We asked the Horn Book staff and reviewers to name their favorite Boston Globe–Horn Book Award winners. Horn Book Magazine executive editor Martha V. Parravano writes passionately about one of her many favorites:
I couldn’t pick a favorite, so instead I chose one of the many books that clamored, “Read me again!”: Robert Westall’s The Machine Gunners, a 1977 Boston Globe–Horn Book Fiction Honor Book.
The setting is the British WWII home front; the protagonist is fourteen-year-old Chas McGill, an ambitious boy with the second-best collection of war souvenirs in town. When one day deep in the woods he happens upon a downed German plane with a working machine gun, it becomes his mission to possess (and eventually fire) that gun.
Setting and character are evoked with immediacy, the dialogue is fresh and often funny, and the plot is a corker, but the most brilliant thing about this book is…well, there are two. One is how steadfastly Westall hews to a young person’s point of view. For instance, when Chas sees the flies buzzing around the dead pilot’s face and looks into what used to be one of his eyes, he’s violently sick. Here’s his (totally believably kid-like) reaction: “He thought his mother would be angry at him for having wasted a good breakfast when food was hard to get.” The other brilliant thing is Westall’s exploration of the human impulse to make war. Who’s on which side, and what are the sides? The dynamics are constantly shifting: England against Nazi Germany, yes, but also kids against kids; kids against adults; higher class against lower class (“West Chirton rubbish!” “Balkwell snob!”). And when Chas and his cohorts capture another downed German flyer and he becomes their friend, the lines get really blurry.
I don’t need to point out how relevant the book is today. And I probably also don’t need to say that it doesn’t end well. But it does close on a bravely defiant note, and one that perhaps reveals Westall’s true worldview: the war that counts, the war that lasts, will always be children versus adults.
For more Boston Globe–Horn Book love, click on the tag my favorite BGHB winner.