With VE Day in the offing, Chris Powling considers newly issued children’s books that look back more than half-a-century.
Commemoration is the keynote, of course. There’s not much celebration in this batch, thank goodness – except, perhaps, of the human spirit generally in somehow remaining uncrushed by the horrors of fifty-or-so years ago. Quite by chance, on the very day I began this piece, I bought a second-hand copy of Andrew Motion’s Dangerous Play, Poems 1974-1984 and came across his verses on ‘Anne Frank Hius’:
‘Imagine it –
three years of whispering and loneliness
and plotting, day by day, the Allied line
in Europe with a yellow chalk.’
Reassuringly, I had plenty of evidence to hand that today’s children can do just that, imagine it, and with the same sharp, sad clarity as the adult poet. Kimberly Paterson (aged 11) from Motherwell, for instance:
‘It must have been terrible not getting outside, and not being able to walk, or talk, in the daytime. It must have been boring tip-toeing about and whispering . . .’
I’m quoting from Dear Anne Frank (Puffin, 0 14 037616 X, £3.50 pbk), an anthology of writing from schoolchildren across the country who answered an invitation from Puffin, and the Anne Frank Educational Trust, to respond to issues raised by the famous diary in any way they chose. And so they did, with letters, family experiences, poems, games and diaries of their own. The collection is moving, unpretentious and, in’ the best sense, dignified. If there’s evidence of a bit of teacherly tidying-up here and there, this never detracts from the authentic voice of the children themselves reflecting on the varieties and extremes of childhood experience – in itself something of a rarity. No school should be without this book
Or, perhaps, without Anne Frank, Beyond the Diary (Viking, 0 670 84932 4, £9.99; Puffin, 0 14 036926 0, £6.99 pbk). This is one of those brilliant ideas that’s obvious once someone’s thought of it – a combination, mainly, of pictorial history and family album with a well-judged text in support that supplies just enough period detail for upper junior/lower secondary readers. Nothing is allowed to distract attention from the pictures, though. Most of them come from the Anne Frank Trust and many are published here for the first time. Beyond the Diary this book certainly goes… but alongside the diary is the feeling it gives you. It deserves every one of the non-fiction awards and commendations it’s already received.
No prizes are likely to come the way of Jayne Pettit’s A Place to Hide (Piccolo, 0 330 33893 5, £3.50 pbk) since, in comparison, it’s drably produced and plonkingly written. Yet this account of six true Holocaust rescues is honest and eye-opening – also, if the four stories I didn’t know check out as well as the two stories I did, pretty reliable. Worth a second look this. Add Christabel Bielenberg and Nazi Germany (Heinemann Education, 0 431 07151 9, £8.99) from the excellent ‘History Eyewitness’ series – a grown-up’s wartime diary set in deft, corroborating context – and you’ll safely disabuse youngsters of the notion that just about everyone on the Other Side was a prancing thug.
Of current reissues, Nina Bawden’s Carrie’s War (Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 13544 3, £10.99) will need no recommendation to BfK readers… though they may not recognise Judith Kerr’s Out of the Hitler Time (Collins, 0 00 675077 X, £7.99 pbk) till they see, from the spine, that it’s a bind-up of the trilogy When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (1971), The Other Way Round (1975) and A Small Person Far Away (1979), a fictionalised account of her own growing up. ‘I remember these,’ beamed my daughter, now aged 22, when she spotted this bulky paperback on my desk ‘They were my favourites when I was 10!’ My tentative suggestion that the trilogy does lose a little pace and fascination as it progresses was rewarded with the withering look true fans reserve for mere critics.
The popularity of The Blitzed Brits (Hippo, 0 590 55825 0, £2.99 pbk) by Terry Deary in the ‘Horrible Histories’ series is just as certain, booksellers tell me – a proven combination of bad jokes, odd facts, tall tales and the occasional quiz all linked together by Kate Sheppard’s cartoons and comic-strips. It’s vulgar, remorselessly cheerful, trivialises just about every war-time topic it mentions as a matter of principle… and thereby captures perfectly the never-say-die spirit of ordinary, men, women and children on the receiving end of the most sustained assault this country has ever suffered. History as spot-on as this is not so much an account as an enactment.
Blitz (ill. David Frankland, Collins, 0 00 185615 4, £6.99) by the late Robert Westall has a similar tell-it like-it-was verisimilitude but this time in the form of four short stones – a re-run, or perhaps a pre-run, of The Machine Gunners, a gentle meditation on cowardice, a rumbustious tale of black marketeers and a chilling ghost story. Whether you read them for yourself of listen to the tape version narrated by James Bolam and Susan Jameson (Collins, £4.49, 74 mins) it’s impossible to rank order their impact. An author as successful as Robert Westall can attract extravagant praise – in his case about the subtlety and deftness of his writing. Forget it… as this quartet makes clear, he painted with a broad brush and never shrank from a handy cliche. What he was, though, was a brilliant storyteller who could shape and. pace his tales perfectly. Each, one here grips you like a spitfire’s safety harness and comes to a halt a heartbeat before you’d prefer. Does the varying age-range betray a posthumous packaging, though? Very possibly, but the instant I noticed this I was already giving myself a withering look. A fine finale to a fine writing career.
[Carrie’s War is reissued on 27th April and the two Puffins on Anne frank are published on 30th March.]