Category Archives: War

Oranges in No Man’s Land

It seems so easy; write about what you know, what you have experienced, just a simple little story. Can’t be much to it, can it?

Looking at Elizabeth Laird, you realise that that isn’t true. It takes a lot of talent to write a short children’s novel like Oranges in No Man’s Land, even if she did base it on what she had lived through with her family, in Beirut, many years ago.

Elizabeth Laird, Oranges in No Man's Land

And her foreword to this book when it was first published in 2006, was about her own story, and also how sad she was to find history repeating itself, with more unrest for Beirut, thirty years on from when she lived there. Now, of course, there is more sadness still, because after another ten years many more children and their parents are suffering like Ayesha and the others did. Not perhaps in Beirut, but not that far away, either. The destruction and the deaths of innocent civilians happen in far too many countries.

What’s more, if you read Oranges in No Man’s Land and you feel that it isn’t right, what happens to young children and their grannies, or even to their ‘enemies,’ you know that what happens in countless places all over the world is wrong.

You feel that people will learn, that they will change. If I’d been a child reading this in 2006, I’d have been full of hope that things would get better now.

10-year-old Ayesha lives with her mother and grandmother and her two brothers in a small house, when they are bombed and have to flee. Her mother dies before she can get out. The children eventually end up in a bombed out flat, well, part of a room in one, with their granny. And then Ayesha’s granny’s medicine comes to an end and to save her granny’s life the girl has to cross no man’s land and go to the other side of Beirut, where the enemy live.

More than anything, this story shows that mostly people are still human beings, before they are your enemies. They can and will be decent, and they will help, sometimes putting themselves in danger. But you can’t control the warlords.

Elizabeth’s experience is having temporarily lived in a flat like this one, with her young family, and having spoken to the soldiers at checkpoints. That’s why it rings true, and why this is a tremendously powerful story. Short, but it tells you about what’s important for humanity.

Peter in Peril

Helen Bate’s graphic novel Peter in Peril is different from many other WWII stories. For one, it’s set in Budapest, which is less common, and two, it ends reasonably well for the people we get to know in the book. I’m not saying the war passed them by, exactly, but I was expecting something much worse.

Based on a ‘real’ Peter, who must have been about two when war broke out, we come to the by now so common story of Jews finding their lives changing almost overnight. First is the yellow star to be worn, and later losing their home, having to move into more camp-like places with other Jews, eventually escaping to hide alone.

Helen Bate, Peter in Peril

Because it’s about such a young child, and because we see it from his point of view, perhaps many of the worst things are less obvious. He has time to be bored without his toys, and he seems to find new playmates in the various places where they end up. There is food, even if it’s little and bad.

And as I said, the end is nowhere as immediately tragic as I’d been afraid. That doesn’t mean the war was better for Jews in Hungary, because this is merely the story about one family.

At the end we get to meet Peter as he is today, which is nice and reassuring for a young reader; that he survived and that he leads a normal life.

Helen’s graphic illustrations are just right for this kind of book, and should go down well with quite young readers. Let’s hope, too, that they can see the similarities with what’s happening today in far too many places. If it was wrong then, it is wrong now.

Darkness Follows

And how I wish the third book in L A Weatherlys’ trilogy would hurry up and follow Darkness Follows! I know I say this often, but I feel extremely ready for the conclusion. I’ve no idea how it will all end, but I am quite anxious Lee gets the love interest right (I am available for advice). It could go either way.

I think.

Darkness Follows is as the title suggests darker than Broken Sky, but strangely enough, also lighter. In the midst of all the hardship and cruelty that former Peacefighter pilot Amity suffers in this book, there is promise. At least I hope there is.

L A Weatherly, Darkness Follows

She is in that worst of places, Harmony Five, a mining camp where the guards can, and do, treat the inmates any way they like, including shooting anyone who’s not singing ‘the right way.’

In the first book we couldn’t be totally sure of who was with the Resistance and who wasn’t; it was very much a double bluff kind of feel. Things are ironed out in Darkness Follows. At least I hope they are.

As for Kay Pierce, well. I could see from the start how important she would be and how she would change. I just didn’t see this coming. Very intriguing and exciting.

The way Lee has used a future dystopia for this, rather than try and fit in an alternate WWII, makes the story so much more powerful. The truly bad things have already happened to the world. Or so people believe. And based on past mistakes, the world will now be a better place. But of course, a new world which looks so much like ‘our’ 1940s, can’t help but repeat many of the mistakes too.

This is so good.

Wave

Set on the 1st of July in 1916, and also in 2016, the adult reader can work out what happens. At first I regretted not having read it on the day, so to speak, but am glad I didn’t. It’s such a loaded kind of date.

Paul Dowswell, Wave

Paul Dowswell has come up with two pairs of brothers – Eddie and Charlie Taylor. One pair for each century. Today’s boys are the great grandsons of one of the soldiers in 1916. Their grandmother is Rose, as was the girlfriend of one of the young men in 1916. The modern Rose is the daughter of the older Rose.

Clearing out their great grandparents’ house in Hastings, they find a photo of the older two, taken at the Somme on that fateful morning, as they waited to be part of the First Wave. Today’s Eddie wants to join up, unlike the older Eddie who only went to war in order to do the same as his big brother Charlie.

This short and sad story shows us the same day, one hundred years apart, and how the two sets of brothers handle the war, and the memories of it.

Very powerful, and it is yet more proof of the horrors of war, and how easily persuaded young men can be.

Here I Stand

Here is a book you should all read. Here I Stand is an anthology for Amnesty International, where a number of our greatest authors and poets and illustrators have come together and written short pieces about the injustices in life as they see them.

Here I Stand

John Boyne writes about child abuse and Liz Kessler deals with same sex love. Both stories are hard to read, but at the same time they are uplifting and they make you think.

And it is repeated in every single contribution to this volume, whether by Jackie Kay or Jack Gantos, Sarah Crossan or Frances Hardinge. Bali Rai, Neil Gaiman and Elizabeth Laird are others who have important things to say about why life is far from right for many people in the world.

People who can be jailed or executed for the most normal behavior, or those who are simply too poor or too unfortunate in various ways. People for whom we need to continue fighting.

There is much in this book to think about. Please think about it.

Across the Barricades

As I said, I could barely wait to read Joan Lingard’s Across the Barricades after The Twelfth Day of July. It has the pleasure of re-connecting with old friends, but it has stopped feeling even a little bit cosy. Three years on, Kevin is 17 and Sadie is 16 – which back then seems to have almost counted as being adult – when they unexpectedly meet up again.

Joan Lingard, Across the Barricades

Things are much worse in Belfast; barbed wire everywhere and disturbances and violence have become daily occurences and seemingly normal, even to peaceful and ‘normal’ people. Childhood friendships are falling apart, when people find themselves on opposite sides, and I don’t mean religious ones, but whether or not they want to live peacefully or if they prefer to go on the attack against people who’ve not done anything to them.

As we can see today too, prejudice is rife and you hate on principle. This makes it harder for our young couple, who find that they very much want to keep seeing each other, while also realising that the other one will be much safer if they can stay away.

What a choice!

Just as it is upsetting to see how blinkered some people were (are), it is reassuring to find the odd ones who can see both sides of the coin and who are normal and decent human beings.

Even as their situation darkens, you want to read on and on. And knowing that this is anchored in recent history, you know that not everything can be fine, just like that. People will die, and they will be injured. Others will be upset, because separation of some sort is unavoidable.

I just want more.

On the Front Line with Michael Grant

We were given permission to call him whatever we wanted. This man who recently lay down under a tank in the Ardennes, in case he would need to know what it looks like from down there. Michael Grant was back in Edinburgh on Saturday afternoon, converting a tentful of teenagers, some younger ones and a whole lot of older people who were unable to resist. (Although I have a few words to offer the adult who told her child companion to put Gone back on the shelf in the shop. That he wanted it was testament to Michael’s ability to make children want to read [his books].)

Michael Grant

Michael threatened horrible pictures (I hope he didn’t have me in mind) and suggested some of us might want to leave there and then. It wasn’t so bad. Barbara Cartland was very pink, and I suspect Michael will never look like that, despite his past in romantic formula novels. Luckily he gave them up before he had to hang himself in the shower.

This is the man who left school after 10th grade because he arrived for school lunch through the exit door and was told to go out and come back in the right way. The one who surreptitiously gave the finger in an old family photo. Someone who has a past as a burglar of cheap diners. They got him in to inspire us, and he said he’d see what he could do.

Genghis Khan was worse than Hitler, and I almost believe him after hearing what happened in Kiev. And then there was the Chichijima incident, which gave us George Bush for President.

Anyway, Michael was here to talk about WWII and his latest book, Front Lines. He sought inspiration in books, and particularly praised Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity, which he told everyone to read. He had done the Private Ryan Package at a rifle range, just so he could try lots of rifles out, despite hating guns.

He wasn’t sure how open he could be, either in the book, or with the audience, but feels that children can cope with the truth. And he only writes something if he thinks he will have fun with it.

Michael Grant, Front Lines

There were two things Michael changed in his book. One was giving women the draft, as he wanted to have them in the story. He also made black soldiers more integrated, earlier than in real life. The war had a good effect for black soldiers, because after fighting Hitler, they returned home less afraid than they’d been before.

This workaholic told us how he met his wife, Katherine Applegate, and how they eventually began writing books in order to quit their cleaning jobs. How they made a fortune with Animorphs (‘we’re going to need some aliens’) and then lived it all up, meaning they had to start again.

Michael Grant

That’s when Michael had the idea for Gone, told his wife about it, and she told him to drop everything and write it. Being a well trained husband he always does what his wife tells him to do.

After Michael had worn out one microphone and moved on to the next, it was time for us to skip over to the bookshop to have our books signed. I must have lost my touch, because I was nowhere near the front of the queue. I blame the photographer who required the buying of her own copy of Front Lines (that’s how inspiring Michael was). And then I tried to convert the young boy who wanted to read Gone and wasn’t allowed…

Michael Grant

I have received complaints for messing up the last photo my photographer was going to take of a very happy looking Michael. I retorted that he doesn’t do happy, but actually, I see that he does. Even with other women readers. So here’s to a smiley Michael. It wouldn’t be Edinburgh without him.