Two books about children fleeing the Spanish Civil War

Many of us in the UK may be aware of the Kindertransport mission that helped thousands of children flee from Nazi-controlled areas of Europe shortly before the outbreak of World War Two. What may be less well-known is the flight of children escaping the Spanish Civil War. Today I’m looking at two recent children’s books that shine a light on this experience yet interestingly, neither of these originate in Spain. The first is a moving picture book that was first published in Mexico: Mexique, written by Chilean journalist and writer María José Ferrada and illustrated by Spaniard Ana Penyas, translated by Elisa Amado. The second is a Welsh novel for young adults called The Moon is Red, written by Myrddin ap Dafydd and translated by Susan Walton.

Mexique by María José Ferrada, illustrated by Ana Penyas, translated by Elisa Amado (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2020)

Mexique was the name of a ship that set sail from Bordeaux in France on 27 May 1937. On board were 456 youngsters, children of Spanish Republicans opposed to Franco. The ship was headed for Veracruz in Mexico, and from there the children were transported by train to Morelia on the other side of the country. The children were told they would remain there for a few months until the danger had passed. With the events that followed, for many, that temporary stay was to become permanent. This picture book tells the story of that voyage.

The illustrations in the book at a first glance appear to be pencil drawings with splashes of subdued orangey-reds with the occasional use of collage for clothing. But you need to look more closely at the faces of the children. In the historical notes at the back of the book, we are told that the images in this book are based on photographs of the “Children of Morelia” and the ship that brought them to Mexico; the faces are based on the children in the photos. I think this is what makes this book so poignant; it really makes you think about the individuals involved. Told in the first-person from the perspective of one of the children, we learn of the heart-wrenching decisions of the parents to send their children away, and the anguish the children experienced, not fully understanding the situation yet being torn from their parents.

The historical notes at the back are really interesting and help to place this ocean voyage in context.

The Moon is Red by Myrddin ap Dafydd, translated from Welsh by Susan Walton (Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, 2018)

The Moon is Red focuses on a different, yet no less distressing escape route for children fleeing Franco’s Fascist soldiers. It is set in two locations, North Wales and the Basque Country. Part one tells of Megan, whose family has been forced to leave their farm in Porth Neigwl, North Wales, to make way for a bombing school. Her older brother Humphrey is a sailor on a ship that usually transports Welsh coal to the Basque Country and returns with Basque iron for Wales. These ships become the evacuation transport for thousands of Basque children.

In 1937, Pablo Picasso created Guernica, one of his most famous paintings, depicting the destruction of the city of Gernika in the Basque Country at the behest of Franco. In part two of this YA novel, we’re thrust into Gernika just as the bombs are about to fall. We witness the destruction of the city and the impact on the fleeing families. Merin and her little brother Anton are caught up in the bombing and it takes several days until the family reunite, only to be torn apart again. A ship, the Habana is evacuating children the to UK, where they will be relocated across the country, some 4000 in total. The historical notes at the back tell us that approximately 400 children were sent to Wales. And this is where, in part three, our Welsh protagonists meet the Basque ones.

Based on factual events and taking real-life people as the inspiration for some of the characters, what I find particularly interesting in this book is the combination of two languages and cultures which have both been persecuted by the dominant power in their respective countries. The sailors on board the ships speak a mixture of Welsh and Basque, as do the children towards the end of the story. In the English translation, flavours of both Welsh and Basque are kept, particularly in the terms of affection, and it seems particular care has been taken to maintain the Basque spellings for Bilbo and Gernika. Having lived for several years in North Wales, I also really enjoyed Susan Walton’s portrayal of the dialogue, really bringing the North Walian accent alive.


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