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Professor Glyn Harper with his lastest children's book

Gallipoli for children in donkey tale

Cover of Roly the Anzac Donkey

War is a difficult topic. But Roly the Anzac donkey (Penguin NZ) shows how storytelling based on an animal character can powerfully yet sensitively convey the horrors, hardships and heroism of war to younger readers, says children’s author Professor Glyn Harper.

The professor of war studies at Massey University, says he had to use his imagination to “think like a donkey” in order to portray the realities of the Gallipoli campaign in a way that children can relate to. The book, his ninth for children,is being launched this Friday in Ashhurst.

It is a retelling of his 2008 book, The Donkey Man, complete with new artwork by children’s illustrator Jenny Cooper. In the new version, he describes the war experience through the eyes of the donkey.

It is based on the real donkey men, or medical corps soldiers, who used donkeys to carry the injured and dead from the battlefields of World War I. Professor Harper’s donkey man is inspired by the life of New Zealand soldier Richard Henderso

In the story, aimed at readers aged four to eight years, Roly is born in a village in Greece. A soldier from the British army takes him on a ship bound for Gallipoli to join the campaign against the Turks. Once there, he is put to work carrying water to soldiers fighting in the hills.

Roly describes the grim environment of Gallipoli; “the weather was either very hot, with lots of flies, or extremely cold. There was not a lot of nice food or fresh water, and the soldiers could not wash. Many of them became sick.”

The fears and hardships Roly encounters reflect in part what the soldiers endured too. He describes his hard life carrying heavy cans of water and being fired at by Turkish bullets and artillery shells. “It was scary and the noise was deafening.”

The donkeys were “always hungry”, and if they stumbled and fell, they were beaten. Roly escapes his cruel master and roams alone and hungry until “a man” finds him. He is Richard Alexander Henderson, a soldier with the New Zealand Field Ambulance, based at Anzac Cove.

Richard is kind and caring to Roly, and each day they set off to look for sick or wounded soldiers. “Often I would feel something warm and sticky running down my back – blood from a soldier,” says Roly.

Younger readers can empathise with the animal, because their suffering is not too far from human experiences, Professor Harper says.

A respected author of a number of war history books, he says he really enjoys writing for children. Last year, his children’s book Le Quesnoy: The story of the town New Zealand saved – the story of the French village liberated from German occupation by New Zealand troops – was gifted to Prince William and his wife Kate for their son, Prince George, during an official visit to New Zealand.

He has more projects for children’s war stories featuring animals, with a book centred on a canary. The birds were used to detect deadly gases in tunnels during World War I in France. His next children’s book, due out in 2016, is based on the true story of a New Zealand woman ambulance driver in the war.

Next month Professor Harper will visit the battlefields of Gallipoli with a team of New Zealand historians who will guide participants on the Anzac 2015 100th Commemorative Tour.

Book launch details:

Date: Friday, March 27

Time: 6pm

Venue: Village Valley Centre, 21 Guilford Street, Ashhurst


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