'The Orphans of Normandy: A True Story of World War II Told Through Drawings by Children" by Nancy Amis puts a face on war, 100 faces to be more exact. I cry every time I read this simple, sweet and haunting book. It's recommended for children 8 to 12, but even first-graders would understand this story.
One hundred girls were living in the orphanage (Clos) in Caen, France, when the Allied invasion began in 1944. As the bombs began to fall, the children and their teachers took shelter in a nearby mine. After a little more than a month, the Germans forced them to leave and begin their 150-mile journey to safety in Beaufort-en-Vallee.
In the pictures and the words of the orphans, the book tells the story of life in the orphanage before the war: "Under the apple trees, our beautiful cows grazed." It goes on to describe the Allied invasion: "… A plane dove and bombed German trucks hidden near the Clos. Some Germans were killed, others wounded …" And then describes the long trek to safety: "The brave little girls of the Clos followed other evacuees. All the while waving their white flags at the approaching planes."
Amis used the orphans' hand-drawn map to bike from Caen to Beaufort-en-Vallee in the year 2000. In the course of her journey, she answered questions about this historical event she's heard about since her childhood. Amis is director of education at the Children's Museum of the Lowcountry here in Charleston.
"The Donkey of Gallipoli: A True Story of Courage in World War I" by Mark Greenwood is a picture book that follows the life of Jack Simpson and his childhood friend, Billy Lowes. After being separated for years, Jack rescues Billy in the heat of battle against the Turkish forces on the Gallipoli Peninsula.
After stretchers became scarce due to heavy casualties, Jack began using a donkey to rescue more than 300 men in 24 days. One morning, he set out with his donkey even through he'd been warned of snipers. A "bullet struck Jack in the back and passed through his heart."
The book closes with information about the war, the donkeys and the mascots, including this note: In some places the trenches of the warring sides were so close together that one side could hear the other singing songs in the evening. "Sometimes the soldiers exchanged food and gifts."
Why would anyone want to read books about war to young children? Even more than the examples of bravery and courage, the children who don't know the horrors of war may become the adults who repeat them. Stories like these, of orphans and donkeys, may be important in perpetuating peace.