Tucky Jo and Little Heart by Patricia Polacco
Today’s pick for Perfect Picture Book Friday is Tucky Jo and Little Heart
Written/Illustrated by: Patricia Polacco
Publisher: Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman (2015)
Suitable for ages: 7-10
Themes/Topics: compassion, courage, empathy, friendship, loyalty, Philippines, WWII
Brief Synopsis: This story is based on true events that took place during WW II. In her author’s note, Palacco states she listened to veterans who told stories about the war. She was inspired by the experiences of a soldier from Kentucky, Johonnie Wallen (Tucky Jo), and a Filipina child (Little Heart), he met while serving in the Pacific. Polacco tells the remarkable story of how they met, became friends, and decades later, as if by fate, were reunited in the USA.
The book is heavy in text, filled with southern expressions and dialect written in the voice of Johonnie. Although the author takes great care to show the horrors of war in a way children may understand, I am recommending it for older readers rather than pre-k to grade 2 audience.
Johonnie (Tucky Jo) joined the military when he was 15 years old earning him the nickname Kentucky Kid. His unit is shipped to the Philippines, where they are told to build an airstrip. When out clearing a path in the jungle, Johnnie is bitten badly by bugs. While looking for water to cool his bites, he meets a little girl from a nearby village who shows him how to treat his bug bites with the leaves of a local plant. He returns the kindness with a chocolate bar. He tells her his name and she repeats ”Tucky Jo”. Unable to speak her language, he calls her Little Heart because of a heart shaped birthmark on her arm. He looks forward to Little Heart’s visits in the jungle but one day she didn’t show up. Johonnie went to the village to look for her and learned she was traumatized after witnessing the death of her mother, and the capture of the young men in her village including her brother and father. As a result, the villagers were starving. Tucky Jo found a way to feed them. After he learns his unit would be leaving and the area bombed, Tucky Jo is able to convince the military to evacuate the people. After he saw the Army helicopters whisk them away, Johonnie figured he’d never see Little Heart again.
Fast forward to the USA when an aging Johonnie goes to the Veteran’s Hospital and they are reunited! And the story continues to tug at your heartstrings.
Why I like this book: As a member of a military family I enjoy picture books that tell stories specific to our experiences. Having lived in the Philippines, I once helped feed a local child brought to the military base who was injured in the jungle. Life in the military can be so rewarding but alas is not without risk. Which reminds me; May 30, 2016 is Memorial Day. On that day, we honor those who left home to serve but did not return home. This story is about a veteran who served not only his country but all of humanity and was fortunate to return and live a long life. Some would say it’s more appropriate for Veteran’s Day. But I highly recommend it for any day a teacher, parent, librarian or caretaker is interested in sharing about how one young man’s triumphant spirit, courage, and kindness brought hope and salvation to people in desperate need of help.
Below is a photo of Johonnie Wallen. I have not found one of Ms. Zaballa (Little Heart) but if you read the Epilogue in the book, you will learn all about the wonderful life she led and her joy of finally reconnecting with her Tucky Jo.
Read the obituary written about Johonnie Wallen by his daughter here
The National WW II Museum is located in New Orleans. If you are ever in the area, do visit.
The Homeschool Mom blog has lessons and videos about WW II for elementary aged students.
Friends of the WW II Memorial has detailed lesson plans here.
See this Scholastic page for loads of resources.
For more of today’s reviews, see author Susanna Hill’s blog here.