The theme of war is increasingly being explored in children’s books. In fact, an extraordinary nineteen different books on the theme were entered in the Picture Book category of the Children’s Book Council of Australia Awards for 2015 (this category incorporates illustrated books for a wide age range, from little ones to teens).
We think One Minute’s Silence, by David Metzenthen and Michael Camilleri, is one of the most beautiful and evocative.
Maurice Saxby says of it, ‘this must surely be one of the most important, significant, poignant and thought provoking picture books, or novels, about Gallipoli and the ANZACS to have been published. The title is a metaphor that stills the heart, while challenging the intellect and demanding an emotional response. The stark black and white drawings are probably the most arresting among the spate of war books – especially those devoted to examining the truth behind the propaganda; the reality of warfare generally; and the ANZAC legend in particular.’ (review published in Reading Time)
What’s the story behind this beautiful book – how did it come to be? Author David Metzenthen has said:
‘The idea for this book came about when I was thinking about the hour we lose when daylight saving begins…I wrote a picture book text about times past and people gone, which [my publisher] didn’t publish – but together we decided that I should try and write a story about the One Minute’s Silence we observe for our fallen soldiers…this magical minute of reflection. I was walking my dog thinking about this, and came up with the concept of what we can imagine in one minute’s silence…and what we might find more difficult to imagine – although it really did happen…And so the story of the Aussies and Turks who fought at Gallipoli is presented, asking the reader to imagine the battle from both sides as they went about the business of trying to kill each other…With Michael Camilleri’s beautiful artwork adding a dimension that I could never achieve in my wildest dreams, One Minute’s Silence is now a work of words and pictures presenting an aspect of our history in World War I.’
Michael Camilleri used an extensive range of reference photos and research, including many images and objects from the collection of the Australian War Memorial, in preparing the illustrations for this book.
He explains that the Australian class depicted in the book is based on the 2013 Year 12 class from Sophia Mundi Steiner School in Melbourne. His partner was their English teacher in real life. They were chosen because ‘Year 12 students are around 18, which was the minimum legal enlistment age in Australia during WW1. Though men up to 35 were enlisted at the start of the war, and up to 45 from mid-1915, it’s known that plenty of boys under legal age also managed to sign up. This class has modern equivalents of the fresh young faces seen in so many WW1 photographs.’
Where did the idea of using a whole class come from? ‘Originally One Minute’s Silence was to be illustrated in a more conventional way. I was going to find someone to play one main Aussie character, and someone to play one main Turkish character, and the reader would follow these two characters throughout the book. When I asked the author, David Metzenthen, whether he had ideas about the way the Aussie ought to look, he sent me a photo from the war museum. Something about the look of [one of the boys in the photo] reminded me of one of my partner’s students…I started to wonder what it might be like for the reader to see everything through a contemporary boy’s eyes. They might find it more immediate to empathise with someone they recognise, someone they could see on the street… Eventually the idea evolved to include the whole class.’
Metzenthen has written an extensive illustrator’s commentary with details about many of his reference images, which you can find by following the link from this page on the publisher’s website.
This article has been extracted and adapted for Remembrance Day from our longer post about the stories behind the CBCA Books of the Year 2015.