A powerful and moving picture book about the Vietnam War based on the unforgettable song.
Best known for his leadership of legendary Australian folk-rock band Redgum, JOHN SCHUMANN's Vietnam War anthem, 'I was only 19' changed the way our nation thinks about how we treat our war veterans. Described by rock historian Glenn A Baker as 'one of the finest songwriters this country has produced', John has received almost every award the Australian music industry has to offer. His songs have been paid the ultimate compliment by becoming the property of the people and country they were written about. His lyrics are read in schools and universities across Australia.
CRAIG SMITH is one of Australia's most prolific children's book illustrators. He has collaborated with many of Australia's best-loved authors, such as Paul Jennings and Doug MacLeod, and illustrated books for Allen & Unwin including The Big Ball of String, The Boy Who Built the Boat, Heather Fell in the Water and Where Are You, Banana?.
And the Anzac legends didn't mention mud and blood and tears,
and stories that my father told me never seemed quite real.
John Schumann was the lead singer of Redgum in the 80’s and wrote the iconic song I Was Only Nineteen in 1983 which took just 15 minutes to complete. It has become an anthem of Vietnam Veterans and now has been transformed into a great picture book.
The text is written in a typical Australian soldier’s vocabulary and follows a soldier’s journey from when he leaves home, to his training camp at Puckapunyal, to fighting in the jungles of Vietnam and the soldiers trauma of reliving the horrors of war years after. This is a brilliant book to share with students and can be used in many ways to extract a lot of information or just cover war superficially. A major theme that can be used is the idea of why Vietnam veterans were not recognised like World War 1 & 2 veterans were when they came back. Another prominent issue it uncovers is psychologically scarring of men in war; chemicals used in this war and the soldiers health conditions when they came home.
Another project would be to get older students to compare similarities and differences between the book with the original song and covers performed by other bands such as The Herd.
Suggested age range for the book is from ages eight to fourteen but this could be used with much older children. The book depicts so many emotions and experiences of what happened during the Vietnam War. It is beautifully illustrated book with magical water colour pictures that bring the soldier’s story to life. Craig Smith illustrated this book and has illustrated many books over his 38 years in the business including favourites: Cat, Emily Eyefinger, Sister Madge’s book of Nuns and The Cabbage Patch Fib. Hopefully it will again engrain the song into Australian students’ history in this decade.
Felecia Phillips, Tasmanian eSchool
Taking the hit song I Was Only Nineteen, and turning into a beautifully illustrated and informative text was a commendable and genius idea. The text follows a nineteen-year-old boy through his experiences in getting drafted and participating in the Vietnam War. During the story we follow him as he travels, fights and loses fellow soldiers. Whilst reading the book, I gained a whole new understanding of people’s experiences during the Vietnam War. As a teaching resource, I would recommend using the book to teach Grades Five and up, as some of the material in the book may be too heavy and complicated for younger children to understand or relate to.
As a stand-alone text, the book provides a great opportunity work with any one of the writing styles required in the Australian Curriculum. The text and pictures can be re-defined and interpreted by students through poetry. Alternatively, students could write Narratives about the characters in the story, including non-mentioned characters such as spectators in the crowd. Another idea would be to ask students to write letters home from the characters in the story. This would enable students not only to learn letter-writing styles, but would allow them to look at stories from other people’s perspectives. To complete this task, they would also have to think about, and research everyday happenings in the soldier’s lives during their time in Vietnam.
Aside from using the book as a ‘writing style’ resource, it would obviously be perfect to use as part of a specific Vietnam War unit. I would start the unit by looking at who was drafted to fight, and why. One of the pictures in the text represents a photo published in the newspaper as soldiers were marching to war in their army clothes. This could be a great opportunity to ask students to write possible newspaper articles to go with the picture. It would also present a good opportunity to discuss the perspectives of the people who were watching this march. I would also focus on following the soldiers’ movements on a map, looking at the conditions of the places where soldiers stayed and fought. It would also be interesting to focus on what supplies the soldiers would have lived on, and what they would have done in their down time without the technology and entertainment we are used to using today.
As an aside, I would initiate discussion on the power of music and how it can be used to inform, and evoke emotion (through listening to the song). I would also take the opportunity to look at the songwriter’s letter at the back, focusing on writing for intended audiences and purposes (also required by the Australian Curriculum). Overall, I was impressed in number of opportunities the text presented to teach to the Australian Curriculum, and would recommend it readily.
Melissa Nichols, St Aloysius Catholic School, TAS
My older brother was "Only Nineteen" when this song by John Schumann about the Vietnam war became a number one hit in 1983. With unforgettable lyrics and a catchy melody, this song helped explain the effects of war to a generation born in a time of peace. John wrote the song as a result of conversations with his brother-in-law Mick Storen, who was a Vietnam veteran. Today there are many video clips on YouTube, including the original promotional video released by Redgum, showing young soldiers experiencing the harsh realities and horrors of war, which could be viewed after reading this storybook.
Through his beautiful watercolour illustrations, Craig Smith captures the essence of the song and brings it to life for a new generation of younger readers. The story is told from the perspective of a grandfather who is recalling his experiences of the Vietnam war for his young grandson. Bright colours and strong contrasts are used very effectively throughout the book in the scenes showing the grandfather and son together, whilst muted greens, yellows and browns depict many of the war scenes where the grandfather was a young soldier. Whilst younger readers may miss the richness and subtlety of the messages conveyed, they will find much to appreciate and observe on every page of this excellent book. For older children, it provides a springboard for further study and learning in several curriculum areas. The Teachers’ Notes by Robyn Sheahan-Bright on the Allen and Unwin website are an excellent resource for primary classroom teachers. Themes such as: Australian cultural identity, the geographical locations and historical facts of the Vietnam war, how war veterans were received on their return home, the long term effects on the physical and psychological health of soldiers, as well as the meaning of the words and phrases used in the song (such as 'tinnies' and 'chinooks') could be studied in the classroom. Recommended for ages 8-14 as well as their parents and grandparents!
Barb Caruana, Home Educator, VIC
The seminal Australian song “I Was Only Nineteen” by Redgum was released more than thirty years ago. The persona of the song explores his transformation from an innocent young soldier as he experiences the reality of war. John Schumann said that he wrote the song in order “to try and engender some sympathy on the part of the Australian people for those who served in Vietnam. It seemed unfair that the Australian people put the blame for an unpopular war on the shoulders of those we sent to fight it.”
The central message of the song, a message exploring the brutality and essentially destructive nature of war is vividly communicated in Craig Smith’s adaptation. This is a wonderful picture book that can be studied by a wide range of students on a number of levels. Smith’s illustrations are realistic and clearly demonstrate to the reader the reality of the story. This story is part of our history, but it is also a narrative; a story about one man facing his demons. The fact that none of the words of the song were changed to sanitise the reality of war is essential. As the persona says “The ANZAC legends didn’t mention mud and blood and tears, and the stories that my father told me never seemed quite real.” This is a real story that rejects a romantic perspective of war and focuses instead on the lifelong consequences of combat. The beautifully crafted illustrations ensure that the reader contemplates every word.
The text would prove a valuable addition to all Humanities teachers and would work well with both Upper Primary and Secondary students. Society and Environment teachers could use it to introduce a historical study, but I believe that it is English teachers who will benefit most from adding this poignant text to their resource collection. Whether studying poetry and song that explores attitudes to war or studying representations of war in picture books, the picture book I Was Only Nineteen will enrich students’ understanding of the power and value of picture books.
Lisa Black, English Teacher, Kelmscott SHS
As a High School teacher of Years 7 – 12, I was particularly excited when I discovered this picture book written by John Schumann whose historical words in the song have been used by me as a related text for Year 12 English for a number of years in two Areas of Study: ‘Journeys’ and ‘Belonging’ as well as for Module C – History and Memory.
The addition of the visuals by Craig Smith really brings the story alive and the visual literacy makes it a popular study choice for lower grades as well. The cover alone could fill a lesson: The title “I Was…” indicating that it is someone’s story – prompts questions such as Who, When and Why? This could lead into a research task or the back story about the Vietnam War, conscription, the “chinook helicopters” supplied by John Schumann in the back to add context.
Before turning a page, students could learn about visual literacy, vector lines, salient figures, the sombre faces, the uniforms/colour and the famous hat. Juxtapose the front cover with the back and students will see that this man who was 19 during a war, has survived to tell his story and particularly share it with his grandson. The visuals of the faces clearly showing familiar traits such as the similar noses.
The opening double page cleverly depicts first and third generations in a typically Australian lounge room – seen through the football on TV, the cat curled up in a chair and Pop’s cuppa on the arm of the couch as his grandson peruses old photos, Grandad shares his story. This page could be the perfect stimulus for a creative writing task and covers the study of an Australian text!
Furthermore, the colours used assist the strength of the story, the army green of the soldier’s uniform as they march at Puckapunyal highlights the large amount of men that went to this war and the use of sepia indicates the initial importance of how this involvement by Australia was reported in the papers and the dull blues/browns as the ship sails into the unknown provide an ominous tone to the war that perhaps matched the feelings of Australian people when the men returned from this war.
The army green of the Chinooks is contrasted with the dry red dust churned up by them and followed closely by the yellow and orange hues of the distant gunfire. Every page has so much detail that the layers of meaning continue to build as the referrals to the “rash” and “trouble sleeping” are also included, issues highlighted that really have changed people and have “changed the world”.
Suzanne Daw, Gosford High School, NSW
I Was Only Nineteen is a quite a pleasant introduction to a very complex topic. War. It ties in well with the centenary of the outbreak of World War 1 and I would read it aloud to encourage discussion amongst the students prior to ANZAC Day or Remembrance Day.
This story has lasted well and a new generation of children and teenagers can see the perils of National Service and the young man’s perspective from the 1970s. War is fought with little consideration for the people involved as the legacy of Mustard Gas, Nuclear Fallout and Agent Orange show. “What’s that rash that comes and goes – can you tell me what it means?”
I like the expressions “a war within yourself” and “so you closed your eyes and thought about something else” as the young nineteen-year-old conscript tries to cope as he treads cautiously while on patrol in Vietnam.
Life is like a raffle for soldiers and they never know whether their next step will be their last.
The link from that generation, who are now in their sixties, to the young boy in Craig Smith’s water colour illustrations allows John Schumann’s words to be meaningful all over again as we try to get younger veteran’s to seek help after their military service.
Robert Kidd, Freo Mentor, WA
Craig Smith's illustrations have brought to life John Schumann's iconic song about Australia's young men who went off to fight in the Vietnam War. The words of the song portray an old diggers' reflection of his experiences in war torn Vietnam. He recalls how his family watched the passing out parade but then learnt in horror how their son had drawn the unlucky card. Conscription was the current method used to recruit the young men to the army. Smith's drawings of the lads in their baggy green, slouch hats and SLR rifles shows the uniformity of the marching troupe but he also depicts truthfully the innocence and youthfulness in their faces... they were only nineteen.
Having just attended the Anzac Day march it really hit home to me what Schumann was trying to portray in his song. I watched with admiration the older men march proudly in their groups but when the local cadets marched by in their groups I thought our boys who went off to Vietnam were about the same age as them. Barely school children, just beginning to shave and experience life.
The words and pictures tell us of their living conditions. Living in tents in the harsh, humid, hot jungle with few possessions, constantly on the move... “in and out of choppers” and living with the constant fear that the next step "could mean your last on two legs". Stepping on a land mine was always a reality not to mention the unending fear of an enemy attack. The illustrations cleverly relate this fear in the faces and sombre backgrounds. These young men experienced all the horrors of war but they "wouldn't let your mates down". They watched helplessly as they saw their comrades lying wounded screaming in pain, some dying as they waited “'til the morphine came”.
This book should be a requisite for every classroom in the upper primary and throughout our secondary schools. Glancing through its pages, children will be able to reflect on the conditions and hardships along with the terror and fear that everyone bore and why Anzac Day is so relevant to all Australians today to honour all our brave soldiers who in our eyes we see as heroes but at the time they were just doing what they had been conscripted to do. Seeing and hearing the story will encourage the children to ask questions and find out about conscription, agent orange and the untold stories of war.
Children will also be helped to understand why our returned servicemen still ask their doctors “why I can't sleep at night....and what's this rash that comes and goes -can you tell me what it means?" They will also realise why they march so proudly and solemnly in the Anzac Day Parade. Smith's illustration on the final end page captures this in the faces of the old men so dramatically and the old guy holding his grandson hand beautifully portrays the passing on to generations to come.
As stated in the blurb of this book, Schumann’s I Was Only Nineteen truly is an “iconic song about the Vietnam War that helped change a nation.” From the notes at the back of this book, as well as in the various related Advertiser articles over many years, one can read about the author’s inspiration for writing this song. Given that the lyrics were apparently written by Schumann in about fifteen minutes as a tribute to his wife’s brother and all Vietnam veterans, it is astonishing that the song has entered the consciousness of the nation and remained there for decades. Now, in its new picture book format, it will undoubtedly go on to influence a whole new generation of readers and listeners.
With its simple storyline of a soldier recollecting events in his life from his cadetship and embarking on his first tour of duty in Vietnam to his repeated nightmares as a result, this song has become a book accessible to quite young readers. It is complemented by Craig Smith’s cartoon style images, beginning with endpapers showing a veteran and his grandson looking at photos of the war, the mundane elements of daily life spread around the room. A cat sleeps on the chair, football plays on the television, framed photos of a young soldier sit on the shelf behind them and a toy helicopter and book about the Green Berets are abandoned on the floor. All bar one double page spread are coloured. The only one which is coloured only in black and white gives the impression of a photograph taken as the young soldiers were about to board their ship.
As a teacher librarian, I would use this book in a variety of units with students of varying ages, probably from middle primary and up. Themes would range from war and conflict to important Australian days or celebrations. Already, I have used Schumann’s song in conjunction with Eric Bogle’s The Band Played Waltzing Matilda. I would love to see Allen & Unwin turn Bogle’s song into another picture book, perhaps with pictures by a totally different illustrator. It would make for the basis of a great unit, with children comparing and contrasting the stories and illustrative techniques in stories based on different eras of our history. Amongst the many and varied picture books on the theme of war and conflict, depending on the purpose of the unit, I would be inclined to use this with Cali and Bloch’s title The Enemy, Streich’s Grumpy Little King and, for older children, Brigg’s The Tin-Pot General and the Old Iron Woman. This is a truly memorable book!
Jo Schenkel, Teacher in the library, Aberfoyle Park Primary School Campus, SA
As Australia prepares for the Centenary of Gallipoli next year, this wonderful book poignantly reminds us of another war in which Australians served – Vietnam. The combination of John Schumann’s stark text and Craig Smith’s evocative illustrations provides us with a book that portrays the reality of a war much closer to home. It provides a political and personal commentary about the attitudes towards Australia’s involvement in the war and the treatment of soldiers on their return.
This text is ideally suited for Upper Primary and Secondary years. It makes links with the Year 6 English Curriculum by connecting with students’ own experiences, in this case Anzac Day services and marches, as well as news reports on returning soldiers from conflict and peacekeeping duties, and juxtaposes this with the treatment of returned Vietnam soldiers. I have used the song version of I Was Only Nineteen whilst exploring differing viewpoints in historical and social contexts as part of the Year 7 English Curriculum. I wish that this book had been available when I taught this last year. I will definitely be using it this year, as it provides a visual dimension that pays tribute to the roles of fear, courage and mateship whilst reminding us of the post-war trauma experienced by many soldiers. It is a valuable text that provides a springboard for discussion about differing viewpoints to war and the anti-war movement. Certainly, this book would lend itself well to classroom debates around conscription and war in general. It would also be a valuable resource for teachers of Year 10 history in terms of focusing on Australia’s role in post-Cold War conflicts.
I Was Only Nineteen is a thought-provoking book in many ways. Conscription, the treatment of returning soldiers and the political and social views of the day provide much for discussion. It is a powerful reminder of the social and personal cost of war, especially in an ‘unpopular war’. Finally, it is Craig Smith’s illustrated end-papers that complete the story, the restorative recognition of the courage and sacrifice of the Vietnam veteran, albeit long overdue.
Roslyn Johnson, Scarborough State School, QLD
This is a beautifully crafted picture book that deserves a place in every Australian classroom. The attention to detail and iconic Australian images help connect the reader to this emotive narrative. The continued repetition of ‘God help me, I was only nineteen’ highlights and reiterates the impact of the Vietnam War. This impact was not only during the war years, but for a lifetime for those who fought. Concluding the story with this statement further reinforces the universal themes of this picture book.
The picture book also explores the relationship between the grandfather who fought in Vietnam and his grandson. At the start of the picture book they are on the lounge together discussing the war, a toy helicopter at the boy’s feet. As the narrative continues, the grandson waits in the doctor’s surgery for his grandfather (The grandfather’s questions to the doctor include his inability to sleep, his reoccurring rash etc, implications of fighting in the Vietnam war). The end pages show the grandfather and grandson hand in hand marching on Anzac Day, symbolising the ‘passing down’ of the experiences of war.
The end of the picture book includes a detailed message from John Schumann personalising the words of the famous song “I Was Only Nineteen”. Schumann reveals where the song came from and the impact that songs can have. I don’t think it will take long before Schumann also comments about the impact of picture books, notably this one.
Due to the universal themes of this picture book, it is not really age limited. Having said that, it is perfect for secondary classroom use across a number of faculties including English, HSIE, Art. Visually, textually and thematically I Was Only Nineteen lends itself to a number of topics across a number of faculties.
Jodie Webber, Hurlstone Agricultural High School, NSW
What a powerful and moving book to read to students during Anzac celebrations and what better way to make the rigors of War come alive and meaningful to children who know nothing of the chaos that conflict brings!
From the very detailed colour ink drawings, to the more lifelike black and white pages, every page is drowning in reality. You get the feeling that if you were to smooth your hand over each page, you could almost feel the emotions that the soldiers might have been experiencing. The pain, the anguish, the fear – it is all captured there in the faces of men who could be someone we recognise.
As you read further into the book, the pages become more graphic, more powerful, more intense, more tragic. We realise that this War, the Vietnam War, was one like no other – a War with a history all its own. It serves to drill home to school aged students just how young these soldiers were when they were asked to fight in a country they knew nothing about and in terrain that was more unforgiving and treacherous than anything in Australia.
Much discussion can be had in an older classroom setting about the protests which accompanied this War, particularly by those in Australia who believed that Australia should not have even been fighting this War. It would serve as a meaningful debate related to political history and / or law making.
The author should be congratulated for bringing this era in Australian history to life in print so that generations to come can be reminded about courage and mateship.
Karyn Verity, Wheelers Hill Primary School, Victoria
The class has been busy preparing for the upcoming Anzac day. We have made beautiful wreaths using red tissue paper and paper plates, baked Anzac cookies with the help of a few grandmas and we have listened to the story I Was Only Nineteen. Words by John Schumann and pictures by Craig Smith. I know this story in its original format as a song, written by John Schuman, a very talented song writer, poet and singer. I Was Only Nineteen has beautiful watercolour illustrations and brings the story to life. You can see the images of war, the feelings, the anticipation of what's to come and how the soldiers were changed once returning home. The story goes on to tell the story of a grandfather retelling his story of the Vietnam War to his grandson. The grandfather remembers his life as a soldier and retells his story of mateship, suffering, fear and challenges he faced in Vietnam. He also tells his grandson how he missed his friend dearly and he will never be forgotten. This story is very well written and illustrated. Every word represents the feelings and emotions of the story.
I Was Only Nineteen is a great book to engage students in conversations about war and include in curriculum topics such as war, history and Australian celebrations such as Anzac Day, Remembrance Day and even Australia Day. I recommend this book for students aged 5 years old and up.
Claire Evans, Palmwoods
I Was Only Nineteen by John Schumann and Craig Smith is a significant new picture book based on Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War. The words have been taken from the famous song “I Was Only Nineteen”, originally released in 1983. The story follows a grandfather retelling his experience of the Vietnam War to his grandson, with the devastating effects of war evident to all.
The well-loved illustration style of Craig Smith (Emily Eyefinger, I Hate Fridays & The Cabbage Patch Fib, to name a few) is the perfect accompaniment to the heartbreaking story. The overall mood of the book is deeply moving and due to the serious themes, it is ideally suited for older primary students (Grade 3 onwards) and adults.
This book tied in very nicely with our discussions with students about the significance of Anzac Day. For Grade ¾ students, we also listened to the song (by Australian folk band Redgum) and did a comparison of visual and audio ‘texts’. This book lends itself to a variety of Reading and Viewing opportunities, with students using their predicting, inferring and comprehension skills. They were also able to tap into their prior knowledge of what they knew about the Vietnam War. I found that boys in particular enjoyed the themes of war and it was a great way of engaging them during a Reading session. This book was so popular with teachers and students alike that a second copy was purchased for the school library so that all teachers could share it with their class during the lead up to Anzac Day.
I found that this picture book was a great tool to discuss war with students, and also introduce students to the unforgettable lyrics of the famous song. This is a very special book that would be a great addition to any school or classroom library.
Kathleen Temple, Yarrambat Primary School, VIC
The banner across the top of the cover of this book says, “The iconic song about the Vietnam War that helped change a nation” and indeed, anyone who has heard the original with the haunting voice of John Schuman as the lead singer of Redgum will find that echoing in their head as they “read” this picture book version of the song that brought the realities of the war to a generation. If you are unfamiliar with it, it’s available on You Tube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Urtiyp-G6jY.
While, for the first time in history, war was brought into the family living room through the immediacy of television news programs, it was the personalising of what was happening through the lyrics of this song that not only provided a real insight but which has also endured. In fact, along with the picture of the little girl running naked from her village after it had been destroyed with napalm bombs http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/headlines/2012/06/the-historic-napalm-girl-pulitzer-image-marks-its-40th-anniversary/ it would be one of the most-recalled memories of that time. Its refrain and final line, “God help me, I was only nineteen” encapsulates it all. Both the words and the sensitive, evocative images of Craig Smith show that war is the antithesis of the great adventure that these soldiers’ ancestors thought that it would be as they hastened to answer the call of 1914 and which will be in our thoughts as we move towards the commemoration of ANZAC Day.
But this is much more than another picture book about Australia’s war effort to support the national history curriculum.
As one of those who was very much involved in the events of the time and worked towards the big-picture objectives of not only having Australia and New Zealand troops out of Vietnam because we were against the “all-the-way-with-LBJ” policies of the prevailing governments but also against sending young men to war who, in their own country, could not vote or legally have a beer, we did not consider or understand the effects our actions would have on those young men when they eventually came home, mentally and physically wounded, and to have served in Vietnam was a secret and a shame. There were no parades or celebrations – you might talk about it with your mates to keep you sane but that was all. There was no respect from the public and each soldier was somehow held personally responsible for the events which we saw each night. (If you, as an adult, want a greater understanding, read Well Done, Those Men by Barry Heard and Smoky Joe’s Café by Bryce Courtenay.)
And so we have the situation today that many of our students have grandparents who are perhaps not as they should be and cannot explain why. They saw and did things that no 19-year-olds should ever have to and it is their experiences, their illnesses, their PTSD, their suicides that have changed the way we now view our serving forces and how they are treated and supported when they come home. The picture books and television shows always stereotype Grandpa as being loving and jovial and every child deserves such a person – the production of this book might help them understand why theirs is not. It has an important role to play in helping our little ones understand.
If just the lyrics or the clip of the original “I Was Only 19” were the only ones used in a study of the Vietnam War, the story would not be complete. It is through Craig Smith’s final illustrations of the young soldier now a grandfather with his grandson ducking from a chopper, then sharing an ice cream and finally marching on ANZAC Day together that are critical because they show that while he is still troubled by his experiences, he has survived and 40 years on society has moved on to a new and different attitude. For that we have to thank the continued and sustained efforts of all those Vietnam Vets who would not let us forget. We salute you now as we should have then.
For those who see this as a teaching opportunity, there are teachers’ notes at http://www.allenandunwin.com/_uploads/BookPdf/TeachersNotes/9781743317235.pdf
Barbara Braxton, Teacher Librarian, NSW