Review: The Wall

Memorial Day is just around the corner, and with it comes an opportunity to discuss the reason for this holiday with youngsters. An insightful story can aid these challenging conversations, and The Wall – written by Eve Bunting and illustrated by Ronald Himler – is one of the best for this purpose.

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A little boy visits the iconic Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. with his father. They walk the length of that shiny black wall, looking for a very special name. As they go along, searching together, the boy observes other visitors and the memorials they’ve left behind: a wounded veteran, a grieving couple, flags and flowers, notes and pictures. He runs his hand along that wall, noticing how it looks and how it feels.

At last they find it. They run their fingers over the name of their father and grandfather. They take a rubbing, leave a photograph, and talk together in voices thick with emotion. The boy expresses his sadness to his father, who responds with loving sympathy towards his son but also pride in the legacy of his father. The two visitors are proud of this soldier, proud of his service; though they know that such pride can never take the place of the life he might have lived with them.

This book has been around for almost thirty years, but it is just as beautiful today as when it was featured on the old Reading Rainbow program. The boy makes all the observations of a curious child trying to make sense of big issues and jumbled feelings. With the empathetic support of his father – who is mourning his own father – he faces his sense of loss. These understanding exchanges are particularly poignant as the boy admits that he is proud of his grandfather, but would rather he could be with them.

Not only is this a gentle treatment of a difficult subject, it also provides children with a point of reference for respecting the agony and the sacrifice of others. They can see that there is no time limit on the pain of missing someone, but that it is good to talk about it and that there are appropriate ways to honor someone’s memory. And that we all owe a debt of gratitude to service members who perish in the line of duty; that we need not glorify the horrors of war to honor the sacrifice they made.

I find one image particularly helpful for children: as the boy and his father bow their heads before their loved one’s place on the Wall, a gaggle of schoolchildren pass by. Their loud and thoughtless questions contrast sharply with the quiet, more private behavior of the other visitors. The boy follows his father’s example and continues to stand with his head bowed until they are gone. A young reader will easily recognize that many things are turning over in the boy’s heart and mind, and that he needs time alone to be as close to his grandfather as he ever will be. This is very useful for helping children understand the importance of quiet and respectful conduct at any place of remembrance.

The wonderfully accomplished Eve Bunting has given teachers and caregivers an optimum means of presenting young children with reverent awareness of our fallen soldiers and empathy for their families. She does not attempt to convey the political motivations of any war, nor does she stoop to empty patriotism or saccharine emotions. But in the simplest way she does explore the complexities of love and loss, pride and sacrifice. She reminds us that society has given us respectful traditions for honoring the slain, if we will but claim them.

Himler’s soft, smudgy illustrations are a perfect match for the slim, meaningful text. He depicts a cold, overcast day as a backdrop for the enormity of the Wall and the perfect rows of names. The features of the people are slightly obscured within the paint, allowing them some privacy in their grief. This creative team opens up a new space in the heart of the little boy in the story, and will do so for your own children too.

Please don’t be afraid to talk with your children about Memorial Day. Let them take some flowers to the monument downtown, or wave a flag at the parade. After reading this story I hope they will want to.

It is up to us to teach them what has been, so they can grow to determine what will be.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: Tucky Jo and Little Heart, written and illustrated by Patricia Polacco

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Review: A World Full of Animal Stories

Usually I like to review a series at the beginning of each month, but this time I want to share a collection of stories all in one bright volume. Since Christmas my children and I have enjoyed delving into A World Full of Animal Stories: 50 Folktales and Legends written by Angela McAllister and illustrated by Aitch.

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I love folk stories; they show us how to respect what is different and celebrate what is the same about other peoples and places. This book is like a treasure chest. The tales are organized according to their continent of origin (Africa, Asia, North America, South America, Europe, Australia and Oceania) and then each is identified more specifically by the modern country or tribe from which it came (Ghana, Brazil, Lakota, et cetera). The range of donor nations could always be broader, and I would like to have seen a fuller representation from South America, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East; but there is a good mix of cultures included that will certainly encourage young readers to stretch their minds around the globe.

The stories are told in the traditional spirit; most are witty moral fables or cautionary tales that encourage cleverness and punish pride. In most of the tales the animals can talk; in some they interact with humans and in others they deal only with each other. There is an emotive blend of humor and tragedy, wit and foolishness, lessons learned and opportunities lost. The result is a story for every mood and a universal reflection of this life we all live.

Each story is tightly packed on one to three pages, and can generally be read within ten minutes. They are well-written and expressive, paced to build the climax without giving the story away. Along with “The Ugly Duckling” and one or two other tales that are well known in the United States, children meet the fabled West African trickster Ananse, a Bear Prince and a horse named Dapplegrim. With titles like “Why the Warthog is Ugly” and “The Owl of Cowlyd Coomb” it is undeniably hard to stop at just one.

If I have a complaint about this book, it concerns the ratio of pictures to text. The illustrations vary pleasingly in size and scale, and portray the stories with brilliance; I would only like to see more of them, and I suspect that little folks would also enjoy more images to enliven the words they’re hearing. But this does not detract from the stories or imply that they are boring; it’s simply that I could never get enough of these gorgeous pictures.

This treasury would make a thoughtful gift, as it can easily provide hours of quality reading for everyone: from toddlers first learning their animals to middle schoolers beginning to appreciate just how big the world is. I am also looking forward to finding a copy of McAllister’s other book: A Year Full of Stories: 52 Folk Tales and Legends from Around the World. This volume is illustrated by Christopher Corr, and appears to be just as tantalizingly vibrant as the animal stories.

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Happy reading!

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: National Geographic Kids Stories: HeartwarmingTrue Tales from the Animal Kingdom, written by Jane Yolen and her children, and illustrated by Jui Ishida

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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.