Ford Street Publishing, 2014
In the Somme region of northern France is a village that seems to have been lifted out of rural Australia. Australian flags fly from almost every flagpole, images of kangaroos adorn the town hall, cafes and restaurants. The streets have names such as Melbourne and Victoria, and the schools have enough fluffy Australian animal toys and artwork to fill a shop. Even the crèche is called Les Marsupiaux. This is Villers-Bretonneux, and the story of why it has this profound connection with Australia is what inspired me to write The Poppy.
Villers-Bretonneux was the site of one of the Australia Corps’ most dramatic and improbable victories in WWI. At great cost, Germany’s final attempt to win the war was stopped by two brigades of the 4th and 5th Australian Divisions. Some historians consider it to be the turning point of the entire conflict. Australian soldiers fought bravely and lost lives severely in many places on the Western Front, but what makes Villers-Bretonneux so unique is the extent to which commemoration of the battle has been upheld for the last 95 years. Villers-Bretonneux is ‘the town that never forgets’, and in the fields just outside the town stands the Australian National Memorial to our soldiers missing in France, those whose bodies were never recovered.
I discovered the story for myself just before going to live in Paris for 3 months in 2011, and was stunned that I had never been aware of it. Nor, it seemed, did anyone else to whom I spoke. Of course, anyone with an interest in WWI knew it well, but it seemed to me that this was just as significant as Gallipoli, and that it should be as widely known. Hence, The Poppy.
Why a picture book? I felt that the time to teach Australians about this extraordinary story was while they were young, so that they would grow up with the admittedly awkward-to-pronounce Villers-Bretonneux being as familiar to them as Gallipoli. (By the way, the ‘s’ is silent, and the ‘eux’ is something between an ‘oh’ and an ‘er.’)
With the centenaries approaching, I also realised that the time was perfect to tell some of the story of the Western Front, where most of our casualties and all of our victories occurred. It also became a very personal story when I decided to include images of my daughter in the paintings, something I have never done before. (I’m probably best known for my dinosaurs, definitely not my people. People are hard!)
I am aware that some people think that the subject matter and the format of the book may be a little unusual for a children’s picture book, but I believe that kids have far more emotional intelligence than we give them credit for. Is the story sad? Undeniably yes. But it is also incredibly hopeful and uplifting, and I hope I have captured at least a little of that.
For a recent review of The Poppy, go to http://blog.boomerangbooks.com.au/the-poppy/2014/04
Andrew’s website is www.andrewplant.com