Monday 15 December 2014

Truce: the day the soldiers stopped fighting by Jim Murphy

Truce : the day the soldiers stopped fighting by Jim Murphy (Scholastic Press, 2009)

ISBN 978 0 545 13049 3

6 chapters; 116 pages with maps, photographs, posters, paintings and a timeline

Subjects: World War One, France, Christmas, truce, football, non fiction (Year 4-8)

The story of the Christmas truce of December 1914 is well known, but here it is presented in a large format, easy-to-read non-fiction book with plenty of illustrations.

Jim Murphy describes the events leading up to the declaration of war in August 1914, the terrible battles in the latter part of 1914 and the beginning of trench warfare all along the Western Front before he introduces the Truce itself. Seen in context like this, the Christmas Truce underlines the futility of men being sent to war to kill other men with whom they had no personal quarrel, and whom, in fact, they could easily get on with. 

There are some amazing photographs of German and British officers and soldiers mingling in No Man’s Land. “No army photographers were present during the Christmas Truce, so most of the photos of the event were taken by amateurs and are dark and a little out of focus.” (pg 74).  

There are excerpts from several reviews on Jim Murphy's website hereand a fuller review on The Children’s War blog: “Truce is a wonderful book that not only tells the story of the unofficial Christmas Truce of 1914 during World War I, but also gives a coherent, thorough history of the events leading up to the hostilities and just what those terrible first months of war was like in the trenches. “

Author’s website
Jim Murphy is the author of more than 30 books about American history. You can read more About the Author on his website

There are also some Questions and answers (What were you like as a kid? Did you know you wanted to be a writer when you were growing up? Where do your book ideas come from?)

Other books you might like:
War game by Michael Foreman and When the guns fall silent by James Riordan both cover the story of the Christmas truce and football games. 

NZ links
There have been many re-enactments of the Christmas truce football games planned for the centenary in December 2014. In Wellington, young players from schools across the city gathered for a tournament in the presence of the NZ Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae, the British High Commissioner and representatives from the German and French embassies. 

The British High Commissioner said that such events were taking place all over the world, "like a giant Mexican wave". He also made the interesting comment that it was rare for representatives from the British, German and French governments to gather together to commemorate the war.

Of course another re-enactment occurs in the Sainbury's Christmas ad - which also raises interesting questions about whether it's appropriate to merge marketing and commemoration like this - or whether it's to be commended as a way of helping people to remember (with profits going to charity.) 

Remember the peace makers
Or do we? Read a thought-provoking article here about Why no one remembers the peace makers

Sainsburys Christmas ad

Tuesday 2 December 2014

The story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf

The story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, illustrated by Robert Lawson (first published by Viking Press in 1936; published Picture Puffins 1977; reprinted numerous times)

About 70 pgs with large print on one side and charming, full page black and white illustrations on the facing page

Subjects: peace, pacifism, Spain, animals, fable, picture books (Year 2-6)


I've included this title because I think that the topic of children’s war books should also include children’s books about peace – and the story of Ferdinand is one of the most famous, as well as the most charming!  

(From the Wellington City Libraries catalogue record)
“A true classic with a timeless message, The Story of Ferdinand has enchanted readers since it was first published in 1936. All the other bulls would run and jump and butt their heads together. But Ferdinand would rather sit and smell the flowers. So what will happen when our pacifist hero is picked for the bullfights in Madrid?”

This School Library Journal review lists it amongst the top 100 picture books and includes a number of the illustrations, as well as a clip from an Oscar-winning Disney cartoon short (1938). 

It is also listed in 100bookseverychildshouldreadbeforegrowingup. (Pause here while you count how many of the 100 you have read.) 

The Story Philosophy site uses it as a starter for discussion on animal rights, violence, conformity and obedience to authority. 

About the author
Munro Leaf (1905-1976) was an American teacher, football coach and author of over 30 books for children. The story of Ferdinand was his most well-known and has been translated into over sixty languages.

This author profile contains a lovely description of how the book came to be written:
“Munro Leaf and his friend, award-winning artist and writer Robert Lawson, had been talking about the kind of book they would want to write if they could get past the publisher’s ideas of what made a good book. It took him less than an hour - “25 minutes on a rainy Saturday” - to scribble down the story on a yellow pad of paper. With Lawson’s illustrations, the beatific bull was on his way to becoming internationally famous for his peaceful message in 1936--a time when the world was coming apart in war.”

About the illustrator
Robert Lawson (1892-1957) studied at the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts, served in WW1 designing camouflage and illustrated for books as well as magazines. He once said: "I have never, as far as I can remember, given one moment's thought as to whether any drawing that I was doing was for adults or children. I have never changed one conception or line or detail to suit the supposed age of the readers." (Hornbook, 1940)

Other books you might like:
My brother’s war by David Hill is a fictional treatment of pacifism, seen through the eyes of two brothers who sign up and refuse to sign up for WW1 at the same time.
Other fables about war and peace include The duck and the gun by Joy Cowley, illustrated by Robyn Belton and The general by Michael Foreman.

What was happening in 1936
  • George VI was crowned king of England after his brother Edward’s abdication.
  • The Spanish Civil War was being fought.
  • It was 18 years since the end of WW1, and the start of WW2 was only three years away.
  • Hitler had become Chancellor of Germany in 1933
Despite these events, and the looming threat of war, Munro Leaf always denied any political intentions; he said, "it’s 'a happy-ending story about being yourself.'”(Source: School Library Journal)

Saturday 15 November 2014

Erika's story by Ruth Vander Zee, illustrated by Roberto Innocenti

Erika’s story by Ruth Vander Zee, illustrated by Roberto Innocenti (Jonathan Cape, 2003)

ISBN 0 224 07015 0

24 pages with full and half page illustrations

Subjects: World War Two, ghettos, Holocaust, children, babies, junior fiction (Year 5-8)

Two things struck me about this book. The first was the unusual cover with a cut out star showing the yellow of the page behind. The second was how short it was. In fact it's possible to find the whole story online, and it’s probably less than 1000 words – but then you would miss the full impact of the illustrations. 

Having said that – the illustrations are also online, on the Children’s book illustration blog. (I’m not sure who runs this blog and it seems slightly odd to have all these lovely pictures online. Hopefully it’s all legal and he/she has got copyright permission to do so.)

The book begins with an Author’s note in which Ruth Vander Zee tells how "in 1995, the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II, I met the woman in this story." After that, it morphs into Erika’s story, which in many ways is a story about the unknown – because Erika doesn’t know the date of her birth, her birth name or anything about her birth family. All she knows is an act of love and sacrifice that saved her as a baby, from the fate that awaited everyone else on the train.

This review on the blog called picture's worth a thousand words makes some interesting points about the use of colour and the style of the illustrations.  

Teachers notes are available here

Author’s website
Ruth Vander Zee grew up in Chicago and now lives in Florida. Her website showcases the books she has written, including Eli remembers about a family's links back to Eastern Europe before the war. 

Info about the illustrator
Roberto Innocenti, born near Florence in 1940, is not an illustrator I’ve heard of before but that must be my mistake as he is he is apparently very well regarded and his picture books have been published throughout the world. 

© Patmos Verlagshaus
© Patmos Verlagshaus
New Zealand connections:
The Holocaust Centre of New Zealand is on Webb St, near the top of Willis St in Wellington,
It is open 10.00 am to 1.00 pm Monday to Friday and Sunday, closed Saturday and Jewish Holidays, or you can email to arrange a visit.

Friday 7 November 2014

Lighthouse girl by Dianne Wolfer

Lighthouse girl by Dianne Wolfer, illustrated by Brian Simmonds (Fremantle Press, 2009)

ISBN 978 1921 696 57 2

120 pages with sepia and black and white illustrations, as well as photos, charts, newspaper clippings and postcards.

Subjects: World War One, girls, lighthouses, Australia, Albany, junior fiction (Year 5-8)

Lighthouse girl is based on the true story of Fay Catherine Howe, daughter of the Breaksea Island lighthouse keeper. Fay lived at the lighthouse, near Albany in King George Sound, where the first Australian and NZ troopships departed from on their way to WW1 in 1914. She was proficient at semaphore and used to take down messages for the troops and send them to their families, as their last farewell before they left Australia. There is a brief biography of her in a historical note at the back, including a description of the newspaper article that first sparked Dianne Wolfer’s interest in the subject.

In the story, Fay keeps writing to some of the soldiers, in particular one called Charlie, whom she has never met, apart from through her original semaphore messages.  From them, she finds out about the war happening a long way away on the other side of the world, until finally it impacts on her personally. 

Lighthouse girl was shortlisted for the 2009 NSW Premier’s History Awards and the WA Premier’s Awards. It won the children’s choice 2010 WA Young Readers Book Awards and is an ASLA recommended reading text for the National History Curriculum.

You can see see a trailer for the book here on Youtube. 

A photograph of the real Fay Catherine Howe, courtesy of Fay’s son, Don Watson
Aussie reviews calls this book "an amazing blend of diary, narrative, picture book and scrapbook, based on a true story" and says it provides "a gentle presentation of the coming of age of a girl during the hardships of war."

Reading for Australia has a piece by the author in which she talks about Small moments in big pictures ("I love stories about small moments that are also part of bigger historical pictures") and includes a list of Books I loved when I was young: Anne of Green Gables, Bottersnikes and Gumbles, the Little Women books (especially Jo’s Boys) and anything by Ivan Southall. His books made a huge impact on me, particularly a lesser known one called Finns Folly. It was so raw and powerful. (I remember reading Ivan Southall's books too, especially one called Ash Road about bush fires; they had a strong Australian flavour at a time when there were very few Australian or NZ children's books being published, but today you hardly ever hear him mentioned.) 

Author’s website
Dianne Wolfer lives on the south coast of Western Australia, and she sounds like such a nice person! Here is her website, which includes a book trailer and teaching notes

There is also a short bio of her on the Fremantle Press website. 

Info about the illustrator
The Fremantle Press website also includes a bio of Brian Simmonds

The May/June issue of Artist's chronicle contains a feature article in which Brian talks about Being a book illustrator. The article also discusses how Brian and other artists have come to be invited to illustrate books for Fremantle Press:

"Fremantle Press publisher Cate Sutherland said illustrations can change the way a children's book is interpreted, and is very much an integral part of the story. "It's a team effort between author and illustrator," a fact Brian Simmonds soon discovered. "There were many meetings with the author and publisher to establish the right tone of the book," he said."

Charcoal drawing by Brian Simmonds from the book 'Lighthouse Girl' 
written by Dianne Wolfer.
Other books you might like:
Light Horse Boy, by the same author, is a companion novel to Lighthouse girl.

My book Lighthouse family is also set on a lighthouse in war time, but this is New Zealand in WW2.

You can find out more online about Albany, including centenary events held in November 1914, and about Albany and the Anzacs

The Albany Convoy Commemorative Event took place in Albany from 31 October - 2 November 2014 to mark the 100th anniversary of the departure of the first convoy and the significant role Albany has played in Australia’s history. The schedule of activities included a RAN Ceremonial Sunset, Troop March, Commemorative Service, the opening of the National Anzac Centre and a Ship Open Day. A New Zealand Defence Force contingent also took part in the commemorative events.

Sailors from HMNZS TE KAHA take part in the Troop March and Commemorative Service at Albany
Sailors from HMNZS TE KAHA take part 
in the Troop March and Commemorative Service at Albany

Sunday 19 October 2014

I am David by Anne Holm

I am David by Anne Holm, translated from the Danish by L.W. Kingsland (Puffin, 1969; first published in Denmark, 1963)

8 chapters; 153 pages

Subjects: Denmark, Italy, Eastern Europe, concentration camps, Cold War, dogs, fable, intermediate fiction (Year 6-8)

This entry might be a bit of a cheat, but it is included in all sincerity, even if under slightly false pretences. 

I am David made a strong impression on me when I read it as a child. It’s one of the many classic Puffin books discovered and published by their marvellous editor Kaye Webb.

Recently I re-read it in preparation for a workshop I was holding on Writing about war for children, and discovered that what I thought I knew about it was quite wrong. I thought it was a book about a Jewish boy escaping from a concentration camp in World War Two (a bit like The boy in the striped pyjamas, but with a happier ending.) Turns out that’s not true at all.

The clue is on pg 50 (in my edition). Because David has grown up in the camp, he has no idea about geography or anything else in the outside world, and he’s trying to work out which countries are safe. His definition of a safe country is one with a king or queen, and when he asks someone about England, the answer given is that “at the moment there was a queen because the last king had had no sons, only daughters.” So the book must be set after 1953 (when Queen Elizabeth came to the throne) and it’s an Eastern Europe / Cold War / Communism story, not a World War Two story at all.

Or is it? This article points out that David is 12 in the story, so it's possible that he could have been born during World War Two. 

There are some unlikely coincidences in the plot, especially towards the end, but I think this ambiguity is partly why it has stayed in my memory. It is quite a haunting book.

The book cover above is my own copy, but there are a number of other editions with different covers.


This review on The bookbag calls David "an introspective, deep child" who "observes constantly and learns quickly and ... has his own, strong sense of what is right and what is wrong." 

Another review on Reading matters comments that “the book is not set in a real time or place. Although the circumstances seem real enough, David's background is a synthesis of all the terrible persecution that happened during the Second World War and the subsequent years of cold war communism. This helps to make David a very powerful and pure figure. I don't think he is particularly real. Anne Holm uses him as a blank canvas on which can be drawn the first experiences of life - beauty, knowledge, trust, religion, love, everything.”

It’s a classic, there are masses of reviews and reading guides online. Don’t get bogged down in them. Just read the book for yourself.

About the author
For such a famous book, I couldn’t find much info on the author.

According to this obituary in the Independent, Anne Lise Elfe was born in Aal, Jutland, on 10 September 1922. She married Johan Holm in 1949 and they had one son. She died on 27 December 1998. 

The writer of the obituary describes the book as "a landmark in bringing to children's attention the existence of a world of political evil and the misery this causes. Some doubted the need for revealing such harsh truths at an early stage, but the thousands of children who read the book often sent letters of thanks to the author. Sometimes they wrote directly to the fictional David as well." 

found this very interesting as it echoed the issues we were discussing in the workshop, to do with "how much” to tell children about war.

In the book, David himself says, “I am glad I told Maria that evil exists. I don’t want her to be afraid, but it’s something you have to know about. Can’t you understand that children have a right to know everything that’s true?”

Other books you might like:
The silver sword by Ian Serraillier (1956) is also about children wandering through post-war Europe, trying to reach a safe country (in this case, Switzerland), although these children do have each other and aren't as completely alone as David.  

Number the stars by Lois Lowry is set in Denmark (where David is told to head to) in World War Two and celebrates the bravery and compassion of the Danish people

Things I didn’t know
That this book which I loved as a child isn't about World War Two at all!

Monday 6 October 2014

Flora's war by Pamela Rushby

Flora’s war by Pamela Rushby (Ford Street Publishing, 2013)

ISBN 978 1 921665 98 1

18 chapters; 243 pages

Subjects: World War One, Egypt, archaeology, nurses, young adult fiction (Year 8-11)

(From the back cover): "It’s 1915 and sixteen year old Australian, Flora Wentworth, is visiting Cairo with her archaeologist father. She watches with growing alarm as first a trickle and then a flood of wounded soldiers are shipped into the city from Gallipoli….As Flora battles to save lives and find her own, a tragic misunderstanding changes everything…"

There are two good reviews here and here. Both mention the way in which the author contrasts the hectic social life of Cairo in 1914 and even early 1915 with the changes that war brings.  

Author’s website
Pamela Rushby was born in Toowoomba, Queensland and now lives in Brisbane.

Other books you might like:
The horses didn’t come home, also by Pamela Rushby (January 2014) describes a visit to an archaeological dig. My review of that book on my blog includes info on the finding in 1922 of Tutankhamen.

Evan's Gallipoli by Kerry Greenwood (October 2013) is a book by another Australian author which has some parallels in the relationship between (vague) father and (confident) child.

Things I didn’t know
Pamela Rushby says in the Author’s note that she was carrying out some early research on WW1 nurses, but what really “grabbed her imagination” was “an entirely different story. Cairo’s story.” The city was “overwhelmed” with wounded soldiers  were sent back from Gallipoli and many hotels and public buildings were turned into hospitals or convalescent homes, with medical staff worked off their feet in trying conditions and volunteers helping as much as possible. 

She paints a convincing picture of the city and its streets and buildings, never letting us forget the history on its outskirts or the ever present heat and dust. I would love to visit the real-life inspiration for the House of the Butcher and Blacksmith (Flora’s home): the Gayer-Anderson Museum. (According to Lonely Planet, this was used as a location for the James Bond movie The spy who loved me!)

Flora and her friend Gwen help out as volunteers at Lady Bellamy’s (very proper) rest and recreation centre, and also on the hospital wards. They make friends with the Australian nurses in Cairo (the first NZ nurses arrived after the 25 April landing at Gallipoli; they were at least in their mid-20s, so would have been quite a bit older than Flora and Gwen.) 

Some of Flora and Gwen's friends depart to work in hospitals on Lemnos or on the hospital ships, so we hear about their nursing work through letters or conversation.  Other actual events such as the riots in the Wozzer are also covered.

There are some amazing photos and stories in this AWM exhibition on the Great War nurses.

A page from the photograph album of my great-great-aunt, Louisa Bird, 
who was one of the first NZ nurses in Egypt.
On the photo in the middle, she has written "15th General Hospital". 

Friday 19 September 2014

Summer of my German soldier by Bette Greene

Summer of my German soldier by Bette Greene (Puffin Books, 2006; first published The Dial Press, 1973)

ISBN 0 14 240651 1

21 chapters; 230 pages

Subjects: World War Two, United States, Jews, Germans, Prisoners of war, young adult (Year 8-10)

This book  won ALA Notable Book along with New York Times Book of the Year (1973); it was a National Book Award Finalist and was made into a movie in 1978. I read it for the first time for this blog in this Puffin modern classics edition, which makes it yet another modem children's classic that has somehow passed me by until now.  

(From the Puffin page)”When her small hometown in Arkansas becomes the site of a camp housing German prisoners during World War II, 12-year-old Patty Bergen learns what it means to open her heart. Although she's Jewish, she begins to see a prison escapee, Anton, not as a Nazi--but as a lonely, frightened young man with feelings not unlike her own, who understands and appreciates her in a way her parents never will. And Patty is willing to risk losing family, friends--even her freedom--for what has quickly become the most important part of her life. Thoughtful, moving, and hard-hitting, Summer of My German Soldier has become a modern classic.”

There are different covers on different editions. I can’t say I like this cover, though.

Patty (or Patricia Anne) has a wild imagination, wistful daydreams and a huge vocabulary gleaned from reading the dictionary. “I don’t actually mean to be rude, but I am. My father says I ask a lot of questions and then go around contradicting every answer.”

She sometimes seems much younger than 12 and sometimes much older, but I love the way she talks and thinks. And I’m in awe of how the story is told completely from Patty’s point of view, but the author shows us so clearly the things that she doesn’t notice or can’t understand. 

Patty’s mother is distant, her little sister Sharon is too young to provide any support and her father is a tortured soul, but we lose sympathy for him when he is physically abusive. The beatings that he deals out are hard to read about and it’s sad to see Patty’s desperate attempts to win her parents' love and affection, which is so freely given to Sharon. Her family life is made bearable by occasional visits to her grandparents and by Ruth, their cook, who calls her “Honey Babe” and is “the colour of hot chocolate before the marshmallow bleeds in.”

Her life changes the day that Anon Reiker walks into her father’s shop, and the place where she is sent to live at the end would be awful, if not for the fact that her home life is so sad anyway. In some ways, it’s an escape. And she has Anton’s words to hold onto: “Even if you forget everything else I want you to always remember that you are a person of value, and you have a friend who loved you enough to give you his most valued possession.”

This review calls the book "a poignant coming-of-age story about a young Jewish girl from a small town in Arkansas who helps an escaped German POW, an act which changes her life forever." 

Apparently there is a sequel, Morning is a long time comingbut I don’t know if I want to read that. I think I’d rather imagine Patty’s  future for myself.   

Author’s website
(From the back page) “Bette Greene was born in Memphis, Tennessee on June 28, 1934 and grew up in a small town in Arkansas.” That makes her just a bit younger in World War Two than Patty, age 12, living in Jenkinsville Arkansas. “In many ways, Patty Bergen is based on Ms Greene’s childhood experiences as a Jewish girl in the South.”  

You can read more about Bette Green on her website

Other books you might like:
So far from the sea by Eve Bunting describes the camps in picture book format. We follow Laura and her little brother Thomas, who are visiting their grandfather's grave in a remote part of the desert. Gradually we learn that their grandparents and their father, as a small boy, were among the thousands of Americans with a Japanese background who were taken to internment camps in World War Two.

Things I didn’t know
I first read about the Japanese interns in So far from the sea, but I had no idea there were so many Prisoner of War camps in America. Like so many other things, it makes sense when you think about it. The German POW camps were in Germany or in German-occupied countries, but for the Allies to set up their own POW camps in England or Europe would use up food and medical resources that they needed for their own troops.

Across the Atlantic, America had masses of food and acres of empty space - and that’s where the POWs went; nearly 425,000 of them, housed in more than 500 camps.  Nearly 23,000 of them – German and Italian – went to Arkansas, where this book is set.

Not many of them escaped, or even tried to. The camps were set in remote locations – and it wasn’t as if they could ever get back home, across the ocean. They had comfortable surroundings and plenty of food; in fact some Americans felt the military was “coddling” them. The camps were closed down after the war and the prisoners were returned to Europe.

You can read more about them here and here