Ships In The Field


Award-winning author Susanne Gervay and award-winning illustrator Anna Pignataro are part of that immigrant and refugee story. Susanne’s parents were post war Hungarian refugees who migrated to Australia. Anna’s parents were post war Italian refugees who migrated to Australia.

In a unique collaboration, Susanne and Anna have created a moving and significant picture book, Ships in the Field. It crosses boundaries in a universal recognition that children are part of the journey of war, migration, loss and healing.

A deeply personal story

Ships In The Fields – Reviewed by Jenny Mounfield – Good Reads

With issues of immigration featuring heavily in news headlines over the past year, the release of this title couldn’t be more timely. Ships in the Field concerns one family’s experience of migration as seen through the eyes of a child. Forced from their homeland by war, the unnamed child and her parents embrace a new life in Australia. Once a farmer, Papa now works in a factory, while Ma, a teacher, takes in sewing. Despite the horror of the past and the unknown future ahead, this family is a joyful one—though something is still missing for our child narrator.
In these two heart-felt sentences, Gervay captures the child’s perspective beautifully:

“Papa grew up in a village in the old country, before it was broken.
Ma grew up in a city in the old country, before it was broken.”

By using deceptively subtle wording and misdirection, Gervay expertly conveys the war that still haunts this family as a powerful presence underpinning their outwardly happy lives. But so, too, the hope felt, particularly by the narrator, is just as potent, creating a satisfying emotional contrast that culminates on a high note when the child’s heart’s desire is realised on the final page.

The title of this book is significant for it highlights what is perhaps the most obvious point of difference between us: language and the way in which we use it.

‘Look at the ships in the field,’ Papa says.
Brownie and I giggle. ‘Papa, you mean sheep.’
‘Yes, the ships.’ Papa wiggles his moustache.

Pignataro’s watercolour illustrations reflect Gervay’s humour. Smiles abound on almost every page, and the child-like style, simplistic and colourful, adds a sense of levity to what, in a different artist’s hands, could have been a much darker story.

This is a book that needs to be read more than once. Many of the layers weren’t immediately evident on my first read-through. The shadow of war haunting the family is only mentioned in two lines of dialogue between the child and her toy, Brownie, yet its positioning after scenes of family frivolity is stark. This added to Ma’s crying behind closed doors and the narrator’s fear of night delivers an impact that more graphic depiction could not. It is obvious that author and illustrator have worked hard to get the balance between darkness and light just right. While at first glance this is a deceptively simple story, it soon becomes apparent this balancing act was no easy feat. Hope is very much the prominent theme, but it is only visible because of the darkness behind it. Too much darkness and the light would be snuffed out.

Ships in the Field is a book that will never date. It’s a story that will be every bit as relevant fifty years from now as it was fifty years ago. A must-have for every classroom.

Anna Pignataro illustrates Ships in the Field

Ships in the Field is inspired by Susanne Gervay’s parents and family who escaped war and communism as refugees to find home in Australia.

Ships in the Field is inspired by Anna Pignataro’s Italian parents and family who were refugees expelled from Egypt to find home in Australia.

Dedicated to Susanne’s courageous aunts Margaret, Irenke and Magda who survived unlike many of her family to build a new life here.

Launched by the Olympic swimmer and Commonwealth Games gold medalist Lisa Forrest.

Awarded two Notable awards by the Children’s Book Council Australia.

Anna Pignataro has illustrated since a child as a way to make sense of the immigrant experience and explore her creativity. She always knew she’d become an illustrator for young people.

After completing art college she worked in graphic design and teaching, and painted murals for theatre plays and shops. Anna has created more than forty books including her best-selling ‘Princess and Fairy’ series; illustrated works by some of Australia’s most renowned authors including Gillian Rubenstein and Colin Thompson; and won many awards for her work. Anna was awarded the prestigious Children’s Book Council Australia, Crichton Award for Children’s Book Illustration; shortlisted for Picture Book of the Year by the Children’s Book Council of Australia; received many CBCA Notable Awards.

Many of her picture books have sold rights throughout the world and her illustrations are exhibited widely including solo exhibitions, and held in private collections in a number of different countries. Her critically acclaimed books, ‘Always and Together‘ and her series, ‘Princess and Fairy‘, with its make-believe world of rabbits are loved in many different languages. ‘Princess and Fairy‘ was voted  – The Kids Top 50 books by Australian children nationwide.

Australia Day Ambassador and Order of Australia

Susanne Gervay is proud to be an Australia Day Ambassador awarded an Order of Australia, in a ceremony with Governor Marie Bashir at Government House.

On the 26th January Australia Day every year Susanne gives an Australia Day address often in remote and regional communities, carrying the message of Ships in the Field and celebration of  the first Australians and all those who have come afterwards and made home her.

Author inspiration

Ships in the Field is deeply embedded in the struggles of Susanne’s family’s wartime, human rights violations and the refugee experience. Her parents carrying their little son, left all they knew to escape across ‘no-man’s land’ minefields in the dead of night for freedom. Her mother’s Hungarian world was no longer the same with its operas, balls, visiting the health spa on Lake Balaton; her father’s world at the university as a Professor of Engineering; her mother’s world of running a household with servants and afternoon teas on Margarita Island on the Danube had ended. Her father’s world was taken too. His land stolen. His white horse disappeared. His way of life gone.

The Austrian refugee camp was crowded, difficult, but it was from here that Australia selected them to go to Australia as bonded migrants on a former WW11 warship. Her parents didn’t know what Australia was, but they knew they could rebuild their lives offering their children a future. Like other refugees they worked long hours – her father in the Holden car factory; her mother in the clothing factory. Life in Sydney began in one room with the family sleeping on mattresses on the floor. But there was a belief in their new country and the future.

This illustrated book contains Susanne’s family’s stories. Her father made hats from the serviettes at dinnertime for the family’s amusement. Her mother cooked chicken soup every night. Her father worked in a factory and mother sewed dresses both in a factory and at home. Their trips into the country were happy family time and a celebration of being safe and here. Her father did see the ‘ships in the field.’

Susanne was deeply moved for herself and her parents and all those who make the journey to find home, when Governor Marie Bashir awarded her an Order of Australia in 2011. She is always moved giving an Australia Day address in her role as an Australia Day Ambassador.

Conversations with ABC radio Richard Fidler is a small part of the journey.