One of the best ways to introduce children to the realities of war is through picture books that present personal experiences. Two Pennies: Australian Children Rebuild a French School after World War I (Boolarong Press, $19.99), by Vicki Bennett and John Flitcroft, relates the story of George McGregor, who as a child helped to raise money for the rebuilding of a school in the French town of Villers-Bretonneux.
Vicki Bennett is George's daughter, and she enthusiastically retells her father's story, beginning when George's father returns from fighting in the war to her own visit to Villers-Bretonneux to present two of her father's pennies to the school he and other Australian children helped to build. John Flitcroft uses a 1950s palette and style for his well-researched illustrations. However, he is faced with the challenging task of presenting the same character at various ages, from a young boy to an old man, and some illustrations are more successful than others. While Two Pennies is sometimes lacking in editorial and design input, it is an engaging tale of one person's contribution to repairing the damage that war creates.
Neil Doherty has also created a picture book based on a family story in From Gallipoli with Love: A Letter from the Trenches (Booolarong Press, $19.15). Apart from a short introduction, the text of this book reproduces a letter from Doherty's great-uncle, Michael Levine (Lobwein), to his grandmother, Mick's sister. There is something very touching about reading a letter from a young man who died just three days after penning these words. And there is an authenticity of phrasing, historical attitudes and details that would be difficult for an author to recreate in a fictionalised retelling.
The insights of Mick's life in the trenches are both telling and moving, and it is the little details that resonate most: a man being hit by shrapnel, but saved from harm by the Rising Sun badge on his collar; soldiers not having time to wash or even take off their boots in their first 10 days at Gallipoli; men sleeping standing up in the trenches; and rifles getting so hot from the constant firing that the woodwork catches fire.
From Gallipoli with Love has a stronger and more varied graphic presentation than Two Pennies, with Doherty using a range of framing and other devices to provide visual interest. His paintings feature an understated palette of greys and browns, and they effectively capture the experiences of Private Levine. This is Mick's last letter home and, to add to the poignancy, a facsimile is provided in a sealed envelope on the inside of the book's back cover. War is not glorified in this book. It is simply one man's account of the realities of fighting in the trenches, written to his sister, so very far away. And therein lies its strength.
In Anzac Ted (EK Books, $19.99), Belinda Landsberry also draws on personal family experiences to tell the story of World War I from the perspective of a small boy and his rather dilapidated teddy bear. The first half of this story is presented in bright watercolours and shows the young boy interacting with his battered but much-loved toy. Anzac Ted definitely looks like he has been in the wars. He is missing an eye and an ear, and his fur is patchy. When the boy who owns him takes Anzac Ted to school for show and tell, he makes some of the other children cry, and he never gets any votes in the toy show competition.
The second half of the book tells the bear's story, taking the reader back to August 1914 and the boy's grandfather as he heads off to war, leaving his young family behind. His wife has packed his bear in his suitcase, and it becomes the soldier's mascot. Presented in sepia colours and based on well-known photographs from the time, the illustrations in the second half of the book are more effective and affecting than those in the first half.
While at times the rhyming text is a little awkward and forced, and perhaps prose would have been more appropriate for the subject matter, overall this is another fitting tribute to one family's experience of war and to the war stories and memorabilia that are handed down from generation to generation.
Lest We Forget (ABC Books, $24.99) by Kerry Brown uses a similar construct, contrasting the life experiences of a small boy in the here and now with those of his granddad during World War I. These include: starting school and joining up; making friends at school and the mateship in a battle zone; celebrating the birth of a new sister and receiving a photo of the baby that has been born while you are far away; and dealing with difficult situations, including the death of a loved one.
While some of the comparisons draw a rather long bow, it is an effective way to communicate sometimes difficult and complex concepts to children in a way that they can hopefully empathise with. Brown's simple text explores the concept of how we all have days that we want to forget and days that we want to remember, however young or old we are, but that it is particularly important to remember significant days that are important to the nation, such as Anzac Day and Remembrance Day.
An unusual illustrative approach has been taken with this book, with the memories of the small boy and his granddad each presented by different illustrators. Isobel Knowles creates the boy's story in soft-focus, gentle vignettes presented on white pages that contain the book's text. Interleaved with her illustrations is the grandfather's story, presented visually in Benjamin Portas' framed, naïve illustrations on wordless double-page spreads. This effectively intensifies the contrast between their experiences. The final image brings the two styles together, as the child and the old man march on Anzac Day.
The linking of similar intergenerational experiences is an interesting one, aimed at giving young children some understanding of what soldiers went through. This is an engaging way to introduce children to the trials and tribulations of war at a level that they can understand.
Digger: The Dog Who Went to War (Lothian, $14.99), by award-winning author and artist Mark Wilson, is another picture book based on a true story. It tells the tale of a puppy that is smuggled onto an Australian troop ship during World War I and taken onto the battlefields of Belgium and France.
When Matthew is sent off to war, he smuggles his dog, Digger, on board in his pack. Together, they go through training and then experience the horrors of war, as Matthew serves as a stretcher-bearer, recovering the wounded from the battlefields, often accompanied by his canine companion. Wilson tells their story through both third person narrative and in Matthew's own voice through letters home to his sister, Anna. Wilson's carefully crafted text sensitively explores the enduring relationship between man and dog under duress. At one point, Matthew provides Digger with a customised gasmask, and it is a gasmask that is at the heart of the sad and moving climax to this emotive tale.
Wilson's stunning images reference many wartime photographs, as he varies his presentation, framing and compositional elements for maximum visual impact, moving from lavish double-page landscapes painted in oils, to loose-lined sketches, heart-warming intimate portraits and monochromatic montages. This is a visually interesting, well-told and moving account of the realities of war, obviously aimed at an older audience. As in each of these books inspired by personal accounts of wartime experiences, Digger focuses on how people retain their humanity despite the often dehumanising effects of war.
* Dr Stephanie Owen Reeder is a Canberra author, illustrator, editor and reviewer. Her latest book is Lennie the Legend: Solo to Sydney by Pony (NLA Publishing).