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Fine lines: New Anzac books and graphic novels for kids

When Dad Came Home.

A telegraph “boy”, heroic animals and even shell-shock make for engaging reads for children.

It’s hard to believe that during 1914-18, the responsibility for delivering the news about the death of a loved one was a job for kids. Wellington writer Philippa Werry views the Great War and subsequent flu epidemic through the eyes of a 14-year-old girl in her novel The Telegram (Pipi Press, $23). Beaty starts work at the Post and Telegraph Office, now accepting girls as “telegraph boys”. The job, however, often requires her to read aloud the bad news to people with poor eyesight, and invariably, she is asked in for a cup of tea. Werry documents the historical reality of Beaty’s life for her young readers without imposing contemporary expectations – a fine line indeed.

Those telegrams feature, too, in Hilary McKay’s award-winning, highly readable epic The Skylarks' War (Macmillan, $18). As well as encompassing some big themes – love, war, sexism, family – it traces the minutiae of daily life through the eyes of eternal optimist Clarry, born at the beginning of last century, her brother Peter and their older cousin Rupert. It’s also the story of a generation of young men, off to the killing fields of Europe. What could have been a doom-and-gloom story is redeemed by the glorious Cornish landscape and the warmth of friendships that sees the highly intelligent and stubborn girl tackle all obstacles in her way.

Auckland writer Vanessa Hatley-Owen and Wellington illustrator Rosie Colligan explore the complex subject of shell-shock in When Dad Came Home (Oratia, $20). The reality of war’s ending is teased out gently – after the Armistice street party, there’s the long wait for the soldiers’ return, the no-shows, the limbless ones. Then comes a new normal – the father who stares at nothing, shakes, and starts at every noise. But slowly, the favourite song the children and their mum sang while he was gone reaches through his fog to lure their dad back.

The Anzac Billy (Black Dog, $28) is Australian Claire Saxby’s wistful tale of war through the eyes of a child who fills “a billy full of Christmas” as a care package for his dad, gone to World War I. Mark Jackson and Heather Potter bring to life the precious contents against a background of domestic detail. A positive ending makes this perfect for sharing with children from five years.

No individual animals are named on the Animals in War Memorial in London – because there are too many of them, says David Long, who tells the tales of 33 feathered and furry friends in Heroes: Incredible True Stories of Courageous Animals (Faber & Faber, $33). Kerry Hyndman illustrates this splendid collection of mostly dogs and pigeons, with the occasional horse and cat, as well as a Syrian brown bear named Voytek, which as an official member of the free Polish army carried munitions at the Battle of Monte Cassino. Murphy’s donkey at Gallipoli is the only Anzac entry.

The tale of our heroic horses is brought to life in heaving detail by Susan Brocker and illustrator Raymond McGrath in Bess: The Brave War Horse (Scholastic, $28), which illuminates the sacrifice of more than 10,000 WWI Kiwi horses used mainly in the Middle East. Only four returned – including Bess, whose memorial stands near Bulls.

The first graphic adaptation of The Diary of a Young Girl is a spectacular success. It’s been done by Israeli film director Ari Folman, best known for his animated movie Waltz with Bashir, who adapted it for a text and visuals format with illustrator David Polonsky. Anne Frank's Diary: The Graphic Adaptation (Viking, $40) combines the essence of the original with a mass of detail that heartbreakingly amplifies 13-year-old Anne’s story of the two families who sheltered in the hidden annex of a Dutch warehouse and the people who kept them alive for two years. Tuesday, August 1, 1944, is the last entry in the diary. On Friday, August 4, the SS and Dutch police arrived. We all know how it ends.

Folman is now working on an animated screen adaptation of the story told from the point of view of Anne’s imaginary friend, Kitty.

This article was first published in the April 27, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.