I’m delighted to have Jenny Robertson on the blog this week telling us about her story about an extraordinary bear, Wojtek. You can find Jenny on Twitter.
Animal stories never interested me when I was small. Exceptionally, I loved Bagheera the Panther and Baloo the Bear in The Jungle Books, but I was far more interested in Mowgli himself. The titles of the Narnia books intrigued me, but when I saw that they were about Talking Beasts, I put them back and read them only as an adult. Yet as soon as I saw a war-time picture of a brown bear who had fought with Polish soldiers at the Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy in 1944 and had come to Scotland with the men who nurtured him, I was grabbed. And so I wrote Wojtek, War Hero Bear (Birlinn2014). I aimed the story at P6 – S1, because this is the age (particularly in P7) that children learn about the Second World War.
It was hard to find a publisher. There was a tension between what one editor (who rejected the book) called “the antics of the bear” and the more adult material of warfare. Publishers ignored my pitch that Wojtek was about to become as much part of Edinburgh life as that other legendary animal, Greyfriars Bobby. However, the Wojtek Memorial Trust brought the bear’s story to public attention with a Wojtek bus that carried passengers around Edinburgh. Then in horrendous rain and buffeting gales that blew all the vainly held umbrellas inside out, the Wojtek Memorial Trust unveiled Alan Heriot’s beautiful bronze statue in Princes Street Gardens and my book hit the bookshelves and the shelves of school libraries.
Unusually for someone with no Polish family connections I had studied Polish and have a lifetime’s interest in Poland whose story brings dimensions to children’s knowledge of the Second World War that are not widely known. Two million Poles were deported to the far reaches of the Soviet Gulags in 1940/41. Freed from hell on earth when Hitler invaded the USSR, those who could make it out, joined the British Army, young people were enlisted too. So when, on their way through the mountains of Iran they adopted an orphaned bear cub, they brought to the wise little creature their own experience of suffering and loss. And fun!
Wojtek’s story brings in the whole topic of Zoo, of animal conservation as well as another little known story: the abuse suffered by bears all through the ages. Last year I visited a Bear Rescue Centre in Ukraine and so I explain the sort of cruelty that would have been inflicted on Wojtek, either as a dancing bear, a circus bear or worst of all a baited bear, sent chained into the forests to be attacked by hunting dogs.
I’m still working on Polish themes. I’m trying to find a publisher for a biography of a leading Polish woman writer and with the wonderful help of my SCBWI friends I’m revising a children’s novel with a Polish setting and theme.
Release Date: May 1st 2014
When a tiny orphaned bear cub is adopted by Polish soldiers during World War II, little does anyone know that little Wojtek will become one of the bravest fighters of them all. As the soldiers train to take part in some of the fiercest fighting of the war, Wojtek grows up, providing headaches and laughter in equal measure as he learns to drink beer, chase horses and wrestle with his human friends. But at Monte Cassino, as the Allies try and dislodge German troops from their mountain-top eyrie, Wojtek, now a fully signed-up solider with his own rank and number, comes into his own, dodging the bullets to carry ammunition to his comrades as they inch their way to victory. After the war, the Polish solders move to Scotland. Wojtek comes too and soon becomes the centre of attention in a new country. But with hostilities ended, how long can he keep his freedom? Best-selling children’s author Jenny Robertson explores the themes of friendship and trust in this moving and inspirational story.