Wednesday 12 February 2014

In Flanders fields by Norman Jorgensen, illustrated by Brian Harrison-Lever

In Flanders fields by Norman Jorgensen, illustrated by Brian Harrison-Lever (Sandcastle Books, 2002)

32 pages with mostly black and sepia pen and wash drawings (the red of the robin’s breast is one of the few patches of colour)

Subjects: World War One, France, Christmas, armistice, truce, birds, picture book (Year 5-8)

The summary in the teaching notes is clear and succinct:

“In Flanders’ Fields, set in the trenches of World War I, tells the story of a young, homesick Anzac soldier who, on Christmas morning, faces almost certain death in a seemingly hopeless attempt to rescue a robin caught in the wire of no man’s land. Although the story takes place in the midst of a long and brutal war, the fighting has paused and no violence is seen. The focus of the book is on the similarity of the soldiers on both sides of the fence and the absolute futility of war.”

As the summary says, the book is unusual in focusing on soldiers on both sides of the trenches. The German soldiers begin to sing a carol – “Stille nacht” - and the Allied soldiers continue it in English – “all is calm, all is bright.”

As with all good picture books, the text (sparse, simple) and pictures (in their muted tones) complement each other beautifully. I was struck by the image of the barbed wire which occurs on many pages and suggests the barbarity of war, as well as the way these young men were trapped in it with no way out. 

The final page shows a scene of a graveyard crowded with crosses and poppies, and features a verse from John McCrae’s famous poem In Flanders Fields.

Both author and illustrator have dedicated the book to soldiers, presumably relatives, who served in the First World War. Some survived, some were wounded and some died. 

There is a short review on the Fremantle Press site

A review in The Age (“Oh what a lovely war”) includes an interview with both author and illustrator ("A book for children about World War I has won the best picture- book award.")

The Children's Book Council of Australia lists it under Picture book of the year:
"The story is told with slow solemnity and sensitivity that is never allowed to sink into sentimentality. In World War I on Christmas Eve, a young Australian soldier walks out into no-man’s-land to free a small robin caught in the barbed wire. The robin symbolises the survival of compassion and hope. The text is sparse and compelling, using the present tense. Subtle use of black and sepia pen and wash capture the bleakness of battlefield, sandbags and barbed wire, contrasting starkly with the sacrificial red of the robin’s breast and the Flanders poppies. The endpapers, tableaux of soldiers in opposing trenches, have a pathos which encapsulates the wasted humanity of war."

The teaching notes pose some interesting questions:

A white silk scarf was sent to the soldier. What does that tell you about the ideas that people at home held of the conditions in the trenches? What Christmas gift would you send a soldier?

The main character in the story remains anonymous. Why do you think the author didn't give him a name?

Author’s website
Norman Jorgensen is an Australian writer, born in Broome. He says the book was partly inspired by “a single scene in an old black and white silent film…the first version of Erich Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front made by Lewis Milestone in 1929” - the image "where the German hero reaches for a butterfly and is shot by a sniper."

About the illustrator
Brian Harrison-Lever used his 19-year-old son as the model for the soldier, who looks very young and fresh-faced in his illustrations. The teaching notes include some lovely details about the process of illustration, something you don’t often read about:
“I initially decided to limit my palette to Sepia, Pane’s Grey, and diluted black ink, with the robin’s red chest feathers being the only bright colour through the book. As the work progressed a touch of watery Vermilion and Cadmium Yellow was included in the fire tins as a concession to Christmas for the poor homesick youngsters. As morning breaks and the daylight strengthens I added a little Cerulean Blue to the sky and the morning light.”

Other books you might like:
War game by Michael Foreman tells the story of a football game played between opposing sides during a temporary truce. Look at my blog posting on that book for more details about Christmas and other truces that took place during the First World War. 

I'd never heard of the In Flanders Field Museum in Belgium before, but the website looks really interesting and it includes the full text of the poem.

The In Flanders Fields poem

“The In Flanders Fields Museum presents the story of the First World War in the West Flanders front region. It is located in the renovated Cloth Halls of Ypres, an important symbol of wartime hardship and later recovery.

New Zealand soldiers passing the ruins of the Cloth Hall in Ypres, Belgium
New Zealand soldiers passing the ruins of the Cloth Hall in Ypres, Belgium. Ref: 1/2-013129-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.


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