War Game by Michael Foreman

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War Game by Michael Foreman

Category: Confident Readers
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: War Game straddles the gap between fiction and non-fiction and the gap between a text book and reading for pleasure. It's a difficult subject sensitively told, has a well-chosen vocabulary, beautiful illustrations and accurate historical detail. For a primer on the Great War you couldn't give your children anything better.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 80 Date: October 1995
Publisher: Chrysalis Children's Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 1857937139

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"But it's a picture book!"

"Well, yes, but it's not a picture for babies. It's more of a textbook with a story."

"Oh. It's a school book then?"

"Um... oh, let's just read it, eh?"

As you can see, this particular Amazon purchase had not exactly enthused my two children, aged nine and seven respectively. Can you blame them? War Game is a picture book aimed at children in the later years of primary school - probably those of ten and upwards. Children of ten and upwards are not generally given picture books to read. Despite its rave reviews, despite its Smarties prize, War Game has a slight image problem to overcome. Children are not interested in rave reviews, or Smarties prizes, or heartfelt recommendations from trusted reviewers. Luckily for them, their mother is. We persevered.

War Game is the story of four young men from a small, rural village in Suffolk at the time of the Great War. They work on the land in a tightly knit community where everybody knows everybody else. They have never set foot outside the county in which they were born. They play football and dream of scoring for England. They are young, happy and full of youthful adventurous spirit. When the recruiters come to town, they are swept away by the gung-ho jingoism of the bands and the marching and the flags and they join up, looking more for exciting times than to doing their duty by King and country.

Of course, the reality of the war is somewhat different. Although they are posted together - as happened often during WW1 - the boys do not find glorious adventure. What they find is trench warfare and its cold, and its damp, and its hunger, and its rats, and its slaughter.

The focus of Michael Foreman's War Game is the experience of the ordinary man. He takes the four country boys from their village and their dreams of football glory to the trenches on the Western Front and all the time he reminds his young readers that these lads were not merely cannon fodder; they were living, breathing people with hopes, and dreams, and fears, and friends, and family. The famous spontaneous Christmas Day truce and subsequent Anglo-German football match forms the largest part of the narrative, and through this Foreman blurs the boundaries between the "goodies" and the "baddies" as fiction so often fails to blur them. In so failing, fiction also fails to mirror the realities of life generally, but of conflict in particular.

War Game is a sad story. Foreman lost four uncles in the Great War and this is his tribute to them. It is an attempt to understand and to write down what the experience of the war must have been like for the uncles he never knew. Do not expect any of the four to return home.

It is a difficult subject and one that current children's authors have attempting with some success in recent years, perhaps because, as fewer and fewer veterans survive, the link with the past is becoming ever more tenuous. It is important to record these things for children, for without the value of shared experience, how will young minds be able to understand and move our civilisation forward? Moreover, without a comprehension of the brutality of war, how will they be able to value the concept of peace? However, young minds are also sensitive minds and take in little when they are being frightened silly. War Games understands this and approaches its subject with a quiet but gentle truth. It is... dignified, somehow. While it is clear that the four young men die in a war callous to the loss of thousands upon thousands of lives, War Game itself is never callous.

The text of the story is sparse, tight and neat. Foreman's chooses vocabulary extremely well - both my sons were more than capable of reading it alone. Although there are some difficult words - eternity, wreathed, entombed for instance - they are all well placed within a short, snappy sentence structure and are easily understood in context. The narrative's illustrations are sketches, washed with watercolours and they are all arrestingly, beautifully haunting as they follow the boys from their football match on the village green to the fields of France, to the trenches and to their final battle. There is one particular picture of the trenches zigzagging across the mutilated countryside with hundreds of tiny soldiers huddled inside them as flares and explosives light up the sky that will stay with me for a long, long time.

Information abounds. Breaks in the narrative are filled with reproductions of contemporary documents: recruiting posters; advertisements; a Christmas card to the soldiers from the King and Queen. There are small chunks of explanatory text by these, which give snippets of information about armaments, tactics, even the latrine arrangements for the trenches. These could have detracted from the thrust of the story, but they do not. Rather, they provide a sensitive but interesting break from too much involvement and attachment on the part of young minds. They serve, I think, not only to inform, but also to save a bit of heartbreak. Their inclusion was a wise decision.

The rave reviews and the Smarties judges were right. War Game is a triumph. It is a beautifully realised book. It treads the path between truth and horror perfectly and its format of a blend between narrative, art and sound bite fact works like a dream. Both my children, despite their initial misgivings, loved it. They both found it not only challenging and emotionally difficult, but also very interesting and incredibly touching. Both have returned to War Game several times and this is another advantage of its format: it is both a story to be read repeatedly and a book to dip in and out of, just looking at the pictures and picking out the snippets of information. It definitely has longevity.

Highly recommended by all at Bookbag Towers on so many levels. War Games is a lovely, truthful and sad story of war suitable for all children of primary school age. It is a book perfect for any child interested in the power of art to convey strong messages. It is a valuable piece of social history from an individual perspective. It would be a great text for any home educator.

"It's not pants like I thought it would be."

Five stars then!

If this book appeals to you, you might like to read a review of Michael Morpurgo's Billy the Kid.

Booklists.jpg War Game by Michael Foreman is in the Top Ten Books With A Christmas Theme.
Buy War Game by Michael Foreman at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy War Game by Michael Foreman at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy War Game by Michael Foreman at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy War Game by Michael Foreman at Amazon.com.



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Ellen Bryan said:

Reading the review alone brought tears to my eyes. My daughter Anna, aged 11 has said she was read this book in school and enjoyed it. I look forward to reading the book and viewing the illustrations that are so highly praised. Thank you for this detailed informative summation of War Games.


Rob Evans said:

Along with Birdsong and Private Peaceful this is the finest book I have read about WW1 It is a masterpiece from one of the greatest of book authors

thanks

Rob Evans