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Secret Sparrow

Secret Sparrow

Secret Sparrow

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Secret Sparrow

Jackie French

HarperCollins, 2023

256pp., pbk., RRP $A17.99

9781460760468

September 1978 and Arjun is walking to the local mall when he hears the roar of a flash flood approaching and sees the river become a turbulent mass of brown, white-flecked water with cars bobbing along like plastic bath toys.  Miraculously a motor bike appears and he is urged to climb on, as the rider heads to the only high part of this flat landscape that should never have been built on – a grassy knoll that boasts only a small carpark and a rubbish bin on a pedestal. 

As surprised as he is by the ferocity and the swiftness of the flood, he is even moreso when he discovers his rescuer is an elderly woman! And that she is  a woman with an amazing story to tell as the waters rise and she makes him climb in the rubbish bin and use old newspapers for warmth and has the wisdom to know his thoughts need diverting from both the  current situation and the fate of his mates trapped in the mall.  It is a story of going from growing up in an English village during World War I to being commandeered into serving her country despite being only 16;  to being torpedoed by a German U-boat while crossing the English Channel to living and working in the hell of the trenches of France… all because she learned Morse Code while competing with her older brothers and became so fast and accurate her skills had been noticed.

But this is not just Jean McLain’s story told to keep a young lad calm and distracted – this is the story of at least 3600 women who were used as signallers as she was during World War I who not only signed an oath that they would never divulge their role even decades after the war was over but whose service was never formerly recognised and so they received only their Post Office employee pay while they served and had to pay for their own medical treatment if they were injured, and whose army records were deliberately destroyed by the authorities because of their embarrassment at having to admit that they not only had to rely on women to serve, but the women had excelled. To have to admit that so many had been able to step up and cope in situations that required “physical strength, mechanical knowledge and the courage to work under fire” when such physical and emotional circumstances as war and its inevitable death were seen as “unwomanly”, was an anathema to many men and so not only were individual stories never told, they were lost altogether.

But, using her usual meticulous research, author Jackie French has brought it to light, as once again she winkles out those contributions of women to our history that seldom appear in the versions of history told by men.  So as well as Arjun being so intrigued by Jean McLain’s story as the night passes, dawn appears and she teaches him to use her long-ago skills to summon help, our more mature, independent readers (and their teachers) can also learn something of that which we were never told.  Because, apart from those in the roles like Jean McLain who could be prosecuted for sharing their wartime adventures even with their family, there was an unwritten code of the survivors of all wars that the horrors would not be shared because, apart from being horrific, unless you were there you would never understand.  But now at the age my grandfather was when he died, I have learned a smidgeon of what it must have been like for him on the notorious Somme and can only wonder at how he went on to become who he did.  

It is estimated that World War I claimed the lives of some 16 million people worldwide, 9.5 million of which were military deaths. It is also estimated that around 20 million were wounded, including 8 million left permanently disabled in some way. Of those lives lost, 54 000 were young Australian lads who were so eager to sign up for this grand new ‘adventure’ that they lied about their age and 18 000 young Kiwis who, like my grandfather, believed it was their duty to fight for “King and Country”. But only now, through stories like this and The Great Gallipoli Escape, are we learning the real story and through the questions she has her characters ask and answer are we being encouraged to question things for ourselves, not just about the war but also what we stand for. Often in the story Jean McLain is spurred on by her belief in her need to  “do her duty” and that her actions are saving lives, but then she poses the same situation to Arjun. “What are we worth if we don’t do our duty to each other? What kind of life is it if you don’t love someone or something enough to die for them? What matters to you, eh?’ 

As well as teaching us about the past, French inspires us to think about the future – and that is a gift that only writers if her calibre can give our students. 

  

When The War Came Home

When The War Came Home

When The War Came Home

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When The War Came Home

Lesley Parr

Bloomsbury, 2022

320pp., pbk., RRP $A16.99

9781526621009

Wales, 1920. Twelve-year-old Natty is quite happy living with her mam in their flat, going to the village school with its yummy free lunches, and special fish and chip teas on Fridays just like her dad used to do when he was alive. 

But when her activist mum loses her job for sticking up for the workers’ rights, and they are forced to move in with relatives in a nearby village, things change dramatically.  Firstly, she has to share a room, even a bed, with her cousin Nerys who is very bright and never stops talking.  Then there are the unpredictable Huw who lied about his age to enlist but who has come home a totally different 17 year old suffering from shell-shock, and the mysterious “Johnny”, another young lad who has returned from the Western Front but who has no idea who he is or where he came from.  She also has to attend a school ruled over by a brutal principal who uses his cane freely, particularly on those who are poor and hungry because there are no free dinners at this village school because their provision is the prerogative of the local council.

Even though she is angry at her mother’s desire to right wrongs that are not even her problem because of the impact it has on her own life, Natty is surprised to find herself drawn into a student strike demanding free school lunches so those who don’t have enough to eat can think about their studies rather than their stomachs. Perhaps she is more like her mother than she realises.  But it is her friendship with both Huw and Johnny that has the most profound effect on all their lives, particularly as the message about never giving up is one that comes from all angles.

Once again, Lesley Parr takes the reader back in time to an era of Welsh history, but, as with The Valley of Lost Secrets and  Where the River Takes Us , the issues she addresses will resonate with today’s readers.  For although World War I is over a century ago, many children will know someone who is experiencing PTSD  or the impact of some extraordinary trauma -or it may even be themselves- and so they empathise and perhaps find a little more compassion. And even though women now have the vote and workers have rights, this can serve as a starting point for  an investigation into why such change was inevitable as well as discussions into what remains the same.  Homeless, hunger and abuse are still rife in our society so what is the answer?  Is there an answer?

At the very least, the story shines a light on what happened in so many homes and families around the globe after the guns fell silent.  Sometimes, having your loved one home wasn’t the be-all and end-all – the war came home with them, shaping lives in a way that has impact today.  As Nerys tells Natty,  “The war took him away, Natty. And it gave him back, only not every part of him. And it took away some of the good parts and gave him bad ones instead.”

Lesley Parr has written three books now, and each one has been the most absorbing read – stories of kids of another time and place but whose lives seem so familiar, making them an opportunity to reflect and respect and understand the power of well-crafted, well-rounded characters, a story that seamlessly embraces critical social issues as it flows along, and the joy and satisfaction of being just a little wiser for the experience.  Definitely an author to introduce to those who like meaty, engaging stories. 

Reflection: remembering those who serve in war

Reflection: remembering those who serve in war

Reflection: remembering those who serve in war

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reflection: remembering those who serve in war

Rebecka Sharpe Shelberg

Robin Cowcher

Walker Books, 2019

32pp., pbk., RRP $A16.99

9781760650377

Left! Left! Left! Right! Left! We make our way in the dark.

On the one hand feet make their way to a commemorative service; on the other soldiers’ boots take them to the battlefront. 

As we commemorate ANZAC Day, this book reminds us that Australians have been involved in wars since before we were even officially called Australia and that our presence is known and respected in wartorn countries even today.

Each double-page spread with its simple text and evocative illustrations juxtaposes the people at the commemorative ceremonies with soldiers in conflict throughout our history. From the title page where the family hurries out the door into darkness through to the endpapers with the iconic poppies that we associate with remembrance in this country the reader is taken on a journey through our military history in such a sensitive way. 

As the Dawn Service moves through prayers,  the raising of the flags, the lighting of candles, the placement of wreaths and poppies, silences and the familiar bugle call of The Last Post and Reveille so too we move through time –  The Boer War, World Wars I and II. Korea, Vietnam, Iraq I and II, Bosnia & Herzegovina, East Timor, Afghanistan, Ukraine – whether as combat troops or peacekeepers, Australians have had a role committing hundreds of thousands of men and women, each of whom deserves our respect and gratitude. While each page just has one factual statement of what is happening, the  illustrations bring a depth and dimension that inspire emotion and memories as the two marry together perfectly. From the sprig of rosemary somehow surviving the stomp of boots on the first page to the ghost-like images marching with the people on the last, there is a sense that this is an enduring commitment by military and civilian personnel alike.   One could not stand without the other.   

Thumbnail sketches of each conflict are provided at the end of the book and teachers notes’ are also available for those who want to use this as the first step in a deeper investigation for both History and English. It may even inspire some students to investigate the role that their family has had in the Services and given our multicultural population there may be students who have personal experiences to share that might give a unique insight that can’t be gleaned from picture books, no matter how stunning they are.

Something a little different to share this ANZAC Day, not only to remember the huge contribution that has been made but also to acknowledge those who have served and continue to serve so that those students who have had or still have family in the military forces understand that they are included in the thoughts and prayers.  The services are not just for the sacrifices made long ago on faraway battlefields by generations unknown, but for everyone who has served in the short 120 years of our united history.

We hear the sweet songs of morning. And we remember them.

First published March 24 2018

Updated April 25 2023

 

Australia Remembers

Australia Remembers

Australia Remembers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Australia Remembers

Allison Paterson

Big Sky, 2018

64pp., hbk., RRP $A14.99

9781925675771

As the annual commemoration of ANZAC Day  approaches, and once again our attention turns to remembering Gallipoli, the Western Front and all those who have been part of our armed services in whatever capacity, this book, the first in a series from the author of ANZAC Sons explores the concept of commemoration – what it is, how we do it and why it is so important.

There would be few towns in Australia that do not have a war memorial, one that becomes the focal point for commemorations on April 25 and November 11 each year. But many of our young students do not realise the significance of this place so this book which explains the background of conflict, the history and meaning of ANZAC Day, the significance of the elements of the ceremonies,  and the role of Australia service people in war and peace since they were first called to support the “mother country” in 1914 with simple accessible text, coloured photos, and an appealing layout will be a wonderful addition to your library’s collection.

With a Table of Contents, glossary, index and bibliography it is a wonderful model for those learning about using the cues and clues to find the information they want, but what set this book apart are the frequent quotes about its various topics that have been collected from children who are the age of its target audience, offering their own insights into what these events mean for them. There are also questions to ponder and activities to do, including teachers’ notes so students understand the importance of a ceremony so significant that even in the dark days of the pandemic we stood in our driveways to honour those who have served. 

First published October 23, 2018

Updated April 24, 2023

The Anzac Billy

The ANZAC Billy

The ANZAC Billy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The ANZAC Billy

Claire Saxby

Mark Jackson & Heather Potter

Black Dog Books, 2019

32pp., hbk., RRP $A26.99

9781925126815

At first they said the war would be over by Christmas, but another Christmas is coming and it’s time to fill a billy for Dad who is overseas with the rest of the Australian troops, somewhere in Europe. Into the tin, which is not only airtight and sturdy enough to withstand the sea journey but can also be used by the recipient for cooking, the little boy puts his favourite things – butterscotch, a fish, the last walnuts from the tree, a bar of chocolate and a pair of hand-knitted socks. His mother and grandmother also put in things, more practical than the little boy’s but packed with just as much love. And then it is time to send it on its way – will it reach the little boy’s father or find a home with another soldier?  Whichever, there is a letter and that’s what matters. 

This is a tender family story, one known by so many families in so many places at the time, of waiting for a father, a husband, a son to come home from war safe and well. Meticulously researched and illustrated in great detail in water colours as gentle as the story, it provides yet another glimpse into what life was like a century ago as families came to terms with what it meant to have the men overseas, and the sending of these special hampers was common. 

The centenary of World War I has provided us with a wealth of stories for young readers, each unique and each helping the young reader to understand life in this different and difficult time, bringing history to life in a way that resonates with them. As well as the teachers’ notes available for this book, there is much to explore and compare in this story to life 100 years on and the opportunity to speculate about what might go into a soldier’s billy today. 

An essential  inclusion in your ANZAC collection.

First published April 25 2019

Updated April 23, 2023

The Beach They Called Gallipoli

The BeachThey Called Gallipoli

The Beach They Called Gallipoli

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Beach They Called Gallipoli

Jackie French

Bruce Whatley

HarperCollins, 2018

32pp., pbk., RRP $A15.99

9781460752265

 

On April 23, 1915 on a beach on the Gallipoli Peninsula, seagulls swooped as fish flapped silver in the nets… a peaceful, tranquil scene.

But it was to be the last day of peace for that Turkish beach for a long time for on April 24, 1915 the ships came.  And less than twenty four hours later, blood-stained foamed fringed the grey waves of a grey sea under a grey sky.  For eight, long tragic months the conflict lasted as more ships brought more men and took away the broken bodies of the wounded, while leaving many more who would never leave this beach and its sentinel cliffs.  “A land with few names had new names now: Anzac Cove, Quinn’s Post, Rhododendron Ridge, The Apex, Farm and Lone Pine.”  Names etched into our history along with the courage, the compassion and the comradeship that we associate with them.

On December 21, 1915 the beach was again silent and empty, a tranquil place. Perhaps the seagulls and the fish had not yet returned, but the waves still rolled in onto the shore, just as they had done for months, years, decades, centuries. But months, years, decades, a century on we remember… Lest We Forget

Among the plethora of publications that have been written  to commemorate the centenary of the events of April 25, 1915, this is a standout.  By focusing on the place, the author brings a range of perspectives about the people – the fishermen, the residents,  the many nationalities who fought and those who defended.  The blood that was shed mixes and mingles into a story of a battle with no heroes or winners – just people and the futility of war.

Superbly illustrated by Bruce Whatley with collages of photos, paintings, drawings, diagrams, artefacts, symbols and flags, it is a masterful insight into the campaign – its before, during and after. The sounds and sights and smells are brought to life through the skilful selection and arrangement of the vignettes that emphasise that while the place shaped the events, it is the people who created and encountered them and their consequences.  There is no favouritism – it is written and illustrated as though the landscape is the observer witnessing men from everywhere trying to master it – as though that were ever going to be possible.

While such rich imagery leaves little to the imagination, it inspires the imagination.  This was not the remote-control driven warfare that invades television news bulletins today – this was face-to-face conflict of a type that breeds the legends that have endured for so long.  And all the while, the waves lap on the beach.

Jackie French and Bruce Whatley, as author and illustrator, are a match made in heaven.  This could be one of their most important collaborations yet and I predict it will be high on the awards lists this year.  It is an essential resource in your commemoration collection. Comprehensive teaching notes which include links to a host of significant resources are available. 

Outstanding.

First published November 20, 2014

Updated April2, 2023

And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda

And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda

And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda

Eric Bogle

Bruce Whatley

Allen & Unwin 2015

hbk., 32pp., $A24.99

9781743317051

 

Is there a more haunting tune about World War I than Eric Bogle’s classic And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda

Beginning with

Now when I was a young man, I carried me pack, and I lived the free life of a rover

From the Murray’s green basin to the dusty outback, well I waltzed my Matilda all over

it tells the story of a young man, almost any young man of 1915 in Australia, who took up arms to fight in the war at a time when Australia was trying to meet its quota for Britain and to not fight for King and Country branded you a coward.

They gave me a tin hat and they gave me a gun, and they marched me away to the war.

Throughout the song and the journey, from the ship departing, the slaughter of Gallipoli, the hospital for the wounded and the arrival of “the crippled, the wounded, the maimed…the legless, the armless, the blind, the insane” at Circular Quay there is the poignant refrain of the band playing Waltzing Matilda, the iconic song that many believe should be our national anthem as it connects us in a way like no other. And finally, as an old man, he sits on his porch and watches the parade with his comrades passing before him and he knows that soon, as more old men disappear, “Someday no one will march there at all”. But how proud and amazed would those who came home -and those who didn’t-  be to see that this is not a forgotten war, they are not forgotten heroes and rather than no one marching, each year the crowds at the annual commemorations wherever they are get larger.

However, the most provocative stanza is   

And the old men march slowly, old bones stiff and sore

They’re tired old heroes from a forgotten war

And the young people ask, “What are they marching for?”

And I ask myself the same question.”

Written in 1972 at the height of the protests against the Vietnam War, many were wondering that aloud and as still engulfs parts of the world and threatens Australia’s future, we may well all ask ourselves the same question again.

With superb illustrations by Bruce Whatley that show every emotion of the text –drawn with his left hand because he has discovered he draws “with much more emotion” with that hand –using the restrained palette that one associates with Gallipoli,  this is a book that has to be in your library’s collection as it is a song that should be known by everyone before this year is done.  However, this is so much more than one of Australia’s leading illustrators putting pictures to an iconic tune. There are teachers’ notes  that provide many ideas for exploring the content, its imagery and its images and the full lyrics are available via an internet search

A memorable contribution to the collection of books on this topic. 

First published April 21 2016

Updated April 21 2023 

The Great Gallipoli Escape

The Great Gallipoli Escape

The Great Gallipoli Escape

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Great Gallipoli Escape

Jackie French

HarperCollins, 2023

224pp., hbk., RRP $A19.99

9781460764176

Sixteen-year-old Nipper and his Gallipoli mates Lanky, Spud, Bluey and Wallaby Joe are starving, freezing and ill-equipped. By November 1915 they know that that there is more to winning a war than courage, that the Gallipoli campaign has been lost, and that the reality of war is very different from the pictures and perceptions painted in the posters at home touting war as an adventure, a way out of inevitable unemployment, a ticket to see the world that few in isolated Australia would ever get, and that to fight “for King and country” was as noble as it gets for those with strong ties to England in early 20th century Australia – calls to arms that compelled many like Nipper to lie about their age so they would be allowed to join the army to defend their country.  

As with Last Man Out, this story, based heavily on accounts in primary sources like letters, diaries, oral histories and memories, takes the reader into the disease, deprivation and desperation of life in the trenches that were the origins of “diggers” the nickname for Australian soldiers, and while Nipper and his mates are fictitious, what they experienced was real.  As author Jackie French, renowned for her research and attention to detail when she crafts historical fiction, says, this is “still only one story… there are possibly one hundred thousand stories, all of which might vary in many respects, but still be true.” 

Nipper has played cricket with the Turks in the opposing dugout, dodged rocket fire and rescued desperate and drowning men when the blizzard snow melted. He is one of the few trusted with the secret kept from even most of the officers: how an entire army of 150 000 men, their horses and equipment will vanish from the Peninsula, secretly moved to waiting ships over three impeccably planned nights without a single life lost – but a plan that leaves those still alive with the very mixed feelings of seeing an opportunity for their own salvation while being reluctant to leave behind those who endured so much and gave their lives for something seemingly futile. 

“Will we be remembered for holding the line here, in a campaign that has won nothing and lost so much?” 

And that question is just one of many philosophical discussion points that takes this book beyond an historic narrative. What was and is the legacy of Gallipoli? Why do we still commemorate a failed campaign more than a century later, and why is commemorating it in Gallipoli, itself, such a milestone for so many? 

Apart from the discussion points and activities that relate directly to the book raised in the teaching notes, there are some outstanding opportunities to explore some big-picture questions and really extend students’ thinking such as 

  • How does historical fiction (as opposed to fiction set in the past) enrich and enhance our understanding of life and living during significant events and times?
  • Given that the Turks were defending their families and livelihoods from invasion by the ‘Tommies’ and their allies, were they necessarily the enemy? Were the invaders in the wrong?
  • Are there parallels between the allies invading Turkey and the Russians invading Ukraine?  What are the differences in approach this time? 
  • The lads in the stories could be the older brothers of those reading it so, if Australia were to put “boots on the ground” in Ukraine, as they did in Iraq and Afghanistan, would they be as eager to join up today as Nipper and his mates were? Why?
  • Have attitudes to conflict changed in the past century, and if they have or haven’t, why?

To me, quality historical fiction inspires the reader to think beyond the story, to the what-ifs, and the why-dids, and this book has certainly done that on both the professional and personal level because between this and Last Man Out I am learning more and more about what my grandfather experienced and why he didn’t share his stories (even if I had known to ask) and how that shaped him, and ultimately me.  How being named after Lord Kitchener impacted my father’s life so that my brother, currently on his way to Villers-Bretonneux, will then make his way again to the  anniversary of the Battle of Crete where dad was captured on his 25th birthday – just two of those 100 000 stories that had their roots in those eight months on a remote Turkish beach. How many more will be inspired to investigate their own?

 

Flora’s War

Flora's War

Flora’s War

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flora’s War

Pamela Rushby

Ford Street Publishing, 2013

pbk., 243pp., RRP $A18.95

9781921665981

 

Flora’s war begins in late 1914 in Cairo where the somewhat indulged daughter of an Australian archaeologist whose only interest is discovering the antiquities of Ancient Egypt meets up with her American friend Gwen, quite determined to be ‘modern young ladies’ of the time now that they are 16 and having ‘come out’, are afforded much more freedom.  Flora’s war ends a year later in Cairo where two much more mature young ladies contemplate their future having seen and done much more than ‘modern young ladies’ should have – in fact having seen and done much more than modern young ladies (or gents) of any generation should have.

Cairo in 1914 is not the place Gwen and Flora have known from their annual visits for the excavation season since childhood.  Instead of the close-knit expatriate society they know, the riches and richness of the privileged life of hotels where steps are swept as soon as they are stepped upon, and the endless desert stretching to the beckoning pyramids, it is becoming more and more crowded with troops from Britain, Australia and New Zealand and tent cities are springing up.  There is an air of expectation that something is going to happen, strengthened by the military’s acquisition of their hotels for hospitals and the girls being commandeered to volunteer as helpers in Lady Bellamy’s rest and recreation centre – a pavilion in the Ezbekieh Gardens where soldiers on leave will be tempted with tea and table tennis to distract them from the salacious attractions of “The Wozzer”. The war is acknowledged but it is far away from Egypt, yet still the troop build-up and training continues and the arrival of contingents of Australian nurses is an ominous sign.

But, undeterred, Flora and Gwen push on to being modern young women, learning to dance in new ways, smoking cigarettes, hosting spectacular parties, and most importantly for their freedom, learning to drive a car.  And it is this skill which takes them to sights, sounds, smells and experiences that no one should ever endure, let alone 16 year-old girls.  For, as what we now know as the Gallipoli Campaign begins and intensifies, the war comes to Cairo as tens of thousands of wounded soldiers are evacuated and Flora and Gwen are enmeshed in their care.

There have been so many books written about the events of 1915 on the Gallipoli Peninsula, events that have shaped the Australian and New Zealand psyche and spawned the enduring ANZAC spirit of collaboration and rivalry.   But Flora’s War is different – it’s written from the perspective of ‘what happened next”.  We know the facts and figures and stories of the soldiers in the trenches and the bravery, courage and losses, but what happened to those who were injured, those who were evacuated to the hospital ships sitting just offshore?  So often the stories stop on the beach.  In the notes, the author, Pamela Rushby tells of her journey from reading a story about Australian nurses in 1915 to writing a story of a young civilian volunteer in Egypt, and it is this aspect that makes this novel stand out.  Even though Flora Wentworth is fictional, it is nevertheless the story of real people, inspirational people whose story has seldom been told.

Flora’s War is an engaging read, written by a hand that knows how to weave light and dark together so that the reader is entertained but also educated.  Flora loves her social life and we learn how the social conventions of the time remain paramount – as unmarried young women their duties are arranged so they cannot see men without their pyjama tops, yet emptying bedpans is acceptable – contrasted against the pathos of young men knowing they may never return from this ‘adventure’ they signed on for.  It paints a picture of a time in history that we all know, that has been rarely seen.  Like Boy Soldiers by Cliff Green, this is a story that stands above others on this topic for me. My copy remained on my shelves until my granddaughters were old enough to read it and perhaps understand what their great great grandfather endured.

There are teachers’ notes written by the author which offer a range of ideas to take this story beyond the realm of a girls’ own adventure to a work that has a real place in supporting our students understanding of this critical piece of Australian history.  If you are looking to boost your collection on this topic for older independent readers, this should be at the top of your list.

First published August 9 2013

Updated April 7 2023

 

The Poppy

The Poppy

The Poppy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Poppy

Andrew Plant

Ford Street, 2014

Hbk., RRP $A26.95 9781925000313

Pbk., RRP $A16.95  9781925000320

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

This poem, by John McRae, has become one of the most enduring written about World War I and has provided the most recognisable symbol of remembrance for Australians and New Zealanders – the poppy. Although Flanders Fields, itself, is in Belgium, the poem and the poppy have become symbolic of the whole of that terrible conflict on the Western Front, and so this new book by illustrator Andrew Plant is aptly named, beautifully told and superbly illustrated.

Starting on the front cover with the brilliant red of the poppy set in front of ghostly images of other poppies entwined in barbed wire and against a background of stormy black skies, this is a beautiful “photo-essay” of the story of Villiers-Bretonnneux, which on ANZAC Day 1918 became the scene of one of Australia’s greatest victories and which forged a bond between two nations that grows stronger each year.  Except the photos are not photos – they are eerily haunting paintings that tell the story of the building of that bond. Bordered in black and accompanied by simple text in white, their bright colours are a stunning contrast which suggests feelings of hope and future and endurance.

The petal of the poppy is whipped off in the winter wind and blows across the village to show  the Villiers-Bretonneux school, known as Victoria School, because it was rebuilt through the contributions of the people of Victoria so that even now the flags of two nations fly above it and carvings of Australian flora and fauna adorn the school hall; it flies through the village past the Musée Franco Australien, and is carried further above the fields and up a broad, low hill to a tall cross and a great tower where thousands of names are carved – those who died but whose bodies were never recovered – and then out over the rows and rows of headstones, some nameless, not even their nationality known. 

But the stories of the soldiers are known and told and not forgotten.  As the winter winds grip the Somme, the Australian and French flags fly side by side and once again, the land turns red. But now it is the petals of the poppies, not the blood of the fallen.

So often our younger students’ knowledge of World War I is limited to the events at Anzac Cove in Gallipoli – here, in this stunning book is the pathway to their understanding of the much more drawn-out battle of the Somme and the Western Front, stories our children should know as well as those students in Victoria School who see “N’Oublions Jamais l’Australie” in every classroom. Stories and a motto which led them to raise nearly $21 000 to donate towards the rebuilding of Strathewan Primary School after it was destroyed in the Victorian bushfires, Black Saturday, 2009. World War 1 was so much more than the hell of the eight months on the Gallipoli Peninsula. 

 

 

A peek inside...

A peek inside…

First published February 25, 2014

Updated April 5, 2023