Written and illustrated by Michael Foreman, 'War Game' is a powerful, award-winning picture book that presents the experiences of young soldiers in World War One as they move from ‘village green' to 'No-Man’s-Land’.
The War Game story describes the transition made by four friends as, electrified by the excitement of recruitment, they travel from their sleepy village to the disappointment of the realities of training and then on to the shock of war-ravaged France and the Front Line. We follow the boys up to Christmas of that year. As suggested by the book's dedication to Foreman's uncles (the characters’ namesakes) who died in the Great War, we do not expect a happy ending. The final page, a wordless spread of poppies in snow, is a moving and fitting conclusion.
The football theme gives shape to War Game and makes it, in the first instance, about a boy and his three friends; many children will empathise with football-mad Will and irrepressible Freddie. It begins with a game of football in the Suffolk countryside but soon the boys are persuaded to join the ‘Greater Game’. The football theme is threaded through the narrative as we see the boys’ experience of war through their own eyes. The next game of football portrayed is during the 1914 Christmas Truce. Foreman does not make direct comment on the futility of war nor the tragedy of young lives swept up by propaganda and faraway politics, but the contrast between the two games is stark.
One of the elements which makes War Game such a rich book is its layers of text. It is, foremost, a well-written and beautifully illustrated story about friends caught up in a historic event. However, the impact of the narrative is increased through the inclusion of primary sources: propaganda posters, newspaper advertisements and a Christmas card from the King and Queen to the troops. The reader can imagine how contemporaries of Will might have felt on seeing these, but this is also a reminder that the story is set amidst real events. The factual captions act a little like museum panels, adding background information and building a deeper picture of the historical context.
There are many features of this book which make it fantastic for a Year 5 or Year 6 classroom:
War Game would provide a rich resource in any upper key stage 2 classroom. Children can write empathetically in role, writing home to loved ones or keeping a diary, or they could write a different ending or from a different viewpoint. They can speculate on the meaning of the title and discuss the issues around war and its alternatives. The propaganda posters provide a great trigger for exploration of persuasive writing or children might write creatively in response to any of the illustrations. Or, if you are teaching history, War Game would make a good, accessible introduction to this period.
For teaching plans and resources using this book, see Hamilton's Year 6 English block, 'Historical Stories: War Horse and War Game'. War Game is teamed with War Horse, by Michael Morpurgo, as children explore World War One fiction. They read and write about the stories, revise clauses and use formal and informal register, including subjunctive form and then write an ‘untold story’ linked to one that they have read.
Hamilton also have a lower key stage 2 mini-topic on World War One with lots more information and good teaching ideas and prompts, if you are looking to widen the context of the book.