Wednesday 29 July 2015

Valentine Joe by Rebecca Stevens

Valentine Joe by Rebecca Stevens (The Chicken House, 2014)

15 chapters; 154 pages

Subjects: World War One, France, Ypres, Belgium, Menin Gate, grandparents, boy soldiers, time travel, junior fiction (Year 5-8)


Rose’s father died a year ago and she still misses him so much that she secretly sends him texts on her phone. Her grandad takes her along on a trip to visit his uncle’s grave in Ypres, and in the cemetery she comes across the grave of a young soldier who died just before his sixteenth birthday. A stray dog leads her into a time slip adventure where she goes back in time to World War One and meets the soldier, 15-year-old Valentine Joe. As well as being an adventure, this also turns into a way of Rose coming to terms with her father’s death.

The best part of this book for me was the relationship between Rose and her grandad, which is teasing, funny and affectionate, as shown by their nicknames for each other. I found parts of the story slightly disjointed, which reflects the fact that Rose keeps getting thrown back into different times. She is often unsure where or when she is, or what is happening, which made it a bit confusing for the reader too.

Rose is 14 (and not a very sophisticated 14), and for the sake of the plot, she has to go off on her own at night, but I wasn’t sure if her grandad would really have let her wander round the streets of a strange town in the dark, no matter how safe the hotel keeper assured them it was.

This would appeal to readers who like time travel and a touch of romance as well as a war story. I wonder if it would also appeal more to British children who are more likely to go on school trips to visit the graves. 

The first chapter is online on the Guardian children’s books site, which also has a review (“It’s only a slim volume, but in its 150 pages Rebecca Stevens manages to weave a perfect war story: gripping, heartbreaking, realistic, witty and full of hope.”)

The Bookbag also refers to its length and calls it “small in terms of number of pages”, but “decidedly big in terms of themes and emotional weight” with "one of my favourite endings of the year".  

Author’s website
Rebecca Stevens has been an actor, a standup comedian and a script writer for children’s television, writing for shows like Mr Bean and Postman Pat. This is described as “her first solo book project.”
You can see Rebecca Stevens here reading from Valentine Joe.

And here on the BookTrust website ("telling the story of the short life of a real person"), she writes an interesting piece on using someone else’s story, or someone else’s life as the basis for your book:

Did I have the right to use Joe and the events of his tragically short life for the purposes of my book? I don't know... Although I managed to contact one of his relatives who gave me her blessing (and I've subsequently met another), it still felt wrong, disrespectful somehow, to put myself in his shoes, imagine his experiences from his point of view. So I decided to tell his story through the eyes of a character who was entirely invented, someone I felt closer to. Rose is a 14 year old girl from the present day, who goes to Ypres with her granddad.”

She also talks about her own grandfather who signed up when he was 16, but was sent home when a doctor suspected his real age. (He signed up again at 18 but survived the war.)

Other books you might like:
The topic of boy soldiers is a popular one. Charlie and Tommo in Private Peaceful sign up at nearly 16, so does William in My mother’s eyes: the story of a boy soldier, Sydney in One boy’s war and Harry and Jack in The horses didn’t come home. The boys in War game are very young as well.

“Boy soldiers” by Norman Bilbrough in School Journal, Part 4, No 3, 2008 tells the story of two young soldiers, Stan Stanfield and Len Coley, who fought in World War One. 

The red suitcase by Jill Harris and Charlotte sometimes by Penelope Farmer are war-related time travel stories. When the guns fall silent by James Riordan also uses the device of a child visiting the war graves with a grandfather.

Private Valentine Joe Strudwick was a real soldier. He was born in Dorking, Surrey, and you can read more about him here on the website of the Dorking Museum.

Valentine Joe Strudwick
"Not gone from memory or from love"
Have you read it?
Have you read this book? Let me know what you think!

Saturday 18 July 2015

The little ships by Louise Borden

The little ships by Louise Borden, illustrated by Michael Foreman (Pavilion, 1997)

32 pages

Subjects: World War Two, England, France, Dunkirk, boats, girls, picture books (Year 3-6)

Some covers have the subtitle: The heroic rescue at Dunkirk in World War II

The Little Ships
In May 1940, the unnamed narrator lives with her father, a fisherman, in the town of Deal on the Kent Coast.  She is a girl, but “fisherman on the beach said I was my father’s daughter.” Her brother John is away fighting in France.  When word comes that half a million British and French soldiers are trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk, she disguises herself as a boy in some of her brother’s old clothes and joins her father (in his fishing boat the Lucy) and an armada of "little ships" that sets sail across the English Channel to rescue them.
I didn’t know that people from English villages and towns actually signed up to go and help, as shown in one of the illustrations. And I didn’t know that soldiers brought back their pet dogs (and some strays) with them – over 200 dogs were aboard ships landing in Dover!
There is a map in the front, and a historical note and excerpt from Winston Churchill’s famous speech (“we shall fight on the beaches…”) at the end. Some of the pages have a lot of writing on them, and I would think that the text is longer than that of an average picture book. There are a lot of illustrations of boats and ships, which I guess is understandable!
Kirkus reviews (always a prestigious place to get a review) calls this "A moving, fictionalized account of the ``miracle of Dunkirk,'' in which an armada of 861 ships ferried to safety across the English Channel over 300,000 Allied soldiers who had been trapped in northern France by the Germans."

The Children's War blog says it is "an excellent book for introducing the topic of Dunkirk to younger kids but is also a good teaching tool for older kids who may already know something about World War II."

Author’s website
Louise Borden is an American writer from Cincinnati.  I’d never heard of her before reading this book, but now I’m hoping to read more of her work. Her website has a very readable section about Becoming a writer (under the About button). I like how she talks about riding home on her bicycle as a child:Pedaling slowly up my street may be where I learned perseverance, something all writers need when they are working alone at their desks.”

And I love what she says about writers needing to have thinking time. It’s a long quotation but it makes so much sense to me: 
“Often I am in my car, driving to new places to meet new people, and to talk about writing. I have a lot of thinking time on those miles. And I have a lot of thinking time when I am working in my garden at home. Thinking time: It's so very essential for a writer. I think about new ideas for books, and new ways to write them. I think about what is important to me, and the new things that I want to learn. I think about the books I read as a child—and the books I am reading today. 
I think about my family who are my great encouragers. And my wonderful editors who understand, in just the right way, my creative vision for a picture book. These thoughts always inspire me to return to my desk and begin working on a rough draft for a new manuscript.”

Info about the illustrator
You can read more about Michael Foreman on my review of his book War game.

Other books you might like:
The snow goose and The dolphin crossing, both already reviewed on this blog, are other books about Dunkirk. The evacuation of Dunkirk has a resonance for England that is perhaps a bit like Gallipoli for us in New Zealand: a defeat, but a heroic failure.

Things I didn’t know
Louise Borden’s website has pictures of her research trip for writing this book. She took part in one of the Crossings of the Association of Dunkirk’s Little Ships (as referred to in the Foreword), which is “the surviving remnants of the intrepid band of assorted boats and yachts that contributed so much to the miracle of Dunkirk.” 
I didn't know there was an Association of Dunkirk's Little Ships! There  is some fascinating info about it on their website, including an answer to the question “how do I identify if my boat took part in the Dunkirk evacuations?” 

The Association returned to Dunkirk in May 2015 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Operation Dynamo, with 50 Little Ships escorted by the RNLI and the Royal Navy. There are some great photos and descriptions in this newspaper report from the Telegraph.  

There's a You tube clip here, which describes itself as WW II : RARE COLOR FILM : DUNKIRK : PART 3 OF 3 1939 1940.

Have you read it?
Have you read this book? Let me know what you think!

Wednesday 8 July 2015

The battle of Messines Road by J K & W J Moloney

The battle of Messines Road by J K & W J Moloney (Willsonscott Publishing, 2015)

43 chapters; 348 pages

Subjects: World War One, France, England, Ireland, Vietnam, diaries, bullying, junior fiction (Year 7-9)
This story is set in Karori, a suburb of Wellington where Messines Road really does exist, as do several other street with names related to World War One. The year is 1968, and 10-year-old Zac is in strife on several fronts; he is often in trouble at school, doesn’t have many friends, things are stressed at home and we learn that his dad is away at the Vietnam War. On top of that, he hates his paper run and longs for an easier, shorter one with fewer hills. However, it’s through his paper run that he meets old Mr Moloney and begins to read to him in the afternoons – initially as a punishment, and at first from the newspaper, but later from Mr Moloney’s old war diaries, dated from 1915 to 1917.

I liked seeing the growing relationship between Zac and Mr Moloney, and the diary entries are well-written and interesting, but their length could provide challenging and I wonder if some younger readers will skip parts of them and just follow Zac's story. I have listed this book under Junior Fiction, but the publisher's blurb says "the two intertwined narratives will hold a wide-range of reader interest and the perspective of 10-year-old Zac will capture the attention of the young adult market while still appealing to more mature readers."

Like many other men of the time, Jack Moloney (see below) was a fluent and observant writer, and other readers might prefer these sections of the book. The parts of the diary that I enjoyed most were not about the fighting, but about aspects of the day to day organisation of war that you don’t often read about. I liked the descriptions of the officers’ training course at Cambridge, his trip on leave to Ireland, playing football, visiting London and (especially) his accidental meeting with Rudyard Kipling at a hotel in Bath.

Having Zac read the diaries out loud presents a few challenges. It makes for long sections which don’t directly affect Zac himself, and I wasn’t convinced that a 10-year-old who has trouble pronouncing “Heliopolis” and “Bedouin” would be able to cope with the vocabulary, foreign names and some of the concepts involved. The switch between Zac’s everyday life and the diaries also requires a degree of repetition to get him over to Mr Moloney’s place, and starting and finishing each day’s reading.  The chapters where Zac and Mr Moloney attend the Anzac Day service at the Cenotaph, with more action and dialogue, are more immediate and gripping. (I also wondered why Zac’s brother and sister are seldom, if ever named. Perhaps it’s to show the fractures in the family – but I would have liked to know!)

Thanks to Willsonscott Publishing for sending me a copy of this book to review. I hadn’t heard of them before, but their website says they "specialise in publishing non-fiction books with a New Zealand, Australian or special international military content and personal perspective" and have “a worldwide reputation for sourcing and producing high quality titles on New Zealand military history, covering noteworthy actions and previously untold stories from many theatres of war.”

You can read a preview of the book (the opening two chapters) here on the publisher’s website.

The National (an Abu Dhabi English-language newspaper) calls it "an interesting hybrid of factual diary and dramatic story". 

There is another review here on Bookfabulous (fabulous title for a blog!) 

Author’s website
This book has an intriguing story behind its authorship. Two authors are listed on the title page: J K Moloney and W J Moloney.

J K (John Keith, also known as Jack) Moloney was the original author of the diaries that Zac reads in the book. He was a 22-year-old law student when he left for WW1 in October 1915. After the war, he settled in Christchurch where he married and had three children, worked as a barrister and became involved in rugby administration, including being President of the Canterbury Rugby Union. His death certificate (from 1971) is reproduced at the back of the book and this is his record on the Auckland Museum Cenotaph website.

W J (William) Moloney is Jack’s grandson. He grew up in Karori, has a Master’s degree in War Studies and worked as a military analyst for many years. He is married with three children and currently lives in Abu Dhabi, UAE.

Jack Moloney’s 120,000-word WW1 diary is held by National Archives, and William has transcribed it over a number of years, as well as researching the stories of some of the men mentioned in it.  This is the diary that Zac reads out loud. William says that his grandfather, who died before he was born, and “Mr Moloney” in the book “have some similarities but they are not the same.”

Other books you might like:
Reading this book made me realise that I don’t know many other books written about Vietnam for younger readers. (There might be plenty of American books that I’m not aware of.)  There is a lot of concentration on WW1 commemorations at the moment, and I’m sure many children wouldn’t know that public opinion was so divided over our involvement in the Vietnam War.

One non-fiction title is Leon Davidson’s Red Haze (Black Dog Books, 2006), about the experience of New Zealanders and Australians in the Vietnam War.

I have reviewed My mother's eyes: the story of a boy soldier by Mark Wilson, one of three books in his war trilogy which also includes Vietnam diary. Gary Crew's Memorial also refers to the Vietnam War

You can read more about New Zealand's involvement in the Vietnam War on the NZ History website, which says that “More than 3000 New Zealand military and civilian personnel served in Vietnam between 1963 and 1975... At its peak in 1968, New Zealand’s military force numbered only 548. Thirty-seven men died while on active service and 187 were wounded. Two civilians serving with the surgical and Red Cross teams also lost their lives.”

Have you read it?
Have you read this book? Let me know what you think!