Shooting at the Stars: the Christmas Truce of 1914
By John Hendrix
Wise are those who understand that picture books don’t just belong in the grips of the rug rats of the world. Wise, then, is John Hendrix. With Shooting at the Stars, the author/illustrator has created a picture book for the upper elementary crowd that reveals a I-wouldn’t-believe-it-if-it-wasn’t-true moment of peace amid the brutality and chaos of war.
Thank you so much for your last letter. Your words are a rare comfort in my cold trench.
1914. France. World War I. A young British soldier (Charlie), sitting in a trench a mere 30 paces from the enemy, writes home to mom. Through his correspondence, Charlie brings his world into view – cold, dangerous, and often miserable. One night the soldiers hear something unexpected from the German line: singing. In a matter of days, an unexpected truce was forged. On Christmas morning, soldiers on both sides stepped out of their trenches to greet each other, bury their dead, and share in a brief moment of humanity.
One thing that a picture book can do that a chapter book (like, say Jim Murphy’s Truce on this same topic) can’t do is show. The illustration of the German and American trenches, separated by a mere 30 paces does more to explain the bravery (and insanity) of trench warfare than words can describe.
While this is a fictionalized telling of a real event, Hendrix clearly took a lot of care in getting things right. This is one of the few picture books you will find with a prologue. It makes a lot of sense. The Christmas Truce is an event that requires context. Jumping right into the story with no introduction would have been jarring. It also would have lessened the overall emotional impact of the truce itself. The tail end of the book is a back matter-palooza, including an author’s note, glossary, bibliography, and index (another picture book rarity).
I would imagine it would pose quite a challenge to illustrate a book that takes place in muddy trenches. While some artists might have said “Back it up!” to a semi full of brown paint, Hendrix manages to largely avoid the color, opting instead for oranges, greens, reds, and blues. Paired with crisp linework, the result are appealing while still conveying the gravity of the situation.
Hand this to kids who like reading about the World Wars. Hand it to teachers who are covering the topic with students (including those reading Jim Murphy’s Truce). It’s a unique take on a remarkable event.
Review copy from the publisher.