Book Reviews


Where the Poppies Now Grow, by Hilary Robinson, illustrated by Martin Impey

Strauss House Productions  ISBN 9780957124585

This moving blend of fiction and non-fiction opens with childhood friends Ben and Ray’s carefree playing in a field in France, a place which is later to become a scene of war.  As the story unfolds, the reader follows their journey into adulthood and through the First World War before the book closes depicting the two friends as war veterans.  During this journey, the field where the poppies now grow is constant, providing the backdrop to the events Ben and Ray experience.

A sympathetic narrative poem builds line by line, using repetition and rhythm to excellent effect.  Each page begins with the same repetitive structure: ‘This is the…’ which lends a rhythmic and comforting meter to the text, reminiscent of the traditional nursery rhyme ‘This is the House that Jack Built.’  In stark contrast to the events portrayed, the gentle watercolour illustrations soften subject matter which could be distressing for young children.  Observant and younger readers may also enjoy spotting the tiny mouse who accompanies Ben on his journey.

This is a poignant yet hopeful story of how friendship endures the hardest of times and provides an accessible route into considering the First World War for those in the 4-7 age range. Perhaps the most striking double-spread is the one depicting Ben carrying his friend across no-man’s land, with the solitary line ‘Ben was the soldier Ray found’.

Dedicated to their great uncles who fell in the Somme, this author/illustrator team are commended for the way they have explored the experience of war in a manner that provides reassurance to younger readers.  By the end of the book we have turned full circle and the field in question appears as it was at the start of the book.  Some things have changed but life goes on and the tree which the boys planted near the start of the tale has grown tall and strong.

Carolyn Swain

Civer of Over the Line

Over the Line by Tom Palmer Barrington Stoke ISBN 978781123935 £6.99

This book is important because it links the First World War with the world of football. Tom Palmer is an accomplished, successful writer whose books motivate reluctant readers, especially boys. "Over the Line" is his first venture into non-fiction writing. It tells the story of heroic Jack Cock, one of the first generation of professional footballers. Jack enlisted in the Footballers' Battalion and went on to play in the Flanders Cup. He also experienced the horror and tragedy of World War One. The first-person narrative is powerful and moving. Jack survived the trenches and scored England's first international goal after the end of the war. This is a text that will connect with children. There is information about the history of the football, such as how Arsenal got its name, an eye-witness account of trench warfare and consideration of the wider implications of the conflict such as an observation about a character who "kept on being a victim of war long after peace was declared." At the bottom of each page there are attractive black and white illustrations. The book is supported by an excellent website which has a wealth of background information for teachers and pupils including a playscript and videos of places referred to in the text. I will certainly be using it with my classes.

Brenda Marshall

WW1 artillery with title banner and poppy superimposedWorld War One - Weapons and Warfare by Adrian Gilbert    Franklin Watts

ISBN 9781445129280 £8.99

This 32 page book focuses on military developments and weaponry of World War One. The layout is clear and easy to read, with biography boxes of key inventors/individuals and photographs of all weaponry described. The book's tone is informative, and it does cover a wide range of information effectively. It would be well-received by students of Key Stages 2-5 and the range of content does encourage curiosity to find out more about the events mentioned. I can see this book being enjoyed by children, and adults, yet was surprised at the limited mention on casualties. The focus of the book was very much on the weapons themselves, with little consideration of the staggering deaths caused by World War One. I can see this book as part of a collection, with the aim being to learn more about World War One, and urge schools to ensure the human cost of these weapons also apparent.  

Polly Tucknott

Cover showing WW1 troop with a title banner and poppy superimposedWorld War One - Causes and Consequences by Simon Adams Franklin Watts

ISBN 9781445129259 £8.99

An accessible 32 page investigation into World War 1; this book is clearly written and well-supported with maps, photographs and biography boxes. It is a very good introduction to the subject and would be welcomed by Key Stage 2-5 readers. The chronological layout works well, as do the useful timeline boxes which are on almost every page. The book does include a glossary also yet those looking for an in-depth study should look elsewhere. Also, despite the title, there is less content than expected on the consequences of the war. It is strong when describing causes and events of the war (with greater emphasis on military campaigns than personal experiences). This book is great for those with no knowledge of the period although its easy-to-read tone also makes it good revision material (my GCSE students greatly enjoyed reading it recently). There is very little primary source material for students to consider, mostly photographs and sound bite quotes, although this does mean it flows well as a narrative. I would recommend this book for school libraries and can see it being used as an effective 'starting textbook' for the subject.

Polly Tucknott

cover of Valentine Joe showing a soldier in silhouetteValentine Joe, by Rebecca Stevens Chicken House

ISBN: 9781909489608 £6.99

In this cleverly constructed time-slip novel, the present-day life of 14 year-old Rose meets that of Joe, a too-young soldier of the First World War.  Rose and her Grandad are visiting Ypres and whilst she is struggling to come to terms with the death of her father, unexpected events take her back in time to an Ypres under fire, and the horror of the trenches, through her friendship with Valentine Joe. Rose has seen Joe’s grave so when she travels back across the years and meets him, she knows his fate.  Will she try to change history?  She has already lost one person close to her and now she faces losing a second.

The time-slip device enables Stevens to put us right into the reality of war as we experience events through Rose’s eyes.  This poignant and heart-warming story would be good to use when studying the First World War, but it is a good read for its own sake. Age-range   9-13

Pam Dowson

Cover showing a montage of WW1 images and artefacts50 Things You Should Know About the First World War by Jim Eldridge, QED publishing

Jim Eldridge is an experienced writer whose work hits the right note and informs and entertains. His “My Story” titles in the Scholastic series are very popular and inform and entertain pupils. This book is a superb introduction to the First World War. Its strength is the range of methods it uses to present information. These include maps, infographics, time lines of key events,  contemporary photos, a Who’s Who? for both The Allies and the Central Powers and a Glossary. The result is that most key stage 2 children can look at a page and learn something from it. My class was particularly interested in the sections on poison gas, war wounds, the development of blood banks, the Mines of the Messines, the formation of the RAF and the photographs of Passchendaele.  Some of the quotations written down the side of some of the double page spreads provoked discussion and reflection such as “The average life expectancy of an Allied fighter pilot was just 11 days.”, “One German general said, “Build no more fortresses. Build railways.” And “Parks in Paris were filled with cattle so the city would not starve.” I recommend the book as an introduction to the First World War, and at only £8.99 it is excellent value.

Brenda Marshall

Cover showing a WW1 tank

Machines and Weaponry of World War 1 by Charlie Samuels

9780750281416 £8.99

This 48 page book covers a wide range of WW1 weaponry and does so in an approachable and detailed manner. Each section includes photographs, is well laid-out and the language is accessible; the glossary and index at the back are good additions. The book is a very interesting read, with detailed examples of weapons in action. This helps to understand the weaponry within the context of the war, rather than in isolation. There was also a pleasing selection of eyewitness accounts, which helped to highlight the human relevance. The tone of the book was informative and it was enjoyable to read. I would recommend this book for Key Stage 2 and upwards; children will enjoy the range of weapons examined and it would fit very well in school libraries for more independent investigations into WW1.

Polly Tucknott, Historical Association

Cover of Stories of WW1 showing soldiers silhouetted against a skylineStories of WW1, edited by Tony Bradman, Orchard Books

9781408330357 £7.99

Tony Bradman has collaborated with a range of bestselling children’s authors to compile an anthology of stories about the First World War. The range of authors and subjects is excellent, including Jamila Gavin’s tale of Khudadad Khan, the first non-British soldier to be awarded the Military Cross, Oisin McGann’s story about the Easter rising in Ireland, Sophie Masson’s other Anzac Day, and Nigel Hinton’s exploration of the difficulties facing Germans living in the UK when the war broke out. Several stories are inspired by grandfathers and foster an understanding of the impact of war on those who endured it and those who survived. Malorie Blackman tells a moving story of two half brothers during the Great War. Geraldine McCaughrean, Tim Bower, Leslie Wilson, and Paul Dowsell portray the psychological impact of the War, while Linda Newbury and Adele Geras explore women and girls who stayed behind.

There is a wide cross-section of people and perspectives which will broaden the reader’s understanding of the war. My favourite is a beautifully shaped story by Ian Beck that starts when Nel is 4 and ends when she is 96, emphasising that the war’s psychological impact long outlasted its ending in 1918. Highly recommended for older key stage 2 children.

Brenda Marshall

Cover of Dear Jelly by Sarah Ridley showing a drawing of a marching soldierDear Jelly: Family Letters from the First World War by Sarah Ridley, Franklin Watts 9781445128177 £7.99

This book is a collection of letters written from elder brothers William and Robert Semple to their siblings Mabel and Jelly (Eileen) during the First World War. With photos of the family interweaved throughout, and copies of the letters, including sketches, dates and addresses, this book is an engaging way to bring everyday realities of the First World War to life for a  young audience.

Alongside the often moving portrayal of life for young people during the war, there is a timeline of more detailed events which help give context and substance to the sequence of letters. Despite the harsh realities of life on the frontline, the most affecting feature of this book is the way in which the brothers do what they can to reassure their sisters at home. Through wonderful anecdotes of the humdrum daily activities, as well as hand-drawn witty sketches and a teasing, affectionate tone to the letters, the portrayal of wartime life is made much more accessible to a young audience.

There are many opportunities for children to see similarities between their own lives and that of these hidden ancestors – in the activities (football and the joys of home-baked food), to the family interactions and visits home. I can highly recommend this book as an engaging resource for KS2. With opportunities for literacy lessons (letter writing and poetry), maths (sequences), history (timelines and primary and secondary sources of information) and PSE (bereavement), this book offers a breadth of opportunities for insightful cross-curriculum studies around World War 1.

Laura Davies

SOS Lusitania by Kevin Kiely, O’BrienCover of SOS Lusitania by Kevin Kiely 9781847172303 £6.99

This book gives an unusual insight into World War 1. 13-year-old Finbar runs away from his home in Queenstown to follow his father, a sea captain on the Lusitania. Fin is haunted by the nightmare of a shipwreck. Fin’s father says, “There’s evil in the air. You are picking up signals in your dreams.” Indeed there is a sense of foreboding, duplicity and uncertainty running through the narrative.  Fin encounters a German selling a codebook to a spy, but his story is not believed.

Between voyages there is vivid description of Fin’s leave in New York. On the return journey Fin becomes a deck-hand running messages. He befriends Penny and we are given an American perspective of events. The sinking itself is well-described and exciting. I was especially moved by the description of Irish locals struggling to cope with the aftermath of the tragedy. Fin’s story is resolved, but the end of the book raises questions. Was the sinking simply a German attack or were the British implicated in an attempt to encourage American involvement in the war? The fact section at the back of the book is thorough, as is the glossary. Recommended for readers of 10 and over.

Brenda Marshall, Port Regis School

Cover of Walter Tull's Scrapbook by Michaela MorganWalter Tull's Scrapbook by Michaela Morgan Frances Lincoln Children's Books 9781847802125 £11.99

A true story presented as a fictionalized scrapbook, this will be a real hit with a wide range of children. The grandson of slaves, Walter Tull survived a tough childhood in England to become a top professional footballer, then the first black officer in the British Army in WW1. Swiftly told, the story balances excitement, matter-of-fact detail and pathos. Contemporary photographs, news cuttings and greetings cards are superbly displayed, supplemented by attractive modern illustrations. What little the text and design lose in authenticity is more than made up for in the book's very broad appeal.  A relatively easy read, it also repays re-reading and dipping. Over 30 colourful pages, a boy (or girl) will enjoy becoming an expert on a fascinating historical topic. At the same time, there is a striking relevance to current concerns over racism in football. Clearly, the remarkable Walter Tull will be an inspiration to any young lad, and in his Spurs strip and 2nd Lieutenant's uniform, his pictures will regularly look out from my classroom display.

Leslie Smith, Port Regis School [This review first appeared in English 4-11 No. 48, Summer 2013]

Cover of Charlie's War by Mick Manning and Brita GranstromCharlie's War Illustrated - Remembering World War One, Mick Manning and Brita Granström

Franklin Watts ISBN 9781445110332 £11.99

Charlie joined up as soon as Kitchener’s finger pointed at him from the poster. This is the story of WWI through his memories, as told to his grandson, the author - a personal dimension which is affecting without being overly sentimental. The scrapbook style is most effective: 32 thoughtfully and attractively designed pages include appealing bite-sized chunks of text, photographs, cartoons, cigarette cards and good full colour illustrations. All of the key aspects of the war on the Western Front are covered, the emphasis being on the soldier’s view. Young readers will also be drawn in by the references to horses, Greece and Egypt, hospitals and letters home, tanks, ships and zeppelins, as well as by the glimpses of Charlie’ s life before and after the war. The narrative is clearly tied in at start and finish with the continuing importance of Remembrance Day. Highly recommended.

Leslie Smith, Head of History, Port Regis, Motcombe Park, Shaftesbury

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