Veteran children’s author Aaron Shepard (The Baker’s Dozen, 2010, etc.) tells the true story of how World War I troops on both sides of the trenches spontaneously observed Christmas 1914 together.
Drawing on documentary footage and soldiers’ letters and diaries, Shepard creates Tom, a composite British soldier writing his sister about this extraordinary event. Stilted language sometimes sits side by side with a conversational tone: “In truth, what happened seems almost like a fairy tale, and if I hadn’t been through it myself, I would scarce believe it. Just imagine: While you and the family sang carols before the fire there in London, I did the same with enemy soldiers here on the battlefields of France!” A long passage describes life in the trenches—the fear, the waiting, the rain, the mud. Fittingly, the realistic illustrations start in shades of mud brown, relieved pages later by the frosty blue hues of a magical sight—twinkling lights from a row of Christmas trees on the German line. Shepard weaves in reminders of time and place: “Stille nacht, heilige nacht….This carol may not yet be familiar to us in Britain, but [a soldier friend] knew it and translated: ‘Silent night, holy night.’ ” After trading their countries’ favorite Christmas carols, “there we were in No Man’s Land, over a hundred soldiers and officers of each side, shaking hands with men we’d been trying to kill just hours earlier!” In a subsequent illustration, a bonfire casts its glow over the frosty gathering. They exchange family photos, mementos and newspapers, and Tom muses, “These are not the ‘savage barbarians’ we’ve read so much about. They are men…like ourselves.” Noting that the soldiers will dutifully resume fighting after this Christmas outbreak of peace, Tom offers food for thought: “All nations say they want peace. Yet on this Christmas morning, I wonder if we want it quite enough.” An author’s note places this event in historical context and dispels some popular misconceptions.
Among the many entries celebrating this event’s centennial, librarians and teachers should welcome this historically accurate telling for ages 9 and up.