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Guest war novelist John Wilson encourages student reflection

The Macintosh and Wilder Libraries were privileged to host John Wilson, noted Canadian author of historical fiction for young people on Monday, Nov. 9. Wilson is the author of 42 books and recipient of numerous literary awards and honours, including finalist for the Governor General’s Award and inclusion on the New York Public Library’s “Best Books for the Teen Age List.”

When he was young, Wilson’s parents regaled him with tales of their lives in India at the time of the Raj; it was a formative exposure to historical story telling that piqued his curiosity and need to understand. Born in Scotland, a Gaelic speaker as a child, and later a geologist by training, he began his career in Zimbabwe. That list of traits and experiences alone could make for an engaging presentation, and the boys were curious about his heritage, immediately noting his brogue.

Most significant however, as Wilson began his series of anecdotes and storytelling, was the author’s range and depth of knowledge about the two World Wars and his fascination with history as “wonderful place he wants to visit.” Wilson stylized himself as a time¬ traveller who “tells lies for a living,” but in fact it was clear his real goal is to connect young people with the truth of war, through artful facilitation of reflection via the vehicle of compelling and gripping fiction.

Wilson expertly engaged the curiosity of seven classes at both schools in the course of one day, hardly missing a beat. He visited our Upper School Holocaust assembly and wove the themes of that presentation into his conversation with Y2 Canadian history classes that afternoon, along with an examination of the history and origins of Remembrance Day. The Grade 6 boys listened with rapt attention to the methods by which Wilson researches the time and place of his war novels. Wilson was able to weave helpful information about the writing process into the presentation – when he wasn’t fielding a multitude of questions!

Wilson’s books feature protagonists of the same age as our Upper School boys, which, when placed in historical context, raise natural comparative questions for the reader: How would I have reacted? Would I have deserted? Would I have sacrificed my life in an act of bravery?

Wilson also carefully pointed out what past societal attitudes were borne out of ignorance or naivete. He asserted that boys know more today than their historical counterparts and are subsequently more cynical, that it might be challenging to understand the “gung-ho” enthusiasm of the young men who set out on the biggest adventure of their lives as young soldiers.

He also asserted that we now know more about the consequences of war, like post-traumatic stress disorder, and are hopefully more likely to treat our veterans with respect, rather than hiding them away in institutions as was done in the Scotland of his childhood.

We hope that students will return to the libraries to borrow Wilson’s incredible books and we look forward to hosting him in the future. The boys left the sessions with questions about what’s next in his repertoire, and we look forward to adding new publications to our library collections. The day was a powerful reminder about the value of history and an exhortation to ever remember and reflect.

– Mari Roughneen and Pam Love