Nice Day for a War: Adventures of a Kiwi Soldier in World War I by Chris Slane and Matt Elliot
Not a picture book, not a graphic novel, not anything easily pigeon-holed, Chris Slane and Matt Elliott's study-cum-evocation of life in World War I is a great resource and a great read. Sections of graphic-novel style storytelling give us the story of Elliott's grandfather, recreated by Slane from his original diaries.
Intercut sections of tightly written historical backgrounding and photos from the period walk us through the world these men were living in and give us the military context for their experiences. Cyril Elliott was still a boy when he enlisted in 1915; he lied about his age, and soon enough found himself on the Western Front.
Slane and Elliott do not put special emphasis on the horrors of the experience. They don't gloss over them either. This is perhaps too information-rich a book to give to a young child - this war has been well canvassed for that age group in any case, in books such as Michael Foreman's War Game and Norman Jorgensen and Brian Harrison-Lever's In Flanders Fields - but this would make an excellent resource for intermediate age children and teens. It also has enough depth and enough charm - Elliott and Slane have fun bringing the understated humour of the soldiers alive - to satisfy adult readers.
Slane's style will be familiar to many readers from his political cartoons in the Listener. That familiarity adds a key dimension to the book. We've all seen photos from this era often enough - though this book features a rich and well-judged array of them - but to see the men from those photos walking, angular, wry-mouthed, through the same landscapes as last weekend's Bill English cartoon brings them into our world.
Which is very much the point, and the effect of the book overall, whether you're a pre-existing Slane fan or not. As the war recedes further from our present, Slane and Elliott have given us a route back into its everyday reality. Soldiers' letters to loved ones sit on the page next to 1918 cartoons, diary excerpts provide captions for photos of the scenes they describe, we're offered famous poems and obscure old songs. And through it all Slane's cartoon Cyril Elliott walks. Just an ordinary Kiwi boy, a very long way from home.
David Larsen is an Auckland reviewer.