|Image: Candlewick Press|
The Good Son: a story from the first World War told in miniature by Pierre-Jacques Ober. Illustrated by Jules Over and Felicity Coonan. 104 p. Candlewick Studio/ Candlewick Press, May 14, 2019. 9781536204827. (Review of finished copy courtesy of publisher.)
Happy book birthday to The Good Son by Pierre-Jacques Ober. This picture book for older readers is remarkable. Spare and evocative text combine with photographs that are as devastating as they are striking.
A young soldier named Pierre leaves his post to visit his mother at Christmas. When he returns after two days, he is arrested and told to prepare to be executed for desertion. His friend, Gilbert brings food and wine. Otherwise, Pierre is left alone to contemplate his fate. The reader learns that he signed up to fight enthusiastically after being promised the war would be over in a few months. The young recruit dreamed of glory until the first bloody battles. Even when he won, he felt he lost so much. He relates a cruel irony in a final letter home to his mother.
The photos are incredibly realistic considering they are of miniature toys and scenery. They have the look of old photos. Most are slightly sepia toned and they are also slightly blurred. That combined with the sturdy paper and beautiful design, gives the reader the feeling of looking through an album. Creator notes at the back reveal the challenges of making these plastic figures appear real. They used a shallow depth-of-field (a technique I could never wrap my head around when I played around with SLR photography in the 80s.), natural light and digital adjustments.
Really, I can't do justice to the wonder of these photos. They have to be seen and contemplated. I can't even imagine the process of gathering the materials! The details present in each photo invite pause. The use of chiaroscuro lighting causes the reader to lean in and linger, perhaps guiltily.
Photos of the process shown in the back matter that include fingers of the creators help give the reader scale. A note from the author explains that he came from a military family and that his grandfather was a decorated soldier in World War I. This book started as a series of images that were a gift to his father at the centenary of the war.
My single quibble is wondering about the "based on a true event" claim of the front flap. As an adult reader, I came to the book knowing about the hundreds of men who were executed during that war for treason and cowardice when they were suffering from what we now know is PTSD. Young readers may not know this. I would've appreciated knowing more about this from back matter notes. Was there really a soldier named Pierre who went home for the holiday or was this based on a composite of stories?
The Good Son is a fine addition to all collections. Hand this to your budding military historians and give your social studies teacher a heads up. I usually donate my review copies to my school library collection, but this is such a powerful work of art, I am tempted to keep it for myself.
Visit The Children's War blog for a much more cogent review of The Good Son that includes extra resources I didn't think to hunt down.