This year there are a bumper crop of books about New Zealand’s involvement in war being published to coincide with Anzac Day on April 25. The Red Poppy is one of them that really stands out for me because of it’s well-told story by David Hill and it’s stunning illustrations by Fifi Colston. It’s a story full of tension, but ultimately about the friendship between enemies and the loyalty and bravery of one little dog.
I asked both David and Fifi if they would be able to tell me a little about their book and what it meant to them:
The Red Poppy is a senior picture book which tells the story of a young soldier in a terrifying battle on the Western Front in France, during World War 1. Jim McLeod and his battalion have to attack across the open ground, into the face of artillery and machine-gun fire from the German trenches. With them goes the little black messenger dog, Nipper, whose job is to carry back requests for help, to save wounded men. As they charge across the open ground, past a place where red poppies grow among the shattered trees and buildings, Jim is hit by a bullet. He falls into a deep shell-hole, at the bottom of which lies a wounded German soldier. What happens between the two men, and the part played by Nipper in trying to save them, is the rest of the story.
I’ve dedicated my part in The Red Poppy to my uncles who fought in both World Wars. Their stories of the great battles and the courage of soldiers fascinated me from when I was a kid, and finally I had the chance to honour them in a story. Mud and huge guns and fear and the red poppies that have become the symbol of Anzac Day are all in this book.
My husband’s grandfather Rothwell, wrote postcards to his fiancé Hilda, from 1914-1918. Particularly poignant were two from France; they said simply “Am O.K” and “Keep smiling!” I was in the process of scanning and blogging these cards for the family (http://wartimepostcards.blogspot.co.nz/) when Scholastic asked me if I would look at a very special story to illustrate. I had decided some time ago that the next book I illustrated had to really mean something to me on a very personal level. Illustrating a book is a labour of love and I wanted to make a body of work that would enthrall me and push me to produce as excellent work as I could. For that I’d need to relate to the story; it had to move me. Then I read David’s manuscript. Jim’s letter home never mentioning the horrors of the trenches struck an immediate chord with me; those cheerful words from a young man, disguising the reality of his situation. Rothwell did come home from France to be a husband and father, but was far from ‘o.k’; dying just a few short years later from the cruel ravages of his war experience. Illustrating this book has been a journey through his time for me. I visited war museums, studied WW1 uniform, grew red poppies, photographed mud and rubbed chalk pastel until my fingers bled. I have learned much and my artwork is a tribute to him. It’s been a real pleasure working with David, Diana and Penny at Scholastic and Penny Newman the brilliant book designer who created the vision with me.