Marcia Williams, who has given the classic tales of Homer, Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens new life through her signature comic-book style, has been exploring a different look lately. Archie’s War: My Scrapbook of the First World War, 1914—1918, by Me, Archie Albright, Aged 10 Years (Candlewick, 2007), was conceived as the collage-style journal of a fictional English boy. In the follow-up, My Secret War Diary by Flossie Albright: My History of the Second World War, 1939—1945, Archie’s daughter shares her experiences coming of age during those tumultuous years. Williams spoke to Bookshelf by phone from her home in London.
What led you to depart from your tried-and-true comic-strip format and create these collage-filled diaries?
My editor at Walker Books here in London [Ellen Holgate] asked me to do a book about World War I and I was a bit taken aback, since this was not a subject I’d normally cover. I began thinking about how I might do it, and decided that the only way I really could do it was through the eyes of a child. And that child came to me as Archie, a 10-year-old boy.
I began thinking about how my own son, who’s now 30, loved to collect war memorabilia when he was about 10. So I covered a shoebox in World War I cigarette cards and started my own collection of war memorabilia. I filled it with all sorts of bits and pieces—medals, bullets, postcards from the front, embroidery stitched by French women to send to their soldier sweethearts. I was very excited about it.
These mementos then inspired Archie’s diary?
Well, I brought the shoebox to an editorial meeting at Walker and showed it around. And there was this terrible silence around the table as everyone looked at my collection. And my editor said, ‘Marcia, this is very nice, but it’s not a book.’ So on my way home, I remembered another thing my son loved to do at 10: he loved to make scrapbooks. And that felt right to me, and I realized that that was what Archie would do. I knew then that I would tell Archie’s story through his diary, with postcards, letters, photos, newspaper clippings and the like.
Both these facsimile diaries do indeed have the feel of scrapbooks, with letters that unfold and greeting cards that open. Did you envision that interactive element from the start?
I’ve got a playroom for my grandchildren in my house, and I’d sit at their little desk and use their stubby little crayons as I created Archie’s diary, with his words and drawings. And as I went along, I imagined that perhaps he’d make a flap here, and another one there. So I put them in, too. And when I took this early version to Walker, I said, ‘I know that I won’t actually be able to have these flaps in the art,’ and I was so surprised when the art designer said, ‘I don’t see why not.’ That opened up another whole dimension and meant that the actual letters could go in the book. It seemed to make it all the more real.
Did you find this new medium a challenge?
Strangely, since it is so very unlike anything else I’d done, it did seem to come quite easily once I decided to tell the story through Archie’s eyes, in this way. And of course for a storyline, I had the structure of the war to follow.
How did you tackle your war research?
I did a lot of research at the Imperial War Museum here in London, which holds many letters and all sorts of memorabilia. And I was also incredibly lucky, since soon after I started working on the first diary, I discovered my family had an album filled with wartime memorabilia—lots of postcards and photos. My aunt had the scrapbook at her house and very reluctantly lent it to me, and then reluctantly let it go again when I borrowed it a second time for Flossie’s diary. In fact, nearly all the postcards in both of these diaries come from this family collection. It was wonderful to have, and it makes both books feel very authentic to me.
How was it that, having covered World War I in Archie’s War, you decided to create a second diary focusing on World War II?
Well, the photo on the cover of Archie’s War is actually of my mother’s cousin, taken in 1914 when he was 10. He grew up and joined the army during the Second World War and, very sadly, was killed on his first day of active service. I began wondering what would have happened to Archie and his family if he’d grown up and had to fight in the second war. Having gone through Archie’s War with Archie, I imagined how terrible it was that the War to End All Wars hadn’t done that at all, and that same generation was going to be hit again by another war. That’s why I wanted to do this second book, where Archie does go off to war and his daughter, Flossie, keeps a diary as he had done.
Given the books’ wartime settings, and the fact that both young diarists’ fathers leave home to fight in a war, did you find it difficult to distinguish Flossie’s voice from Archie’s?
I was very conscious that I didn’t want the two books to be too similar. I knew I didn’t want to repeat Archie’s Diary. But again, I was led by the facts of each war. And Flossie is living in Dorset, in the country, where a lot of American troops landed when they arrived in England, while Archie lives mostly in London, though he did finish out World War I in Dorset. And, as it turns out, that is exactly where my family was living during World War II. But aside from the books’ different settings, I soon realized that Flossie is such a completely different person from Archie that there was no danger of the two diaries being too similar.
How do you think that today’s readers will identify with Archie and Flossie?
I hope they will identify with them because each is telling a very personal story, yet the things they feel are universal. Often when children read history books it’s easy for them to forget that the people in them have personal stories as well. These diaries have a lot of historical detail, but they are also personal stories and I hope that makes them accessible. Also, the stories show how terrible war is and we are surrounded by war at the moment. Children all over the world are experiencing war, and thinking about that certainly helped me write these books from a child’s perspective.
In Flossie’s final diary entry, she writes, “I might write another diary about living in peace and becoming a nurse, or I might flipping not!” Is this a hint that you may create a third collage-style journal?
Well, I am working on a new book now, but I’ve been forbidden to talk about it. I can say that it is not along these same lines. I might go back to this diary format at some point, but I’m not certain. Producing the second book in a year was very hard work for me and for my publisher. It was fantastic to do, but right now we all need a break. Though one thing that has stayed with me, after doing these diaries, is how important it is to hold on to one’s family history. That is especially true in this era when we no longer write many letters. My mother, who is now 93, has held on to so much of our family history, and I am very grateful to her.
My Secret War Diary by Flossie Albright: My History of the Second World War, 1939-1945 by Marcia Williams. Candlewick, $21.99 ISBN 978-0-7636-4111-5