It's 2014, the centennial of the onset one of the bloodiest, most devastating wars in history. A war which should have taught the world the dangers of nationalism, military escalation, and imperialism. Well, we all know how that went.
On the UP side, the WWI centennial gives us (educators, parents, librarians) an excellent opportunity for engaging the kind of reader who connects with nonfiction, especially history, and especially the kind of history that involves guns. I'm not using the word "boys," but you know what I'm talking about.
My particular boys have been reading up on WWI because our family is going to Belgium for a bridge dedication. Their great-great-uncle did a heroic deed and then promptly died, making my husband's brothers and sisters the closest thing he would ever have to descendants. You can read about it here if you are so inclined. We will be touring battlefields and cemeteries and museums, and we have all been boning up just in case the plaques are all in Flemish.
Here are a few recent books for your WWI collection:
Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood (A World War I Tale) by Nathan Hale
Just in time for the centennial, Nathan Hale has gifted us with one of his intensely detailed laugh-out-loud nonfiction graphic novels, this time on WWI. And I am talking fantastic. This is a very complicated war, and Nate has laid it all out for us.
He uses animals to indicate the different nations at war - like Art Spiegelman did in Maus - and just as in Maus, I'm sure he did it because the cast of characters is just so damn large, it would be hard to keep everyone straight. It's either turn 'em into animals or fly little flags over everyone's heads, like I've seen in political cartoons and murals of treaty-signings. That always makes people look like they're on fire, kind of.
In fact, let me take a moment to point out something that is maybe easily overlooked when reading the Hazardous Tales - Nate's mastery of what Edward Tufte calls The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. It's the art of presenting complicated data so that it can be quickly and coherently understood, using a combination of text, graphical elements, and image.
Look: he sets up the visual metaphor in that first panel - the snake representing an army traveling in a column - and then zooms out to show the five Central Powers armies advancing into France and the British and French armies going out to meet them, with the Paris Garrison curled like a little garter snake around the city. We're communicating position, scale, and movement as well as identity and geographic position in one 2" x 4" panel.
And from Donner Dinner Party, we have the ninety members of the Donner Party - a large cast of characters. We get their names and ages, and we can tell at a glance how many were children. He shades the portraits of the people who died, taking advantage of our brain's rapid response to light and dark to immediately communicate an approximate death rate ("Wow, almost 50%!" says your brain).
Tiny icons indicate the cause of death for each. As your eye scans across and down, your brain keeps a rough tally of death by starvation/exposure, old age, and murder ("What were all these men doing killing each other?" your brain wonders). You could do a lot of charts to display this information, but Nate's way is efficient as well as effective.
Plus, my goodness the man can draw. And all he's using is black and white and orange. Ultra-precise printing (why thank you Abrams!) is key when the draftmanship is this fine.
WHO can resist Stubby? A stray adopted by an American serviceman while he was mooching food at a National Guard training camp in Connecticut, Stubby went to Europe with an infantry battalion, managed a few heroic deeds himself, and then came back alive. One of the more sobering facts about WWI was that very few animals did - and that war started on horseback.
I wrote about this book in an article for School Library Journal's Curriculum Connections, and I stand by my words about its curb appeal: we've had it out on a display in my library for a few weeks, and Stubby gets lots of attention. This is a somewhat gentle and accessible entree into WWI for middle grade readers.
SIDE NOTE: I met Ann Bausum fifteen years ago when she was working on a biography of Roy Chapman Andrews (the very good Dragon Bones and Dinosaur Eggs). I was a clerk in the photo library at the American Museum of Natural History, and frequently helped researchers locate pictures of famous scientists, sites, and specimens. I remember Ann in particular because she was curious, thorough, and meticulously accurate with her captions and attributions.
Spending that time as a content provider has been incredibly helpful to me in reviewing kids' nonfiction. I CAN TELL when you've double-checked your sources. Needless to say, Ann Bausum's books get high marks for accuracy. But don't quote anything you read in a DK book if you're under oath.
Harlem Hellfighters by J. Patrick Lewis and Gary Kelley
This is a beautiful, beautiful book. A lot has been written about the WWI black regiment known as the Harlem Hellfighters - Walter Dean Myers wrote a nice book, and there's a forthcoming graphic novel by Max Brooks. There have also been terrific PBS and BBC documentaries.
But J. Patrick Lewis and Gary Kelley tackle their story, full of bravery and injustice and irony, with a jazzy lyricism and intense illustrations. Let's just start with the endpapers - a couple dozen servicemen look calmly out at the reader from little square ID-photo-type portraits. Some smile, some are wearing their war face. All of them look like men you might see today - your friends' dads, your uncle, your social studies teacher.
Then let's check a page that is entirely conceptual - on the ship to Europe, the author imagines a slave ship passing in the other direction. The soldier standing guard on deck doesn't see the ghosts of his ancestors in the fog, but they are with him. The whole book is like this. It works on the surface and it works again in a different way if you stare at it a while. Everyone in my house has read it, and the boys and I went straight to YouTube afterward to find footage of the Hellfighters' triumphant parade up 5th Avenue on their return.
"If you're only going to read one book..." for serious. You'll get the broad strokes - all the crowned heads of Europe were related, the US didn't show up til the end, 7 million civilians died - and it'll only take you about 45 minutes. Good timelines, tons of pictures and graphics, nice design. When I review kids' nonfiction, this is the kind of book I love to see.
Bunny the Brave War Horse: Based on a True Story by Elizabeth MacLeod and Marie LaFrance
Save Bunny! Having read all these terrible statistics about how many defenseless animals got it in the neck on the battlefields of Europe, I was totally hesitant to read this book about Canadian police horse Bunny and his riders. And it is scary, there's no way around it.
A sort of blobby, simplified illustration style takes some of the edge off, but at one point Bunny is hauling a cart out of the mud and bullets are whistling overhead. His first rider dies. Mustard gas and gunsmoke limit visibility. Bunny survives the war, but like a lot of military dogs and horses, he is left behind in Belgium. WTF, WWI US MILITARY. Didn't any of you fuckers ever have a pet?!
Goddamn tedious series nonfiction:
Series nonfiction gets a bad rap. It just looks so mass-produced, with its bolded vocabulary words and skinny margins. Half the time there isn't even an author name on the cover. I review a lot of series nonfiction, and it's true, there's a checklist in my head when I evaluate these things. Is there a timeline? Maps? One picture per page, or more? It is hard to imagine that series books come from a place of passion.
That being said, there are some terrific writers who make their bones on series nonfiction history. You see the name Liz Sonneborn, you go ahead and pick up that book. Ditto Michael Burgan.
The Split History of World War I: A Perspectives Flip Book by Michael Burgan
This is from a neato series that offers opposing viewpoints on world conflicts in an innovative way - start at the front to read a history of the war from the Allied perspective, then flip the book over and start at the back to read about the same events from a Central Powers perspective. Short, yeah ok the book ends up being kind of short, but a tiny typeface with generous line spacing lets the author shoehorn a lot of stuff in there without making the reader go crosseyed. Good pictures, although maybe nothing you haven't seen before.
Wow, are these covers ugly! This is a series of six short paperbacks that go into some detail - four books that cover the war in chronological chunks, plus one each on the U.S. and Canada. Get past the terrible cover art and you'll find books that absolutely do the job, printed in full color with a kind of stunning array of photographs, maps, and printed ephemera such as posters and newspaper columns.
While I've satisfied myself with kids' nonfiction in order to prepare for this trip, my husband read and very much enjoyed Hundred Days: The Campaign That Ended World War I by Nick Lloyd. Everybody knows about the assassination that began the war, but most people are a little murkier on how it all ended.
One of the things I keep in mind when reading and reviewing nonfiction for kids is the impact of each book's visual elements. Diagrams and maps must bring facts to life in an easily-understood, impactful way.
And I look at the way a book credentials itself with actual photos - many kids, whether consciously or not, don't really believe a story is true until you provide a picture.