|Jul/Aug 2010 Reviews & Interviews|
War and peace are heavy topics for picture books and all too often handled in ways that are overly earnest and obvious in their message. It's not easy to be subtle about something so serious—especially when making the topic accessible for the under twelves—but when it's done right titles can raise the writing standard bar. They can also, as in the cases here, transcend their assigned age group and be appreciated by much older readers including teenage cynics who will have to be persuaded to turn the covers but have a lot to think about if they take that initial plunge.
Newbery winner Lois Lowry reaches into her own childhood for the affectingly understated father/daughter story Crow Call. Set in 1945 but with illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline that reach across decades (only the cars and occasional fedora give the period away), Crow Call is about a little girl trying to reconnect with the father she barely knows. In only a few words she shares her discomfort with him: "The war has lasted so long. He has been gone so long." Mostly thought the story is about the promise of a hunting day trip, and starts with a swift flashback to the purchase of an oversized plaid hunting shirt that Lizzie sees in a shop window and can not resist. The shirt is the first attempt at connection with her dad and the hunting trip is the next. In careful prose using words so achingly selected that the reader will feel as if they are sitting on the edge of their seat with this fragile family, Lowry has Lizzie ask her father if he was scared during the war and Ibatoulline draws her upturned hesitant face, desperate to know, but unsure of what his answer will mean.
There are crows in this story, of course, and Lizzie's crow call that brings them in and there is also a gorgeous two-page spread of the girl and the trees and the birds, all framed as her father sees them. The crows, the shirt, the call, the questions—all of these are part and parcel of the inch by inch movement of father and daughter. It's only one day but it's something that belongs to both of them and seeing Lowry tell it so easily should give heart to any family going through a similar experience.
Templar Books (an imprint of Candlewick) looks to the upcoming fiftieth anniversary of The General by Janet Charters and prize-winning illustrator Michael Foreman with a beautiful reissue of the classic. From the foil additions to the cover through the candy colored drawings that fill each page in a 1960s Beatlemania style, The General is an surprising story about a man of war who finds a reason to pursue peace. The oafishness of the general masks the message here, that a man in pursuit of fame will keep his country embroiled in war simply so he can be cheered. Have no fear that this is too much for the younger ones however. The general is portrayed as far too silly to be frightening and the absurdity of his life's goal will be obvious to even first graders. But older kids, and especially preteens, are going to eat this title up because they will get how it applies to real life and they will like how the story is presented. Charters and Foreman brought a certain amount of cheekiness to their design and the new edition shows it off for all its worth. The revelations about embracing life over war are obviously going to connect in 21st century America and the ending, with its subtle point in a Cold War direction is just icing on the cake. Color me deeply pleased to have found this one.
Jonah Winter does a most unusual thing with his biography collection Peaceful Heroes: he writes about famous people of peace. The many names here that will be unfamiliar to readers will remind you just how little we focus on peace-makers in modern life which is illuminating in itself. But mostly this is a title for leisurely considering the brave lives and acts of others who insisted on change through peaceful means and gained followings far beyond they ever imagined.
Winter starts with Jesus of Nazareth, explaining how he is viewed differently by Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Jews and how his message has inspired so many others. (He also states that he might be a myth but discusses how his story is told via the Christian Bible.) From there he writes of Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Clara Barton, Corrie Ten Boom (whose family hid Jews during WWII and paid a high price for their courage), Ginetta Moroni who escorted Jews to freedom across the Italian border (and helped found Amnesty International) and Abdul Ghaffar Khan who led a peace movement for the Pashtun people in Afghanistan and Pakistan and is known as the "Frontier Ghandi".
I was impressed by the international tone of Winter's sketches—from Sojourner Truth in the US to Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador to Paul Rusesabagina in Rwanda (portrayed by Don Cheadle in the film Hotel Rwanda). It was also interesting to read about so many people who have been brave in modern times and in some cases, like Aung San Sun Kyi in Burma are still important symbols for peace. And Sean Addy's fantastic illustrations, which blend multiple collaged elements and drawings on textured pages really raise this title far above the standard academic fare. Addy makes you want to open the book and turn the pages, Winter's revelations makes you settle in to read.
But—and this is a major but—I was very frustrated by the absence of information on what became of some of the people profiled. For a nonfiction title to write about King without mentioning that he was assassinated is frankly bizarre, (the sketch concludes with him winning the Nobel Peace Prize), and the same is true of Ghandi. If Winter did not want to include this in the main body of the text, the publisher really should have added a couple of pages for biographical facts as an afterword. I ended up checking online to find out what happened to Archbishop Romero (assassinated), Meena Keshwar Kamal (assassinated—one year after her husband was assassinated) and Marla Ruzicka (killed by a suicide bomber in Iraq). I have no idea why deaths in pursuit of peace would be considered unimportant in a collection of this kind and the lack of information had a negative impact on the reading experience. Winter and Addy put together a very pretty package with Peaceful Heroes but failing to provide readers with all the facts makes for a read that is as frustrating as informative. They were close to accomplishing something quite impressive; it's a shame that no one thought to consider everything their readers would want to know.
One thing the modern age has brought us is an enlightened awareness of what war brings to a civilian population. This has never been more true then in Iraq and while most stories from that war would be far too intense for the average child, Saving the Baghdad Zoo does an excellent job of showing just how harsh war can be on the most innocent of victims in a way that young readers will understand. With dozens of photographs, solid scientific evidence of specific species and an even hand that includes both the heroic and shameful behavior of Iraqis and Coalition Forces alike, this is an unusual perspective on war and peace and the many things we never think about until it is nearly too late.
Major William Sumner, the book's co-author, was asked in 2003 by his superiors to check on the Baghdad Zoo. He discovered it was in deplorable condition with many animals missing, dead, or nearly dead from starvation and neglect. Pulling together a group of volunteer soldiers and civilians he set about saving the animals that were left and gathering others in comparable trouble from nearby private zoos. When the private menageries of Saddam Hussein's son Uday were discovered they also came under Sumner's domain. With Kelly Milner Halls, Sumner describes transporting animals in humvees under sniper fire and caring for everything from pelicans to bears to tigers in a city where supplies were often at a premium. He also shares the inspiring stories of the people who came out to help and in the end were sometimes forced to flee the country for their selfless efforts. He also tells the appalling story of an American soldier who taunted a caged tiger then crawled into its area which resulted not only in his own death but the death of the animal who was shot by a fellow soldier. (This very nearly caused an international incident and was utterly and completely avoidable.)
Saving the Baghdad Zoo is very much a tale of "hope and heroes" as the subtitle suggests and from the undercover work initiated to recover stolen horses to the sweet tale of the "lion dog of Baghdad," there is much here to enlighten and inform. I think the authors do an excellent job of not sugarcoating war (sometimes they had to buy donkeys to feed the carnivores) but keeping it from being too graphic for their target audience. In many ways this is the perfect book to spark conversations about war and its long term effects in a way that most children are best equipped to understand. Entire lessons could be built around Saving the Baghdad Zoo and the very nature of heroic behavior could surely be learned by seeing what so many people were willing to do for animals who needed their help so desperately.
By Lois Lowry
Illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline
By Janet Charters
Illustrated by Michael Foreman
By Jonah Winter
Illustrated by Sean Addy
Saving the Baghdad Zoo
By Kelly Milner Halls & Major William Sumner