‘I’m going to war. I can hardly believe it. Yesterday I was delivering rolls and newspapers as usual, and today I’ve been called up to go to France and fight.’
This weekend sees the centenary celebrations of Armistice Day. To commemorate this anniversary, BooksfromScotland are taking a look at children’s fiction that explores the First World War. First up we have Gill Arbuthnott’s A Secret Diary of the First World War, inspired by the real life diary of a Scottish boy soldier. We asked her more about her writing process . . .
A Secret Diary of the First World War
By Gill Arbuthnott
Published by Young Kelpies
When did you begin to think about writing a book on the First World War?
I was approached in September 2017 by my publisher, Floris Books, to write this as the first in their Fact-tastic Stories history series. I had a long hard think about it, as it was so different from anything I’d done before – my other non-fiction has all been science based – but I think (hope!) that this ended up being an advantage, as I came to the project with no preconceptions and little knowledge – much like the children for whom it’s written.
How did you come across James’ story?
I’d done a lot of preparatory reading, but decided I needed to find a knowledgeable human who could answer my many questions, some of which were probably very stupid ones. I was put in touch with Col. Robert Watson of the Royal Scots, and he arranged for me to visit the Royal Scots Museum at Edinburgh Castle. When I got there, the staff told me about James Marchbank’s diary and let me listen to an interview with him recorded in 1976.
How did you feel when you finished reading James’ diary for the first time?
It was very moving to read what this young boy had gone through: he had basically grown up on the Western Front. I had assumed I would have to concoct a fictional diary from writings by underage soldiers, so to be shown the trench diary of a boy who had been called up in 1914, when he was only 14, (because he was already enlisted with the Territorials as a bugler) was quite extraordinary. I couldn’t quite believe that I’d been given access to such perfect material.
Aside from James’ diary, what other source materials and research were involved in preparing the book?
I read so many books that I lost count, visited museums, and contacted various people and organisations with specific questions. People were very generous with their time and expertise and I learned a tremendous amount from them that would have been difficult to track down otherwise. In particular, James’ grandchildren shared family photos and memories with me; I’m extremely grateful that they allowed me to use their grandfather’s story.
How important do you think knowledge of the First World War is for children today?
Enormously. Just because something took place a long time ago doesn’t mean it’s not important any more. Understanding how tensions between countries can escalate into war is always going to be extremely important if we’re to avoid it in the future, and learning to empathise with what others have experienced is, basically, what makes us human.
A Secret Diary does a really good job at tackling some difficult and poignant subject matter. Was it challenging to convey the hardest parts of the war to young children?
Definitely. I was walking a tightrope between making it so hard hitting that it would be too challenging for the target age group and glossing over the horror. It is possible to include some lighter detail, but it’s important not to do that too much. There’s no point in a book like this unless it really conveys the reality of what went on. Parts of it will be upsetting to read for some people, but we ought to find the reality of what happened upsetting.
The book contains lots of really engaging illustrations. How do you think illustrations can help to shape a child’s understanding of this kind of topic?
The illustrations are terrific. I was extremely lucky to get to work very closely with illustrator Darren Gate on this book. He found a way to deal with every challenge, from turning the real James into a cartoon and ageing him through the book, to showing injury and death without making it too graphic. Illustrations are a very good way of conveying the emotional impact of what was happening in the war, and of getting a lot of information over in a palatable way in a very limited number of pages. An annotated map is worth a thousand words!
How did you maintain the balance between fact and fiction when re-telling James’ story?
Everything in the book is factual. I combined extracts from different parts of James’ diary in order to fit with the theme of each chapter, but he was at all the locations and witnessed all the events mentioned – and he really did run into his brother in the middle of the battle of the Somme. I’ve changed the wording of the diary in some places, but James had a great turn of phrase, so I’ve tried to keep to the original where possible. My favourite is the understated ‘the air was a bit lively with bullets’ during a battle.
What can today’s school children learn from James’ experiences that they won’t find in a school textbook?
A school text book may give you all the facts, but it’s far harder for it to make an emotional connection with the reader. You can’t take in what 19000 deaths in one day of battle really means, but you can try to understand what one soldier feels like as shells explode around him, or he hears about the death of one of his friends. Secret Diary concentrates on one person’s true story, which helps the reader to imagine themselves in the situations James faced, and the fact that he was so young when he went to war makes it much easier for children to identify with him.
A Secret Diary of the First World War byGill Arbuthnott is published by Young Kelpies, priced £6.99
Gill Arbuthnott was raised in Edinburgh and attended James Gillespies’ school, the setting for Muriel Spark’s classic novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, from there Gill studied zoology at St. Andrews University before undertaking teacher training in Dundee. She worked for two years as a biomedical researcher in Southampton before returning to Edinburgh to take up a teaching post at Edinburgh Academy where she has taught biology for the past twenty years. She claims to have written ‘in secret’ for ten years, with her husband assuming she was marking papers, during which time she wrote three unpublished science-fiction novels for adults. With a growing number of rejection letters it came as much of a surprise to Gill that she would write a children’s fantasy book that was then published. The Chaos Clock was inspired by the Millennium Clock exhibit that stands in the lobby of the Museum of Scotland. Although the Millennium Clock deals with the darker side of history; the Holocaust, Stalin, Hitler and the darker side of humanity, it was the Clock’s way of telling stories from all sides in a beguiling way that attracted the attention of school children, who sit around it mesmerised by its movement. The Chaos Clock was published in 2003 and the follow up, The Chaos Quest, was published in 2004. Her third book, Winterbringers, was published in 2005, and her most recent novel The Keepers’ Daughter came out in 2009. Arbuthnott has also written factual books for children’s publisher Barrington Stoke.