by Meindert DeJong, illustrated by Maurice Sendak, published 1956
“The family pig, the three ducklings, and the little stone mill to grind the rice for the baby sister– these they have saved from the mud house of the family of Tien…Besides these they had saved absolutely nothing, except Beauty-of-the-Republic, Tien Pao’s baby sister.”
It’s never easy to read a story about war, even if it’s simply packaged in a children’s book. And yet, there’s no denying that it is important to help children understand just how difficult war can be, if we ever want to find a way to peace. This story shows how maddeningly impossible it is to understand war, by viewing it through a child’s world.
Tien Pao gets separated from his family and finds himself in the midst of a battleground, during the Japanese invasion of China. He has to deal with danger and physical hardship, his lack of common language, his isolation, and his tender heart.
This children’s book is historical fiction, accurately based on an episode in the author’s life that reflects the unusual outcome for Tien Pao. Since the book was written in 1956, there are some aspects to it that might seem odd today, such as dressing a young boy in the soldier’s uniform. Nevertheless, the book is a good addition to the literature for children who might be learning about the hardships of war. It is good for classroom use. However, it has an important line of prejudice in it that is important to be aware of. It is very unflattering to the Japanese, so it would be important to clarify the prejudice in the book for any child who might read it. One could use that prejudice as a way of talking about how war comes out of seeing differences. Ages 9 and up, especially good for boys.