An interview with début graphic novelist Helen Bate, creator of Peter in Peril

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Peter in Peril cover400pxPeter is a little boy who likes to sneak extra slices off the edges of cakes.

A boy who liberates buttons from his mother’s clothing, to turn them into game pieces.

A boy who loves sledging.

He is also Jewish and Peter in Peril by Helen Bate tells his true story; of how during the Second World War in Hungary, he and his family were forced out of their home, how they had to live in hiding under constant threat. Only by incredible good fortune and the kindness of individuals did they escape several situations which probably would have seen them sent on trains to a very different ending, one where Peter wouldn’t still be alive today to share his story.

This début graphic novel delicately balances the horror of those war years with a child’s eye view of events, allowing young (and older) readers to gently explore some of the aspects of the Holocaust without it becoming overwhelming. There’s a great deal of humour, and a real sense that children will always be children, however bad things get, finding ways to make new friends and creating new games to play even in the darkest hours, thereby giving us hope for better things to come.

Peter’s story is moving but also funny, horribly sad and sometimes frightening, before a page turn makes you smile. It is peppered with moments of laughter and is pitched just right for, say, upper Primary school aged kids.

As a graphic novel it makes unusual but very effective use of panels providing description, so that the narrative is not purely dialogue based; I think this makes it ideal for readers new to the genre. For those more familiar with graphic novel techniques there’s much to admire in Bate’s layout and panel juxtaposition, which really work well to support and draw out aspects of Peter’s experiences. A very clean line, with quiet tones brings visual beauty to this poignant story.

An interior spread from 'Peter in Peril'
An interior spread from ‘Peter in Peril’

Over the summer I had the opportunity to interview Helen Bate about Peter in Peril and her work, more generally, in books. Our starting point was a conversation about the role books played in Helen’s childhood and whether there were any seminal places or people who played a role in foster a love of books.

jackandjillannual“I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love books and there were always lots of books at home when I was a child. We always had the latest Rupert Annuals, and I still have the 1960 Jack and Jill annual that was full of beautifully illustrated comic strip style stories. I moved on to the Bunty comic. I read every book I could get hold of – including my Mum’s books of school stories from the 1930’s and my Dad’s collection of 1930’s ‘William Brown’ books which can still make me laugh out loud… I read lots of Enid Blyton adventure stories, and the Ladybird books, with their beautiful illustrations, about the lives of famous people such as Florence Nightingale and David Livingstone. I had a couple of picture books about living on farms – beautifully illustrated by A E Kennedy and as a city child I found them endlessly fascinating. At infant school I can remember reading the Tim books by Edward Ardizzone that were really exciting.. but I can also remember some awful ‘reading scheme’ books that I hated.

When I was 10 we had a student teacher at school that read us The Adventures of Professor Branestawm – and although I loved the stories at the time, it was W.Heath Robinson’s illustrations that I really loved. When I was about 13 I saved up my pocket money and bought my first hardback book – about his life and work. Although I liked his crazy machines, it was his other book illustration that I thought were just perfect.

When I was a teenager I read lots of poetry, and Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy of novels was my all time favourite read. I also read authors such as Herman Hesse and Franz Kafka that I wouldn’t cope with now! But as a teenager I also collected the Peanuts books by Schulz and I still love them and their particularly wonderful humour … I think that’s the type of humour that I try to get into my work.

So books and book illustration were clearly important to Helen from an early age, and yet, when it came to career choices, she didn’t opt (at least initially) for something book-related. Instead, she trained as an architect and when I asked what was behind this decision Helen shared this:

As a girls grammar school student, art wasn’t really considered to be the thing you did if you had the brains to do a ‘proper job’ and when I did my A levels, I had a place at both Architecture school and Art college…. So where I went depended on my A level results… they were good enough for Architecture school, so that’s where I went and I was really pleased about it. I loved the creative side of being an architect and as this was the 70’s and the height of the Women’s lib era, I very much enjoyed challenging the male dominated world of architectural college and the architects’ office. I was the only student in the architecture school with a baby joining in seminars! I enjoyed designing buildings and visiting building sites. I loved creating attractive and interesting 3 dimensional spaces that worked and that changed people’s lives for the better. Most of all I loved the drawing and it was when computer aided design took that side of the architect’s job away, that I decided to leave architecture and go back to my first love – illustration.

And with that return to illustration did Helen find that her architecture training influenced her approach to her first love?

People say they can see my architectural background in my illustration and I suppose that’s inevitable.. When I see children’s illustrations of buildings that show the illustrator has no understanding of how a building fits together, it does grate a bit… because I HAVE to get it at least vaguely accurate. I suppose the rigorous design and drawing training of an architect also means my work is quite graphic in style.

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Helen has illustrated books for newly fluent readers, poetry and also an ABC book. Perhaps compared to picture books, and certainly vis a vis graphic novels, I suggest that illustrating these genres is a little more “episodic” – illustrations which stand on their own, rather than tightly connected to each other. This is very different to illustrations in a graphic novel where the narrative is driven and held together by illustrations. How has Helen experienced the differences in approach to illustrating these different genres?

In all my other books I have illustrated other people’s words and ideas… and to a great extend the illustrations are prescribed by others. Peter in Peril is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to create both the words and the illustrations for publication (although I have done this quite a lot whilst a student).

The illustrations in the traditional graphic novel format have to do the story telling so they are far more important than the words. Peter in Peril is a bit different in that it actually uses both pictures and text to tell the story in a much more equal way, as it’s designed to be read aloud by an adult if necessary… and having tried to read comic strip style stories to my own children and grandchildren I know how annoying this can be… so the main challenge was coordinating both pictures and text to be inter-related but also independent as far as possible. This meant that I couldn’t write the words without drawing the pictures, and I couldn’t draw the pictures without writing the words. They had to evolve together.

An interior spread from 'Peter in Peril'
An interior spread from ‘Peter in Peril’

Given that Peter in Peril is essentially a biography in graphic novel format, based closely on actual events experienced by people who are still alive today, I wondered if there was any sort of tension between Helen’s creativity as a writer/illustrator and honouring the truth and the real life people she was illustrating and writing about.

The subject of the book – Peter – is actually my brother-in-law and it was important to me to stay as true as possible to his actual experiences. His story had been written down by my sister, so I had all the information in written format and with photographs… and he was there if I needed any more information. It was tricky to condense his experiences of that time into a coherent story as his memories of events that took place when he was a young child were a bit vague in parts and there was quite a bit of complexity in the events and the way they happened. I had to simplify the events but I checked with him as we went along to make sure that he was happy with the story as it developed.

The fact that Peter is actually part of my family, and the fact that he lost so many relatives in the Holocaust, also brought a keen sense of responsibility to tell the story in a way that was respectful of the horrors that took place – but not in a way that made the book depressing for a child to read. Unlike Anne Frank, Peter survived, and the message that it is possible to survive such horrors and go on to live a good life – was what I very much wanted to get across.

I also wanted the book to have humour in it. The best literature mixes humour and tragedy, and to have tragedy without any humour makes for a very heavy reading experience, especially for a child.

The book is full of little lighter moments, and focusing on the positive I wondered what was Helen’s favourite piece of research for the book.

I read a lot about the Holocaust and the experiences of children particularly. I watched Andre Singer’s documentary film ‘Night Will Fall’ and what I found really fascinating was the way the people in the camps wanted to get back as quickly as possible to normality after they were liberated. The sense that life goes on even after such terrible experiences was amazing and such stories of recovery and how it happens are often missing when stories of the Holocaust are told. That’s why it was so important for me to include the post war experiences in Peter in Peril, and not end the story with the end of the war. I wanted to show how he and his family recovered.

I read a couple of graphic novels about the Holocaust too – I thought they were really well done but both these were for an older audience than I was aiming at. ‘We are on our own’ by Miriam Katin Published by Drawn and Quarterly, Montreal; and Hidden. A Child’s Story of the Holocaust by Loic Dauvillier/Marc Lizano and Greg Salsedo Published by First Second, New York.

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Peter in Peril doesn’t feel like a début graphic novel. It makes great use of such a wide range of techniques as well as telling a compelling story and illustrating it with humour and warmth. I imagined that Helen must have dined on a great diet of graphic novels before she wrote and drew her first book in this genre, so it comes as a surprise when she tells me, “Funnily enough, there are not many true graphic novels that I actually enjoy reading. I think many can be quite difficult to ‘read’ and I find the subject matter and the style is often quite ‘masculine’ or often futuristic or too surreal for my tastes…but there are some that I have really enjoyed.

So what are graphic novels that she really does like? And what would she recommend for someone trying a graphic novel for the first time?

I’m a great fan of Shaun Tan and his graphic novel ‘The Arrival’ is on of my favourites. I like ‘Wrinkles’ by Paco Roca published by Knockabout… it’s about residents in a care home and could be really depressing but it’s not.

Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis is one book on my shelf that I found really interesting and also Joe Sacco’s panoramic illustrated book of the Great War.

My granddaughters introduced me to the children’s graphic novels of Raina Telgemeier including ‘Smile’ and ‘Sisters’ and I found these really helpful when I was deciding on the format for Peter in peril. They would be an ideal first graphic novel for girls… not sure the boys would find them very interesting.

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When Helen isn’t illustrating and writing books for children and young people, she runs Pictures to Share, a social enterprise publishing company creating books for people with dementia and I’m keen to find out more and hear how it dovetails with her children’s book work.

I set up Pictures to Share in 2005. Dementia was a subject I became interested in when my mother had dementia in the 1990’s. I am actually retiring from Pictures to Share this year to focus on my children’s work, but it will carry on without me under the leadership of my colleague. There are not many parallels between the two types of book – except for format – large with few pages. But the illustrations and artwork is crucial to both.

A selection of Pictures to Share titles
A selection of Pictures to Share titles

And given her experience, does she have any special recommendations when it comes to picture books for children to help with understanding the experience of dementia?

I think there are very few good books for children about the subject of dementia although there are quite a few for young children. One I really like is ‘Take Care Son’ by Tony Husband which isn’t really a children’s book but is certainly suitable for older children and adolescents.

My next graphic novel that I’m starting work on is about a lady with dementia and a little girl – and I’m hoping that it will bring the same type of humour to what can be a depressing subject, that Peter in Peril had. I’m also keen for it not to portray people with dementia in that slightly patronizing way that seems to be difficult to avoid in children’s books.

Is this the 2017 title Otter-Barry Books are publishing, called ‘The Creature’?

No…‘The Creature’ is a children’s picture book for age 3-5. There is one similarity with Peter in Peril in that it covers themes of ‘the outsider’. But it also explores themes around animals and how they are portrayed in children’s books – something I’ve been very interested in since my degree studies.

I shall be looking forward to seeing both ‘The Creature’ and Helen’s next graphic novel, but before then I ask her a final question. Given that Playing by the Book focusses on creative responses my children and I have to the books we read I wonder what’s the last book Helen read that made her want to do something, go somewhere or make something.

The last book I read that made me want to get out and do something (although nothing creative) was ‘Down Under’ a book by Bill Bryson about Australia. I had never felt any interest in going to Australia before – although I’ve been to New Zealand – but Bill Bryson’s book really opened my eyes to what a fascinating and unique country it is. I don’t think I’ll ever get there though …. so I’m really pleased to have read the book and experienced it through his eyes.

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Books which allow us to experience something through another person’s eyes (and heart) are vital to nurturing curiosity and empathy, and Peter in Peril does this very well. I urge you to get hold of a copy, and I thank Helen for taking the time to share so much with us today.

4 Responses

  1. This sounds like a fascinating and beautiful book about a very difficult subject. Thank you for sharing this wonderful interview.
    sustainablemum recently posted..Around Here

  2. Zoe, thanks for this, it feels like such an important book and I shall definitely be buying it for my children (and me.) I think it is so, so difficult to find good children’s books that deal well with such tricky topics as The Holocaust. Of course there is The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, but after reading it myself I felt this wasn’t the right book to share with my children – the ending was too brutal and hopeless. But Helen Bate’s book looks full of hope with a perfect balance between light and dark. I really look forward to this one. Thanks for the introduction.
    Rebecca Stonehill recently posted..How Kenya, land of contradictions, can inspire a novel

    • Hi Rebecca, do let me know what you think of this when you get a copy. With such sensitive topics I quite understand you wanting to check it for yourself, knowing the particular children you want to share it with. But I do think this is done very well. Happy reading!
      Zoe recently posted..What’s your family bedtime routine?

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