Teenagers in the Blitz: ‘Fireweed’

Fireweed by Jill Paton-Walsh cover image paperback Hot Key Books

Fireweed by Jill Paton Walsh

I picked this up in a bookshop because of its lovely graphic cover – in just three colours – and bought it because of the introduction by Lucy Mangan. I used to follow her column about classic children’s books in The Guardian but I’d never come across Fireweed. I’d heard of Jill Paton Walsh’s fiction for grown-ups but the fact that she was a winner of prestigious children’s book prizes had passed me by. Lucy Mangan loved this book when it was a class read at school – despite this scenario being enough to ruin most set books for her – and that was enough for me.

After the first page I was careful not to read the rest of the introduction until after I’d finished the book. I suspected it might give away more about the ending than I wanted to know, and that was true.

Bill and Julie are teenagers adrift in London during the Blitz. 15-year-old Bill has escaped his isolated evacuee placement in Wales and come back to London, virtually penniless and now – due to a bomb – homeless. His family life is rather bleak, and he seems a little detached from his emotions. Julie’s background is more mysterious – partly because it is Bill who narrates their tale and she keeps as much back from him as he does from her (but not from the reader). For example, neither Bill nor Julie are their real names. But she’s got more ready cash and the two team up, trying to evade both the bombs and anyone official – or just officious – who might question them and end their brief spell of utter freedom. For a few weeks in the autumn of 1940 while London and its inhabitants reel under constant bombardment, they play at surviving in the cracks of a dangerous city.

The author was only three in the year of which she writes, and thanks ‘everyone I know who is old enough to remember 1940’. Fireweed was first published in 1969. My parents were young teens during those war years, and when I was a child ‘The War’ was a frequent topic of conversation amongst  all the adults I knew, as a relatively recent and still very vivid set of experiences for them. I’ve read fictionalised accounts of civilians at home or abroad, from authors who lived through it (e.g. Elizabeth Bowen, Elizabeth Taylor, Olivia Manning, Elizabeth-Jane Howard) to more recent representations of the era by younger writers (Sarah Waters, Jill Dawson). Paton Walsh’s depiction of London in the Blitz is outstanding, perhaps because she was able to draw on very real contemporary memories. Fireweed is full of practical details, sometimes gruesome, without getting bogged down. I’ve never read such an evocative description of the tube stations that served as shelters for crowds of Londoners every night, while still working as a form of transport. Or of newly-bombed streets, and the fragile bits of buildings still standing. The Blitz was smelly! Filthy! The food was pretty rubbish, especially when you couldn’t use your ration card. The organisation of keeping a city going, and mopping up the debris, human and otherwise, is amazing, but still looks, from this distance, amateurish and based on good luck and goodwill and a very British propensity for ‘mucking in’.

And maybe the picture of the Blitz is so vivid because Bill and Julie aren’t quite adults yet, and have that mix of fearlessness and naïveté of those just emerging from childhood. They roam London, looking at everything, not only seeing but feeling and smelling and tasting, too. Yes, they get tired and anxious and frightened, cold and hungry, but they also show nerves of steel, ingenuity, and a weary determination to keep up the fantasy for a little longer.

Lucy Mangan reread the book many times, always getting more from it. She says that Jill Paton Walsh dismissed it later in her career, but it still feels a worthwhile read to me. Two young teens, not always compatible, fending for themselves in a frightening world, but a world full of strange opportunities: sounds a perfect modern YA read.

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Snot glue and other eternal verities of the children’s publishing industry

It’s said that much in the way of significant business deals and networking still takes place in male-only sanctums. But at the Nosy Crow Conference at the St Bride Foundation on Saturday the (very long) queue for the ladies’ loos was the place to be! My networking skills are a work-in-progress but even I managed some worthwhile conversations while the predominantly female audience waited patiently for the 3 available cubicles – though a break-away contingent did annexe the second gents’ facilities on the top floor.

(I’ve already written too much about toilets and nothing about publishing. Note to self.)

Billed as Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Children’s Publishing (but were afraid to ask), that kind of summed up my feelings as a relative newbie in the field. Nosy Crow are relative newbies too, as a publishing house, but have squillions of years of collective experience between them. (Exaggeration, moi?)

Others have blogged more comprehensively and sensibly about the event here and here but I’d like to share some of what I learned at this packed and exciting day.

Lucy Mangan, Guardian columnist and bibliophile – and that’s putting it mildly – said that reading “sets you free”. Access to books, in particular through school and public libraries, was invaluable for aspiring to and achieving that slightly touchy subject, social mobility. I felt that children’s authors and readers (of all ages) were together planting a flag for the value of books, like in the famous Iwo Jima photograph. Somebody with more advanced expertise than mine Photoshop it for me, please.

The Nosy Crow editorial panel, with their eyes on worldwide sales, said useful things about picture books like, ‘Don’t make your story too British’. (Hedgehogs are a no-no on that basis. Who knew?) That blows my story about a Dartford Warbler right out of the water. Also, ‘If it rhymes, is the story strong enough to work as prose in another language?’ And stories about ordinary everyday life for 5 to 7-year-olds just don’t really cross borders, too culture-specific. Fantasy worlds do translate.

As for their wish-list, quite frankly I don’t want to share that with you. I want to keep it all to myself.

Hilary Delamere defended agents against the theoretical defamation that they were only money-grubbing parasites. But personally I had always thought that they were the golden key (elbow? Metaphor!?) to pushing past the slush pile.

Tracey Corderoy wowed with energy and charm but scared me with her crafting super-powers in a talk about live author events. ‘Take a story sack’ was the lesson I learned, even if it’s only to clutch to your terrified bosom. Jon Reed had to follow on with a session about on-line marketing while one of Tracey’s sparkly spiders still dangled from the lectern. A good tip from Jon was paywithatweet where readers get a free extract or 1-page resource but have to ‘pay’ by tweeting your link.

From Melissa Cox, children’s book buyer for Waterstones, I learned that the ideal book for 9s-12s (the age-group I am currently writing for) has good writing, a good cover, a strong story and leaves ‘em wanting more. Hope that’s sorted, then. And that foil covers aren’t the thing any more, it’s all about sprayed edges. Unfortunately by this time the data projector had done a diva-flounce and stopped cooperating, so we couldn’t see all the titles Melissa wanted to illustrate her talk with.

From there we moved into the strange but fascinating world of children’s story apps, but we’d had cake by then and wine was promised so nothing felt too mystifying.

My last lesson of the day was: snot glue. Think about it. It’s that stuff that sticks things to things. Free stuff on magazine covers. You can roll it up into a ball…eventually. Yes, now you know what I’m talking about, and now you know it has a technical name. Snot glue. You heard it here, courtesy of Nosy Crow.