A Life of Service

Sergeant Billy: The True Story of the Goat Who Went to War – Mireille Messier and Kass Reich, Tundra Books, 2019

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In 2016, Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear, written by Lindsay Mattick and Illustrated by Sophie Blackall, won the American Library Association’s Caldecott Award for its beautiful and evocative pictures.  Now, Tundra Books is about to release another historical picture book with an animal theme, also beginning and ending in Canada. Mireille Messier and Kass Reich’s Sergeant Billy: the True Story of the Goat Who Went to War takes on the difficult task of presenting war to young readers without romanticizing its terrible reality.  The appeal of the book lies in its hero, a goat named Billy who actually became the mascot of the Canadian Fifth Battalion serving in Europe during World War I. The warmth and adventure of this true account, in which one unwitting animal provides support to a group of soldiers far from home, offers an entertaining and age appropriate history lesson to children.

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While children will be drawn to the story by the improbable nature of Billy’s wartime heroics, adults may notice subtle allusions to the soldiers’ feelings of loss, and need for a mascot who roots their service in country and family.  They acquire the goat, Billy, “in a small prairie town,” where they ask a little girl named Daisy if they may “borrow” her goat.  She looks understandably sad in the picture, but she agrees.  Readers may also feel sad; here is the first, gentle, suggestion that war is harsh and people need to make sacrifices.  A. picture shows the young soldiers clowning around with Billy on the train taking them to deploy; one soldier pushes Billy away in annoyance.

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As they board ship, the men show some mild subversion of authority when they sneak their mascot up the ramp: “The colonel ordered Billy to stay.  But the soldiers of the Fighting Fifth had grown so attached to their goat that they didn’t want to leave him behind.  So they snuck him on board.”  Both picture and text communicate the message.  One soldier raises his arms in an expression of emotion, while his skeptical officer crosses his own arms in front of his chest. Even the juxtaposition of the Battalion’s name, “Fighting Fifth,” with the admission that they had “grown so attached,” poignantly lets the reader know who is fighting this war.

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There is no explicit mention of casualties. In fact, the book offers an invitation to caregivers and teachers, who may need to answer questions and elaborate. Private Billy, as the goat is now known, comforts grieving men, “those who missed their fallen friends.” The poetic phrase referring to those killed in action is both suitable for children, and reminiscent of some of the great poets of the War. an image of a letter and a soldier’s hand composing it is headed “July 11, 1915, somewhere in France.” The date is specific, but the location is one more place in a grueling list of battles.

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Children will feel reassured by the letter’s funny anecdote about their mascot, while adults will recognize the fear behind the phrase “to keep up our morale.” The greatest risk that author and artist take is in a scene of trench warfare, where Sergeant Billy pushes soldiers away from exploding shells.(image). (On the previous page, Billy himself has been described as “shell-shocked.”)

Billy is rewarded for his patriotism with a distinguished medal, but this is not a book which glorifies war.  Rather, it introduces an important subject, the Great War, by including many references to the vulnerable humanity of soldiers who are comforted by the presence of a farm animal from their country’s prairies.  The resolution is happy, but the book also encourages opportunities to discuss the tragedy of war on a level which children can understand. Messier and Reich deserve a medal for their ambitious work.

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