Wellington author Philippa Werry has published a large number of books for children and young adults. Her latest, The Telegram, (Pipi Press) tells the story of fourteen-year-old Beatrice Thomas who lives with her mother and sister in a small New Zealand town during the first world war.
When she leaves school, Beaty gets a job as a telegram girl, delivering bad news of sons killed or wounded at war. Beaty's friend Caleb is away fighting, and over time his letters turn darker as his initial enthusiasm fades and the reality of being a soldier takes over.
The Telegram spans the entire war period and Beaty continues delivering telegrams through the Armistice, peace celebrations and influenza epidemic. From the back cover: Soon she's running the Post Office almost single-handed. Then Caleb's letters stop arriving.
We talked to Philippa about the origins of this engaging story.
Congratulations on your latest book. What drew you to writing about children in WW1?
Thank you! I’ve been interested in writing about war (and peace) for several years, starting with a book about the history of Anzac Day. I’ve written other non-fiction books, a picture book with Bob Kerr (Best Mates) and a book on the Dawn Service in the Ready to Read series, and I kept a blog on children’s war books. But I felt there was still a story to be told about what it was like back home while the men were away, about the role of women and children in keeping those communities together, and about the dreadful flu epidemic that struck just at the end of WW1.
Why do you think it’s important for children and young adults to read historical fiction?
For children and young adults, “history” starts not so long ago. If you’ve ever tried to explain to a young person what it was like in a world before cell phones or computers, you soon realise that you’ve been living through “history”.
Children are enmeshed in the world of today, but I hope historical fiction can be a way to open up their ideas to other worlds, other places and other experiences, and that in turn can help them to build up empathy and understanding. As a wise writer friend commented, children in all generations face their own problems, and seeing how children faced and overcame theirs in the past can be a way of helping them face their own in the present.
Do you have a personal connection with telegram bearers in WW1? How did you choose this particular focus for this book?
In 2014, I was lucky enough to go to Gallipoli with a group called Gallipoli Volunteers. They were a great group, mostly Australian but a few other Kiwis, and we spent a week going around the battle sites and exploring the peninsula with our Turkish guide Barış before helping out at the Anzac Day dawn service and the later services at Lone Pine and Chunuk Bair.
At Anzac Cove, the ceremony is broadcast on big screens so everyone can see clearly, but all through the night before, as people were arriving and settling in, there were people speaking or groups performing on stage and they were also shown on the big screens, along with films and videos. We didn’t get a chance to watch them all, but one I glimpsed was an award-winning 2011 short film called The Telegram Man, directed by James Francis Khehtie and based on a short story by John Boyne. The film is about the impact of WW2 on an Australian farming community. You can read more about it here. I tried to find out more about telegrams and found out that in WW1, they were delivered by young boys. That seemed like the start of an intriguing story, but it was when I discovered that telegram girls were employed later in the war that the story really took off for me.
Another trigger behind the book was when my aunt lent me the photograph albums that once belonged to my great-great aunt Louie (Louisa Bird) who was one of the first New Zealand nurses to go to WW1. As well as many photos taken in Egypt, there are some at the War Veterans Home in Parnell, Auckland where she was Matron after the war. The faces of those men stayed with me and made me think about what it would have been like for them, returning to lives very different from those they had left.
Anzac Day is coming up and The Telegram would be a great book for teachers to read in class. How do you think historical fiction can help shape ideas of war remembrances and nationhood?
I think it’s easy to talk about war being wrong in a general sort of way, but historical fiction helps to make that clear and specific. It adds a layer of imagination that paradoxically makes the past more real.
What does ‘Read NZ’ mean to you – how important is it that we read books from this place?
I grew up on (mostly) English, and a few American writers, because there were so few New Zealand children’s writers then. Even when I was studying English at Auckland University, there was little attention paid to our own literature. One of the few contemporary New Zealand writers who found their way into the coursework was Fleur Adcock (recently back here to launch her Collected Poems) and I loved her work.
When my children were small, we were constant library visitors and I read to them a lot – and that was when I started to discover New Zealand children’s writing. I knew what it was like to grow up on a diet of overseas books and I wanted them to have the gift of seeing their own world reflected in what they were reading.
Which New Zealand books or writers have been special to you in your life?
Jenny Bornholdt has always been one of my favourite poets. Fleur Beale, Mandy Hager and David Hill (among many others) for children’s and YA writers. Owen Marshall for short stories. Lots of wonderful non-fiction.
If you were going to recommend local writing to other New Zealanders, which pieces or authors would you choose?
Recently I’ve been admiring John Scott Works by David Straight (Massey University Press). My parents’-in-law beautiful house was designed by John Scott and it’s lovely to see it featured in the book.
What’s next in store for you, Philippa?
I’m in the early stages of a new non-fiction book, but I did love going back to fiction so I’m hoping to continue that!