Monday, 14 December 2015

"Interesting Times" by Lynne Benton

During a recent school visit, a Year 6 girl asked me “Why do you always write books about war?”  I was slightly nonplussed, because I hadn’t thought I did.  Then I realised that the class was currently reading “Jimmy’s War” (set in WW2), which tells how Jimmy has to take on the responsibility for getting himself and his little sister out of London during the Blitz,

and "Raiders!" which tells how the Anglo-Saxon Edric sees the Vikings heading for his village, and knows he must warn his family and stop the raiders from burning down his home.

So as far as the Year 6 girl was concerned, I always wrote about war.

(In fact most of my books are light-hearted and funny, with not a war in sight… but then, they are for 5 year-olds!)

Afterwards I thought about what she’d said and realised that she was (partly) right – I’d set those two books during times of upheaval, because I was interested in how people coped when their lives were turned upside down through no fault of their own.  In the case of “Jimmy’s War” I was particularly interested in how children who were evacuated during the war dealt with it.  The theory of evacuation was good: children should be moved away from the big cities targeted by the bombers and sent into the country for their own safety.  Unfortunately nobody seemed to consider how this would affect the children, either by being forcibly removed from their own families or by being placed in highly unsuitable foster-homes.  In some cases these problems affected the rest of their lives.

There is a (possibly mythical) old Chinese curse which goes, “May you live in interesting times”.  On the face of it this sounds fairly benign for a curse, until you start thinking about it and realise that “interesting times” usually means some sort of upheaval over which the individual has no control, such as war, invasion, famine, flood or persecution.  At such times each person has to deal with the consequences in his own way, and although some survive, others are less lucky.  A curse indeed.

On the other hand, "interesting times" can make for great stories.

A couple of years ago I had a major operation, after which the surgeon wrote on my notes that it had been “uneventful”.  And I realised that in terms of operations this was very good news – nobody wants to have an “eventful” operation - but should you apply the adjective “uneventful” to a story, it would not be a compliment.  Who would want to read a story in which nothing much happened?  In fiction you must have drama, and the hero should have to overcome all sorts of obstacles and setbacks as he aims for his goal. The goal will seem a great deal more worth having if he has had to struggle for it.  And how much greater the struggle if the obstacles are set against a backdrop of war.

Once I started thinking about it I realised how many children's books are set in “interesting times”.  From Captain Marryat’s “Children of the New Forest”, which deals with how one family of children deal with the dangers of living through the English Civil War, 
through Kate Saunders’ “Five Children on the Western Front” which imagines E Nesbit’s “Five Children” ten years on, and how they cope with the First World War, to Michelle Magorian’s “Goodnight Mr Tom”, about a boy evacuated during WW2 to live in the country with a grumpy old man,

and Leslie Wilson’s “Saving Raphael”, which shows how ordinary people in Germany who were not Nazis were treated during the same war.
And coming up to date, Jo Cotterill’s wonderful “Looking  at the Stars” deals with a young girl's experiences during a fictional war in an unnamed middle-eastern country,
There are also dystopian future novels such as “The Hunger Games”, which, like the other books mentioned, are about individuals doing their best to survive against the odds in "interesting times."  

And it is from reading stories about individual people who live through those times that we find out about the problems they faced and learn to empathise with them.  When we read a story about the plight of one person, as opposed to a mass (or “swarm”) of people, we are more likely to understand and feel empathy with them.  We have all heard politicians and others grumbling about “these foreigners coming over here to take our houses and jobs and claim benefits”, but reading about one person who has struggled to make his way here against the odds, and finding out why he even attempted it, can surely make you understand him, and others like him, a little better.  

Miriam Halahmy’s powerful book “Hidden” is set in the present in a climate of hatred and distrust for migrants.
This book was written before the current refugee crisis, but it tells of the plight of one illegal immigrant and the children who try to help him.  I would defy anyone who has read it to continue to maintain that “they’re only coming here to claim benefits”.

It would be great to think that a story about a fictional person could change people’s minds more effectively than a newspaper report dismissing vast numbers of people as “scroungers.” 

The other day on a film programme someone said “I think Steven Spielberg must like war – so many of his films are about war.”  Clearly Spielberg also knows that although “interesting” times are difficult to live through, they make for important and inspirational stories.  Inspirational, because they make people think.


Miriam Halahmy said...

I LOVED Jimmy's War and delighted to see you getting out into schools to discuss it. The book is beautifully written with some highly original material about evacuation and the experiences of the children. Many thanks for the heads up for HIDDEN. Lot of exciting news on that front to be revealed in the New Year!

Lynne Benton said...

Thank you, Miriam. Will look forward to hearing further exciting news!