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

cover When Elephants Fight: The Lives of Children in Conflict in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Sri Lank, Sudan and Uganda.

Adrian Bradbury & Eric Walters.
Victoria, BC: Orca, 2008.
89 pp., hardcover, $19.95.
ISBN 978-1-55143-900-6.

Subject Heading:
Children and war.

Grades 7-9 / Ages 12-14.

Review by Marilynne V. Black.

***½ /4

Reviewed from Advance Reader Copy.


When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. While the source of this quote is lost in the distant past, the wisdom is as true today as when those words were first spoken, perhaps thousands of years ago.

Its essence is simplicity. When the large - the strong, the dominant - fight, it is the small - the weak, the least powerful - who suffer most.

Regardless of which elephant wins, or loses, the grass beneath their feet will always be trampled and destroyed.

There has never been a war fought that was started by children - or one that failed to harm them. Children are the grass beneath the feet of the men, the tribes, the armies, and the nations engaged in armed conflict. Regardless of the winner - and there is a strong case to be made that war produces no winners, only greater and lesser losers - the children always suffer.


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Most Canadian children are not intimately aware of the desperate situation other children around the world face on a daily basis due to the ongoing conflicts within their countries. Our children cannot imagine having to walk many miles each night to a small African town to sleep in relative safety and then return home in the morning to help farm their land, and if lucky, attend school during the day. Our children cannot imagine not being able to go out on the streets of their city for days on end to play or travel to school because at any moment snipers might shoot them. Our children cannot imagine walking for many miles and many days because they have lost everything and must go to a refugee camp in order to survive.

      The two Canadians authors bring their separate areas of expertise to When Elephants Fight. Eric Walters, an award-winning author, has the gift of writing a great story. Adrian Bradbury, cofounder of GuluWalk, "a foundation dedicated to support the abandoned children of Northern Uganda," has an intimate knowledge of the plight of so many African children. They have collaborated on a book that deftly handles a difficult topic - the effects of war on children -without being sensational. They document the 'usual' outcomes of war: looting, poverty and hunger, and wounding or death by bullets or bombs. On the other hand, they have not glossed over the atrocities; however, these occurrences are not dealt with in depth - they are statements of facts. Nonetheless, the issues are chronicled.

      When Elephants Fight has several salient features. First and foremost is that each section is made up of two parts. One part tells the story of one child in each of five war-torn countries - Afghanistan, Uganda, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Saravejo, Bosnia and Herzegovina - and how the ongoing turmoil within the country affects that child personally. These children range in age from six to 14. The authors give a face and a voice to young war victims, and by extension, all victims. Secondly, the children’s personal stories are followed by detailed information about the geopolitical issues and history of that country. Needed background information is given without taking away from the poignancy of each child's plight. It is a delicate balance adroitly managed by the authors.

      Other features are a Forward is written by Kim Phuc, who, as a child, was photographed running naked and terrified down a road in South Viet Nam after a napalm attack. “This picture, which won the Pulitzer Prize, became a visual image of the horror of war and the effects on the most innocent, children.” In addition, there is a four page Introduction that briefly outlines the source of the title and states that children have become "collateral damage,” and worse, in some cases "the specific targets of war" and have been used as "servants, slaves or sexual partners" or forced to become child soldiers. The introduction is complemented by a simple world map with a picture of each child pinpointed to the child’s country. Continuity is facilitated as each country is colour coded which carries throughout the book into the background of the sidebars. These sidebars, headed by the national flag, give a brief insight into each country. Such statistics as population, location, area, climate, languages, ethnicity, religion, life expectancy, infant mortality rate, per capita income and literacy rates are given. It is these last four headings which are particularly telling. At a glance, readers can see the vast difference between, for instance, life expectancy in Uganda (52 years) and in Bosnia Herzegovina (78 years). Infant mortality rates and literacy rates are similarly sharply contrasted. Two or three coloured photographs help enhance each section. A further feature is the inclusion of a short follow-up that briefly details what has happened to that child as s/he grew up. It is these inclusions, despite the brutalities, that give an element of hope: Jimmy attends computer classes, Annu recently graduated from university, and Nadja is "a champion for the rights of children." Lastly, tiny sketches, as if by children, of grenades, a one-legged man, an airplane strafing, machine guns, machetes, and rockets are very evocative.

      Rating a book for the most appropriate age of readers is difficult. Reading ability, interest levels, and maturity can vary widely in children of the same age. Although the advance reading copy I received stated that the book is suitable for children 10 years of age and up, overall I feel it is more suitable for older children. Certainly the stories of each child could be suitable for the lower age range; however, the sections on the actual backgrounds of each story are sophisticated and historically detailed, making them particularly appropriate for more mature readers.

      Since children continue to suffer, the authors emphasize that "For the future to be better than the past, better than the present, we must help equip our children with the awareness and understanding of the world around them and their ability to bring about change." Used with novels with a similar theme, the opportunities for understanding and possible change are greatly enhanced. When Elephants Fight is a solid vehicle for discussions about the effects of war on children.

Highly Recommended.

Marilynne V. Black is a former B.C. elementary teacher-librarian who completed her Master of Arts in Children's Literature (UBC) in the spring of 2005. She is now working as an independent children's literature consultant with a web site at www.heartofthestory.ca.

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

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