With the holidays approaching, I wanted to share two books for children: Coloring My Military Life, illustrated by Air Force brat (and daughter of Mil Spouse Book Review contributor Terri Barnes!); and N is for Never Forget: POW-MIA A to Z . Both are from Elva Resa press, the leading US publisher of resources for and about military families.
Coloring My Military Life is a beautifully-illustrated book which captures the heart of being a military kid in creative and sometimes unexpected ways. Jessie Barnes’s affection and empathy for fellow military children, as well as her expansive view of what being a military brat means, makes for delightful, lively, and moving illustrations.
Nora, a middle-schooler who will be very sad to leave her friends at the start of 8th grade next year, said quietly, “I can’t color this one yet.” That’s okay. The picture is here. We can talk about it.
Earlier this year I caught Nora listening to the X Ambassadors song “Renegades” in her room on repeat. And I think the line, “All hail the underdogs, all hail the new kids” is what she was feeling. As my oldest, born less than a year into her dad’s military career, she will be the new kid many more times than her brother and sister.
Coloring books have an important role with me and my oldest girl. For preteens dealing with a lot of thoughts and feelings, it’s so much easier to sit and color with your mom than to stare into her eyes while she interrogates you about your tender life. I remember last spring, coloring a “Fantastic Beasts” book with Nora. The illustrations were detailed and brilliant. We colored it every day. One night, while Dave was away for a few months, I was about to turn in when Nora came downstairs. It was 11 p.m.; I thought she’d been asleep for two hours.
“What is it?” I asked.
“I can’t sleep,” she said.
I made her some warm milk and pulled out the coloring book. “Sit and color with me,” I said.
We sat and penned in intricate scales on a three-headed dragon creature. “Is something bothering you?” I asked after a few minutes.
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Everything okay with your friends? Everyone’s being nice to you?”
“You feel okay about your school work? Not falling behind?”
“No, that’s fine.”
We colored several minutes more. And let’s be honest, it was late and I knew my little one would be up at 5:45, and I kind of wanted to beg off and go to sleep. But I am glad I just sat and quietly colored, because eventually Nora said, “……….Today I found out what happened at Columbine.”
We live in Colorado. This was the week before the anniversary of the horrible massacre at Columbine High School, a day which is quietly school-free (a teacher in-service day) in our adopted state.
So there it was. “……Oh,” I said. “Who told you about that?”
Damn that Mr. Falwell, the insistently honest Technology teacher!
“It just makes me feel so….sad,” Nora said, coloring.
“It’s okay to feel sad,” I said. “It was a very sad thing.”
We talked a little more. I reminded her to tell an adult if she thought a fellow student was depressed, or agitated. I told her that statistically, the chance of something like that happening near her was very small.
Eventually she went back to bed.
I grant the coloring book with giving us the space and freedom to have talked that way. It gave her something to concentrate on, something to do with her hands, while we talked, and I don’t think she’d have opened up that way if I were simply peppering her with questions.
In a similar way, Coloring My Military Life, whether filled in by kids alone or by kids and parents, allows that space for thought, reflection, honesty. It is a beautiful book, and I look forward to many more afternoons of coloring with my children. And if hard topics come up, that’s alright — and maybe the point.
Teaching Children About Military Service
By Kathleen Rodgers
What’s the best way to review a book written for children? With the help of children, of course. And when the subject matter leans toward the somber and serious, in this case prisoners of war and service members missing in action, I enlisted the help of two children who live in my subdivision, a civilian community far away from bombs and bullets.
William is an athletic seventh grader who tells me he enjoys reading books he can check out from the library. His third grade sister, Kaili, loves to play dress up and wasn’t shy about speaking up as we discussed many of the tough themes in author Nancy Polette’s latest book for middle-grade readers, N is for Never Forget: POW-MIA A to Z (Elva Resa Publishing, 2017) written by Nancy Polette and illustrated by Paul Dillon, the son of a WWII POW.
A few years ago, this brother and sister duo, along with another neighbor boy, showed up on my doorstep with homemade cookies and handwritten signs for my youngest son before he deployed to Afghanistan. To my knowledge, this is the closest these kids have come to personally knowing a soldier going off to war.
So, with William seated to my left at my dining room table and Kaili to my right, we began to discuss the stark and haunting images on the book’s cover. William pointed out the guard tower and informed his sister that there was probably a soldier up in the tower with a gun pointed down at the men huddled in coats. Kaili mentioned the snow and how cold the men looked. Then she mimicked an invisible guard up in the tower and said gruffly, “I’m warning you, don’t try to leave.” Throughout the reading of the book, she put herself into the story, imagining what it would be like to be taken prisoner, to be held against her will, and wondering if her family back home would know her whereabouts and if anyone was trying to save her. That’s what a good book does: it invites the reader to participate.
As we turned to the first page, I started to explain how the book is organized using a word starting with each letter of the alphabet. Kaili chimed in and said, “Yeah, it’s sort of like another book that might say, ‘P is for Princess or M is for Monster.’” And so we began with Artists and how “artwork reflects the hardships of prison life.” In a few brief paragraphs, the author explains how a British soldier held captive by the Japanese in 1942, fashioned a paintbrush out of human hair and used berry juice to depict the harsh treatment he and other prisoners experienced during the war. Although the guards confiscated many of the secret sketches, some of the sketches survived and show the hardship and sometimes death that prisoners endured at the hands of the enemy.
Later in the book, the images of barefoot children in threadbare clothing with downcast faces, and imprisoned behind barbed wire, prompted a lively discussion about Internment Camps and concentration camps during WWII. After William read a few lines out loud from that section, we talked about what it would be like if tanks and military trucks started rolling up and down our street and yanking people from their homes. Since my intent wasn’t to scare the children, I reassured them that hopefully our present and future leaders learn from the mistakes of the past. I appreciated that the author and the illustrator didn’t candy-coat this dark aspect of our world’s history, and the presentation of the material was age appropriate and tasteful.
One illustration shows a prisoner’s hands all cut up and bruised as he sews a crude American Flag out of scraps of material. This led to a discussion about why a prisoner might put his or her life at risk to create symbols from home. Another section talked about how Americans held in captivity during the Vietnam War created “Tap Codes” that help them communicate with other prisoners throughout camp when communication was forbidden. We role-played this part. I held up a notebook to represent a wall dividing two cells in a prison camp. William pretended to be in one cell and Kaili in the other. They couldn’t see each other or speak, not even a whisper. Then they each took turns tapping on the table, and we all three marveled at how prisoners in real life came up with secret codes to communicate. We studied the “tap chart” in the book showing letters of the alphabet and how they corresponded with the number of taps that spelled out words.
In the section, Missing In Action, a special team of investigators searches through a roped off area on a hillside deep in the jungle at what appears to be the sight of a military jet crash. The hillside is bare in places and we imagined what might have happened to the pilot and crew when the plane crashed decades ago and was never found until now. Between the illustration and the author’s explanation, we learn that every effort is made to recover and identify the remains of those missing from battles dating back decades.
At some point in our discussion, I had Kaili run into my home office and bring back a small black and white POW-MIA flag I keep on my desk. We talked about the symbolism of the flag. Then we remembered that a neighbor down the street flies a POW-MIA flag everyday, along with the American flag, on a tall flagpole in his front yard. My hope is that these children will glance up every now and then when they’re riding their bikes past the house and think about the meaning behind the black and white cloth with the silhouette of a man, a watchtower, and barbed wire, flapping in the wind.
When we turned to the section about Sacrifice, I hesitated. A part of me wanted to shield these kids from the truth. In the first illustration, a uniformed honor guard stands next to the casket of a fallen service member while members of the guard fold an American flag to present to the family. On the next page, we see the family seated near the gravesite; several generations are represented. A handsome Marine kneels before a woman as she receives the flag. A young boy clings to her side while a little girl a few feet away looks on.
As the kids and I took turns reading the short passage that accompanies this section, I realized at once why this book is so important. Military kids of all ages understand the sacrifice for the most part. Many of them have lived through the trauma of sending a parent to war, and all too many have experienced the grief that comes with sacrifice, be it death or a disability. But how many civilian kids have been sheltered from the harsh reality of war? How many civilian parents talk to their young children about those who serve in the Armed Forces?
N is for Never Forget: POW-MIA A-Z should be in every elementary and middle school library in this country. One of the goals of the book is to tell the military story to the civilian sector of our society. The book is ideal for a classroom discussion or for families who are looking for meaningful ways to honor veterans in their communities. This book can serve as a guide to help parents and educators teach children about service and sacrifice.
Librarians might consider ordering this book for their school or city libraries. Suitable for ages eight and up, patrons of all ages and backgrounds can benefit from the information presented in straightforward easy to read language. A discussion guide and a glossary explaining a few military terms are included at the back of the book.
As my young neighbors left to go home, I watched them through the eyes of a military wife and mother who’s sent loved ones into harm’s way. My hope is that more Americans can teach their children about the true cost of freedom. Reading this book is a good place to start.
Buy Coloring My Military Life here
Buy N is for Never Forget here
Nancy Polette has written more than 170 books! She spent five years researching the life of Virginia Hall for her middle grade biography, The Spy with the Wooden Leg: The Story of Virginia Hall and worked alongside the president of the Jefferson Barracks POW-MIA Museum president to create N is for Never Forget: POW-MIA A to Z.
Paul Dillon is an accomplished illustrator and cartoonist whose work has appeared in more than thirty children’s books. He digitally painted the illustrations in N is for Never Forget: POW-MIA A to Z, a middle-grade nonfiction picture book honoring the legacies of prisoners of war and those missing in action. Paul is president of the Jefferson Barracks POW-MIA Museum. His dad was a WWII POW.
Elva Resa Publishing, a military spouse-owned company, is the leading US publisher of resources for and about military families. Elva Resa’s mission is to make a positive difference in people’s lives.
Kathleen M. Rodgers is a former frequent contributor to Family Circle Magazine and Military Times. The author of three novels, she is working on her fourth novel, which deals in part with the family of a pilot missing in action in Vietnam.