Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Meet the Anzacs: questions and answers

Meet the Anzacs by Claire Saxby, illustrated by Max Berry

I found this a remarkable and unusual book in several ways: the clear, succinct text, the beautiful illustrations and the fact that it ends with the first landings on April 25 at Anzac Cove, which often serve as the starting point for other books about the Gallipoli campaign.

Claire very kindly agreed to answer some questions about the book for me, and I'm posting them here, along with a review of the book, as we get closer to Anzac Day 2015. 

In fact, Claire was extra kind to answer these questions as I realise now that some of them seem to go on forever, but there were lots of fascinating aspects to this book!

  • The blurb describes this series as "From Ned Kelly to Saint Mary MacKillop; Captain Cook to Douglas Mawson, the Meet ... series of picture books tells the exciting stories of the men and women who have shaped Australia's history."  So for Meet the Anzacs, what kind of brief were you given? How did you decide how you would approach the subject?

The brief for Meet the Anzacs started with an email asking if I'd be interested in writing about this topic. I wasn't sure whether I could write about war as I'd always threatened to hide my three sons in the hills should there be a call to war. That night I tossed and turned and somewhere in the night I realised I knew little about how it all began, from a recruiting, training, transport perspective. The next day I pitched the idea of exploring this time that lead up to the landing at Gallipoli. Then I held my breath. Fortunately Random House liked my idea and the research began.

  • The foreword says: "This is the story of how the ANZAC legend began." I liked the way that you included NZ ("In New Zealand men were doing the same", "the Australians and New Zealanders were beginning to work as a unit") which doesn't always happen. Was that your idea, or part of the brief?
My original submission included references to the cricket games between the Australians and New Zealanders while they were training in Egypt. During the editing process, we developed and extended those references. It seems so obvious really, but I guess most countries focus on their particular experience, even when it is part of a broader event.

  • We've talked about the similarities between our covers (for Meet the Anzacs and Best mates).  These were purely coincidental as the books both came out at the same time, but perhaps express some concept that we were both trying to get across. How much did you have to do with the illustrations (by Max Berry) for the book? He uses some remarkable perspectives, eg the seagulls looking down on the ships. Have you got any favourite illustrations?
It was curious that our books look so similar and were published at the same time. Yes, I agree that it reflects the similar experiences of our soldiers, particularly at Gallipoli, and the power and support of friendship.
I had very little to do with the illustrations, apart from loving the examples of Max's work that I was shown before he began. I love his different perspectives. I have at home the image of the open country where the first training camps were set. Although Max is based in Sydney, to me they symbolise the camp in outer Melbourne where I live. The area that was home to the camp is now completely suburban, and I like the idea that Max has shown how it was.
I do love the bird's eye view of the ships heading towards what we now call Anzac Cove, but my favourite I think, is the final image where a long shot shows ships on the horizon, landing boats on shore, and then after you see all that, you notice there are Turkish soldiers watching from the hills. It still gives me a chill.

  • You made a lot of use of dialogue and that's maybe unusual in a picture book. Did you have particular voices in your head? Did you feel as tho' they were the same people talking, or lots of different people?
Meet the Anzacs is non-fiction but I wanted to include the voice of the people, if that makes sense. Opinions were varied and came from the perspective of potential then enlisted soldiers, mothers and fathers, children as well as from other members of the public. In a picture book, those words had to be brief but hopefully evocative, and direct speech allowed me to include several viewpoints.

  • You've written such a lot! Have you written anything else that has the topic of war, or perhaps peace?
I write quite broadly - perhaps symptomatic of a scattered mind? But I'm interested in so many things and there are so many wonderful stories to be shared. From the scatty lovability of a family pet, to life on a farm, to walking on the beach, I love the ordinary and the stories behind stories. Many of my books are about resilience, reflecting the importance of a sense of self. 
Two new books due out this year are historical, one set in WWII, the other earlier. Meet Weary Dunlop looks at the man behind the legend, and My Name is Lizzie Flynn tells a story of the Rajah Quilt made by convict women on a ship travelling to Australia in 1841. I do like the idea of a book about peace, and now you have me thinking ...

  • The teachers' resource for this book says that you have"… nearly forty books in print with more in production. Her poetry appears in magazines, anthologies, on train walls and in museum resources."Can you tell us where the walls and the museums are?
Unfortunately, our train walls no longer sport poetry. It was an art initiative a few years ago, here in Melbourne, where poetry and images were mounted large on suburban train walls after being exhibited in a gallery. It was such a thrill to catch a train and see poetry there. I loved that I received notice of sightings from all lines on our extensive train network! Melbourne Museum had a Pompeii exhibition and as part of that education resources were developed. My poetry was part of the education pack accessible to students attending the exhibition.

  • Is there anything else you'd like to say about writing the book or its reception?
Meet the Anzacs, in fact the whole Meet ... series is designed to be accessible for readers 7+ and I'm delighted that it is being used widely across primary year levels. When I visit schools, I take hard tack biscuits and Anzac biscuits as well a a wide range of Anzac paraphenalia. 100 years is a long time ago, but it's important to for young people to realise that these were real people trying to live the best lives they could, real parents and siblings and friends, people just like them. 
Random House have also made a book trailer which can be viewed here.

  • Thanks again, Claire. It's great to get some of the background to this lovely story, and I'm looking forward to reading your new book, Meet Weary Dunlop. 

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