Category Archives: History

White Eagles

This relatively short – because it’s for Barrington Stoke – novel by Elizabeth Wein, featuring a Polish teenager at the outbreak of WWII, is as wonderful and, yes, life affirming, as you’d want it to be.

Elizabeth Wein, White Eagles

I would obviously have welcomed a much longer novel, but White Eagles confirmed that you can have a full grown novel with few words. It’s as heartrending as Code Name Verity, as exciting and as sweet, as well.

Again, it’s worth being reminded that war didn’t only start in Britain. It broke out all over Europe, and it was equally devastating, or possibly more so. It’s easy to forget. And reading White Eagles I realised that there may well be an outbreak of fiction to ‘celebrate’ that it’s now 80 years since the war began. Unless one doesn’t mark the start?

18-year-old Kristina is a flying instructor in Warsaw, but when the Germans invade, she soon finds herself having to escape, with her plane, and before long nothing is as she’s known it.

Kristina is another young pilot in the mould of Maddie from Code Name Verity. I can read any number of stories about these early female pilots.

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Balloon to the Moon

There are a lot of crazy people in this world. There always have been, and that’s lucky, because where would we have been if no one had crazy ideas and tried them out?

Gill Arbuthnott and Christopher Nielsen, Balloon to the Moon

Gill Arbuthnott has traced the early days of space flight, which seems to have been balloons, several hundred years ago. Who’d have thought?

Even then, they started cautiously by sending a sheep, a duck and a chicken, rather than humans, up in a balloon in 1783. And after that there was no stopping them.

This book is illustrated throughout, by Christopher Nielsen, and I rather like his snakes and ladders approach to showing how what happened and when. It all began with kites in China in the 5th century BC. And here we are, two and a half thousand years later with a Chinese space probe on the ‘wrong’ side of the Moon.

In between there were many men, but also quite a few women doing daring things, and various dogs and monkeys and other animals.

It’s funny how it’s possible to get excited about a thing – in this case space exploration – over and over again. No matter how many books, it’s still fun.

I thoroughly recommend this book to, well, almost anyone. You don’t have to be a child. Like Gill, I was a child in 1969, and it seems neither of us has outgrown this fascination for space. I feel sorry for those who didn’t experience these milestones in real time. But here’s this book, anyway. In case you are young.

Wars versus dictatorships

I’ve been stomping round the house unable to do much of what needs doing. I can’t think, and I can’t do. Can’t write.

I do have the odd ‘neutral’ blog post sitting waiting for when it’s needed. But while something is needed today, it’s not neutral.

37 years ago I moved to a country at war, and that disturbed me. Coming from a country that had not warred with anyone for a very long time, it felt so alien and so wrong.

It was the Falkland war and it was fought a long way away, by people I didn’t know. The closest I got was the Brother-in-Law’s then girlfriend’s flatmate’s brother. He died.

It brought the whole thing closer, because it was such an abnormal thing to happen to normal, everyday people.

On consideration, however, I prefer war to dictatorship. At least today. Or maybe I don’t. Both are evil. Evil is bad.

I would have baked a cake, to have with cream, and a cup of tea. But I really don’t feel able to do anything. Not even baking an emergency cake.

Remembering Judith Kerr

Now that we don’t have Judith Kerr to come and do events, we can have events about her. Because we need them.

Judith might have looked like a little old lady, but in Tuesday’s panel we learned that this was a woman who could out-party those much younger than her. I think Daniel Hahn rather envied her her stamina in that department. And Lindsey Fraser remembered a time when Judith’s train had been late and she needed a whisky, a bit early in the day, but someone sourced the requested tipple.

Her arrivals in the yurt always caused a certain kind of murmur among those present, those who were more famous than Judith, richer, younger; even more important. Everyone had some kind of relationship to her. Catherine Rayner said it felt like meeting the Queen. And like meeting the Queen, it was impossible to talk to her. She tried, but could never get the words out.

Catherine’s friends would ask ‘is she any good?’ as though Judith’s simple picture book drawings meant she couldn’t do proper art. She showed us some of Judith’s sketches, and they were certainly proper art. As was Mog’s scared face in the book about Mog’s nightmares. And those pictures of birds with teeth!

The first book, The Tiger Who Came to Tea, often caused people to read hidden meanings into what the tiger symbolised. According to Daniel, Judith said it’s a book about a tiger who came to tea. As for Mog and the translation into German there was a discussion with the translator that Judith lost. Mog would be a boy in German. And then she gave Mog kittens.

Judith Kerr 2

After Judith was widowed she kept drawing, sitting at the same table she’d worked at for fifty years, saying ‘if I didn’t draw, I’d probably have taken to religion.’ Her husband was the one who suggested the plot for her first Mog book by saying ‘couldn’t she catch a burglar, or something?’

Tom Morgan-Jones talked about Judith’s last book, Mummy Time, and brought out so much more meaning from it than I’d seen. It even had those horrible teeth in it, again. He read most of the book, showing how it works on two levels; for the child, and for the adult reader.

Like Tom, Eilidh Muldoon never met Judith. And as everyone seemed to say, she also found the Tiger really scary. When Goodbye Mog was published, she was too old for picture books, but has since discovered how good it is to read them as an adult. The pictures in this last Mog are dreamier than the early Mog illustrations, and this could in part have been due to the same ink not being available.

Goodbye Mog

It’s not only Mog’s death that has helped readers deal with bereavement. Kate Leiper has experience from working in care homes for people with dementia, where she used to show them My Henry, which is about an old lady in a home, who dreams about her dead husband coming back for her. This was written after Judith’s husband died.

As Daniel said, you can have quite dark stuff in picture books. It’s all about condensing, according to Catherine. You put a lot in and then take more and more out. Judith would never use words about that which you could see from the pictures. And in Mog in the Dark – the nightmare book – she only used 50 [different] words.

This was a wonderful panel event; one which made us love Judith Kerr even more. As someone said, she had faith in human nature. And she considered herself British from the start of WWII. That’s worth remembering now, when we remember Judith. The piece from When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, read by Lindsey, about the family fleeing Germany, approaching the Swiss border by train, and being so very nervous. It’s all coming back.

Feminist Treasure Troves

For a brief moment on Sunday morning I forgot what Mairi Kidd and Siobhán Parkinson were going to talk about, but as their chair Heather Parry reminded me, it was women. Mairi has written about 49 Scottish women in history in Warriors and Witches and Damn Rebel Bitches, while Siobhán’s slightly earlier book, Rocking the System, is about 20 Irish women.

Mairi Kidd and Siobhán Parkinson

Reading from their books, Mairi told the story about the doctor who turned out to have been a woman, while Siobhán chose her favourite of the twenty, a blood-guzzling woman who was first widowed at 15 before falling in love with a handsome man on a horse.

Siobhán – who published her book through the publishing company she started – couldn’t afford more than twenty women, as she wanted the book to be illustrated as well, and that’s as far as the money would go. Mairi seems to have struggled to keep it down to 49.

Mairi Kidd

The chosen women didn’t have to be dead, but needed to be at least so old that what they had done was already in the past. Mairi pointed out that in Edinburgh there are more dog statues than statues of women. And also that before 1700 women’s voices appeared in writing much more than later, because of all the witch trials.

One question was who the two would choose from people living now, for a future version of their books. And who had they left out? In many cases some women had done similar things, in which case the most obvious one was picked. Asked who Mairi’s 50th would be, she reckons her grandmother. But she had put a long list at the back of her book, listing everyone she’d thought of but not been able to add.

Siobhán Parkinson

Siobhán mentioned Bernadette Devlin, who had been in the news quite recently, and when Mairi said she can’t remember the 1970s, Siobhán can. She talked about an Ireland where contraceptives and divorces were illegal. She doesn’t believe things will go backwards now, but the state of things is not good.

We need to live the life we have, rather than the one we might wish for. We need to be a witness to what is going on.

The Longest Night of Charlie Noon

I’m glad I read this book! I was going to, then decided not to, and then changed my mind again. You don’t need to go through this process; just take my word for it.

This is the story about three young children who get lost in the woods one night. Maybe, if I’d noticed the signs, I’d have realised it’s not set today, and that would have helped. But whatever your starting point, this is a fascinating meander in the suddenly so strange woods, where each of the children discover new things about themselves and about the other two.

Christopher Edge, The Longest Night of Charlie Noon

There are puzzles left in the woods for them to solve, and they need to cooperate to deal with them. They need to become friends. Two have always lived nearby, whereas Charlie has recently arrived from London. They all have something to contribute to help get them out of the woods.

This is middle grade reading at its best.

The Dangerous Lives of the Jacobites

The Jacobites used to get a mention in stuff the young witch watched on television. She had no idea then – or until much more recently – who they really were. Good? Bad? Or depends on who you are?

The latter, I’d say. Now I’ve read the story by Linda Strachan, about a Jacobite family in 1745, I feel I know a lot more, even if my head is reeling a bit from all the information.

Linda Strachan and Darren Gate, The Dangerous Lives of the Jacobites

I like the story about Rob and Aggie, and about fighting for Bonnie Prince Charlie. It’s as I usually say; it helps to understand history when you meet and get to know and like some of the people who were involved at the time.

It’s also useful to have facts to help with that understanding. However, I felt there was too much. I got lost among the Kings and all the rest of them. There were also several risings, and most of the old battles I’ve heard of appear in this book. But I do feel I’ve got the gist of what some Jacobites were like.

Illustrated by Darren Gate, you can see what kind of clothes they wore and what sort of house people like Rob and Aggie lived in. There’s a menu, as an example of what they had to eat. I reckon this kind of book will work very well in a classroom, helping to explain history.

For instance, for all the mentions I’ve come across in my life of Bonnie Prince Charlie, I had no idea he was ‘Italian.’ And in a way it’s a bit sad with all these princes who wanted to lay claim to thrones and who fought and sometimes died, and all for what? On the other hand, unlike today’s leaders, it seems they actually experienced the cold and the mud and the dangers. Just like their followers did.