V O L U M E 2 , N U M B E R 1 1 • N O V E M B E R 2 0 0 9
In this issue
For a list of books mentioned in this issue, see link below.
Masthead art © by William Steig, used with permission of Pippin Properties, Inc.
Winner of two Newbery Honor Book Awards, the Sibert Medal, and the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award, Jim Murphy is one of our preeminent historians for young people. Truce: The Day the Soldiers Stopped Fighting, his newest book, examines a true story that has passed into legend — the Christmas Truce of World War I. With a striking cover by Scott McKowen and numerous photographs from the period, Truce is a book whose appeal should go beyond the seasonal or military to become a primer on the shaping of the modern world, its troubles as well as its possibilities. (9–12 years)
1. Your summation of the events leading up to WWI and the opening months of the war is admirably concise. How do you decide what to include and what to leave out?
I knew that readers would have to have a clear sense of how WWI started, the tactics used by governments to rally support for war, and what actual combat was like for the soldiers and officers involved if the chapters about the truce were to have real impact. But I didn't want the text to get bogged down in an overly detailed or arcane study of these topics. So I began by assembling a long list of "causes," then whittled it down to the most important ones, with an eye on how fear, stereotyping, and outright lies were used by all sides to paint the enemy as a mindless monster to be dispatched at any cost. I also worked in as many smaller human moments as possible — such as Kaiser Wilhelm not reading a vital document until it was too late to stop the war. Once the fighting started, I focused on how the soldiers' initial enthusiasm for the war was crushed by the savagery of the fighting, using their own words as much as possible to express their frustration, anger, and helplessness. In a real way, I used what historian David Hackett Fischer refers to as historical contingency — the big and little decisions, acts of chance, and mistakes made by important and not so important people that eventually result in a historic event — to shape the content of Truce and create a more personal narrative.
2. How do you find the real history behind something so legendary as the Christmas Truce?
I see research as detective work. In this case, I would spot a clue — the name of someone who took part in the Christmas Truce — and then follow it to a source, usually museums or military organizations in England, France, or Germany. And sometimes a source will lead to another name or incident. While reading Winston Churchill's accounts of WWI, for instance, I came across those extraordinary descriptions of the blasted, war-torn landscape by Valentine Fleming, which helped create a vivid, visual picture that readers won't soon forget.
3. Do you know of any other conflicts in which a similar truce occurred?
Truces have occurred during many wars, including our own Revolutionary War and Civil War. Almost all of these involved a small number of soldiers, usually had the approval of an officer, and were arranged for specific purposes (such as getting the wounded off the battlefield or burying the dead). The Truce of 1914 was unique because it involved well over 100,000 troops and happened spontaneously despite the efforts of many officers to stop it. It was so massive a disobedience of orders that high-ranking officers chose to deny that the truce actually happened rather than admit that they had no control over their men.
4. Does writing history for young readers require something different from writing history for adults? More hope and fewer shadows?
Well, I would agree that when I choose a topic, I look to see if there is a positive, hopeful theme that can be stressed. But the reality of the situation has to be brought alive in order for the theme to have a lasting impact. As unsettling as it might be, I felt an obligation to show the reality of combat during WWI, where outdated military tactics and equipment ran headfirst into twentieth-century weapons, such as machine guns, long-range heavy artillery, poison gas, and tanks. To sugarcoat this aspect of war seems dishonest and misleading (and in many ways validates the video game notion that no one really gets hurt). How many of our young men and women would have signed up for National Guard duty to pay for college if they really understood the brutal consequences of fighting in Iraq?
5. (This is a big question.) Have you any hope that armies today could, in Churchill's words you quote, "suddenly and simultaneously [go] on strike"?
To be honest, I don't think most of today's armies would go on strike, as much as I might wish that would happen. Military people are very smart. After the Truce of 1914, the military leaders on all sides learned to rotate soldiers out of combat (and close proximity to the enemy) on a regular basis so that the soldiers couldn't develop any sort of relationship with the enemy. But I do hope that an honest discussion of how governments regularly manipulate information and attempt to stereotype anyone they consider to be an enemy will lead more people — especially young people — to pause a moment before committing their hearts and, yes, bodies to a rush to war. If enough people take the time to insist on honesty, it might just change the direction of history.
“Do you have any books about war?” is a frequent request at the children’s reference desk; the challenge for children’s books is satisfying the reader’s desire for high drama and conflict without indulging in either false heroics or sensationalism. Here are four new novels that manage the balance exceptionally well.
Akila Couloumbis’s childhood in German-occupied Greece is the basis for War Games, written by Couloumbis with his wife Audrey. Brothers Petros and Zola have been covertly assisting in the efforts of the Resistance, a task complicated when a German officer commandeers their family’s home in the countryside. The narrative is lively with dialogue and authentic details of Greek village life. (10–14 years)
Michael Ferrari’s Born to Fly is a rousingly old-fashioned war-at-home story in which two children, Bird and her Japanese American friend Kenji, become convinced there is a spy in their small Rhode Island town. Young readers will take great satisfaction in learning that this far-fetched proposition is in fact true. Good detailing of characters and setting prevents the story from going too far over the top. (9–12 years)
Operation Yes by Sara Lewis Holmes is another story from the homefront, but the time is now and the setting a military base school. Teacher Miss Loupe’s brother is serving in Afghanistan, and when he goes missing her class comes up with a plan to help everyone face the challenges of war. Infused with the details of military family life, the story has energy and heart. (9–12 years)
For older readers, Patricia McCormick’s Purple Heart is a tense and expertly layered mystery set in the Green Zone of Baghdad. Eighteen-year-old Private Matt Duffy can’t remember the incident that landed him in the hospital and left two Iraqi civilians dead. Did he pull the trigger? The answer is complex and heartbreaking in this hard-hitting novel. (12 years and up)
The Wild West is a subject that lassos kids’ imaginations. With its promise of danger, derring-do, and romance, the time period transports readers to a place where adventure awaits around every bend in the dusty road and a horse is your most trusted compadre.
For an informative overview with plenty of humor, look no further than Which Way to the Wild West?: Everything Your Schoolbooks Didn’t Tell You About America’s Westward Expansion. Author Steve Sheinkin covers a lot of historical territory, beginning with the Louisiana Purchase and moving down the Oregon Trail, into the California Gold Rush, and along the transcontinental railroad, concluding with the takeover of all Indian lands. The conversational narrative is built around stories of the ordinary men and women who peopled the West. Caricature illustrations by Tim Robinson along with maps, a bibliography, and short follow-up biographies about the principal figures complete the book. (9–12 years)
Bass Reeves’s life is the stuff of Wild West legend. Born a slave, he went on to become a sharp-shooting deputy U.S. marshal, arresting over three thousand bandits. Vaunda Micheaux Nelson’s captivating biography Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal tells the man’s story in language as colorful as his career. Sharply textured paintings by R. Gregory Christie create detailed portraits of this multi-dimensional individual, his bold black hat conveying unmistakable authority. (8–10 years)
City-slicker artist Tom Moran, an illustrator of Wild West stories, “had never ridden a horse, never shot a gun, and never slept in the open air” before joining an expedition to Yellowstone in 1871. Armed with his sketchbook and “dreams as big as the Montana sky,” Moran experienced the dangers and excitement of frontier life firsthand. Yellowstone Moran: Painting the American West by Lita Judge explains how Moran’s work helped secure protective status for land that became America’s first national park. Judge’s expansive paintings depict our country’s frontier as an unspoiled, unpredictable tangle of mountainous wilderness and wide-open sky. (8–10 years)
Nothing drives out the cold and jumpstarts the holidays more than a good laugh. If you like your humor short and silly, then plop down with a cup of hot chocolate and these picture books.
Eve B. Feldman’s Billy & Milly, Short & Silly is a lilting and clever compilation, with each of the thirteen short stories composed of only four words — or less. “Pack / WHACK! / Crack / Snack,” for example, takes readers from Billy preparing a piñata to Billy and Milly enjoying the candy once the piñata is broken. Tuesday Mourning’s illustrations, particularly a felicitous two-page spread of a balancing cow in a tutu, make each brief tale complete. (2–5 years)
In Leslie Patricelli’s latest ode to the imagination, The Patterson Puppies and the Rainy Day, four canine siblings create a pretend indoor beach party complete with bathing suits, toys, and surf music. However, the fun really begins once the puppies discover the blue carpet looks like “a real ocean!” . . . when buckets of water are dumped on it. The lighthearted tone is extended in the illustrations, whether the pups are playing pirates or working hard to mop the carpet dry. (2–5 years)
What begins as a simple fishing trip for buddies Nanook and Pryce in Ned Crowley’s Nanook & Pryce: Gone Fishing becomes an inadvertent world tour as their ice floe carries them away: “Salty brine / Floating free / Tangled line / Out to sea.” Larry Day’s chuckle-inducing illustrations show the dedicated pair attending their fishing hole even as sharks circle and greedy pelicans steal their fish. The rhyming couplets are a joy to read aloud, and the detailed spreads are full of little visual jokes young readers will love to catch. (5–8 years)
Chris Van Dusen’s The Circus Ship is another lively story about an ocean trip gone awry. When a circus ship bound for Boston sinks off the coast of Maine, the evil circus boss, Mr. Paine, abandons his fifteen animals. The tenacious beasts find their way to a small village and wreak havoc (“Mr. Hood was stacking wood / and nearly jumped a mile / when he found the alligator / sleeping on his pile!”) but soon make themselves part of the community. Though inspired by a true event, the book’s bouncy text and playful illustrations are all about fun. (5–8 years)
The Horn Book’s selection of the best books of 2009 will be featured in next month’s issue of Notes. Until then, here are some holiday-themed stories to get your family in the spirit.
Kate Banks’s What’s Coming for Christmas? is filled with anticipation as Christmas nears. Text and art depicting carolers, church bells, tree trimming, Nativity scenes, and cookie baking alternate with descriptions of the excitement building among the farm and forest animals. What are the animals waiting for? The book provides hints, and young readers will find the Christmas Eve birth of a foal satisfying and worth the wait. Georg Hallensleben’s luminous paintings capture the warmth and light of the season. (4–8 years)
Rachel Isadora creatively recasts Clement C. Moore’s classic poem, The Night Before Christmas, transporting readers to a snow-dusted African village. While the children dream of sugarplums, mamma, in a patterned head wrap, and the narrator, wearing traditional African dress and cap, mark Santa’s arrival. St. Nick, cheeks round and rosy against brown skin, is dressed in a red coat, jaunty red hat (beneath which spill snowy-white dreadlocks), black boots — and orange giraffe-print trousers. Throughout the collage illustrations, patterns, colors, and textures beautifully evoke the familiarity of Christmas holiday traditions within a distinctly nontraditional setting. (4–8 years)
In Linda Glaser’s Hoppy Hanukkah!, young bunny siblings Violet and Simon enter boisterously into the festivities, and their enthusiastic missteps (“‘Now let’s light them!’ said Simon” of the menorah candles) create opportunities for young readers to learn the holiday’s rituals (“‘Not yet,’ said Papa. ‘Not until the sun sets’”). Illustrator Daniel Howarth’s sunny yellow backdrops and joyful bunny faces telegraph the book’s simple, feel-good holiday spirit. (4–8 years)
The Little Red Elf by Barbara Barbieri McGrath is a sly version of a familiar tale. A little red elf is used to doing everything herself while her friends the reindeer, the penguin, and the hare laze around the workshop (“‘Who will help me put out milk and cookies?’ ‘Not I,’ said the reindeer.”) They sing a different tune when it’s time to open presents, however. Rosalinde Bonnet’s more-than-helpful illustrations give an extra-festive boost to the lively goings on. (5–8 years)
Here’s a chapter book for independent readers that also makes a compelling read-aloud for the whole family. In Patricia MacLachlan’s The True Gift: A Christmas Story, Lily and Liam love visiting their grandparents every Christmas. They take walks, read, and buy gifts for their family — but this year Liam can’t stop thinking about Gran and Grandpa’s cow and how lonely she must feel now that she’s the only animal left on the farm. Lily resents his worrying, but when Liam comes up with a plan to find a friend for White Cow, everyone’s Christmas, not just the cow’s, is made merrier. Brian Floca’s realistic black-and-white illustrations reflect the solemn tone of MacLachlan’s deeply moving tale. (7–10 years)
Parents frequently worry when a child seems stuck on a particular kind of reading material, whether it be mean-girl paperbacks, vampire series, problem novels, or books about war. While of course they are pleased that the kid is reading, they are concerned that the chosen topic might betray a morbid streak or unhealthy escapism on the child's part. I don't think so. Dark drama provides a satisfying diversion from the difficulties of ordinary life, and reading repetitively, whether the same kind of book or even the same book, over and over, provides comfort by virtue of its familiarity. Kids who are drawn to stories of young people like themselves beset by all manner of awfulness are enjoying the same pleasant dissonance of watching a storm from the safety of indoors. You get to see how bad it can be; you can wonder how you would fare out there; you see how others have managed in far worse circumstances than your own. The appeal isn't misery; it's empathy.
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