Monday 24 March 2014

The bantam and the soldier by Jennifer Beck and Robyn Belton

The bantam and the soldier by Jennifer Beck and Robyn Belton  (Scholastic, 2014; first published 1996)

ISBN 978 1 77543 207 4

32 pages with extra illustrations at front and back

Subjects: World War One, France, animals, hens, mascots, picture books (Year 3-8)


This is a redesigned and rejacketed edition of a book which many people will already know and love, and which won New Zealand Children’s Book of the Year in 1997. 

It tells the story of “the smallest bantam” on a French farm, abandoned as the war gets closer, and a shy, homesick farmer’s son called Arthur “from a country on the other side of the world”. Arthur saves the starving bantam, feeds it and looks after it and names it Bertha after his niece back home. At first the other soldiers make fun of him, but then they adopt Bertha as a mascot too and start to hunt out grubs and worms for her. Bertha rewards them each day with “a warm, brown egg” and her resilience gives them courage and hope.

Look out for the names “In memory of” on the front flap (Jennifer Beck’s great uncle, killed in action in WW1; Robyn Belton’s grandfathers who served in WW1 and her uncles who died in active service in WW2.) The additional illustrations at front and back include soldiers’ photographs, sketches and war posters and postcards.

The Acknowledgements show the research that went into this book, and the Author’s note reveals some of the true history behind it. 

This was the original cover:

"Among a number of fine New Zealand stories about the First World War, The Bantam and the Soldier stands out because of its superb illustrations. The picture book for older readers is a growing genre in children’s literature, and is an excellent development. Pictures, especially about an historical setting, often convey so much more than words. Belton’s sensitive drawings show something of what it was like to be in the front line in 1917. In the trenches Arthur managed to keep his sanity by caring for a bantam hen he found trapped in a hedge after an explosion. When Arthur returned to New Zealand he (like so many soldiers) did not want to talk about his war experiences, but he found he could tell the story of Bertha the bantam…and that, too, was therapeutic."
(Susan Price)

Author’s website
You can read about Jennifer Beck on the NZ Book Council website and on Christchurch City Libraries Interviews with NZ children's authors

Info about the illustrator
You can read about Robyn Belton on the NZ Book Council website and on her Storylines profile. Interestingly, her first storybook was The Duck in the Gun, written by Joy Cowley, which won the Russell Clark Award in 1985. This book, with its powerful anti-war message, soon established an international following and was one of ten children’s books selected for the Hiroshima Peace Museum. 

Other books you might like
The Anzac puppy by Peter Millett and Trish Bowles also tells the story of a soldier who is helped to survive the war by a pet that he has saved. 

Tuesday 11 March 2014

The Anzac puppy by Peter Millett and Trish Bowles

The Anzac puppy by Peter Millett and Trish Bowles (Scholastic, March 2014)

32 pages

Subjects: World War One, France, trenches, animals, dogs, mascots, picture books (Year 3-6)


I really like the opening lines:
"In the middle of the night, in the middle of winter,
In the middle of a war, a puppy was born."

Freda is a Dalmatian puppy owned by Lucy’s family. They can’t afford to keep her and she is adopted by a young soldier called Sam who promises to bring her back to Lucy “safe and sound” after the war. Freda becomes his good luck mascot, and the memory of the promise he made keeps him brave amidst the terror of the trenches. There are many recorded examples of dogs and other animals whom the troops adopted as their mascots, and they really did play an important role in helping to keep the soldiers' morale up.

Freda gets bigger, Sam gets older, the war goes on until one day at last “the roaring guns fell silent.” Sam goes back with Freda to fulfil his promise to Lucy, and…(here's a clue: it's a happy ending.) 

Author’s website
Peter Millett lives on the North Shore and is a part-time writer and a full-time house dad. He started writing for children in 1998. His books published since then include The Anzac Biscuit Man and Other Classic Kiwi Tales (Reed 2007) and Boy Zero Wannabe Hero (shortlisted for the LIANZA book awards 2011) 

In his website, he explains that “the fictional story 'The Anzac Puppy' was inspired a by a series of true events that took place during the Great War of 1914-18.” These true events are described in a two-page spread of historical notes at the back. 

You can read an interview with Peter here

Peter Millett and illustrator Trish Bowles

Info about the illustrator
Trish Bowles is a self-taught artist who lives in Christchurch and has illustrated more than 20 children's books.

I'm sure children will find her style of illustration very appealing, especially the picture of Freda sitting in her box on the pavement under the sign "Puppy free to a good home". The cover also shows a nice juxtaposition of war-related images (uniforms, airplanes, soldiers with guns, handwritten letters home) with the puppy peeping out of Sam's knapsack in the foreground. 

Other books you might like:
Caesar the Anzac dog by Patricia Stroud, illustrated by Bruce Potter (Harper Collins, 2003; reprinted in 2009, with extra content, as Caesar: The True Story of a Canine ANZAC Hero)

NZ connections:
I knew about Freda, the Great Dane (or possibly Dalmatian) mascot of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade at their training camp at Cannock Chase in England. You can read about her here

Image copyright Auckland War Memorial Museum.

I did some research on Freda and found someone in England who kindly went out on Cannock Chase to get me a photo of her grave for my Anzac Day book. However I didn’t know the story about Sergeant Ashby and the real life Freda which Peter tells at the back of the book.

Cannock Chase
Cannock Chase is an area of pine forests, woodland and open heath in the county of Staffordshire. In England, a “chase” is an area of unenclosed land formerly reserved for hunting, so in medieval times it was a royal hunting forest. Today it has lots of walking and biking trails and also contains several war cemeteries and memorials.

During WW1, the Chase was the site of a large military camp (used by the NZ Rifle Brigade) and also a prisoner of war hospital. Men who died at the camp (many of them from the influenza pandemic) and in the hospital are buried in the Cannock Chase War Cemetery which contains the graves of 73 New Zealanders and 286 German POWs.  You can find it on the map hereThe Anzac Day Commemoration Service which takes place at there is one of the largest outside Australia and NZ.

After Freda died in 1918, she was buried at Cannock Chase and members of the Rifle Brigade put up a headstone (since replaced by a newer one)  in her memory. On Armistice Day 2010, a special ceremony for working dogs took place at her grave, to remember and celebrate their “loyalty and service.”

Model WW1 battlefield at Cannock Chase
I’d never heard about this before. Completely off the topic of the Anzac puppy, but fascinating!

“In June 1917, soldiers from the New Zealand Rifle Brigade held off stiff resistance from German forces in the Belgian town [of Messines], near the French border, to take control of a ridge regarded as strategically important in setting up the later assault on Passchendaele.
On their return to the UK from the Western Front, troops sketched out in minute detail replica trenches, terrain, contours, and obstacles before it was rendered in concrete. They used German POWs to do the hard labour and make small-scale reconstructions of Messines' buildings, including its church, railway lines, and roads. The mock-up was then used as a training aid for soldiers coming through Brocton Camp in Staffordshire.”
The practice battlefield was uncovered by archaeologists in 2013. You can read more about what they discovered here and here
The Dolores Cross Project
It’s very nice to see the publisher’s acknowledgements to historians Marion Kettle and Dolores Ho “for the extensive research they undertook to preserve Freda’s memory”. I haven’t worked with Marion, but I’ve had contact several times with Dolores and she's always been unfailingly helpful. 

I’ve been interested to learn about her own war-related project, the Dolores Cross Project, which aims “to personally pay tribute to approximately 30,000 New Zealand military personnel buried on foreign soil with a hand-made tribute.”

Dolores Cross Military Gravestone
A military gravestone bearing the Dolores Cross.
In fact Dolores began her Cross project at Cannock Chase. She was there for Anzac Day 2008 (see the History section of this page of her blog) and wanted to place RSA poppies on the graves, but didn’t have enough so made some flax crosses to make up the shortfall.

Meeting the Prime Minister
Dolores meeting the PM at Westminster Abbey, Anzac Day 2011