so much is owed to so few…a list of five books to honor veterans

I had not searched for books  to honor Veteran’s Day, or Remembrance Day, depending on where you live, before this year.  These five visit various eras and wars, highlighting the courage of both veterans and their families. If you’re a vet, we thank you today for your sacrifice and courage…

in flanders fields cover imageIn Flanders Fields: The Story of the Poem by John McCrae, written by Linda Granfield, illustrated by Janet Wilson

It seems fitting to begin with this book about World War I since it is the concluding moment of that war — the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month — which establishes Veterans’ Day in the U.S. and Remembrance Day in the Commonwealth countries and I imagine other places as well.

John McCrae was a Canadian medical officer stationed in Flanders in 1915, consumed in the nightmarish task of caring for horrifically-wounded men with the

John McCrae

John McCrae

extreme limitations of that era. When a close friend of McCrae’s died in battle, he was moved to write a poem to express his grief, and the surrealness of these sudden, jarring deaths on the battle field, and the inspiration those deaths gave him to carry on. In his poem, he refers to the poppies growing among the graves in the fields of Flanders, little knowing he would establish this “universal symbol of remembrance.”

Linda Granfield intersperses gorgeous pages containing the somber, aching lines of McCrae’s poem, with pages of vivid history. She relays John McCrae’s biography, the day to day life of a soldier in WWI,  the surprising pathway of McCrae’s poem, and the “poppy mania” which swept the world.

Janet Wilson’s rich, evocative paintings handsomely illustrate the poem. The period details and palpable emotion complement it really beautifully. One full page illustration for each line of the poem causes us to slow down our reading of it, to truly absorb what McCrae expressed and so many experienced. The lengthier, historic segments are illustrated with historic photos and postcards, as well as Wilson’s striking sketches. World War I is not for the faint of heart. Share this with ages 10 and up.

the unbreakable code cover imageThe Unbreakable Code, by Sara Hoagland Hunter, illustrated by Julia Miner

The coding, decoding, and intercepting of messages was critical to the outcome of World War II. This is fascinating stuff, particularly the role of the 420 Navajo Code Talkers in the Marine Corp. These men secretly created a magnificent code which was never broken, then carried it with them into some of the bloodiest battles of the war, using the very language our government had previously banned them from speaking.

Sara Hunter tells the fictional story of John, a young Navajo boy who suddenly must

Navajo Code Talkers

Navajo Code Talkers

leave his beloved home on the Navajo Reservation, and move to Minnesota with his mother and her new husband. John is feeling overwhelmed by the loss, and fearful of the unknown life that lies ahead of him.

His grandfather comforts and emboldens him by telling his own story of being a Navajo Code Talker. Beginning with his traumatic entry into a government boarding school as a child, Grandfather tells how his English and Navajo skills earned him a spot in this extraordinarily secret mission. The military drills, the invention of the code, and the use of it in the midst of terrible battles are all relayed by grandfather. Hearing of his grandfather’s bravery and honor gives John the courage he needs to face his own challenges.

Julia Miner’s oil paintings beautifully capture the warm terra cottas and purple shadows of the desert canyonlands, the tender relationship between John and his grandfather, and give a hint of the intensity of warfare without using graphic images that would disturb young readers. Included are an insightful Author’s Note, and charts with the original coded alphabet and some of the code terms used. Don’t miss the opportunity to decode the message on the book’s cover! A long-ish, personal, very informative account, for ages 6 and up.

year of the jungle cover imageYear of the Jungle: Memories from the Home Front, by Suzanne Collins, illustrated by James Proimos

Families of soldiers have their own fears to face when dads or moms, brothers or sisters are in combat. I really cannot imagine what this would feel like, but Suzanne Collins, author of the Hunger Games trilogy and Gregor series, experienced this as a child when her father was deployed to Vietnam.

Collins reaches back to the ideas and misconceptions, worries and coping year of the jungle illustration james proimosmechanisms of a six-year-old child in this compelling, personal account. Life with dad gone is still full of the ordinary bits of childhood, yet he is strangely and powerfully present in his absence, coloring the days with joy when those exotic picture postcards arrive, with qualms when well-meaning people offer sympathy, with gut-wrenching fear when the full realization of what war is comes crashing into her young mind.

It’s a piercingly personal story, yet full of common ground. Relatively brief, yet packed with thought-provoking revelations. Told in a breezy manner, yet powerful and moving. James Proimos’ ink and digital illustrations are bold, quirky, childlike figures that imaginatively reveal the realities and feelings and nightmares of a young child. 

Highly original. The storyline is accessible to ages 5 and up. The emotional punch means this will be appreciated by those much older as well.

america's white table cover imageAmerica’s White Table, by Margot Theis Raven, illustrated by Mike Benny

Here is a tradition I’ve never heard of, which is apparently beloved inside military circles — the setting of a symbolic white table to honor and preserve the memory of MIAs and POWs.

10-year-old Katie is getting ready with her mother and sisters for a Veteran’s Day visit from america's white table illustration mike bennyUncle John. Her mother tells the girls they will be setting up a small white table in keeping with a tradition begun at the end of the Vietnam War. Each of the many elements of the table setting carries profound symbolic meaning, from the lemon slice and salt representing a prisoner’s bitter fate and his family’s tears, to the empty chair that calls to mind those still missing.

Uncle John especially feels the significance of the table since he was shot down and imprisoned during the Vietnam War. Katie’s mom tells the girls his difficult, brave story, and Katie recognizes for the first time what a hero her uncle is, as well as so many others.

There is a poetic quality to much of the narrative of this book, yet for such a short story, it’s definitely heavy. Obviously — it’s about soldiers who are missing, or who underwent extreme trials. The symbols of the table setting are all poignant and many speak of deep sorrow. Uncle John’s story is sad. The entire book has a somber pathos, accentuated by the quiet, soft, almost dreamy images by Mike Benny. However, the tradition is fascinating and is apparently carried on today in all branches of the military at ceremonial dinners. An Author’s Note tells its more complete history. For children who can manage the emotion, this will be a meaningful story. Ages 6 and up.

dogs on duty cover imageDogs on Duty: Soldiers’ Best Friends on the Battlefield and Beyond, by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent

I love dogs and am always amazed at the roles they play in our lives. This book tells about the many tasks dogs perform in the military, and does it without traumetizing us with stories about their injuries, so it’s a safe bet for kids.

Using dozens of wonderful, large, color photographs, Dorothy Hinshaw Patent, adogs in afghanistan from dogspired dot com true veteran of children’s nonfiction, talks to us about what makes dogs so effective in the military, how their roles have grown over the years, how puppies are selected and trained, how their handlers have to also be trained, the kinds of special equipment military dogs wear and carry, and how dogs cope with war and help our soldiers. She includes some sweet stories about some specific dogs, including two emotional vignettes: one, about a dog whose young handler was killed and who was returned to this young man’s family as a comfort to them, and one about a dog who suffered PTSD and needed some loving therapy. 

It’s a lengthy book, loaded with information, but it’s broken up into sections that can be sampled nicely for kids who may not want the whole story. A few websites and books for further reading are listed as well. Definitely the most up-beat book on today’s list!