Ross Montgomery on His Favourite Books Set During Wartime
An enchanting blend of gentle fantasy and poignant reality, Ross Montgomery's The Midnight Guardians is our Children's Book of the Month for November. Set during World War II and featuring a young boy's quest to save his sister - with the aid of his imaginary friends - the book continues a fine tradition of children's literature that confronts living during wartime. In this exclusive piece, Ross picks some of his favourite books connected to World War II.
I feel like I’ve been learning about the Second World War my whole life. I remember being taught about evacuation in primary school – we even dressed up as evacuees on a school trip, tags on our coats and everything. All my childhood memories of “classic books” feel inseparable from that period of history: the child evacuees in the Narnia books, or the child refugees in The Silver Sword. In the last few years, we’ve seen Emma Carroll’s riveting Letters From The Lighthouse, Ally Sherrick’s The Buried Crown, and in January we’ll have Lesley Parr’s The Valley of Lost Secrets.
Why does the evacuation still draw kid's writers back, again and again? Maybe it’s because the circumstances are so ripe for drama and adventure: a way to ingeniously remove the parents (always helpful), take the protagonists out of everything they know, and set them in a world attacked with inconceivable odds. These stories are always about children finding agency in a world that gives them none – what child doesn’t want to read that? Perhaps, it’s because we’re the generation whose grandparents were still around to tell us stories about raids and rationing and blackout: a world that felt impossible but was still, somehow, true.
When I wrote The Midnight Guardians, I wanted to conjure up all those feelings I had reading classic kid’s books as a child: stories about nature and magic and being sent away from home, and human threat right on your doorstep. It gave me an excellent reason to revisit loads of much-loved books in the name of research, plus dozens of new ones I’d never heard of before. Reducing all that to five books based on merit is impossible – so I’m not going to try it here! Instead, here’s a spread of five books that I’m glad I read, or reread, and were instrumental in writing The Midnight Guardians. Which ones would you add?
Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian
I know, I know – why bother including this book, when it’s already the first one on everyone’s lips? Because it’s incredible, that’s why. I remember being haunted by it as a child – I was frightened to revisit it, in case it wasn’t as good as I remembered. I was delighted to discover that it was better than I remember – tender and restrained and thoughtful and bold all at once. The story of William slowly learning to trust and love his adopted carer Mr Tom was just as moving as before – but on rereading as an adult, what stood out was how much more I related to Mr Tom. He was much, much kinder from the beginning than I remembered: what a lifeline for him, to look after a small child. That’s the nice thing about rereading, isn’t it? You never read the same book twice.
Bombs on Aunt Dainty by Judith Kerr
I didn’t realise this book even existed until someone mentioned it. I almost leapt a foot in the air – there’s a sequel to When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit? There’s two?!? This book follows Anna’s adolescence, moving with her family between run-down hotels in Blitz-bombed London and slowly realising her dreams of becoming an artist. It tends to get forgotten in the wake of When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, which is a classic and rightly so, but this has so much to recommend it. You feel the strangeness of living and working in a city that’s being bombed almost every single night: the claustrophobia of huddling in damp hotel rooms; the solidarity of European refugees learning how to navigate English stuffiness under a cloud of fear.
Where Shall We Run To? by Alan Garner
One of my first key memories in making The Midnight Guardians was rereading The Weirdstone of Brisingamen in a clearing of trees, and going, “Oh, hang on a moment, I forgot that kid’s books used to feel like this”. As luck would have it, he had just published his memoir of a childhood spent in wartime. This is a miraculous book – it perfectly, perfectly conveys the sheer strangeness of searching fields for bits of exploded plane to trade in the playground, and doing lessons while everyone wears enormous rubber gas masks. My personal favourite moment is when every household in the village has to construct an emergency plan for when German soldiers burst through the front door: Alan will throw a paper bag of ground pepper into the soldiers’ eyes so that his mum can hit them on the head with a poker, and then they’ll both run upstairs and chuck themselves out a first floor window.
The Lion and the Unicorn by Shirley Hughes
I forgot this book existed. I felt a twinge as I remembered the title: I picked it up, thinking to at the very least flick through it. And – bam! – it all came back to me. Those illustrations of a child watching a burning street… Lenny’s story as he pines for his father and bravely leaves home. It’s a huge challenge for the average British child, to understand what it must have been like to live during wartime: to leave everything behind, to see a street you knew so well in the wake of devastation. Hughes’ illustrations capture the messiness, the vivid emotion, perfectly.
Once by Morris Gleitzman
This was a new one for me. I had no idea that the guy who wrote Misery Guts and Bumface, both books I loved as a kid, was now far more well known for his series of books about a young Jewish boy making his way through Poland to find his parents.
This is such a tricky subject to write about. It has been covered so many times, so often badly and insensitively: to talk about it any more feels like a disservice to the importance of it. And yet somehow, the data shows that fewer people than ever know about the Holocaust. I have no idea how this could have happened: perhaps parents thinks its so important that schools must be telling children about it, and schools thought that it was so important that parents must be doing it.
I’m a strong believer that there should be no subject, no topic that is off-limits to children. We forget that they notice everything anyway – no matter how much you try and hide the worst bits of the world from them, they have a habit of seeing it in ways that we don’t realise. We have to tell children about this, and we have to do it in way that will help them understand: if you can do it with love and care and humour, as Gleitzman does, then so much the better.
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