Lest they forget: Anzac books for children and young readers

by Ann Packer / 25 April, 2018
Meticulous: a Robyn Belton illustration from The Anzac Violin.

Meticulous: a Robyn Belton illustration from The Anzac Violin.

RelatedArticlesModule - Anzac childrens books

In time for Anzac Day, books for children and younger readers make war stories easy to digest.

The extraordinary story of a violin that travelled from Dunedin to the battlefields of Europe, via Gallipoli, is eloquently told by Jennifer Beck and illustrator Robyn Belton (The Bantam and the Soldier) in THE ANZAC VIOLIN: ALEXANDER AITKEN’S STORY (Scholastic, $28).

Smuggling such “excess baggage” was no mean feat. Concealed during kit inspections, Alexander Aitken’s instrument passed through the hands of cooks, stretcher-bearers, nurses and the occasional officer before being returned to him after the war. Aitken, whose reprinted wartime memoir is called Gallipoli to the Somme, became a mathematics professor at the University of Edinburgh and is recognised as one of New Zealand’s foremost mathematicians. His violin is displayed at his old school, Otago Boys’ High.

Belton’s meticulous attention to detail shows in charming images of Aitken playing to a ward of wounded soldiers, attentive nurses and nuns and of his conversation with a French instrument-maker couple, surrounded by village children. And the endpapers are a treat: they include photos, maps, advertisements, pages from Aitken’s notebooks and lines from Vincent O’Sullivan’s Notes from the Front.

An ambitious project – a suite of novels covering each year of the Great War – ends on a fittingly elegiac note with Des Hunt’s 1918: BROKEN POPPIES (Scholastic, $19), based on the life of his uncle Henry Edward Hunt. Postcards and documents offered a wealth of detail to flesh out a family story and bring to life his central character. Recurring minor players pop up like small flashes of tracer fire, uniting the sequence. A splendid achievement.

A Robyn Belton illustration from The Anzac Violin.

A Robyn Belton illustration from The Anzac Violin.

A sequel to their Anzac Heroes, Maria Gill and Marco Ivancic’s ANZAC ANIMALS (Scholastic, $30) introduces 20 furry and feathered friends that helped our troops survive two world wars. This encyclopedia of wartime wildlife encompasses kangaroos, monkeys and even a tortoise as well as more-common dogs and cats. Small creatures smuggled inside uniform jackets, beasts of burden or simply strays that turned up along the way, these mounts, mascots and hardworking mates lightened the burden of war in many ways. Excellent maps and timelines help create a context for this handsome hardback.

Historian Glyn Harper and illustrator Jenny Cooper’s eighth war picture book collaboration, BOBBY: THE LITTLEST WAR HERO (Puffin, $20) looks at the work of military tunnellers in World War I. The miners who made up the companies, including the 5000 Kiwis commemorated in the Arras Tunnel under Wellington’s Pukeahu National War Memorial, had long used canaries to detect the presence of lethal gases underground – when the bird keeled over, it was time to get out. The original Bobby reportedly survived being gassed seven times.

Philippa Werry’s clear and comprehensive guide to THE NEW ZEALAND WARS (New Holland, $25) – only recently given a national day – should help confirm their rightful place in our history. Written in straightforward style with plenty of colour illustrations – three cheers for British officer Cyprian Bridge, who obviously never went out without a sketchbook and watercolours – this covers the battles and skirmishes, memorials and remaining sites, as well as considering why we have not wanted to know about these earliest military engagements on our soil. “Dreadful things happened in the heat of battle and both sides carried out awful acts … These are hard things to face and sometimes it’s easier not to think about them.”

Sydney, 1942. Eight-year-old Columba, who tells the story of THE BLUE CAT (Allen & Unwin, $23), lives on a hillside overlooking a harbour full of warships. Her fragmented view of the conflict raging overseas is pieced together from overheard comments made by the adults in her life, particularly regarding the Jewish boy “Ellery”, who arrives at her school from “You-rope”. He arrives with no English and no mother – the latter a rather shocking omission, in Columba’s view. Ursula Dubosarsky has the lightest touch, weaving together the sparse threads of the children’s daily lives, embellishing with small stitches a story that is almost transparent and only slowly revealing what lies underneath. Enchanting.

War Horse author Michael Morpurgo’s stories throwing light on little-known aspects of war bring the past poignantly to life. FLAMINGO BOY (HarperCollins, $25), set in World War II in the French Camargue – home to flamingos that live on the salt flats – brings together two of the groups the Nazis sought to exterminate: Roma (gypsies) and the disabled. At times awkwardly told, through flashbacks, this story of Kezia, her family’s carousel and the locals who sheltered them from the invading Germans is nevertheless accessible.

This article was first published in the April 21, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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