Category Archives: War

What Five Children and It Did Next

My first event on Monday was learning more about Kate Saunders and her much praised book Five Children on the Western Front, which won last year’s Costa. I’ve not read it yet, nor do I know the Edith Nesbit original stories all that well. I read some, but it was a long time ago.

Kate wrote this sequel to Nesbit’s books for the anniversary of WWI last year. She had long ago worked out that those children were just the right age to be caught up in the war that Nesbit didn’t know about when she created their idyllic, magic, free childhood.

Kate Saunders

As a child Kate felt that E Nesbit spoke directly to her, and she reckons that the author ‘put all the seeds down’ and she simply wrote her book, based on what was already there. Kate’s own teenage son died a few years ago, so she feels the far too early loss of young people very strongly.

She had plans for whom to kill off, but at least one character was saved by book reviewer Amanda Craig, who forced her to rethink. And in Monday morning’s school event, it appears Kate managed to make chair Daniel Hahn cry, which just goes to show how books can affect people.

Writing your last letter home, for if you don’t survive the war, features in Kate’s book (this was the moment my first pen decided it had had enough). She said it’s ‘outrageous that young people are sent away to be killed’ and she found that using magic in her story meant that it wasn’t all about life on the home front, but she was able to let the younger children see what went on in the trenches, while they were trying to help the Psammead.

The one thing that doesn’t translate well to a new book like this is the way Nesbit treated servants. She was very un-pc, and Kate has made a point of being nice and kind to ‘her’ servants, in whatever accents you get.

The audience in the Writers Retreat were fairly young, but they had nevertheless read both Kate’s book and the Nesbit ones, and they came up with some really excellent questions. Kate told them she began writing at nine, and that in twenty years’ time it could very well be one of them who would be talking at the book festival.

On the subject of dramatisations of novels, she feels it’d be hard to get in there and beat War Horse. This former actress once had to pay her son to come to the theatre with her.

Kate had to work hard at not revealing who dies in her book, or the fates of any of the characters. The children kept asking, though. And with war you just can’t have anything but a sad ending. It can’t be avoided. The thing for Kate was that there should be kindness, and there’s a strong sense of right and wrong.

There will be no more sequels of other people’s books for a while now. She wanted her book to be true to the feeling of Edith Nesbit. She compared it to considering rewriting the New Testament, which is something you just wouldn’t do.

Generally Kate doesn’t know what the end will be until she gets there. It’s ‘better to make it up as you go along.’ She needs a good start and then she has to have a shape that she strives for. After that she might rip up chapters (computer fashion) to make her book better.

No!

This is a most beautiful picture book. There is only one word in it, which is not much even for a picture book, but it is enough. The word is ‘no.’ And if you say it as ‘No!’ it might have more impact than you think.

David McPhail, No!

I don’t believe I have come across David McPhail before, but I’m grateful I’ve had the opportunity to read his one word, and to see his marvellous illustrations.

We see a young boy writing a letter and then taking it to the postbox. On the way there he witnesses many atrocities towards ordinary, innocent people, in a way that is sufficiently unreal, that I assume it’s not all happening on his way to post the letter, but rather that they are acts he has seen at some point.

But he’s had enough, so when he meets a bully, he utters the one, magic word. Try it yourself; sometimes it has a surprising effect.

There is something so beautiful about the simplicity of the pictures and the single use of the word ‘no’ that makes this a really special book. It’s a book I’d feel the urge to read to many young children, if only I had access to them.

If you do, please consider No!

The memorial service

They didn’t go in for children’s books so much in the 1930s and 40s. That will be why the Grandmother, when she learned to read all those years ago, read Dickens and Scott for fun by the age of eight. And that’s why Daughter did a reading of the end of The Lady of the Lake by Sir Walter Scott at her Grandmother’s memorial service on Wednesday.

It was quite a nice service, if I do say so myself. We persuaded Son to be our MC, and he introduced the Resident IT Consultant’s eulogy, which was fairly amusing in places. The Grandmother had once been too young to sign the Official Secrets Act (while having cause to do so). And she used a cardboard box for the Resident IT Consultant to sleep in.

Odd sleeping habits must have run in the family, as her sister reminisced about the three or four years the two of them slept in the understairs cupboard, like some early Harry Potters.

At the crematorium before the memorial Son had the pleasure of hearing ‘Paul Temple’ reading William Penn, and this piece was repeated by Daughter in the next session.

We’re not exactly in the habit of organising this kind of thing, but we knew what we wanted. It was the knowing where to get hold of the right people that was hard. (Many thanks to the Scottish children’s author who didn’t object to questions about suitable musicians.)

In the end we were lucky, as Paul Temple introduced us to a 16-year-old local girl who played Schubert and Stradella on the cello, before charming everyone by singing Mononoke Hime – in Japanese – a cappella. Even an old witch can shed a tear over such perfection.

Initially we’d asked a local church if we could use it as our venue, but we were found too God-less, which meant that we actually ended up somewhere quite perfect in its place. Cowane’s Hospital was just right; the right size, nice and old, beautiful acoustics, situated next to the castle, and generally feeling like our kind of place.

Stirling Highland Hotel

Afterwards we wandered downhill a little – literally – for afternoon tea at the Stirling Highland Hotel, where I normally go to hear about gruesome murders during Bloody Scotland. It couldn’t have been nicer. And no funeral tea is complete without a quick trip upstairs to the Old High School Telescope. The Resident IT Consultant helped paint it, decades ago.

I’ve got it covered #2

Kodnamn Verity. You can tell what book it is, can’t you? My second favourite book ever, Code Name Verity. In Swedish. It’s – not surprisingly – very good in translation (by Carina Jansson) as well. I could easily have slipped and spent all night reading it again.

Just like my friend Pippi did recently. When she visited earlier this year, she asked what she should read. Because she was in Stirling, and in Scotland, and because I used to live in Stockport, where she had also visited, I suggested Code Name Verity. Not necessarily believing she’d obey or remember. But it seems she did.

Pippi emailed me to say she’d been kept awake reading until half past two. That’s the sort of thing I like to hear.

Elizabeth Wein, Kodnamn Verity

I thought Elizabeth Wein might like to hear it too, so I made sure she did. Because I leave no one in peace. What’s more, Elizabeth sent me a copy of Kodnamn Verity, so that I can enjoy this marvellous book in more than one language.

The cover is great. I’d seen it online before, but it’s actually much nicer in the flesh. The whole book has a nice feel to it. When I’ve finished stroking it, I might put it away. Or I could always have an accident and…

The Winter Horses

There was never any time to read the crime proof by Philip Kerr, several years ago. It looked good, though. And the book survived my culls, simply because I really wanted to read it. And I didn’t know about Philip’s children’s books. Then I was surprised to find him described as a Scottish crime writer, because I didn’t know that either. Seems he was born in Edinburgh, but doesn’t live in Scotland. Though I could be wrong on that.

Philip Kerr, The Winter Horses

But I’m not wrong about how great a book The Winter Horses is. Set in the Ukraine during WWII it makes for grim reading, but is also enormously uplifting. It’s mostly about Przewalski’s, which are very unusual horses, and during the war they were facing extinction because they weren’t pure enough for Hitler.

The ones in this book are almost human (which is more than you can say about the men who killed most of them), and although wild, can adapt to circumstances. 14-year-old Kalinka has seen all her family killed by the Germans, and most of her home city too. She won’t accept that the Germans will get these last horses as well.

With the help of an old man, this starving girl manages to get a pair of horses away, and manages not to freeze to death on the winter steppe.

This is a children’s book, so I think I’m allowed to say that much. You know there has to be something positive at the end. But I won’t tell you what or how. Only that I had been correct in feeling I’d like Philip’s writing.

Women Heroes of World War I

Kathryn J Atwood, Women Heroes of World War I

Here is another book that has taught me things I didn’t know. I’m far too used to looking at WWI either from my neutral standpoint, or from Britain, and Kathryn J Atwood – as an American – looks at it both from her ‘over there’ point of view, but mostly from inside Europe, and mostly as seen by the women who lived there in 1914.

Those women didn’t necessarily want to stand there and do nothing. Many felt the need to do their bit for the war or for their country, or they simply hoped for some adventure in their lives. For some it was relatively easy to get involved, while for others it took a lot of deceit or at least time to get the men to see sense and allow them to join in.

This book tells the brief stories of 16 women who did something, either as resisters and spies, soldiers, medics or journalists. Some of them were poor and uneducated, while others were part of the nobility. Some were of more mature age, and some were only teenagers. Some went looking for war duties, while others had it thrust upon them.

But they all did good and important work, and some of them died doing it. In fact, so dangerous did it seem to me that I was almost surprised any of them lived to a good old age.

This is very fascinating, and in a way it’s infuriating that each woman only gets around ten pages to tell her story. On the other hand, with the bibliography for each entry, you could continue reading on your own, although as Kathryn says, not all books are available in English, which is a shame.

Women Heroes of World War I is an inspiration to girls everywhere. Not necessarily to join wars, but to stand up and do something.

My Name’s not Friday

Samuel has a strong belief in God, and he loves his younger brother Joshua. I was actually left wondering why, in both cases. What did God ever do for Samuel, or for Joshua, come to that? Also, Joshua almost goes out of his way to be a bad little boy. On the other hand, we know that circumstances will make a child or person something that deep down they are not.

Jon Walter, My Name's not Friday

And Samuel is not called Friday.

He has been brought up in an orphanage as a free black boy, and given an education, of sorts. But then circumstances conspire to have him sold as a slave, and he has to learn to live a whole new kind of life, as the 12-year-old property of a young white boy in the American south.

At times I wondered how Jon Walter could know what it was like back then, in a different country, but this is what writers do. They make stuff up, and I don’t suppose that a modern American author would know any more about what it was like to be a slave during the Civil War.

We learn about three different periods of Samuel’s life; the orphanage with all that is good and bad, his life as Friday, who isn’t even allowed to show he can read and write, and what came after the Union soldiers arrived.

It’s very interesting, and at times I was afraid it would turn out to be like Roots, where you never once could know what happened in the first place after someone had moved on, because being real, there was no all-knowing author to let you know about the people and places left behind. Which I found very frustrating. Here we do get to see more than just the time and place in history where Samuel is, and that’s good.

The characters are allowed to change and grow, which makes the story deeper. And the whole book is one big history lesson about slavery, like how you are powerless when your owner sells a member of your family to someone else.

To be truthful, Samuel took a while to win me over, but in the end he did.