Wednesday, 19 October 2016

The Mozart question by Michael Morpurgo

The Mozart question by Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Michael Foreman (Walker Books, 2007)

75 pages (but a small size, so quite short); gorgeous watercolour illustrations of Venice and sobering, muted ones of the scenes at the concentration camps

Subjects: World War Two, Jews, concentration camps, music, junior fiction (Year 6-8, but have to be ready to hear about the Holocaust)

I can’t better the synopsis on Michael Morpurgo’s own website:
“When Lesley is sent to Venice to interview world-renowned violinist Paulo Levi on his fiftieth birthday, she cannot believe her luck. She is told that she can ask him anything at all – except the Mozart question. But it is Paulo himself who decides that it is time for the truth to be told. And so follows the story of his parents as Jewish prisoners of war, forced to play Mozart violin concerti for the enemy; how they watched fellow Jews being led off to their deaths and knew that they were playing for their lives.”

In the note at the back, the author talks about how the story grew from “the sight of a small boy in a square… in Venice, sitting one night, in his pyjamas on his tricycle, listening to a busker. He sat totally enthralled by the music that seemed to him, and to me, to be heavenly.”

  • Kids reads says “Morpurgo's tale is straightforwardly told, almost fable-like in its simplicity and emotional impact. Its simple language and elegant structure would make The Mozart question an excellent book for parents and teachers to read with children, opening the door to more questions about family history, historic atrocities, and the miraculous powers of music to resist and overcome even the most shocking evils.”

About the author
What more can you say about Michael Morpurgo – he’s just amazing.
This page on his website talks about themes of war in his books. 

About the illustrator
And similarly for Michael Foreman – equally amazing!
This article in the Guardian profiles his 50-year career. 

Other books you might like:
War horse and Private Peaceful, both by Michael Morpurgo,  War gameThe general and The amazing tale of Ali Pasha by Michael Foreman

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

Monday, 3 October 2016

Anzac biscuits by Phil Cummings

Anzac biscuits by Phil Cummings, illustrated by Owen Swan (Scholastic, 2013)

32 pages with full page illustrations

Subjects: World War One, Australia, family, food, picture books (Year 1-3)

This book seems to be set during World War One but that is never actually stated, although there are clues (barbed wire, choking smells, snow, trenches suggest Europe; the “smell of burning red gum” suggests Australia).

The story, told in very few words, alternates between Rachel and her mother baking biscuits in their cosy farmhouse, and Rachel’s father alone on the battlefield, tramping through the mud and sheltering from the weather and the gunfire. The colours alternate between warm colours and colder hues, but the two worlds are linked by mirrored words, images and actions and by a framed photograph of her father on the farmhouse wall.  

I’ve said “alone” because the soldier is completely alone in almost every scene (in one spread, he is trudging behind two other men, but we can’t see their faces.) It feels odd and unusual to have a battlefield shown as being so empty, but it does underline his loneliness and separation from his family. 

On the final page, the biscuits have found their way to Rachel’s father on the other side of the world. The back page blurb says: “This is a touching story of a family torn apart by war but brought together through the powerful simplicity of ANZAC biscuits.”

At first reading, I found it a bit disconcerting that Rachel and her mother could be singing, dancing and laughing. But actually I think that is a good message: that you can miss someone, but you don’t have to be miserable all the time, or feel guilty about having happy moments. (I think that’s why the empty battlefield bothered me, because many soldiers did find companionship with their mates).

My little bookcase calls it “a tender story of war” that “shows the private moments of families who are left behind to worry about their fathers, brothers, uncles and sons.”

Kids’ book review says it offers a gentle narrative that isn’t too scary or confronting.

Aussie reviews calls it "a lovely tale, and a beautiful way of introducing both the subject of war and the history of Anzac biscuits".

“The soldier bravely lifted his head to peer across the fields.” I’m still wondering about this line - is he brave or not? Shouldn’t he be keeping his head down?

About the author
You can see Phil Cummings' website here. You can also watch him talk about Anzac biscuits and his inspiration or the book. 

About the illustrator
You can read about Owen Swan and some of the other books he has illustrated here

Other books you might like
The Anzac puppy by Peter Millett is another non-confrontational book about war for this age group.

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

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Grandad’s medals by Tracy Duncan, illustrated by Bruce Potter

Grandad’s medals by Tracy Duncan, illustrated by Bruce Potter (Reed, 2005)

32 pages with colour illustrations

Subjects: grandparents, Anzac Day, picture books (Year 1-4)

The first half of this picture book shows a young boy’s relationship with his grandfather. They go fishing together, fly kites and gather pinecones (accompanied by the dog). They stack wood for fires on winter nights when Grandad tells stories “about the old days”, and sometimes the boy plays with the medals he got when he was a soldier in an (unnamed) war, “a long time ago”.

All this leads up to Anzac Day, when the boy and his mother (and the dog!) get up early and go down to the RSA hall to watch his Grandad – wearing his medals - march in the dawn parade. There is a simple description of the service, seen from the boy’s point of view: songs, speeches, the Last Post, the silence, the national anthem, laying of wreaths and a cup of tea and a biscuit afterwards. The boy notices that some familiar faces are missing this year, including Grandad’s best friend, and how all the soldiers are getting older.

At the end, the boy and his grandfather sit and look at the medals for a while, until Grandad puts them away, and then they go fishing again - which is a nice ending. 

As a writer, I was intrigued by the way in which the medals of the title act as a focus or a symbol through which to tell the story, even though they are only mentioned on three pages in the text (but appear more often in the illustrations). You can tell by the cover illustration that the young boy is fascinated by their “shiny silver faces”.

Have you ever been to an Anzac Day dawn service? Was it like this one?

About the author
TracyDuncan is an artist and writer who lives near Nelson. She has written and illustrated many books in both te reo Māori and in English.

About the illustrator
Bruce Potter has also illustrated The Donkey Man by Glyn Harper, Grandad's Medals text by Tracy Duncan, Soldier in the Yellow socks: Charles Upham: Our Finest Fighting Soldier text by Janice Marriott and My Grandfather's War text by Glyn Harper

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

Friday, 2 September 2016

True Brit: Beatrice - 1940 by Rosemary Zibart, illustrated by George Lawrence

True Brit: Beatrice - 1940 by Rosemary Zibart, illustrated by George Lawrence  (Kinkajou Press, c2011 - thanks to the publishers for sending me this book to review)

20 chapters; 205 pages with black and white illustrations

Subjects: World War Two, England, United States, evacuees, junior fiction (Year 5-8)
12-year-old Beatrice lives in London with her upper-class family: mother, father and older brother. When the bombs start falling on London in September 1940, her parents decide to send her as far away as possible to be safe. The Children’s Overseas Reception Board says there are no more places available in Canada, but a public nurse in New Mexico has offered to take a child - and that is where Beatrice is sent, all by herself, by boat (first class) and then train.

Her father, whom she adores, gives her a red leather notebook so she can record her observations as if she is a lady explorer, like Mary Kingsley, and these notebook entries are a clever way of showing Beatrice’s impressions of her new surroundings.

Santa Fe in New Mexico couldn’t be more different from London, and Miss Clementine Pope is hard working, practical and down to earth, the complete opposite of Beatrice’s mother. Beatrice has led a sheltered life; she is used to being waited on by servants and having fine clothes and everything she wants, and to her new friends Arabella, Esteban and Ana, she comes across as faceta (spoiled, stuck up and a “little princess”). She is determined to prove them wrong, and after several months, and one big adventure in particular, Clem says “you showed us that you’ve got quite a bit of starch for a gal your age.”

This book is the first in a series (Far and Away) about children in WW2, with its own facebook page. You can read the first chapter here, and also see a book trailer – filmed on location at the Lamy train station where Beatrice first arrives in New Mexico! 

(I especially like the opening line: “Only Great-Aunt Augusta spoke up against the plan”. And I was tickled by the reference to the four children – 2 boys and 2 girls, one named Lucy, waiting on a railway platform to be sent to their great-uncle’s house in the country. Many readers don't realise that the Pevensie children in The lion the witch and the wardrobe were also WW2 evacuees.)

Chapter 16 review website is impressed by “the attention to detail, from descriptions of mud homes and pinon trees to ‘A-okay’ American slang”.

Can you imagine being sent away from your family for such a long time – without any of today’s ways of communicating, like texts or emails or even phone calls – just letters to keep in touch! What would you miss the most about where you live?  

About the author
Rosemary Zibart lives in Santa Fe. She describes herself on her website as a storyteller and writer who has written “film scripts, magazine and newspaper articles, picturebooks, middle-grade and young adult novels, essays, plays, screenplays and most recently websites”.

About the illustrator
You can see some of the illustrations for the book here

Illustrations copyright George Lawrence
Other books you might like:
Carrie’s war, Archie’s war, Lord of the nutcracker men, When the siren wailed and Ronnie’s war all cover different aspects of the evacuee experience. Uprooted: a Canadian war story by Lynne Reid Banks gives a Canadian perspective.
Also mentioned here (but not fully reviewed) is Evacuee by Gabriel Alington (Walker Books, 1988) which tells the story of a timid English girl, Frances (or Fanny) sent away to the USA to live with “Aunt” Bird and her adopted daughter, Pepper. It also treats the subject of the debate within the United States as to whether or not they should join WW2.

Things I didn’t know
I didn’t know anything about Santa Fe or New Mexico so I really enjoyed the description of the landscape and town. A historical note at end says that children did come to Santa Fe in WW2, some of the thousands who were sent to Canada, the US and Australia to escape the war.

There is an excellent article on Operation Pied Piper and the evacuee children here, with some great photos.

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

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Ibby 2016: thoughts on writing about war for children

I’ve just been lucky enough to attend the Ibby 2016 Congress. Ibby stands for International Board on Books for Young People. It’s an international organisation (as the name suggests), founded in Switzerland in 1953, and this is the first time that the two-yearly congress has been held in New Zealand. The theme was Literature in a Multi-Literate World.

You can read more about Ibby here. And you can find out more about the Ibby 2016 Congress here, including the programme and speakers.

As well as meeting people from around the world, all deeply passionate about children’s literature, I presented a paper in a session called “The past informs the present” with two other speakers: Kestutis Urba from Lithuania, describing short stories from his country set in World War One, and Hisako Kakuage from Japan, talking about how the Japanese branch of Ibby has supported children in Fukushima after the nuclear plant accident in 2011. 

I’m very grateful to everyone who came along to hear my talk on Children’s war books: helping children make sense of war and peace, and to those who asked questions or came up to talk to me afterwards. It was especially moving to meet a Turkish delegate who has written a children’s book about war (which I’m hoping to review) and to discover that both of our grandfathers had served at Gallipoli – on opposite sides, of course. 

As a result of these questions and discussions, I’ve come away with some interesting points to ponder. They fall into three main categories:

1. There have been many children’s books written about World War One and World War Two, but what about more recent wars – Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq? How do we write about those?

When I check my list of books by date and setting, I can only find three about Vietnam and Afghanistan, and two of those are by Australian writer Mark Wilson. He wrote about Afghanistan by focusing on a lost puppy (and coincidentally, I met someone at the Ibby Congress from New Orleans, who said that after Hurricane Katrina, stories about animals, such as Two Bobbies, helped children to make sense of what had happened). 

We have more historical distance from WW1 and WW2, and more historical and military research to draw on. The Allied nations have a clear narrative that has become generally accepted, in that we see ourselves on the “good”, winning side in a battle of good vs evil (albeit clearer for WW2 than for  WW1).

For WW1, New Zealand also has the “nation building” narrative where we see ourselves as having “come of age” as a nation during that conflict, and especially at Gallipoli. We concentrate on qualities such as mateship, friendship, courage, loyalty, self-sacrifice and family love. The WW1 centenary commemorations and renewed interest in family history has seen many people wanting to know how their family was affected by WW1, which had such a huge impact on the whole country. 

But in the later wars, the narrative is more confused – and was even at the time, for example, when there was much opposition to the Vietnam War.

So I can see the difficulties and challenges in writing about those later wars, but it also makes me think more (again) about how, and why we are telling the story of war. 

2. How do we write about refugees, especially the current refugee situation in Europe (and also Australia)?

I know there are some excellent books coming out on this subject – memoirs, novels  and picture books like  Flight written by Nadia Wheatley (who was at the Ibby Congress) and illustrated by Armin Greder.

In New Zealand we do have refugees but not in such numbers. But are there any books written about them? I have to find out. (And who can write those books? We also talked at Ibby about whether people from outside a culture can write about it, and if so, how best to do that.)

3. How do countries that were on the losing side in wars (for example, Germany or Japan in WW2) present that history in their literature for children?

This is another aspect of writing about war for children that I’ve never considered before.  

A Japanese delegate at Ibby said that there is a big gap in books written for children about their country’s WW2 history and they know very little about it as a result. When I cited the books written about Sadako, she said there are books about Hiroshima and the bomb (in which the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were innocent victims) but very little about other aspects of the war. Now I wonder if that is also the case for Germany. I can see that the overall narrative for those countries is quite different, even though many aspects (eg young people going off to war) were the same, leading to German classics like All quiet on the Western Front.

So far I have lots of questions and few answers, but I’m definitely going to think more about these topics. And your thoughts are welcome!

Monday, 22 August 2016

Toitoi: Anzac special issue

Toitoi: Anzac special issue (February 2016)

92 pages with full page colour illustrations

Subjects: World War One, World War Two, Gallipoli, France, trenches, junior fiction, children’s writing (Year 5-8)


Toitoi is a quarterly journal for young New Zealand writers and artists, aged 5-13, which publishes “material with an original and authentic voice that other young people can connect to and be inspired by and that reflects the cultures and experiences of life in New Zealand.” It encourages creativity and can also be used in the classroom with teaching notes for each issue.
You can read more about it here
And they also have a Facebook page.

This Anzac special issue is filled with highly imaginative work that tells the story of war in many different forms: stories, poems, letters, diary entries and even a song, with accompanying full page illustrations. One piece in French (Poilu by Tristan Hosking, aged 9) manages to be an acrostic poem as well.  

They cover topics such as leaving NZ by ship (from the point of view both of those leaving and those left behind), posting a tin of Anzac biscuits, Gallipoli, France, the trenches, seeing friends die in battle, losing a loved one and remembering the war years later in Anzac Day ceremonies and small family interactions. Many of the writers show great sensitivity and they also use some powerful sensory descriptions.

I liked so many of these pieces that it’s hard to single any out, but here are a few lines that particularly moved or impressed me with their thoughtfulness, empathy and imagination:

“Imagine having great valour then slowly having a disheartened mind.”
                (from Imagine by Kareena Dunlop, aged 11)

“It looks like we are winning which is quite good so I might be home in time for Christmas”
                (from April 1915, a letter, by Alice Kelsall, aged 7)

“In Flanders Fields I see death / In every second and every breath.”
                (from In Flanders Fields, a poem by Kyuss Williamson, aged 12) 

“How still you die / When you are dead / How still you lie…
I know both sides / Both stories / Both losses / I know both sides.”
                (from My people, a poem by Ilana Kizildere, aged 10)

“I am ashamed that I killed people. But then again, I’m proud that I ought for my country. That’s why I just sit here. The Second World War haunts me every day.”
                (from Grandpa’s story by Megan Foster and Madison Blackwood, aged 11)

Similarly with the many wonderful illustrations, it’s hard to select just a few, but I was especially impressed by Alisha Sangster’s illustration for Grandpa’s story, showing the old man leaning on a stick with a soldier’s shadow looming behind him. I also liked Aisha Tanaka-Avers’ departing  ship, Apple Minoza’s white cross on a swirly coloured background, Pieta Bayley’s woman packing up the tin of Anzac biscuits, Anna de Boyett’s dramatic portrait of a horse, Stella Hinton’s soldier silhouette (reproduced on the front cover above) and Shahni Tagatoa’s muted graveside scene.

Have you read it?
Have you read this issue of Toitoi? Let me know what you think!
Have you submitted anything to Toitoi? Check out the dates that the next submissions close and have a go. It's such a great magazine and a wonderful opportunity to see your work in print.  

Friday, 5 August 2016

Bravo! by Philip Waechter and Moni Port

Bravo! by Philip Waechter and Moni Port, translated by Sally-Ann Spencer (Gecko Press, 2011; original title Der Krakeeler)

32 pages with colour illustrations

Subjects:  anger management, anti-war books, peace, animals, fable, picture books (Year 3-6)

I wouldn’t have thought to review this book, if not for finding it on Raymond Huber’s excellent list of Anti-war books for children.

It tells the story of Helena, “a little girl” who “lived in a crooked house, deep in a valley, beside a turquoise stream”. (I love the hint of fairytale in the word “crooked”, and the exactness of “turquoise”.)

Helena’s life is almost perfect, apart from her loud shouting father, and the book follows the decisions she makes, and the outcome of those decisions.  (As Raymond says, “Children have to find peace within themselves before they can change the world".)

Raymond also provides teaching notes – on words, characters, story structure and illustrations - here.

Publishers Weekly calls it a “spare, delicately drawn offering” in which “Helena’s decisive act allows her to find her own voice and to mend her relationship with her father, too.” 

Curled up with a good kid's book says it "delivers a thought provoking message about positive behaviour and making socially acceptable and positive choices". 

Raymond Huber poses some excellent questions in his teaching notes:
  • What does Helena think of her father? 
  • Is she scared of him? 
  • Is it his loudness she hates or something else? (Remember she plays the trumpet).

About the author and illustrator
This book was originally published as Der Krakeeler, which means “rowdy type”, “brawler” or “roisterer”. It’s interesting that the translator and publishers (the wonderful Gecko Press) have chosen a different sort of title for the English version, focusing more on Helena and her actions than on her father.
It’s also interesting that the cover gives both names equal weight, with no clues as to which is the author and which the illustrator. A bit of sleuthing reveals that it is written by Moni Port and illustrated by Philip Waechter (so the names on the cover are in the opposite order to how you would usually find them displayed on a NZ picture book). 
According to Gecko Press, Moni Port was born in 1968 in Germany. She has worked as a bookseller, then studied communication design, focussing on illustration and book design. 
Philip Waechter was born in 1968 in Germany. He now lives as a freelance graphic designer and illustrator in Frankfurt am Main. In 1999, Philip and Moni co-founded the community studio LABOR. You can read more about Philip here.

Other books you might like:
Other anti-war books for children include The story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf and The general by Janet Charters, illustrated by Michael Foreman.