In Canada, we celebrate the veterans of our wars and the precious freedom they gave us on November 11th — the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month — the day hostilities ended the First World War. We call it Remembrance Day. It used to be a holiday for school children until veterans, concerned that it was simply a day away from school, lobbied to have children celebrate the day in their schools in order to learn what it was all about and why it is important to remember.
Whether you are a teacher, a parent, or a blogger, if you’re in a position to help young people understand what the sacrifice of so many lives was all about, there are resources you can use to keep the torch alive as so eloquently pleaded in the poem by John MacRae, “In Flanders Fields”, often recited in school assemblies.
As a junior grade teacher, I always offered students the opportunity to either read a book that had to do with brave young people caught up in the turmoil of war and create a presentation about the book, or do research on a war-related topic. This allowed them a wide range of topic choice, enabling them to work on something they were interested in. I limited the number of people per topic so that we didn’t have 30 students all creating a poster about landmines, for instance. Many people are unaware of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, or that they have ambassadors, including a youth ambassador, who will come to your school to give an address. Other research topics included: medical or technical advances developed in wartime; propaganda; Canadian peace keeping; Nobel Peace Prize winner(s); John G. Magee, poet who wrote High Flight; war art; how modern media has changed war reporting; and, any other topic cleared with the teacher.
As for reading material about courageous young people, we are fortunate to have so many to choose from. There are the obvious, familiar ones like The Diary of Anne Frank, and The Story of Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. There is a wonderful, interactive CD-ROM of Anne Frank House available through their website that allows students to travel through the house and workshop of Otto Frank, through the secret bookcase door, and into the family’s hiding place clicking on objects to learn more. You can set it up on a computer in your home or classroom for children to peruse at their own pace. It’s great to have a bedroom or classroom filled with beautiful origami peace cranes and to share the story of the little girl who contracted leukemia after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan during the Second World War. (There’s a great video on YouTube on how to make the origami cranes.)
Daniel’s Story by Carol Matas is a wonderful, haunting story of a young man who loves photography and manages to document conditions in a concentration camp and smuggle the photos out. This story will not be everyone’s cup of tea as it is very sad. I think some students in grade 6 might be able to tackle it emotionally, but it is more a teen read. This book trailer is an example of a project that could be done after reading a book.
Another great book is Whispers in Hiding, a collection of stories about real people who all lived dangerously through war in Europe. Reading a story over a day or two is a great way to share with the whole class and have a discussion point. Even reluctant readers can get involved this way.
Hana’s Suitcase is a non-fiction story by CBC Radio Documentary producer Karen Levine, who read about the story first in The Canadian Jewish News and, after creating a radio production, then wrote the book. It tells the story of Hana Brady, whose brother George survived the Holocaust and now lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and how her trail was picked up and followed as she went through many dark days until she finally was murdered along with thousands of others at Auschwitz on Oct. 23, 1944.
A marvellous book is Number the Stars by Lois Lowry (known also for her other acclaimed book, The Giver). This story is well-researched and based on many true stories. It follows a young Jewish girl named Ellen who is living in Copenhagen when the Nazis invade. She has a best friend, Anne Marie, whose older sister, Lise, was killed doing dangerous work for the underground, smuggling Jews away from the grasp of the Nazis. As more and more Jews are being rounded up, the Johansens’ take Ellen and her little sister into their family and smuggle her first out of Copenhagen by train, and then, onto a boat in the north that takes them to Sweden and safety. There are many close calls, and we see many different ways Jewish people were helped by ordinary citizens who dared to do brave things against all odds.
Play to the Angel is a poignant story of a young girl, Greta, whose dream is to become a concert pianist like her older brother Kurt. However, it is 1938 Austria, and many things once taken for granted are scarce. Greta’s mother is mourning the recent death of Greta’s older brother Kurt, a famous concert pianist. She can’t look at his piano and can hardly bear to listen when Greta plays. She thinks she’ll have to sell the piano in order for them to survive. But when a mysterious neighbour, Herr Hummel, offers Greta free piano lessons, her mother relents and the piano stays. But as the Nazis invade her country, Greta discovers the terrible secret Herr Hummel guards closely — he is being sought by the Nazis and his escape will rely on Greta.
There is a whole series of historical novels called Dear Canada, each one written by different children’s authors as a diary of a young girl at different times, and about different aspects of various wars from a Canadian perspective. It’s easy to get hooked on this series, especially if you’re a young girl, as each is well told and full of danger and excitement. Topics range from the 1837 rebellion to the Second World War and there are now more than 35 books in the series.
No matter what country you live in, take time to read and talk about Remembrance Day with your children, encourage them to read on their own if they’re old enough, but most of all, teach them to appreciate the sacrifice and the peace we enjoy, and the horrors of war. We don’t have to look far to see the devastation it causes. It’s all over the news.