Kids Books: War Stories
GLEAM AND GLOW,by Eve Bunting, with illustrations by Peter Sylvada. (Harcourt, $16; grades K-3.) Few children’s writers have been more prolific than Bunting. By her publisher’s account, she has written some 200 books. Never one to shy away from challenging subjects, she’s tackled adult illiteracy, homelessness, and illegal immigration, among other topics. She once said that 90 percent of her ideas come from the news. That was certainly the case with her 1994 book Smoky Night, set during the Los Angeles riots. Although the book went on to win the prestigious Caldecott award for its illustrator, David Diaz, it created something of a stir with its matter-of-fact depictions of looting and arson.
Gleam and Glow, about a family forced from their home by war, is also torn from the headlines. Told through the eyes of 8-year-old Viktor, the narrative is set in an unnamed country. But as Bunting explains in an author’s note, it was drawn from the real-life experiences of a Bosnian family forced in the early 1990s to flee advancing Serb forces.
The story begins with the father setting out on a bleak winter morning to join the underground, which is fighting against those who want to push the region’s inhabitants out of their country. With the enemy moving closer and closer to their village, Viktor, his mother, and his 5-year-old sister, Marina, know they will soon have to abandon their home. Each day, strangers heading for the border stop by the house with horrible stories of what they have seen. “When the stories got too terrible,” Viktor relates, “Mama sent Marina and me to the pond for fresh water or to the vegetable patch to look for hidden potatoes. But we heard a lot anyway.”
One day, a man arrives with a heavy pack on his back and a large bowl containing two golden fish in his arms. He can’t carry the bowl any farther, so he gives it to Marina and tells her to feed the fish until her family is forced to leave. Marina names the fish Gleam and Glow and confides to her mother that she loves them “with all her heart.” Three nights later, as the family prepares to flee the next morning, Viktor takes the fish to the pond and slips them into the cold, dark water.
The hostilities finally come to an end many months later. The family members, who have been staying in a refugee camp, return to their property and find it destroyed. Except for a few flowers, Viktor notes, “we could have been on the moon.” But a miracle of sorts awaits them in the pond, something that will remind them that all is not lost. Bunting and Sylvada, illustrator of the acclaimed picture book A Symphony of Whales, effectively convey the grim reality of the family’s experience but manage to do so in a graceful and restrained manner perfectly suited to the book’s young audience. Sylvada’s oil paintings are nothing short of stunning, adding both clarity and depth to Bunting’s fine narrative.
—Blake Hume Rodman
SHATTERED: Stories of Children and War,edited by Jennifer Armstrong. (Knopf, $15.95; grades 7 and up.) According to Armstrong’s introduction to this powerful collection, “Wars are supposed to be the business of officers and soldiers, but that’s not how it happens.” War affects everyone, not least of all, children. This unique volume of 12 provocative stories by some of the foremost voices in young adult and children’s literature skillfully juxtaposes the innocence of childhood with the horror of war, resulting in a book as beautiful and inspiring as it is harrowing.
Most of these tales do not take place on battlegrounds, but the effects of war are still painful. In the title story, by Marilyn Singer, for example, the struggle of a Vietnam vet struggle to overcome both the birth defects that stem from their father's exposure to Agent Orange and his emotiona trauma, which seems to pervade their family.
Even those stories set in actual war zones focus on emotion, not politics or combat strategy. "Bad Day for Baseball," by Graham Salisbury, describes the raid on Pearl Harbor through the eyes of a Japanese American teenager living in Hawaii. On December 7, 1941, Masa expects to get up and play baseball. Instead, as his father stares toward the sky in disbelief, unable to fathom an attack by his former homeland, Masa and other ROTC teens hunt Japanese paratroopers in the mountains. And even as he tries to curb his fear of being shot by the enemy. Masa encounters anti-Japanese feelings among his peers.
The characters in these stories are not soldiers in the strict sense of the word, which conjures images of 20-something men in crisp uniforms. They are children who have no understanding of politics or religious divides and are trying simply to survive. But as tough as these stories are to read—in fact, the content may be too much for some kids—the innocence and hope of the young voices prevail over the terror of war.
And Armstrong’s motives in putting together this collection are as praiseworthy as the writing: “By exploring war through the idiosyncrasies of story, character, and setting, you may begin to form your own ideas about what war is, what it means, where it comes from, and what happens when it happens.” She promotes no ulterior agenda of pacifism, conceding that some wars are justified, even necessary.
Also included, at the bottom of each page, are historic details about the respective wars. Information on the Civilian Exclusion Order and Japanese internment camps, for instance, accompany “Bad Day for Baseball.” In some cases, these facts are bogged down with statistics, but the numbers never overwhelm the stories.
Each tale undeniably supports the theory that war shatters the lives of all people, even those not directly involved in the fighting. But the entries also seem to suggest that sometimes the pieces can be put back together, that hope can survive.
LEVER BEATRICE: An Upper Peninsula Conte, by Margaret Willey, with illustrations by Heather Solomon. (Atheneum, $16; grades K-1.) In the late 1800s, many French Canadians were lured to the woods of northern Michigan by the chance to make some money in the burgeoning lumber industry. According to Willey, they were known around camps for telling exaggerated tales known as contes. Clever Beatrice, she writes in an author’s note, is an amalgam of several popular contes about travelers who outsmart rich and powerful giants. With her mother fallen on hard times, Beatrice, a precocious child, sets out to wangle some gold from a giant who loves to wager on his physical prowess. She makes several bets pitting her strength against his and then tricks him each time into conceding defeat. Kids will roll with laughter, but more at the giant’s stupidity than Beatrice’s cleverness. (The story should have been titled “The Dumb Giant.”) Solomon’s bright and whimsical mixed-media illustrations add to the fun.
IT WASN’T ME!by Udo Weigelt, with illustrations by Julia Gukova. (North-South, $15.95; grades K-3.) When Ferret discovers that the raspberries he’s worked so hard to pick have disappeared, he reports the theft to Mouse, who says, “I have a pretty good idea who could have done it.” The two then set off to find Raven, who, it turns out, has stolen before. (Raven was the guilty party in an earlier Weigelt and Gukova collaboration, Who Stole the Gold.) The bird denies any knowledge of the crime. “I don’t steal anymore,” he insists. But Mouse soon finds a fresh berry right under Raven’s perch. Ferret and Mouse call a meeting of the other animals, who decide that circumstances and the evidence point to Raven. Distraught, the bird decides to seek out another forest, “where the animals are kind and trust me.” As he’s preparing to leave, a new clue emerges that leads the creatures to the real culprits. Weigelt, who is German, has written an engaging, if somewhat didactic, story about the dangers of making snap judgments, and Gukova, a Russian illustrator with a soft, appealing touch, lends the tale warmth and humor.
WALK ACROSS THE SEA,by Susan Fletcher. (Atheneum, $16; grades 5 and up.) It’s the late 1880s, and 13-year-old Eliza Jane McCulley lives on a tiny island off the California coast in the lighthouse her father operates. Twice daily, the water recedes, exposing an isthmus to the mainland. Returning home on this path one day, Eliza escapes being drowned by a “sneaker wave” thanks to a warning from a Chinese boy named Wah Chung. Her father loathes the Chinese who occupy shanties at the edge of town: They’re “heathens” who steal jobs, he says. But the boy who saved Eliza doesn’t fit this description, and after the Chinese are forced out of town at gunpoint, she hides Wah Chung on her island. The focus of this moving, thought-provoking book isn’t the Chinese struggle to overcome bias in the 19th century; rather, it’s one adolescent’s attempt to reconcile her feelings of compassion with her father’s disapproval. And Fletcher makes clear that standing by one’s convictions is noble, but it also has consequences.
FAIR WEATHER,by Richard Peck. (Dial, $16.99; grades 5 and up.) With a grandiose opening—“It was the last day of our old lives, and we didn’t even know it”—Peck launches a heartwarming tale about the 1893 World’s Fair. Rosie Beckett, a 13-year-old Midwestern farm girl, is shocked when her mother lets her and her siblings accept their wealthy aunt’s invitation to visit the fair in Chicago, where the “streets are filthy as a hog wallow.” And despite their best intentions, city life does not seem to become the Beckett children: In one day, they run off Aunty’s help and humiliate her in front of the “queen” of Chicago society. However, the wonders of the fair—George Ferris’ wheel, Scott Joplin’s music, Susan B. Anthony’s pro-suffrage speeches, and Buffalo Bill’s antics—change how the Becketts look at the world. Offering a budding romance, a zany granddad, and humorous clashes between country and city life, Peck doesn’t skimp on plot. But the fair, with all it promises for the future, is the real star here.
TROUBLE DON’T LAST,by Shelley Pearsall. (Knopf, $14.95; grades 5-8.) Samuel, a slave, has never traveled past the corn rows of his master’s Kentucky plantation. But one night, Harrison, the old man who’s raised Samuel since his momma was sold, decides to head north and take the boy with him. Told through the frightened eyes of an 11-year-old unable to grasp the notion of “freedom,” the story depicts the underground railroad in 1859 as an erratic system of paths and safe houses. As strangers lead him from boat to basement to church to house, without ever saying where he’s going, Samuel begins to wonder whether Master Hackler’s any worse than running and starving. As the title suggests, the runaways eventually reach “Canaday” and freedom, but their journey is fraught with suspenseful moments—such as when they hide in a tree to escape hunting dogs. Although Harrison claims that “nothin good comes outta putting down words,” Pearsall’s heartbreaking, yet hopeful, story provides a fine supplement to lessons on slavery.
CROSSING,by Philip Booth, with illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline. (Candlewick, $16.99; grades K-4.) Forget the text—a spare, poetic reciting of the names, colors, and contents of freight cars passing through a country rail crossing, circa 1940—this book is all about the pictures. Working in gouache, Ibatoulline transforms an everyday event into a grand spectacle. Indeed, there is a certain uncanny perfection to each glorious spread. You can practically smell the steam engine, feel its heat, and hear the steady rumble of wheels on rails and the clanging of crossing bells. Most young kids love trains. While they might not appreciate Ibatoulline’s striking, dead-on paintings of rusted metal that adorn the book’s inside covers, they are sure to marvel at every other passing page.
—Blake Hume Rodman and Jennifer Pricola
Vol. 13, Issue 5, Pages 40-42Published in Print: February 1, 2002, as Kids Books: War Stories