This past week I’ve enjoyed reading the backstory for the wonderful new-release Walker picture book, DO NOT FORGET AUSTRALIA, by Sally Murphy and Sonia Kretschmar. Both Sally and Sonia have a swag of awards and commendations to their names, and collaboratively, they have created a rich and warm picture book that Australians can be proud of.
DO NOT FORGET AUSTRALIA tells the story of Henri and Billy, two boys who are oceans apart, but together in heart. Billy’s Australian father is fighting the war near Henri’s French hometown, Villers-Bretonneux. The year is 1918.
Inspired by a significant battle in World War I, the story doesn’t focus on the despair of war. Rather, the illustrations and text gently move the story past death and destruction, to focus on the hope – the lasting good that comes from cross-cultural compassion, empathy and aid.
When Henri’s village is destroyed in battle, Billy is one of many Australian children who work together to help rebuild Villers-Bretonneux. To this day the sign of acknowledgment remains; DO NOT FORGET AUSTRALIA.
DO NOT FORGET AUSTRALIA is a must read for all Australians.
Lest we forget.
Sally, in the notes at the back of the book, we learn that Henri is a fictional character. Is that the same for Billy?
All of the characters in the book are fictional. I thought it was important, since the story is for children, and because it focusses on a school, that the story be told as much as possible from a child’s perspective. I liked the idea of two boys of similar age, one in each country. When I thought of linking the two boys through Billy’s soldier father, the story really came together.
I can imagine that was a haiku-moment of clarity, Sally. It is a lovely connection – and so nice to see them down the track a little, too.
Sally & Sonia: Did you travel to Villers-Bretonneux to help with your writing/illustrating of this picture book? If yes – were you able to apply for a funding grant to achieve this?
Sally: Unfortunately, no. I desperately want to go to the village, but the closest I got was vicariously through my son, who was there for Anzac Day 2008, and also through the wonders of the internet.
Sonia: I’m happy if it appears that I’ve done this – unfortunately I’ve never had the experience of receiving a travel grant to help with my work… I have to rely on imagination and research.
Well, I suspect that if you ever do travel to Villers-Bretonneux, it will almost be a nostalgic moment – almost like déjà vu.
Sonia, how do you steep yourself in the environment – what does the artist’s eye look for?
I try and collect samples of details, details and details! I looked through literally hundreds of old postcards, and I try to capture a sense of time and place through colour and textures. I omit and stylise a lot of elements – there’s probably a lot of things you wouldn’t even notice, but they seem to add up to the whole.
Are there particular websites or books that are helpful in finding authenticity in clothing and architecture of the period?
Sonia: I found the Autralian War Memorial website to be particularly helpful, as well as Trove – the website of the National Library of Australia. There are also numerous French websites devoted to collections of old postcards as well.
We visited the Australian War Memorial as a family, in 2009. It was a day steeped in emotion.
There was a big gap between Billy wondering if there was anything he could do to help the kids of Villers-Betronneux, and when the new school was opened. (Also when Henri left and returned.) Sally, how did you decide what to tell – and what not to tell?
Sally: For a picture book, it is important to really focus on the key elements of the story s0 in this case, the destruction of the village, the sense of hopelessness afterwards, the friendship between the soldiers and the local people, and the links with Australia. I considered showing the fundraising and so on, but realised this would drag the story out. The use of back of book notes, though, gave a chance to fill in HOW it happened.
Sally, How many words is DO NOT FORGET AUSTRALIA?
To be honest I don’t have an exact final word count – but the version that Walker accepted for publication had just under 700 words in the story, plus nearly 300 words in the back of book notes.
Sally, how did you pitch this PB to publishers?
In the traditional way – that is, I wrote the story, revised and reworked, then submitted. It wasn’t accepted straight away – Walker requested revisions before they finally accepted it. They then selected Sonia as the illustrator – and I am soooo glad that they did.
Were there many editorial changes to the text, once it was accepted for publication?
Sally: Yes. This consisted of phone conversations talking about any bits that needed changing plus emails back and forth between me and the editor. During the illustration process there also arose some matters that led to changes in text. In particular here was one scene which didn’t lend to itself to a different enough illustration, so I had to rejig it to give Sonia he chance to recreate the school from a different position.
Similarly, Sonia, from an illustrative perspective, were changes made? And if yes, what prompted these changes?
Sonia: The main change came after the initial round of roughs – the way the text had been set had me thinking of each page individually – it quickly became apparent that the book would work much better as a series of double page spreads. Certain historical details I uncovered along the way also lead to a couple of changes. There was one double page spread – of the exterior of the school – that went through quite a few developments; from an aerial view of the village, to a more intimate illustration re-establishing the connection between the characters of Henri and Adele.
You’ve subtly, but effectively, used colour to portray powerful emotions, without overwhelming the reader. While this book is obviously a story connected with war, it is not a book about despair – and the illustrations really work to reinforce this. Was this a conscious effort on your part?
Sonia: My initial thoughts about the colour was to find a way to differentiate the scenes between France and Australia. I just imagined the mud, the cold, of France – which suggested a quite muted palette of greys, greens and browns. This provided a sombre backdrop against which I tried to show some warmth and emotion through the characters.
I love that little insight into the artist’s thinking. Yes. I can see you have differentiated each setting very effectively through colour.
What difficulties did you face, writing/illustrating the historical PB?
Sally: The need to be true to what did/could have happened, whilst still creating a fictional story which made the events accessible to contemporary children.
Sonia: Mainly feeling conscious about details, and imagining there may well be someone somewhere that will point out that something is woefully incorrect. I did manage to consult with a War historian who was able to guide me in regards to appropriate uniforms and insignia of the regiment that was stationed in Villers Bretonneux at the time.
As a teacher, I’m always looking at ways I can integrate a picture book into the classroom – aside from the oh-so-important element of reading for pleasure. How do you see this picture book being used within the classroom?
Sally: Not to be knowledge, yet. My dream is to visit the town with copies of the book and present them to the school.
Sonia: Not sure as yet! I think it would be wonderful to have such a book about your school’s history; it is great that they have continued to preserve the connection to the past, as a reminder that we should all reach out and help each other, and appreciate that help when it is given.
And on those beautiful words, we end this blog post. It has been a delight to have you both on the katswhiskers blog, sharing insights into this wonderful story from Australia’s past. A story to be proud of! A story I wouldn’t have heard, without this beautiful book. Thank-you.
Readers, for a chance to win your own copy of DO NOT FORGET AUSTRALIA, feel free to ask Sally or Sonia your questions in the comments below. I have one copy to give away to Australian residents, with thanks to Walker Books Australia. (Please Note: This giveaway has now closed.)
Don’t forget to visit the other stops on the blog tour. (There’s even more chances to win!)
1st March 2012 Let’s Have Words
2nd March 2012 Kids Book Capers
3rd March 2012 Running With Pens
4th march 2012 Read and Write with Dale
5th March 2012 Karen Tyrrell
6th March 2012 Writing for Children
7th March 2012 Spinning Pearls
8th March 2012 Katswhiskers (Here)
12th March 2012 Pass It On
12th March 2012 Kids Book Review
13th March 2012 Under the Apple Tree
14th March 2012 Lorraine Marwood. Words into Writing