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And the Soldiers Sang Hardcover – Illustrated, August 24, 2011
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"Told in panels, graphic-novel style, and with stark, poetic prose, this large-scale picture book for older children is a jaw-droppingly powerful depiction of war and of humanity's ability to transcend its most dismal experiences. During World War I, a war that 'welcomed no melody,' Owen Davis, a fictional young Welsh soldier, recounts the true story of how his fellow soldiers put aside guns on Christmas Eve 1914 and joined the Germans in Christmas caroling. Kelley's expressionistic paintings are haunting and magnificent."
[STARRED REVIEW] "Definitely for older children (and most likely to be appreciated by adults), this version of the true story of the Christmas Truce of 1914 is told through the eyes of a fictional young Welshman, with a terse yet lyrical text and stark, dramatic illustrations.. Grim, upsetting and utterly beautiful, this is both a strong anti-war statement and a fascinating glimpse of a little-known historical event."
Timed to coincide with Armistice Day, this solemn graphic narrative recalls Christmas 1914, when British and German soldiers called a fleeting truce. American children's poet laureate Lewis, who worked with Kelley on Black Cat Bone, composes grim first-person prose. Leaving it to readers to decode the WWI colloquialisms, Lewis writes from the viewpoint of a fictive Welsh infantryman, Owen Davies: "In December, lying doggo each morning in my serpentine cellar, I wrote in [my] gilded daybook.... The frozen ground above became a bone orchard for soldiers running on raids-and falling like ninepins quick with lead." On Christmas Eve, Owen hears a "baritone singing Stille Nacht-Silent Night"; an accomplished tenor himself, he responds with "The First Noel." Tentatively, the rival sides approach each other for an unprecedented and brief Christmas celebration. Kelley conjures the muddy trenches and frigid European winter in his brooding, earth-tone pastels. His contorted soldiers, surrounded by bare-limbed trees and barbed wire, evoke the disturbing sketches of Egon Schiele. Concluding in tragedy, it memorializes a century-old war and a snuffed-out glimmer of peace. Ages 9-up. (Nov.)
In the midst of the bleakness of World War I on the Western Front somewhere in Belgium, a miracle occurred. On Christmas Eve 1914, the Germans and the English were at a stalemate. Each side had gone as far as they could go, and instead of pushing on, they dug a series of extensive trenches that allowed them to hide from the bullets being fired by their enemies. Of course, this meant that no movement could be made and so the two sides fought on across the space between called "no man's land" with very little effect. But on Christmas Eve, the German soldiers proffered a temporary peace, a cease-fire, for both sides to celebrate the holiday. As unlikely as this was, the truce held while they shared songs and food as if they were old friends. On Boxing Day, however, the war returned to these beleaguered men. The narrator is shot having just spent Christmas singing to the enemy. Lewis's prose is sometimes overwrought but the story is strong nonetheless. Kelley's dark palette and angular faces showcase the pain, the ennui, and the futility of war. This is a great addition for middle school libraries, in particular. Pair it with John McCutcheon's less dark Christmas in the Trenches (Peachtree, 2006), which can be used with much younger children.
About the Author
J. Patrick Lewis spent years as an economics professor before finding his passion as a writer. Today he holds an esteemed reputation in children's publishing, having authored more than 60 picture books, including such acclaimed titles as Black Cat Bone and The House. In 2011 he was named The Children's Poet Laureate by the The Poetry Foundation.
Gary Kelley is an internationally known artist who has illustrated numerous picture books, including Black Cat Bone. His artwork has appeared in such prominent periodicals as The New Yorker and Rolling Stone and can be seen in Barnes & Noble's bookstore murals.
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It almost reads like a graphic novel, and it almost reads like a picture book, but it is a fiction book geared for 5th grade and up. To me it seems too short to be for older kids, but it would be difficult for younger kids to grasp what is happening. I do appreciate that the pictures portray the dismal subject of the book, but they are extremely unappealing. I just can't see any child of any age picking up this book to read for enjoyment, and it isn't factual enough to be used for research.
The ending of this book upset me, and not in the emotional way a good book gets to a reader. It shows that, even in the middle of wonderful acts of humanity, horrible things can happen. While that could be considered a good thing to show in a book, it felt extremely unnecessary to me. The Christmas truce is supposed to be a good example of human beings putting their differences aside, not an example of war gone bad.
So, I'm glad the author covered the subject and it would be a good way for teachers to start their lesson on WWI, but I did not like the pictures, did not like the actual story itself, and think it would be difficult to find an audience of children reading this on their own.