Saturday, October 27, 2007

Pepper's Purple Heart: A Veterans Day Story

Pepper's Purple Heart: A Veterans Day Story was the first of Heather French Henry's books I bought and was the first of Mrs. Henry's books to be published. I was in the children's section at Barnes & Noble just looking to see what was there when I found it.

Claire wakes up to sunshine and puppy kisses. Then, her best friend, Robbie, wearing his dad's Army helmet and a camouflage t-shirt, knocks on her window and urges her to get out of bed. With a stick propped against his shoulder, he marches through the yard. Mom comments she doesn't like it when they play soldiers, but Claire reminds her, "Did you forget, Mom? We're going to march in a parade for soldiers. It's Veterans Day."

Claire comments that Pepper will march in the parade, too, but first, she and Robbie will rescue Pepper "from the enemy - like Robbie's dad did with real soldiers in Viet-raq." Mom clarifies: "He was in Iraq, not Vietnam. They are different countries, dear."

Claire dresses herself, and gives Pepper a "uniform" of an olive drab bandana. They join Robbie outside. After Pepper is tied up to the picnic table, the children decide their mission will be in Vietnam, not Iraq, since the yard has lots of bushes, more like the jungles of Vietnam than the deserts of Iraq. In the process of completing their "rescue mission", Pepper gets loose and runs out the gate the children left open while they were playing Army. Before Claire can tell Mom what happened, Pepper is hit by a car.

The neighbor, Mr. Jones agrees to watch the "little soldiers" while Mom takes Pepper to the vet to get patched up. Mr. Jones says he knows "all about soldiers." Over milk and cookies, Claire confesses to Mr. Jones that Pepper got hurt because she didn't make sure the gate was closed, like Mom told her. Mr. Jones reassures her: "Rescue missions are always dangerous. Let's wait and see what the medic says about that leg."

Mr. Jones then tells the children that he was a Marine (I'll forgive the "m" in the text...) in Vietnam and had been a prisoner of war. He also lets them know that not all veterans fight in wars, but everyone who serves in the military is considered a veteran. Robbie inquires about the cane Mr. Jones uses when he walks. "I got wounded in the leg, just like Sergeant Pepper."

A part of the book that was very refreshing to read:

"I'm going to be a soldier, too." Robbie tapped his helmet.

"It's important to serve your country, Robbie. But you have to be very alert," warned Mr. Jones.

Robbie teetered on one foot and spun around on the cane. Tumbling off the bottom step, he landed in a heap on the grass. His shirtsleeve had ripped at the seam. "I guess I'm not quite ready to be a soldier."

Mr. Jones laughed and said, "First, you have to go through Basic Training, Private Robbie."

Claire doesn't think she can be a soldier because she's a girl. Mr. Jones sets her straight: when he got out of the prison camp, he went to an Army hospital, where an Army nurse took care of him, and he married that nurse! Robbie says women are always nurses, but Mr. Jones sets him straight, too: his daughter served in Iraq, and she's now a sergeant, and she trains soldiers.

Mom returns with a patched up Sergeant Pepper. It's time to get ready to go to the parade, and the children are still in their dirty and torn play clothes. Mr. Jones comes to the rescue, and lets the children wear some of his old fatigue blouses from Vietnam. Mr. Jones had also changed into what he would wear to the parade: he's in a fancy blue uniform with 4 stars on the epaulettes. It's supposed to be an Army uniform because Mr. Jones was in the Army after the Marine Corps, but it looks more like a Marine evening dress uniform than an Army mess uniform... Mr. Jones then shows the children his medals: a Vietnam service medal, a Prisoner of War Medal, and the third, he lets Pepper wear: "Every wounded soldier gets a Purple Heart."

Robbie knows he isn't ready to be a soldier yet, but he wants to "do something to serve our country." General Jones invites the children to come with him when he visits the VA hospital - he goes twice a week to serve meals, and he says the soldiers would love to met them. After that, it's time to go for the parade. The final illustration shows General Jones, Claire's parents, Robbie's dad and the children marching in the Veterans Day parade. As with the other two books in the Claire's Holiday Adventure Series, Mrs. Henry includes "A Brief History of Veterans Day" on the last page.

As with the other books in this series, this one is recommended for children ages 5 to 9. Unlike America's White Table, this book about Veterans Day may be much better suited to younger readers who aren't yet mature enough to comprehend some of the harsh realities of war, such as those who do not return from it. Pepper's Purple Heart: A Veterans Day Story would be a lovely addition to any children's library, and helps to connect children with an important American holiday.