Many wonderful new books for children and young people are being published this year as part of the commemoration of 100 years since the start of the First World War. But some authors and illustrators, including Marcia Williams, were ahead of the curve.
Back in 2007 Walker books published Marcia’s Archie’s War. It went on to be shortlisted for English 4-11 Book Awards (2008). The Guardian said of it, “…a vivid and personal story that makes a perfect introduction to the subject,” whilst the review on Bookbag declared “Sometimes – not very often – you come across a real gem of a book, something so perfect it takes your breath away. Marcia Williams has achieved just that with Archie’s War.”
This wonderful book has been reissued this year, and today I’ve a post from Marcia all about its format: a scrapbook! Here’s what Marcia had to say:
“When I was asked by Walker Books to consider writing a book about the First World War for primary aged children, I hesitated. I usually jump at the chance of taking on a new challenge, but this seemed a step too far. How would I write and illustrate a book that did not glamorize the horror of war, or that wasn’t a list of facts without emotion? I took my dogs out for a long walk to consider the matter. Eight sore paws and two sore feet later, I decided that I might be able to tell the story through the eyes of a young boy. This young boy, whom I named Archie Albright, would be able to tell the story of the war and the impact it had on him and his family, giving it some relevance to a child reader of today. Archie would not necessarily know the gruesome details of trench warfare, but he would be able to tell the reader about the affect of warfare on ordinary people. He would also have access to the news of the day and could therefore put his story into a historical context.”
“I decided that, to tell the story effectively, Archie would be about ten years old and live in the East End of London. I started to think about my own son when he was that age and remembered how he loved to collect war memorabilia. So I got an old shoebox, covered it in brown paper, stuck First World War cigarette cards all over it and made an Archie’s ‘KEEP OUT’ label for it. I then started to fill it with Archie’s stuff: bits of string, marbles, bugs from the outside toilet, cards from the trenches, medals, memorial mugs, embroidery from France, photographs, etc. The box and Archie’s world began to bulge as friends and relations heard about the project and dug out items from the First World War. Like my son, I became obsessed with collecting these bits, so much so that they became an end in themselves. For my first editorial meeting I had no storyline, no artwork, just Archie’s Box. I ceremoniously opened it up and sat back waiting for the editors to gasp in wonder.
There was a long silence…
‘It’s very interesting,’ said one editor at last, ‘but it’s not a book.’
I went home on the train with my head down. How was I to turn this box into a book? I got off the train, went into the stationer’s and bought the oldest, cheapest looking scrapbook I could find. At home I have a playroom for my grandchildren with little chairs and a low desk with pencils, crayons, coloured papers and glue – there I sat for the next year, pretending to be Archie Albright. Out came the items from the box and into the scrapbook they went, gradually creating the story of the First World War. Through the letters, newspaper clippings and many other bits and pieces that I had collected, I was able to create Archie’s War, full of pictures, flaps, letters and news items. Archie and his family became like close relatives. His story became a family obsession and at Sunday lunches we would discuss the progress of the war, what Archie was up to and how to avoid the wrath of Grandma Albright.
I still have the box with its “KEEP OUT” label. I even have the beetles – and I swear, on the sore paws of my dogs, that Archie found those beetles in his outside toilet at 33 Grove Road, during the First World War!”