It all started in 1915 – and that first Anzac Day is where Australian writer Jackie French begins her history. With illustrations by Mark Wilson, A DAY TO REMEMBER (Angus & Robertson, $29.99) documents the day itself – admittedly from an Aussie perspective – from the earliest dawn services (men only, lest the women’s weeping disturb the silence) to youth homage at Anzac Cove.
Definitely ours is THE RED POPPY (Scholastic, $33), a beautifully produced picture book (top marks to designer Penelope Newman) from David Hill and Fifi Colston paying homage to those who fought on the Western Front. The poppy that symbolises the day is poignantly woven into the story of private Jim McLeod, who, along with a scruffy messenger dog, ends up in the same shell-hole as a wounded German soldier.
Ours, too, is military historian Glyn Harper’s LE QUESNOY: THE STORY OF THE TOWN NEW ZEALAND SAVED (Puffin, $19.99), which brings to life for younger readers one of New Zealand’s most ingenious military successes. Jenny Cooper’s charming illustrations add whimsy to what was probably a very harrowing time for the child through whose eyes the World War I liberation of the fortified French town is seen.
My earliest Anzac Days included elderly veterans from the 1899 South African Boer War, the first conflict to take our fighting boys overseas. Ken Catran’s WHEN EMPIRE CALLS (Scholastic, $19.50) tells, through letters from farm boy James’s older brothers, the story of the war in which more died of disease than in combat. James’s patriotism is challenged by Fred, a veteran of the earlier New Zealand Land Wars, in which the British used, against Maori, the same tactic of destroying settlements.
THE HORSES DIDN’T COME HOME (Allen & Unwin, $19.99) is Australian Pamela Rushby’s moving telling of the Anzacs’ World War I Sinai campaign that culminated in the Battle of Beersheba. Alternate chapters document the lives of Harry, fighting in the desert, and his sister Laura – whose horse he has taken with him – back home on the farm.
School Journal editor Tricia Glensor’s TELLING LIES (HarperCollins, $19.99) was inspired by her father’s experiences in World War II after he parachuted into occupied France from an RAF bomber. Teenager Simone and her family shelter a Kiwi airman with ingenuity, courage and good humour, while farm life carries on around them. Against a charming rural landscape, she and her cousin share their dreams for the future – assuming there will be one – as Germans officers search for the missing aircrew. There’s deception, betrayal and more than one death, as well as a poignant epilogue. A beautiful debut.
Award-winning Australian author Suzy Zail, whose father was deported to Auschwitz as a 13-year-old, believes the best way to stop the Holocaust happening again is to write about it. THE WRONG BOY (Black Dog, $21.99) is in some ways similar to John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas – though for an older audience and more complex in its treatment of the story of friends on opposite sides of the war. Blonde Jewish teen Hanna, from the Warsaw ghetto, is a gifted pianist, which sees her sent to play each day for the Birkenau commandant and his sullen son, in their home. Often stomach-churning, this is not for the faint-hearted, but well worth the journey.
A war by any other name, the Malayan “emergency” (the euphemism meant plantation owners could claim insurance from Lloyds), which followed World War II, is New Zealand’s forgotten war. For an older readership, Ken Catran’s EARTH DRAGON, FIRE HARE (HarperCollins, $24.99) unites Peter, the son of a Kiwi killed as Singapore fell, with Ng, an ethnic Chinese insurgent fighting for his communist ideals, through their horoscopes. As their units skirt each other in the jungle, the pair are fated to meet – in a scene remarkably like that in The Red Poppy. Classic Catran: well-paced and thought-provoking.
Ann Packer is a journalist and writer. A new edition of her book Crafty Girls’ Road Trip: New Zealand’s Best Craft Places Plus 10 Craft Projects has just been released.