War Horse by Michael Morpurgo
Ill. by Rae Smith. Egmont, 2013. ISBN 9781405267960.
Inspired by a plaque on a painting of a horse in a village hall in England, Michael Morpurgo has created this sensitive and inspirational story of Joey, a young foal separated from his mother a county fair to become the property of a harsh but hard-working farmer who becomes a most courageous horse in the battlefields of World War I. Told from Joey's perspective, it is through his eyes that we learn of the sights, sounds, and smells of war, its ugliness and fear in a way that shows its futility, yet, at the same time demonstrates the courage, resilience, and loyalty of both humans and animals in these times. But it is also a story of love and devotion between a man and his horse and the synergy that that creates, giving it a softness and poignancy that make it utterly engaging and thought-provoking. Even though Joey and Albert come home to a hero's welcome with bands and bells, Joey observes that 'the real heroes have not come home'. What is it that makes a hero?
At times the story is challenging to the senses because it is faithful to what was, but it is accompanied by magnificent monochrome drawings by Rae Smith, designer of the National Theatre's production of the stage version, which are far less confronting than the images conveyed in the movie version and which earned that an M rating. This makes it suitable for the primary library but some discretion might be needed before it is recommended for a child just wanting 'a horse story'. Others have likened it to some parts of Black Beauty by Anna Sewell which may provide some guidance.
This would be a perfect read-aloud novel to introduce students to the period of history that is World War 1 so there is an awareness that there was more to the war than what happened on the Gallipoli Peninsula. For those building a collection of titles to support this period, this is a must-have addition.