Category Archives: War

Bookwitch bites #127

You know books? There is money in them. Sometimes, at least, and not only for author and publisher, although I’d wager Michael Morpurgo has made a reasonable sum from War Horse the book. Possibly more from the play and the film.

Michael Morpurgo at the Lowry

War Horse the play has just finished its second run at the Lowry, hopefully pleasing the 200,000 people who came to see it. But what’s more, it hasn’t merely earned money for Michael or the theatre. It has been estimated that Greater Manchester is better off by £15 million. And it’s pretty good that books can have such an effect.

For the last performance in Salford they had a Devon farmer as a Devon farmer extra.

Not a farmer, nor a twinkly old elf, is how Neil Gaiman doesn’t describe his friend Terry Pratchett in the Guardian this week. Terry is driven by rage, Neil claims, and I can sort of see where he’s coming from with that. I reckon Terry got pretty annoyed to hear me say that my local library service banned him from the under 16s. (Correction, it was their representative who did. Not the whole service. But still.) And any person with any decency would be furious about what’s wrong in this world. And luckily we have the non-twinkly Terry to write wonderful books about it.

Someone who scares me much more is Kevin Brooks. I know. He seems non-scary, but his books deal with people in circumstances I find hard to cope with. Kevin has just written a book for Barrington Stoke, to be published in January 2015, and it might be short, and it might be an easy read. But it’s also not an easy read, in that it deals with the hard reality for young, male, teenagers. A typical Brooks, in other words.

Barrington Stoke make books accessible to readers who would otherwise not read. Daniel Hahn was on the radio this week, talking for 13 and a half (his own description) minutes on the importance of translated books. They make books accessible to people who would otherwise not be able to read French or Finnish, or any other ‘outlandish’ language.

Daniel has also worked hard on the new Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature, to be published in March 2015. I’m looking forward to that, and hopefully this new companion will pave the way for a few more readers, too.

Whereas authors playing football will achieve exactly what? OK, let’s not be negative or anti-sports here. I did actually want to go and see the football match between English crime writers and their Scottish counterparts. It was part of Bloody Scotland last weekend, but unfortunately the match clashed with an event, and being lazy, I chose to sit down in-doors instead of standing on the side of a rectangle of grass watching grown men kick a ball around.

The winning Bloody Scotland football team - 2014

I understand the Scottish team won. Ian Rankin is looking triumphant, and I can see Craig Robertson, Christopher Brookmyre and Michael J Malone, plus some more people I don’t recognise in shorts.

Stories of WWI

This is a beautiful collection of short stories featuring WWI. Edited by Tony Bradman, some of our bestest children’s authors have come up with their own interpretation of the war. It’s interesting how writers can find such diverse starting points for a story on one and the same topic. Many of them have based their story on memories of grandparents or other relatives who fought in the war, or who were among those left behind, or who had to live with the fall-out of what happened to family members.

I can’t pick a favourite. They are all special in one way or another.

As I always say about anthologies; they are the perfect way of enjoying many writers in small doses, and this collection proves again that the short story is a wonderful, handy size of fiction.

Some of the contributors have written stories about soldiers from other countries, thus highlighting the world aspect of the war. Germans are/were human beings like all the rest. They didn’t eat babies. Young men from Australia and New Zealand came to Europe to fight. And so did Indians who sometimes had no idea of what was going on, and the Irish who had issues at home, while fighting for a country that was also the enemy.

If you like war stories, this is for you.

Launching Ghost Soldier

Ghost Soldier launch

The plates of cake just kept coming. So did the sandwiches. That’s how you launch a book! Obviously the book matters, but people’s tummies do too. Especially if people are me.

Mr B at Ghost Soldier launch

Theresa Breslin launched Ghost Soldier in Glasgow yesterday afternoon, at The Penthouse, and they do very nice cake. And sandwiches. Lots and lots. Scones, with cream and jam.

While I’m on the cake front, there was a book cover covered cake, too. And Mr B had been put to good use selling books, while wearing his speciality book cover t-shirt, and his usual big smile.

Ghost Soldier

Ghost Soldier launch

I came across Kathryn Ross in the foyer, accompanied by Theresa’s illustrator Kate Leiper (who not only does beautiful kelpies, but has worked on Ghost Soldier too). Upstairs I found Cathy MacPhail, and had my first encounter with Kirkland Ciccone (he has never been to Spain, in case anyone wants to know), who is – probably – my nearest children’s author. Geographically speaking.

Kirkland Ciccone

Ghost Soldier launch

We chatted (about things like how Kirkland is young enough to have been a Theresa Breslin child fan), gobbled cake and admired Theresa’s fishy shoes. (That’s one of them, right there, being swung in mid-air for people to see, which explains the blur.) Then Theresa leaned on the Resident IT Consultant for balance. (Yes, dear readers, I brought him along. He needs to get out and meet interesting people. Besides, he’d never have believed me about the shoes.)

Theresa Breslin

After a suitable delay there were two beautifully brief speeches and Theresa read the first chapter from Ghost Soldier. She also told us the background to why she wrote the book, and how some of the unlikely things that happen in it had actually ‘sort of’ happened in real life, making them not so unlikely after all.

Theresa Breslin

She assisted the young girl, who had named the dog in the book, in cutting the book cover cake, which then was devoured by the other children present. There were loads of children, which was nice.

Ghost Soldier cake

Ghost Soldier launch

The Resident IT Consultant and I beat a retreat soon after, due to exhaustion. Perhaps it had been a mistake spending several hours at Ikea beforehand. Even the Resident IT Consultant needed to sit down at one point, and that is simply unheard of. In the end the people in charge of the premises paid us to leave, which was nice of them.

It’s a mercifully quick drive home from Glasgow, even if you include a diesel stop in Cumbernauld. I blame that on Cumbernauld-boy Kirkland. Plus we needed the diesel.

Lions and Lizes

Were I not totally unworthy, I’d love to be best friends with Lizes Laird and Wein. They are so brave and adventurous and so funny. No wonder they write fantastic books. Write about what you know. Well, these two ladies know a lot.

Elizabeth Wein spent the summer strapped to the top of a small plane (which then takes off and flies). The strapping part seemed to be due to health and safety rules. Quite. Otherwise it’d be fun to just stand there, on top of a plane up in the air. Her next book, Black Dove White Raven is about circus flying, which is why Elizabeth needed to have a go. Because she loves flying, anyway, and this was fun.

She showed us photos from Ethiopia – which was the topic for the day – and when Elizabeth Laird looked more closely at a range of mountains, it turned out she had walked across them. When she was young (which apparently made it nice and easy and nothing to write home about!). EL had also once stayed with EW’s aunt and uncle in Ethiopia, many years ago.

Because EL spent a few years in Ethiopia in the 1960s, teaching – as you do. That’s when she witnessed the homecoming of Olympic champion Abebe Bikila at the airport, where she just happened to be. The Emperor met the plane, complete with favourite lion, to honour the country’s hero. It’s the done thing.

Now everyone in Ethiopia runs. Partly to get to school, when that happens to be six miles away from home and you have no car, and partly in the hopes of making it to the Olympics. Elizabeth’s new book, The Fastest Boy in the World, is about a runner. Obviously.

Elizabeth Wein

Elizabeth Wein’s book, which is due out next year, features female pilots; one white and one black. They are part of a group of pilots trained at Tuskegee, who came to Ethiopia in 1935 to set up the Ethiopian Air Force during the second Abyssinian war. The Emperor wanted to have planes and black pilots from the US.

Both Elizabeths have written other books set in Ethiopia; EW’s A Coalition of Lions is set in the sixth century, and EL’s Prince Who Walks With Lions is about a young prince during Victoria’s reign. Liz managed to forget the title of her book momentarily, and made a joke out of it. In fact, both of them are really very amusing and they should make something of this.

They said they will now need to agree in advance who gets to write about what, so no doubt they will divide up Ethiopia between them. EW admired EL’s fictional grandparents, and EL proceeded to unwrap her real grandfather’s real WWI medals. And she didn’t just show us them, but trusted us enough to allow the medals to circulate round the room.

Elizabeth Laird

Asked about writing, EL told the audience to write from the heart. Only you will know your story. Read, write and live/do stuff (which includes being strapped to the outside of planes). EW thinks people should write about what they are passionate about, and she is sure she will have to fight EL for Haile Selassie’s lion.

The best things about Ethiopia according to EL is the weather, how beautiful the country is and the people. EW agrees about the wonderful people and told us about the clever children she met in the middle of nowhere, who were able to write in three different languages.

Books they would recommend were Holes, Journey to the River Sea, Goodnight Mister Tom, Code Name Verity (EL), Noughts & Crosses and Coram Boy. EW added the books by Hilary McKay. (No cause to disagree there.)

Elizabeth Laird writes in her study, which has got a woodstove, while Elizabeth Wein is the wandering type who writes everywhere, liking the noise in cafés and on trains. She thinks it’s important to ‘get out there’ to get the right feeling for what to write. And we were unable to end the event without a very brief description of the time EL was forced to leave Ethiopia, accused of murder…

Boring these ladies are not.

Ghost Soldier

This week’s war events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival have got me started on the war books again. I read and enjoyed Theresa Breslin’s Ghost Soldier, which is aimed at younger readers. That in itself is an indication that some good things need to happen before the end, but it is still about WWI and things are bad as well.

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Set in a small village in Scotland, Rob’s and Millie’s father has been away for some time and his letters have stopped coming, when there is a telegram to say he is missing in action. Their mother falls to pieces and it’s up to Rob to look after things.

He gets the idea to search for his father, and while this sounds an improbable action to take, considering the war is abroad and he is in Scotland, it works much better than you’d think. His little sister Millie turns out to be just as determined, and she’s a real asset in their fight against adults who don’t understand.

Witnessing friends and neighbours finding out about their lost ones brings home the horrors and realities of war. Someone somewhere is always finding out that their soldier is dead. At the same time normal life goes on.

If a WWI story can be lovely, this is it. It’s not just a re-hashing of the same old facts, and the Scottish rural setting brings something to the children’s efforts to find their dad. Lots of brave acts from lots of people, and much kindness.

But people still die, or are wounded.

Was it Franz Ferdinand’s fault?

My second WWI event participants agreed that the war would have happened anyway. Things were tense in Europe.

School events are the best. The topics seem more interesting and the theatres are full, and the questions asked by young audiences are sometimes good, sometimes a little unexpected.

Theresa Breslin, The School Librarian and Mary Hooper

I successfully became 13 again for a whole morning listening first to Theresa Breslin and Mary Hooper discuss their WWI novels with chair Jane Sandell. Theresa’s Remembrance has been re-issued and Mary has a brand new novel out, Poppy. For added interest Theresa brought along a hand grenade. She claimed it is empty.

They both set the beginning of their books in 1915, because that’s when conscription forced ordinary men to join up, and Mary was quite taken by the idea of platoons made up by friends, football teams or factory workers. This meant that when things went badly, whole areas would be depleted of all its men.

The effect on women was that they had the opportunity to do what men usually did, and Theresa couldn’t resist returning to her story about the rich girl whose first task as a volunteer nurse was to fill a bucket with amputated limbs.

Theresa Breslin and Mary Hooper

Class boundaries disappeared to some extent, although at first it was only well off women who could volunteer, which is why Mary had to arrange some financial help for her Poppy, who was working class. Theresa agonised over whether to allow her WWI characters a happy ending, with a baby, when she realised that the baby would definitely end up being slaughtered in WWII.

It was Remembrance Day 1999 that inspired Theresa to write Remembrance. She could see that there were no books about the young of WWI. Mary remembers a real life story about a dog that jumped into the water after its master as he sailed off to war, which she felt was so poignant.

Paul Dowswell, Tony Bradman and Linda Newbery

There was barely any need for a break before Tony Bradman chatted to Linda Newbery and Paul Dowswell, two of the twelve contributors to the WWI anthology he edited.

Linda has written about the war before, and in her story Dandelions For Margo, she wanted to concentrate on the role of women, especially the Land Army. She read an extract about a German plane crashing near where her characters lived. (And she had a sweet explanation for the title of her story, which hinges on the similarities between a tortoise and a hand grenade…)

Paul wrote about the Unknown Soldier, and he talked about a photo of some soldiers taken in the morning before the battle of the Somme. He too mentioned the Pals Battalions, and described the outbreak of WWI as similar in euphoria to a football final.

They discussed some of their other books about war, and Tony became rather outspoken about Gove’s view of ‘noble sacrifices.’ He suspects there will be no OBE now. Both Linda and Paul advocated a trip to Flanders for anyone with an interest in WWI and described the vast fields of crosses, as well as tiny cemeteries with perhaps only twelve graves.

Tony said he’s particularly excited to be talking about this here in Scotland, a month before the referendum, and made comparisons with Ireland a hundred years ago. And as they all pointed out, it wasn’t only the British and the Irish who fought, but Indians, West Indians, and even the Chinese were forced to join in the war effort.

Paul Dowswell, Tony Bradman and Linda Newbery

Over the Line

WWI football, but not that match, the one we all know about.

Tom Palmer writes about a young football player going to war, and he’s not the first one. A couple of books I’ve read recently begin with young men and their hopes of becoming successful – professional – players, only to find WWI getting in the way. It wasn’t the done thing to ‘avoid’ signing up because you were about to get your big break.

Jack in Over the Line is a really good player, but once he’s played his first season he enlists, along with team mates as well as players from ‘the competition,’ and they are placed in the Footballers’ Battalion, who play against other soldiers when not in the trenches.

Tom Palmer, Over the Line

This is another engaging Barrington Stoke story, and because of the soccer aspect it’s refreshingly different from other WWI books. As it’s a short book, it can only afford the briefest of description of life in the trenches. This doesn’t matter – in fact, it possibly helps – as the stark horror of war is painted in a few words.

Some of the people around Jack die, but by the end of the book the reader realises that surviving the war isn’t necessarily the wonderful fate you’d think it would be.

A very footbally war story, and interesting, even for non-soccer fans.

Tom will launch his book with the help of the Manchester Children’s Book Festival on Sunday 6th July. Twice, in one day. Be there!