Valentine Joe by Rebecca Stevens is one of many books being published this year as part of the commemorations of the start of First World War. This novel, ideal for children 10+, is inspired by the real life story of Valentine Joe Strudwick, one of the youngest Tommies to die on the Western Front of World War One and also by the letters sent home from the Front by the author’s own Grandfather.
Rebecca Stevens has previously worked as an actor, a standup comedian and a script writer for children’s television, writing for shows such as Mr Bean and Postman Pat but Valentine Joe is her first solo book project and so I asked her if she would tell us a little bit more about it. Here’s what Rebecca had to say:-
“Valentine Joe Strudwick was a real person. Now much is known about him except that he was was born on Valentine’s Day, 1900, in Dorking. He left school at thirteen and worked with his uncle in a coal yard. Then, when war broke out in 1914, Joe joined up. He was fourteen.
His story began for me a few years ago when my uncle died and I was given a tatty cardboard folder that had been in his house for decades. It smelled of dust and mildew and contained hundreds of sheets of thin yellowish paper closely covered with writing in the purpley-black ink used in typewriters a hundred years ago. They were letters, written by my grandfather, Fred, to his mum and dad when he was away during the Great War.
Like Joe, Fred was one of the many boys who lied about their age in order to take part in the war. He was sixteen (the official age was eighteen, nineteen to be sent overseas). Along with his best friend, Fraser, Fred left a comfortable middle-class home in South London to join the Seaforth Highlanders. From their training base in the Highlands of Scotland, Fred wrote home several times a week, funny, cheerful, warm letters, full of news about the food and his fellow recruits, assuring his mother he wasn’t going to starts smoking or drinking and expressing his excitement at being issued with a kilt as part of his uniform.
I’m so glad that my grandfather wrote those letters and that someone (I like to think it was his poor, worried mum, but I don’t know) typed them out and preserved them so carefully. Because they were the reason I became interested in the underage soldiers of the First World War and found out about Valentine Joe.
Fred was lucky. After six months he caught pneumonia (probably from marching around in the snow wearing his beloved kilt). An army doctor realised he was underage and sent him home to London.
Joe wasn’t lucky. After a few weeks’ training he was sent to the Front where his two best friends were killed and he was gassed. After recovering in England he went back to Flanders where, on the 14th January 1916, exactly one month before his sixteenth birthday, he was killed. He was one of the youngest soldiers known to have been killed in action.
When I found out about Joe, I knew I wanted to tell his story, but I didn’t know how. It felt wrong, disrespectful almost, to put myself in his shoes, imagine his experiences from his point of view. Maybe it’s because I’m female, maybe because he was a real person, I don’t know. So I decided to tell his story through the eyes of a character I felt closer to. Rose is a fourteen year old girl from the present day, who goes to Ypres with her grandad. She’s moved to tears and anger by the sight of Joe’s grave and that night, when she goes off for a walk on her own in the rebuilt city of Ypres, the past starts to reassert itself…..
I wanted to use the little that’s know about the real Valentine Joe Strudwick to show how the past informs the present and how we can all help to make the unbearable bearable for each other during the worst of times.
I also wanted to tell a love story. Because that’s important too. And, like Rose, I have always had a soft spot for cheeky, charming, reckless boys like Valentine Joe.”
Here’s a short video of Rebecca Stevens reading an excerpt from her book: