On the 11th of November, we pause to remember those who sacrificed their lives in World War I and II. Schools often look for poems, stories and images to poppies to share with the children. Where the Poppies Now Grow is a popular book in schools and author Hilary Robinson shares the background and inspiration with us today.
It was at my cousin’s wedding, several years ago, that my great aunt Emily told me about her brother, Norman, who died at the Somme aged just 22. The story was so utterly heartbreaking I could barely bring myself to ask more.
Norman was one of five children, my grandmother being the eldest and Emily, the youngest.
At the outbreak of war, in 1914, Norman volunteered to serve his country. Before long, according to family conjecture, he was the youngest sergeant in Kitchener’s army.
Occasionally Norman would return on leave to the family home at 363 Oxford Road, much to the joy of his family.
Just before the Battle of the Somme, Norman returned home again, but this time he put on his gas mask before opening the door. There was much hilarity among the siblings as he entered and his mother, my great grandmother, Jane, standing at the top of the stairs was amused by the merriment in the hall below. Her son was safe.
But their joy was short lived. Just weeks later Norman was killed in action – on the 10th July 1916.
Jane’s grief was profound. Every morning, from that day forward she would stand at the top of the stairs, re-imagine the scene and say “it’s alright Norman, I’ll be with you soon.” She never recovered from her loss.
Nearly one hundred years later, I was telling this story to illustrator Martin Impey at Kings Cross Station as we were waiting for our respective trains and he, in turn, told me about the loss of his great uncle, also at the Somme.
This marked the birth of a story, the impact of which would encourage children, in the words of military historian, Paul Reed, to “never look at poppies in the same way again.”
There can be few greater writing challenges than creating stories about World War 1 for children. The sheer barbarity of the brutal four year battle that grew in intensity and devastation, combined with the painful and long lasting consequences at home, all led several experts in the field to consider the subject just too harrowing to deliver for young children.
Yet we knew that if more wasn’t done children would not be included in centenary commemorations that would mark a defining and pivotal period of our time – a time that would help them contextualise their place, alongside ours, in society and history today.
So how did we do it?
First, we consulted historians, parents, teachers and reviewers. There was a huge gap for Key Stage 1.
Where the Poppies Now Grow is centred around two friends, Ben and Ray. Readers and listeners follow their journey from the innocence of childhood, to the reality of war right through to Remembrance.
What was clear in trials, is just how absorbed children became in their story – almost as if there was a primal connection and empathy with the enduring power of friendship, devastation of loss and reassurance and hope of recovery. Ben and Ray became part of their lives.
Where the Poppies Now Grow is written in cumulative verse. This comforting rhythmic form serves to prompt and recap while nurturing the linear and cyclical notion of time.
The format also provided the ideal canvas for the introduction of complex vocabulary such as “makeshift aerodrome” and exceptional pieces of art, which were accurate in facts and absorbing in detail.
There were challenges along the way – a constant evaluation of the our methods and a regular checking of historical facts – for example, did biplanes fly at night in during World War 1?
While our aim was to write an engaging story that would educate and inspire, we also hoped that children would come to understand the absolute importance of finding peaceful solutions to problems. We hoped they would recognise that words will always be the more powerful weapon in the pursuit of peace and now on its eighth reprint Martin and I continue to be overwhelmed by the feedback we receive from children each year.
It seemed natural to dedicate Where the Poppies Now Grow to my great uncle Norman. After this title was published, demand was so high I wrote another three in the series. Peace Lily, which honours the role of women in war, is dedicated to my great grandmother, Jane, so that generations to come would understand both the suffering and the strength of women during that dark period in history.
There was a sort of happy ending though to my family tragedy. When Norman died in July 1916, my grandmother was pregnant with her first baby. Three months later her son was born. She called him Norman.
Norman was the best uncle I could have had. He too made sacrifices for his siblings. He left school early, despite a scholarship, to help to provide for the family. I recognise that his sacrifice provided a legacy that lives on in us, much like his uncle’s before him and just like Ben and Ray, and nature and poppies and cumulative verse, Where the Poppies Now Grow signifies that we are all interconnected in the linear and cyclical notion of time.
Views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Federation.