Andrew McLean has become one of the best-known illustrators in the world of children’s literature. He is a pearl in an ocean of many, capturing genuine emotion so that the reader feels drawn into each scene. Many of his books have become classics, so grab a mug of hot chocolate and play the song that goes along to this picture book. It is a recipe for a good night for kids and parents!

In this new picture book, McLean juxtaposes a free and unencumbered childhood of play and the love of family life amidst peacetime, with the reality of war. Significantly, the first title page shows Australians crowding to respond to a sign that says: “Volunteer For King and Country; Will you join us?” There is no sentimentality or romance as a mother wraps herself in her soldier son’s arms to say goodbye at the train, and the father looks on somberly. It is good for Australian children to be reminded that in 1914 there was a huge groundswell of feeling around king and country and being part of the British Empire.

Children are pictured playing happily on horses in a river ‘just being kids’ paddling about in the Murrumbidgee River. To drive the message home, this is followed by men in gas masks in a harried picture of deadly yellow mustard gas. They lie about wounded and bandaged, Red Cross vans in the distance. A soldier has sent a letter home, and his parents read it as he is tended in hospital. Brave soldiers are pictured warming their hands on cold nights by a fire. The story could be unsettling for very young children, so parents and guardians can decide whether to use it based on the individual maturity of each child.

The story of how the book came to be is interesting. Editor Dyan Blacklock approached McLean to ask if he could illustrate the song. McLean had the idea that it could be a ‘wistful, poignant lament’ and really could have been ‘the story of many young men who bravely went to war in 1914.” MClean’s own father Norman Angus McLean served in the First World War and sadly suffered lasting chronic bronchial problems and blindness.

“Along the road to Gundagai” is a very well-known song amongst Australians, selling 40,000-50,000 copies within three months of its release in 1924 and 100,000 copies within the year. It is now considered to be part of the folk song history of Australia. It was first performed by Jack O’Hagan and then later became well known with Slim Dusty’s rendition. If parents can find Slim Dusty’s song on YouTube, they could play it along with the book and in this way teach children a real slice of genuine Australian history.

A former children’s librarian, Jane Fagan is currently a full-time wife and mother.