________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 1 . . . . August 29, 2008

cover Off to War: Voices of Soldiers’ Children.

Deborah Ellis.
Toronto, ON: Groundwood/House of Anansi, 2008.
175 pp., pbk. & hc, $12.95 (pbk.), $16.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-0-88899-895-8 (pbk.),
ISBN 978-0-88899-894-1 (hc).

Subject Headings:
Children and war-Juvenile literature.
Children of military personnel-United States-Interviews-Juvenile literature.
Children of military personnel-Canada-Juvenile literature.

Grades 5 and up / Ages 10 and up.

Review by Dave Jenkinson.

**** /4

Reviewed from Advance Reader Copy.


There weren’t as many people in the house when Dad was away. I wasn’t sad all the time because we have a deployment group at my school that we went to every second Wednesday. We make things there to send over to Afghanistan. Once we made a pillow with drawings on it of our dad, and then we slept with it. I still have it.

I normally got nightmares every night after Dad left, but then when I slept with the pillow I remembered better things that I used to dream about, and didn’t have so many nightmares. The pillow was actually helpful. It helped me to think of things that are not so sad. And sometimes Mommy would spray Daddy’s perfume on the pillow.

(Tara’s mom – You mean Daddy’s aftershave.)

Oh, yeah. I couldn’t remember what you called it. So the pillow smelled like Daddy.

My sister acted differently from me. She didn’t say anything, really. She didn’t even talk to me about it.

I talked about it a lot. I talked to Mommy because Libby didn’t want to talk much. The deployment group helped me understand things better, like what the soldiers are doing. The group taught me it was okay to feel things, too. {From “Tara, 8.”)


During wartime, understandably, the public’s focus tends to be on those who are risking their lives in combat. Often overlooked, or even forgotten, are those who remain behind, the combatants’ spouses and children. As the subtitle of Deborah Elllis’s Off to War indicates, this book allows the children of soldiers to share a variety of impacts on their lives which have been brought about by their parents’ military deployment principally in Iraq or Afghanistan. As with Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children Speak, Ellis’s content is derived from interviews, in this case interviews with children and adolescents in the United States and Canada who had one or more parents who had served, or were serving, a tour of duty overseas.

      The book’s 27 “chapters” range in length from four to 11 pages with most falling between four and six pages. Fifteen of the entries focus on American children/adolescents while the remaining 12 involve Canadian juveniles. While most entries consist of the responses of a single individual, in nine instances Ellis interviewed all of the children in a family. Consequently, the total number of children and adolescents found in the book totals 40, with their ages ranging from six to 17 and with most of them falling in the middle school age range. Like she did in Three Wishes, Ellis begins each entry with a brief introductory section which provides the reader with a context for the child’s/adolescent’s comments. Another structural similarity to Three Wishes is the inclusion of small black and white photo(s) of the chapter’s speaker(s) although these are absent for six of the entries.

      While no details are supplied concerning how Ellis went about selecting her interview subjects, the 40 children/adolescents appear to be a good cross section in terms of age and race. As well, Ellis has appropriately recognized that the American forces are composed of three different types of soldiers: those from the regular standing armed forces, National Guard units and reservists. The amount of support of various kinds that the American families receive is impacted by which form of soldier the person is and whether the family lives on or off a military base. Though the soldiers’ ranks range from corporal through brigadier general, the overwhelming majority are non-commissioned officers.

      And what do the children have to say? Obviously, each child’s/adolescent’s experience is unique, but certain themes do emerge, with few being positive. With a parent absent, often for more than a year, older adolescents found that they had to, or chose to, assume a parenting role if they had younger siblings. As well, with one adult missing from the family, that person’s domestic chores had to be reallocated within the family. Reintegrating the returned soldier into the family also posed varied challenges with some returnees feeling they were no longer needed while others became very demanding of family members and still others adopted a more laissez-faire parenting style coupled with a “don’t sweat the small stuff” attitude. In some cases, families became fractured by divorce or the effects of emotional disorders caused by the soldiers’ overseas experiences. Patrick, 12, experienced the reality of the fear shared by virtually all of the book’s subjects, that being that their parent would be killed.

      If Off to War has a weakness, it is one unfortunately shared by a great deal of juvenile nonfiction, that being the lack of documentation regarding how the book’s contents came into being. Obviously, Ellis interviewed her subjects, but what questions did she ask? From the repetition found in the chapters’s contents, one can infer what some of the questions were, including: “When you grow up, would you join the military?” (The overwhelming response being “no” with most kids wanting to be in a “helping” profession); “What advice do you have for other children/adolescents whose parents are overseas?” (By and large, the suggestions were of the “seek support from others around you” variety); “Why is your parent deployed overseas?” (Most children/adolescents had very vague understandings of the reasons for the conflicts); “Do you think your parent will kill someone?” (Most respondents did not want to think of their soldier parent as a killer, but, if a killing did occur, it would be in response to aggression initiated by the enemy). Since Off to War will undoubtedly make its way into school curricula, the weakness noted above could be addressed by the Groundwood website where Ellis’s interview protocol could be shared with teachers.

      Off to War concludes with a two-page glossary and a two-page “For Further Information” section that includes websites, book and magazine titles, and web addresses of Canadian and American military related organizations and support associations

      Bravo to Ellis for giving these children and adolescents a vehicle for sharing their experiences which candidly and movingly expose the many aspects of war’s collateral damage on the home front. Obviously, the book’s contents will speak most loudly to children whose parents are in the military, but these children’s/adolescents’ voices also need to be heard by all “civilians,” whether child or adult, so that they can be more responsive, especially to the emotional needs of this juvenile cohort.

      In keeping with her practice of not profiting personally from the misfortunes of others, Ellis is donating the royalties from Off to War to the Children in Crisis fund of IBBY (the International Board on Books for Young People).

Highly Recommended.

Dave Jenkinson, who lives in Winnipeg, MB, isCM ’s editor.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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