Exposing children to war history is a delicate interplay between teaching significant world events and protecting them from potentially distressing content. My first exposure to highly stylised war imagery was watching the 1981 Peter Weir film Gallipoli during a school excursion. It gripped me in such a way, that over the following few years, I read David Williamson's screenplay 15 times or more. While I found it easy to consume, more interestingly was that there were very few other books written for my age group depicting the story of World War I. I am the daughter of a war veteran, and I was eager to learn about what our brave defence personnel would have had to endure in times of war. Gallipoli being a WWI recount, made it easier for me to absorb as it wasn't part of my own immediate family's history. Now many years on I was thrilled to read Sonya Hartnett's award winning, The Silver Donkey. With Remembrance Day commemorations today and the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landing looming next year, I thought it would be good to reflect on this book for parents and teachers looking for age appropriate fiction with this theme.
The Silver Donkey, opens in the French countryside with two young sisters , Marcelle and Coco and their older brother Pascal, who are preoccupied with having the usual childhood adventures in the woods near their home. Despite the difference in time and history, this immediately resonates with young readers, allowing them to instantly draw on their own relationships and activities.
The children happen upon a wounded British soldier, Lt Shepard, who is trying to find his way back home while fighting still continues on at the Front. Quick to establish a friendship, the girls and their older brother care for the Lieutenant with food and supplies. In return the soldier orates stories to the children based around a silver donkey he carries as a memento. The tales relayed to the children by the Lieutenant and his recollections of his own war experiences are beautifully weaved through the book in colourful wedges, with the donkey symbol present throughout representing stoicism, loyalty and bravery.
"The man and the animal worked together as a team. They scoured the scrubby cliffs for men in need of aid."
The book maintains the soldier's unwavering desire to reach his family, and the childrens' quest to help him, personifies the bonds and sacrifices made in times of war and its long term, far reaching affects.
Published in 2004 by Penguin and winner of the CBC Book of the Year for Younger Readers, The Silver Donkey while not an Australian story, sensitively conveys the suffering experienced by the global community when impacted by war. It is a beautifully crafted tribute that reinforces our obligation to honour days such as this.
LEST WE FORGET.
Title: The Silver Donkey Author: Sonya Hartnett ISBN: 0-670-04240-4 Published: 2004, Penguin Australia