Throughout history during times of war heroism can assume different forms. Some acts are so small they are swallowed up by time only known by a select few. We are indeed fortunate when individuals are able to document those moments so decades later they can be remembered. Other incidents are on a much grander scale. Even these can be lost in the larger surrounding events.
During the American Civil War a fierce battle at Fredericksburg, Virginia was fought during the month of December 1862. Soldier Song: A True Story Of The Civil War (Disney Hyperion, February 7, 2017) written by Debbie Levy with illustrations by Gilbert Ford focuses on happenings after the battle. This story reveals the greatest truth held in the hearts gathered at Fredericksburg.
THE CIVIL WAR, America's great and terrible conflict between North and South, was in its second winter.
It was the desire of President Lincoln, before the effective date of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, to have a big win over the Confederacy. Floating bridges were built by the Union troops to cross the Rappahannock River to take control of Fredericksburg. After three days the losses on both sides were steep but higher for the Federals. After dark on the fourth day they carefully and quietly retreated.
You might think with the win by the Confederates and the loss of the Union army, they would go their separate ways but that is not what happened. Both forces planned to and did stay. One thing both camps shared was the combinations of bugle, fife and drum to dictate the daily rituals of the soldiers. Also as December 25, 1862 approached the same thing was on all the men's minds---home and family.
When the demands of life as a soldier were completed the men engaged in all kinds of activities like writing letters, telling stories and using those bugles, fifes and drums to play familiar songs. Voices floated over the water from both sides of the river. A kind of back and forth of singing and playing of the bands evolved. One late afternoon as the day drew to a close the bands began as they always did, playing the patriotic tunes their men wanted to hear. After several songs something extraordinary happened.
A familiar melody began on one side. It was answered with a continuation of the notes from the other side. Soon the bands were playing the same song together...for the very first time. The men, Union and Confederate soldiers, stood and listened in silence. For at least thirty minutes after the song ended, the men declared their deepest feelings.
Eventually an order was issued stating this particular song not be played. We all know, once heard and hearts once stirred, a song will not vanish. Music and words are a powerful combination.
This narrative is bookended with an explanation of the situation prior to the event and at the end of the Civil War, June 1865. Author Debbie Levy begins each of these with a simple declarative sentence which allows her to elaborate in a clear, conversational style. Between these two single pages, her sentences shift to a more personal level as the story unfolds.
Vivid descriptions take us into the action. The inclusion of letters written by Union and Confederate soldiers connects us more deeply to these men. Levy adds a natural phenomenon occurring at the end of the third day supported by another letter further bringing the past to the present for readers. After the battle she continues to relate the day to day conditions and activities in both camps. These coupled with the explanation of the musicians' songs build toward the unprecedented occurrence. Here are two sample passages.
Those who weren't injured set up camp. On cold nights, they felt the frozen ground beneath their bedrolls. On warmer days, they wallowed in mud as the earth thawed underfoot.
The two armies---thousands and thousands and thousands of soldiers---dug in for the winter across the ribbon of water from each other.
Neither side was leaving.
Besides the singing, the music of brass bands also soared across the water. The buzz of cornets pierced the air. Velvety notes from deep-throated horns spread like soft blankets. The rattle of side drums kept time.
The colors on the opened dust jacket, deep midnight blue, sky blue, red, orange, blue, white and black, are used throughout the book in various hues with shades of green, pink and purple to create stunning images with every page turn. The illustration on the front of the soldier sounding his horn with the battle on the right extends over the spine to the left, the back. Four more musicians are playing their instruments in a line behind the first man.
The book case is a red orange color with a wide sky blue spine. Embossed on the front is a horn with a swirl of notes supplying a circular frame for a Confederate hat and a Union hat. Purple covers the opening and closing endpapers.
The title page resembles a piece of music with treble and bass staffs in the corners. The title text ribbons over a battle scene at Fredericksburg. Gilbert Ford follows this with a bird's eye view of the troops on either side of the river in a two-page picture. Another view, much closer to the river, provides an illustration for the verso and dedication pages.
Most of the images, appearing like block printing, span two pages. The soldiers' letters are placed within some of them. A single-page picture might be opposite a group of smaller visuals. He alters his perspective sometimes within a single illustration; Union troops crossing the floating bridges with a horn player close to the reader on the left. Depictions of the battle and camps are realistic age-appropriate representations. The layered circular swirls Ford uses to portray music are marvelous. In fact the words to some of the songs and the musical lines with notes look like they are hand drawn. This contrast between the battle and camps and the music is skillfully represented.
One of my favorite illustrations is spread across two pages. Again it is a bird's eye view of the river and camps on either side. We are a bit closer; able to see the details in the town's buildings, the tents and the flags flying in each camp. This stretches from the upper left-hand side to the lower right-hand side. In the upper right-hand corner and the lower left-hand corner light rays extend to the central scene. On both sides orange swirls filled with lines of music and notes are lifting over and back and upward.
This story is the type of nonfiction narrative readers need to read. Soldier Song: A True Story Of The Civil War written by Debbie Levy with illustrations by Gilbert Ford takes a glorious event amid the tragedy of war reminding us of common threads we share in the fabric of humanity. This is an outstanding nonfiction picture book. I highly recommend it for your professional and personal book shelves. At the close of the book two pages are dedicated to The Civil War And The Battle Of Fredericksburg. Two pages are given to the words and music of the song with a bit of the history about the song, places to access the song and other songs mentioned in the book. There is a Time Line Of The Civil War and a Selected Bibliography with primary and secondary sources as well as further reading for young people. Quotation sources are provided also.
To understand more about Debbie Levy and Gilbert Ford and their other work please visit their websites by following the links attached to their names. Interior images can be viewed at Ford's website. Gilbert Ford is showcased at The Children's Book Review and Emu's Debuts. The publisher provides an extensive teacher's guide.
UPDATE: Debbie Levy writes a guest post for the Nerdy Book Club, We Have Our Reasons, an explanation of why she wrote this book.
Please visit Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by Alyson Beecher to view the titles selected by other bloggers participating in the 2017 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.