CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 5. . . .October 2, 2009.
Remembering John McCrae: Soldier, Doctor, Poet.
Toronto, ON: Scholastic Canada, 2009.
38 pp., hardcover, $16.99.
McCrae, John, 1872-1918-Juvenile literature.
Poets, Canadian (English)-Biography-Juvenile literature.
Grades 5-9 / Ages 10-14.
Review by Marilynne V. Black.
John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” is called the most popular poem of the First World War (1914-1918). Millions of people around the world recite or sing the lines every year during remembrance ceremonies. Many of us know “the poppy poem.” But who is John McCrae?
John McCrae was born on November 30, 1872, in a small stone house near the banks of the Speed River in Guelph, Ontario. His grandfather, Thomas McCrae, emigrated to Canada from Scotland in 1849. Thomas operated a local sawmill. Ten years later he owned the Guelph Woolen Mills. John’s father David worked in the woolen mills, but later became a farmer and prize-winning cattle breeder. In 1878 he married Janet Eckford, a minister’s daughter. The family grew to include three children: brothers Tom and John – called Jack – and sister Geills (jheels).
John enjoyed some of the activities other boys liked during the late 1800s – reading adventure stories in the popular The Boy’s Own Paper, making sketches, creating scrapbook pages, writing to pen pals. He spent time caring for and watching the antics of some of the animals at “Janefield”.
Granfield uses a scrapbook format to follow McCrae’s life from infancy in Guelph, ON, to his death on January 28, 1918, in France and the adoption of the red poppy as the universal symbol of Remembrance Day. Readers gain a good sense of what McCrae was like as a child, teen, young man and adult. There is a nice balance of text and pictures. Granfield writes clearly and succinctly with her readers always in mind. Captions inform readers about the illustration while longer passages of text give detailed background information. A reader’s eye is allowed to wander across the page picking and choose what to read or explore first.
Granfield writes a book that will interest young readers and give them insight into the life and times of McCrae as well as what life was like then. In her on-line biography (www.lindagranfield.com), Linda Granfield states:
I’ve always loved history and writing non-fiction books lets me explore the past and become a time-traveller. I can move through hundreds of years, finding interesting places and people and the stories that I think will interest my readers of all ages.
Certainly, Granfield achieves this goal. For example, a sepia photo of a group of outdoor enthusiasts shows women in long dresses and ornate hats while men wear suits and ties. Underneath, it says; “Casual clothing would not have been an option in the 1890s.” In one of the passages insight is given into the horrors of World War I as it states:
Always a frequent letter writer, John told his family and friends about the battles at Ypres in the spring of 1915: We stayed 15 days and nights, and it was HELL all the time….We really expected to die in our tracks. We never had our boots off, much less our clothes.
The wounded needed to be treated whenever they arrived, as John wrote to a friend on New Years’ Eve day, 1916: Xmas Day we had 1300 patients in…. I have a hundred beds on my own hands as well as supervision: we had a good deal of illness.
Another caption explains that boys wore knickerbockers and that switching to “long trousers was a big mile-stone.” Other pictures show skaters on a frozen river while maps, a diary excerpt, and sketches add further dimension to the passage about John accompanying the Governor General on an expedition to Hudson Bay.
Remembering John McCrae is very well designed. As was prevalent during McCrae’s life, most of the photographs are black and white or sepia; however, the book is not boring or bland. Interest is added by the use of several background colours and print colours and fonts. For instance, text blocks are bordered by and begin with the first few words in red as are subtitles. In addition, the text is liberally broken up by visuals that include a multitude of family and other photographs; artifacts, such as his christening cup and bone forceps; documents; maps; replicas of artists’ depictions of war; and postcards as well as letters and sketches by McCrae. These visuals often overlap or are on an angle giving additional variety and interest.
Remembering John McCrae is another tour de force in Granfield’s substantial list of fascinating and varied nonfiction for young readers as well as adults. She is certainly a versatile author and has won many awards in addition to numerous Best Book and Honour Book awards and the 1996 Information Book Award for In Flanders Fields and the 2001 Vicky Metcalf Award for a Body of Work. Not only has she penned such well-known titles as In Flanders Fields: The Story of the Poem by John McCrae and Where Poppies Grow: A World War I Companion, she has written other war related books: I Remember Korea: Veterans Tell Their Stories of the Korean War, High Flight: A Story of World War II, Brass Buttons and Silver Horseshoes: Stories From Canada’s British War Brides and The Unknown Soldier. In addition, she has explored such topics as immigration in 97 Orchard Street, New York and Pier 21: Gateway of Hope, the circus in Circus: An Album, famous music in Silent Night: The Song From Heaven and Amazing Grace: The Story of the Hymn and folklore in The Legend of the Panda.
This title will naturally be of interest around Remembrance Day. Teachers will find the book useful in conjunction with such titles about war as those mentioned previously and by others such A Brave Soldier by Nicolas Debon, In Flanders Fields by Norman Jorgensen, Snow Goose by Paul Gallico, and Rose Blanche by Christopher Galloz and Roberto Innocenti. Remembering John McCrae will also serve well at other times as an excellent example of the biography genre, and, of course, as introductions to Canadian poetry and famous Canadians.
Included are such useful addenda as: a list titled Significant Events in the Life of John McCrae, a Glossary, Acknowledgments, Credits, an Index and a short Bibliography.
Marilynne V. Black is a former BC elementary teacher-librarian who completed her Master of Arts in Children’s Literature (UBC) in the spring of 2005. She is now working as an independent children's literature consultant with a web site at www.heartofthestory.ca.
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