Wednesday 28 January 2015

Ronnie's war by Bernard Ashley

Ronnie’s war by Bernard Ashley (Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2010)

ISBN 978-1-84780-162-3

190 pages; 4 sections (Blitzkrieg, Top bunk boy, The American captain, Man of the house)

Subjects: World War Two, London, England, evacuees, Blitz, Americans, VE Day, junior fiction (Year 5-8)

When war is declared in 1939, Ronnie is a boy of eleven. By VE Day, he is a young man who has left school and is working as a spot welder, although his mother wants him to get an engineering apprenticeship. In-between times, the story takes us through his experiences in four separate sections. He is caught in the Blitz, and then evacuated to a village in Lancashire where he has to cope with a chilly welcome in his new home and a hostile reception and bullying teacher at school. His father is called up for the Royal Artillery and goes missing in action, probably in the Far East. Ronnie and his mother move out of London to another village in Essex where she gets a job working on an American Air Force base.  

The scene where Ronnie goes to look for his mother is a dramatic description of the aftermath of an air raid (there is a similar scene in The machine gunners by Robert Westall, when Chas and his dad make their way across town to try and find out if his grandparents are still alive.) His relationship with his mother – its ups and downs, through his teenage years, but their underlying love for and loyalty to each other – provides a link between the four sections, as does their ongoing worry and uncertainty about what might have happened to his father.

There are many small details that help to build up a convincing picture of life in Britain during the war. I always enjoy these unexpected details – facts like what happened with the wartime football league (it was all “guest players and soldiers on leave”, and teams weren’t allowed to play more than 50km from home), or that the Anderson (air raid) shelters that people dug in their back yards had blackout curtains instead of a door. Playground games, lessons, slang and meals all have the ring of authenticity. It also features one of the few fictional descriptions of VE Day celebrations that I’ve read (there's another one in Charlotte sometimes by Penelope Farmer).

This review in the Guardian calls it "a slim, to-the-point volume that proves you don't need to fell an acre to conjure a convincing fictional world... Four vignettes, then, which quickly yet subtly build a full picture of what ordinary life was like for a child who spent their entire adolescence under the cloud of war."

The Historical Novel Society has another review which describes the book (with a few reservations) as "an interesting portrait of a young man in his formative years, which happen to occur against the backdrop of war". 

Author’s website
Bernard Ashley lives in London and worked for many years as a teacher and principal. His first children’s novel was published in 1974 and he has published dozens since then. One of the most well-known is Little soldier shortlisted for the Carnegie medal.

He has some lovely answers to questions hereI especially like his answer to a question I invariably get asked at every school visit: Where do you get your ideas from?
"All around me. One of the advantages of living a hectic life in one of the world's busiest cities is that there's no shortage of drama and excitement around me. Sometimes comedy, sometimes - sadly - tragedy. I never use the people I know, but certain themes recur in relationships. In the creation of characters I use bits of various people. Hitting on the right name for a character is a great help, like the right costume is to an actor."

And I liked what he said about doing research:
"My liking of travel is often satisfied by doing research for one of my stories.
I have to get it right! If I say this London bus takes you there you can depend on it being right. And if you can trust me in the practical things I hope you can trust me emotionally, too."

Wednesday 21 January 2015

The general by Janet Charters, illustrated by Michael Foreman

The general  by Janet Charters, illustrated by Michael Foreman (first pub 1961; Templar Pub., 2010)

ISBN 978-1-84877-153-6

38 pages

Subjects: war, peace, flowers, animals, picture books (Year 1-8)

Having finished 2014 with a book about peace, it seems like a good - and hopeful - idea to include another one on the same theme at the start of 2015. 

On the cover is a badge marking this as the 50th anniversary edition, with the words “A celebration of peace and beauty”.

This is Michael Foreman’s first book:  an anti-war story (written in 1961 during the Cold War) about General Jodhpur who wants to be the most famous general in the world.  One day he falls off his horse and, lying in the grass, suddenly notices the beauty of flowers and nature. He decides to concentrate on peace, not war, from then on.

This insightful review on The bookbag makes so many good points (about both text and illustration)  that it’s hard not to quote it in full. The reviewer points out that the book “was written in 1961 and it shows. It has a naivety (even for a picture book) that screams of the early 60s - all soldiers need is a flower and they'll toss aside their guns. I wish dearly it were true, but fifty years on, it seems almost too simple. The book isn't dated, but it is very much of its time. ..but the quality of the writing is great. The vocabulary is clear and direct, making it suitable for the youngest readers.

This was one of the books that began Michael Foreman's illustrious career, and you can see exactly why he's become one of the best-loved illustrators. His pen and ink drawings look stunning, perfectly capturing the rigidity of military life, then blossoming into the bright and varied colours of nature. His mosaic-like overhead view of a city is such a unique approach that you'll love seeing the moment of realisation on a child's face. Every page is a joy to pore over.

There's another review here on the blog Seven impossible things before breakfast

About the illustrator
Michael Foreman was born in 1938, so he was only 22 or 23 when this book was first published. The Guardian published a lovely article in 2011 to mark his 50 years in print; it describes his childhood, how he became an artist, why he believes that that “each day is precious” and  why “so many of his books focus on matters of conflict and injustice “ – fascinating stuff.  

Michael Foreman - The General
 Trooping the colours ... from The General by Michael Foreman Templar
You can see more lovely images online from his 50 years of picture books.

About the author
Janet Charters (now Abis) was also born in 1938 but I can’t find out much information either about her, or about any other books she has written.  

Other books you might like:
War game by Michael Foreman also conveys a message of peace. The story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf and The duck in the gun by Joy Cowley have a similar anti-war message to The General.

Friday 9 January 2015

The red suitcase by Jill Harris

The red suitcase by Jill Harris (Makaro Press, 2014)

ISBN 978-0-9941069-0-2

30 chapters; 240 pages

Subjects: World War Two, England, air force, Bomber Command, Goldfish Club, New Zealand, Germany, Dresden, Cologne, young adult fiction (Years 8-11)

At first I didn't think this was going to be a book about war (and in the interview below, Jill Harris says that “even though her uncle's story was inspirational, she didn't want to write a ‘war book’”.) Set in the present day, it deals with contemporary issues like bullying and making friends, but also experiments with ideas of time, touches on terrorism and reaches back into the events of World War Two.

Ruth and her family have been living in Indonesia until a terrorist bomb forces them to leave. For various reasons the family is temporarily split up, with 14-year-old Ruth and her dad staying with her grandma at Takapuna Beach in Auckland. Ruth finds it difficult readjusting to New Zealand life and a new school, and what’s more, she finds herself experiencing strange episodes that seem to relate to an airman and his WW2 air crew. (These sections are written in italics.) The "red suitcase" of the title contains family papers that may provide a clue.

I found the dialogue between members of the crew in the plane both convincing and moving. When you remember how young many of them were and what responsibility they bore for each other, it's no wonder these air crews became melded into such tight units.

The foreword is a 1915 poem by Rudyard Kipling, titled "My boy Jack". Kipling lost his only son in WW1 and spent years searching for his body or grave, but never found him.

‘Have you news of my boy Jack?’
Not this tide.
‘When d’you think that he’ll come back?”
 Not with this wind blowing, and this tide. 

The red suitcase features on Bob’s books blogwhich always has reliably good reviews.

You can also listen to John McIntyre from The Children's Bookshop reviewing the book here.

You could ask yourself some of the questions that trouble Ruth and Thomas, or that Ruth tries to find answers for:
  • Was the bombing of German cities during the war “mass murder”, “aimed at civilians, not strategic war targets”, or was it justified because “the Germans started it”?
  • “Everyone knew about people doing terrible things, but how did you stop them? And what about the good people who did terrible things, like dropping bombs on all those cities?”
  • Where is Cologne, and what happened there in the war?
  • Where is Coventry, and what happened there in the war?

About the author
You can read about Jill Harris on the NZ Book Council site, where she mentions that she grew up in Takapuna and remembers how she "made huts using towels hooked onto the barbed wire that stretched along the beaches to keep the Japanese from landing during the Second World War." 

There’s a lovely newspaper interview (and photo) here about the inspiration for this book: how a  few years ago, Jill Harris' cousin gave her a stack of old letters written by her uncle Colwyn Jones, a navigator in the RAF's Bomber Command – “the group with the dangerous job of flying deep into German territory during World War II to attack enemy targets.”

I especially like these words of hers: 
"A former librarian and school-teacher, Harris took up fiction seriously around 2002. "I got sick to death of being the last car in the carpark at work. And I thought 'If you don't stop working, you will never get your writing done'. So I just stopped."
Writing for young people demands brevity, she says. "You can't go on and on about characters, and you can't get too heavy on what the book's saying ... It's all little dabs of colour.'"
Another interview (with equally lovely photo) here mentions that fact that Jill had been fighting serious illness, and sadly she died, aged 76, on Christmas Day 2014

Thanks to Barbara Murison for this photo of Jill at the launch of The red suitcase
Other books you might like:
In the newspaper interview above, Jill Harris mentions that her son was using her uncle’s letters for a a non-fiction book, Under a bomber’s moon. You can read about it here, along with extracts from the book and lots of added material including photos and maps.

Jill Harris' other books (not about war) are all well worth reading: At the lake, Missing Toby and Silwhich won an Honour award in the 2006 NZ Post Book Awards. We are so lucky that she made that decision to stop being "the last car in the carpark" and concentrate on her writing. 

Valentine Joe by Rebecca Stevens is a time travel book about World War One. Charlotte sometimes by Penelope Farmer is another title that explores ideas of moving back through time (and into war-time) and finding your own identity

Things I didn’t know
I first heard of The Goldfish Club ("gold for the value of life and fish for the sea") at the funeral of a friend’s father, but this story prompted me to find out more. Founded in 1942, it was an exclusive club for airmen who had survived a wartime aircraft ditching. There are some fascinating details here and here. The club was set up informally, but “news ...spread rapidly, even to POW camps, where eligible aircrew soon claimed membership. Their cards and badges were sent to their next of kin. …By the end of the war the club had over 9000 members.”

I checked on the Auckland War Memorial Museum library catalogue and they hold a ring binder containing details of 95 NZ airmen who survived after being shot down or forced to ditch their aircraft into water (sea, river, lake or canal) during WW2. And the Air Force Museum of NZ has a framed certificate for Warrant Officer Jim Colway, awarded to him after a 1942 crash over the Marlborough Sounds; he was the only one of the seven crew to survive.  

In 2012, the Bomber Command Memorial was unveiled in Green Park, London, in a ceremony attended by thousands of veterans (including some from New Zealand) and relatives of the 55,000 airmen who died serving in Bomber Command in the war.

I find these statues very poignant - the seven Bomber Command crew, just back from a mission, searching the sky, waiting for their comrades to return - but there is an interestingly ambivalent review of the overall memorial here
The statues of seven airmen stand at the heart of the Bomber Command Memorial 
(photo taken by Mark Rea for the RAF Benevolent Fund)