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.

IMG_6458.JPG

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.

Advertisements

Review: Ox-Cart Man

“In October he backed his ox into his cart and he and his family filled it up with everything they made or grew all year long that was left over.”

With these words begins the classic Ox-Cart Man, written by Donald Hall and illustrated by Barbara Cooney. This Caldecott Medal winner is a treasure of spare American storytelling, and a tribute to the canny resourcefulness of settlers who eked out a living in the wilderness prior to the Industrial Revolution.

IMG_6378.JPG

The story is short and simple: an early nineteenth-century farmer loads up his cart with the harvest and makes his annual trek to the market in a New England port town. The contents of his cart represent months of work for his family: broomsticks carved the previous winter, mittens knit from wool that had been shorn from the sheep in spring, produce that had grown through the summer and finally ripened for winter eating. He walks for ten days, sells all his goods, and then as the autumn wanes he walks back home to his waiting family with a few strikingly simple treats from town. Immediately the family settles back in to producing all that they need – and more – in another year on their isolated farm.

With geese flapping and maple syrup boiling, this picturesque representation of pioneering sustainability is enough to please any small reader, but it also reaches much deeper. Cooney’s colorful early-American paintings depict a family working in cooperation with the turning seasons, harvesting what they need as it becomes available from the earth and the animals. Each person contributes in this diversified rural setting, and their requirements from town are remarkably few (“an embroidery needle that came from a boat in the harbor that had sailed all the way from England.”).

Although the Man and his family are given no names, we begin to share a certain intimacy with them as they gather in the bounty of the year and settle in for winter. Working with placid expressions, they exude a contentment that is perhaps a trifle nostalgic, but also very desirable. The Man – who splits his own shingles and stitches his own harness – has a kindly temperament; when he finally sells his ox he first kisses him on the nose.

This rhythmic story makes a valuable imprint on a young child’s mind. It grants not only an insight into how people lived for generations, but also an appreciation for the skills they learned to survive. The necessity of their hard labors is softened by their triumph in meeting all their own needs, and ultimately living a good and quiet life.

From toddlers interested in farm animals to middle-grade students with a budding love of history, this book is a peaceful read-aloud with children. With sweet stylized pictures and lyrical text, it is a finely-textured praise of traditional skills, self-reliance, and an unbreakable family bond.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: Yonder by Tony Johnston and illustrated by Lloyd Bloom (Sadly, this book is long out of print, but well worth finding used or in a library.)

IMG_6379.JPG

If you enjoy these reviews, please sign up to receive new posts via email.

Review: Book Girl, by Sarah Clarkson

Today I have a special find for my female bibliophile friends… and ladies, this book is especially for you. Yes, it will ultimately benefit the children in your life, but this one is a treasure for you. I am thrilled to share with you Book Girl by writer, speaker, and blogger Sarah Clarkson.

IMG_6139

This book is a celebration of the sisterhood enjoyed by women who love to read. Encouragingly written from a Christian perspective, it discusses the intelligent empathy that women develop when they are thoughtful lifelong readers, and the values they impart by sharing good books with one another. For by reading we not only encounter our own thoughts and feelings, but we engage with people, places, and ideas far beyond our own imagining. We are shaped by what we read; so we ought to read what is good and true and beautiful.

Inspired by her mother’s example and the recent birth of her own daughter, Clarkson’s enthusiasm for quality reading is contagious. She offers advice for “book girls” of all stages, including suggestions for how to make reading time a pleasant priority. As she acknowledges, some of us were born reading and haven’t stopped; many have been distracted by life and don’t read as much as we would like; others have never developed the habit but wonder what people love about all those printed pages. Wherever you fall – and whatever your age – this book is for you.

The author makes a compelling case for not only why women should read, but what we should read: books that form as a whole person and nourish us through the seasons of life. Above all, books that prepare us to become the heroine in our own story, embracing and giving all that is good to the world.

To that end, Clarkson has here shared with readers many of her favorite and most formative reading recommendations. Her collection is finer than gold. She painstakingly arranges fiction, biographies, spiritual classics and more into more than twenty book lists. With uplifting accounts of how each theme supports the overall balance of the reading life, she goes on to offer a short review of each title. The scope is breathtaking and includes everything from Wendell Berry to P.G. Wodehouse. Other favorites include C.S. Lewis, Charlotte Brontë, Madeleine L’Engle, Lucy Maud Montgomery, and dozens more for children and adults.

The book could easily be savored in its entirety or in useful tidbits, but it is not one to lay aside after one reading. It is made to be revisited frequently over many years, as a wholesome source of inspiration. (I am quite serious about “many years”; there is enough here to keep the most serious bluestocking busy for a long time.)

Most of my reviews are for children’s books, but this one is an investment in all of us. It is by being readers that we teach our children to become readers, and share with them the exquisite graces of the reading life. Book Girl is all of that and more, for it nudges us to fill our hearts and heads with the very best – and then to share it with the world.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: Caught Up In A Story: Fostering a Storyformed Life of Great Books & Imagination with Your Children, also by Sarah Clarkson

IMG_6140.JPG

Welcome to The Family Bookshelf! Please sign up below to receive reviews of quality children’s literature via email.