Review: In Flanders Fields: The Story of the Poem by John McCrae

As the world prepares to mark the centennial of the Armistice which drew to a close “the war to end all wars”, it is necessary that we find a way to discuss these events with our children. Expanding on the immortal poem, In Flanders Fields: The Story of the Poem by John McCrae by Linda Granfield and Janet Wilson addresses both the realities and the shocking imprint of this difficult chapter in human history.

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The Great War is remembered for violence on an unprecedented scale, and Americans never quite seem to know what to do with its memory. In a hundred years we still haven’t processed it as well as nations which endured it more directly. They have memorials and poppies and literature; we throw a vague Veteran’s Day sale and try not to think about it. It’s no wonder that we struggle to explain these events to our children, when as a whole we have not dealt with them ourselves.

Such ambivalence is reflected in the dearth of children’s books on the First World War. Aside from histories, picture books like Midnight: A True Story of Loyalty in World War I or The Poppy Lady: Moina Belle Michael and Her Tribute to Veterans tend to focus on a specific story from the period; one which underscores the compassionate response of an individual to a brutal and complicated conflict. While there is certainly a need for this perspective, these versions are overly sentimental and lacking in scope; they fail to do the subjects justice, let alone convey the enormity of the hostilities. What is needed is a skillful, comprehensive representation of the First World War; not just the facts, but its legacy.

Granfield’s work accomplishes this. The basis of the book are the cherished words of a Canadian doctor who served and died in the War, in the form of his famous poem “In Flanders Fields”. The first page bears a copy of the verse in the poet’s own handwriting, followed by a careful repetition of the poem a line at a time. Each line is graced with one of Wilson’s full-page color paintings. Sprinkled among these pages is Granfield’s thoughtful account of the war, including images and the background of both McCrae and his poem within the full context of the war in Europe. It ends with acknowledgement of the challenging heritage of such an awful struggle, but with a willingness to honor bravery and sacrifice in the midst of combat.

This is ideally a book for children and adults to read together. Other reviewers have noted that the format can be confusing, with the historical elements scattered throughout the lines of the poem and illustrations. If a reader is unfamiliar with the flow of the poem, this is a reasonable point. It would be worthwhile to read the poem in full several times as it appears handwritten on the first page. Once done, Granfield’s text coincides very sensibly with the illustrated lines of the poem.

The illustrations themselves are deeply evocative; depicting home front and battlefield, they are sweeping and capture a sense of being caught up in something much larger than oneself. Like Granfield’s text, they offer a treatment of these issues that is respectful and wholly appropriate for young readers with an adult guide. I would think that a child as young as seven or eight could understand what is presented in this book.

No child should have to make sense of these things alone, but with the right book and a caring adult we can address the past with an eye to the future; that history may not be repeated, and that those who served might not be forgotten.

Series Review: The Mysterious Benedict Society

The longer nights of autumn provide a cozy opportunity to begin a page-turning book series, and I have eagerly devoured this one: The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart.

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Following orphan Reynard Muldoon, the series brings together four children of exceptional abilities who share one other feature: they are all alone. They all answer an advertisement that promises adventure to children with certain unique qualities; and upon passing a very peculiar examination they meet Mr. Benedict and learn of his efforts to uncover and resist an unknown evil. The children accept their mission, without knowing fully what will be expected of them, or whether they can even trust this strange benefactor. They soon discover that the threat to their world is indeed very real, and they will have to work together quickly to find a way to stop it.

As Reynie hesitatingly forms relationships with Kate, Constance, and Sticky, he realizes that each of them will have to face their fears and, to some extent, overcome their own independent instincts in order to face a common foe. They must rely not only on their skills, but on each other. Trust does not come easily to the foursome, but it grows alongside a mutual respect as they work to solve a mystery that bears enormous consequences for the world in which, previously, they had no real home.

What makes these stories so fascinating is that it does not take place in a magical world; the children’s abilities are not supernatural, but powers of critical thinking and longing for truth. The protagonists are a bit like juvenile Sherlocks, reasoning their way through a tangle of problems. The author builds on an impressive range of facts to help his subjects along, and in so doing creates a place where both knowledge and deduction are celebrated. The writing itself is intelligent, with a thrilling vocabulary and appreciation for the most minute detail.

These stories certainly make it cool to be the smart kid, but they don’t deny a young person’s corresponding emotional or personal development. Reynie is a deeply thoughtful child who is keenly considerate of what others might be thinking or feeling. When he faces the temptation to do what seems most expedient for his own security, his innate loyalty ultimately puts the welfare of others first. As the children learn to get along, they all learn that it takes patience, kindness, and some sacrifice to care for another person. The author traces these developments with a deft sensitivity that is not the least bit cloying.

The exceptional plot is full of risk, riddles, and suspense; and I dare not give it away. Suffice it to say that you will be guessing until the last page. The antagonist proves to be quite diabolical, and at times the play between the themes of abandonment and trust is truly nerve-wracking. Yet the discomfort is warranted as the reader subconsciously begins to address these questions of human longing and achievement in her own mind. The end is wholly satisfying as each of the children, having played their own unique part, finds a place of genuine belonging.

Also striking in this series is the way the young operatives are treated by the mysterious Mr. Benedict and his bizarre staff; the children are seen very much as fully formed individuals, and accorded the respect of equals. Such a partnership is unusual in books for this age group, which tend to develop tension between youth and adults.

The friendships established in the first book endure adventures that will interest children from the age of eight or nine on up through the teen years, but I would particularly commend the whole series to children of a mature and sensitive nature. They will find encouragement to press through their fears and realize their potential as vital members of society. The series would make an excellent gift for a child who struggles to find their place, or needs reassurance that they have one.

Happy reading, Families.

If you liked this series you might also enjoy: The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall

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Review: The Tale of Despereaux

If your child reads just one book this summer, let it be this one. Let it be The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo.

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This tale of an unlikely hero’s quest is told in the style of a classic adventure story. It takes place in a castle, as all good adventures should. The hero is a very young, very small mouse named Despereaux, who is emboldened by true love to step beyond his world and is banished for it. No one expects him to return from the dungeon; but he does, and with the sole purpose of descending back into the darkness to rescue his beloved, the Princess.

Of course, the little mouse is not alone in his quest. He is both helped and hindered by those around him, and we soon realize how deeply each person’s reactions and decisions affect others. But hope, just like hurt, can come from unexpected sources, and appearances can be deceiving. Despereaux himself must learn to be brave; he must learn to become the hero.

Little Despereaux faces rejection from his family, expulsion from his home, separation from the one he loves, and the wiles of a particularly vengeful rat. The rat too has a story; as does the serving girl and the jailer and the king. They all fit together, whether they like it or not. Along the way they all learn something about dealing with loss, longing to be loved, and the comfort afforded by something as simple as a bowl of good soup.

This is no foolish parody, but rather quite a serious study of human nature; about how it can be hurt and how it can choose to respond, about why it desires music and light and beauty and why those things are worth seeking. It explores notions of justice and chivalry that have fascinated humans for centuries. Above all, this story is about love. Not the fleeting sensation of affection, but the love that is willing to forgive and to sacrifice; the love that is willing to serve.

Ideal for readers age 8 and up, Despereaux would also make a splendid family read-aloud for children much younger. With enriching language and a timeless storytelling feel, the very short chapters are easy to fall into and rather addictive. The plot does feature themes of parental abuse, abandonment, and death that are distressing; but the feelings evoked are thoughtfully discussed in close company with the narrator, who constantly urges the reader to think critically about what is happening. The thoughts and feelings of different characters – with names like Miggery Sow and Chiaroscuro – are treated with reality and empathy throughout.

Please, please read this story with the children in your life. Despereaux is the hero we all need – the hero we can all become.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: The Reluctant Dragon by Kenneth Grahame

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