The Umbrella Mouse was triggered by a series of statistics revealing how little adults and young people understood about WWI and WWII. A survey conducted by YouGov and British Future found 60 per cent of 16-24 year olds could not date the end of WWI while 54 per cent were unable to state when the war commenced.
Saddened by these figures, Anna wrote The Umbrella Mouse as an anthropomorphic quest in the hope that a new work of Middle Grade, historical fiction, drawing on the true stories of animals caught in the conflict of WWII would pique children’s and teachers’ interest, and encourage them to learn more about this important time in history.
Without giving too much away, can you tell us a bit about your new book The Umbrella Mouse?
1944, and London is under attack. The umbrella shop that young mouse, Pip Hanway, has called home all her life, is destroyed by a bomb, forcing her to begin a perilous quest to find a new home.
But the only way to get there is by joining Noah’s Ark, a secret gang of animals fighting with the resistance in France, operating beneath the feet of human soldiers. Danger is everywhere and as the enemy closes in, Pip must risk everything to save her new friends.
Beautifully illustrated by Sam Usher, this heart-stopping adventure draws on the true stories of animals caught in the conflict of WWII.
I found Pip a really interesting, complex character and was drawn to her bravery and plucky nature. I wondered if you could describe Pip, the main character in The Umbrella Mouse, and who or what inspired her?
Pip is a young, curious and headstrong mouse who is keen for adventure, but she’s also grieving and has a lot to learn about herself and the world around her.
I’ve always been drawn to strong female characters like Hyzenthlay from Watership Down, Lyra from His Dark Materials, Mrs Frisby from Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH and Arrietty from The Borrowers, so it’s fair to say their bravery and determination influenced Pip. There’s also a bit of me in her. I was a mischievous and impulsive child who wanted to experience everything.
Would you agree that a lot of Pip’s decisions are quite reckless at times? Why might this be?
Yes, that’s deliberate. She’s adventurous, but she’s also naïve, grief-stricken and traumatised, like so many child survivors of war, and a common symptom of PTSD is risk-taking. Pip dives into danger because she’s courageous and she has a firm moral compass, but at the same time she’s struggling with bereavement and she’s trying to make sense of the world on her own, which is even harder because it’s at war. Ultimately she learns there’s good worth fighting for and hope is crucial for survival, but the road to understanding is far from smooth.
The story is set during World War Two. Is this a period of history that has always interested you? What research did you have to do for the book?
My family fought in WWII and their stories piqued my interest in this period from a young age. I’ve also always loved historical fiction and non-fiction and I was gripped by Goodnight Mr Tom, Carrie’s War and The Diary of Anne Frank (to name a few!) when I was a child. The horrors of WWII did not occur very long ago and I often wonder what it would have been like to experience it.
I had to do masses of research for The Umbrella Mouse, which was crucial in helping me visualise the period. I spent hours at the Imperial War Museum in London, I visited Auschwitz, Paris, Normandy, the D-Day beaches and the umbrella museum in Italy. I read many books (both fiction and non-fiction), including Marie Madeline Fourcade’s memoir Noah’s Ark multiple times, and I also watched and listened to a lot of documentaries and newsreels. I’m always profoundly moved by the courage so many men, women and children displayed during wartime. They give me a huge amount of perspective on my own life and remind me how lucky I am to have never been affected by a war.
Why did you decide to re-tell these events from Pip’s point of view? What do you feel her perspective adds to our understanding of World War Two?
Animals have helped humans in wars for thousands of years and I wanted to write a new anthropomorphic story to remind people of that, using characters based on real life animal heroes in the hope it might inspire children to learn more about WWII.
I chose a mouse’s point of view for a number of reasons. Firstly, I think sometimes we can feel as helpless and tiny as a mouse, especially during childhood when grown-ups are in control of everything. But being little doesn’t mean you are powerless and I wanted Pip to embody that. The Dalai Lama said: ‘if you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito’ and this nugget of wisdom is true in wartime too. In WWII, the Allies and resistance groups knew that every effort, big or small, whether it was passing on intelligence or sabotaging a train, helped to undermine evil forces. They never gave up and nor does Pip.
How did you feel when you saw the front cover for the first time? What do you feel Sam Usher’s illustrations bring to the story?
To say I grinned from ear to ear is an understatement. Every time I look at the cover I feel a rush of happiness and I don’t think that will ever fade. It’s a surreal feeling to have your dreams come true and I often have to pinch myself when I look at Sam’s illustrations. It’s a dark book at times and his work softens it by brilliantly conveying the derring-do of the characters inside.
The story reminded me of The Animals of Farthing Wood and The Borrowers. Did either of these stories influence your writing at all? Are there any other stories or authors who have influenced your work?
Well picked up! Both The Animals of Farthing Wood and The Borrowers have influenced The Umbrella Mouse, as has Watership Down, War Horse, The Rescuers and Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.
Can you recommend any other fiction or non-fiction books to children who may be interested in the themes explored in the book?
There are so many. For resistance stories, read Michael Morpurgo’s In the Mouth of the Wolf and Waiting for Anya, Shirley’s Hughes’ Hero on a Bicycle and Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars. To learn more about life in the UK during WWII, read Maureen Waller’s A Family in War Time, which accompanied an exhibition at The Imperial War Museum and informed the early chapters of The Umbrella Mouse. For more WWII stories, I’d also recommend reading The Diary of Anne Frank, Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword, Jill Payton Walsh’s Fireweed, Michael Morpurgo’s The Elephant in the Garden and Emma Carroll’s Letters to the Lighthouse. Hilary Mckay’s Skylark’s War deals with WWI and is one of the most beautifully written children’s books I’ve ever read so I think everyone should read it. The same goes for Morpurgo’s War Horse and the play is also a must-see.
How would you envisage teachers using your book in their classrooms? Do any activities or ideas spring to mind?
There’s a lot of fun to be had learning about spies and how they helped us win the war. Teachers could show students how to use Morse code or how to write secret messages with invisible ink; they could demonstrate how crystal radios work, or build Churchill’s Secret Animal Army headquarters beneath the streets of London à la Blue Peter’s Tracy Island. There’s also an opportunity for a great field trip to London. Children could follow Pip’s journey through the city – they could start by visiting James Smith & Sons umbrella shop near Tottenham Court Road and take the tube to Churchill War Rooms and the Imperial War Museum. All three venues are within easy reach of each other.
Are you happy with where you’ve left Pip and the members of Noah’s Ark or would you like to write a new adventure for them? I’m desperate to find out what happens to GI Joe!
I’m very happy with the end of book one and I’m thrilled you are rooting for GI Joe! I’m afraid I can’t tell you what happens to him yet, but you’ll find out when Macmillan publishes the sequel in 2020.
Finally, can you describe The Umbrella Mouse in three words?
Friendship, courage and adventure.