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.

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Review: Brother Sun, Sister Moon

With the autumn equinox just behind us, the harvest moon above us, and the commemoration of Saint Francis before us, this seems like a good moment to pause and give thanks with our children. The gorgeous Brother Sun, Sister Moon by Katherine Paterson and Pamela Dalton will fill that pause well.

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The text of this book is a “reimagining” of The Canticle of the Sun by Saint Francis of Assisi himself. He wrote this classic song of praise in his native tongue not long before his death. This abridged English translation reads beautifully and conveys the essence of the original, which is provided in full at the back of the book along with notes from the author and illustrator.

Paterson has gently shortened this prayer of thanksgiving addressed to “God, the Lord of Heaven and Earth”. She preserves the saint’s tributes to sun, moon, wind, air, water, fire, earth, peacemakers, and death. Each theme is wondrously illustrated with Dalton’s painted papercuts, taking great care to help a young reader understand just how much humanity depends on these good gifts.

For example, the scene depicting water is richly detailed with an old millwheel and pond. We see families not only drawing drinking water, but also using water power to grind their grain for bread (which is baked in the next pages, depicting fire); fruit-bearing trees spring up from the waters’ edge, where birds and children catch fish and animals come to drink. The words read:

We praise you for Sister Water, who fills the seas and rushes down the rivers – who wells up from the earth and falls down from heaven – who gives herself that all living things may grow and be nourished.

By pairing such thoughtful illustrations with these reflective words, a child is prompted to consider how much we depend on nature’s bounty, and Who has given it. Simply and naturally, Francis’ prayer will become their own.

With nostalgic images of beehives and oxen, flowers and birds, and simple families working and playing and caring for each other, this book gratefully acknowledges God’s affectionate providence. Even Death is treated kindly, as the one who “will usher us at last into your loving presence, where we will know and love you as you have always known and loved us.” The accompanying children are shown respectfully burying a chipmunk, in a poignant vignette that kindles peace rather than fear.

This adaptation is altogether lovely, without being the least bit foolish or sentimental. For children who need a gentle reminder about the importance of prayer, kindness, unselfishness, and a genuine respect for natural resources, this book would make an encouraging gift. For adults who need the same thing, I feel certain they will find it equally uplifting.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: All Things Bright and Beautiful by Cecil Frances Alexander and Bruce Whatley

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Series Review: Pleasant Valley Farm

The beautiful month of May is here, and it seems only right that we should find a nice spot to enjoy it. Allow me to suggest a literary visit to Pleasant Valley Farm with Helga Moser and Nadia (Brover) Gura.

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The Pleasant Valley Farm series is a collection of four (so far) stories that follow the animals who live on the farm. Each volume features a different main character, with other favorites forming a lovable supporting cast. We meet Danny the Workhorse, Snoopy the Sheep, Chester the Rooster, and Shadow the Barn Cat; all under the gentle and joyful care of Farmer Don and Missus Dora. The animals are described and illustrated in charming detail as they learn the lessons that help them to take their places in the busy life of the farm.

On the title page of each book is a short Bible verse and a note to parents about the theme presented in that story. This provides a helpful and formative resource, but the stories stand on their own. They are beautifully written, and skillfully convey their lessons about hard work, contentment, humility, and diligence in a way that is realistic and engaging. Didactic stories are not popular just now, but this series does it right. The animals learn much as our children will; they make mistakes, but with patient care in a nurturing environment they develop into members of a community where integrity and mutual respect brings productivity and peace.

For children familiar with farming, these books are a heartfelt tribute to their way of life. For children who have never seen a farm, they are a detailed glimpse of the green and quiet places where their food is raised, and the relationships that thrive no matter where you live. (And lest anyone think these books excessively nostalgic, I know quite a few families who grow much of their own food or choose to farm with horses; what is depicted here may be rare but it is authentic.) Each story grows at a rhythmic pace amid lush illustrations, with lots of fun tidbits about the farm and the animals. Delightful to read aloud with toddlers; independent readers will also be seeking these out to read on their own. I only hope Dolly the Milk Cow gets her own book soon.

If you liked this series you might also enjoy: Cynthia Coppersmith’s Violet Comes to Stay and Violet Goes to the Country, written by Melanie Cecka and illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully

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Please note: these two books, based on the work of a fictional character from Jan Karon’s bestselling Mitford series, are unfortunately out of print. However if you can find a used copy for sale or at the library, they are well worth picking up.