And the Soldiers Sang

And the Soldiers Sang

J. Patrick Lewis (Author)

Gary Kelley (Illustrator)

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A young Welsh soldier fights along the Western Front during World War I, experiencing the horrors of trench warfare before participating in the famed Christmas Truce of 1914.

Reviews

Definitely for older children (and most likely to be appreciated by adults), this version of the true story of the Christmas Truce of 1914 is told through the eyes of a fictional young Welshman, with a terse yet lyrical text and stark, dramatic illustrations. The unofficial cease-fire has inspired other books, including Christmas in the Trenches, based on the song by John McCutcheon. That version also used a fictional hero/narrator but allowed him to survive to tell the tale to his curious grandchildren. Lewis' unnamed soldier is not so lucky. He describes the horrors of war eloquently and evokes the miracle of peace that reigned briefly for the holiday. The author piles on poignancy, revealing the young man's vain hope that the war would soon be over in a journal entry discovered after his death by sniper shot. He notes in a brief afterword that the war continued for just under four more years with a total loss of almost 10 million lives. Kelley's compelling artwork features mostly dark shades and strong, angular compositions. The overall design includes panels of various sizes, allowing him to pack in plenty of events and emotions and providing a strong narrative flow. Grim, upsetting and utterly beautiful, this is both a strong anti-war statement and a fascinating glimpse of a little-known historical event.

Kirkus (Starred Review), November 2011

And the Soldiers Sang is a picture book for older readers–age 9 and up. Set during the First World War, along the Western Front, it's a fictionalized account of a moment in history when enemies called a brief truce and celebrated Christmas together. This is not the first time the truce has worked its way into children's literature (Britain's Michael Morpurgo used it as basis for a short story: "The Best Christmas Present in the World"), but Kelley's powerful images and Lewis's thoughtful, dignified text capture the horror and banality of war, juxtaposing it with the shared humanity of soldiers on both sides of the battlefield. When a British soldier "spots small, candlelit pines ghosting the German line" on Dec. 24, 1914, and he and his comrades hear a German baritone singing Stille Nacht (Silent Night) on this one night when "the artillery had fallen strangely silent," it takes a while before the two sides climb out of their trenches to meet. Once they do, in careful and hesitating steps, they find they're not so different from each other: both sides love chocolate, carry family photos and enjoy a game of soccer. Inevitably, however, the brass steps in and the truce is halted. "Our captain stood on the parapet, fired three shots in the air, and held up a banner. His German counterpart, raising an answering standard, fired two shots. And the war resumed." It's an unusual Christmas tale (with a sad ending), but one worth sharing.

–Bernie Goedhart, Montreal Gazette , December 2011

Told in panels, graphic-novel style, and with stark poetic prose, this large-scale picture book for older children is a jaw-droppingly powerful depiction of war and of humanity's ability to transcend its most dismal experiences. During World War I, a war that "welcomed no melody," Owen Davies, a fictional young Welsh soldier, recounts the true story of how his fellow soldiers put aside guns on Christmas Eve 1914 and joined the Germans in Christmas caroling. Kelley's expressionistic paintings are haunting and magnificent.

–Pamela Paul, The New York Times , November 2011

Timed to coincide with Armistice Day, this solemn graphic narrative recalls Christmas 1914, when British and German soldiers called a fleeting truce. American children's poet laureate Lewis, who worked with Kelley on Black Cat Bone, composes grim first-person prose. Leaving it to readers to decode the WWI colloquialisms, Lewis writes from the viewpoint of a fictive Welsh infantryman, Owen Davies: "In December, lying doggo each morning in my serpentine cellar, I wrote in [my] gilded daybook. The frozen ground above became a bone orchard for soldiers running on raids–and falling like ninepins quick with lead." On Christmas Eve, Owen hears a "baritone singing Stille Nacht (Silent Night); an accomplished tenor himself, he responds with "The First Noel." Tentatively, the rival sides approach each other for an unprecedented and brief Christmas celebration. Kelley conjures the muddy trenches and frigid European winter in his brooding, earth-tone pastels. His contorted soldiers, surrounded by bare-limbed trees and barbed wire, evoke the distrubing sketches of Egon Schiele. Concluding in tragedy, it memorializes a century-old war and a snuffed-out glimmer of peace.

Publishers Weekly , October 2011

In the midst of the bleakness of World War I on the Western Front somewhere in Belgium, a miracle occurred. On Christmas Eve 1914, the Germans and the English were at a stalemate. Each side had gone as far as they could go, and instead of pushing on, they dug a series of extensive trenches that allowed them to hide from the bullets being fired by their enemies. Of course, this meant that no movement could be made and so the two sides fought on across the space between called "no man's land" with very little effect. But on Christmas Eve, the German soldiers proffered a temporary peace, a cease-fire, for both sides to celebrate the holiday. As unlikely as this was, the truce held while they shared songs and food as if they were old friends. On Boxing Day, however, the war returned to these beleaguered men. The narrator is shot having just spent Christmas singing to the enemy. Lewis's prose is sometimes overwrought but the story is strong nonetheless. Kelley's dark palette and angular faces showcase the pain, the ennui, and the futility of war. This is a great addition for middle school libraries, in particular. Pair it with John McCutcheon's less dark Christmas in the Trenches (Peachtree, 2006), which can be used with much younger children.

–Joan Kindig, School Library Journal , January 2012