I asked a 6 year old the other day, if she knew what history was. She replied that she thought it was about people. Then after some thought added she thought the people had to be dead.
I recall poring over classic comics of Ivanhoe and A Tale of Two Cities and over drawings of temples and minotaurs and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and tough-looking Assyrians in small black ink drawings in my first Junior school textbooks. No glorious technicolour iPad app to make them come alive but somehow they were alive for me. It was the pictures not words that captured my imagination. History in a picture book even though pared down, has to capture some essence and sense of the times.
The Faraway Island is based on the true story of the Portuguese sailor Fernando Lopez who was left guarding Goa in the early 1500's when D’Albuquerque sailed back to Portugal to gather re-enforcements for conquering the ‘infidel’. When D’Albuquerque returned with troops two years later he concluded Lopez had been too familiar with the locals and punished him by cutting off his ears, his nose and parts of his hands. Not exactly the subject for a children’s picture book. But Lopez escaped to the jungle and waited until D’Albuquerque had died before he stowed away on a ship to Lisbon. En route he lost heart and jumped ship and swam to a rocky outcrop in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean where he remained a recluse for the rest of his life.
Definitely not a story that makes a good picture book for 6 year olds. Yet there was something vastly heroic about the man that I wanted to portray, The barren island was St Helena and single-handedly he changed the face of it. Whether he took a bag of rice and a rooster with him or whether a friend threw them into the sea after him, is debatable but he certainly planted the rice. When sailors came ashore years later they found the rice growing. The only sign of habitation on the island was some Portuguese-style clothing drying in the sun. The man was nowhere to be found but they left behind plants from foreign shores – pineapples, pomegranates and lemon trees and some livestock too. And slowly over the years the barren island was transformed by Lopez from rock to an island rich with plants which became a refuelling station for the Portuguese ships.
Absolutely historically correct? I’m not sure. But I hope The Faraway Island captures the spirit of Lopez – the idea of transformation – not just of an island but of the man himself. For those who write ‘real’ history you’ll appreciate the emails between my illustrator and I while we dithered over whether to use the Portuguese flag as it was in 1495 or the new design of 1519. Please note the miniscule size of the flag – who said writing historical picture books for 6 year olds was ever easy!