The Journey : Francesca Sanna

The JourneyThe Journey by Francesca Sanna

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Journey is something rather special and painfully beautiful; it’s a picture book which retells the journey of a nameless family of refugees. Told in a mixture of calm double page spreads, and singular pages, the family have to leave their home after the war begins. They set off on a journey to “another country. A country far away with high mountains”; and it is a journey that has to go on without a member of the family. (I shall not spoil what happens to this member, suffice to say that it delivers one of the most poetic, restrained and pained double page spreads I have seen for a long while). The book ends on an unfixed note; the family are still traveling and the narrator sees some birds up above: “I hope, one day, like these birds, we will find a new home. / A home where we can be safe and begin our story again.” In an echo of these words, the final endpaper sees a birds eye view of a red train cutting through the landscape of an unknown country populated by trees and with mountains in the distance.

This book is endorsed by Amnesty International and it’s not hard to see why. The Journey treats its topic with a sensitive restraint and, through refusing to name either the countries involved or the people, invests the narrative with a pained every man quality. Sanna’s work here is vivid, quiet and subtle. It’s work that I suspect is for the slightly older edge of picture book readers and that’s simply due to the layering at work here. There’s so much going on in these wonderful, poetic, nuanced images. It’s Miyazaki meets The Last Unicorn meets an Aubusson tapestry meets a nightmare. Hard to describe, yet unforgettable.

There’s a dark edge to the aesthetic: scenes of familial bliss are edged by the dark edge of something threatening, whilst, in one of the most heart-rending scenes, the children sleep in their mother’s arms whilst she silently weeps into the night. As the text says, the children are unaware of this: “But mother is with us / and she is never scared. / We close our eyes and / finally fall asleep.” It is rare and brilliant work, this, and The Journey is something wonderful to end the year with this book. It is rather special and I hope a future classic.

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Remembrance : Theresa Breslin

RemembranceRemembrance by Theresa Breslin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book, this graceful slow burn of a book is rather glorious in how it creeps up on you. It is the story of two families and how their fortunes intertwine during the first world war. And it is a story of doubt, I think, of doubt and of fear and of the odd tremor that comes when you find out that this is who you are and this is the world that you now live in.

And this is what you can do.

You can go to war, burning with the need to defend your country, or you stay at home, lost in your shades of grey, unable to understand the madness that has gripped the world. You can step out from the shadows of class and the restrictions of society, and you can, at last, choose who you are going to be.

You have a choice now, even if your choice is a decision thrust upon you by events and action. Growing up is hard. It has and will always be hard. But it is now additionally (and quite literally) a matter of life and death.

Remembrance reminded me so much of A Little Love Song by the peerless Michelle Magorian that I became quite breathless with love for it. It is a moving book, a slow book which almost turned me off in the first few pages, but is one that is worth staying with. It pays off. It pays off so much.

All of the characters appeal, but Maggie made me love her more with every chapter. I loved her. A shopgirl at the start of the war, and something quite different by the end of it, she is the fat glorious heart of this book.

I loved this. And I loved the amount of additional material provided both at the start and end of the book. There is sometimes something quite context-less about books set in historical periods. It’s hard to hook yourself into these worlds that are so alien from your own. And what Breslin does here, through her poignant little introduction, and through her research notes, is help to bridge that gap. This is an excellent and beautifully produced book. Timely, too, what with the anniversary of the start of the war being this year. Read this and then read Stories of World War One, and you will not go wrong.

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Archie’s War – Marcia Williams

Archie's WarArchie’s War by Marcia Williams

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been planning to review more non-fiction on the blog for a while. A lot of it stems from inspiration provided by conversations with my peers both on and off, and the slightly uncomfortable awareness that non-fiction is something I very, rarely cover.

A lot of that stems from my own personal experience with these books. I’ve always read, and I’ve always read fast. There simply wasn’t enough space in the average non-fiction book to hook me. And then with the advent of the internet (ha, I sound ancient!), that quickness translated into online literacies and non-fiction was something that I rarely paid attention to. It just didn’t fit into my reading pattern. And I think a lot of that still bears weight today – the quickness, the expectation of a text to provide an all round reading experience and to provide it now. Why would we read non-fiction when there’s the entire internet at our fingertips?

Well, I think we would read and still need non-fiction for books like this. I’m a great believe in understanding the process of reading itself; understanding why you react to something in the way you do, understanding how you approach something, even understanding how you read a page – all of this helps to form your critical confidence. And it’s a confidence that translates into so many other disciplines. Learning how to interact with, learning how to decode text, teaches us how to understand systems, sequential reasoning, cause and effect and so on and so forth.

Archie’s War is a wondrous thing and it’s a wonder that will last and last, I think, primarily because of the multi-faceted appeal of it. It’s an appeal that starts on the back page where Williams thanks Archie for his scrapbook and wishes the reader ‘best-browsing.’ That’s such a clever, special touch right there and it’s one which is underlined by the front cover which proclaims: “By ME – Archie Albright”. It’s bringing the book into this lovely, clever space where it’s almost read as a ‘found object’, an artefact, as opposed to being ‘written about the past’. And that connection to the source, the touch and pull nature of the scrapbook, and the carefully coloured in figures, all of that starts to reinforce the precious nature of this book. It is Archie’s scrapbook. It’s so – crafted, so carefully, wonderfully put together by him. I love it.

So the tangibility of this book is beautiful, the weight of it, the truth of it is all someting we get given before we’ve even opened the page. And when we do, we’re given a lovely hybrid of comic strip, stuck in objects and fold out letters – all of which make the reading a continual joy. You move left, right, up, down – you interact with the text and you get involved in it. You’re an active reader, you’re an engaged reader – you cannot read Archie’s War passively. This is smart, clever stuff and it’s stuff which is making me sad that it’s taken this long for me to talk about non-fiction.

Another thing to note about Archie’s War is that there is a lot of humanity in this book. Williams’ style is warm and caring and truthful. She weaves fact and story together and creates a narrative which teaches (and it does teach a lot), but never sounds preachy. Some of the spreads are breathtaking and made me quite generally look again at topics which I thought I knew about.

The final thing is that a book like this is full of inspiration for follow up activities across pretty much every subject out there. I particularly enjoyed this book trailer I found on Youtube.

I hope that I’ll be reviewing more non-fiction. It’s definitely part of my plans. And in a way, I hope they’re all as quietly inspirational and as brilliant as Archie’s War.

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Stories of World War One : (ed) Tony Bradman

Stories of World War OneStories of World War One by Tony (Comp) Bradman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first heard of this compilation several weeks ago and the names of those involved made me sit up and pay attention. Anything which features Adele Geras is something great and joyful to me. Anything which features Adele Geras, Jamila Gavin, Malorie Blackman, Geraldine McCaughrean, Nigel Hinton and more, is something that is guaranteed to grab my attention.

Edited by Tony Bradman, it is a collection of short stories that address the first world war from a world of diverse and astute angles. Each story is introduced by the author, and I was struck by the personal connections that so many of us still retain to these events, one hundred years ago. Families are torn and scarred and affected by war, and these are not things which are lightly forgotten. Nor should they be forgotten. Children’s Literature (and by children’s, I am sweepingly including Young Adult so do forgive me for the generalisation) has a great power in how it can give you awful things, painful things, but also give you a framework in how to deal with, and to understand, and to live through those things.

There is a lot in this book, and a lot, I feel, which can and should incite discussion. Though I’m no historian (I get a little too, how shall we say this, creative with the facts), it’s clear to see that each story has been carefully researched and is full of detail. It’s not obnoxious, didactic detail either, and it would never be with authors of this calibre.

These stories are also about love. The people we love, the places we love, the sacrifices we make for who and what we love and the sacrifices we ask of ourselves in the name of love. There are moments in some of the stories (I’m looking at you Malorie Blackman) which are so simple, so awful, that I finished them and had to pause to think and breathe and think and breathe and then to read again.

That’s what a good compilation like this can do. The shortness of the stories, and what’s more, the accessibility of the stories, makes each a beautiful little moment in an awful, painful world. They are painterly, and lovely, and very much worthwhile.

(And I still adore how Adele Geras writes love. There is nobody out there, quite like her, who can catch that moment when you look at somebody and then look at them again and realise that they are everything, but everything that you have ever wanted).

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Rose Under Fire : Elizabeth Wein

Rose Under FireRose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“And still the sky is beautiful.” (p26)

If there’s a phrase that sums this book up for me, and perhaps Code Name Verity too (which I reviewed here) it is this phrase, this poetic and graceful phrase that sings from the page. There’s something in the way both books look upwards, finding freedom, finding equality, finding hope even in the skies.

We are more than we ever think we are.

Rose discovers this about herself throughout Rose Under Fire. Through circumstance, through action, she finds herself in the darkest of places and she must survive for she has a story to tell.

Set after Code Name Verity, Rose Under Fire provides the next part of the story for certain characters in that book. It also provides mild spoilers for Code Name Verity so I’d suggest reading that first if you’re anything like me. Whilst there could be an issue in returning to the scene of the crime (as it were), Wein handles this continuation very well. She closes the story and opens another, and perhaps eases us through the utter loss that Code Name Verity caused. She does this by this closeness, this reminder that pain and heartbreak was not something you escaped from in this war. It was not something that happened to a friend of a friend. It happened to everyone. That tightness, that narrative woven from the darkness of war, the way it is almost inescapable is very very cleverly done.

What shines here as well is the voice of Rose. She grows, unfurls, and then shrinks back inside of herself, recoiling at the horrors she is experiencing. That second unfurling, that coaxing out, that rediscovery of herself and that she still exists and that she *is* Rose Justice, is something that is heartbreaking and beautiful and viciously emotional to bear witness to.

I keep talking of beauty in this book, and I think that’s an odd thing to do. The subject matter is dark, dark, numbingly so but then again I think that Wein’s gift really does lie in beauty. It’s something she found in Code Name Verity and it’s something she finds here; that ability to find grace and in friendship, and hope and love and belief that the people that have been shattered by the world matter. In that they make a difference. In the way that we all make a difference.

In a way, through shining a light on the story at the heart of Rose Under Fire, and through the hope that by telling this story this will never ever happen again, Wein reminds us that sometimes the most powerful weapon is our voice. And if you do not will Rose on by the end of this, turning the pages and hoping, just hoping that she will come back to us, then you are reading a different book than the one I held in my hands.

If you’re recommending or working with this book and young adults, I would suggest taking some time over the excellent afterword from Wein. In this she’s provided further resources that illustrate the awful truth that is behind this story. I would also draw your attention to Lydia Kokkola’s excellent Representing the Holocaust in Children’s Literature, something I discuss in a blog post here.

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Tamar : Mal Peet

TamarTamar by Mal Peet

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A story set over two timelines, one in 1945 and the other in 1995, Peet introduces us to Tamar and her grandfather and a group of Dutch resistance fighters in World War Two – one of whom is codenamed Tamar. It’s not until the end though that we realise the connection between the two timelines – and the role Tamar’s grandfather played in both.

Gritty, powerful, and heartbreaking, Tamar is outstanding. I have written before of the wonders of Peet and his quietly immense epics and when he writes these sorts of books, it is a thrilling thrilling thing to witness. He has a skill to balance the very small moments of life, the love and loss of everyday existence, against massive world-shifting events – and to do so without losing the impact of each. It is ridiculously exciting to read a world into existence and that’s what you do with this book.

There are some similarities with Life : An Exploded Diagram in that both books are intense, dense novels. Tamar in particular requires some reading into, but it’s an effort that pays off with some stunning rewards.

(Now, if somebody could clear up just how to pronounce Tamar for me, that would be perfect!)

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Children’s Literature and War

It’s the 11th November. On this day at 11am in 1918, the armistice was signed between Germany and the Allied forces and hostilities were ceased. Following a few signatures between a few men the war, which had changed lives and the world irrevocably, officially came to an end.

So why am I writing about this on a children’s literature blog?

I want to take the moment to address the presence of war literature for children.

Violence. Fighting. Death. Pain. Heartache. There’s arguments for presenting these things in children’s literature and there’s arguments against it. Lydia Kokkola has written an excellent book which discusses the representation of the holocaust in children’s literature. One of her key arguments is very simple. Should children be exposed to this sort of thing in their literature or not?

For me, this sort of thing goes to the very heart of the concept of literature. One of our great gifts of being human is language. And language helps us decode the world around us. Without language we struggle and become marooned in our own private existence. We lose our identity as there is no way for us to validate this against external forces. How can we know who or what we stand for when we do not know who or what the external influences are? Can a human exist without context?

Stories, storying and language all help us understand the world we live in. They help us realise we’re not alone. They help us gain a path out of the darkness by signposting a way out. They provide us with our context for existence. And they allow us to connect with each other.

So should the story shift depending on who we tell it to? I’m drawn to the example of the Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Here’s a book, definitely orientated towards children, and yet the subject topic of the Holocaust was such that upon reading the last page I felt physically winded. Is that because of my knowledge of what the ‘striped pyjamas’ actually stand for? Is it because of the internal narrative of the book or is it because of the external narrative of my knowledge of the second world war? It also left me intrigued. Is it possible to interpret the story on a much simpler level? Is it just about friendship existing where you least expect it? Is the lesson not to be horrified but to be proud of two children and their glorious innocence of the situation they were involved in?

So yes. Children should read this stuff. Not just for the duality of interpretation that may (and just let me repeat that, may) pull a text in a different direction than their adult counterpart.

They should read it to learn of their history. They should read it to understand what makes a person a person.

War literature tells us of people who lived and died in the worst of times. Of heroes and villains. Of darkness and light.

It forces us to see past statistics and static pictures in a text book. It forces us to inhabit a situation through the cipher of a character.

War literature also makes us become moral readers. To gain some sense of ourselves, to question what we would do. And it’s okay to think I don’t know. The important thing is to ask that question.

But perhaps more importantly than all that, there’s one big reason that children should be exposed to war literature. Children grow up. Become adults. And it’s adults who get us in these messes. Children need to know what sacrifices have been made in their name so that they don’t grow up and carry out the same mistakes.

Sit down with your children. Open a book. Tell them of what these people did. And be proud that you live in a free and empowered society that lets you do this.

Never forget.