There are fine stories about fighting in Iraq (Celia Rees) and conflict in Palestine (Elizabeth Laird), but it's still the Second World War to which most writers turn. Only Geraldine McCaughrean, as always, steps away, to the Crusades. Otherwise, Hitler remains synonymous with history for young readers.
That said, there are some excellent offerings on this theme, particularly from older authors who were there. Nina Bawden writes beautifully about an Italian prisoner working on a farm. Eva Ibbotson is equally impressive. Her tender story features a refugee child who prefers to stay with the family who looked after her rather than return home in 1945. Both stories have a ring of truth, drawing on autobiography. The editor, Michael Morpurgo, writes a fine story about facial disfigurement, a topic not featured in most lavishly illustrated war books.
The most disturbing piece is not a story at all. Written by the late Robert Westall, it describes his military service in Egypt during the Suez War of 1956. As he puts it: "I shall always be grateful for my tiny war, because it led me into wickedness. If a writer doesn't understand wickedness from the inside, he's only half a writer, and all his villains will be cardboard cut-outs."
The wickedness refers to the behaviour of some National Servicemen who nearly massacred a village after their lorry got stuck behind a flock of sheep. Panicking about what looked like an ambush, an already half-mad gunner opened up indiscriminately. The gun jammed and no one was killed. But Westall remembers how he did nothing to stop the man. How many soldiers in Iraq today will have had a similar experience?
Only two stories don't work. The rest, recognising that war is now a crossover experience, appeal to adult and child readers alike. Some are briefly introduced by their authors, others speak for themselves. There are lighter moments: Michelle Magorian recalls repertory theatre in 1945 and George Layton looks back wryly at the experience of a boy sent to a children's home in Morecambe to put on more weight. This collection is just the thing for readers looking for something a bit different from the latest instalment of magical fantasy.
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- Young People's Literature