A Year of Borrowed Men Reviews

The Horn Book MagazineA Year of Borrowed Men | Michelle Barker & Renné Benoit | Pajama Press

“The story is told in simple, conversational phrases that sound like someone sharing her memories, with the occasional French or German word included either with a translation or in context.
Highlighted incidents are child-centered, such as when Gerda visits the men on Christmas to show them her new doll (and accidentally melts the doll’s hands on the stove), or when Gerda invites the men in to her own kitchen on a particularly cold day and a neighbor reports the family to the authorities. Benoit’s watercolor and colored-pencil illustrations use a little pastel so that the pictures combine precise details such as the wrinkles in Gerda’s stockings at her knee with a softness and warmth that convey the tenderness of memory. She strikes a tone of gentle sweetness in her depictions of the people and farm animals that, like the text, is never sappy. Children will find many things to notice, and the book raises some interesting questions, such as the complicated idea of who is an ‘enemy.’”
—Susan Dove Lempke

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School Library Journal

“Based on a true story, this precious gem evokes compassion in a way that is sure to resonate with young audiences. Told from the perspective of seven-year-old Gerda, the tale explores the warmth that can exist among individuals whose countries are at war with one another. Gerda’s ‘borrowed men’ are three French prisoners of war during World War II. The men have been sent to work on her family’s farm in Germany at the same time that her father has been sent into battle. The generosity and human kindness shown by Gerda’s family—especially by the little girl herself—are contrasted with the cold, punishing actions of the village policeman, Herr Mohlen. On a particularly cold night, Gerda’s mother invites the French POWs (who normally eat, sleep, and live in the pig kitchen, where meals for the pigs are prepared) inside for dinner. The next day, Herr Mohlen ‘borrows’ Gerda’s mother and threatens her with prison. The child narrates that a neighbor must have seen them (the author’s note explains the promotion and practice of neighbors spying on one another). But friendly bonds are formed in spite of the formidable authorities, and when the war is over, Gerda is just as sad to say goodbye to her amis as they are to leave their little freunde. The concept of ‘borrowing’ in wartime—first introduced by Gerda’s mother when explaining the sudden appearance of the French POWs (‘She said we were just borrowing the French men’) and peppered throughout the text—is sure to spark conversation about the so-called rules of war, especially with the reveal in the author’s note that Gerda’s father (also referred to as ‘borrowed’) and, later, her brother Franz die in combat. Photos preceding and following the text document what Gerda, her family, and the farm looked like. Illustrations done in watercolor and colored pencil, with a touch of pastel, create a beautiful backdrop that darkens and lightens with the tone of the narrative. VERDICT Purchase where nuanced portrayals of family during World War II are needed. Keep the tissues close by!”
Gloria Koster, West School, New Canaan, CT

Kirkus Reviews

“A tender memoir of human decency during wartime as seen through the eyes of the author’s then-8-year-old mother. The setting for Barker’s story is rural Germany toward the end of World War II. Her mother’s family has been sent three French prisoners of war to help at the farm, as German menfolk were in short supply. These are the borrowed men. ‘When the war was over, we would have to give them back.’ This sentence, early on, conveys the youthful sense of fairness that permeates the book: the Frenchmen should be treated with respect, fed well, allowed to celebrate holidays. Barker’s grandmother did just so and quickly learned she would be imprisoned if she continued….Readers will learn some French and German, get a look at life on a farm during wartime, and get the slightest bitter taste of how war changes people: the village policeman used to be kind, ‘but since the war began, he had changed, and we knew enough to be afraid of him.’ An author’s note reveals that Barker’s grandfather would not return from war, nor would her uncle, who is an important character of the story. The addition of old family photos from that time is poignant. This heartfelt picture book helps readers appreciate wartime’s toll.”

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Quill & Quire

“…The story, it turns out, is not about prisoners or the ravages of war so much as it is about kindness and humanity—a powerful message equally relevant today. Adults may have to interpret the wider framework, but at its heart, this family tale is a tender evocation of empathy, bravery, and friendship. This is Barker’s first foray into picture books, but she demonstrates that she can write fluidly and gently for young children. Renné Benoit has a particular gift for capturing another, era, and her soft, earth-toned illustrations perfectly reflect the mood of the story.”

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CM Magazine

“…Based on the childhood memories of Gerda Schlottke, the author’s mother who immigrated to Canada after the war, the text is augmented with family photographs and an appended note. The choice of Gerda as narrator adds to the story’s appeal for Gerda is unaware of the many horrors associated with this war; for her, it is simply a difficult time without her father. Benoit’s realistic watercolour, coloured pencil, and pastel illustrations employ an earthy palette that brings this heartfelt story to life. This makes A Year of Borrowed Men a natural choice for Remembrance Day story hours, but the overarching theme of kindness in a time of mistrust and suspicion gives the story a universal appeal that will likely spur many thoughtful discussions.

Highly Recommended.

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Winnipeg Free Press

“With Remembrance Day just past, B.C. writer Michelle Barker brings young readers (six to nine years) A Year of Borrowed Men, a feel-good story that occurred in Germany in 1944. Barker’s mother, Gerda, saw three French prisoners of war arrive at the family farm as labourers. There were strict rules: no fraternizing. But Gerda found ways to make friends. While the men lived in the “pig kitchen” close to the animals, Gerda helped them celebrate Christmas by making ornaments out of catalogue pictures. Ontario artist Renné Benoit’s gentle paintings help show compassion is possible even in times of war.”
—Helen Norrie

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Canadian Children’s Book News

“Because German Men were conscripted to fight during World War II, the families left behind were obligated to by the Nazi government to take in French prisoners of war to perform needed work. This is why three captives came to stay with seven-year-old Gerda, her mother and siblings at their farm. The rules were stringent: the French were to assist with the operation of the farm, sleep in the out-buildings and be treated as enemies. Anyone showing kindness to these “borrowed men” could be imprisoned. It was, however, challenging for Gerda to be so hard-hearted. On one particularly cold day, she invited them to share dinner with her family inside their warm home. For this act, her mother received a stern reprimand from the local police. From then on, compassion was demonstrated in more subtle ways, ensuring that the captives were well fed and treated with dignity. When the war ended, they parted as friends.

Based on her mother’s childhood memories of Germany during World War II, Michelle Barker’s book is a poignant account of one family’s brave acts of kindness in an atmosphere thick with fear and distrust. The story is told from little Gerda’s perspective, and we witness how a prohibited relationship grew from Feinde (enemies) to Freunde (friends). “The borrowed men knew some German words but we did not speak French. We had to use our hands to show them what we meant. Sometimes I drew pictures for them.” An Author’s Note and family photographs provide further context regarding Gerda’s experiences.

Renné Benoit’s watercolour, coloured pencil and pastel illustrations convey a pastoral environment imbued with the bleakness of war. In the midst of fear and strife, we see comforting moments in one family’s life. The simple acts of preparing meals, gathering around a candle-lit Christmas tree to sing carols and sharing conversation and scarce resources with strangers offer hope that goodness can sometimes triumph over evil.”

This review originally appeared in the Spring 2016 edition of Canadian Children’s BookNews.

Midwest Book Review

Reviewer’s Choice

A Year of Borrowed Men is illustrated by Renné Benoit and tells of how World War II ‘borrows’ the men in seven-year-old Gerda’s family to use as soldiers. In turn, the German government provides three French prisoners of war who must work the farm in their place. The family is ordered to treat these men as war criminals, but Gerda is not so sure. Can’t they be nice to them? A fine story of ‘borrowed men’ and their effects evolves in a story seldom told for this age range.”

The Calgary Herald

“This book, based on true events, looks at a German family during the Second World War who are given French soldiers on loan to help with their farm. Seven-year-old Gerda can’t understand why they must be treated like enemies and when they are shown kindness, her mother is threatened with prison. This story reminds us that friendship has no borders. Beautiful watercolour drawings and original photographs make this a great book youngsters. ages six to nine.”

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Victoria Times Colonist

One of my favourites is A Year of Borrowed Men, by B.C. author Michelle Barker, about a German family’s complex relationship with French prisoners of war brought in to work on their farm in the Second World War. Based on a true story and illustrated by Renné Benoit (Pajama Press), A Year of Borrowed Men is told from the point of view of a young girl who likes the men and struggles to understand why they are not supposed to be “Freundes” or friends. If you like books that inspire lots of questions from your kids, this is a good one. Some of them might be hard to answer, though.”
—Patricia Coppard

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CanLit for LittleCanadians

…Released on Remembrance Day, A Year of Borrowed Men will be a valuable and touching read for years to come in classrooms commemorating those whose lives were touched by war. But on the cusp of Christmas–also a memorable event in the story–A Year of Borrowed Men will speak to inherent kind-heartedness and be a reminder to demonstrate our humanity even in the most challenging of circumstances. The potential, unspoken, that the Schottke family’s adherence to the golden rule of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” might extend to their own family members away at war, is undeniable. But their charity to strangers in a time of war, when others only demonstrate anger and suspicion, is a worthwhile lesson in empathy. Michelle Barker gets the tone right for this message, telling her mother’s story simply and forthrightly, as a child might see the circumstances. The fear and confusion is there but it is superseded by a fundamental goodness to do what is right. Look at Renné Benoit’s unassuming illustrations of this child, this farm, the men and relive a simple though still harsh time, when war was horrific but there was a gentleness that could still be found. Thank goodness.”
—Helen Kubiw

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“A Year of Borrowed Men tells a story from World War II that will be unfamiliar to many readers, but is nonetheless a moving part of the history of the German-Canadian community. The author writes from her mother Gerda’s recollections, bringing to life the engaging voice of the younger Gerda, whose family hosted three French prisoners-of-war on their German farm in 1944.

 World War II from the German perspective remains somewhat problematic: how do we reconcile decades of erroneous equation of “German” with evil, with the real experiences of many Germans during the war? While the topic is dealt with effectively in some texts—Roberto Innocenti’s Rose Blanche (1985),Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief (2005), JohnBoyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2006), among others—it will take so many more stories for truth to overcome the stereotypes. A Year of Borrowed Men contributes positively and significantly to our understanding of the compassion of some of the German populace who placed themselves in an almost untenable psychological and ideological situation.

Gerda’s father was “borrowed” by the German army, and in his place the government sent three French prisoners—Gabriel, Fermaine, and Albert—to work the land. Gerda’s innocent narrative perspective ensures that the dark reality of Germany’s forced labour policy is not brought out. With the egalitarianism of young children, Gerda cannot understand why the three must live with the animals, and eat in the “pig’s kitchen,” where the slops were prepared. That was the rule though: these men were prisoners and were to be treated as such. Inviting them in to dinner one night almost sent Gerda’s mother to prison herself, yet the family could not deny their fundamental humanity. Despite regulations, in the face of threats, Gerda and her mother find little ways of making the Frenchmen’s lives more tolerable: extra butter on their bread, catalogues to cut into elicit decorations at Christmas, sneaking treats for them to eat. The men reciprocated with affection for their little German freunde: “I couldn’t keep the borrowed men here,” Gerda observes at the end of the war, “but we were friends—and I could keep that forever.” The story is made more powerful by the fact that Gerda did indeed keep that friendship alive: enough that her daughter has retold their story for her grandchildren’s generation to learn.”
—Karyn Huenemann

Friends Journal

“The text is clear and accessible to young readers. The narrative is interesting for reading aloud. The illustrations are beautiful full-page, and sometimes double-page, spreads, all in generous color. For me they combine clarity and immediacy with an evocative quality from the picture books of my own childhood.

I have no hesitation in recommending this book for families, meetings, and schools. The apparent simplicity of style and narrative offers opportunities for exploration of such matters as the definition of ‘enemies,’ how people change and behave under oppression and stress, how friendship can be demonstrated in the little, unassuming acts of everyday life.

Since the 1940s of my childhood, Germans are ‘enemies’ only in novels and films. But there is in the twenty-first century no shortage of so-called ‘enemies.’ The challenge of this book is to ask: How can we escape from the bondage of defining as ‘enemies’ people who don’t conform to our narrow definitions of ‘friends’? How can we welcome, accept, and value people we think of as ‘them’?

My friend’s granddaughter has been looking at books with me. My friend was born a few months before me, and like Gerda, he was born in Germany. He has lived in England for many decades. Although our families were ‘enemies’ when we were born, we have known nothing but friendship with each other. This book reminds me that such friendship is a precious fruit of peace that requires eternal vigilance and attention to the little things.”

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Youth Services Book Reviews

Rating: 4

Genre:  Historical picture book

What did you like about the book? In Germany during World War II, Gerda’s family is given three French prisoners to work with them on their farm. Gerda’s mother is kind to the men, although they are required to sleep in an outbuilding . When a neighbor spies the three prisoners eating with Gerda and her family in the family’s kitchen, police take her mother away for the day to question her. Still, the family and the prisoners become friends, even though they don’t understand each other’s languages beyond a few words. Gerda shows the prisoners her new doll. When the doll gets too close to the stove and its hands melt, the prisoners bandage it up. This act of compassion remains in Gerda’s thoughts. The story is based on the wartime memories of the authors’ mother. Watercolor, colored pencil and pastel illustrations are rendered in muted tones with a sepia background, emphasizing the historical nature of the story. A simple story which can teach young children to see the humanity of people at war.  Author’s note with photographs at end.

To whom would you recommend this book?  Useful for parents and teachers seeking to explain war to children.

Who should buy this book? Public libraries

Where would you shelve it? Picture books or Picture books for older children

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Books for the Curious Child

“A beautiful, poignant story that subtly introduces humanity during times of war.”

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Orange Marmalade Books

“Having had a daughter living in Germany for several years recently, I’ve become more attuned to the plight of the ordinary German people during the war. It’s tough to find books from that vantage point, which makes this title especially welcome.

Based on her mother, Gerda’s, childhood memories, author Michelle Barker tells the story of their family’s farm in Germany and of the French prisoners of war who were sent to help run it while their own men were away soldiering.

Little Gerda has a tender heart towards these seven men, who are supposed to be treated as prisoners. Her mother also has a hospitable heart, yet even inviting the men to eat indoors on a severely cold night, rather than in the pig kitchen, brings accusations from snoopy neighbors, a visit from the police, questioning at headquarters, and threats of imprisonment for any further kindness.

Read this brave, kindhearted story with children ages 4 and up. Warm, homey illustrations strike a gentle tone throughout. An Author’s Note tells more about the harrowing war experiences of the author’s mother.”

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Sal’s Fiction Addiction

“…This is a book that has been on my shelf for far too long. Today, I will remedy that by telling you about it. It is a story of Germany at the end of World War II. Based on her mother’s memories of that time in her life, Michelle Barker chooses to tell it in clear, understated prose….

A young narrator’s voice lessens the horror that surrounds the family in wartime. This story of kindness, friendship, and a loving family is illustrated realistically with watercolor, colored pencils, and pastel to evoke the warmth of the situation at a time when there was little hope for many. The addition of family photos and an author’s note add clarity.

This is a story to be shared at any time of year. It would also work well at a Remembrance Day Service…or at Christmas, a time of giving and for being kind and thankful.”

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The Children’s War

“I think that we sometimes think that if a person was German in the 1930s and early 1940s that automatically makes them Nazis. But the truth is that there were plenty of decent people who were not Nazis, didn’t support Hitler and his Third Reich, and were just struggling to survive like anyone caught in a war.

A Year of Borrowed Men is just such a book. This fictionalized story that takes place during the last year of the war is based on the author’s mother’s actual experiences as she related them to her children. Farms and the food they produced were just as important to Germany during the war as they were everywhere else, but with all the men off fighting for the Führer, many farms were struggling to survive….

A Year of Borrowed Men is a gentle story, poignant in its hopeful perspective, perhaps because it is narrated by 7 year old Gerda, and Michelle Barker is able to retain all the innocence of a child in her writing. A cruel, hateful regime and war, after all, doesn’t mean one needs to sacrifice their humanity, as so many did living under Hitler and during WWII. Although the story covers the year the POWs were at the Schlottke’s farm, because of the number of pages devoted to Christmas, it makes a nice holiday story, as well. There may not have been Peace of Earth at that time, but at least on one farm there was Goodwill towards men.

Renné Benoit’s watercolor, pencil and pastel illustrations has a gentle, almost folk art feeling to them, done in a palette of warms browns, greens, and ochre earthtones that seems to create a haven in the midst of war.

This book is recommended for readers 6+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL”

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There’s a Book For That

“…Told from a child’s perspective, this book is a very human look at hard times in European history. Full of tender and sweet moments and the harsh realities of suspicion sand cruelties of war.”

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Book Time

“A Year of Borrowed Men is also a true story, but this time based in the Second World War in Germany when the men in Gerda’s family are sent to war and in exchange, French prisoners of war are staying with them to work the farm.

I am not sure why I didn’t realize this would of course happened during the war. In the book, we learn it was hard for Gerda to understand why the men had to stay in the pig kitchen and not come inside the house where it was warm. She could also not understand why it was forbidden to allow them in the house and join their family for a meal, although they did it once and neighbours called the village policeman, taking away her mother and threatening her with prison if she did it again.

A Year of Borrowed Men is by Michelle Barker and whose story celebrates her mother’s early memories of living in Germany during the war.”

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