Children's Literature Interest Group: Interview with Mick Manning and Brita Granström 2013

Mick Manning and Brita GranstromMick Manning and Brita Granström are well known by teachers and children for their exciting and well researched information picture books for the preschool, early years and primary age groups. They have written for the very young as well as nature and history books for 8-11 year olds. Biography for children is another of their strengths. In 2012 they gave an illustrated talk at the English Association's 'Dickens and Childhood' conference about their visit to America to involve school children in Charles Dickens' story, as told in their book Charles Dickens: Scenes from an Extraordinary Life.* Mick and Brita were interviewed about their work for the Children's Literature Special Interest Group's online 'author interviews' in 2010. Mindful that the centenary of the beginning of WW1 draws nearer, the special focus of this second interview is on their most recent book Charlie's War Illustrated [Franklin Watts, 978 1 4451 1033 2, £11.99 hbk, 32pp.]

Let’s start with your considerable contribution to celebrating the bi-centenary of Charles Dickens. You were members of a panel of children’s authors at a symposium organised by The English Association and The Dickens Fellowship as part of the ‘Dickens and Childhood’ conference, held at The V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green in June 2012.   When we visited the shortlisted schools for the More Dickens prize, one child remarked –  pointing to your Charles Dickens: Scenes from an Extraordinary Life – ‘there is always a queue for this book’. Were you surprised at the interest that has been shown by all age groups in Dickens’ world and stories?

Mick
Children do relate to Dickens. The situations Dickensian characters (particularly children) find themselves in are vividly portrayed and understandable to any child: poverty, family tragedy, mental, and physical abuse by authority-figures… We have all experienced emotions of unease, perhaps even fear as children. These in most cases will have been, I hope, trivial from an adult perspective – fear of the dark perhaps? But as we all know, some children’s experiences of fear and abuse are all too real. Dickens exposed many contemporary social and institutional evils – the scandalous ‘Yorkshire’ schools for example. Of course literate children have the ability to read Dickens and imagine themselves in such situations and we can only hope that it is the closest they ever get to that hidden world of abuse and poverty that, to our shame, is still with us.

Cover of Charlie's War IllustratedYour new book Charlie’s War Illustrated is timely as teachers will be puzzling over the best ways to help children understand about WW1 as 2014 draws near.  You have written a number of successful books on WW2, including Taff in the WAAF which won the English Association’s non-fiction picturebook award. Was it more difficult to find a way to engage children with WW1? For one thing this war seems more remote as it is beyond living memory now.

Mick
It was harder yes… but in my own mid-1960s childhood WW1 wasn’t beyond living memory. I heard about it as a child, first-hand from my grandfather – someone who had survived it.

So I made that my starting point. I’ve always been convinced it is essential to hang on to our own childhood; all the emotions and logic of those formative years should become the kernel, the heartwood of the adult sensibility. If we let go of the little child we once were then I believe we are spiritually diminished. I suppose with this book, just like Tail-End Charlie and Taff in the WAAF, we have made a link between past and future generations, passing on stories, experiences and emotions that shouldn’t be forgotten.

My grandfather told stories to my dad (when he himself was a boy), and to my brother and cousins too about those far away days. I’ve woven them all together in one narrative. The book starts with Charlie's (and his brother Fred’s) boyhood and how they join-up. They fight from 1914 – 18. There are things that happen to them after the war too. I think that is also very interesting for children to reflect on; what happens to veterans when they come home from war?

I have tried to capture my grandfather chatting to the reader in an un-complicated but also factual way. We have combined our artwork with ephemera: magazines of the time, postcards and the cigarette picture cards the soldiers collected. We hope this gives a personal, approach while at the same time representing ‘everyman’s story. We use fact boxes almost like theatrical ‘asides’ to explain things and add depth.

Biography and autobiography are, potentially perhaps, amongst the more literary kinds of writing for children. You have sometimes described your writing and illustrating as ‘lyrical’. What do you think are the lyrical elements in Charlie’s War Illustrated?

Brita
In Charlie’s War Illustrated the main text is chatty, sometime amusing, at other times sad. Our text deals with emotion and explores feelings, which I see is one dictionary definition of lyricism. We want children to enjoy the process of exploring our books and to be stimulated by the words as much as the facts.

Pages showing soldiers affected by poison gas

How did you reach a balance in this book between giving distressing facts honestly while finding, some positive things to focus on?

Brita & Mick
Yes, ‘brothers in arms’ may be a cliché but every new generation needs to reflect on it. Young men on both sides, swallowed the propaganda, caught the patriotic fever and joined up; millions from all nations, and all walks of life, were killed or dreadfully maimed. All of them had mothers, many had sweethearts, wives, children…

But we also use humour and ‘the everyday’ humdrum to make some points – there was lots of waiting around, training and preparation.

Do you think some truths about the human condition are best expressed through poetry?  I’m thinking here, of course, about the John McCrae poem that you place at the end of the book.

Mick
Yes, contemporary poetry… and also the gallows-humorous lyrics of WW1 marching songs - genuine folk songs. Our son Max went on a Belgian Battlefields school trip while we were making Charlie’s War Illustrated and came back electrified. The guide had immersed the students from the offset, playing marching songs on the coach journey and encouraging them to sing the songs themselves. Poetry was read to them too. But it was the singing of these old songs; songs about gas and whiz-bangs, but also about hope and love, that bonded the school parties just as it had bonded those tragic platoons of soldiers all those years ago. When Max got back he sang us the songs and we realized they were as vital and as important as war poetry.

A spread from Charlie's War Illustrated showing the Western Front in 1914

You both take a full part in both the writing and the illustrating of your books. How did you divide the work in this book?

The design of the pages must have taken a lot of thought. Each double spread communicates through photographs, original art work, speech bubbles with Brita’s hand lettering and a narrative linking the different parts of Charlie’s story. There are also maps and diagrams of the trenches. For new visitors to the ‘author interviews’ page would you explain the stages that brought all this to fruition?

Mick: In answer to both:
We spent a lot of time working together drawing out the layouts and finding postcards and other ephemera to combine with our drawings.

We wanted this book to use quite a lot of items from the Manning family archive.  I have been working on, and researching, this subject for the last five years and in that time I had made first contact with other cousins and relatives who shared items and photographs. So it has been very much a voyage of discovery and revelation for me and I hope that excitement comes over in the book.

Our working process is perhaps not typical because it involves both author and illustrators (we both do both) living under the same roof and working in the same studio as opposed to being linked by email. So this means that we tend to begin with a rough main text and page-by-page pencil layouts that we then share with the publisher. From that stage our publisher and art director (in this case Jonathan Hair) have their input. From there the text is bashed about until it is in good shape and the artworks are also produced at this stage.  On this title we spent a lot of time working out ways to combine the illustrations and the lovely half-tone-dotty picture card ephemera.

Cigarette cards, postcards and magazines from WW1

The cigarette cards make for very interesting end pages. Were these part of a family collection?

Brita
Yes. Our artwork often uses enlarged areas of postcards and cigarette card as a backdrop. They are beautiful and seductive images and helped us achieve the ‘flavour’ we wanted.

The London branch of the Imperial War Museum re-opens later this year, I think, after refurbishment of some of the galleries.  Did the staff there help you with this particular book?

Mick
We checked things with the IWM who were, understandably, strict on the authenticity of my story. They needed us to show them the evidence that the events in the book really happened to one individual. With Charlie’s army service record documents and the various brigade war diaries and my family photos we were able to do that.

Brita
The IWM were very helpful. Mick spent months researching Charlie’s war record and looking at that in context to the bigger picture of the ‘Great War’. It was later double-checked by IWM experts who even turned up a brigade photo in their archive he had never seen. Of course it had to go in the book. The book proudly carries the IWM logo as an endorsement for accuracy.

What would you say to those who think that war is too harrowing a topic for children under 11 years?

Mick
War is harrowing; there is no way around that, yet children want to know about it. In fact they NEED to know about it. It is their history too. During the two World Wars of the 20th century, millions of children had an enemy army physically occupying their country, threatening them with violence and death camps and today, in all too many places in the world, children’s experience of war still goes far beyond a book in a classroom…

You travel a lot to give workshops to teachers and children and are always helpful when asked about setting up children’s activities to reflect on the topic and issues in your books. What kind of activities might proceed, accompany or follow reading Charlie’s War Illustrated?

Brita
We’ve not thought about a session for this title yet. So all suggestions are welcome.

Turning now to some questions about the writing /illustrating process, at what stage did each of you know you wanted to be an illustrator and writer?

Mick
I began to read before I started school by working out what the speech bubbles in my brother’s Lion Comic meant. At school I loved Look and Learn and nature books.  I also began writing stories in primary school and keeping sketchbooks too. Along with many other kids I earned my Cadbury’s Essay Competition runner-up certificate! I still have my collection of 1960s Ladybird books.

My dad was a teacher and when he wasn’t teaching night classes to make ends meet he would work on his teaching strategies on the dining room table – what was known back then in the 60s as Remedial education and his pioneering classes involved his own drawings of Treasure Island or Tom Sawyer photocopied with questions and key words neatly labeled on them.

So I’d probably, subconsciously, decided by the end of primary school.

Brita
I grew up on a farm in Sweden reading Tove Jansson and Astrid Lindgren. My mum was a primary school teacher and my dad was a police detective inspector as well as a farmer! Both encouraged me to draw and paint. When I reached middle school I convinced my head teacher to let me produce murals for the corridors instead of attending needlework and typing classes. I never looked back.

I know that you, Brita, exhibit your paintings as well as well as working as a writer and illustrator of children’s books. Are there connections between these two creative activities?

Brita
Only in the sense that one tends to nourish the other. My painting is a very different process from my illustration work. Illustration is an applied art, working with word and image to a brief. It is very demanding, requiring me to research, gather accurate reference and focus on a subject quite intensely, often for months at a time.
My paintings are me; painting what I want to paint, how I want to paint it; outdoors and in all weathers, using paints and large canvases. My paintings usually grow into an exhibition every few years. My subjects are for adult sensibilities: landscape, nudes and people. Recently I did a series of portraits and interiors – championing the vanishing independent shopkeepers in my small town who are being elbowed out by the discount store and the supermarket. There are catalogues available and you can visit my painting website at www.britagranstrom.com


What do you think about kindles and ebooks? Do you think the print information book will survive in an increasingly digital world?

Mick
Yes, I do think print will survive for a while yet. Apps and ebooks are all very well, fantastic in some ways but limited in others . . .

Do you get a lot of visitors to your website and some feedback?

Mick
Our feedback tends to be mostly face-to-face at events and book festivals, which is rewarding.  But we do get letters and emails as well. In fact I feel very guilty at the moment as we recently had a very interesting letter from a young lad asking some good questions about Tail-End Charlie… but I misplaced the letter and have no way of contacting him. With four young sons of our own, our house gets a bit chaotic on schooldays and I hate to admit that it may have been accidentally thrown away. So, if that lad, or his dad, are reading this – please email us via our website www.mickandbrita.com

You have worked with several publishers including Franklin Watts and Frances Lincoln. What degree of control do you have over the finished published work including the covers?

Brita
We have a good working relationship with both of those publishers.

Visually, Brita and I come up with the concept layouts and the art director then has an input and we work on it together. Covers are trickier as the Sales Team has a huge input and a lot of influence. This is often for the better … but perhaps the resulting cover is not always what we had originally planned!

If you had not been author/ illustrators – what other career might you have enjoyed?

Brita
Well I would have been an artist or designer of some sort!

Mick
I’m not sure I could do anything else!

 
*There is a version of this talk ‘The Charles Dickens’ Bicentenary: Mick and Brita in the USA’ in English 4-11, Number 46, Autumn 2012, pp 13-14.

All images from Charlie's War Illustrated are © Mick Manning and Brita Granström and are reproduced by kind permission of Franklin Watts

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