Feature Post by Anna Fargher, author of the Umbrella Mouse titles
I was not happy at my secondary school in Suffolk. Bullying was rife, and I would often seek refuge in the school library. I learned from an early age that books gave me comfort and escape, especially when my mum became ill when I was twelve. The magic of reading and how it makes us time travel, teleport into different places, mind read and learn so much by walking in somebody else’s shoes still astonishes me.
I truly believe that good books can help us during difficult times and change our lives for the better. They also turned me into an author, and I could never have written two middle-grade novels, The Umbrella Mouse and Umbrella Mouse to the Rescue, without first being inspired by historical fiction.
Both books draw upon the true stories of animals caught in the conflict of World War Two, and they were triggered by a series of statistics that revealed how little children and adults knew about the World Wars. Most alarmingly, the History Channel discovered that some British adults didn’t know who Hitler was, and results from a poll conducted for Holocaust Memorial Day showed one in 20 Britons believed the Holocaust was a hoax. A further 8% thought it had been exaggerated.
I was worried and confused. As a child, I had felt well informed about the World Wars. I realised it was historical fiction, such as Goodnight Mr Tom, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, The Silver Sword, War Horse and Carrie’s War that had made me care about the past and encouraged me to learn more. I hoped a new work of historical fiction could pique contemporary children’s interest too.
A war story from my own life also had an impact on both Umbrella Mouse books. When my grandfather’s Spitfire was shot down over Nazi-occupied France in 1944, the French Resistance rescued him. On a moonless night, a teenage girl led him over a minefield by laying white handkerchiefs on the ground so he could navigate himself through the gloom unharmed. Shortly afterwards, some of those brave, ordinary men, women and children who helped him escape were killed for doing so. I wanted to write my own French Resistance story to remember their extraordinary efforts, and both Umbrella Mouse books are set against a backdrop of the D-Day landings, because the Allied victory may have failed without the French Resistance’s aid.
My eureka moment came when I found out about Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, the only woman to head a significant Resistance network in France during WWII. Her group earned the Gestapo-given nickname ‘Noah’s Ark’ because Fourcade assigned animal codenames to her spies. Hers was ‘Hedgehog’. On reading her memoir, I instantly wanted to bring her extraordinary story to life in an anthropomorphic adventure, à la Watership Down or The Animals of Farthing Wood. It seemed all the more fitting because it has been argued that animal characters can provide more emotional distance than humans when introducing difficult themes such as war because the suspension of disbelief makes it less disturbing. Therefore, in The Umbrella Mouse books, you’ll get to know Madame Fourcade and Noah’s Ark as their animal alter egos. They fight alongside more incredibly courageous real-life Resisters who have also been reimagined as animals: Hans Scholl, Nancy Wake and Noor Inayat Khan.
With anthropomorphism decided, further research led me to the PDSA Dickin Medal, which has commemorated gallant dogs, cats, pigeons and horses who have fought alongside humans in wars. Some of my favourites are featured in The Umbrella Mouse books, including our first search and rescue dog and a pigeon who flew 20 miles in 20 minutes to deliver a life-saving message. In Umbrella Mouse to the Rescue you’ll also meet parachuting dogs that jumped into D-Day with their human troops and protected them on the ground.
As a child, I was captivated by The Diary of Anne Frank, Born Free and My Family and Other Animals because they were true stories. That gripping real-life element is another reason why I’ve interweaved the genuine animal and Resistance heroes into The Umbrella Mouse books. I hope they entertain and teach children something about WWII, so they never forget the people and animals that sacrificed so much for our freedom.
Additional stops on the blog tour can be found by checking out the Tour Banner –
Feature Book Wishlist (detailing all of the books Anna has referenced) –
Goodnight Mister Tom – Michelle Magorian
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit – Judith Kerr
The Silver Sword – Ian Serraillier
War Horse – Michael Morpurgo
Carrie’s War – Nina Bawden
Watership Down – Richard Adams
The Animals of Farthing Wood – Colin Dann
The Diary of Anne Frank – Anne Frank
Born Free – Joy Adamson
My Family and Other Animals – Gerald Durrell