Thursday 10 April 2014

My mother’s eyes: the story of a boy soldier by Mark Wilson

My mother's eyes: the story of a boy soldier by Mark Wilson

ISBN 9780734410894

34 pgs with colour illustrations

Subjects: World War One, France, Bullecourt, Australia, boy soldiers, picture books (Year 5-8)

There is also another edition subtitled:  the story of an Australian boy soldier:

(From the teachers guide):
William is nearly sixteen when he enlists during the First World War, and is accepted (like many other underage boys) into the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) and sent to the battlefields of France, via Egypt. His letters home from the front reveal how, for the boy soldiers, the ‘great adventure’ of war was both a triumph and a tragedy. William takes part in the Battle of Bullecourt, one of many such disastrous confrontations, and the book starkly suggests that he meets his death there.

This book is beautifully produced in sturdy hardback. There were a few aspects of it that didn't completely work for me. I found the opening very abrupt, and some of the images didn’t quite ring true ("The crunch of early morning frost underfoot was as familiar and comforting to William as his mother’s eyes.") The point of view seems to shift about, with events sometimes being seen through William’s eyes and sometimes from a more removed standpoint ("There was only a distant sense of what danger lay ahead for them all.")

I wasn’t sure if children reading this would understand the meaning and implications of the title from the cover picture, or how the title related to the rest of the book. In fact I wasn’t quite sure myself what William meant in his last letter by "I have learnt to see life through my mother’s eyes."

I did like the picture spread where William slips out the back door with an old suitcase and walks away from home towards the train station. He looks very young and terribly vulnerable, as he does in the picture towards the end, just before sunrise. I also liked the picture where the regiment is traipsing towards the ship which will take them to Egypt; you can see why they viewed this as a “great adventure”.

The text is not detailed; rather, the emphasis is more on the “feel” of what is going on, with evocative illustrations. Some of the story is told through William’s letters which are written in a round, boyish hand, emphasising his youth.

Teachers guide is available here. 

How old do you think William is at the beginning of the book?
Why does he decide to go off to war? Would this have been an easy or a hard decision? Why was it easy, and what was hard about it?
How old is he at the end of the book?
What happens to him at the end of the book?

Author’s website
Mark Wilson's website is hereThis is one of three books in his War Trilogy which “explore children’s experiences of and reactions to three different wars involving Australians”: WW1 (My mother's eyes), WW2 (Angel of Kokoda) and the Vietnam War (Vietnam diary.) 

Other books you might like:
The horses didn’t come home by Pamela Rushby tells the story of two Australian boys who sign up at 16 and go off to serve with the Light Horse.

Charlie and Tommo in Private Peaceful sign up at nearly 16, and the boys in War game are very young as well.

Sydney in One boy’s war by Lynn Huggins-Cooper is nearly 16; he signs up in England without telling his mother (his father is already away at war) and is killed in Belgium. 

“Boy soldiers” by Norman Bilbrough in School Journal, Part 4, Number 3, 2008 tells the story of two young soldiers, Stan Stanfield and Len Coley, who fought in World War One. 

Boy soldiers:
At first the war was seen as a “great adventure” (as this book says), and men were keen to get there before it would be all over. Many boys lied about their age or found a recruiting station that was willing to turn a blind eye and let them join up. The Australian boy soldiers who died are listed on the Australian War Memorial’s Roll of Honour, but there would have been many more. 

The youngest Australian soldier to die on active service is thought to have been Private James Charles (Jim) Martin, who enlisted in April 1915, aged 14 years and 3 months, served at Gallipoli and died on a hospital ship in October 1915. The letter to his mother telling of his death is kept at National Archives of Australia

Your son Private J Martin
Reference B2455 Martin J

In New Zealand, schoolboys would undergo basic training as junior cadets

A Certificate of Merit for bayonet instruction, 
presented to a Wellington College cadet, 1915