Friday 1st July marks 100 years since the Battle of the Somme.  Here at Seven Stories - The National Centre for Children's Books, we are getting ready to launch our Michael Morpurgo: A Lifetime in Stories exhibition on Friday which coincides with the centenary.  One of Michael’s most poignant novels Private Peaceful (HarperCollins) expertly weaves fact with fiction to explore this historic tragedy – a theme which is explored in our exhibition.

War and conflict are perhaps difficult subjects to engage with, especially when talking to children, but they are important topics nonetheless. Sharing books together as a family can be a brilliant way to tackle this sensitively with opportunity to chat together about any questions or feelings that might arise.

To explore this subject more, we got in touch with author Hilary Robinson and illustrator Martin Impey who have created an award-winning picturebook series for children which sensitively retells events of the First World War.  Through stunning illustrations and evocative rhyme, the series (which includes Where the Poppies Now Grow, Flo of the Somme and The Christmas Truce) is a brilliant example of books to share with children.  The stories give fresh and contemporary relevance to a generation of children increasingly removed from the events of 1914-18.

In this blog: 

  • Hilary and Martin share why they think it is important to engage children with commemorations such as the centenary of the Battle of the Somme.
  • We find out the inspiration behind their stories and get a fascinating insight into how a published author and illustrator collaborate to create an award-winning series.
  • We recommend some books to help you and your family at home.

Over to you...


In March 2014, our first picture book, Where The Poppies Now Grow was published to help children engage with the four year World War 1 centenary commemorations.  Martin and I had been inspired to collaborate in the first place after a chance conversation where we shared moving stories about our family’s history. 

It is important to help children to engage with the commemorations for all conflicts.  Acts of remembrance help us honour those who sacrificed so much in order for us to live in peace. They also help to remind us that such atrocities could happen again and we must always work towards finding peaceful solutions to international problems.  For centuries, storytelling has been important.  It ensured that messages were passed from one generation to the next. The same is true today. We hope that our books, while set in war send out a powerful message of peace.


It is vital to remember the sacrifices of our fallen. Families and children can now, easily find out how their descendants took part in conflicts. Once you find out that your Great Great whoever took part in and sacrificed themselves for the lives and freedom we enjoy today, you have a direct link that becomes unbreakable. Reading, learning, writing and finding out about them and the wider conflict becomes the next natural step.  Lessons must always be learnt from our and other's history.

Many of Michael Morpurgo’s books are inspired by history and stories that Michael has heard - something that will be revealed in our exhibition. Hilary and Martin are similar and drew on their own family histories to create powerful stories exploring unimaginable wars.


The concourse at King’s Cross might not be the most likely location for the flash of an idea but that’s where it started.  Martin and I were standing below the great timetables waiting for our various trains and for some reason we were sharing stories about our great uncles who had both died at the Somme.  It was listening to each other’s moving stories about our family’s history that prompted us to collaborate on Where the Poppies Now Grow.  Here are the inspiring stories behind our book:

Hilary’s story

August 1914 

My great uncle Norman was twenty years old and was living with his parents and younger siblings when in 1914, alongside so many others, he assembled in St Paul’s Churchyard, Middlesex and volunteered to join the army.  His family were worried, but proud, as he worked his way up to the rank of Sergeant with the London Rifle Brigade. 

10th July 1916

My great uncle Norman, the cherished son of George and Jane Johnson, perished at the Battle of the Somme.  

A few weeks later a telegram was delivered to inform his family that Sgt B. J. N. Johnson, was missing, presumed dead.  His body was never found.  His mum collapsed with shock.   Norman was just 22 years old.  

August 1916

Every morning, thereafter, his mum followed the same routine. She would wake, stand at the top of the stairs and visualise Norman walking in through the front door  – just as he had done the last time he came home on leave. She never recovered from the heartbreak of losing her cherished son.  

Martin’s story

I would spend lots of time with my Nan and loved sitting in her lounge, listening to her stories. She was an unbelievable storyteller.  She told stories about things that had actually happened to her and what she had witnessed. It was these stories that sparked my interest in history and of course military history.

Having a clear memory of WW1, life at home during it, working through it, she always mentioned her two brothers and how she had waved them off to war when she was a teenager. But she also told me that only one brother ever returned. Her other brother Arthur, sadly perished in the heat of battle.

She knew nothing more of what had happened to him or even where he was buried. So I promised my Nan, that I would one day find out what had happened to him.

I started researching and eventually I found where he was; lying in a huge cemetery in France on the Somme. I found out that he had been killed on 9th October 1916. He was a rifleman in the London Rifle Brigade and was only 19 years old.

Years later to honour a promise I made to my Nan, I made a pilgrimage to France and visited his grave where I collected a little sample of soil which I later sprinkled on my Nan’s grave.  

Timeline behind the storyline: Flo of the Somme

Hilary: The courage of animals has always touched our hearts and their dedication and devotion in extreme circumstances only serves to highlight the special place they have in our lives.  We had written about the soldiers but we also wanted to pay tribute to the animals that played their part.   

There is quite the timeline behind the creation of one book with myself, Martin, editors, marketing teams and many more involved along the way.  This is how we created Flo of the Somme...

  •  I thought about the story, and played with a plot in my mind - this can take  weeks, often months. 
  • With the framework in place I do what I always do – think of the ending first which in this case is the same as the start!
  • I checked historical details and found out more about what life was like. 
  • I chatted the idea through with Martin and off we went!
  • The writing is fiddly.  Working the rhyme through the narrative, and the narrative through the rhyme takes deep concentration.  Thinking of the words to capture precisely an emotion, a move, words that will create a sense of place all takes time.  I feel if a word is right and if the feeling falls short, the word is dropped.
  • I change and edit, rework and completely redo in some cases and then, when I am happy, email it to Martin. 

November 2014

  • Our Editor, Jackie, checks all kinds of details from grammar, tense, spelling, historical references, wordplay – she is a whizz.

January 2015

  • Martin gets to work on the roughs … plays music from World War 1, reads up on history, does a considerable amount of research,  and, when he feels ready, transfers to paper images that he has in his mind.
  • Throughout the process we consult history and military consultants to make sure we don’t get anything wrong.
  • Then the roughs are pinged up to me by email and we chat about what to change and what not to change.
  • Then the tracing on a lightbox and transfer to paper begins ready for the painting.
  • Martin has an unusual method. Ever the perfectionist he prepares all the spreads and then concentrates on one colour – building up twelve spreads one colour at a time rather than one spread at a time.

March 2015

  • The text and the images are forwarded to Jackie again for her thoughts – she is a bit of a print and colour expert too which is really helpful. 

May 2015

  • And then finally – off the proofs go to be printed and Martin gets himself a print pass to make sure that he’s happy with the final process!
  • Meanwhile our PR team and ‘Megan in the office’ get to work to promote the title and Martin and I wait five months for publication day!

October 2015

  • Flo of the Somme hits the shelves and our library suppliers send us lovely emails, so do readers, and book stockists and we then start work on the next book!

May 2016

Flo of the Somme is shortlisted for the Historical Association’s Young Quill’s Award 2016 with results announced on the 28th June.

June 2016

The whole process starts again as we begin work on the fourth book in the series, Peace Lily.

If you are looking for a book to read either at home or in your classroom, why not try some of these titles:


Where The Poppies Now Grow, The Christmas Truce and Flo of the Somme by Hilary Robinson and illustrated by Martin Impey

Child’s Garden: A Story of Hope by Michael Foreman

The Kites are Flying! by Michael Morpurgo and illustrated by Laura Carlin

Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo

Matchbox Diary by Paul Fleischman and illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline

The Enemy by Davide Cali and illustrated by Serge Bloch

The Conquerors by David McKee

Michael Morpurgo: A Lifetime in Stories exhibition launches at Seven Stories - The National Centre for Children's Books to the public on Saturday 2 July with a guest appearance from Michael Morpurgo who will be reading from Private Peaceful. Find out more here.