To understand our choice you have to know a little more about us. When we say we love books, we mean that we like every little thing about them. We swoon in the presence of a hardback cover, we’re thrilled by great endpapers and charmed by the secrets that lie hidden below a dust-jacket; we are fans of both the tactile object lovingly constructed and the contents within. What draws us to picture books is the unique and extraordinary way that text and image interact with one another; in a perfect book they’re a marriage where one compliments and informs the other without ever imitating; they dance together in perfect harmony whilst never stepping on one another’s toes. Picture books are the place where imagination is king, where possibilities are endless and boundaries know no limits. How then does this compare to our view of children’s non-fiction books?
When we think of Non-fiction we don’t necessarily think of stories; we think of figures and dates and of facts to memorise and quote, but it’s stories that we at the Illustrated Forest are most drawn to; stories are powerful and when told well they invite more thirst for knowledge and more research than is imaginable. So when we came to discuss a book for Non-fiction November we found ourselves drawn to one book that we’d already reviewed, a book that had a story to tell, a book we couldn't stop telling everyone about, and it just happened to fit this year’s Non-Fiction November theme of the First World War, and perhaps most unbelievably of all: this story just happened to be true.
Our book for discussion is Barroux’s Line of Fire, translated by Sarah Ardizzone and published by Phoenix Yard Books. The story of how this book came to be is as remarkable as the book itself. What looks like any other work of illustrative imagination with a genesis in fact, (perhaps using the subject of the First World War as a starting point), is actually fact itself. Our review below explains how this exceptional book came into being and why we think it is so special.
On what was probably a very ordinary day, illustrator Barroux happened upon a most extraordinary thing: a notebook; a first-hand account written by a French soldier about his experiences in the First World War. How serendipitous then that a talent like Barroux should be the one to find it, for he has transformed this account into a truly remarkable graphic novel.
Originally published in French as On les Aura!, Barroux chose to leave the text as it was; he chose not to embellish. In creating this English language version, Sarah Ardizzone has worked painstakingly to capture the soldier’s voice, and because such effort and care has been taken not alter the text or the content too much, what we are left with is a very humbling, at times naive, and honest account of the first days of war. It charts the everydayness of soldierly concerns, the boredom, and the lack of awareness at how bad things were to become. It is heart-warming to watch as locals bring fruit to the train and offer their hospitality, but heart-breaking to wonder how long that will last; how long will their homes stand? Line of Fire charts less than two months in a war that would span four years, and already we are witness to the waiting, the blistered feet and fatigue that is setting in. We watch as they quietly note the absence of wine, knowing that such luxuries will not be seen again for quite some time; we see two modest crosses on the road and know that there will be many more. It is devastating to know what will happen when our soldier does not.
Barroux begins his illustrated account by showing us his actual discovery of the book, a further reminder that what we are witnessing is not a work of fiction. The diary entires are dated and often mark the time, which keeps the personal nature of this account at the forefront of our minds. The graphic novel is the ideal format, the panelled structure reflecting perfectly the stilted, stop-start nature of the entries and breaks in the timeline. Barroux’s soft pencil drawings with their wood varnish tint are emotive and immediate; they are not laboured or false. They do not try to soften, glorify or glamorise the text, and they are not intrusive. The illustrations are only there to serve and enhance the text. At times they are reminiscent of aged sepia photographs, snapshots of faces and villages. Others seem like luxuriously drawn landscapes while our soldier whiled away his hours waiting, while others are like the furiously snatched moments of a reportage artist desperate to capture the chaos that surrounds them.
Our soldier is shot and wounded, and after a short stint in hospital the diary ends, as does the book. We do not know what happened to our soldier or why he stopped writing, we can only hope for him.
Line of Fire is a brilliant and devastating account of one man’s part in the war, all the more poignant because it is told in his own words.
The subject matter of war is naturally a heavy one, particularly when your intended audience is so young. The delicate balancing act that comes from wanting to impart enough information whilst not overwhelming can seem a daunting task, but therein lies the beauty of Line Of Fire: an audience was never intended by the author. Barroux has turned a private experience into a shared one, his illustrations bridging the gap between author and reader. It is a book that speaks to us on a level we understand, all the while evoking images and memories, embedding in us a sense that we too were there. It turns reality into seemingly fiction, and then back again, as Barroux’s illustrations bring the text to life and give added weight to the power of the words. We have always firmly believed in the powerful role images play in conveying a message and never was this truer than in this instance. It is a book for all, as accessible to children as adults, which makes it a great read for anyone wishing to gain an insight into a personal experience of war.
What we particularly admire about Line Of Fire are the resources that the makers of the book have put together for the readers. If, like us, you were instantly enthralled and desperate to learn more, then look no further; everything from how the book was translated to teaching resources and recommended reading lists are provided; Line Of Fire not only invites further study but gives you the information necessary to begin. All of which can be found by clicking here.
You can follow National Non-Fiction November on twitter using the hashtags #NNFN and #RealWorldAdventures and we would like to thank Zoe Toft for inviting us to take part. We suggest you follow her for all things bookish.