The Books that Inspired Me (WW1 fiction for YA and children)

Throughout my school years I was always very interested in history,whether it was the castles we visited, the primary school history topics (mostly Tudors and Victorians), or the excavations of Time Team.

Around the time that I was thirteen, I started to become interest in the First World War. I studied it for the first time in history class and in the February I went on my first battlefields trip with my school to Ypres and the Somme. I became fascinated with the war, with the soldiers and the circumstances of the conflict.

Still, I maintained a wide interest in history, and I started university unsure whether I wanted to be an early modernist (the politics of the Tudors and the Reformation seemed intriguing) or a Cold War historian (somewhat captivated by the glamour and subterfuge of the 1950s). But I always came back to the First World War. I had been on a second battlefields trip when I was sixteen and was keen to go back and explore the Western Front on my own, which I did by bike at the end of first year.

My interest in the war continued to grow, and eventually it was the only era I was studying. It is doubtful that my interest in the First World War would have developed to the level it is today without the historical fiction I was reading as a child and teenager. This was by no means limited to the First World War (Chocolate Cake with Hitler by Emma Craigie & Postcards from No Man's Land by Aidan Chambers were among my favourites of the Second World War era), but it was to the Great War that I often returned.

Undeniably, whenever I walk the front line, peer into mine craters, or visit memorials to the First World War, my imagination is influenced by the books that I read. The soldier-characters I grew up reading surface in my mind, their thoughts and personalities still resonating with what I see.

Here I look at the fiction books that inspired me, and what I would recommend to young adult and child readers interested in the First World War.

Private PeacefulPrivate Peaceful, by Michael Morpurgo (HarperCollins, 2003)
Michael Morpurgo was one of my favourite authors as a child, and I think I read every one of his books. Also, in considering First World War fiction (particularly that aimed at children) it is difficult to look past Morpurgo. Private Peaceful is one of the first Great War fictions I remember reading, and although I read War Horse later on, it was the story of Privates "Tommo" and Charlie Peaceful that I remember having the greatest influence.

The narration switches back and forth between the brothers' upbringing and their war present, in which the chapters count down to Charlie's execution for cowardice. I particularly remember thinking about this book during my first visit to the prison cell and execution post at Poperinge.

Does this book play into a lot of First World War cliches? Yes. The brothers join up underage; they are overcoming the death of the father; Charlie is sentenced having stayed in No Man's Land to protect his injured little brother. But does that matter when you're twelve and it's the first Great War fiction you've read? No.

The book is short and counts down to the inevitable, but it is impactful, while guiding the young reader through the pain of war. It's definitely a good starting point for war books.

Jacko Moran: Sniper, by Ken Catran (Lothian, 2003)
I remember coming across this book in a 99p sale at the garden centre and was immediately intrigued. It is another tale of an underage soldier (an annoyingly recurring trait), but this time from an ANZAC perspective. I read this book when I was about twelve and it was the first time I had come across the 'snipers' of the First World War. Our hero, Moran, is the most talented shooter of his unit an it soon wins him fame. The book is filled with drama and we see his experience throughout four years of conflict, Moran growing up both into his manhood and as a soldier.

Sniper also sees Moran reflect back on his wartime experience, from his present in 1940, as a man who struggled with the aftermath of war. It does not go as deep as dealing with aftereffects like PTSD, but does demonstrate the difficulties of peacetime, as well as wartime. This is somewhat done with the same message as the prologue and epilogue of the Wipers Times dramatisation.

The Shell House, by Linda Newbery (Red Fox, 2003)
I enjoyed several of Linda Newbery's books as a child, and to be honest, I had forgotten that this one was set during the First World War. Like the books above the narrative switches back and forth (a trait I hadn't realised was so recurring until now), this time between the modern day and the First World War. The modern day narrator, Greg, discovers a dilapidated old house, which we soon discover was to be the inheritance of Edmund Pearson, who fought and died in the Great War.

Through reading the letters and poems left behind by Edmund, the story opens up, comparing the lives of Greg and Edmund, 90 years apart. This is definitely more of a teen/ young adult read, following the narrators' exploration of love and discovering their identities. It definitely plays into the stereotypes of war: a soldier questioning his sexuality, his politics (he quotes Karl Marx), and his religion. Like Private Peaceful, it also deals with the morality of soldiers shot at dawn.

Nonetheless, it is still an enjoyable read which will capture the imagination of a young historian who can identify with Greg. It also teaches the reader how to research soldiers, using the Commonwealth War Graves website, which can be no bad thing.

Dusk, by Eve Edwards (Penguin, 2013)
I used to be part of a program with Penguin to review their new children's releases and it was through this that I was given Dusk before its publication. It definitely falls more into the 'aimed at girls' category, featuring a love story between a nurse and an officer, soon separated by war. Published before the centenary, it seems like an attempt to engage girls in the history of war (as if they aren't by any other book). The first section focuses on Helen, the second on Sebastian, and the third on their letters. It is set against the backdrop of the First of July, 1916, although the focus is very much more on their relationship than the war.

As a book, it introduces its teen reader to many ideas of war, particularly to the women's role. This is nothing revolutionary, but definitely beneficial for a reader who doesn't know very much about the First World War. However, as a history book, or even as a quality story, it's very much take it or leave it.

Flambards, by KM Peyton (Oxford University Press, 1967-1969)
I was a big fan of the Flambards trilogy, having been introduced to them by my mum who also enjoyed the books as a child. They're not strictly First World War fiction (the war breaks out in the 3rd book), but I was very much in love with Will, the aviator. I try not to dwell on what happened to him in the third book... It was through Flambards that I learnt about the early days of aviation and I was enthralled; even more recently when I wrote a university essay on the heroes of 1910s-1920s aviation, I still had the same excitement and wonder for the brave pilots of such rickety contraptions.

Biggles, by WE John (1932-1970)
Speaking of the excitement and adventure of flight, WE John's Captain Bigglesworth still never fails to capture the imagination. I had a school friend who read and loved each and every one of the series. I think it was 'Biggles in France' that I read, around the time of my second Battlefields Trip, on her recommendation. While they now seem dated and hyperbolic, Biggles is an undisputed classic of both the Empire adventure and war stories genres. No book since can quite rival the thrills of the original series, and they remain very worthy reads, both for entertainment's sake and for the context of how the war was viewed and presented in the following decades.

A couple of more recent recommendations from my eight-year-old cousin:

See Inside the First World War, by Rob Lloyd Jones (Usborne, 2013)
This is the perfect book to engage a primary-school reader in the First World War. It covers so many facts about the war but in a child friendly way, accompanied by brilliant illustrations and exciting lift-the-flaps! It answers some of the big questions of the war (What is a trench? How does it work?), but also some more child-specific quandaries (How did soldiers go to the loo? Why did the wee on their socks?). It doesn't shy away from the horrors of war, but does present them in a very age appropriate and un-scary way.

Listen to the Moon, by Michael Morpurgo (HarperCollins, 2015)
Whether grown-up historians approve or not, Morpurgo continues to inspire children to learn about the First World War. Last year I stayed with my cousin when she asked 'what do you know about the Luisitania?'. I was surprised she had even heard about the sinking of the Luisitania - we didn't learn about it at school until I was thirteen! But it turned out that she had read Listen to the Moon and was interested to know more.

The book follows a girl called Lucy Lost who has washed up on the Scilly Islands of Cornwall, having survived the sinking. It shows the civilian side of the war and life on a small island, remote from the Western Front. It is a good First World War read, no matter how improbable it is for a small girl to have survived being washed ashore from a sinking ship. It is fiction, after all!

What are the books that inspired your love of history? Any more recommendations of First World War children's fiction?


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