Writing Arctic Star

Tom Palmer

The award-winning children's author explains the story behind his latest novel
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Writing Arctic Star

There are hundreds of children’s books about war. From Boudica’s Britain to Bagram Airbase, all theatres are included. But the majority of children’s war fiction covers the First and Second World Wars and it is deployed by teachers in schools to enhance classroom study of those conflicts. The Silver Sword by Ian Serralllier (1956), When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr (1971) and War Horse by Michael Morpurgo (1982) are three of the classics that are a great way of navigating children through the cataclysmic events of the Twentieth Century. In these cases from the points of view of children and animals.

I write war fiction for children. The books above are important to me because they are authentic. What I mean by that is that they are well researched. In Judith Kerr’s case – experienced. And, for me, it is really important that children read historical fiction that is authentic.

A crew member of HMS Sheffield, part of an Arctic Convoy

But needing to be authentic creates a problem for authors. You want your stories to be full of cliffhangers, characters and consequences that will entertain and move the children reading your books. But the more literacy techniques you deploy to achieve that the more chance there is of mission creep away from the truth.

I tackle this problem by starting off with blanket research, which I am pretty sure the authors whose books I mention above did too.

If I can find out as much as possible about trench warfare or the Arctic Convoys or the use of animals during D-Day, I can find all the characters, scenarios, cliffhangers and twists and turns that I need. Meaning I won’t need to make up anything too inauthentic.

I do this by going as close to the primary sources as I can and spending hundreds of hours doing so. For instance, when I was writing Over the Line, the story of the First World War footballer’s Battalion, I based my timeline, settings and characters as closely as I could to the battalion diary, which survived the war.

In my most-recent novel, Arctic Star, I listened to over 100 hours of testimony of men who took part in the Arctic Convoys and found the stories of sailors and ships and their battles that I needed without corrupting the truth. The testimony I used is available to all online on the Imperial War Museum archive, along with photographs to help me with my descriptions and led me to base half my novel onboard HMS Belfast.

After the War – out of all of my novels – had to be the most accurate. It is the story of a group of child Holocaust survivors who, orphaned, came to live, as refugees, by the shores of Windermere in England in August 1945. My primary source for this book was the children themselves, now in their 90s, who generously told me their stories and whose families checked the book over before publication.

Having my books checked by those who lived it (if possible) or historians is another vital part of what I do. However much I try not to, I always end up twisting some facts out of shape while trying to create a satisfying narrative. Working with those at Imperial War Museum, UCL Holocaust Education the RAF and other museums and charities offers additional back up that makes me feel like I have been authentic.

To mislead children about what happened during important historical events is dangerous. But so is telling stories that lack excitement with characters they can’t passionately identify with. I am hoping that my way of using deep research and asking for the help of historical experts means I can avoid both.

Tom Palmer is the author of 54 books for children. He was awarded the 2019 Ruth Rendell Award for services to literacy and his historical novel, D-Day Dog, won the 2020 UK national Children’s Book Award. He has been nominated for the Carnegie Medal three years in succession. He lives in Yorkshire. www.tompalmer.co.uk

Aspects of History Issue 6 is out now.