November 2006

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Kids at War

I think war books are some of the more important that can be written because when they are done well they record the most destructive and significant human experience we all share. When they are badly written though, they suck to the extreme.

Writing about war for young adults isn’t easy because you can not be too graphic (it would be overwhelming) or too heroic (they might not grasp the seriousness of the situation). But young adults need war books, maybe even more than adults do. All too often it is teenagers who fall for the drums of war, for the lure of proving oneself and finding great adventure on a battlefield. Suicide bombers are generally young, and so are infantry soldiers. They might fight for different causes and use different methods, but the compulsion is frighteningly similar -- go to war, risk your life and you will be remembered forever. It’s far more significant than being the coolest kid on the block or in your high school -- it’s war, and if you find yourself there then you find everything; you become more than you ever thought possible. Or you just die; and the killing part is the part that most American teens really don’t have a clue about.

The world will be coming to grips with the horrors of the recent Rwandan genocide for decades. Historians will be documenting how it occurred and how little was done to stop it just as closely as they have tracked the rise and fall of the Nazis. This is entirely appropriate -- as many books need to be written about the genocide as possible -- but it’s the sort of subject that does not come easily to young adult literature. J.P. Stassen has found a very unique format to address the Rwanda nightmare however, the graphic novel. With Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda he uses the lives of one young man and the girls he was friends with to show how easily killing can start, and what it does to not only the victims but also the killers themselves.

The title character, Deogratias, is a young Hutu who attends a Catholic school and lusts after a Tutsi girl, Apollinaria. (He also has the hots for her mother, Venetia and her sister Benina -- so basically he’s like every other teenage boy in the world.) The story is told through various points in time, both before and after the genocide takes place. The main thread follows Deogratias as he tries his hardest to get one of the sisters to sleep with him. There is a very gripping scene at the local school where the children learn that Hutus are “proud and honest farmers” and Tutsis “took advantage of the natural integrity of the poor Hutu farmers.” The kids try to laugh it off but it becomes clear that the perceived difference between the two ethnicities is pervading their society -- there are quotas based on ethnicity as to who can go to college and in a roadblock the Hutus are treated much better than the Tutsis -- even when stopped by soldiers who are not even African, let alone Rwandan. Clearly the situation in the country was going downhill before the assassination of the Rwandan president.

Soon enough the story takes us to the point where the massacres begin. Deogratias finds himself following the Hutu pack because it is easier than standing up to them. Venetia tries to save her daughters and the Catholic priests must make harsh decisions as well, decisions that leave their church covered in the blood of people they knew and cared about.

Ultimately the story ends with Deogratias, but he is not the funny young man he once was. Stassen shows that through his choices the boy has been literally transformed into a dog and is no longer recognizable as a human being, although as Brother Phillip, one of the priests, says at the end, “He was a child of God.”

Deogratias is a beautifully drawn and produced graphic novel and First Second Books has a lot to be proud of here. It is an excellent resource for teaching about the massacre to teens, although because of the sexual content you need to make sure they are of high school age. It is so hard to make something real to American kids when it happens half the world away but Deogratias uses a medium that all teens will identify with to show just how easily genocide can happen, and the serious ramifications that saying nothing can have.

Reaching back further in time, I recently read two outstanding novels set during the First World War. In Marcus Sedgwick’s The Foreshadowing, seventeen-year old Sasha’s older brother Edgar has happily marched off to fight for England in the trenches. He is thrilled at the opportunity as is their father who sees it as a great chance for his son to prove his manhood and bring glory to the family name. Younger brother Thomas does not want to fight however, he wants to be a doctor and although he is allowed to pursue his choice, the different decisions slowly tear the family apart. All of this would be gripping enough if Sasha didn’t have her own problem to deal with: she can see the future, sharp unpredictable glimpses of the future that always surround the death of another person. And what she sees after her brother Thomas does enlist terrifies her, and spurs her to become a nurse and travel to France in an effort to change what might happen.

It is important to state that Sedgwick has not written a fantasy novel with The Foreshadowing. Although Sasha’s premonitions do come true the story is mostly about the devastating combination of her ability and her job as a nurse near the frontlines. It is also all about trying to find Thomas and prevent him from the destiny she has seen. In that effort she meets a soldier who has the same ability she does but comes to a different conclusion; he doesn’t think there is anything that can be done to alter the future, but eventually Sasha’s persistence pays off and her friend Jack agrees to help.

There are not a lot of battle scenes in Foreshadowing -- it is more about what goes on before and after battle, as those are the episodes that Sasha is a part of. The accounts at the train station in France where she works while trying to locate Thomas’s regiment are particularly gripping. Beyond the blood and bandages though it is Sasha’s slow recognition of something else in these battle weary soldiers that will resonate with readers:

They all have it,
All of them.
The trench-haunted look. An appalling weariness behind their eyes. Every single man that has passed through the rest station while I have been here, and there have been literally thousands of them, has exuded an awful aura of... of what?
Is it horror? Or fear? Pain or fatigue or shock?
It is all of these things. They don’t talk about the trenches specifically; you pick up hints and notions and hear stories and rumors, but none of them talk about it directly. Yet there is enough to form a terrible picture of what they have witnessed, what has been done to them, what they have done to other people. That’s what makes me realize what it is about them.
They have lost faith.
They have lost faith in what it is to be human. And so the smallest act on our part, not even of kindness, but of mere consideration, makes them so desperately grateful that it makes me want to cry.

Eventually Sasha does find her brother and there is a startling moment of clarity about both who Sasha has become and the true nature of her gift. The biggest change in the book might not have anything at all to do with her visions in fact, but with the teenager herself, as she is transformed by the living and the dead and the unremitting, relentless nature of the fighting in France. She becomes someone else, and in doing that, she truly changes the future.

Sedgwick has done an excellent job with The Foreshadowing and has crafted a book that will appeal to female readers through Sasha’s narration but also male readers through its very intense no-holds-barred portrayal of the impacts of war. He also quite cleverly includes the story of Troy, specifically through Cassandra, the prophetess who was given the gift of foresight by Apollo but tortured by her visions and inability to share them with those she loved. Sasha identifies, obviously, with Cassandra and her reading of The Illiad, which she casually refers to as her story progresses, gives her a great deal of solace. At one point she hears in a dream, “You saw the horrors of war, and wept when we did not believe you.” These are words for Cassandra, and also for Sasha but as she comes to see in France, they are for everyone who has been to the frontlines and seen battle for what it truly is. No one hears them in their shell shocked nightmares; no one clinging to the heroic ideal of battle recognizes their visions as reality. Sedgwick gives us thus a look at war through the eyes of those who knew nothing, then knew everything. Sasha is truly a 20th century Cassandra and Sedgwick is determined to finally have her voice heard.

In Megiddo’s Shadow author Arthur Slade seeks to tell an old family story; in his case about the battle his grandfather took part in during WWI. Surprisingly, Slade writes about the Calvary Corps and their part in battles for the country of Palestine.If you are interested at all, in any way, shape or form about the origins of the current conflict in the Middle East, then you must read Slade’s book. It will show you one tiny piece of the Palestine puzzle – how Palestine saw battles between British and Turk soldiers almost 100 years ago and then became the stage for the division and confusion over land ownership with Israel in the years to follow. Although sixteen-year old Edward Bathe has no idea of what will come after he participates in the Battle of Megiddo that future still hovers over this wonderful story. You read it and you can not help but think of what will come; you can not help but shake your head over how all of the killing in 1918 had no effect at all on the bloody years to follow.

In much the same way that The Foreshadowing’s Thomas felt compelled to enlist after his older brother Edgar was killed in the trenches, Edward learns that his beloved older brother Hector has died in battle and so he lies about his age to join up as quickly as possible. Initially in the infantry, an old family friend affects Edward’s transfer to the Remount division. It’s his job there to break-in horses for use in the Calvary. Before long the war in the Middle East heats up and horsemen are needed in the desert. For Edward, who has been longing to see combat and gain revenge for his brother’s death, this is an overdue opportunity. It is tempered a bit as he has fallen for a young nurse who is on her way to France but they vow to remain in contact through letters. Then Edward departs for a place he has never heard of outside of stories from the Bible; a place his farming Canadian heart can not even begin to comprehend.

What happens in Palestine is barbaric, just as the war has been everywhere else. Slade does an excellent job of portraying the battles and making them clear and realistic to readers. There will be very little ability for most teens to envision desert warfare, unless they have seen Lawrence of Arabia on late night television. Slade handles the pressure well and shows Edward’s stunning realization of war’s brutality in much the same way that Sasha came to see it a continent away. For Edward there is a greater loss however, as he is in the place where his religion was born and he becomes appalled by the inhumanity he is a witness to. Nothing makes sense in Edward’s life after the horror of Megiddo, even after he returns home and the war ends. It is the shock and awe of that battle that propels the narrative to its final stunning chapter where Slade allows his character to do what is rarely accomplished in mainstream YA literature: Edward challenges God over the horrors of war.

At the altar I stared up at the carving of Jesus on the cross. Eternally in agony, he looked blissfully heavenward. I’d seen that same agony in the faces of the wounded on the battered Mercian, heard it in the Barada Gorge, smelled it in the aid post. For all that, Jesus wouldn’t even look me in the eye. He was too busy gazing at his Father in heaven.

"I walked everywhere you walked," I whispered, "and I didn’t see you anywhere."

He had died for us; died so that we might live. Live for what? To fire bullets through one another’s brains? To drop bombs? Where was his almighty Father in all of that? He hadn’t lifted a holy finger to stop it.

This last chapter really surprised me -- the book is not religious in any way and other than the inclusion of the local reverend as a character (not unexpected at that time), there is nothing of any unusual religious nature to the text. I recently asked Art Slade why he closed the book this way and what it meant to write it:

“That last chapter required a lot of thought and some hesitation. Religion is never something that is easy to write about because passions about it can be so easily inflamed. I did hesitate briefly, but in the end I had to write what was the correct ending for Edward and the book. Sometimes an author has to forget that there is an audience out there. For Edward to continue to believe in God when so many events had cut away at that belief would have been an insincere ending. And also I find that few people write about the loss of religion and how painful that can be for an individual. For me the line at the end of the book that gets me is when Ashford [the reverend] says, ‘You're allowed to mourn, Edward. It's your duty.’ It was the one thing he needed to do the most, to mourn the loss of his friends, his past life, and his religion.”

After reading Megiddo’s Shadow make sure you visit the author’s website ( where you can learn about how the book is based on his grandfather’s life and all the similarities between what happened to Edward and the very real Corporal Arthur Hercules Slade.

It was sheer coincidence that the next book I would pick up for this column was Paul Fleischman’s Dateline: Troy. After reading about Cassandra in The Foreshadowing I was more than a bit curious about her part in the Trojan War. I never read The Illiad -- Greek epics were not such a big deal in my high school (Shakespeare and Chaucer is all I can seem to remember, over and over and over) but honestly I doubt I would have been receptive to it back then anyway. And as for college, well the less said about my utterly deplorable university English classes the better. (Here’s one clue as to how bad it was: I wrote an entire research paper with my father as the only source. We made up the bibliography and footnotes together. I got an A. Apparently the best way to fool a southern instructor is to make hockey your subject.)

So I went into Dateline with only the barest of familiar terms (“Trojan horse,” “Achilles’s heel”) and the references Sedgwick made to Cassandra in his book. What I found was nothing short of brilliant, and I mean that. Fleischman has rewritten the Illiad into a more compact form but more importantly, he has accompanied the story each step of the way with collages of newspaper and magazine stories, as well as other pictures, from modern times. While recounting Iphigenia allowing herself to be sacrificed to Athena so the Greeks may sail with friendly winds on one page, the opposite page showcases an article about the very real Florence Beaumont who immolated herself in protest against the Vietnam War. “Her husband George said later that she had a ‘deep feeling against the slaughter in Vietnam’ and ‘must have felt she had to do this,’” according to the newspaper clipping.

As the story follows Palamedes being accused by the jealous Odysseus as a traitor and subsequently stoned to death, the opposite spread includes articles headlined “Slaying of Soviet Pop Singer is Laid to Dispute of Rival” and “Jury is Told Swaggert Spread Rumors on Rival Out of Jealousy.” Achilles’s refusal to fight is framed by articles about Darryl Strawberry threatening to leave the Mets camp and when Hector calls his brother Paris a coward for staying with is wife and child instead of joining the battlefield, it is a front page story from 1969 about the draft lottery that tells another story. Fleischman has included a ton of modern history references here from the desecration of dead American soldiers in Somalia to the current Iraq War. Using this creative and artful method, he not only makes the Trojan War and its participants and motivations relevant to our times, he also shows in the most glaring and obvious way how all of human history, no matter how ancient, repeats itself. I am so impressed by this book and the originality that went into its construction. It is clearly marketed and written for teens but any student of history would find it a startling experience. And if you are assigned the Illiad then this is certainly an excellent way to ease into it.

For Americans, World War II is as much about what occurred on the home front as the battlefields. So many cultural and social changes were prompted by this war that American society itself was transformed literally beyond recognition between 1941 and 1945. Graham Salisbury grew up in Hawaii and his family has lived in the islands since the 1800s. He puts his comfortable familiarity with the area to good use in his latest novel, House of the Red Fish a companion to Under the Blood-Red Sun. Both books are set in Hawaii during the war and follow the life of Tomi Nakaji, a Japanese American teenager and his best friend Billy Davis, who is white. In Red Fish Tomi’s father and grandfather are both gone, to distant and unknown “camps” because as Resident Aliens they are considered enemies and potential threats to America. Welcome to another one of America’s nasty little memories.

Tomi is considered lucky as he and his mother are able to rent a house from the Wilson family, “upstanding” members of the white community who also employ Mrs. Nakaji as a maid. Her job is critical to keeping a roof over their heads and Tomi must be very careful not to upset her employers, especially Mr. Wilson who is perilously close to caving into the vigilante tendencies of many of his uppercrust friends. As for teenage Keet Wilson, who was once Tomi’s friend, that relationship is much more directly dangerous. Keet is looking for a way to impress his father and punishing Tomi seems like the best (and most obvious) way. Events quickly escalate far beyond schoolyard pushing and shoving and when Tomi makes a big decision about how he can help his father Keet finds his best way to torment him. The two boys (and their friends) are headed for a showdown, and it’s only a question of how bad the fallout will be.

There are several things about Red Fish that I thought were significant, first and foremost being that it deals with Japanese Americans in Hawaii after Pearl Harbor. Books have been written about the camps before (and need to be written about still), but there is very little out there on the ethnic tension that gripped Hawaii. Red Fish is not a book with a heavy handed message. Mostly it is about a bunch of boys who decide to try and do something impossible -- in this case raise Tomi’s father’s fishing sampan which was sunk along with several other boats owned by Japanese American fishermen in the days after Pearl Harbor. The boat has been underwater in a canal for over a year when they decide to take on the project and even though it seems impossible, Tomi is determined to give it everything he has. Salisbury shows that even though Tomi (and Billy and the rest of their crew) are young, the complexities of the war’s impact do not escape them and the need to make a positive change in the terrible atmosphere gripping their hometown is critical to their own self worth. They might not be soldiers but still they are feeling the effects of war.

Because House of the Red Fish deals with a lot of things that any teen would identify with, regardless of its war time setting, it should be an easy book to entice them to read, especially boys. Hopefully by the end they will have absorbed some of the history and ethical questions that Salisbury presents them with about doing the right thing and standing by your friends even when times are tough. Regardless, readers will find a wonderful story to sink their teeth into here and a great group of friends to cheer on.

Although I have taken a ton of history classes (and even taught the subject for awhile) there are many aspects of even the Second World War (the one we seem culturally obsessed with in America) that I am unfamiliar with. I have never read much about the war in Italy, and so when I came across a couple of YA books set in that country I was quite excited to see what I could learn.

Unlike many other book books on war, Domenic’s War and Fire in the Hills both use civilian teenagers dragged into the fighting as their protagonists, thus effectively stripping away all suggestion that war is hardest for the soldiers and “enemy combatants” (whatever the hell that even means). For these two protagonists, Domenic and Roberto, the war is everything; it consumes their lives and has resulted in dangers and horrors that people living in peaceful surroundings can not imagine. Beyond the day-to-day privations and fears however, both young men find themselves in circumstances that demand they must enter into the war -- they must act even though neither of them is a soldier. The question authors Curtis Parkinson and Donna Jo Napoli are both separately posing then is if anyone is really safe from war when it comes to your country; if anyone has the luxury to live in peace when the drums are sounding at your door.

Shades of Jimmy Stewart’s Shenandoah were in both books; 1940s Italy might be a world away from the U.S. Civil War but still the story is remarkably similar.

For Domenic, the war is primarily about two British pilots who escaped from the Germans and now rely on his family to provide them with food and water while hiding out in an abandoned mill. Domenic is the best choice to take the soldiers supplies as he is young. His father explains to him early on, “ ‘Someone has to take food to them. It cannot be me or your brother. Anyone who sees us will wonder why we are leaving our work and going somewhere else every day. But a young boy...’ He shrugged. ‘They’ll take no notice. They’ll think, He’s only going to play, or He’s taking food to his aunt. He tapped his son on his knobby knee. ‘Only you can do this and not attract attention. Only you.’”

Just like that Domenic’s actions become crucial to keeping two men alive -- his ability to hide from German patrols and effectively lie when caught makes all the difference for the Englishmen. Domenic takes his new role very seriously and sees it as his war effort, his chance to help the Allies.

This would be enough for Parkinson to craft a very tense drama around, but Domenic’s War is also about the nearby Battle of Monte Cassino, one of the more intense and controversial battles in the entire war. Monte Cassino was a Benedictine Monastery founded in 524 by St. Benedict. American bombers destroyed it in early 1944 as part of the advance to Rome. The Germans were entrenched around the building (although it appears they were never inside it) and several ground battles ensued. In the end Monte Cassino was blasted off the face of the earth and it is only through the efforts of several German officers (many of whom had ulterior motives) who initiated a transfer of the library and art treasures of the monastery to the Vatican prior to the fighting that any of the great Abbey’s history, as well as artwork stored there from other places under siege, was preserved.

Parkinson does not focus on the actions of the armies however, but looks at the civilians who sought shelter in the monastery as the fighting heated up. More teenagers play key roles in this storyline and it is only at the very end when all the characters come together that the reader can be sure who will survive. That nearly all of the people under threat are simply helpless bystanders is something hammered home again and again and comparisons to the current situation in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Sudan are inescapable. Domenic’s War thus leaves readers not only with a much deeper understanding of what happened at Monte Cassino but also what could very well be happening in hard fought places around the world today.

Fire in the Hills is about young adults who take a more proactive approach to the war, and find themselves actively engaging the enemy. This is actually a companion novel to Stones in Water, picking up after Roberto escapes from the German labor camp and returns home to Italy. (The book can easily stand on its own.) He is desperate to get back to his family in Venice but after landing with the Americans in Sicily during a heated battle, he is forced to slowly make his way north depending completely on the kindness of strangers for food and shelter. Eventually he is captured by the Germans and used against his will as an interpreter and nearly killed when his captors are shot by Italian teenagers. Roberto finds himself spinning from one bad situation into another until he finds a secure hiding place with a family farming in the midst of war. It is here that he eventually meets the young Volpe Rossa -- the Red Fox -- with whom he joins the Italian Underground and begins the important civilian fight against the occupying German Army.

Napoli’s interest in writing this book is to tell the story of the Underground, something that is all too often left out of history. Underground movements are present in every country ever occupied in every war and their impact on final liberation can not be overstated. They put their lives on the line just as much as the soldiers and for Roberto, Red Fox and their friends, the cost is horrific. When you keep taking chances, eventually you are going to get caught -- that’s just the law of averages. And even though Roberto knows the job he does is becoming increasingly more dangerous it is not work that he, or any of his friends, is willing to give up. I knew this book was going to have an ending that gave me reason to pause, but it really had no choice. The kind of lives being led by the “partigiani” meant there were a lot of sad endings, but that is all too often how liberation comes, through one sad story at a time, in events that are rarely celebrated by the very people they have struggled so valiantly to save. Consider me now a dedicated student of Italian war history and thanks to both Parkinson and Napoli for getting me here.

Finally, I included Timothy Decker’s picture book, The Letter Home in my column last April and as it is about World War I, I want to mention it again here. Decker has crafted a sparsely written and beautifully drawn masterpiece with Letter and it deserves way more attention than it has received from the buying public. It is not a book for the very young, but children who are old enough to understand war on any level (and have seen even a few minutes of the current news) would appreciate this story about a battlefield medic who has sent a letter telling his family he is coming home. With words he conveys images far less painful and frightening than reality; he tries to shield the young boy reading his letter from what he has really seen and experienced. In the end, with his powerful quote from a Buddhist poem, the medic encourages a new way of looking at the significance of one man’s life: “Compassion as action to save the world.” In the midst of war, whether declared against nations or fear, a compassionate act can still change everything. World War I was over almost ninety years ago, but Decker’s truth on that score is still the same; his elegantly written truth about war and life is still and awesomely, the same.

Cool Read: When I was in elementary school we had this horrible fifty states assignment that I still remember with frustration. It involved drawing the states, their birds and seals and then listing their principal industries. It was one of the most useless things I ever had to waste time doing and a perfect example of homework as “busywork.” (But really -- I’m over it now, can’t you tell?) Poet Diane Siebert has joined together with illustrator Stephen T. Johnson to beat the old ideas and craft a truly outstanding example of what makes many states unique in their book, Tour America: A Journey Through Poems and Art. Many other authors have written books looking at individual state history or examples of significant regional contributions to America but Siebert’s poems celebrate some of the more unusual aspects of each place. New York for instance has both “Gargoyles” and “Niagara Falls” to illustrate what that state has to offer. Siebert also writes of events (“The Kentucky Derby”) natural sites (“Great Salt Lake” and “Badlands”) and landmarks (“The Golden Gate Bridge” and “The Gateway Arch”). But there are also a lot of surprises, like “The El” for Chicago and “Cadillac Ranch” for Texas. Every poem is accompanied by pitch perfect illustrations as varied as the subject matter: sweeping pastels for the prairie or urban collage for the El. It’s smart and interesting and most delightfully, not the slightest bit dull. What a find for bored students of any age!