Waimea College Library, Richmond, 1965. I was no great visitor to libraries prior to this, an era when children’s literature was more worthy than enticing, but it was to become my sanctuary for my first unconfident year of secondary school until teenage swagger and the pursuit of less cerebral recreation took over. In the classic male route to fiction, and one we still use today to ensnare boys into reading, I read everything I could about sport: non-fiction first but then novels, mainly stories that involved some young cricketer being plucked from his school match by the England team (all our books came from England) at a time of improbably desperate need, and heroically helping to win off the last ball. Or similarly inspiring stories of athletes or soccer players or tennis players (only in fiction would an English player ever win Wimbledon, but I was rooting for them anyway).
Having exhausted that section I then shifted to general fiction, so it would have been somewhere in the winter term (these were three-term years) that I discovered the book that was to fire my love of children’s literature, and which I can’t to this day, 40 years on, read without crying.
Ian Serraillier wrote The Silver Sword over the course of five years while teaching, and it was first published in 1956. Of French descent – his grandfather Auguste was a leading member of the Paris Commune of 1871 who later moved to London to help Marx publish his manifesto in French – Ian was a committed Quaker, and a conscientious objector during WWII. Already a published author of several books, none of which remain in print, his story of the Balicki children is believed to be based on a true story, although given the millions of displaced families then wandering Europe, that much would seem obvious.
The story centres on three Polish children, Ruth, (13), Edek,(11) and Bronia (3), in 1940, when the Nazis invade Warsaw and blow up their house; and the children’s subsequent survival and epic journey over the next six years to a pre-arranged rendezvous in Switzerland in search of their parents, themselves separated when Joseph, the father, was imprisoned. Along the way they are joined by an orphan, Jan, a sly and resourceful urchin with all the nerve of a black marketeer and the eye and fingers of a practised thief, but also with the vulnerable loneliness of a child adrift. He clings to a battered wooden box, the contents of which he guards closely, but which include a small silver sword-shaped letter opener pillaged from the rubble of the Balicki home, and which connects him to the family, and especially Ruth, to whom he transfers his total loyalty as a mother-substitute.
Authors from Arthur Ransome and Enid Blyton through to J K Rowling know that the imperative device for successful children’s writing is to rapidly banish adults to the periphery of the story, occasionally letting them appear as benign, befuddled or straight-out bad, but basically leaving the main characters to get on with the adventure at hand. Without any power themselves, youthful readers cherish plots which have protagonists of a similar age to their own confronting unimaginable difficulties and winning.
But dozens of books are generational favourites that don’t survive the passage to later generations in the way that The Silver Sword has done. A cursory look at internet review sites shows that in 2004 children from Africa to North America (where it is called Escape from Warsaw, probably more to capture readers of Polish descent than due to often-charged dumbing down) regularly rate it in their list of best books ever. I recommend it to every teacher of year 6 to 8 classes as “the” classroom read-aloud; I read it (among sniffs) to my own children; and I have made it my main mission in bookselling to have every child I encounter either read it or, better still, have it read to them.
Our leading voice in the genre, Kate de Goldi, often speaks of the pre-eminence of “story” as the driver in children’s literature, ahead of dialogue, language, style, structure and the like. Get the story right and do a serviceable job on the others and you will capture an audience not yet aware of the nuances of “literary” writing, but knowing a good yarn when they hear one.
The word masterpiece is overused but for The Silver Sword it is apt. We know how compelling a story that involves a quest can be, and we should never underestimate the power of a story about missing parents, no matter how often our own children may tell us that we should get out of their lives. Add in the child reader’s heightened sense of injustice at the suffering of the innocent, and the not unimportant fact that the story has cross-gender appeal (two girl, two boy main characters). Angst, empathy, outrage, gender balance and a happy ending – the perfect children’s book.
Its effect on me was immediate and cathartic: it politicised me and changed my persona from the typical self-centred adolescent to someone who suddenly cared about the wider world. And these were the days before television was able to bring it to you, remember, a world less kind than my own. Hell, I’d even gone through a stage of reading war comics.
To suddenly be confronted by the chapters where a Bavarian farmer and his wife, who have had two of their sons killed serving in the German Army, take the starving children in and nurture them as much as they would their own, started to blur the lines of my prejudice. To read about the bombing of Warsaw drove me to seek out more about the causes and politics of the war, to pacifism and to a life-long love of modern history. The passage that I relish most for its gut-punching poignancy is the one where Edek, separated from the other children for two years, touches his older sister’s hand at the bottom of a melee in a soup kitchen, and without being able to see him, Ruth grabs it and doesn’t let it go. I’m in tears now as I write this, and it is the passage I choose to read to classes on school visits because I can witness the listeners reacting to a written medium (often for the first time) on an emotional level in much the same way as I did four decades ago.
That Serraillier never wrote another book of any note is not a surprise. Many authors have one good story in them, although few have the self-awareness to quit after they have written it. He went on to become an editor at New Windmill Press with his wife Anne, who was rumoured to be an unacknowledged co-author (due to publishing house sexism rather than author ego) of a number of his published works.
The other hero(ine) in this story for me is the publisher of the book, Eleanor Graham, the editor at Puffin Books in the 1940s and 50s, who battled to establish a reasonable list of titles that children actually wanted to read. Against a background of post-war paper shortages, the reluctance of publishers to sell paperback rights, and the insistence of librarians that they must have hardbacks, she published exciting and empathetic stories, books written for children rather than at them. Along with her successor Kaye Webb, who established the Puffin Club to make book ownership affordable, they were almost solely responsible for the 1960s boom in publishing for children that continues to this day.
I owe the love of children’s literature and ultimately a career in bookselling to the Anglo/French pacifist author, two redoubtable women publishers and the librarians of a suburban college in Nelson.
John McIntyre owns The Children’s Bookshop, Kilbirnie, Wellington and is children’s book reviewer on Radio New Zealand’s Nine to Noon with Linda Clark.