So, do you remember a few months ago when I did my Poppies and Prose week? If you do then you probably know that I am an absolutely huge fan of anything war literature related.
When anyone asks me why I love war literature so much the first thing that comes to mind are my A-Levels. Like thousands before (and after me), I studied War Literature (mostly poems) at A-Level and they really struck a chord with me. And then again, at university I studied Wilfred Owen and Seigfried Sassoon in my Early 20th Century literature module.
But I think the main reason why I love stories set in the war is because it reminds me of both of my granddads. I won’t witter on about this too much (I already did here if you want to read what my grandparents did in the war) but I have always felt connected to it.
So why do I love books set in the war?
Because as much as I love the history, I love the human stories behind the history that we all learnt in a stuffy classroom last thing on a Friday afternoon even more.
Does that make any sense?
As I mentioned briefly in my review for Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, I am hopelessly in love with the Imperial War Museum so imagine my absolute joy when I saw that the IWM North had an exhibition about children’s books set in the wars from the beginning of the 20th Century to present day.
The IWM North (not to be mistaken with the one
in London, The Churchill War Rooms, Duxford or the HMS Belfast) is based opposite the Hovis factory in Salford Quays, across the way from Media City and the Lowry Theatre.
Does that mean anything to you? Probably not… so here’s a picture.
As you can see, it was a glorious summer’s day in Manchester and I was so so sad to have to
take shelter leave the lovely sun and spend the morning enriching my mind.
But I did anyway.
It seemed we had chosen the day that some Girl Guides were doing a zipwire from the top of the museum across the quay to the other side (you might be able to see it on the pictures above). I’m not sure why they were doing it but they seemed to be having lots of fun. I didn’t actually get a picture of the actual museum but, I have to tell you, that building is bloody high. If I hadn’t been unceremoniously thrown out of Brownies, I feel I would have made a brilliant Girl Guide. But that’s a story for another time…
After I took some pictures of the outside of the building, much to the bemusement of some tourists, I headed up to the exhibition and found myself face to face with a large wooden horse.
The first book that the exhibition talked about was War Horse by Michael Morpurgo. You’ve probably heard of this book. And the film. And the play. Or if you haven’t then you definitely will have seen that odd looking wooden horse gallop across that building and neigh at the Queen when she was on the flotilla?
That was Joey, the star of War Horse.
Anyway, back to the exhibition.
Unfortunately, my plan of taking sleuth pictures (I know, I know you’re not supposed to take pictures in a museum but everyone else was and I didn’t have the flash on) in this area was FOILED by the security guard who was prowling and looking at me suspiciously as I made notes in my trusty notepad.
The wooden horse was basically the size of a normal horse, except it didn’t have any legs. Apparently the soldiers who fought in WW1 used these models to learn how to equip the horses with saddles, harnesses, reins and stirrups. It was odd to think that these soldiers learnt on something as basic as a glorified hobby horse.
Oh, I forgot to mention that each of the five books that were featured in this exhibition had been given a word that applied to not only the book, but also war in general. I really liked this and thought it was extremely clever and thought-provoking because they weren’t always the words you would think of when you thought of war.
War Horse’s word was ‘loyalty’ because “Loyalty can often be tested in wartime. To stay loyal, you may have to risk your own life.”
What struck me instantly about this exhibition was that there was a great mix of things to look at and do. It wasn’t just history and facts that would alienate people who weren’t familiar with the era and it wasn’t all ‘DID YOU KNOW THIS IS A BOOK? NO? YOU UNCULTURED CRETIN’. Combined with quotes from the books themselves, there were pictures, photographs, posters, interactive displays and actual recorded readings from the authors talking about how they came to writing their stories.
As I meandered through the cabinets with veterinary kits from what they used to treat the horses when they were injured (if you’ve read War Horse, you’ll understand how this was particularly interesting!), I learnt all about the role of horses in the war and how respected and well-loved they were in the war. And then I stared in wonderment for a bit at the original War Horse manuscript and learnt that there were three events that prompted Mr Morpurgo to write his most famous book. The first was the time he met a WW1 veteran in his local pub and heard all about his experiences in the war. The second was when he saw a picture (which I think was painted by F.W Reed) of a cavalry charge. And the third, which I loved, was when he was visiting a farm and he witnessed an incredibly shy boy who had a stammer talking freely to his horse.
The next book was Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden, a book that I haven’t read but I am desperate to. It’s all about evacuees in the Second World War. The word associated with this book was separation.
Here, I finally managed to take some sleuth pictures.
There wasn’t that much in this section but there was a wonderful and a bit heart-breaking story about a teddy bear of Ms Bawden that she gave to her younger brother as they got evacuated (her to Aberdare and him somewhere else) but she didn’t see the teddybear again for sixty five years because her brother forgot it wasn’t his!
Naturally, this broke my heart. Poor ted. I didn’t actually get a picture of him but he was really cute.
There was also a wonderful list of all the things an evacuee should take with them to their new home. These included handkerchiefs, petticoats, combs and sandwiches for the train journey to their new destination.
There was a really moving display of postcards sent from evacuees to their parents back at home too! But I didn’t get a picture so let’s all just use our imagination, yes?
In Ms Bawden’s biography kind of thing, there was a great quote from her agent who after finishing Carrie’s War :“It’s a lovely book, but it won’t sell. People don’t want to read a book about war”. Since its publication, Carrie’s War has sold oodles of copies and never, ever been out of print.
The next book was The Machine Gunners by Robert Westall and I have to admit I have never heard of this book before but now I have… I covet it because I sounds wonderful. A group of children finding a German machine gun and building dens? Where do I sign up?
The word for this book was “excitement” because, during the war, there are “bomb sites to explore, souvenirs to hunt for. New games, dangerous secrets”.
This, by far, was my favourite part of the exhibition because there was an actual den you could go into. It was filled with sandbags and bunk beds and comic book pages on the wall and even a list of rules for people who entered.
My favourite was the one that said “No peeing within fifty yards, or Anything Else.” A very important rule, I think you’ll agree.
There was also a lot of information about the process behind the writing of this book which I, as a sorta-kinda writer, found fascinating. Mr Westall wrote this book for his son, Christopher to try and get close to him once again because he had entered that age when all he wanted to do was play out with his friends and go on adventures. Robert Westall used to read his book aloud to his son and change any parts he found boring.
There was also the type-writer he used to write the book, which I fell instantly in love with, and the handwritten manuscript of The Machine Gunners.
And then there was the actual Carnegie Medal that he won for The Machine Gunners and I made grabby hands at it until the security guard scowled at me. But whatever, people may dream of getting a Grammy or a BAFTA or an Academy Award…. I dream of Carnegie.
The fourth book was The Silver Sword by Ian Serriallier which, again, I had never heard of before. Which is a shame because it sounds brilliant. It tells the story of three children who are left to look after themselves in Poland in the Second World War when their father is taken by Nazis. The word attached to this book was “survival”: “Where can you hide? How will you survive?”
This part didn’t really have that much information and was probably the smallest exhibition of the five books but it was still fascinating. There was a great part that told the history of children all across Europe (particularly Poland, where this book was set) and how they were affected by the war. Unfortunately, there were quite a lot of people milling around in this part so I didn’t get close enough to read it all. But what I did read was really fascinating.
The book itself took five years to write and there were lots of scraps of paper where Mr Serraillier had jotted down his ideas. He stated that he used his own experiences, even though he didn’t fight in the war, and adapted them to suit the story and attached them to invented characters. Isn’t that great? I don’t know why but I really loved that.
Also, fun fact– the silver sword of the title was actually inspired by a letter opener in the shape of a silver sword that Mr Serraillier received as a gift from his brother.
The fifth and final book was Little Soldier by Bernard Ashley and… again… I have never heard of this book before. And again, I could kick myself because this one sounds absolutely fantastic and like nothing I’ve read before. Set in the African Civil war in the 90s, this book follows a teenage boy named Kaninda who turns to the leader of the rebel soldiers after his family are killed by their government.
Mr Ashley used to be a head teacher at a high school in London and was inspired to write this story after seeing a news report of child soldiers in Zaire and also by the news that a student at his school was killed by a rival gang on the streets of London. And with that, Little Soldier was written.
Within this section there was also a M16 rifle which child soldiers like Kaninda would use every day. I was absolutely shocked at how huge it was! Seriously, it was probably bigger than most children. It really brought things home.
But yeah, I am desperate to read this one now. It seems like a brilliant, original and extremely harrowing story and exactly what I look for in a book.
Then there was a room that featured quick spotlights on other books, both ones I’ve heard of and ones that I haven’t. Armed with my handy notebook I made a list of the ones I want to read:
Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah.
The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis
The Little Ships by Louise Borden.
The Lion and the Unicorn by Shirley Hughes
One Boy’s War by Lynn Huggins-Cooper, illustrations by Ian Benfold Haywood.
War Game by Michael Foreman.
I am desperate to get my mitts on some of those illustrated books because there were a few knocking around at the exhibition and I had a brief chance to flick through them and they are stunning. Then some real, legitimate children came along and I felt judged for hogging the books so I had to move away before I could devour them. The books… not the children.
And then, my favourite thing about the entire exhibition…. This:
You may know that Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian isn’t just one of my favourite war time books but one of my favourite books of all time. So seeing the actual manuscript?
I took a sleuth picture faster than you can say ‘Jo you fangirl geek’.
After we finished with the exhibition we wandered to the main area which is separated into silos which feature a different war from the 20th Century up until present day. On one side of the huge space you have pictures and exhibitions from the World Wars, moving ontothe Cold War to the Gulf War and then on the other side of the room you have an exhibition on the war that is happening right now.
Along with a window taken from the rubble of one of the World Trade Centre towers, there is also the British Union flag that was discovered in the wreckage and was delivered back to British soil for the 10th anniversary. I’m not sure how long it’s going to be at the IWM but if you get the chance, it’s an incredibly moving part of the museum.
Unfortunately, I don’t have the linguistic ability to do this museum justice. It’s one of my favourite places in the world and I’ve lost count how many times I’ve actually visited it. But every time I go I find something that I didn’t see before and learn something new.
I could quite happily spend the whole day in this place.
If you have ever been interested in history and children’s books set in the war and you’re anywhere near Manchester, I implore you to go. It’s absolutely stellar.