It was a rainy afternoon. Two 4-year-old girls played on the kitchen floor, coloring either end of a long accordion of paper. Glorious pastels and autumn tones materialized on the adjoining rectangles until they came together in the middle. The two girls held up their joint creation with glee. Until, that is, one mother arrived to pick up her daughter, who refused to budge without her half of the book. She asked for scissors, but her host, who happens to be my daughter, shook her head no and crawled under the kitchen table. One wailed for her half; the other wailed to keep the whole book.
My friend carried her sobbing daughter off as we tried not to laugh, or even attempt to mediate. After they left, my daughter still wouldn’t come out. And when I sat on the floor, she covered her face in shame. “That’s how wars start,” I told her. “One side wants to divide the land. Another wants all of it. No one can agree. So they start shooting.” My daughter burst into even louder sobs.
It was a slightly exaggerated claim. I felt bad as soon as I said it. But after more than a decade as a war correspondent, I’m pretty sure my words held some truth. I’m also pretty sure my daughter will have similar if not the same fights several more times before she sorts out the compromised beauty of compromise. (Both girls forgot about the book almost immediately.) And, as if to confirm this belief, two new children’s books about war, or really about the absurd birth and life of war, landed on my desk, Olivier Tallec’s “Waterloo & Trafalgar” and Michel Streich’s “Grumpy Little King.” What struck me from this side of the Atlantic is how much both books are shaped by the terrible history of European conflict in the authors’ countries of origin: Tallec is French and Streich German.
“Waterloo & Trafalgar” takes the names of two of the most famous French defeats in the Napoleonic wars and bestows them upon a pair of squat enemy soldiers in identically oversize tin helmets, squaring off behind their telescopes. Waterloo is robin’s-egg blue and has a Vichy mustache à la Claude Rains in “Casablanca.” Trafalgar is pumpkin-colored and cleanshaven. They spy on each other through rain and snow and storms, battles and colds and boredom. Soldiering is, after all, quite tedious nonsense most of the time. Tallec draws eloquent, silent stories out of nature’s quotidian happenings. One day, along comes an orange snail that enlivens Trafalgar’s lonely space. Then off the snail goes. Trafalgar sheds a tear, mopes.
Meanwhile, on the other side of no man’s land, Waterloo roasts the little orange (enemy) snail, feasts upon his escargot in French fashion, bib et tout, then kicks the empty shell across the field and onto a snoozing Trafalgar, who awakens in horror. Outrage, shouting, guns are drawn. Tallec’s line drawings of the two with their tiny clenched fists and charging feet and wide furious mouths are irresistible to young children. And it’s not lost on them — the silliness of it all — as the pages unfold and Waterloo brushes his teeth, unfurls his sleeping mat and drifts off to dream.
Tallec sets the two enemies up across terrain that conjures the futile trench warfare of the Great War, sketching winter, Christmas and spring; their puny attempts at progress; and the patterning of characters caught in a trap. His evocative pencil-and-paint illustrations are sprinkled with spirited details like the A’s from Trafalgar’s “Aaachoo” that march across the frozen field causing Waterloo to spill his tea or the sound bubble of a trumpet when Trafalgar blows his nose. A musical war ensues with ever bigger boom boxes and instruments (rather than rockets and machine guns).