The year is 1818. In a small parish church in Oberndorf, Austria at the evening mass on December 24th, a new song, sung by the writer and composer, is heard for the first time. They are accompanied by a single guitar and the choir. Assistant Father Joseph Mohr had penned the six stanzas in 1816. Local school teacher and organist, Franz Xaver Gruber, from the nearby town of Arnsdorf had been asked to write the music that very day. Silent Night, Holy Night is the song.
Over the years whenever I've heard this music, I've immediately thought of my mom. It was her favorite Christmas hymn. After reading John Hendrix's new title released yesterday, Shooting at the Stars: The Christmas Truce of 1914 (Abrams Books For Young Readers) this melody has new meaning. It began an unprecedented event.
One hundred years ago, a horrible war began.
It was the biggest conflict the world had ever seen. Journalists would call it the Great War, but it wasn't great at all. It was dreadful. Today, we call it the First World War.
With that introductory paragraph, it's as if we've just heard Once upon a time. We realize we are in the capable hands of an informed storyteller. Five succinct explanatory paragraphs about this European conflict follow taking us into the treacherous trenches found in France during December 1914.
A young British soldier is writing a letter home to his mother. In the first few sentences we learn he has been in the same location under increasingly difficult conditions due to terrain, weather and the nearby position of the German soldiers for almost four months. His descriptions of the mud, rats and their bunkers read like a definition of deplorable.
He continues his letter recounting the happenings of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with a sense of awe. As darkness fell over the war zone he and his buddies were gathered around a fire when he heard singing. Who would be so thoughtless as to announce where they were? When he gathered his courage and peeked over the top of the trench, he couldn't believe his eyes or his ears.
Lined up along the trench on the German side were a row of tiny evergreen trees lit with candles and lanterns. The German soldiers were singing boldly and bravely, Silent Night, Holy Night. A Christmas Eve celebration was happening in the last place it should have been. All night the voices could be heard.
Christmas Day morning brought more surprises and a question was shouted out to the British soldiers. No Man's Land became a place where comrades were laid to rest, small tokens and stories were exchanged and the traditions inherent in a holiday were observed by men from all walks of life who decided peace was possible. When an enraged officer appeared as the British returned to their side, his orders for the time being were, as Charlie told his mother, followed to protect what they had experienced.
Again and again, what elevates a picture book to excellence is the passion the author and/or illustrator have for their project. If it is there, it shines like the brightest beacon in pitch black darkness through the words and pictures. Every part of this volume created by John Hendrix is luminous.
By including the initial enlightening two pages we are given enough background of the larger picture before the focus shifts to the specific days of the Christmas Truce. This portion is written clearly enough to be easily understood, especially when using the example of dominoes. It's a great technique to use something known by most to explain something probably not known as completely.
By having a young solider (he finished school only months before) write to his mother and sign his name at the end of the narrative, makes the experience more personal for readers. When he relates the conditions within his trench and the surrounding area it gives us a true sense of time and place. Specific details garnered from research make our involvement all the more real. Here are a couple of sentences as an example.
Rain means more mud.
The mud here is like none I've ever experienced. When it rains, a thick, loamy foam churns up from the ground and fouls everything we own.
Of course I first opened the dust jacket removing it from the book case. To my total delight they are different. The rich brown extends from flap edge to flap edge acting as a frame for two important visuals. On the right flap John Hendrix includes a portion of the beginning of the letter and on the left we see a section of the signature at the letter's end. The illustration on the front signifies the beginning of the truce as told by Hendrix. On the back we see the men engaged in one of the activities of the day with a key line beneath.
WHY CAN'T WE JUST GO HOME---
AND HAVE PEACE?
My favorite illustration from the book spans across the book case. In shades of blues and browns, the area of the trenches and No Man's Land on the night of Christmas day is shown. Stars and a moon shine overhead. A small glowing Christmas tree is left on the German side, soldiers peering over the edge, one arm raised in greeting. Charley has stood up after finishing the letter, waving his hand in return.
The same shade of blue in varying intensity is used on the opening and closing endpapers. There are two different pictures of Charley in his trench. The first shows the length of the trench as he moves along carrying his weapon and gear. In the second only a portion of the trench is seen as Charley leans against the wall with his letter. These both appear in more complete color inside the body of the book.
These illustrations by John Hendrix were
drawn with graphite, fluid acrylic washes and gouache on Strathmore Vellum Bristol.
Most of them flow across both pages drawing readers deeply into the story. When necessary to the pacing, a single page, framed or unframed or a smaller illustration will be placed into the overall design.
Details in the scenery, the man-made embankments and bunkers, the equipment and uniforms increases the authenticity. Another nice touch is to have some portions of the text appear to be handwritten, others in text and still others, the spoken words of the Germans, in another font style. I think it's important to note Hendrix begins with two pages of wordless illustrations, except for a date, and concludes with the same.
The first time I read this, where I was sitting literally pulled away. I was in the trench with Charley as he wrote the letter and when he experienced those two miraculous Christmas days. Shooting at the Stars: The Christmas Truce of 1914 eloquently written and exquisitely illustrated by John Hendrix is a must have title. At the end of the book an author's note, glossary, bibliography and index are included. Be sure to read the dedication.
Update: On Christmas Day 2014 Julie Danielson, author, reviewer at Kirkus and blogger at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast posted an interview with John Hendrix at Kirkus.
For more information about John Hendrix and his work follow the link to his website embedded first in this post. If you follow the second link it will take you to his Tumblr page dedicated to this title. He has posted several illustrations. I am so appreciative of this book I am giving away a copy.
Be sure to head on over to Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher to see what recommendations other bloggers are including this week in the 2014 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge. I am aware that my title is a fictionalized account of true events but felt compelled to include it in the challenge because of the thorough research employed by the author/illustrator.