The Little Ships: the Heroic Rescue at Dunkirk in World War II
by Louise Borden; ill. by Michael Foreman
Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2003
When Christopher Nolan’s movie Dunkirk came out, my husband and I had already been waiting months to see it. He’s English, with grandparents who were all personally involved in the war effort, so Dunkirk and Britain’s larger role in WWII are of deep personal interest to him.
For my part, I wanted a closer look at what I knew was an important part of history – not just for my husband’s family, but for the entire free world. Since marrying my husband and meeting his grandparents, I’ve learned that the American view of “we won the war” is overly simplistic. Our entry into the war may have enabled victory, but there would have been no war to fight had it not been for Britain’s lonely and courageous three-year stand against Hitler’s relentless push westward.
We were both impressed by the movie and – as often happens with me after I watch “based on a true story” films – I came away wondering if there were some good books I could read about Dunkirk. In particular, I wondered if there was something I could give my daughter to help her better understand this part of her English heritage.
Digging through the library catalog, I found Louise Borden and Michael Foreman’s The Little Ships: the Heroic Rescue at Dunkirk in World War II. This picture book-in-verse tells the story of a young girl whose father volunteers his fishing boat for the rescue effort.
Hundreds of thousands of Allied troops – mostly British and French – have suffered a devastating defeat and are stranded across the Channel at Dunkirk. The water is too shallow for large ships to bring off the troops, and the German army is closing in behind and around them.
The girl is physically strong, brave, and accustomed to helping her father on his boat. So when the Royal Navy starts requisitioning small craft to rescue the troops, her father helps her disguise herself as a boy so she can sail with him. Together, they become part of the hundreds-strong armada of “little ships” crossing the Channel to save 330,000 troops from slaughter.
It’s a testament to Borden’s writing and Foreman’s illustrations that my 11-year-old, who typically scorns anything except “grown-up” novels, loved the book. She not only read it, she kept it on the dining table so she could re-read it at breakfast every day for a week.
Really, though, I’m not surprised. It’s a riveting story. Even though it’s appropriate for a young audience, all the drama and danger of the incredible rescue comes through. The girl’s connection with a small dog, and her musings on her older brother’s uncertain fate, add a level of intimacy that draws readers further in.
Borden’s heroine is not a historic individual, but she’s modeled on true personal stories of the event. So the book is a compelling statement, even to little girls, that they can rise to the occasion in the most desperate circumstances. They can have the courage to play a meaningful role in big events and other people’s lives. Particularly with its emphasis on the girl’s physical strength and unstereotypical appearance, the book is also a validation for girls who might not fit a traditionally feminine mold.
At the end of the day, I was very thankful I found The Little Ships. I set out to make my daughter proud of her English heritage, but she also ended up feeling inspired to be courageous and strong in the here and now.