June 15, 2006


Private Peaceful. By Michael Morpurgo. Scholastic. $5.99.

Out Standing in My Field. By Patrick Jennings. Scholastic. $5.99.

     These paperbacks are intended to be more than lower-priced editions of hardcover books.  They are part of Scholastic’s “After Words” series, which includes bonus features designed to amplify or deepen a young reader’s experience through back-of-the-book essays, question-and-answer sessions, even quizzes and recipes.  The added material does not really make either book better, but some of it – especially the Q&A with the authors – may make readers feel a stronger sense of relationship to the people behind the prose.  The bonuses are not really a reason to buy the books, but they are nice additional elements.

     The books themselves both have considerable strengths.  Private Peaceful, originally published in 2003, is one of the many war stories that Michael Morpurgo likes to write.  Its focus is not on battles – Morpurgo cares little about the actual fighting – but on the effects of war on those caught in it.  The book’s title is the name of an actual soldier killed in 1916 – Morpurgo saw the man’s grave.  And the events in the book actually happened, though the author has fictionalized them.  This is a not a story for the faint of heart, and it may be too intense for preteens and young teenagers, though it is recommended for ages 12 and up.  The reason is its deep emotion and deeply felt sense of unfairness.  It is about the execution of 300 British soldiers for cowardice, desertion or falling asleep at their posts – all the men being judged “worthless” and all receiving trials of perhaps 20 minutes, with no one to assist or speak for them.  A monumental injustice by the standards of our time – it is apparent that the soldiers were shell-shocked and needed medical care – the executions seemed right and proper during World War I, and the British government has never apologized for them.  Morpurgo’s fictional characters make the story, and the war within which it occurred, come all too realistically alive, and the final scene of marching off to nowhere, with no certain outcome, is emblematic of the feelings of many soldiers even today.  The “glory” of war emerges only in the “After Words” sections, which discuss aspects of World War I in more matter-of-fact terms.

     Out Standing in My Field is for younger readers, ages 9-12, and is about the more humane and less deadly form of war that is organized sports.  The damage here is more psychological than physical.  Patrick Jennings’ book, first published last year, is about a man who so admires Ty Cobb that he models his life on Cobb’s to the extent possible – and wants his son, the book’s narrator, to become as great a baseball player as Cobb.  There is an underlying irony in all this: Cobb was a great player, but he was one of the nastiest, most vicious men ever to play the sport.  Cobb called his father “the Professor,” so narrator Ty Cutter – named after Cobb, of course – has to call his dad Professor, even though his father is actually a barber.  And Ty has to play every game, even though “I suck. …Big-time.  Ask my teammates.  They know I’m the worst guy on the team, that I’d be the worst guy on any team.”  But the Professor is Ty’s father, and Ty has to play, even if he hates it and the other players hate him.  The book is all about Ty discovering the courage to be himself, not what his father wants him to be – and the consequences of his growing up and becoming more self-aware.  Out Standing in My Field is written in innings rather than chapters, and Jennings explains his own fascination with baseball in the “After Words” section.  But the most interesting part of the appended material is Jennings’ application of the Professor’s rules to…writing.  That page has nothing directly to do with the rest of the book, but it really is a worthwhile bonus.

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