As a military spouse, I have close friends whose children have dealt with deployments, multiple moves, adjusting to new cities and countries, etc. I've had a taste of this too, but I really admire parents and children in these difficult situations. And, for a writer and illustrator to capture a sliver of that experience in an engaging, meaningful picture book is quite an accomplishment. Here are four that I appreciate in different ways (listed in no particular order).
1. Coming Home Written & Illustrated by Greg Ruth
This book contains only a handful of words but the tension primarily resides in the gorgeous illustrations, as a boy searches in a crowd of soldiers coming home, eager to find his mother. So much is said through the perfect pairing of each carefully chosen word or phrase with snapshots that convey love, relief, desperation, hope, and more. Had Ruth chosen to narrow the focus with more words, I think it would've lost some of its universal power that helps everyone relate to this boy and this moment of missing, searching, and finally finding his mother. This book has really stayed with me. That says a lot since I've read about 60 picture books since I read this one. The images and emotions are still fresh in my memory.
2. Poems in the Attic by Nikki Grimes, Illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon
Award-winning poet and author Nikki Grimes tells the story of a girl who finds a box of her mother's poems in the attic. The poems detail her mother's childhood travels since her father was in the Air Force. Feeling more connected to her mother through these poems, the girl writes poems of her own for someone else to find someday. It's a sweet story with snippets of adventures woven into the poems and pictures, and Grimes's way with words makes the story sparkle. She uses both free verse and a modern form of tanka (an ancient form of poetry originally from Japan). Lines like "wishing I could fold my friends and slip them in my suitcase" and "a childhood on wings, flitting from place to place" carry meaning and poetic power. It's definitely a multilayered book that could spark a variety of conversations with children about military life, travel, poetry, moving, and more.
3. Year of the Jungle by Suzanne Collins, Illustrated by James Proimos
This story is about a little girl whose father has to deploy during the Vietnam War and she's left with many questions. As the months pass, she clings to his postcards more and more and her curiosity turns into worry. Bestselling author Collins does a great job showing what this is like through a child's eyes: hearing bits of the news, wondering when her father will return. Poignant lines like "I dig out a really old [postcard] and pretend it's new" heighten the emotions without dramatizing them. The book is based on Collins's experience since her father deployed to Vietnam when she was six. Stories like this help children in similar situations know they're not alone. It also raises important questions that parents and teachers can discuss with children - whether they can relate, or they're learning to walk in someone else's shoes.
4. Don't Forget, God Bless Our Troops by Jill Biden, Illustrated by Raúl Colón
This book is also about a child experiencing a deployment, but it is set in modern times and is inspired by former Second Lady Jill Biden's own granddaughter Natalie. I'm also a big fan of award-winning illustrator Raúl Colón whose illustrations are warm, inviting, and full of meaningful details. While Collins book is written in first person, Biden's is in third person limited, still focusing on a young girl's experience with a father deployed, but with a bit of distance. I think the distance gives Biden room to zoom in when she wants and step back at other times, giving the reader glimpses of moments: Natalie missing her father and working with her Nana to send a care package to the troops, feeling supported by friends and neighbors. This book serves to drum up support for troops and their families whereas Collins' seems more focused on building awareness and relating to other military children.