Books on war for younger readers

By Dionne Christian

As Anzac Day once again approaches and World War I centenary commemorations continue, some of the most noteworthy new books are from local authors writing for children.

Former soldier Glyn Harper, now Professor of War Studies at Massey University, has written numerous history books and children's books. Now he's back, with illustrator Jenny Cooper, telling a true story that is all the more incredible because it hasn't been told until now.

The picture book Gladys Goes To War is about Gladys Sandford, who was born in Australia but spent a chunk of her life in New Zealand. When her husband, William Henning, went to war, Sandford followed, joining the Volunteer Sisterhood and working as a driver. Later, in England, she joined the NZ Expeditionary Force's Motor Transport Section.

Harper came across Sandford, who was this country's first female car salesperson and first woman to obtain a pilot's licence, while he was researching for a book about New Zealand soldiers. Finding a reference to her, he looked into Sandfords' war records and decided he had the perfect character for a children's book.

"I wasn't convinced I had enough material for a full-scale biography and I thought a story about a woman who is told she can't do certain things and ignores all that, well, young children look for people like that because they're interesting and inspirational."

Taranaki author David Hill's Enemy Camp is aimed at 9-14-year-olds and highlights a particularly disturbing, but relatively little known, chapter in our World War II history. The "Featherstone incident" occurred on February 25, 1943, when a group of unarmed Japanese Prisoners of War charged guards at the Featherston POW Camp. The guards opened fire and, minutes later, some 31 Japanese were dead - a further 17 died of wounds - and around 74 were injured. One guard was also killed and six others wounded.

"It was an event that shocked New Zealanders as they slowly found out about it, but one that hasn't received a great deal of attention," Hill says. "I can't recall when I first heard about it, but it's always been whispered about so I decided to investigate further. I found it quite difficult to track down accurate reports about it - we don't even know for certain how many died and how many were wounded - but Mike Nicolaidi's book, The Featherston Chronicles, was a great help."

Meanwhile, Wellington author Philippa Werry follows her successful non-fiction book Anzac Day - The New Zealand Story with Armistice Day: What it is and why it matters. Rigorously researched, the book starts by looking at World War I's final battles and includes chapters on returning home and the influenza epidemic, the oft-overlooked aftermath of war, memorials and peace commemorations and armistice today.

"After the Anzac Day book, I went into schools to talk about it and found a lot of children knew about Anzac Day but not how the war ended," says Werry. "I think a lot of adults are uncertain, too, so a book about Armistice Day seemed like a natural follow-up."

While the three books differ, Harper, Hill and Werry confronted similar issues in writing them. One concern was how to tell stories about some of our darkest days without traumatising young readers.

Harper says he opted to simplify the language and rely on Cooper's illustrations to bring lightness to the tale. "You don't want to 'sugar coat' war and paint it as some sort of glorious adventure, but these stories are an important part of our country's history so the truth is in there."

The last thing Hill wanted was to be "preachy" but he sought to include notions about the various conflicts war brings: conflicts of attitudes, opposing values and varying ideals.

He reckons children in the age bracket he's writing for will appreciate the issues he's raising and they'll make for good discussions with parents or teachers.

Ewen, a young boy whose father is a camp guard, is the main character and tells the story through diary entries. As well as talking about the war, Ewen also discusses a friend's recovery from polio but there are lighter moments. First love, schoolyard antics and general tomfoolery are all included in the story which starts slowly but builds to its shocking yet restrained end.

Werry was careful to avoid elements, particularly photos, which were overtly distressing - "certainly nothing for the sake of sensation". She believes the best way to engage young readers is not to patronise them and to find compelling real-life stories and personalities they can relate to.

So do they succeed? Yes. Each book is well designed, thoroughly researched, thought-provoking and does the all-important work of striking the right balance between story and history. What's more, it shows there's still a lot in our past to be explored.

It's a point made by all three authors who say avoiding the temptation to go off on tangents, following up other intriguing stories they came across, was sometimes hard to resist. Harper is now working on a children's book about the NZ Tunnelling Company in World War I; Hill will spend three months as Massey University's Writer in Residence and Werry is the 2016 Anzac Bridge Fellow. She'll work with schoolchildren in the Manawatu-Whanganui and Brooweena in Queensland, both of which are near memorial bridges.

Gladys Goes to War
By Glyn Harper and Jenny Cooper
(Penguin Random House $20)

Enemy Camp
By David Hill
(Penguin Random House $20)

Armistice Day
By Philippa Werry
(New Holland $25)

- Spy.co.nz

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