in the New York Times Sunday Book Review: "This is a rare young adult novel entirely about female power and female friendship, with only the faintest whiff of cute-boy romance... A smart book about the power of female friendship is like finding Neverland." 


And one more review here of "this heart-wrenching story of spies and friendship."

Questions:
What does “verity” mean?

What is true and not true in this book?

Why did Maddie do what she did when Julie called “Kiss me, Hardy”?

Author’s website:
This is Elizabeth Wein's website. She published a companion novel to Code name Verity in 2013, called Rose under fire, about a female pilot who is shot down over Germany in World War Two and ends up in a Nazi concentration camp. She has also written books set in Arthurian Britain and sixth century Ethiopia.
There is an interview with her here.

And it’s also interesting to note that she is a pilot herself.

knock 1

Other books you might like:
Elizabeth Wein has listed two books that she was influenced by in writing Code name Verity. Neither of these is listed in our local library so I don’t think I’ll be able to get hold of them, but one is Le Silence de la Mer (The silence of the sea) by “Vercors” (real name Jean Bruller), a book secretly published under a pseudonym in 1942, about a French family who have to share their home with  a German officer and use silence as their only possible weapon against him.  (Verity mentions this book in one of her entries.)

Another is La jeune fille au pair (The young au pair) by Joseph Joffo, about the daughter of a Nazi official (now in prison) who works after the war as an au pair for a family of Jewish Auschwitz survivors. Both books apparently try to show German officials, not just as evil characters with no human side to them at all, but as real and complicated people striving to deal with their own perceptions of good and bad, right and wrong, honour and duty.

The character of Maddie connects Code name Verity with Rose under fire, Elizabeth Wein's book about a young American woman who comes to England in 1944 to work for the British Air Transport Auxiliary, and is captured and taken to Ravensbruck concentration camp. Rose under fire is a powerful book but it is a darker, bleaker read than this one. 

NZ connections:
I didn't know anything about the British Air Transport Auxiliary before reading this book, but during the war it was vital in delivering planes from factories to military airfields, bringing them back for repairs, and carrying out other transportation and communications duties around Britain.

It was open at first to private pilots, or to commercial pilots who were out of a job because so many routes were closed in wartime. After some opposition, its ranks were opened to women as well, but they weren’t allowed to fly into Europe until the very end of the war.

Here is a story about one of them, Maureen Dunlop.

And here is a fabulous BBC clip about the "glamour girls of the war."

There were a handful of New Zealanders in the ATA and one of them was Jane Winstone.
“After taking off on 10 February 1944 the engine of her Spitfire failed at 600 feet. The aircraft spun into the ground near Tong Castle and she was killed; she was 31 years old. Members of the ATA acted as pallbearers at her funeral, at the Church of St Joseph, Maidenhead; she was buried in a section of the local cemetery set aside for ATA casualties... Jane Winstone was one of 16 women from the ATA killed during the war.”


Thursday, 24 October 2013

Biggles learns to fly by Captain W.E. Johns

Biggles learns to fly by Captain W.E. Johns (First published by Boy’s Friend Library in 1935 – original price 4d; this edition Red Fox, 2003)

ISBN 0 09 993820 0

16 chapters; 204 pages (but in a small format paperback)

Subjects: World War One, France, airmen, junior fiction (Year 5-8)


(Cover of the first 1935 edition)

The Biggles books
What did I know about Biggles or W.E. Johns before I read this book? Nothing! I had a vague impression that Biggles was spoken of in the same tone that people reserved for Enid Blyton or the Famous Five: fast food for the childhood mind, not to be encouraged.

But now I can see why young readers – especially boy readers – must have devoured these in the decades they were written, between 1932 and 1968. They are full of action, thrills and excitement, as well as detailed and knowledgeable descriptions of flying. It was not until the 1960s onwards that they fell out of favour, as attitudes changed and they were viewed as being racist, sexist and coloured by outdated colonial values.  

Things I didn’t know about Biggles:
  • That Biggles is a nickname, short for James Bigglesworth.
  • That “Camels” are a type of aircraft.(Which suggests that The Camels are coming might be about planes, not animals.)
  • That Biggles first appeared in the magazine Popular Flying, which Johns had been asked to edit (April 1932), in a story credited to William Earle. A few months later, the publisher put together a collection of Biggles stories as The Camels are coming and this was the first Biggles title.

Things I didn’t know about W.E. Johns:
  • That W.E. is short for William Earl.
  • That he signed up with the Norfolk Yeomanry and fought at Gallipoli alongside the Anzacs.
  • That he was shot down in September 1918, his observer and rear gunner was killed and he was captured and sentenced to death by firing squad, but sent to prison instead. He arrived back home on Christmas Day 1918, when his family still thought he was missing, presumed dead.
  • That his rank was actually Flying Officer Johns, not Captain Johns.
  • That he was also an artist, specialising in aviation art.

Things I didn’t know about airmen in the First World War:
  • That there was no air service in the early years of the First World War. According to the Author’s  note at the beginning, “Fighting planes were flown by officers seconded from the Army (the R.F.C.) and the Navy (Royal Naval Air Service).” These merged in April 1918 to become the Royal Air Force.
  • That at one stage, life expectancy for WW1 pilots was 11 days.
In fact, it is fascinating to read a book from the point of view of the airmen, when most books concentrate on life in the trenches. Here, the men on the ground are only viewed from above, or occasionally met in person when Biggles has to do a crash landing and get back across the Lines.

According to this newspaper article, there was a real James Bigglesworth. ("A combat report by 2nd Lt James Bigglesworth was recently discovered in a collection of W E Johns’ manuscripts and typescripts that had been in the Museum’s possession since the early 1980s but are only just being catalogued. The folded combat report had been tucked into the manuscript of “Biggles back of beyond” (published in 1953 as “Biggles in the Gobi”) perhaps to mark a page to which Johns wished to return.") However, the newspaper had been taken in - on the following day the RAF Museum admitted it had been as April Fools joke, albeit with a serious purpose.  

Synopsis:
The Author’s note explains that this book was written “as the answer to those who have asked when and where Biggles learnt to fly.” That means it’s one of the first Biggles books in terms of chronology, but not the first one to be written (which, as noted above, was The Camels are coming in September 1932.)

Biggles is sent to France in 1916, aged 17, with less than 15 hours flying experience, and no experience at all in combat flying. This was something the pilots picked up as they went along, and reading the descriptions of battles in the air, it’s surprising that any of them managed to survive. His observer for most of the book is Mark Way, “a deeply tanned, keen-eyed young officer” who “came over with the New Zealand contingent; my home is out there.” (“Sporting of you to come all this way to help us,” Biggles says.)

This page, written by a Biggles enthusiast and collector, points out that the book was originally a set of short stories, which explains why some of the breaks between chapters seem a bit abrupt. 

Reviews:
This is an interesting overview of changing attitudes to the Biggles books.

And another piece from the Guardian describes this author’s boyhood obsession with his hero, Captain James Bigglesworth. “You knew where you stood with Biggles. There was good and there was evil and nothing in between... I longed to fly with Biggles.”

biggles

Questions:
How are these books different from war books written for young people today?

One difference I noticed is the reliance on speech tags and adverbs which make the author’s style so easy to parody. For example,
“Pretty good!” he muttered admiringly.
“I think I am,” replied Biggles frankly.
“Maybe they won’t be quite as chirpy in future!” observed Biggles modestly.

The slang sounds old-fashioned to our ears – beastly, jolly sporting – and it’s also easy from this distance to criticise sentences like these:
Biggles was warmly congratulated on his rescue work, which everyone present regarded as an exceptionally good show.

Descriptions of battles often show little compassion for the enemy, who are characterised as Huns, sometimes even as “that skunk,”, “the unspeakable hog!” or “you cunning hound.”

About the author:
“Captain W.E. Johns was born in Hertfordshire in 1893. He flew with the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War and made a daring escape from a German prison camp in 1918. Between the wars he edited Flying and Popular flying and became a writer for the Ministry of Defence....W.E. Johns went on to write a staggering 102 Biggles titles before his death in 1968.”

Of course there is a Biggles fan-based website, in fact two - one for the author
Description: Description: Description: Description: Description: Description: Description: Description: Description: Description: Description: Description: Description: Description: Description: C:\Web Sites\01 W E Johns\Signed Photo.jpg

Other books you might like:
Code Name Verity and Rose under fire are set in WW2 but also include descriptions of learning to fly, and of flying over enemy territory.

The Flambards trilogy by K.M. Peyton is set in England before and during the First World War. One  of the sons, William, wants to become an aviator.

NZ connections:
Captain K L Caldwell, DFC, MC, Croix de Guerre of Auckland became New Zealand's highest-scoring pilot with 25 victories. These are some articles and letters by and about him.

The website of the NZ Embassy in France also has a page on New Zealanders in the air war, 1914-18.

"Captain Clive Franklyn Collett  MC and Bar, became New Zealand's first fighter "ace" with 11 victories. Born in Blenheim, he studied engineering and while in Britain, joined the RFC. In July 1917 he was posted to 70 Squadron on Sopwith Camels where he acquired a fearless reputation.  His operational flying over, he was testing a captured German Albatros fighter over the Firth of Forth on 23 December 1917 when he flew into the sea losing his life."

Captain Clive Collett MC with his Sopwith Pup.
Captain Clive Collett MC with his Sopwith Pup

Auckland airman W M Angus (front cockpit) in an Henri Farman,  serving with No 3 Wing Royal Naval Air Service over Gallipoli.
Auckland airman W M Angus (front cockpit) in an Henri Farman,  serving with No 3
Wing Royal Naval Air Service over Gallipoli.






Friday, 4 October 2013

Evan’s Gallipoli by Kerry Greenwood

Evan’s Gallipoli : a gripping story of unlikely friendship and an incredible journey behind enemy lines by Kerry Greenwood (Allen & Unwin, 2013)

ISBN  978-1-74331-135-6

Written in diary format; most of the entries are fairly short – not many are more than a page long, and often they are only a short paragraph.

Subjects: World War One, Gallipoli, Turkey, Thrace, Greece, deserters, pacifism, senior fiction (Year 7-10)


Synopsis
The first diary entry is for May 1st 1915. It doesn’t mention the landings at Gallipoli, but Evan’s father is reading the newspaper when he looks up and says, “I must go to the Dardanelles at once.”

Evan (aged 14) and his father take supplies from their family business (Warrender’s Superfine Spices) and travel by ship with the army medical corps from Australia to Egypt, Lemnos and then to Turkey. His father is a preacher and a pacifist, who believes that God has told him “to take comforts to the soldiers dying on the hot cliffs at Cape Hellas and the beaches of Anzac Cove.”

They arrive in June, and endure the shelling and the noise, the dreadful living conditions and the extremes of weather, just as the soldiers have to. Simpson and his donkey make an appearance, and Evan makes friends with a couple of Aussie blokes called Bluey and Curly. Evan’s father - who is clearly a man of God, but often difficult to live with - then decides to take his message of peace to the Turks as well.

The two of them are captured by the Turks and the German officers, then sent further inland. By this time Evan’s father is sick with fever, possibly malaria, and he gradually loses touch with reality. It is up to Evan to find a way to steer them and their new friend Abdul back through a strange country to the safety they hope to find in Greece.

This is a story that gives a quite different account of the Gallipoli campaign from anything you will have read before. I would have liked a map to explain exactly where Thrace was placed amongst Turkey, Bulgaria and Greece, so here is one from Wikipedia (which Kerry Greenwood refers to as a useful source in her afterword!)


And I like the dedication: For all orderlies, friends, nurses, carriers, widows, orphans, minders and peacemakers who ameliorate the cruelty of war.

Reviews:
Here are some reviews written by by teachers.

Questions:
What did you find out about Gallipoli that you didn’t know before?

What did you find out about Turkey, the Turkish people and Turkey during the war that you didn’t know before?

What were some of the surprises in this story? Did you guess any of them?

Why do you think Abdul felt the way he did about the Jews and the gypsies?

Author’s website:

Kerry Greenwood’s website (and Kerry Greenwood herself) might not be quite what you expect.

She is best known for the Phryne Fisher series, whose beautiful, rich and elegant heroine solves crimes and mysteries in 1920s Australia, but she has written some other books for children and young adults.

And I can’t resist quoting these fascinating facts from her website:

"Kerry Greenwood has worked as a folk singer, factory hand, director, producer, translator, costume-maker, cook and is currently a solicitor. When she is not writing, she works as a locum solicitor for the Victorian Legal Aid. She is also the unpaid curator of seven thousand books, three cats (Attila, Belladonna and Ashe) and a computer called Apple (which squeaks). 

She embroiders very well but cannot knit. She has flown planes and leapt out of them (with a parachute) in an attempt to cure her fear of heights (she is now terrified of jumping out of planes but can climb ladders without fear). She can detect second-hand bookshops from blocks away and is often found within them. 

For fun Kerry reads science fiction/fantasy and detective stories. She is not married, has no children and lives with a registered wizard. When she is not doing any of the above she stares blankly out of the window."

There is some more info about her on Allen & Unwin's website.

Other books you might like:
It’s hard to think of any other books to compare this to, as it tells the story from such a different angle. I found a reference to Candles at Dawn by Serpil Ural which also tells the story of Gallipoli from the Turkish perspective, but I haven't come across that book.

Gallipoli: the front line experience by Tolga Ornek, Feza Toker (Currency Press, 2006) is a non-fiction companion title to a Turkish-made documentary, based on diaries, letters and photographs of Australian, New Zealand and Turkish soldiers involved in the Gallipoli campaign.


Turkish soldiers in a trench, Gallipoli, 1915.
Turkish soldiers in a trench, Gallipoli, 1915. [AWM A05299]
There is a secret which is only revealed at the very end and I can’t say more fear of spoiling the plot, except to say that it is part of a fine tradition (stretching back to Shakespearian times) of other stories that use a similar technique.


Monday, 16 September 2013

Hero on a bicycle by Shirley Hughes

Hero on a bicycle by Shirley Hughes (Walker Books, 2012)

ISBN 978 1 4063 3610 8

30 chapters; 222 pages with small black and white illustrations as chapter headings

Subjects: World War Two, Italy, Partisans, Resistance, Nazis, junior fiction (Year 5-8)


Synopsis:
The hero of the title is 13-year-old Paolo Crivelli, who is living with his older sister Constanza and English mother Rosemary on the outskirts of Florence. It is 1944 and Florence is occupied by Nazi German forces, but the Allies are moving up through the south of Italy and fast approaching the city. Paolo’s father has joined the Partisans – the Italian Resistance – and they don’t know where he is, or even if he is still alive.  

Paolo is desperate to help the Resistance movement, but keeps being told he is too young. Then the fighting gets closer and they are placed in even more danger when the Partisans ask them to shelter two escaped Allied prisoners, English David and Canadian Joe. 

In the foreword, Shirley Hughes talks about how she was captivated by Florence on her first visit, aged 19. This was not long after the end of World War Two, when the ex-Partisans would still gather in the Piazza on Sunday mornings, and she could imagine what it was like there during the war. 

The story is told mostly from Paolo’s point of view, but also from that of Constanza and Rosemary, and I wonder if children are less likely to be interested in the thoughts and worries of Rosemary, the children’s mother. However it is a fascinating story about a part of the war that is very little known, and it raises interesting ideas about the nature of collaboration vs resistance, and choices that have to be made in war; also about how war is not black and white – there can be good people on both sides, forced to do things they don’t want to do.

The book has its own website here. It includes a map and a timeline, and some of Shirley Hughes' lovely sketches. 


Reviews:
The review in the Guardian of "a wartime adventure by someone with a  strong feeling for the time" mentions the importance to Paolo of his relationship with his bicycle, and suggests there is an essay to be written about "the significance of the bicycle in Italian culture"!

There is another review here on An awfully big blog adventure, and one here in the New York Times Sunday Book Review

Questions:
Was Paolo’s mother right to put her family in danger by sheltering the Allied prisoners? Did she have any choice? Why did she agree to do so?

How or why was Paolo a hero? Who else is a hero in this book?

Author’s website:
Shirley Hughes (born 1927) is of course more famous as a writer and illustrator of picture books, such as Dogger and the Alfie series. She has also written her autobiography, called A life drawing: recollections of an illustrator. Hero on a bicycle is her first novel. 

Shirley Hughes
Shirley Hughes at home in Holland Park. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe for the Guardian
You can read an interview with her here, including a description of her childhood, how she started out as an artist and 10 things you didn't know about her. 

The Independent has another interview, in which she sums up her "life in six words" (Unfailingly interesting, inspired by family life.)

Here’s an interesting comment from this interview in the Guardian:
'Shirley …believe[s] that a childhood packed with activities is the enemy of invention. "I grew up in the war and there was absolutely nothing to do, except the radio or the cinema when you were older," says Shirley, of her childhood in Wirral. "There was so much time just to moon around. I think boredom's immensely important for creativity – I'm sure that's why I became an illustrator."'

Other books you might like:
School Journal Part 4 no 2 (1983): The courier by Joan Walmsley tells a gripping story of how the author had to deliver a message to the Partisans, disguised as an Italian peasant girl, and how she got past the sentry because she had a small boy, Gino, with her.

Joan Walmsley, WW Two soldier (in the same Journal) is an interview about her life as a VA (Voluntary Aid) with the Red Cross in Cairo, then as a special force military intelligence agent in France and Italy.

NZ connections:
New Zealand troops served in Italy from October 1943 to the end of World War Two, under Lieutenant-General Bernard 'Tiny' Freyberg. You can read more about the Italian campaign here

A group of 28 (Maori) Battalion soldiers drive along a street in Sora, June 1944.Alexander Turnbull LibraryWar History Collection, Reference: DA-06147

New Zealand soldiers camped close to one of the main streets, Trieste, May 1945. Alexander Turnbull Library War History Collection
Reference: DA-9389



Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Lord of the nutcracker men by Iain Lawrence

Lord of the nutcracker men by Iain Lawrence (Collins, 2002)

Cover sub title: When war’s not a game any more

ISBN 0 00 713557 2

21 chapters; 269 pages 

Subjects: World War One, France, England, family, deserters, toys, evacuees, letters, Christmas, armistice, truce, Angel of Mons, junior fiction (Year 5-8)


Synopsis:
Johnny’s father is a toymaker, “the finest in London.” He makes “miniature castles and marionettes, trams and trains and carriages”; even a hobby horse for Princess Mary to ride through Buckingham Palace. For Johnny’s 9th birthday, his father gives him an army of nutcracker men, “the most wonderful thing that Dad ever made.” He never made another set like them. “’They’re one of a kind,’ he said. ’Those are very special ones, those.’”

A year later, in 1914, war breaks out. For Johnny, it starts with the local German shopkeepers and workers – butcher, shoemaker, barber, doorman, waiter – being forced to leave the neighbourhood with their families. Men rush to sign up, but Johnny’s father, at 5’7”, is an inch too short (“even though he seemed like a giant to me.”) But very soon the height requirement is lowered to 5’5”, and he sets off for war, telling Johnny that he will be back home in time for Christmas, just ten weeks away. “It seemed forever,” Johnny thinks.

Johnny’s father doesn’t reappear in person for the rest of the book, but he speaks to Johnny through his letters. They start arriving almost at once, the first one sent from the training camp, dated 25 October 1914.

Because of the danger to London, Johnny’s mother sends him to stay with his father’s sister, Aunty Ivy – “Prickly Ivy” – who lives in a small village called Cliffe, on the edge of the Thames marshes. (“Just until Christmas, of course.  Just until the war is over.”) 

Johnny travels there on his own on the train, taking with him his nutcracker men and toy soldiers. At first he hates Aunty Ivy’s house, the school and the other local children, but gradually he settles into the life of the village. He makes friends with Sarah, whose father is a lieutenant in the army, and has extra classes with Mr Tuttle, the school master, who teaches him about Homer and draws parallels between the Homeric wars and the battle raging across the Channel. There is added mystery in the appearance of a sergeant, dressed in tattered clothes, who only ever appears to Johnny and who seems to know his father from when they were boys together.

The letters keep arriving, from both of his parents. Johnny’s mother goes to work at the arsenal in Woolwich, stuffing artillery shells. His father whittles soldiers from wood and sends them with his letters, so that soon Johnny builds up his own wooden army of German nutcracker men, French Pierres and British Tommies, even an aeroplane and an ambulance. 



The last letter in the book, dated 26 December 1914, describes the Christmas truce between the German and British soldiers all along the front lines. (I did find it unlikely that one of their old neighbours would have end up in the opposing trench, but the description of the truce overall is very moving.) 

There are so many remarkable things about this book (which is another one I’d never read before starting this blog.) Firstly, the precise and melodic use of language, especially in descriptions of the weather and the things that Johnny notices around the village. When the church bells ring to celebrate a victory, they “went on and on, their sounds flowing on top of each other, cascading down like musical rivers.”  When Johnny looks up to the sky, “the clouds were grey blotches tumbling past to the east, as scattered as cows in a field.” At night he can hear the French guns, “faint but furious, a steady drumming of low-pitched pops and puffs.” And on a frosty winter’s morning, “everything sparkled and glittered, and the air was as crisply cool as peppermints.”

Secondly, the completely child-centred and non-condescending view of “play” in the battles that Johnny (and sometimes Sarah) play with his toy soldiers, and the way in which the perspective changes, as they become engrossed, so they are outside and inside the game at the same time. 

Thirdly, the relationships between Johnny and his parents, and between Johnny, Aunty Ivy and Mr Tuttle. One reviewer felt that some of the letters written by Johnny's father were too graphic for what a man would send to his ten-year-old son. But many of them are deep expressions of love, like this one: “Just a very quick note to let you know that I’m thinking about you always.  If anything should happen to me, and for some reason I don’t get to see you for a long, long time, then I want you to remember that I think the whole world of you, son.”

Reviews:
There is a review here on the QBD bookshop site. 

Here's another review on the quaintly named blog: wear the old coat (and buy the new book)
I like this blogger (Jo's) comments about the book:
This was one of those rare, wonderful books that you read without knowing anything about.
The idea of the book fascinated me: a toy maker is drafted to the trenches and sends carved soldiers that he sees to his ten year old son, Johnny, back in England. As Johnny collects the toy soldiers and creates an army to fight back the strong nutcracker soldiers that his dad made him before he went, he notices that the battles he makes up in the mud under the beech tree are becoming more like the ones that his dad writes about.
Doesn’t that sound like a brilliant and unique way of telling a story about a boy whose dad is fighting in WW1?
Yes.
And it really was.

I loved how Mr Lawrence introduced an extremely subtle yet intriguing element of magic within this story. As he states in his author’s note at the end: “There was something about the Great War that inspired the belief in the supernatural”. Whether this was the sightings of apparitions of English archers protecting the soldiers from the Germans on the same ground as they did against the French centuries earlier, ghostly soldiers or the famous case of the Angel of Mons. I thought the mystery behind what was really happening with those wooden soldiers and their influence was in equal measures unnerving and poignant.

Author’s website:
You can read about Iain Lawrence, his life and the other books he has written here and here


Born in northern Canada to British emigrant parents, he left school early to work in a logging camp, and later became a journalist without ever losing the desire to write. His early work was rejected but then he found his niche in children’s and YA fiction.
In the Author’s note, he tells how his mother’s three uncles went off to the First World War and were all taken prisoner. His grandfather lied about his age to sign up at 17, was hit by shrapnel and lost an arm later in the war. 

Other books you might like:
Archie’s war: my scrapbook of the First World War 1914-1918 by Marcia Williams also tells the story of a ten-year-old London boy. Like Johnny, Archie gets evacuated to the country, but his book – told in scrapbook form – covers the whole war, whereas Johnny’s runs mostly from August 1914 (the outbreak of war) to December 1914 (the first Christmas.)

War game by Michael Foreman describes a game of football played during the famous Christmas truce between the German and Allied soldiers.  

Things I didn’t know:
  • I had never heard of Cliffe, but it is a real village in Kent with its own Facebook page.
  • I didn’t know that mail from the front was delivered so quickly. It took only two or three days for a letter to travel in either direction.  “The battle field, for many British soldiers, was so close to home that it was heartbreaking.
  • I didn’t know about Regent’s Park. “Labourers arrived with lorries full of pipe and wire, and they laid a line of lampposts through the middle of the park… the soldiers said the lamps were going to fool the Kaiser when he sent his zeppelins over London. ‘From up there it will look like the busiest street in the city,’ they said. ‘The zepps will aim for that, and all they’ll hit is grass.’
  • I didn’t know about the dangers to women working in the Woolwich Arsenal
Woolwich lies east of Greenwich, and at the start of World War One, thousands of workers were employed at the Royal Arsenal, most of them men. However, men were needed on the front line, and it became one of the few places where it was acceptable for women to carry out war work. Conditions were poor and could be dangerous. The women who filled and handled explosives were known as “canaries” because it turned their hair and skin bright yellow. This was called “yellow jaundice” and many women died from it, from 1916 on.
You can read more about it here and here

Making the Modern World
Packing cartridge cases at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich.© Imperial War Museum Q27880

  • I had heard about the Angel of Mons, but didn’t know the details. 

Australian red ensign
Australian red ensign presented to Imperial Reservists by W M 'Billy' Hughes in 1914 and carried by Corporal Edward Dawson Watson of the East Lancashire Regiment during the retreat from Mons.

 



I've ended up writing a lot about this book, but it was different from any other children's war book I've read before, and I really enjoyed reading it.