Monday 23 February 2015

War: a children's book by Zachary Gallant

War: a children's book by Zachary Gallant; illustrated by Jenna Frome

This is not a usual review as this book isn't in the shops, or even published yet in traditional form, but you can read the full text online here

Zachary contacted me via this blog to describe his vision for this book and  the Kickstarter programme that he and Jenna have organised to try and get their project "up and running".  

The Kick-starter page describes it as "A beautifully illustrated rhyming book explaining to children the root causes of war, and their role in preventing future wars". It includes details of how the project came about (under Story), lists of rewards for pledges and more info about Zachary and Jenna

You can also read an interview with Zachary on the NonProphet Status blog here (and there's an address at the end if you want to tweet questions to him.) 

Many of the books I've reviewed on my blog are novels set in war time, but there are a few (for example, The general by Janet Charters, illustrated by Michael Foreman) that take a more general, perhaps allegorical look at why wars start, and Zachary's book is more like that. There's a very thoughtful response to it on this blog, which talks about how difficult it can be for children at various ages to grasp abstract concepts, and asks how children might relate to the text, and Zachary says on the Kickstarter page that they are still working with teachers and psychologists to improve the text's readability and rhymes.   

I especially liked Zachary's reply to the question asking what he would like his own child to learn from the book: 

My decision to start this project really came from the knowledge that I was having a kid. After about four years of rolling the question of how to explain war to a kid around in my head, the whole context changed when it became personal: How will I explain war, the subject in which I’ve immersed myself for most of my short professional life, to my own child when he asks?

What I really want my son to learn from this book is the value of empathy and of critical thinking. I want him to learn that he has no true eternal enemies, and that there are no innately bad people, and certainly no such thing as an entirely evil religion or country or ethnicity or race.

Update: Zachary has emailed me to say that the book is now available here. He is currently working with German and Kurdish translators and a Tunisian illustrator to put out a second edition framing the story within the refugee crisis.

Saturday 14 February 2015

When the guns fall silent by James Riordan

When the guns fall silent by James Riordan (OUP, 2000)

ISBN 978-0-19-273570-6

25 chapters; 157 pages

Subjects: World War One, France, football, Christmas, truce, trenches, deserters, young adult fiction (Year 9-11)

Jack and Harry, friends and keen footballers, go off to fight in WW1. The football game played in the Christmas truce of 1914 (the time “when the guns fall silent”, in the title) only takes up two or three chapters at the end, although there is more about football at the beginning as well. This main narrative is framed by the story of 12-year-old Perry, visiting the WW1 graves in France in 1964 with his grandfather (the older Jack.)

I don’t think I would give this to a child as their first book about WW1. The descriptions of death and battle are very graphic, possibly nightmare-inducing; they include references to firing squads, suicide, mercy killings, rumoured German atrocities and horrible injuries.
Parts of the dialogue are written in dialect, which can be hard to read aloud. The depiction of the officers is almost invariably critical. They are all “chinless wonders from Winchester”, apart from one poet-officer who is killed leading his men into battle; the rest of them are chateau generals who enjoy fancy food behind the lines and face no personal danger.

Some of the story is told in letters which would have been unlikely to get past the censors, but no reference is made to the issue of censorship (which is part of the war story, after all).  However I did like the inclusion of the poems, chants and songs at the start of many of the chapters, especially one I didn’t know before called “Achtung! Achtung!” by Mary Hacker.

The book was first published in 2000 but has been recently re-released for the centenary of the beginning of WW1 in 2014.

The Bookbag calls it “a moving story which fully captures the horrors of war, and doesn't shy away from being fairly graphic in its telling of them.” Their reviewer also notes the puzzle of which age group to recommend it to: "I think thoughtful younger readers will get a huge amount out of it, but I know many parents and guardians will want to be warned of those things. Teens may initially be surprised by its short length, but it packs a lot into its relatively few pages."

Scribbles book review makes the same point (“A hard-hitting, graphic and, at times, upsetting account of soldiers on the front line during the First World War”), and draws an interesting comparison about the difference between graphic violence in fantasy or sci fi and in war books.

And finally, there's one more review here in Thoughts about Books

Author’s website
James Riordan died in 2012, aged 75, and you can read an obituary for him in the Guardian.  He certainly led an interesting life, which included joining the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1959 and going to live in Russia for many years; he was a keen footballer and football supporter and became the only foreigner to play in the Soviet football league.  

Jim Riordan was the only westerner to play in the Soviet football league
James Riordan (Photograph: BBC)
About the illustrator
Caroline Tomlinson did the cover and typography and you can read about her method of working here.

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. 

Truce : the day the soldiers stopped fighting by Jim Murphy is a non fiction book on the same topic.

Or you can read more about the Christmas truce on the BBC Sport website here.

Valentine Joe by Rebecca Stevens also uses the device of a child visiting the war graves with a grandfather to frame the story.  

Things I didn’t know:
  • That the English national anthem God save the King (back then) was based on a German tune, and the Germans sang a hymn Heil Dir im Siegesktanz to the same tune in the trenches.
  • That the English Government banned all “alien” music, which included Mendelsohn’s Wedding march. (So I suppose you couldn't have it played at your wedding!) 
  • That in England during WW1, German shepherd dogs were renamed Alsatians.
Have you read it?
Have you read this book? Let me know what you think!

Sunday 8 February 2015

A child's war: questions and answers

Mary Skarott is Research Librarian, Children’s Literature at the National Library. Recently she has curated an exhibition called "A child's war", which explores how children in New Zealand were affected by the Great War (or World War One.) 

The exhibition runs until 27 February, so if you are in Wellington, do try and see it. You can read more about it here, and Mary has also written a fascinating blog post about the effect of WW1 on school prizes. 

I asked Mary if she would answer some questions for me about her experience of putting the exhibition together, and I'm so glad she agreed because what she has to say is so interesting, especially her ideas about how writing about war for children has changed over the years. I'm looking forward to tracking down some of the books she mentions. 

Covers of three books from the children's collections: A child's history of ANZAC; Munition Mary; and the Boy Allies on the North Sea Patrol.
L-R: A child's history of ANZACMunition MaryThe boy allies on the North Sea patrol
  • A child's war contains a wide variety of material (and even an opportunity for people to sit and do a spot of knitting!) How did you decide what to put in the exhibition?
There are two main components to the exhibition: the books that children read during wartime (focusing on those that are actually about WWI), and an examination of how children in New Zealand were affected by and involved in the war, both at school and at home. It is very interesting to see how these two aspects intertwine: the content of the books is very much a reflection of the patriotic fervour of the time.

Part of my job is to look after the Dorothy Neal White Collection of pre-1940 children’s books, so I knew that there was a wealth of material there to choose from, although narrowing it down to 16 books in display cases and 9 cover images on the wall was certainly a difficult task. It was a matter of balancing interesting written content with visual appeal. Some really interesting books had to be discounted purely for aesthetic reasons. I particularly wanted visitors to be able to see inside the books, so many of them are displayed open. I also wanted to include material that was marketed for both boys and girls. The book cover images include some striking examples of the use of persuasive imagery.

It was the other component of the exhibition that I found the more challenging in terms of selecting material. After a lot of searching to identify potential items in the collections and a lot of background reading some clear topics began to stand out for me. I decided to select case items and images to go with four subjects that I felt would effectively illustrate what children experienced during the war: military cadets, patriotism in schools, fundraising and warwork, and the impact on family life. Again, it was a matter of balancing text and images.  

Large format photographs are a key part of this section, and visitors have said how much they enjoy seeing the detail in them such as the old buildings and people’s clothing and facial expressions. Other items that begged to be included are the School Journals, Her Excellency’s knitting book, and letters and drawings from two of Lieutenant-Colonel William Malone’s sons sent to their father after his departure to the war.
  • I really enjoyed looking at the selection of children’s books from the Dorothy Neal White Collection that were published during World War I. What were some of these that stood out for you?
First pick would have to be Elphinstone Thorpe’s Nursery rhymes for fighting times, with illustrations by G.A. Stevens (London: Everett, 1915). Visitor’s jaws invariably drop when they see this one, open at her rewrite of Mary, Mary, quite contrary:

                Belgian Mary, quite contrary,
                                How does your garden grow?
                With German shells and poisoned wells,
                                And ruined folk all in a row.

I was also particularly taken with Munition Mary, by Brenda Girvin (London: Humphrey Milford, Oxford University Press, 1918) because it is one of the few stories written about a girl taking an active part in the war effort, beyond knitting socks for the soldiers. Mary, who comes from a well-to-do London family decides to seek work in a munitions factory.
Notable for its speed of production is Mrs Belloc Lowndes’ Told in gallant deeds: a child’s history of the war (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1914), which gives accounts (very much from a British perspective) of battles fought during the first months of the war. I wonder whether, when she started to write it, she thought like many others that the war would be over by Christmas.

  • You mentioned that the National Children’s Collection holds a number of contemporary children's books about WWI. What are some of the differences that you see in how children's writers today approach the subject of WWI, compared to how they wrote about it 100 years ago?
Many of the children’s writers producing books during WWI were motivated by the desire to promote the cause of the Empire, and consequently imperial attitudes feature strongly in their writing. The adventure stories aimed at boys tended to paint a sanitised picture of conditions at the Front, focusing on heroism and derring-do rather than pain or death. There was unrelenting patriotism, and national stereotypes abounded.

In contrast, contemporary writers have very different motives, and the approach looking back generally produces works that are much less black and white and which recognise the complexities of war.
Some of the key differences are:
-Inclusion of the conscientious objector’s viewpoint
-Acknowledging the devastating impact of battle on soldiers at the front line (both physical and psychological)
-Acknowledging the enemy as human, not as a national stereotype
-Taking a critical view of the justification for the war, and poor leadership decisions
-The use of primary source material such as diaries and letters
  • In your job, you must get to see lots of children's books about war that many of us have forgotten about, or don't even know about. What do you think are some of the little known treasures in the Library's collection?
Two more WWI books that nearly made it into the exhibition:
Mary Grant Bruce, From Billabong to London (London: Ward Lock, 1915)
Mary Grant Bruce, Captain Jim (London: Ward Lock, 1919)

Mary Treadgold, We couldn’t leave Dinah (London: Cape, 1941)
Winner of the 1941 Carnegie Medal. Set on the Channel Islands during Nazi occupation.

Two of my favourite sophisticated picture books. These are still on some public library shelves, but are old enough that they may not be familiar to all:
Raymond Briggs, The tin-pot foreign general and the old iron woman (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1984) An allegorical treatment of the Falkland Islands War.

Toshi Maruki, Hiroshima no pika (New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1980)
A retelling of a mother’s account of what happened to her family in the destruction of Hiroshima by atomic bomb in 1945.