Finding good books about the First World War was a bit of a challenge. Our local library didn’t have anything on the shelf at all. I had to go online and request some titles from other libraries in our network. I thought I’d share the list of our favorites in case someone else is also looking.
Fly, Cher Ami, Fly!: The Pigeon Who Saved the Lost Battalion by Robert Burleigh, illustrated by Robert MacKenzie
A book about a carrier pigeon named Cher Ami who delivers a message that saves some American soldiers, the Lost Battalion, trapped behind enemy lines. It’s a fairly simple picture book with lovely pictures and not very much text and what there is has a rather poetic feel. There’s a historical endnote that gives more details. It especially appeals to five year old Anthony. All the kids like it, though, because of the carrier pigeons they’d already come to like in the Swallows and Amazons book, Pigeon Post. Highlights the American involvement in the war, the use of carrier pigeons, and dramatizes the action well.
War Game: Village Green to No-Man’s-Land written and illustrated by Michael Foreman
Follows a group of young men from Suffolk, England going to the war. Begins with a soccer game with neighboring villagers. Then they enlist at the town hall, sure the war will be over by Christmas. Go to training, get their uniforms, take ship for France, land in France greeted with flowers and song and then make their way to the front. Details about life in the trenches. And then of course the famous Christmas Day truce with carols and soccer game. The book ends suggesting the death of the group after an attempt to cross No Man’s Land.
I liked the point of view of this story: focusing on the experiences of the small group of soldiers, though there are some background information to set the scene and reproductions of recruitment posters which give some context and a feeling for why they join up.
The end is poignant and quite touching. Of course the book does not shy away from death, but it is as gentle about it as a story about war can be: mention of dead bodies stuck in the No Man’s Land between the trenches, of wounded and dead men being carried away for burial, etc.
This is based on a true story and dedicated to the author’s uncles who died in the Great War.
A Bear in War by Stephanie Innes and Harry Endrulat illustrated by Brian Deines.
The true story of a Canadian girl who sends her teddy bear to her father fighting in France. It’s a sad story. The father dies in battle, the bear is found and sent back to the family. The bear is now in a museum in Ontario. The illustrations are lovely, warm and soft but the book also includes photos of the family and of memorabilia like the kids’ report cards, the father’s medals, and a recruiting poster. Recounted by his great-grandaughter, which as I’m looking at these books seems to be a common theme. The people most interested in telling the stories of the war are those whose relatives fought in it.
In Flanders Fields: The Story of the Poem by John McCrae by Linda Greenfield illustrated by Janet Wilson.
A picture book about the WWI poem, lots of detail about the author and his work as an army doctor, about life in the trenches, some about the battles, McCrae’s death of pneumonia and meningitis after a horrifically exhausting amount of work, and quite a bit about the effect the poem had on the war effort and war memorials after the armistice. Beautiful paintings to illustrate the poem, are interspersed with lovely primary source pictures to illustrate the historical background sections (13 full pages of text made for a fairly long chunk of reading, but it was all very interesting and never dragged). A definite winner of a book. Highlights the poem as propaganda, the Canadian involvement in the war, the work of doctors in saving lives and the stress war had on the mental health of those involved.
Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear by Lindsay Mattick, illustrated by Sophie Blackall
Finding this book was serendipity. Bella spotted it on a display at the library and picked it up thinking the other kids would like it. She was very pleased when she got it home and realized it was a WWI book. But this book is more than just a WWI book, for all lovers of A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh this book is a delightful feast. I knew the story that Christopher Robin had befriended a bear named Winnie at the London zoo and gave that bear’s name to his stuffed bear. But this book, told by the great-granddaughter of that Canadian soldier, Harry Colebourn, who brought the bear to England, recounts the story of Winnie in a delightful way. It begins with an echo of the very first Pooh story:
“Could you tell me a story?” asked Cole.
“It’s awfully late.” It was long past dark and time to be asleep.
“What kind of story?”
“You know. A true story. One about a Bear.”
We cuddled up close.
“I’ll do my best,” I said.
There are several moments in the book where the language echoes Milne’s, it’s a lovely homage to one of my favorite children’s authors. Cole interrupts the story to ask what a word means, to complain about a detail he doesn’t like, etc. The little snippets of dialogue between Cole and his mother are perfect. The art is beautiful too. I love the little nods to Milne’s world: the boy’s bedroom looks rather like a forest and there’s a stuffed owl on the shelf. The final pages of the book are a photo album that includes pictures of Harry Cloebourn and Winnie the bear and of Christopher Robin Milne with the bear, and of the author and her son.
Sometimes the best stories are true. This one certainly is a delight for this Pooh lover who stumbled upon it without having any idea what to expect. And curiously it reminds me quite a bit of A Bear in War, the other story of a Canadian soldier and a stuffed bear. The two books would make a very nice pairing indeed.
Books for older readers
Silent in an Evil Time: the Brave War of Edith Cavell by Jack Batten
This is a book for older kids. Bella is reading it, but I wouldn’t give it to the younger ones. But for her it’s a really good match. The biography of a brave nurse who risked her life to save hundreds of British soldiers trapped behind enemy lines in German-occupied Brussels. Edith Cavell was captured and executed by the Germans and her death outraged the world. I wouldn’t hand this book to a sensitive child without some preparation because of the manner of her death, but Bella who does tend to be sensitive handled it fine.
I picked this book up because I climbed up Mount Edith Cavell in Canada and was curious when the name popped up in my library search. The text is well-written and the photos illustrate it nicely.
Part of the Dear America series, which Bella loves. She told me a bit about it as she read, but I did not read it. The series consists of fictionalized diaries for just about every period of American history. If these had been around when I was her age I might have liked history a lot more. It’s hard to find WWI books, and I’m so glad that this series exists to give Bella a window into this period. Having a good story helps her sink down roots into a historical era and to begin making connections.