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. 

Meet the Anzacs by Claire Saxby

Meet the Anzacs by Claire Saxby, illustrated by Max Berry (Random House, 2014)

ISBN 978 0 85798 192 9

32 pages with full page colour illustrations

Subjects: World War One, Australia, Egypt, Cairo, Turkey, Gallipoli, Anzac Cove, picture books (Year 5-8)

This is one of a series of books about “the extraordinary men and women who have shaped Australia’s history”; others to be met in the same series are Ned Kelly, Mary MacKillop and Captain Cook, with more titles coming soon.

The foreword says this is the story of how the Anzac legend began. Unlike many other books, this one finishes on 25 April 1915. It starts with the men going to sign up as war is declared, and I’m pleased that it includes a mention of the “NZ” part of ANZAC: “In New Zealand, men were doing the same.” The story doesn't focus on any particular soldiers; instead, much of it is told through snatches of talk and conversation as the men sail across the world to Egypt, visit the pyramids, play cricket in the sand, pack up and travel across the Mediterranean, finally landing at Gallipoli.

I like the cover, which is similar in some respects to the cover of Best mates (three young men with their arms around each other’s shoulders!) The books were both published at about the same time, so this is sheer serendipity or else a reflection of something important about the theme of both books. There is also a timeline at the end.

You can see some of the pictures if you click on the Free sample on this Random House page, or on the excellent YouTube clip about the book, which cleverly intersperses the artwork with original photographs taken during the war.  "A picture book is a bit like an ice berg", Claire says, "in that you have to have an understanding of all this material to then be able to write lightly across the top of it in the few words that you have available there."

This review on Aussie reviews calls it "a wonderful introduction to the soldiers who forged the ANZAC legend." 

The Teachers' resources include author and illustrator interviews, classroom activities and discussion questions.  

About the author
You can read about Claire Saxby on her website and her blog, Let's have words (great title) which has a blog post about the launch of Meet the Anzacs.

I like the bit in the About me section where she says: "Words have fascinated me as long as I can remember. I have always loved reading. I used to go home from boarding school and read for days on end, only emerging to swim and eat."

Another book in the same series, also by Claire Saxby, is Meet Weary Dunlop

About the illustrator
Max Berry’s website says he was born in 1987 in Katherine, NT, Australia; he did a Bachelor of Design in 2005-2009, and lives and works in Sydney. He’s won a string of prizes, including being a finalist in 2012 and 2014 in the Gallipoli Art Prize. I’d never heard of this before but it began in 2006, runs annually until 2015 and is administered by the Gallipoli Memorial Club (whom I’d never heard of before, either.)

Have you read it?
Have you read this book? Let me know what you think!

Wednesday 11 March 2015

An unexpected hero: questions and answers

An unexpected hero by L. P. Hansen : questions and answers

After reading this book, I contacted Linda Hansen to ask if she would mind answering some questions about the process of writing it. I liked the way she showed us Matt grappling with his problems and working out how to solve them for himself, and the way in which she has interwoven the two stories (Archie's and Matt's) and shown the themes connecting them, as well as building up a real sense of tension as the climax of the book approaches.

So thanks to Linda for agreeing, and here are her replies!

  • In the teaching notes, you say that you wrote this book because "New Zealanders hear so little about pacifism, yet Archie Baxter and other New Zealand conscientious objectors are celebrated worldwide".  How did the idea for the book sprout?
I work as a Storyteller and a couple of years ago, was developing a story to tell at the Storyteller’s CafĂ© in Wellington around ANZAC Day.  I decided to test my theory that not many adults knew about James K Baxter’s father, Archie.  So I told his story in the form of a mystery, not identifying the Hero, much as Matt does in my book.

Only one person in the audience was able to name him.

After that I felt that it was time New Zealand children had an example of a genuine Kiwi alternative to the seeming ‘inevitability’ of war, especially at this time when war publicity is at its height. 

  • Did you know much about Archie Baxter beforehand? How did you go about finding out what else you needed to know?
    I hadn't known about Archie Baxter until my middle years, and certainly never heard of him during my formal education.  I read his book ‘We Shall Not Cease’ around twelve years ago and was very moved… found it particularly poignant to be teaching at the N.Z. International Campus at Trentham around that time, right next to where he was tortured and imprisoned. 

    I’ve been a writer and researcher all my working life, so found my material ‘by all possible means’, as researchers do.

  • You're a storyteller as well as a writer. How do the two roles interact with each other?
      Writing is a gift to my storytelling and it works the other way around as well.  I write all of my stories myself, even if they are adapted from another source.  I also write them down, as this gets them into my long-term memory.  Then I speak them aloud and find where sentences are clumsy, spaces are needed, sounds collide and so on.  It’s a lovely process. 

  • Can you tell us about the process of publishing the book? CreateBooks has several other books that deal with the topic of bullying, is that coincidental?
      I did submit the manuscript to several New Zealand publishers according to their requirements – a sample chapter, a Synopsis and so on.  It was No thanks or nothing from them, even after promises to get back to me with two months. Only Scholastic Australia, no longer in New Zealand, replied with a very encouraging response.

      Ann Neville of CreateBooks Publishing validated my original feeling, as she had only just learned about Archie Baxter herself when my offer and Synopsis arrived. She immediately asked for the full M/S and within a day or two, accepted it virtually without alteration.  I didn’t then know about the company’s other books, so the Bullying theme was coincidental.

  • Do you want to tell us anything about the process of writing this book - or about the next novel you're working on?
      I tend to write to a topic first and build up the characters and settings later.  Although I already feel I know the characters and their situations well before I begin, it takes time to make them real to readers.

    Being a life-long writer, I am very ‘picky’ about writing clearly.  Lots of adjectives and adverbs might go in but they don’t last long.

   My next novel is currently out for review with some teenage critics.  Perhaps it will be controversial, perhaps not. 
The main character is a hobby photographer in her sixteenth year.

It’s her journey through some current real-life issues that inspire her into courageous actions, resulting in the police visiting her college. She’s a bold, spirited young hero, we need more of them!

An unexpected hero by L.P. Hansen

An unexpected hero by L.P. Hansen (CreateBooks, 2014)

ISBN 978-0-9941102-7-5

12 chapters; 145 pages

Subjects: World War One, New Zealand, conscientious objectors, pacifism, Archibald Baxter, schools, bullying, farms, junior fiction (Year 5-8)

Matt Turner, 12 years old, faces a move from the big city to the country for family reasons. Instead of living with his parents, he has to stay on the farm with his grandparents and attend the same small country school where his father once went.

First chapters can be tricky when then there is a lot of information to get across, but Linda Hansen’s opening chapter does a fine job of introducing Matt, his grandparents and the farm, explaining why he is there, showing us how difficult it can be for kids on that first day at a new school and hinting at some of the major themes to follow (local war history and Matt’s struggles with public speaking).  

At Matt’s new school, the annual Year 8 farewell speeches are a big community event, and he has arrived in time to be a part of it. Matt’s family has never made a big deal about war, so he doesn’t know who to choose for his “war hero”. Even worse, he hates speaking in public (a fact that his grandparents don’t know about him) and is terrified that he will stutter, blush and totally mess up.

The book follows Matt’s journey both in thinking about the nature of heroism and in taking steps towards a victory of his own. I liked the way that the author shows us Matt struggling with both of these issues, and getting help from other people, but ultimately finding a way towards his own resolution of them.

Bobs book blog (always an excellent resource) gives the book a very good review and calls it “an excellent short novel …for primary and intermediate children and a timely reminder that it takes courage to refuse to fight

Free Teachers’ Resource kits are available from the publisher here.

Who would you choose as your war time hero?
(I’m currently taking my first ever MOOC (Massive Open Online) course on “Changing faces of heroism”,  and this is one of the first questions we were asked.)

About the author
Linda Hansen is both a storyteller and a writer. In 2012, she won the Jack Lasenby Children’s Writing Award for ‘Socks in the Library,’ a story about homelessness.

Linda developed her writing skills by working in places like Radio New Zealand and then in Parliament where, as the deputy director of one of the Research Units, she researched and wrote for politicians. During her time at Volunteer Service Abroad, she learned about countries where the volunteers worked and wrote handbooks about them.

Other books you might like:
Other books that deal with the topic of pacifism are Evan’s Gallipoli by Kerry Greenwood, Remembrance by Theresa Breslin and My brother’s war by David Hill. 

Things I didn’t know
I did know something about Archibald Baxter and I‘ve read his classic memoir We will not cease, but I didn't know anything about the developments in the country that Matt uses for the basis of his speech. I don’t want to spoil the plot but it is worth searching online for the idea of “changing rifles into notebooks”.

You can find more info about Archibald Baxter on Te ara, NZ history or the site Lest we forget – "remembering peacemakers on Anzac Day".

Have you read it?
Have you read this book? Let me know what you think!

Wednesday 4 March 2015

Number the stars by Lois Lowry

Number the stars by Lois Lowry (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1989)

ISBN 0 395 51060 0

17 chapters; 137 pages

Subjects: World War Two, Denmark, Sweden, Jews, Resistance, Occupation, courage, friendship, junior fiction (Year 6-8)

This is not a long book, but it is simply but powerfully told and won the Newbery Award. I am going to quote from the book jacket itself, because it provides the perfect intro:

“’How brave are you, little Annemarie?’ Uncle Henrik asks his ten-year-old niece. It is 1943, and to Annemarie Johansen, life in Copenhagen is a complicated mix of ordinary home and school life, food shortages, and the constant presence of Nazi soldiers. Bravery seems a vague virtue, one possessed by dragon-slaying knights in the bedtime stories she tells her younger sister, Kirsti. Too soon, she herself is called upon for courage.

As the German troops begin their campaign to "relocate" all the Jews of Denmark, the Johansens take in Annemarie's best friend, Ellen Rosen, and pretend she is part of the family. Ellen and Annemarie must think quickly when three Nazi officers arrive late one night and question why Ellen is not blond, like her sisters.

Through Annemarie's eyes, we see the Danish Resistance as they manage to smuggle almost the entire Jewish population, nearly 7000 people, across the sea to Sweden. In this tale of an entire nation's heroism, Lois Lowry reminds us that there is pride and human decency in the world even during a time of terror and war.”

Lois Lowry has written an Afterword in response to the question “How much of Annemarie’s story is true?”

There are lots of study guides available online. The  Scholastic page has extra teaching resources including extension guides and writing prompts.

The book also features on the prestigious Kirkus reviews which calls it a "deftly told story that dramatizes how Danes appointed themselves bodyguards--not only for their king, who was in the habit of riding alone in Copenhagen, but for their Jews."

Where does the title come from? (Hint: Look in the chapter titled “Let us open the casket”.) What do you think it means?

Author’s website
Lois Lowry’s website starts on a cheery, welcoming note: “Hi! I wish I could invite you into my kitchen for a cup of tea and we could chat. That's not possible. But please... join me here, at the website. It's the next best thing.”

It contains her biography with lots of family photos and interesting facts, FAQs, speeches, videos and even a quiz. Lois Lowry was born in Hawaii, went to school in America and Japan, got married at 19 and had four children. She writes that her older son was a fighter pilot in the US Air Force. “His death in the cockpit of a warplane left a little girl fatherless and tore away a piece of my world. But it left me, too, with a wish to honor him by joining the many others trying to find a way to end conflict on this very fragile earth.”

I also liked this paragraph:
“My books have varied in content and style. Yet it seems that all of them deal, essentially, with the same general theme: the importance of human connections. summer to diemy first book, was a highly fictionalized retelling of the early death of my sister, and of the effect of such a loss on a family. Number the starsset in a different culture and era, tells the same story: that of the role that we humans play in the lives of our fellow beings.”

Other books you might like:
Claire Huchet Bishop’s Twenty and ten, set in France, also shows how courage and friendship can help to save those whose lives are in danger, as does Hero on a bicycle by Shirley Hughes (set in Italy).

In I am David, Denmark is the country that David is told to head to. In my post on that book, I talk about how it isn't a WW2 story at all, but I still like the connection. 

Things I didn’t know
I didn't know anything about the Danish Resistance (Denmark surrendered to Germany in 1940).  I had no idea that over 7,000 Danish Jews - almost all of the country's Jewish population - were taken across to safety in Sweden.

I didn’t know about King Christian and loved the story of how he used to ride out on his horse every morning to greet his people, unguarded,  because “the whole of Denmark” was his bodyguard. In fact there is a picture book about him, The Yellow Star: The Legend of King Christian X of Denmark by Carmen Agra Deedy, which tells how he responded to the Nazi edict that all Jews must wear a yellow star by wearing a yellow star himself – however, this is apparently a blend of fact and legend, as no Danish Jews were ever “forced" to wear the yellow star.

But as the Holocaust Encyclopedia points out, “The legend conveys an important historical truth, however: both the King and the majority of the Danish people stood by their Jewish citizens and were instrumental in saving almost all of them from Nazi persecution and death.”

King Christian X. According to popular legend, King Christian X chose to wear a yellow star in support of the Danish Jews during the Nazi occupation of Denmark. In another version, the Danish people decided to wear a yellow star for the same reason. Both of these stories are fictional. However, the legend conveys an important historical truth: both the King and the Danish people stood by their Jewish citizens and were instrumental in saving the overwhelming majority of them from Nazi persecution and death.
King Christian X of Denmark

Here is a picture of a Danish rescue boat, and a map showing how close Denmark is to Sweden. You can even see film footage of the German presence in Copenhagen.

Have you read it?
Have you read this book? Let me know what you think!