Taut and teeming with emotion, Almond’s historical novel is an affecting portrait of an English boy’s perspective on a seemingly endless, unfathomable war. In 1918, John’s father has been off fighting in France for so long that John hardly remembers him, and his mother works “overtime, double time” in an enormous munitions factory. Bewildered by his teacher’s declaration that “we are all engaged in the fight to defeat the evil German,” John “kept on daring to ask himself, ‘I am just a child. How can I be at war?’ ” This question frames other experiences: he watches townsfolk pummel a pacifist, imagines being transported to the front, and has a dreamlike encounter with a German boy who’s his same age and height and, John senses, is likewise “yearning for the war to end.” The straightforward narrative by Almond (Skellig) juxtaposes moments of violence and beauty: John’s mother explains how to fill a shell with shrapnel and resin, then spreads his bread with homemade rose hip jam. Reinforcing the atmosphere are often haunting black-and-white illustrations created by Litchfield (The Bear and the Piano); one especially effective image shows John watching pigeons overhead morph into shrapnel shells. Ages 9–12. (May)
From the Publisher
This slim volume contains depths that adults will wish to explore with young readers, from allusions to "Bread and Roses" to the meaning of the white feathers used to shame pacifists but that the scorned Uncle Gordon proudly claims as things of beauty. The story offers rich material for considering the impact of war on those on the homefront as well as the toll rabid conformity and hatred of the Other takes. A testament to essential humanity.
Litchfield's art makes good use of positive and negative space that helps to focus attention on particular objects (such as doves that turn into bombs), as well as convey mood through the use of light and dark. Together with Almond's text, the drawings help to illuminate children's feelings about conflict and should spark conversations about war and peace.
This story is timeless and relevant for today's world. Grayscale illustrations accompany and support the narrative, showing readers that in war there is often no black and white, only the grey areas where each person must follow their own convictions and sense of what is right.
—School Library Connection
A young boy in the north of England wrestles with the repercussions of World War I.
John’s father is away at the front; his mother works in hazardous conditions at the munitions factory. When John’s classmate’s uncle, a conscientious objector and therefore outcast, agitates for peace, he is dragged off by the police, leaving behind only some drawings of German children. One escapes destruction by John’s classmates—a portrait of a boy called Jan that John secretly saves. Nudging the line between imagination and reality in classic Almond fashion, the deceptively simple third-person narrative describes how John and Jan meet in the dark woods and connect as children who simply long for peace. In scenes enhanced by Litchfield’s dreamy, haunting black-and-white illustrations, Almond effectively juxtaposes the contradictions of war: John’s warm, loving mother uses her hands both to make rose-hip jam for his bread and to build weapons that will kill other small boys just like him. This slim volume contains depths that adults will wish to explore with young readers, from allusions to “Bread and Roses” to the meaning of the white feathers used to shame pacifists but that the scorned Uncle Gordon proudly claims as things of beauty. The story offers rich material for considering the impact of war on those on the homefront as well as the toll rabid conformity and hatred of the Other takes.
A testament to essential humanity. (Historical fiction. 9-12)