Sunday 31 January 2016

Ghost soldier by Theresa Breslin

Ghost soldier by Theresa Breslin (Doubleday, 2014)

33 chapters; 291 pages (but fairly large print)

Subjects: World War One, England, Borders, Scotland, trains, animals, dogs, hospitals, junior fiction (Year 5-8)

The author’s website calls this “a mystery plus detective story with poignant scenes as two children, in a desperate search for their ‘missing-in-action’ father, meet the staff and wounded men on the hospital trains that stop near their farm”. The mystery/detective element is related to strange goings-on in an old house in the woods, a suspected German spy and a shadowy ghost figure in an upstairs window.

I liked the relationship between brother and sister Rob and Millie; the focus on how those at home coped – or didn’t cope - while the husbands and fathers were away at war, and the details about how dogs could be taken away by the army (which is why they try to save their puppy, and how they end up hiding it at the old house in the woods). Thousands of dogs were needed in the war so many families must have had to give theirs up, willingly or not. The story of the ambulance trains was interesting, too, although I was never clear about whether they did or didn’t try to take injured soldiers to a hospital near their home.

I found some of the action a bit hard to believe; either too many coincidences, or too unlikely (would they really have let the children on board the train? would they have let the wounded soldier wander round the grounds so freely at night?) but this post by the author about her research suggests that the ambulance trains did stop in the countryside like this.

In this review, Theresa Breslin said she started writing the book because she “was asked to provide a story for a film company and this was a story I felt needed to be told”. So I wonder if that means there is a film underway?

Author’s website
I didn’t know anything about Theresa Breslin before I read her book Remembrance, but according to her website, she was born and brought up in a small town in Scotland, worked as a mobile librarian, has written over 30 books for children and young adults and won the Carnegie Medal for Whispers in the graveyard (1994) about a dyslexic boy. Her website also provides teaching notes for the book. 

Other books you might like:
Remembrance is another book about World War One by Theresa Breslin, but for older readers.
The Anzac puppy by Peter Millett and Trish Bowles is written for younger readers about a dog in war time.

Things I didn’t know
The details about blood transfusion are intriguing. Today we take blood banks for granted but back in WW1 they were still figuring out the science of blood groups and anticoagulants. 
You can read about "A brief history of blood transfusion" at the Institute of Biomedical Science, or find out more at the Science Museum

Saturday 16 January 2016

The Great War: stories inspired by objects from the First World War

The Great War: stories inspired by objects from the First World War (Walker Books, 2014)

304 pages, with full page black and white illustrations by Jim Kay; 11 stories by David Almond, John Boyne, Tracy Chevalier, Ursula Dubosarsky, Timothée de Fombelle, Adèle Geras, A.L. Kennedy, Tanya Lee Stone, Michael Morpurgo, Marcus Sedgwick and Sheena Wilkinson.

Subjects: World War One, England, France, short stories (Year 5-8)

Great War: Great War cover

This anthology contains stories by English, American, French, Irish and Australian authors. Each author uses a particular object as the inspiration for a story about the First World War. The objects include items belonging to individual soldiers – a helmet, a writing case, a compass. Some are printed material: sheet music, school magazines, a recruitment poster.  There is a French toy soldier, the nose from a Zeppelin bomb and a Victoria Cross and a Princess Mary gift box. One of my favourite items was a hand-painted war time butter dish.

Some stories are set in the present day (a school history trip to the battlefields), others in the past. A number of them have girls as the main characters. One is a sort of ghost story. One is written as a poem. Many are firmly based in family life. As in all anthologies, some stories work better than others, but all are of a very high standard.

The pages at the end of the book contain biographical information about the contributors and pictures of their chosen objects. From the picture credits, you can work out where most of the objects come from (many are held in the Imperial War Museum), but I would have liked some more information about how the authors chose the object they wrote about. (This article in the Guardian shows some of the objects.)

About the illustrator
Interesting random facts: Jim Kay won the Kate Greenaway Medal in 2012 for his illustrations for A monster calls by Patrick Ness and was chosen by J.K. Rowling to illustrate the full-colour editions of the Harry Potter series. Here they are!

And here he talks about his illustrations for The Great War.

Other books you might like:
War girls is another recent collection of war-related short stories. The curioseum, although not war- related, is another example of using museum objects to spark a story. 

Things I didn’t know
The country you call home by John Boyne describes the fierce debate amongst the Irish about whether they should support England in the First World War, when for years they had been fighting to get England out of Ireland.

The words that struck me most were from A world that has no war in it by David Almond, a story about a long-running neighbourhood feud.  Near the end, the narrator is talking about all the wars that feature on the news every day. “Are we daft?” he asks. “Are we evil? Is it just the way we are? Are we acting out something that started with our ancestors? Is it in our bones and blood? Do we go to war because we’re in love with war? Will we be asking those damn questions till the very end of time?”

The words stayed in my mind because I think a lot about writing books about war for children, and why we do it and what we are trying to say. Surely we want our readers to reflect on the futility of war, but as David Almond says, the wars just keep happening.

Thursday 7 January 2016

Stefania’s dancing slippers by Jennifer Beck, illustrated by Lindy Fisher

Stefania’s dancing slippers by Jennifer Beck, illustrated by Lindy Fisher (Scholastic, 2007)

32 pages

Subjects: World War Two, Poland, Russia, Siberia, Persia, New Zealand, Pahiatua, refugees, picture book (Year 5-8)

This book won a silver medal for Best Picture Book of all Ages at the Moonbeams Children’s Book Awards in the United States.

Stefania is a young girl who loves to dress up and dance, but her life changes forever when war comes to Poland in December 1939 and her father leaves to join the army. When Stefania and her mother are ousted from their house by Russian soldiers, she slips into her pocket her most treasured possession: her dancing slippers.

Along with many other Polish families, they are put on a crowded train and taken to a camp in Siberia. Later they have a long, difficult journey south to Persia.  Finally, in 1944, Stefania – but not her mother – arrives by ship in Wellington, where, along with other children, she finds a new home in the Polish camp in Pahiatua.

The book includes a map of Stefania’s travels at the front, and a historical note at the back about the Polish children of Pahiatua.

This review calls it a “moving tender historical fiction” which has depth, feeling, sadness and joy. 

If you were given only 30 minutes to leave your house, like Stefania, what would be your most treasured possession that you would take with you?

About the author:
You can read an interview with Jennifer Beck on the Christchurch City Libraries website, and another one on the NZ Book Council site. 

About the illustrator
You can read about Lindy Fisher on the Storylines website, and also on the NZ Book Council site. She also has her own website (interesting fact: Lindy has had over 75 stamps published by New Zealand Post!)

Other books you might like:
Jennifer Beck is the author of the much-loved picture book The bantam and the soldier (illustrated by Robyn Belton). She and Lindy Fisher have worked together on other books, including A present from the past (about the Christmas boxes given to the soldiers by Princess Mary in World War One) and Remember that November (about Parihaka).

A Winter’s Day in 1939 (Scholastic, 2013) by Melinda Szymanik tells the story of 13-year-old Adam, who lives with his family on a small farm in rural Poland. In 1939, war breaks out and the Russians invade Poland and confiscate Adam’s family’s house and farm. They are sent to live with another family nearby, but are then moved on and put on a train for a Russian labour camp as refugees, prisoners of Russia. 

NZ connections:
The 70th anniversary of the arrival of the Polish children was marked by a reunion in Wellington in October-November 2014. The reunion's facebook page gives more information. 

NZ on screen also shows a 1966 documentary on The story of Seven Hundred Polish children.

You can find out more about the Polish children who came to Pahiatua on Te ara and also on the Polish Heritage Trust Museum website. 

Polish refugee children arriving at Pahiatua Railway Station
Polish refugee children arriving at Pahiatua Railway Station (Taken by John Pascoe)  Ref: 1/2-003646-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.