The second part of Morris Gleitzman’s projected trilogy, Then (following on from Once, 2005), has just been published. It continues the story of Zelda and Felix against the background of the Holocaust, one of the most difficult subjects to write about in fiction and one that some people consider inappropriate for a young audience. Julia Eccleshare asks Morris Gleitzman about how and why he decided to tackle the subject.
‘I’m always writing about what’s important to me. What varies is how deeply the seriousness is buried.’ Morris Gleitzman, master of that most difficult of all things, the funny book about an unfunny subject, has become increasingly reflective in the 20 years since I first met him in 1990 following the publication of Two Weeks with the Queen. This is a remarkable book which shows his exceptional deftness in dealing with possibly tendentious material: the hero’s brother is very ill with leukaemia and the characters include a gay couple, one of whom is also very ill.
20 years later and with a slew of books, also funny, moving and poignant about complex family situations including Sticky Beak and Bumface and two more overtly political ones in Toad Rage and Boy Overboard, Morris has written his most serious books to date: Once and Then, the stories of two children surviving in Poland during the Second World War.
Here he is knowingly treading in difficult territory and having been taken aback by how Two Weeks was seen – it was excluded from some schools and libraries in Australia before a groundswell of support got behind it – this time he is prepared. ‘There has traditionally been a view that childhood is a quarantineable place where children are shielded, where they can grow and develop without being troubled. But children’s writers have come to realise that while some of that is to be respected, it has become increasingly irrelevant because we all have such open access to everything.’ That doesn’t mean Morris thinks that there are absolutely no holds barred in writing fiction for children. Realistically, he adds, ‘There are some areas of such depravity that we need to protect children from them but mostly, if we deny children access to things, they will think they must dig to find out what we are denying them.’
Providing a context
Writing about how Felix and Zelda see the horrors of the Second World War – and Morris doesn’t shy away from graphic images such as public hangings – is certainly stepping into a quarantineable place but Morris does it in exactly the way he thinks authors should: by giving it a context. ‘We owe it to children to metaphorically hold their hands but so much of what we see on TV is decontextualised. What a literary culture can do is to not deny the truth but to provide a context, to blur distinctions between good and bad and to show that everything is more complex than that.’
For Morris the context was the coming together of several strands of interest including his own Polish Jewish background which resulted in the death of members of his family during the holocaust but primarily his reading the biography of Janusz Korczak, a Polish Jewish doctor and children’s author, who ran an orphanage in Poland. ‘It was the most moving example of how you never have to look far to see the worst things and the very best things right next to each other. I wanted to explore that idea of best and worst. What I try to do is to show that wherever there is evil behaviour there are also reminders of the best we are capable of. That invites children to have a more mature understanding of what it is to be human. In writing the books it was the very best that attracted me. For me, that was the love and friendship between two children which became the most important thing in their lives.’ Perhaps it is because Morris is more interested in the best than the worst that there is nothing prurient or sensational about Once and Then.
But writing anything that is suitable for children about the holocaust is a challenge. As Morris says, ‘You don’t wander lightly into that area’ but, while acknowledging the views of those who say if you weren’t there, don’t write about it, they didn’t deter him. ‘Though I respect that, my privileged access to kids through being a children’s writer made me realise that a bit of history was slipping away. I did some soul searching and I thought that as long as I made it obvious that I wasn’t there at the time that would be ok.’
Understandably though, it was never easy and Morris found that the more he read and knew, the harder it became. ‘I wanted the most confronting moments to take place in the reader’s imagination. It gives them a safety valve.’ Thus, when Felix sees a soldier raise a gun, Morris does not describe what happens next. ‘If an eight-year-old reads that their mental image is very different from how someone who’s seen combat will imagine it. I want readers to be able to close the emotional valve. But it’s a balance because you don’t want to trivialise it.’
Managing that balance is what Morris brings off so successfully in Once and Then. He has pitched the emotions and the drama directly at the understanding of children building on his belief that ‘children’s emotional responses won’t be less. But they will be different.’ And it is that difference which he cherishes: ‘Children remind us that though they are physically small, their capacity to feel, emphasise and imagine is not smaller.’
Once (978 0 14 132063 2) and Then (978 0 14 132482 1) are published by Puffin at £5.99 each.
Julia Eccleshare is the children’s book editor of the Guardian and the co-director of CLPE (The Centre for Literacy in Primary Education).