This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landing. For this significant Anzac Centenary, a myriad of children’s books have been released to teach our young ones about the physical, emotional and historical impact of war, and to celebrate our war veterans; our heroes.
One such picture book that does just that is ‘The Last Anzac’, written by Gordon Winch and illustrated by Harriet Bailey. And this one is certainly special. It is based on the real life experience of a young boy’s meeting with Alec Campbell in 2001, who served in Gallipoli in 1915. Having being enlisted at the tender age of 16, at the time of the interview Alec was the last living Anzac at the ripe age of 102. Amazing!
Endpapers with original letters, photos and stamped envelopes set the scene for the historical journey we are about to encounter. Alternating between past and present, we are told of the day that the young boy, James, and his father stepped off the plane in Tasmania to visit and interview the last Anzac, Alec Campbell.
He, too, was young and small, nicknamed ‘The Kid’ at the time of the Great War (1914 – 1918). Alec was a noble and brave teenager, having endured treacherous experiences in Anzac Cove. In comparison, whilst in the comfort of Alec’s present home, James nibbles on biscuits as he asks the veteran questions about his responsibilities, fears, safety, living conditions and health during the war.
The story retells Alec’s six weeks worth of dodging bombs and escaping firing gun bullets, eating tinned bully beef and hard biscuits, and the celebratory treat of oranges when leaving Gallipoli. An image of young and old hands touching war medals portrays the sheer dedication of this man in his short service, but also a reminder for children (and adults) to respect and honour all the soldiers who fought for our country long before they were born.
Alec was sent back to Australia after suddenly falling ill; now a Gallipoli veteran – at the age of seventeen. As boy and veteran bid farewell, it is this serendipitous moment that James realises he is in the presence of a true hero.
(Alec lived to the age of 103, passing the year after James’ interview.)
Having had done extensive research on the subject, New Zealander, Harriet Bailey has illustrated this book with precision and sensitivity; appropriate for the given era. There are enough details to depict the harshness and trepidity of the wartime, but without any graphic or shocking images. The same is felt about the gentle nature of Gordon Winch’s text; the story provides basic information that is suitable for younger children to understand and digest. The juxtaposition between the 1915 retelling and the 2001 meeting is cleverly highlighted in the pictures with bold, earthy tones of khaki and burnt orange for the past, and softer, pastille shades for the present.
In just a couple more months, Australia commemorates the Centenary of the ANZAC landing at Gallipoli. Dozens of new titles are already marching forward to mark the occasion with heart-rending renditions of tales about ‘bloodshed, death, ruin, and heartbreak.’ This is how singer/songwriter, Eric Bogle views the futility of war.
It’s a timely message that fortunately more and more schoolchildren are gaining a deeper respect and understanding for through historic picture books like this one, And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda.
Bogle’s iconic lyrics make your chest heave with anguish at the awful waste of life, yet rippling beneath the waves of depression, is an undercurrent of pride and admiration, perhaps borne from a determination to never ever let this happen again; and yet we do.
One wonders how so beautiful and wrenching a tale could be visually resurrected to deliver the kind of visceral impact young people will appreciate and gain from. Easy, you get a master with the surest of touches and the purest of hearts to illustrate it. You allow his colours to bleed across images that tumble across the pages, injured and torn, dirty and forlorn. You watch until your skin prickles with emotion and your eyes burn with tears.
Today, I am honoured to have that master at our draft table. Please welcome, Bruce Whatley. Here’s what he had to say.
Who is Bruce Whatley? Tell us one thing about yourself we are not likely to find on a web site.
If it wasn’t for my Mum I would not have the use of my right arm. Injured at birth, the damage to my right shoulder was such that she was told it would whither and be useless. Fortunately she refused to believe it and after nearly three years of massaging I held a spoon in my right hand for the first time. Since then I think I’ve held a brush as that’s the hand I’ve made my living with.
You’ve penned and illustrated many children’s stories. What aspect of children’s book creation do you prefer? Which do you regard yourself more proficient at and why?
When I write and illustrate it isn’t as if I write first then think ‘How am I going to illustrate this?’ It comes together like a movie in my head and I don’t really separate the text from the images. That’s why the text and images are so reliant on each other in my books, they compliment and bounce off one another to tell a more complex story.
I guess I think of myself as a better illustrator than writer because that is my background but I am enjoying writing more and more and as I get more confident am working on longer manuscripts. Doing both means if I hit the equivalent of writer’s block when illustrating I can put down the brushes and write for a while.
Can you name one title you feel exemplifies your work the best? Is it the title you are most proud of, or is that yet to come?
The book I’m working on now I am most proud of. This is the book I would give up all others to have published. It is a story I’ve written and though the illustrations use the simplest of mediums – the medium I am most comfortable with – lead pencil – they comprise extensive use of 3d programs to create a unique world and environment. This book will have no compromises. This will be the best I can do. ‘Ruben’ approx. 120 page picture book.
Recent picture book collaborations with Jackie French have focussed on dramatic occurrences such as natural disasters. And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda, is no less powerful. What attracted you to take on and to fulfil a project of this emotional magnitude?
Because they were of such emotional magnitude. Success with wombats and ugly dogs had the potential to pigeon-hole me as a particular type of storyteller. I am always looking at ways of growing as an illustrator, looking for new ways of expressing the narratives. These books also enabled me to explore what I had discovered using my left hand. That I produce far more expressive and emotional images drawing with my other hand. Matilda is by far the most emotional book I have illustrated.
Did you ever feel emotionally challenged at any point of this book’s production (because of its heartrending subject matter)? If so why?
I based my illustrations on original photographs taken in Gallipoli at the time. Even though I needed to adapt what I was looking at I wanted the images to be based on reality as much as possible. When using photos this way especially when drawing details it is a bit like those ‘spot the difference’ puzzles you get in newspapers and magazines – you flick your eyes from one to the other to spot the differences. Similarly when you are copying an image you flick from the photograph to your drawing to make sure you are getting the right shape and size etc. It’s not so much about what you are drawing you are concentrating on lines, shapes and position.
I was doing this on one of the illustrations. It wasn’t until I completed the piece I realised what I thought was a rock was the hand of a dead soldier. I lost it at that point.
This was symbolic to me as it highlighted that we look without seeing. We watch the old veterans march and wear their medals. Old men. But we don’t see the 19 year old that watched their mates get their legs blown off. We do forget. And we still send our children to war.
You are enviably competent in a number of illustrative mediums and styles. Describe those you used and incorporated into Matilda.
As I said I’m always looking for new ways to illustrate. Matilda was done with my left hand – which has a mind of its own!!! I can’t write with my left hand and really I have very little dexterity when I use it – but depending on your definition I draw better with my left than with my right. I used a waterproof felt tip pen for the line work then an acrylic wash over the top. Using acrylics instead of watercolours meant I could work in layers without dragging the colour from underneath.
The predominant colour scheme throughout this book is one of solemn sepia hues stained with splashes of red. What mood are you trying to convey with this palette choice?
I guess it was influenced by how we normally see this period but also I wanted to reflect the mud and despair. Bright colours suggest hope and laughter – I don’t think there was much of that.
Your use of perspective at the start and end of this tale is both visually arresting and choking with emotional impact. Was this your intention? How do close up views influence the feel of a picture book story when compared to flowing landscape illustrations?
Faces are amazing things and I often have my characters looking directly out at the reader. They say the eyes are the windows to the soul. I think that last close up opens that window a bit. (Interestingly I could not have achieved that intensity with my right hand.) Being so close also means it’s in your face literally. After watching from a distance suddenly you are confronted with the reality of the consequences.
Occasionally a thing that you witness, a song that you hear or a line that your read manifests itself indelibly within you, seemingly forever. Sometimes, not always, you remember the exact time and place and occasion that these erasable impressions mark your memory for the first time. Often this phenomenon occurs when you are still young in years and free in thinking. Memorable moments can be fortifying but also confronting and shocking, which is why books like these, Along the Road to Gundagai and Gallipoli, constitute essential reading for young people.
Perhaps, had I been exposed to more picture books like these that introduced history and invited discussion and explanation, I may have been less shocked by the brutality of humans at war. Who knows? It was all in the past…
As ANZAC Day approaches urging us to remember the past, it’s difficult to know what to reach for when trying to share the meaning of these particular commemorations with your children. Unless they observe or participate in ceremonies or have relatives that do so, school is often the first place youngsters encounter terms like ANZAC Cove, the Great War, and diggers.
War is messy and cruel. It is horrid and scary but it is also about bravery, ingenuity, mateship, and perseverance. Along the Road to Gundagai and Gallipoli are picture books that capture the bitter essence of war in a way that is non-threatening but hauntingly real.
Penned by Australian musician, Jack O’Hagan in 1922, Along the Road to Gundagai has an almost anthem quality to it. It is not the first time a well-known song or verse has been purposely presented as a picture book but like others before it, the coupling of well-known lyrics with evocative images serves to anchor our appreciation and deepen our understanding of the story behind the words.
It is essentially a lament by the young men of the Great Wars; of their yearning to return to their youth which was so irrevocably spoilt by war.
Award winning Aussie illustrator, Andrew McLean, ironically ventured into the world of digital art to portray this poignant piece of history. The recollections of our narrating lad’s ‘old bush home and friends’ are all succinctly framed; captured moments matching the lyrical text, soft yet glowing.
Conversely, scenes from the scarred battle fields imbue entire pages with dark, sombre, desolation. Particularly arresting for me was the contrast of sunny skies over the Murrumbidgee and the gas-filled atmosphere of battle where even the horses wear gasmasks; the whites of their eyes betraying their confusion and terror.
All of us have a road to Gundagai we’d like to revisit. This powerful picture book rendition of an Aussie classic allows readers young and old to do just that.
Picture books about the ANZACs of WWI abound. Many succeed thanks to the legendary intensity of the subject matter, the sensitive translation of emotions through illustrations and the poetic rendering of a brutal period of modern day history. Gallipoli by Kerry Greenwood and Annie White delivers all these and more.
It is simply the story of Gallipoli. It is Dusty and Bluey’s story told through the eyes of Bluey’s great grandson. But before you say, not another ANZAC tale, look again; at the sepia-coloured end pages depicting wartime and post war snap shots of our two mates. Be swept along on their adventure, across vast oceans and scorching deserts and No Man’s Land. Feel the hunger, the terror and the relief shared by these two young men whose unbreakable friendship withstands time and war.
Greenwood leaves no stone unturned in the retelling of this infamously failed military campaign, however 7 year olds and above could easily master and enjoy this account themselves because it reads as fluidly as fiction. There are few dates to stumble over and enough storyline to accommodate a myriad of historical revelations including; the futile charges, trench survival, Simpson and his donkey(s), and the Roses of No Man’s Land.
White never belittles the enormity of Bluey and Dust’s situation. Her illustrations show mortar attacks and bleeding wounds in full colour yet are neither cheerless nor grim. Subdued sepia photographs are ‘stuck’ on every page like an old well-loved album guiding the reader from the past to present day remembrance.
Stirring, significant and worth sharing, especially with school-aged children.
War is certainly not joyful but it was special to sit and read these with my 8 year old and by some strange twist of intent, it was she who helped me through the more emotional bits.
On the eve of ANZAC Day it seemed fitting to touch on the significance of the day. Young people are often faced with a barrage of ANZAC Day information whether they are involved in commemorative services and lessons at school or simply viewing a dawn parade on the day. Explaining the whys and how of one of our most significant periods of history need not be a glorification of the atrocities of war, but rather a celebration of the indomitable fighting spirit of our nation as a whole and a message of hope eternal. I’ve plucked out a few titles from ANZAC book shelf in case you want to share the Spirit of the ANZACS with your family. There’s something there for young readers from 5 to 15. It’s by no means comprehensive but certainly worth the read…lest we forget.
Confession: The day I received Working Title Presses’ latest release, An ANZAC Tale, I was assailed with nostalgia and immense trepidation.
How does one do justice to one of the most unjustifiable periods of human history? Ruth Stark and Greg Holfeld have done it and done it admirably well. The result is a meticulously researched and presented graphic picture book that possesses the unique duality of being both breathtakingly beautiful, and poignantly tragic.
It is almost that time of year when we gather as a nation to commemorate and reflect on one of the most fiercely contested campaigns of WWI, the battle of Gallipoli. But how does one pass comment on the interpretation of the tenacity, stupidity, bravery and strength of spirit of humanity without sounding trite or conceited? I wasn’t sure I could manage it as masterfully as the Stark Holfeld team. So I didn’t try.
Instead I revisited the tale, and with each turn of the page, was transported back to a time over two decades ago, when I gazed across the benign azure waters of Suvla Bay and ANZAC Cove, on the European side of Turkey’s Gelibolu Peninsular. Sunshine bronzed my already travel-tanned shoulders and the smell of the Aegean Sea filled my lungs. Nothing permeated the silence that engulfed us, not even the cry of sea birds. I stared at the impossibly steep cliffs looming up from the beach and shivered in spite of the heat.
I remember standing in the trenches of The Nek and Second Ridge, shallow now, scalloped smooth by time. A pine scented breeze played about my neck. We stood unmoving, listening to it whisper through the pines; the sound of a thousand souls sighing around us. And tears seared my eyes, blurred my vision of the honey coloured earth as I struggled to imagine it stained vile by the colours of war and battled to comprehend the futility, the valour, the discomfort, and the stench of human corruption.
We were led about by our Turkish guide with quiet reverence, not because he thought we were special, but because we were Aussies. We had already earned his respect and our right to be there. We felt that as absolutely as the heat pulsating up from the baked earth.
I remember visiting Chunuk Bair, Lone Pine; standing in front of the walls of names, searching, too many to read through; I’ll be here all day, I thought. Compared to whom? I found a pine seed from that tree and slipped it into my pocket, (just as Ray did for his mate Wally). When the afternoon sun lost its sting, we slipped away quietly from the trenches and had Turkish Dondurma (ice-cream) to temper the memory of what we had seen and felt; acutely aware of enjoying a pleasure and a respite that would have been denied to the ANZACS.
My brief sojourn to Gelibolu makes me no more of an expert on the event and the place than the next Aussie backpacker. Yet it has created an indelible memory with which An ANZAC Tale resonates profoundly.
The enormity of the ANZAC’s story is handled with remarkable lightness of touch and told by Ruth Stark with a respectful, quintessential Aussie jocularity. It is never sentimental or laboured but simply follows best mates Ray Martin and Wally Cardwell as they experience the first landing at ANZAC Cove on the 25th April 1915. What followed became a battle of endurance and wits sadly resulting in thousands of deaths on both sides.
The popular comic-style graphic format is dominated by the illustrations of Greg Holfeld that are brutally faithful to the moment without depicting gratuitous guts and gore. The last charge in particular rips with chaotic movement, terror and finality but not in a way that traumatises the reader.
Wally, Roy and their new, fortune-seeking mate, Tom, head an anthropomorphic cast of Aussie characters. They are buck Roos, who rub shoulders with Kiwis (the birds) and various other national fauna. The Drill Major is a raucous bossy cockatoo. Egyptians are depicted as cats. Wily and resourceful magpies represent enterprising privates and Johnny Turk is portrayed as the ‘black eared’ caracal lynx, from the Turkish word karakulak. This cat is described as being fiercely territorial which accurately translates to the Turks’ indomitable fighting spirit.
An ANZAC Tale not only chronicles a significant period of history difficult for young people to fathom in a way that they (young boys and reluctant readers in particular) will find enthralling and exciting but also takes us on a deeply moving journey (tears were never far away for me) through the vagaries of Australian society in the early twentieth Century and the complexities of warfare. All this is brilliantly supported with maps, notes and a timeline.
‘Why would any Australian want to come to Gallipoli?’ Ray asks Tom as they evacuate under the cover of darkness on the 18th of December 1915. You don’t need to turn the last page to find the answer to that poignant question, but you’ll be touched when you do.
If you haven’t yet been or are unlikely to get the family to Gallipoli any time soon, An ANZAC Tale is an outstanding armchair substitute. Beautifully bound and twice the length of a normal picture book, it will appeal best to older aged primary children and those who’d rather reflect than analyse.