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Elizabeth Hawksley: Books for Boys

March 21, 2011

 

Archie's War by Marcia Williams

Between February 2010 and February 11, I reviewed fourteen children’s historical novels specifically aimed at boys for the Historical Novel Society, out of a total of thirty-four. The two most popular settings were the two world wars and Samurai/Ninja Japan. Other settings varied hugely from skulduggery in Tudor England, the Vikings and Ancient Sparta (very brutal) to the story of Beowulf, and the American War of Independence.

One of my favourites was Archie’s War, engagingly written and brilliantly illustrated by Marcia Williams, which is aimed at boys of eight plus. It opens in 1914. Ten-year-old Archie Albright lives with his family in London’s East End. He loves comics and is thrilled when he is given a scrapbook. He decides to create his own comic book. This proves to be a brilliant format for getting across what life was like for ordinary people during the First World War.

Archie collects whatever he can get his hands on: newspaper cuttings, cigarette cards of the period, picture post cards from the front, railway tickets, his Dad’s letters from the trenches, and his own diary and drawings. We see his family’s enthusiastic patriotism at the beginning (apart from his sixteen-year-old Pacifist sister); his Uncle Ted joins up amid great enthusiasm; the innocent Schoenfeld family who ‘might be spies’ are ostracized. Gradually, the tone changes as Archie realizes that the war won’t be over by Christmas.

The news gets darker. War-time shortages begin to bite; then Uncle Ted is killed. Archie’s father joins up, as does his fifteen-year-old brother, Ron. Sometimes, Archie’s scrapbook records local news: the explosion in the munitions factory where his mother works. Sometimes it has more general news, such as the story of Edith Cavell.

The arrival of the first Zeppelin brings a new threat. The Zeppelins are slow and not too dangerous but then come the first German bombers. Archie is excited by the exploits of the Red Baron, but horrified by what bombing actually does to people when the street behind them is bombed and his friend Tom is made homeless.       

I give Marcia Williams top marks for the intelligent, funny, sad and thoughtful way she charts the First World War through the eyes of one ten-year-old boy. I particularly like the way she charts the gradual shift of emotion as Archie realizes that war is about more than simple patriotism. I thought the bookt was terrific.

There are plenty of high-calibre authors out there writing for boys and they are doing a great job. What we need now is for public libraries to remain open and be funded properly so that they can buy books like Archie’s War to help boys get the reading bug.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Marion permalink
    March 22, 2011 10:25 am

    What a brilliant review. It made me want to rush out and buy this book. I’m not a boy reader but maybe I can qualify as eight plus!

  2. Prem permalink
    March 26, 2011 1:40 pm

    I couldn’t agree more – it sounds like a wonderful book, and I should think that were it attractively displayed in a library it would attract both boys and girls and possibly encourage a lifelong love of books. Even if libraries are a ‘middle class’ service, what’s wrong with middle class people enjoying a service they’ve paid for with council tax? I am an ardent supporter of money being spent on deprived areas – of course that’s only right and fair. But we need to nourish not only the body, but also the mind and the spirit. When my children were small we weren’t at all well off, and our trips to the library, and the armfuls of books we took home, brought us a weekly joy. Oh, and the people we met at the library were usually from the local council estate where my children went to school. Sorry to rant.

  3. Children's Author permalink
    March 26, 2011 3:11 pm

    I do so agree, Prem. I’ve had to campaign for my local library to be kept open at least three times. It’s situated very close to a large council estate and a lot of children use it to do their homework in. If you’re living in cramped conditions where else can you find quiet space to work in?

    Elizabeth Hawksley

  4. Children's Author permalink
    April 1, 2011 8:50 pm

    I’m jealous that you had the chance to read all those 14 historical novels ! It feels like a luxury to be able to place your hands on all of them, keep them in a pile by your bed, and pick them off, one by one. I love the other worldly feeling you get when sinking into another time…
    Nikki B.

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