Gordon Korman’s books are among the most popular novels for middle grade readers. Kids love them. His “Swindle” series is addictive, and his stand alone novels like “Restart” and “Slacker” are thoughtful and humorous at the same time. “War Stories,” his newest middle grade novel, is thoughtful, but necessarily less humorous; it delves into a much more serious topic — war.
The story has two protagonists, Jacob, who fought in WWII and enthralls his great grandson with his stories of daring and adventure, and that great grandson, Trevor. Trevor’s favorite thing to do is play video games that are set during WWII, where he imagines he is reenacting many of his great grandfather’s heroic exploits as he avoids German tanks and mows down rows of Nazi soldiers.
When Jacob is invited to a small village in France, one that his unit helped liberate during the war, he wants to bring Trevor and Trevor’s father, whom he raised when Trevor’s parents died, with him. Trevor is thrilled to get the chance to visit the sites of Jacob’s heroics. But what Trevor doesn’t expect is that this trip will upend all his thoughts and beliefs about the glory of war. And Jacob has his own reasons for making the arduous trip back to the village at the age of 93, reasons he’s not sharing with Trevor or his father. Trevor’s father notices what seem like threatening negative posts on a Facebook page set up for the ceremony, and it worries him. The posts are removed fairly quickly, but the deleted posts are replaced by other posts that are negative about Jacob’s part in the liberation of the village.
Jacob is determined to follow the path he took from basic training to Europe, so they start their “tour” in Ft. Benning, Georgia. Korman cleverly narrates the action so that we learn about Jacob’s experience both from Jacob’s point of view as he narrates the action of 1944, and from Trevor’s point of view as they revisit Jacob’s experiences as he goes from basic training to the theater of action in England and France. Jacob’s reminiscing and his narration of the actual battles are gritty and real. People die, and Trevor is shaken by some of the deaths. He tells Jacob that the stories didn’t include the deaths of Jacob’s soldier friends, and he comes to realize that in war, real war — not video games — real people, friends and family die.
And as they approach the French village where Jacob is to be honored, there are more social media posts threatening Jacob, and their car’s tires are slashed. What happened back in 1944 that would engender this kind of anger almost 75 years later? Are the three guys in real danger?
The dual narration really works well to keep us interested in the action, and the detailed description makes it clear that war is not just a glorified, allegedly realistic video game. It’s horrible and heartbreaking. And when we find out why Jacob is being threatened, we find out just how heartbreaking war can be. And how, in addition to the horror of war, the fact that all too often those who are fighting are just 18-year-old children (Jacob was only 17).
This would be a great classroom read aloud or a choice for a book group. It’s also a fabulous choice for a library or classroom bookshelf, and will certainly make readers new to Korman’s novels become fans. This story makes an important — extremely important — statement about war, violence, and the fact that often our perceived “enemy” is a person just like you or me who happens to be on the other side during a war.
Please note: This review is based on the advance reader’s copy provided by Scholastic Press, the publisher, for review purposes.