January 6, 2018
Teaching Children About Military Service
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) 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 crud 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.
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.