A Soldier’s Sketchbook by John Wilson

A Soldier’s Sketchbook: The Illustrated First World War Diary of R.H. Rabjohn by John Wilson. March 7, 2017. Tundra Books, 112 p. ISBN: 9781770498549.  Int Lvl: 5-8; Rdg Lvl: 6.0; Lexile: 990.

A unique First World War diary, illustrated with more than a hundred stunning pencil sketches, for children learning history and also for adults interested in a new perspective on the War and authentic wartime artefacts.

Russell Rabjohn was just eighteen years old when he joined up to fight in the First World War. In his three years of soldiering, he experienced the highs and lows of army life, from a carefree leave in Paris to the anguish of seeing friends die around him. Like many soldiers, he defied army regulations and recorded everything he saw and felt in a small pocket diary.

Private Rabjohn was a trained artist, and as such he was assigned to draw dugouts, map newly captured trenches, and sketch the graves of his fallen comrades. This allowed him to carry an artist’s sketchbook on the battlefield–a freedom he put to good use, drawing everything he saw. Here, in vivid detail, are images of the captured pilot of a downed German biplane; the horrific Flanders mud; a German observation balloon exploding in midair; and the jubilant mood in the streets of Belgium when the Armistice is finally signed. With no surviving veterans of the First World War, Rabjohn’s drawings are an unmatched visual record of a lost time.

Award-winning author John Wilson brings his skills as a historian and researcher to bear, carefully curating the diary to provide context and tell the story of Private Rabjohn’s war. He has selected each of the diary entries and the accompanying images, and has provided the background that modern-day readers need to understand what a young soldier went through a century ago. The result is a wonderfully detailed and dramatic account of the war as seen through an artist’s eyes.

Potentially Sensitive Areas: Harsh realities of war, Xenophobic epithets

 

Reviews

Booklist (March 1, 2017 (Online))
Grades 7-10. Russell Hughes Rabjohn was only 18 when, in 1916, he enlisted in the Canadian armed forces to fight in WWI. Following some eight months of training, he was shipped to the French front. Already a trained artist, he was assigned to map trenches, draw dugouts, and sketch the graves of his fallen comrades. As Wilson notes, this gave him leave to carry a sketchbook to the front (soldiers were normally forbidden to sketch, paint, or photograph close to fighting). The more than 100 beautifully rendered pencil sketches contained in this fascinating book are, therefore, a rare visual record of one soldier’s vivid and often chilling experiences of war. The sketches are accompanied by excerpts from Rabjohn’s diaries, five of which Wilson serendipitously discovered in the Canadian War Museum. The entries are enhanced by Wilson’s contextual commentary, and each of the six sections into which the book is divided are introduced by his more discursive background information. The result is a captivating introduction to the realities of the Great War.

Kirkus Reviews starred (February 15, 2017)
A young Canadian soldier’s reminiscences from the western front.In this unusual memoir, historian Wilson describes being shown Rabjohn’s diary, published privately in 1977, by Rabjohn’s Canadian great-niece. Wilson has transformed the diary into a compelling account of World War I, compiled from Rabjohn’s diary and sketchbooks and supplemented with contextual information about the war. Just 18 when he enlisted in the Canadian Over-Seas Expeditionary Force in 1916, Rabjohn saw direct action in major battles, including the assault on Vimy Ridge, the Battle of Arras, and the muddy horror show that was the Third Battle of Ypres, or Passchendaele. The extracts from the diary describe intimate wartime experiences of death and destruction in gruesomely dispassionate terms. Apart from a blissful two-week leave in Paris, it’s a story of unmitigated horror, highlighting more than any textbook the futility of war. As a trained artist, Rabjohn was allowed to bring sketchbooks onto the battlefield and thus created a unique portfolio of accurate pencil sketches of trenches, dugouts, and graves. He also depicted scenes of soldiers, buildings, and devastated landscapes, which he reworked and supplemented when he came home. Endpaper maps of Western Europe and the parts of France and Belgium where Rabjohn saw action help situate readers. This unique compilation of firsthand impressions of the Great War will be a valuable resource for adults and teens with an interest in this turning point in world history. (index, timeline, further reading) (Nonfiction. 12-adult)

About the Author

John Wilson was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, and moved to Canada after university to work as a geologist. Eventually he began to write full time, and today he is one of Canada’s best-known authors of historical fiction and nonfiction for kids, teens, and adults. He’s published more than forty books, including several novels set during the First World War: Wings of War, Dark Terror, And in the Morning and Shot at Dawn. His books have won or been shortlisted for numerous prizes, including the Governor General’s Literary Award for Children’s Text, the Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction for Young People, the Red Maple and White Pine Awards, the Hackmatack Children’s Choice Award, the Sheila A. Egoff Children’s Literature Prize, and the prestigious Norma Fleck Award for Canadian Children’s Non-Fiction. John Wilson lives in Lantzville on Vancouver Island.

Her website is www.johnwilsonauthor.com.

Teacher Resources

World War I Resources from the NEA

Around the Web

A Soldier’s Sketchbook on Amazon

A Soldier’s Sketchbook on Goodreads

A Soldier’s Sketchbook on JLG

A Soldier’s Sketchbook Publisher Page

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