“I was seven when the French prisoners of war arrived at our house.” From this opening sentence, Michelle Barker’s picture book introduces a challenging issue to its young audience. Based on the experiences of the author’s mother, Gerda, A Year of Borrowed Men is set in Germany during the Second World War. The Nazis have sent French prisoners to live and work on German farms, but the host families are under strict orders to keep the men as prisoners.
Gerda is happy to have the three visitors because the war has “borrowed” her father, and the French men mean extra help with the farm work. She and her family befriend the prisoners, but reality crashes in one day when the German police take Gerda’s mother away for questioning. This serves as a sharp reminder to the girl – and the reader – that it is wartime. Afterward, the family is cautious, but no less kind to their new friends.
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.