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Once Upon A Wartime

February 26, 2011
 PAUL WILCOCKS

To the Imperial War Museum where five children’s war books are the starting point for exploration in Once Upon A Wartime.

First up is ‘Warhorse’ by Michael Morpurgo.  Paintings that inspired the author are on display as well as accounts of what happened to horses on the western front.  What is most interesting is an original manuscript of Morpurgo’s typed early draft together with scribbled emendations he added when forwarding to the publisher.

The next three books are linked to the Second World War. The displays on ‘Carrie’s War’ by Nina Bawden includes photographs of the author as an evacuee and even her old teddy bear which was thought to belong to her brother until an old photo revealed it had been hers.  The children I was with were most intrigued by the mock-up of Hepzibah’s kitchen.

‘The Machine Gunners’ exhibition included a mock-up of an Anderson shelter which children can climb into, including pasted up strips of wartime comics with characters like Patsy Potter being overwhelmed by a soldier’s cigarette smoke! Again, a typed draft of the author’s work – Robert Westall – is on display, this time with pencil notes from the editor advising a tightening of dialogue.  Westall’s Carnegie Medal is also on show.  A play based on this novel is currently on at the Polka Theatre.

The fourth book, ‘The Silver Sword’ by Ian Serraillier, is a book I found haunting as a child and it was wonderful to see the actual silver sword on display – it was a letter opener which the Serrailler received in the post as a gift  whilst working on his book.  Serrailler chose to use this letter opener as the symbolic thread that binds the father, who has escaped from the Nazi, with his lost children in Warsaw.

The fifth book brings us more up to date.  Called ‘Little Soldier’ by Bernard Ashley, it is set in a fictional African country torn apart by war.  A boy’s family is wiped out by a Yusulu government troops.  When the boy – Kaninba Balumba – is sent by the Red Cross to England, he meets, in his East London classroom, a Yusulu boy refugee.  Does he take revenge?  The exhibition presents many of the dilemmas facing the boy as he struggles with the ghosts of his past.  What was most disturbing about this book is that it reminds us that war and its horrors are ever-present.

It was noticeable that many of the writers in this exhibition were teachers who initially wrote in their spare-time. Westall wrote his book ‘The Machine Gunners’ to interest a nine-year old; he read it out to him and cut out the bits the boy found boring.  The manuscript was then left in a drawer till a friend convinced him to send it to a publisher.

The two ten year olds with me at this exhibition found the activities stimulating, from quizzes to interactive models, and particularly liked the Anderson shelter.  They were very intrigued by  ‘Little Soldier’.  You can hear the authors talk briefly about their work in each section.  Ashley’s account of re-finding his equilibrium at the end of a long day by writing struck a particular note with me.

It was fascinating seeing the authors’ old typewriters on display and I wondered how much using typewriters affects the number of drafts an author works through, as opposed to laptops and computers.  I also became interested in how much wars from earlier centuries are represented in children’s books.  ‘It would be hard to grab their attention,’ said a friend who was with me.  I wonder…

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 27, 2011 1:56 pm

    I really want to see this exhibiition so it was great to read your post. Many thanks.

  2. Children's Author permalink
    March 5, 2011 5:15 pm

    The exhibition sounds really interesting. I, too, enjoyed Ian Serraillier’s ‘The Silver Sword’ – as did my children. I also liked Robert Westall’s ‘The Machine Gunners’. They are both excellent choices and should capture the interest, particularly of blood-thirsty small boys.

    Elizabeth Hawksley

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