British Columbia

A Year of Borrowed Men: Author tackles WW II through powerful childrens' book

Vancouver's MIchelle Barker has written a children's book that dives into the complex relationship between a German family and three French prisoners of war during the Second World War — a tale that's inspired by her mother.

Vancouver author Michelle Barker nominated for national award for story inspired by her mother

A Year of Borrowed Men tells the story of Gerda, a young girl living on a farm in northern Germany, who befriends three prisoners of war during WW II. Illustration by Renné Benoit. (Michelle Barker/Renné Benoit)

War can be a complicated subject to fully wrap one's head around — especially for a child.

But Vancouver's Michelle Barker is trying to help foster understanding of the subject through her new children's book, A Year of Borrowed Men.

It tells the story of a child living on a German farm during the Second World War who finds compassion for three prisoners of war. The book is CBC British Columbia's official nomination for the 2016 TD Canadian Children's Literature Award.

"I feel like I've won just by being nominated," Barker told host Sheryl MacKay on CBC's North by Northwest.

A Year of Borrowed Men

The story — which actually began as a homework assignment while Barker was enrolled in UBC's Masters of Fine Arts program — is based on the life of Barker's mother, who actually lived through the experience depicted in the book.

"We were doing a section on historical fiction, [and our professor] wanted us to choose a period of history that we were interested in and write something for children," she said.

"The first thing I thought of was my mother."

As a young girl, Barker's mother lived on a farm in northern Germany during the Second World War — a time when all the men in the family had been sent to battle.

"The farm still had to function — so the government decided to send prisoners of war to work on the farm, and they did so with very strict rules," she said. "German farming families were not allowed to treat them as guests or even as workers — they had to treat them as prisoners."

In choosing the style of her illustrations, Renné Benoit used watercolour and coloured pencils, primarily in soft earth tones, to reflect a past era. (Michelle Barker/Renee Benoit)

But when the three prisoners arrived, Barker's mother befriended them. In fact, Barker says, the whole family welcomed them, letting them eat at the dinner table — something that the German government forbade.

Barker says she had to put herself in her mother's shoes to try to imagine the complicated relationship of "befriending the enemy".

"She was a child, and that's what children do. This whole idea of talking to them and telling them, 'This is the enemy,' ... that doesn't make sense to them. I think those are barriers that adults create, and I think that children don't see those barriers."

Time capsule contest: draw what's important to you 

The lead character in A Year of Borrowed Men is named Gerda, and in the story, she draws an image of what's important to her at age seven.

In A Year of Borrowed Men, Gerda — the main protagonist — draws what is most important to her. (Michelle Barker/Renee Benoit)

To help celebrate the book, North by Northwest is inviting students from ages five to 12 to draw a picture of what is important to them. 

Once the drawing is made, you can take a picture of it and e-mail it to with "Time Capsule Contest" in the subject line.

A winning entry will be drawn Dec.3, and that child will receive a copy of all five of this year's nominated books for their school library.

You can find out about the rest of the books by going to CBC Books.

With files from CBC's North by Northwest

To listen to the full interview, click on the audio labelled: 'A Year of Borrowed Men': Author tackles World War II through powerful childrens' book