An elderly alumna visited Roedean girls’ school one Founder’s Day, to thank them for taking her in as a refugee from Nazism (as a child she arrived with pigtails in her pocket — her father cut them off, thinking she would be safer as a “boy”).
When headmaster Oliver Blond told the story to his wife, children’s author Helen Peters, the seeds of Anna at War were sown. Peters was already thinking about a setting for her next novel and now she began to research the Kindertransport — and was surprised to discover Elaine Blond, one of the key organisers, had been related to Oliver.
In all, Roedean rescued eight Jewish children; Old Roedeaneans gave them pocket money and homes for the holidays. In the book, 13-year-old Anna receives a more challenging “donation” — a baby, thrust at her by a desperate mother. Anna must feed and change him — and defend him from well-meaning adults — until they reach safety.
Anna is housed on an English farm (Peters’ childhood home) but becomes involved in a perilous wartime mission. “My dad came to the farm when he was 11,” says Peters.
“I listened to his stories about growing up, seeing planes fly overhead in the Battle of Britain.” Her own 1980s childhood was “old-fashioned — parts of the house still had their 1936 decor. No central heating. Everything was homegrown, we made our own entertainment… So when I researched 1940s childhood, it felt completely normal.”
She was “conscious that I’m not Jewish and I’ve no experience of persecution or having to leave home” and planned to write from the viewpoint of Molly, Anna’s English friend. But the book would not come alive until, “terrified”, she switched to Anna’s perspective.
“I was very aware of how many children now are having to go through similar experiences to Anna’s,” says Peters.
“The way they are presented in the media dehumanises them. Young people have a natural instinct to put themselves in someone else’s place but some people lose that. If you read somebody’s story, it is powerful in creating empathy.”
Anna at War is about courage and “the power of kindness” (Dutch women handing out food, sailors giving up their bunks to children…). “Something I wanted to convey is, you don’t know at the time but if you do a simple act of kindness, it can have an enormous impact.”
Anna at War is published by Nosy Crow (£6.99)