Popular children’s author David MacPhail tells Caroline Lindsay about working with his writer mother on a poignant book for the Armistice
If you’ve got children under the age of 12, chances are they’ll have at least one of author David MacPhail’s books on their shelves.
“I mainly write funny books for kids,” says David, who lives in Perthshire. “My newest book series is Top Secret Grandad and Me, about a boy who solves mysteries with the help of his ghost grandad.”
Other titles include his Thorfinn the Nicest Viking series, Yeti on the Loose and non-fiction titles.”
But now, together with his mother, renowned author Catherine MacPhail, David has turned his hand to something a bit different.
The White Feather, suitable for readers aged eight upwards, tells the story of a young boy called Tony – the war is won but for him there is little to celebrate. His brother never returned from no man’s land and has died not as a hero but executed as a coward. Refusing to believe that his brother was a traitor, a grief-stricken Tony is pushed to the edge in his dark quest to uncover the horrifying truth.
“Writing is like a family business and my mum and I had always wanted to write something together,” David explains.
“One morning in 29016 we were sitting at the kitchen table having a cuppa and said: “Let’s do something!
“We thought about what anniversaries were coming up over the next couple of years and of course the Armistice leapt out.
“We had the story itself written in about half an hour but then we talked about the tone, the setting and the characters in detail. It was great bouncing ideas off each other and then once we were commissioned to write the book we agreed to write each scene turn about. It sounds challenging but actually it worked really well,” he says.
The characters of Tony and Charlie were based on a real Tony and Charlie, who were David’s great uncles, his grandmother’s two brothers.
“They both went off to fight in the Second World War (rather than the First)but only one came back – in this case it was Charlie Cleary who survived. Tony fought in the royal artillery with XIII corps all through North Africa and Italy only to die just as the war was coming to a close. His truck overturned.d W
He reveals that one of the trickiest aspects of the book was getting into the mindset of a child.
“The main focus was identifying what children worry about most and that – whether it’s 100 years ago or now – is usually family. I hope the book will give younger readers a new perspective on the First World War and show what war does to people and how it affects them. Every character in the book is suffering in a different way, contrasting bleakly with the national mood of optimism, and hopefully children will think about the suffering war causes.”
Sadly, after the final edits of the book were completed, Catherine, 72, suffered a brain haemorrhage and her recovery may take up to 18 months. David reflects on the support and encouragement he has received from his mum all his life.
“White Feather is dedicated ‘To Mum’, which is me dedicating it to my own mother, and Mum dedicating it to her mother.
“Writing is the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do – apart from being an astronaut but I didn’t have a head for heights,” he jokes. “When I was about nine, I wrote a short story about the Civil War and of course Mum said it was a masterpiece.
Growing up with the Incredible Hulk as his hero inspired the young David to leave home at the age of 18 in search of adventure.
“I worked as a pool waiter on a tropical island, a chicken wrangler on a kibbutz, a door to door salesman, and a ghost tour guide,” he says. “I returned home worn out, where I now exist on a diet of cream buns and zombie movies.”
The White Feather by Catherine and David MacPhail costs £6.99 is published by Barrington Stoke who specialise in books for struggling, reluctant or dyslexic readers. Available from book shops and www.barringtonstoke.co.uk