The Day My Father Became a Bush by Joke van Leeuwen

Before he becomes a bush, Toda’s father is a pastry chef. He gets up at the crack of dawn to bake twenty different sorts of pastries and three kinds of cake. Until, one day, everything changes. Fighting  breaks out in the south and Toda’s father has to go there to defend his country.

Luckily he has a manual called ‘What every soldier needs to know’. This tells him how to hide from the enemy by using branches and leaves to disguise himself as a bush.

Toda remains in the city with her grandmother but even there it’s no longer safe. She is sent to stay with her mother who lives across the border. Toda’s journey is full of adventure and danger. But she doesn’t give up. She has to find her mother.

The Day My Father Became a Bush is a touching story about war told from the unique perspective of a girl who is caught in the middle.  The war that is taking place in the story is not identified as a specific war, only that the north is fighting the south.  The events of the story, including families being split up, fathers going away to fight, children being sent away, and a dangerous journey to get to safety are applicable to any war though, which makes Joke’s story universal.

As in some of the best stories about war, this story is narrated by a child (Toda) who is caught in the middle of this horrible event.  Toda is one of those characters you can’t help but love because she has a unique way of looking at things.  It’s her view of things that bring some humour to the situation she is in.  When Toda is hiding in the forest waiting for the coast to be clear, she finds the best thing to do is to give her brain something to do.  She lists her favourite foods (including her father’s pastries), her classmates, and then she lists things in alphabetical order (from Ape to Zebra).  I love the way that Toda describes different things too, like the way that she feels.  When an old couple take her in to their home and offer her some food she says, ‘My stomach was full of homesickness.  There was no room for anything else.’

On her journey, Toda meets some strange and interesting characters too.  There are some families who come to the public welfare home to give books and toys to the children, but then end up taking them away as they seem ungrateful, there is a room of old women who want to adopt her as their granddaughter, a strange old couple who try to kidnap Toda, and a captain who has deserted the army because he can’t command.  This captain was one of my favourite characters because he gives you a different perspective of the captains who give the orders during war.  One of my favourite quotes from the book came from this captain.

“I couldn’t command,” he said. “When I had to call out, ‘Open fire!’ I said instead, ‘Perhaps we should try shooting now, as long as it’s not too dangerous and not too much trouble for anyone.'”

Special mention needs to be made of the wonderful translation of Joke’s story by Bill Nagelkerke (recent winner of the Margaret Mahy Medal).  You really get the sense that Bill has remained true to the tone of the story while carefully choosing language that is beautiful to read.

The Day My Father Became a Bush is the best war story I’ve read that is told with so few words.  There is more emotion and character packed into this little book than some authors put in to 300 pages.  It can stand alongside John Boyne’s The Boy in Striped Pyjamas and Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword as a must-read war story.

21 thoughts on “The Day My Father Became a Bush by Joke van Leeuwen

  1. I love “The Diary of Anne Frank” too. This year I have found a great picture book for younger readers which is not too dramatic for my 5 &7 year old – “Anzac Biscuits – by Phil Cummings”

  2. OMG this post reminded me that my favourite war story is “The Silver Sword” – I can’t wait until my kids are big enough to read it. Now I might have to find it for a quick re-read.

  3. As a child, I loved When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, by Judith Kerr. Anna, the young Jewish heroine has to flee Germany with her family when Hitler comes to power. They mustn’t look like they are fleeing – Anna is allowed to bring only a single toy. She chooses a brand new, stuffed toy she has just received for her birthday, but realises after they leave that she has made a terrible mistake in leaving behind her old toy, a threadbare pink rabbit. As a child that brought home to me the sense of unresolved loss in being a refugee.

  4. My favourite war story is Oorlogswinter (Winter in Wartime) by Jan Terlouw which I read as a child in The Netherlands.

  5. Don’t enter me for the competition as I have a copy of this by my bed waiting to be read – and it’s just gone to the top of the pile thanks to this review!

  6. Oh like your review of the book Zac, Do you think it would be suitable for primary or secondary? Sounds like a great read, had a chuckle on the captain’s quote.
    Yes I to liked reading the story of Anne Frank but the latest one I really like is My Secret War Diary: My History of the Second World War 1939-1945 By Flossie Albright. Just love the collage-style diary, merging photos, postcards, and other memorabilia in the book.

  7. I would have to say my Brother’s War by David Hill. Finalist in NZ Post Book Awards, and such a great read.
    Cheers Chris

  8. My favourite of all time was I am Rosemarie by Marietta Moskin, i read it as a young teen and have never forgotten it. It is probably why I have loved books like Suite Francaise as an adult.

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