Saturday 27 August 2016

Ibby 2016: thoughts on writing about war for children

I’ve just been lucky enough to attend the Ibby 2016 Congress. Ibby stands for International Board on Books for Young People. It’s an international organisation (as the name suggests), founded in Switzerland in 1953, and this is the first time that the two-yearly congress has been held in New Zealand. The theme was Literature in a Multi-Literate World.

You can read more about Ibby here. And you can find out more about the Ibby 2016 Congress here, including the programme and speakers.

As well as meeting people from around the world, all deeply passionate about children’s literature, I presented a paper in a session called “The past informs the present” with two other speakers: Kestutis Urba from Lithuania, describing short stories from his country set in World War One, and Hisako Kakuage from Japan, talking about how the Japanese branch of Ibby has supported children in Fukushima after the nuclear plant accident in 2011. 

I’m very grateful to everyone who came along to hear my talk on Children’s war books: helping children make sense of war and peace, and to those who asked questions or came up to talk to me afterwards. It was especially moving to meet a Turkish delegate who has written a children’s book about war (which I’m hoping to review) and to discover that both of our grandfathers had served at Gallipoli – on opposite sides, of course. 

As a result of these questions and discussions, I’ve come away with some interesting points to ponder. They fall into three main categories:

1. There have been many children’s books written about World War One and World War Two, but what about more recent wars – Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq? How do we write about those?

When I check my list of books by date and setting, I can only find three about Vietnam and Afghanistan, and two of those are by Australian writer Mark Wilson. He wrote about Afghanistan by focusing on a lost puppy (and coincidentally, I met someone at the Ibby Congress from New Orleans, who said that after Hurricane Katrina, stories about animals, such as Two Bobbies, helped children to make sense of what had happened). 

We have more historical distance from WW1 and WW2, and more historical and military research to draw on. The Allied nations have a clear narrative that has become generally accepted, in that we see ourselves on the “good”, winning side in a battle of good vs evil (albeit clearer for WW2 than for  WW1).

For WW1, New Zealand also has the “nation building” narrative where we see ourselves as having “come of age” as a nation during that conflict, and especially at Gallipoli. We concentrate on qualities such as mateship, friendship, courage, loyalty, self-sacrifice and family love. The WW1 centenary commemorations and renewed interest in family history has seen many people wanting to know how their family was affected by WW1, which had such a huge impact on the whole country. 

But in the later wars, the narrative is more confused – and was even at the time, for example, when there was much opposition to the Vietnam War.

So I can see the difficulties and challenges in writing about those later wars, but it also makes me think more (again) about how, and why we are telling the story of war. 

2. How do we write about refugees, especially the current refugee situation in Europe (and also Australia)?

I know there are some excellent books coming out on this subject – memoirs, novels  and picture books like  Flight written by Nadia Wheatley (who was at the Ibby Congress) and illustrated by Armin Greder.

In New Zealand we do have refugees but not in such numbers. But are there any books written about them? I have to find out. (And who can write those books? We also talked at Ibby about whether people from outside a culture can write about it, and if so, how best to do that.)

3. How do countries that were on the losing side in wars (for example, Germany or Japan in WW2) present that history in their literature for children?

This is another aspect of writing about war for children that I’ve never considered before.  

A Japanese delegate at Ibby said that there is a big gap in books written for children about their country’s WW2 history and they know very little about it as a result. When I cited the books written about Sadako, she said there are books about Hiroshima and the bomb (in which the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were innocent victims) but very little about other aspects of the war. Now I wonder if that is also the case for Germany. I can see that the overall narrative for those countries is quite different, even though many aspects (eg young people going off to war) were the same, leading to German classics like All quiet on the Western Front.

So far I have lots of questions and few answers, but I’m definitely going to think more about these topics. And your thoughts are welcome!

Monday 22 August 2016

Toitoi: Anzac special issue

Toitoi: Anzac special issue (February 2016)

92 pages with full page colour illustrations

Subjects: World War One, World War Two, Gallipoli, France, trenches, junior fiction, children’s writing (Year 5-8)


Toitoi is a quarterly journal for young New Zealand writers and artists, aged 5-13, which publishes “material with an original and authentic voice that other young people can connect to and be inspired by and that reflects the cultures and experiences of life in New Zealand.” It encourages creativity and can also be used in the classroom with teaching notes for each issue.
You can read more about it here
And they also have a Facebook page.

This Anzac special issue is filled with highly imaginative work that tells the story of war in many different forms: stories, poems, letters, diary entries and even a song, with accompanying full page illustrations. One piece in French (Poilu by Tristan Hosking, aged 9) manages to be an acrostic poem as well.  

They cover topics such as leaving NZ by ship (from the point of view both of those leaving and those left behind), posting a tin of Anzac biscuits, Gallipoli, France, the trenches, seeing friends die in battle, losing a loved one and remembering the war years later in Anzac Day ceremonies and small family interactions. Many of the writers show great sensitivity and they also use some powerful sensory descriptions.

I liked so many of these pieces that it’s hard to single any out, but here are a few lines that particularly moved or impressed me with their thoughtfulness, empathy and imagination:

“Imagine having great valour then slowly having a disheartened mind.”
(from Imagine by Kareena Dunlop, aged 11)

“It looks like we are winning which is quite good so I might be home in time for Christmas”
(from April 1915, a letter, by Alice Kelsall, aged 7)

“In Flanders Fields I see death / In every second and every breath.”
(from In Flanders Fields, a poem by Kyuss Williamson, aged 12)

“How still you die / When you are dead / How still you lie…
I know both sides / Both stories / Both losses / I know both sides.”
(from My people, a poem by Ilana Kizildere, aged 10)

“I am ashamed that I killed people. But then again, I’m proud that I ought for my country. That’s why I just sit here. The Second World War haunts me every day.”
(from Grandpa’s story by Megan Foster and Madison Blackwood, aged 11)

Similarly with the many wonderful illustrations, it’s hard to select just a few, but I was especially impressed by Alisha Sangster’s illustration for Grandpa’s story, showing the old man leaning on a stick with a soldier’s shadow looming behind him. I also liked Aisha Tanaka-Avers’ departing  ship, Apple Minoza’s white cross on a swirly coloured background, Pieta Bayley’s woman packing up the tin of Anzac biscuits, Anna de Boyett’s dramatic portrait of a horse, Stella Hinton’s soldier silhouette (reproduced on the front cover above) and Shahni Tagatoa’s muted graveside scene.

Have you read it?
Have you read this issue of Toitoi? Let me know what you think!
Have you submitted anything to Toitoi? Check out the dates that the next submissions close and have a go. It's such a great magazine and a wonderful opportunity to see your work in print.  

Friday 5 August 2016

Bravo! by Philip Waechter and Moni Port

Bravo! by Philip Waechter and Moni Port, translated by Sally-Ann Spencer (Gecko Press, 2011; original title Der Krakeeler)

32 pages with colour illustrations

Subjects:  anger management, anti-war books, peace, animals, fable, picture books (Year 3-6)

I wouldn’t have thought to review this book, if not for finding it on Raymond Huber’s excellent list of Anti-war books for children.

It tells the story of Helena, “a little girl” who “lived in a crooked house, deep in a valley, beside a turquoise stream”. (I love the hint of fairytale in the word “crooked”, and the exactness of “turquoise”.)

Helena’s life is almost perfect, apart from her loud shouting father, and the book follows the decisions she makes, and the outcome of those decisions.  (As Raymond says, “Children have to find peace within themselves before they can change the world".)

Raymond also provides teaching notes – on words, characters, story structure and illustrations - here.

Publishers Weekly calls it a “spare, delicately drawn offering” in which “Helena’s decisive act allows her to find her own voice and to mend her relationship with her father, too.” 

Curled up with a good kid's book says it "delivers a thought provoking message about positive behaviour and making socially acceptable and positive choices". 

Raymond Huber poses some excellent questions in his teaching notes:
  • What does Helena think of her father? 
  • Is she scared of him? 
  • Is it his loudness she hates or something else? (Remember she plays the trumpet).

About the author and illustrator
This book was originally published as Der Krakeeler, which means “rowdy type”, “brawler” or “roisterer”. It’s interesting that the translator and publishers (the wonderful Gecko Press) have chosen a different sort of title for the English version, focusing more on Helena and her actions than on her father.
It’s also interesting that the cover gives both names equal weight, with no clues as to which is the author and which the illustrator. A bit of sleuthing reveals that it is written by Moni Port and illustrated by Philip Waechter (so the names on the cover are in the opposite order to how you would usually find them displayed on a NZ picture book). 
According to Gecko Press, Moni Port was born in 1968 in Germany. She has worked as a bookseller, then studied communication design, focussing on illustration and book design. 
Philip Waechter was born in 1968 in Germany. He now lives as a freelance graphic designer and illustrator in Frankfurt am Main. In 1999, Philip and Moni co-founded the community studio LABOR. You can read more about Philip here.

Other books you might like:
Other anti-war books for children include The story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf and The general by Janet Charters, illustrated by Michael Foreman.