Posts Tagged history

The Wall

Peter Sis’s illustrations are careful, unassuming and somehow gentle. But the story he tells of his childhood in Prague, The Wall, through his pictures, through minimal text supplemented with historical annotations and snippets from his own journal entries, is of a world that, however permanent it looked at the time, is now hard to believe in.


September 1963

Colonel Jan Pixa was named a Hero of the Czech Socialist Republic – for his ingenious plan for catching “disturbers of the border,” people tring to cross over to the West. He made a fake border so the “bad guys” would think they had gotten through. When they saw the American flag and were greeted by secret service men disguised as American soldiers, they’d think they had reached the West. The defectors would tell the secret service everything they knew and name their friends. What a surprise when the defectors found out they weren’t in the West after all and were going to prison for life. Colonel Pixa is a hero.

Slowly he started to ask questions. He painted what he wanted to – in secret.


Everything seemed possible . . . It was the Prague Spring of 1968!

Everyone wanted to draw. They painted a wall with their dreams . . .

and repainted it again and again.

Things got worse. He dreamed of being free. Wild dreams.



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Tomi Ungerer

I’ve mentioned Tomi Ungerer‘s Three Robbers before. I came across another of his great picture books, Otto: The Autobiography of a Teddy Bear, a while back while browsing in the Tate Modern bookshop. I was immediately impressed by how the book manages to deal with war and racial hatred in such an accessible way for childen. Here’s what Rosemary Stone says about the book in Books for Keeps:

In 1940 Ungerer’s native Alsace was annexed by the Nazis and the then 8-year-old Tomi subjected to Nazi indoctrination in school. This powerfully moving picture book tale of Otto the teddy bear is perhaps a riposte to that experience. Told in the first person by Otto, we hear about the games he plays with his owner David and David’s friend Oscar – one of which results in the indelible ink stain on the bear’s head. Nazi occupation leads to David being obliged to wear a yellow star and then he and his family are deported. Otto, left behind with Oscar, then witnesses another farewell when Oscar’s father has to leave for the front. When the bombing starts Otto saves a black GI’s life by deflecting a bullet, is taken back to the US with him and given to his daughter. Eventually, battered and caked in mud he ends up in an antique shop and is bought by the now elderly Oscar – who is then reunited with David. Both survived terrifying experiences and will now stay united with each other and with Otto.

Ungerer writes of the terrible events of war, pitching his account clearly and accessibly for younger readers. His use of a teddy bear as the central character (he is a well known collector of antique toys) helps to make events that could be too overwhelming manageable. His dynamic pencil line, the positioning of his figures and his consummate use of inks and watercolour wash convey the emotional resonance of happy times (the boys absorbed in their games with Otto) as well as painful and terrifying ones. This is a story of loss (both boys lose their parents in the war) but also of the constancy of love as represented by the faithful Otto. The book is handsomely produced on matt stock which adds to its period feel.

Tomi Ungerer: Illustration from Tomi Ungerer's Moon Man

There’s a fine gallery of images of Ungerer’s work at the Guardian.  This picture is from Moon Man.

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Accidents and Sagacity

“In ancient times there existed in the country of Serendip, in the Far East, a great and powerful king. He had three sons who were very dear to him. And being a good father and very concerned about their education, he decided that he had to leave them endowed not only with great power, but also with all kinds of virtues of which princes are particularly in need.”


The father searches out the best possible tutors. “And to them he entrusted the training of his sons, with the understanding that the best they could do for him was to teach them in such a way that they could be immediately recognized as his very own.”

When the tutors are pleased with the excellent progress that the three princes make in the arts and sciences they report it to the king. He however still doubts their training and summoning each in turn, declares that he will retire to the contemplative life leaving them as king. Each politely declines, affirming the father’s superior wisdom and fitness to rule.

The king is pleased, but fearing that his sons’ education may have been too sheltered and privileged, feigns anger at them for refusing the throne and sends them away from the land.

No sooner do the three princes arrive abroad than they trace clues to identify a camel they have never seen. They conclude that the camel is lame, blind in one eye, missing a tooth, carrying a pregnant woman, and bearing honey on one side and butter on the other. When they later encounter the merchant who has lost the camel, they report their observations to him. He accuses them of stealing the camel and takes them to the king and demands punishment.

The king asks how they are able to give such an accurate description of the camel if they have never seen it. It is clear from the princes’ replies that they have used small clues to infer cleverly the nature of the camel.

Grass had been eaten from the side of the road where it was less green, so the princes had inferred that the camel was blind on the other side. Because there were lumps of chewed grass on the road the size of a camel’s tooth, they inferred they had fallen through the gap left by a missing tooth. The tracks showed the prints of only three feet, the fourth being dragged, indicating that the animal was lame. That butter was carried on one side of the camel and honey on the other was evident because ants had been attracted to melted butter on one side of the road and flies to spilled honey on the other.

As for the woman, one of the princes said: “I guessed that the camel must have carried a woman, because I had noticed that near the tracks where the animal had knelt down the imprint of a foot was visible. It was the imprint was of a woman’s foot.”

“I guessed that the same woman must have been pregnant,” said another prince, “because I had noticed nearby handprints which were indicative that the woman, being pregnant, had helped herself up with her hands.”

At this moment a traveller enters the scene to say that he has just found a missing camel wandering in the desert. The king spares the lives of the three princes, lavishes rich rewards on them and appoints them to be his advisors.


The Three Princes of Serendip. It comes originally from the Hasht-Bihist (Eight Paradises) of Amir Khosraw written in 1301. In this poem, in Persian, king Bahram Gur, restless on his return from the hunt, has seven pavilions (“paradises”) built for him. Each pavilion is a different colour and in each is a princess from a different part of the world. Bahram visits each princess on a different day of the week. It’s the first princess, from India, and in the black pavilion, on Saturday, that tells Bahram the story of the Three Princes of Serendip.

It’s really the mother of all stories of improbable detection. And yet, this skill would have been commonplace once upon a time – when we lived by following the tracks of animals, when we crossed sees by the stars and the currents and winds.

The story has a European history too.  It has become known in the English speaking world as the source of the word serendipity, coined by the letter writer Horace Walpole because of his recollection of the part of the “silly fairy tale” – a translation of Khusraw’s – where the three princes by “accidents and sagacity” discern the nature of a lost camel.

There’s a French connection too. Voltaire”s has Zadig do the same thing as the three princes. This story too became emblematic, this time of detective work. There is the “Method of Zadig” as it was called. The story could has worked its way into the world of detective fiction and into the laboratory.

There is a wonderful scholarly book – and if such a thing is possible, this is it – called The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: A Study in Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Science by Robert Merton. He traces the route of the word serendipity, and the idea, and its influence on science.

But all that is another story. This one, The Three Princes of Serendip, is crying out to be an illustrated children’s book. And as it’s written by an Indian and set in India, wouldn’t it be great if the amazingly creative people at Tara books could be the ones to make it?

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The House Baba Built

Have a look at this BBC video of master illustrator Ed Young talking about making a book about his childhood.

I love every book by Ed Young I have, and they are all so different. He does a lot of traditional tales, among them The Lost Horse, Mouse Match, The Turkey Girl – a Zuni Cinderella, Seven Blind Mice.

This book, The House Baba Built, is autobiographical, and wonderfully so:

The shifting styles of illustration seem to reflect the focus and blur of memory – the moments remembered clearly, almost photographically, and others more of a blur, the knowledge of place, often our best.

Not only the book, but the family and their difficult but wonderful time during the war and Japanese occupation. The father couldn’t buy the land in the safe part of Shanghai, so he asked the landowner if he could build a house there which he would give to the landowner after 20 years. This was agreed, and not only Ed’s but two other families lived there during the war.

"The House Baba Built" (2011) centers around the home that Ed Young's father constructed in Shanghai leading into the World War II era. Young calls it the most complex book he's done.<br /><br /><br />

Japan, looking like a silkworm, and China like the mulberry leaf:

Ed’s grown up cousin Sony listened to Ed’s description of a cowboy, one Ed couldn’t get on paper, and – like magic – drew it just like he had seen it:

There is also this interview with Ed Young about his book –

“Well, I didn’t intend for such an elaborate book when I first started it.  It began with my first trip to China after 20 years of being cut off, when I visited my father’s house with my sister, who was brought up there too, and her daughter.  We got ourselves into the house by telling the owners that my father built it and giving them some evidence of what the house looked like inside.  Being inside the house again evoked a tremendous number of memories, and I put some of these into verse as a sort of reminder of what happened in the house when we were growing up.  So the book started with maybe 14-20 verses of different moments in the house and I was just going to show comic figures/caricatures of us doing different things as a fun book.  However, that didn’t go very well…”

What I like most of all is saving, keeping that time, that place, that childhood that is gone, and doing it with such care and artistry. How good to gather up and pass on some of our memories, to “husband nature’s riches from expense” as Shakespeare calls it. This is an excellent kind of history.

“I’ve noticed that many people have responded to this book by remembering the flavours of their own childhood homes: the smell, a certain kind of noise surrounding it, the colours and patterns, and all kinds of things that conjure up memories of their own childhoods.  I think this is universal because everyone grew up in a place, just that details might be forgotten until somebody else mentions something.   I had lived so long in the United States that I didn’t really think about all these things from the past.  Then, when my sister and I started talking about them, all of these memories started coming back, like measuring ourselves against a wall. All you need is to tickle your brain a bit and it all starts popping out.”

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More War Horse

(c) Bridget Worth

It’s curious what fiction can do, how a painting in a story can become a real painting. Such a picture,  invented in War Horse had to be created for real. I’m copying this blog:

Morpurgo’s myth revealed

By Emily Butcher | Published: 31 OCTOBER 2011

After 20 years, Michael Morpurgo reveals the hidden truth behind the opening lines of his hugely popular novel War Horse, in a warm and humorous interview with Clare Balding.

In the old school they now use for the village hall, below the clock that has stood always at one minute past ten, hangs a small dusty painting of a horse. He stands, a splendid red bay with a remarkable white cross emblazoned on his forehead and with four perfectly matched white socks. He looks wistfully out of the picture, his ears pricked forward, his head turned as if he has just noticed us standing there.

War Horse by Michael Morpurgo

Little did Michael know, when he first drafted these fictional lines back in 1981, what a worldwide success his book, and the subsequent National Theatre stage production, would become; nor the havoc it would wreak on a certain Mrs Weeks of Iddesleigh, Devon.

Mrs Weeks, the lady who now lives next to the village hall mentioned in Michael’s opening lines, is regularly inundated with War Horse enthusiasts searching for the painting of Joey. However, their quest has always been in vain as the painting has never existed…until now.

To help Mrs Weeks stave off disappointed visitors, Michael asked Ali Bannister, the equine artist from the upcoming Spielberg-directed film, to create an oil painting ofJoey. And, before it takes pride of place on the wall of Iddesleigh village hall, visitors to the National Army Museum can see the painting displayed for the first time ever in the War Horse: Fact & Fiction exhibition.


“I go about once every six weeks to make sure it’s still there”!

… and now, watching this, I realise there’s a sequel, and one of those beautifully drawn and painted books by Michael Foreman (I’ve mentioned these before), and Morpurgo’s favourite among his books…

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War Horse

With the film coming out, I thought it was about time we read Michael’s Morpurgo‘s book, and even, if possible, went to see the play with its amazing horse puppets.

Naturally, you have to think, is it suitable for children? It’s a children’s book, and a children’s play, but for what age? It’s a book about World War I after all. There’s the trenches, there’s killing, death.

I downloaded the book from in audio format – and we’re listening to it now in the car on the way to and from school. John Keating has an unusually slow and deliberate way of reading, but he does the accents very well.

As for the play, I’ve been looking at booking some seats in the spring. Checking the reviews, I thought the Guardian one was interesting:

 …it seems excessively fortuitous that Joey, captured by the enemy, falls into the caring hands of a German captain as horse-obsessed as Albert . And when the rescued Joey in 1918 is saved from slaughter only by a jammed pistol it seems providence is working overtime. But the narrative failings are overcome by the brilliant work of the Handspring Puppet Company…

Is it really excessively fortuitous? Is providence really working overtime? It is a children’s story after all. Aren’t children entitled to identify with the characters in their books, to want them to survive, succeed? Michael Morpurgo is taking his readers on a harrowing journey into the horror of the Great War. This is not a formula book; you don’t know where it’s going to take you. Before we started it I needed to check that the protagonist, Joey, doesn’t die in the end. (And he doesn’t in the play or the film.) The book is telling the story of a terrible time.
It’s interesting to listen to Michael Morpurgo talking about it. As he said in the Evening Standard:

I met a man in a pub. It was in my village, The Duke of York, in Iddesleigh in Devon. He was in his eighties and I knew he’d been to the First World War as a young man. For no good reason I happened to ask him what regiment he’d been in. “Devon ­Yeomanry,” he said, “I was there with ‘orses.” He told me things beside the fire in the pub that day that you don’t read in poems or books, that you didn’t see in films. It was as if he was taking me by the hand and showing me, ­passing it on; about living with fear and horror, about how the only person he could talk to was his horse, when he was feeding him at night, alone.

Then some weeks later I came across a picture by one FW Reed, painted in 1917, of British cavalry horses in the First World War charging up a hill towards the German positions, towards the wire. Some were already entangled in it. Like the private in the old song, they were “hanging on the old barbed wire”. I telephoned the Imperial War Museum and asked if they knew how many horses had been killed in the First World War. A million or more, they told me, and that was just in the British army; probably eight million horses died on all sides. With the real possibility now growing in my head that I might write a story about the First World War, not from one side or the other, but from the perspective of a horse that is used by both armies, so that it could be a story of the universal suffering of that war, or any war, I began my research.

And how will the film be? Blockbusters, family films, can be clichéd, sentimental. Trailers even more so:

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pink rabbit

Have I not mentioned Judith Kerr before here, and her wonderful book When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit? I’ve just been listening to her on Desert Island Disks.

She made me quite proud to be a Londoner:

We found a kind of humour and tolerance here which didn’t, I think, exist in other countries at the time. I think I became a Brit, as you might say, during the war because the people here were so extraordinarily good. We were here right through the blitz and the bombing. People were being killed every night and there were my parents walking about with their German accents and nobody ever once said anything nasty to them. I came really to feel that I would never want to live anywhere else. And even my father who loved France when he was asked after the war, wouldn’t you like to go back to France, where he could speak the language, he said but I would have to take the entire English population with me.

She’s in the Guardian too:

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