In her recent interview with PaperTigers, Deborah Ellis talked about the background to her most recent book, Off to War: Voices of Soldiers’ Children. This is a very thought-provoking book for children aged 9+ about the effects on the children left behind of having parents fighting overseas. In a way, these are children whose day-to-day existence is not outwardly affected by conflict and yet on whose lives the consequences of war can and often do have a profound effect.
A book I have read again recently to my children is Milly Lee’s Nim and the War Effort, illustrated by Yangsook Choi (Sunburst/ Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002). Set in San Francisco during the Second World War, it tells the story of Nim, a little girl who is intent on beating her arch enemy, Garland Stephenson, an unprincipled bully, from winning the school drive to collect old newspapers “for the war effort”. She strikes lucky when she is offered a garage piled high with bundles of newspapers and resourcefully calls the police to help her to get them to the school in time…
Nim’s rather strict upbringing is ostensibly unaffected by the fact that the Second World War is going on – but it pervades her life nevertheless. Her grandfather wears a lapel pin of crossed American and Chinese flags; and she is fully aware of what certain symbols around her mean – like a gold star on a white background in a front window, to show that “the family who lived there had lost someone in the war”. At the same time, their deeper significance is perhaps lost on her. She is too young to understand that the lapel pin is there to protect her family from the prejudice against Americans of Japanese ethnicity at that time; nor what the emotional impact of losing a loved one in a war overseas actually means. However, it is also these details that give the story a depth and a historical validity: and indeed, in an interview with PaperTigers, Milly Lee told us that, apart from slightly changing her rival’s name, this is a true story. Her grandfather received several phone-calls telling him that his grand-daughter was in the back of a police car, which must have caused more than a little concern, but for Milly:
Oh yes, the ride in the police paddy wagon was wonderful, exhilarating, jubilant, a thrill, and probably the best ride I’ve ever had – and I’ve been on many different kinds of rides since then: yak, elephant, dogsled, tundra-buggy, rafts, and camel!
I can just imagine! And I particularly like the ending, where Grandfather reminds Nim to “Be gracious in your moment of triumph” – and she places her last newspaper on Garland’s stack then “looked over her shoulder and flashed Grandfather an impish grin” – feisty!
This is a beautifully crafted story – and a beautifully illustrated one – which not only leaves young listeners cheering that Nim won the day but gives much pause for thought about racial prejudice and bullying.