by Sara Cassidy
Source: Island Parent Magazine
Originally Published: February 2017
Several books have arrived over the transom that are especially gorgeous. (“Over the transom” originally referred to unsolicited manuscripts arriving at a publisher’s office, tossed over the door, through the window atop the transom bar.)
Two of the books were published this year by Canada’s Tundra Books to honour the centenary of the Great War (1914-1918). The first, John Wilson’s A Soldier’s Sketchbook, goes above and beyond in physical appeal and readability. Subtitled The Illustrated First World War Diary of R.H. Rabjohn, the book is the true, richly illustrated diary of a hopeful, 18-year-old Toronto artist who joined the army in 1916, and would return home in 1919, “battle-hardened,” as Wilson puts it.
The book comes complete with Rabjohn’s misspellings—he would have dropped out of school at 14, as children were allowed to do in those day—and is an assiduous, informative record of war life, from light-hearted training in Toronto to horror-filled months in the muddy dugouts of Passchendale. Every page is filled with Rabjohn’s excellent pencil sketches; for the army, he would illustrate educational posters and even paint the crosses for soldiers’ graves (he then drew pictures of the crosses to send to the soldiers’ families back home). Indeed, on the front lines, his diary becomes at times a catalogue of the deaths of his friends, as Wilson notes, yet Rabjohn retains youth’s buoyancy. Consider this entry (the square brackets are Wilson’s, and “Frizs” is Rabjohn’s misspelling for Fritz, the Germans):
“Frizs start[ed] to shell again, keeping it up all night and us in a small dugout [with a] tin roof. One shrapnel ball came through, just missing my head by half a foot [fifteen centimetres], knocking dirt all over my face, and the ball fell on my pillow…Simmons and Watson were killed in their dugout, both being cut off at the hips. Killed instantly.”
Only a few weeks later, Rabjohn, on leave, writes, dazzled, of visits to the Eiffel Tower and the “magnificent” palace of Versailles.
Four years ago, after Wilson gave a talk about the war to a Grade three class in Ontario, the teacher, Melissa Rabjohn, showed Wilson her ancestor’s diary. On seeing the war artist’s copious detailed illustrations, “a chill shot down my spine,” Wilson explains. There is much here for a child of 10 years old and up, with an interest in history, war, art or memoir, to take in.
A perfect companion to A Soldier’s Sketchbook is Sigmund Brouwer’s Innocent Heroes (Tundra, 2017), about the heroic animals of World War 1—the 100,000 pigeons that ducked bullets to deliver life-saving messages, the half a million cats the British Army deployed in the trenches to dispatch rats (one cat got 23 in one night), the quarter million calm, intelligent mules that lugged and carried through thick mud, the dogs and horses.
The book’s grace comes from its use of narrative. Rather than deliver the facts, Brouwer creates a fictitious platoon of soldiers to tell the stories of individual animals. One soldier, for instance, is tasked with caring for Little Abigail, the pigeon that flew over enemy lines with a message that the platoon was trapped. Despite being shot three times, the pigeon made it and saved dozens of men. The stories are true, though the characters and their conversations imagined. It’s the outer reaches of creative non-fiction, but it works. Each chapter is followed by well-written background information. This is a terrific book for kids nine and up interested in animals and in history.
Colorado writer Avi (Crispin: The Cross of Lead, Poppy’s Return) is one of my favourite children’s writers. His work is consistently intelligent and crafted, and his range—genre, age of audience—is astounding. In The Most Important Thing (Candlewick Press, 2016), he puts his pen to an under-represented form for kids: the short story. Subtitled Stories about Sons, Fathers and Grandfathers, the collection does not prettify or duck the tougher questions about boys and the men meant to guide them. These are stories about tough and even unresolveable relationships; they are humanely detailed—Avi’s work, thankfully, will never be labelled “gritty.” The boys in these stories live with disappointment, embarrassment, and hope, and develop agency as they deal with the imperfect men in their lives.
The story “Going Home” rises to allegory. A young boy refuses to believe that his father only wants to see him once a week and decides to move in with him permanently, essentially running away from his mother’s house. He arrives to a home re-decorated, with all of his books and toys removed from his room. His father has remarried in a whirlwind affair, telling no one. He also never told his new wife about his son. It’s unbelievable, yes, and yet on a metaphorical level, the story carries the painful truth of some children’s lives.
The collection’s last story, “Tighty-Whities or Boxers,” is light, funny, and moving. Three years after his father dies, Ryan’s mother announces she would like to remarry. She is eager for him to meet her fiancé. Ryan decides the man must apply for the position of father, a process that includes two letters of reference and an interview. In the interview, as well as asking which kind of underwear the suitor prefers, Ryan asks, “What’s the most important thing you can do for your son?” The answer: “The first thing is to love him. Second thing is, convince him that you do love him.” Cue the tears.
Spot 12: The Story of a Birth (Raincloud, 2015) was delivered to me by hand by its author, Victoria writer and artist Jenny Jaeckel. It is an unlikely title for Book Nook, first of all because it is a title for adults. The graphic memoir (by graphic, I mean it is presented as a comic) is also unlikely because it manages, on every page, to wring poetry from unimaginable distress. Jaeckel’s daughter Asa was born with tracheoesophogeal fistula (TEF) and esophagal atresia—a malformed esophagus. The baby would spend months in intensive care and require multiple operations, including one immediately after being born. “The second time I saw Asa was before the surgery. I…looked for a place to touch her, this wretched, half-dead-looking tiny stranger who was our baby,” writes Jaeckel.
I sobbed most of the way through this book, but my tears were warm. I cried for Asa, and for her parents, but also for the richness of life—the complex knit of friendship, compassion, intelligence and kindness that arise to counter fear, pain, psychological turmoil, and hopelessness. As much as this is a book about suffering, it is about marriage, the medical system—its highs and lows—realistic love and, of course, parenting. Jaeckel captures it all with ease. This book will appeal to parents who know the otherworldly rooms of intensive care units and their friends, who want to understand what they have been through.
Sara Cassidy’s book for 8 – 12 year olds, A Boy Named Queen, is a 2016 Quill and Quire Book of the Year.
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