It’s winter, the wood stove is cranking, and book groups are in full swing – which means that I’ve been doing some reading. Here are a couple of my recent reads:
Halt’s Peril by John Flanagan
Though I really love the Ranger’s Apprentice series, of which Halt’s Peril is the ninth book, the series is just very well done bestsellers for kids. They’re very well done because (unlike Harry Potter and some other series) each book has its own antagonist and its own dilemma, and each ends in a different place. In other words, the reader isn’t forced to rehash the same plot trajectory in each of the books; unlike the good ol’ Harry series, we don’t start at the same time of year in the same place, then face a battle royale with the same villain, then end up relatively happy in the same place at the same time of year (a formula that I find to be extremely boring). Instead, the main characters travel around the countryside from one book to the next, not always ending up in their home territory at the end of each installment. We get to see them face different opponents in almost every book, and the characters do experience a certain amount of growth and change over the course of the series. But the books are still bestsellers, not fine literature. Sometimes the writing can be a bit clunky, and sometimes the reader has to really suspend disbelief over certain plot elements in order to move forward with reading. But I still love ’em, and am very glad that Flanagan continues to push on with new books in the series. They are great books to recommend to middle grade readers, both boys and girls, and every child that I have steered towards these books has gotten hooked and eagerly read every available book (and then they each gently – or not so gently – remind me of the exact date when the new book will be available in this country).
War Horse by Michael Morpurgo
This book was repeatedly recommended to me by an older library patron who doesn’t often frequent the children’s room (except when her grandchildren are visiting in the summer, when I see her almost every day). I have the utmost respect for this lady, as she is one of the most well-read people I have ever met, and I decided to heed her advice and add this book to our collection, and then, finally, to read it myself.
Though War Horse might be seen by some as a mere revisitation of Black Beauty, as I’ve seen from some of the reviews posted on Goodreads, it’s really far more than that. Yes, there is focus placed on the humane treatment of animals, and that point is driven home in several heartbreaking moments. But I see this story as a book about war more than a book about animal welfare. It takes place in World War I, and the War Horse in question, Joey, starts life as a simple English farmhorse with a very caring young master. The young master’s father must sell Joey to the cavalry in order to pay off debts, and Joey finds himself with a new master, a caring captain, who talks to Joey about the insanity of sending cavalry units into the new technology of machine gun battle. Sure enough, we witness the brutal destruction of most of Joey’s cavalry unit, both human and equine, as they are either cut down by machine gun fire or impaled on barbed wire. Joey and his best horse friend then move on to the care of a gentle French girl and her grandfather, and we get to see the effect of war on the civilians before Joey is once again moved on to a German division. Morpurgo skillfully moves Joey from one side of the battle to civilian life to the other side of the battle before putting Joey smack dab in the middle of No Man’s Land, which leads to a very poignant scene that empasizes the brutal ridiculousness of wars that pit soldiers of different cultures but similar outlooks on life against each other. The soldiers are but pawns of their governments, and the horses in WWI were the slaves of the pawns.
It’s all very, very sad, and I shed many tears as I read the book. Yes, I did feel more than a bit emotionally manipulated, but I still think War Horse is a worthwhile read. Some of the Goodreads reviews that I read question whether this is a children’s book, and that makes me sad. Shouldn’t children learn of the vast expense of war? What good are we doing for them or for the world if they don’t grow up with a full understanding of how evil war is? I really do worry about the current generation of children, and the extent to which many of them are overly protected against reading books that are sad or distressing or otherwise challenging. Books are a very safe place to feel these tough emotions, and then to talk about those emotions with trusted adults or other child readers. And if a child is never exposed to a sad book, what happens when sadness hits their own lives? How prepared are they to deal with it? And, in the case of a book like War Horse, what happens when children grow up without having to consider the gravity of war and destruction? How long will the world survive if it is led by people who grew up without knowing of those things?
Two good books, not great books, but both worth reading for different reasons. Read Halt’s Peril some evening when you want some action adventure before bedtime; read War Horse with a box of tissues by your side. And then let me know how you liked them.