Remembrance Day Read: Sergeant Billy by Mireille Messier and Kass Reich

Review: Sergeant Billy: The True Story of the Goat Who Went to War by Mireille Messier, illus. Kass Reich
Source: Hardcopy courtesy of Tundra Books/Penguin Random House Canada. Thank you!
Publication: September 17, 2019 by Tundra Books
Book Description:

During World War I, a goat named Billy was adopted by a platoon of soldiers and made his way across the ocean to be part of the war effort.

Billy . . .
• Trained with the soldiers
• Was smuggled across the ocean
• Got snuck into the frontlines in a box of oranges
• Ate some secret documents and was arrested for treason
• Got trench foot
• Head-butted soldiers into a trench and saved them from a shell
• Came back home a decorated war hero

This charming true story follows Sergeant Billy from his small prairie town to the trenches of World War I and back, through harrowing moments, sad moments, moments of camaraderie and moments of celebration. This unforgettable goat and the platoon that loved him will capture your heart!

A train full of soldiers made a stop in a small prairie town. In that town, there was a girl named Daisy and a goat named Billy…

So begins the warmhearted and endearing Sergeant Billy: The True Story of a Goat Who Went to War by the Canadian duo of author and voice-over artist Mireille Messier (The Branch, with Pierre Pratt) and artist Kass Reich (Hamsters on the Go).

Sergeant Billy tells readers the true story of a goat named Billy who had an incredible turn as an “exceptional military service animal” during World War I. Belonging to a young girl named Daisy Curwain, of Broadview, Saskatchewan, Billy so charms the visiting soldiers of the Fifth Canadian Battalion in 1914 that they ask if they can bring Billy along with them! Promising young Daisy that they would bring “Billy back after the war”, Daisy agrees and off Billy goes with soldiers. Quickly becoming a favourite of most of the troop, Billy is by turns affectionate, hardworking, and a morale boost to the soldiers. Readers learn a number of astounding facts: how Billy was smuggled to the front lines; how Billy “took well to the life in the trenches”; and how he “was the first to befriend the nervous recruits and to comfort those who missed their fallen friends”. Sergeant Billy slowly but surely rises in the ranks- from a Private to a decorated war hero Sergeant- though an accidental “nibbling on some very important secret documents” leads a colonel to make Billy go briefly “to jail for being a spy”! (Do not worry, Billy was forgiven and released!).

Mireille Messier gently and assuredly takes readers on a marathon journey along with Billy; the writing is concise and moves quickly. A lot of ground is covered, and as one can anticipate from a children’s book about a war, there is the recognition of trenches, harsh conditions, battle, sadness and loss. Sergeant Billy focuses more specifically on the tender humour of Billy the goat and his time in the war as a source of happiness, comfort, and support to the troops. There is also, I would like to point out, a lovely finale in the book that speaks to the promise the soldiers made to young Daisy Curwain that made me tear up. Kass Reich’s distinctive illustrative style continues to be altogether lovely and approachable. Reich’s artwork here is appealing, warm and thoughtful: the palette is appropriately more muted (softer and richer shades of browns and green are mostly kept to), though Billy is a bright joy throughout the story. Readers get to see Billy in action on the lines, during funny and naughty moments, and also as he is being decorated and celebrated with honours.

Months, seasons and years passed. Not everyone survived. But Billy was still with the Fighting Fifth when the roar of the cannons finally stopped.

Overall, Sergeant Billy is a heartfelt and charming read based on the true story of an outstanding Canadian military service animal. The book’s focus on Billy, his tremendous list of accomplishments, and his presence as a source of comfort to soldiers allows for Sergeant Billy to work well as a starting off point for younger readers (around picture book age and up) who are at the early stages of reading about Canada at war, World War 1, or military service animals. Note: There is a Sources list provided on the verso of the title page providing links and further reading on Sergeant Billy for those interested. Photos of the real Sergeant Billy as well as some backstory are provided at the book’s closing pages.

I received a copy of this title courtesy of Tundra Books/Penguin Random House Canada in exchange for an honest review. All opinions and comments are my own.

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