Maybe it’s the second round of ice and sleet heading my way, but I find myself writing today about a couple of new children’s books about struggle. Of course, this is children’s literature, which likes to leave room for hope and triumph over adversity. Each one of these books ends on a hopeful note, indeed. But I wasn’t bothered to be sitting in a café, reading them while waiting on my latte, and getting teary-eyed. Perhaps it’s the colder weather, which lends itself to the indoors and thoughtful, more ponderous storytelling.
Michael Morpurgo—former British Children’s Laureate and author of more than a hundred books, including War Horse—has a moving new short story out on shelves, illustrated by artist and printmaker Gemma O’Callaghan. Half a Man is a work of fiction, though the book’s dedication hints that it was perhaps inspired by the true events of one courageous man’s life.
This is an intense story with an opening that doesn’t skirt the horrors of war or make room for squeamishness. It’s told from the point of a view of a man named Michael, looking back on his own childhood and how, as a boy, he had the same nightmare repeatedly—one of a burning face with “flames licking out of his ears and mouth.” It was the boy’s own grandfather in his dream, and nearby was a blazing ship. In real life, the boy’s grandfather had three half-fingers on one hand and just a bit of his upper lip left—not to mention one of his ears “was little more than a hole in his head.”
Michael’s grandfather rarely visited, but when he did, his mother urged the boy not to stare. He couldn’t help but steal quick looks anyway. “I was never at all revolted by what I saw,” Michael recalls. Eventually, Michael learned about the incident, very similar to his dreams, behind his grandfather’s copious scars: He had been in the merchant navy in World War II and burned on a ship in the Atlantic. Afterwards, the very act of smiling was difficult; his skin wouldn’t stretch properly, and it caused him great pain.
One summer, the boy visited him alone in the Scilly Isles. It’s there he ran free, wandering and playing. He also learned details about his grandfather’s war experiences and tremendous losses; his struggles to rehabilitate and his post-war alcohol addiction, when finally home; how and why the marriage to the boy’s grandmother ended (after the war, he became a “monster man,” he explained); and why Michael’s own mother was kept from her father for many years. On a fishing expedition, his grandfather told Michael, a teenager at this point, how much he always appreciated that he rarely looked away from his face. He also explained that the hate and anger that consumed him after the war was “like a cancer. It eats away at you.”
It’s a book with an ending that provides closure for the Michael’s grandmother and mother, who had become estranged in later years. Michael himself, at the book’s close, is now a man. And his grandfather, who has come to a place of forgiveness in his own life, leaves a note for Michael on his deathbed: “I want things put right. Thanks for looking at me like you did.”
(Yes. At this point, my latte has arrived, and I’m hiding tears from my barista.)
It’s a poignant tale, and O’Callaghan’s spare illustrations, rendered in ink and screen prints with primarily oranges, blacks, and shades of blue, capture well the vivid emotions of this story, while also leaving a lot to the reader’s imagination.
J. Patrick Lewis’ The Wren and the Sparrow, illustrated by Yevgenia Nayberg, is an original Holocaust fable, inspired by events in the Lodz Ghetto, where Yankele Hershkowitz , described as a popular street performer, was a prisoner. Evidently, survivors recorded his songs when the war was over.
“In a dark time, the Old Man lives in shadows,” the book opens. He was called the Wren on account of his beautiful singing voice, and his student was a young girl, known as the Sparrow. They lived in a small town in Poland, once lively with music but now overtaken by “the Tyrant”—the illustration here shows Nazi guards—who collects all the town’s instruments.
When the Wren arrives to hand over his hurdy-gurdy, he first plays a song, while the Sparrow and the townspeople join him in singing: “It is our grief / It is our pain / It is our fate, / We don’t complain. / Our hopeless days / Give way to nights / Whose wounded stars / Have dimmed their lights.” The guards grab the instrument from the man, and as he is dragged away, he sings “his last song on earth.” The Sparrow, however, sneaks later into the night to retrieve the instrument and hide it for safekeeping. And three post-war years later, a young boy, “one of the few children to survive,” finds the hurdy-gurdy. Tucked inside is a special note.
It is, as the Kirkus review describes it, “a lyrical look at a horrific time” and “an appeal to the necessity of remembering.” Nayberg, a native of Kiev, Ukraine, illustrates the story with tenderness and a palette that grows progressively warmer as readers reach the hopeful ending.
You may need some tissues handy, but make sure you catch both books. Heartfelt and never cloying, these are truly stirring tales.
THE WREN AND THE SPARROW. Copyright © 2015 by J. Patrick Lewis. Illustrations copyright © 2015 by Yevgenia Nayberg. lllustration reproduced by permission of the publisher, Kar-Ben Publishing, Minneapolis.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.