War Girls, published tomorrow, is a collection of short stories that explore how the First World War changed and shaped the lives of women forever. A courageous nurse risks her life at the Front Line; a young woman discovers independence and intrigue in wartime London; a grief-stricken widow defends her homeland amidst the destruction of war; and much more. I am pleased to have Sally Nicholls on Pretty Books today as part of Countdown to 5th June (@CountdownYA), an epic five week-long author blog tour, organised by Jim at YA Yeah Yeah.
PB: Hello Sally! Thank you for taking part in Countdown to 5th June! I’m excited about all the children’s and young adult WWI books being published this year as it’s a favourite topic of mine, but War Girls stood out to me in particular, so I’m thrilled to be interviewing you about your short story, Going Spare, today!
PB: When you were approached about writing a short story to contribute to War Girls, what made you say ‘yes’?
SN: Well, like most authors I have a mental file of things I’d like to write about one day. And spare women was one of them. So I had an idea already there, as it were, and this felt like a great opportunity to spend some time thinking about how I’d tell that story, and get paid for it.
PB: Why did you wish to write about ‘spare girls’, women who were ‘leftover’ as a result of millions of young men dying during the First World War?
SN: They were incredible. Seriously. So many of the things we take for granted now – like equal pay, pensions for women, university degrees – came from that period. In 1918 a woman teacher would be paid a lower wage than a male teacher, because she didn’t have a family to support. The First World War shook that logic up. I think there were probably lots of women like Miss Frobisher, who had always assumed that they’d find fulfilment in marriage, who then had to make a new world for themselves that let them find fulfilment outside it. I’m also very interested in the idea that apocalyptic events tend to lead to better societies, rather than worse ones. It’s something I look at in All Fall Down, my book about the Black Death, as well.
PB: Why should children and teenagers continue to learn about this period of history?
SN: Because it shaped so much of our present. Not just women’s rights, but the dismantling of the upper classes (Noel Streatfeild’s After the Vicarage has a lot of details about how hard it is to find servants any more, and how jobs like ‘clock-winder’ just stop existing.) The first world war – and the second – were huge catalysts for social change, and I think it’s very hard to understand the twentieth century without realising that.
PB: Going Spare is about a young girl who likes to escape from her chaotic home and into her elderly neighbour Miss Frobisher’s flat upstairs. One day, she starts asking questions about what it was like to grow up during the war. It’s 1977 and she’s fourteen-years-old, and describes herself as ‘short, plump, mousy-haired and shy’, but as an older narrator, she now knows that description wasn’t everything important there was to know about her. How would you have described yourself as a teenager and what would have actually been one of the most important things to know about you?
SN: Oh, gosh. We had to do this in French quite a lot.
J’habite en Stockton, un ville industrial dans le nord-est de l’Angleterre. J’aime lirer les livres et regarder la television. J’ai un frere. Je ne sais pas comment de adder les accents en Word.
Probably something like that. I’m not sure what the most important thing to know about me was, but if you’d started talking to me about my favourite books, I’d probably have been your friend for life. I needed friends when I was a teenager. And I’d probably have been quite willing to be yours. Maybe that was the most important thing?
PB: She also says, ‘Even though I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, I was pretty certain I wanted to be impressive’. Who are some of the women that impress you?
SN: Ooh. Okay – Jane Austen, George Eliot, Nellie Bly, Astrid Lingren, Queen Isabella (although I’m not sure I’d like to meet her – she sounds a bit ruthless), Mary Shelley, Elizabeth Fry.
PB: Miss Frobisher can chat to our protagonist about ‘spare girls’ as she was one of the two million of them. It’s the 1920s and eighteen-year-old Miss Frobisher is deeply concerned: ‘What if I don’t find a husband? What if no one wants to marry me?’ Do you think this pressure and expectation to get married still exists today?
SN: Well, yes, of course. And of course, all teenagers worry that they’re unattractive and will never find love. Er. Don’t they? There’s a lot of art about how great romance is, and not a lot about how great being single is. For girls at least, however, things have massively improved since Miss Frobisher’s day. In 1918, marriage was the only career Miss Frobisher was trained for. She wasn’t educated. If she didn’t get married, she was living at home for the rest of her life looking after her ageing parents – or she thought she was. Young girls have plenty of problems nowadays, of course, but any girl who thinks life for women was better in the past should be made to read novels like The Mill on the Floss, Sense and Sensibility or Persuasion.
PB: Which other stories in War Girls did you enjoy the most?
SN: They’re all brilliant! Obviously. But I think my favourites were Adele Geras’s The Green Behind The Glass and Mary Hooper’s Storm in a Teashop.
PB: What are your top five young adult or middle grade books set during or shortly after the First World War?
SN: Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer – A timeslip story about a girl trapped in a boarding school in 1918. Genuinely wonderful. Go and read it now, if you haven’t. I mean it. Right now.
A Vicarage Family by Noel Streatfeild – Streatfeild’s autobiographical novel of her childhood, which also shows the arrival of war from the perspective of a schoolgirl. I took Miss Frobisher’s description of the years after the war as ‘something of a party’ from Streatfeild’s follow-up novel, Away from the Vicarage. Streatfeild was another ‘spare woman’, as were Sylvia and Theo Dane in Ballet Shoes.
The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford – Not technically a young adult novel, although I read it as a teenager. I also used Fanny’s descriptions of life as a débutante in the 1920s when writing Going Spare.
The Shell House by Linda Newbery – This one has actual soldiers in it! (Can you tell I’m not that interested in trenches?)
War Girls – Well, obviously.
(And a shout-out to Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh, which is in no sense of the word a young adult novel, but whose narrator, Adam Fenwick-Symes, was an inspiration for Miss Sophisticate in Going Spare. Particularly interesting for Waugh’s descriptions of World War Two – written in 1930. And, again, not technically YA, but you can’t go wrong with a bit of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.)
Thank you Sally for joining us today! Follow her on Twitter @Sally_Nicholls. Sally is also the author of Ways to Live Forever, Close Your Pretty Eyes and more. As it’s the last stop of the tour, you can check out all of the previous blogposts here!