Capturing the story in history

Hugh Brewster stands before a classroom of Grade 6 and 7 students and talks to them about mustard gas. "Soldiers that breathed in the gas had this sticky sort of glue come out of their noses," he says.

Hugh Brewster stands before a classroom of Grade 6 and 7 students and talks to them about mustard gas.

“Soldiers that breathed in the gas had this sticky sort of glue come out of their noses,” he says.

“That glue was actually their lungs, which had been liquefied by the gas.”

A number of children make faces of disgust, looking as if they’d just been told to eat a plate full of brussels sprouts.

Others smile and mumble things under their breath. They could be saying, “gross,” but it’s just as likely to be, “awesome.”

Whatever the reaction, the children are riveted on Brewster at the front of the class.

It’s not the usual response you’d expect from a classroom being given a lecture on Canadian history.

Brewster was in town this week as part of TD Canadian Children’s Book Week.

All week long he was giving presentations at elementary schools throughout Whitehorse as well as in Mayo, Carmacks and Pelly Crossing.

On Tuesday morning, he got to his appointment at Whitehorse Elementary a little early for a quick interview.

“What I’ve found is that the least boring stories from our history are from the world wars,” he said.

“The last thing I ever want to do is glorify war; I think war is human nature at its most bestial.”

“And yet, they throw themselves on grenades to save their friends and they do extraordinary things,” he continued

“Kids are interested in that kind of stuff and they don’t want you to sugar-coat it.”

Brewster began thinking of himself as a writer only recently.

He got his start at Scholastic, back when the now-giant children’s book publisher was just “an office attached to a warehouse.”

Brewster broke away from Scholastic and started his own publishing company called Madison Press Books.

Early on, Brewster met a man by the name of Robert Ballard – a man with a titanium-hulled submarine who decided one day to find the Titanic.

He did, of course, and Brewster and his team were there to capture his find in the form of a children’s book.

James Cameron actually used these books in the creation of his blockbuster film on the doomed ship, according to Brewster.

Later, Brewster was privileged enough to travel to Russia where, under the policy of Glasnost, he was allowed to see the bones and various possessions of the last Tzar.

He became captivated by the Tzar’s youngest daughter, Anastasia, who coloured in her dresses in the black-and-white family photos and seemed to be screaming for her story to be told.

Brewster tried to hire an author to write the story, but when the deal fell through he decided to write the book himself.

Thus began his career as a children’s book author.

This was followed by other children’s histories such as one on various historical princesses.

A book called The Other Mozart tells the life of Joseph Boulongne, a man born to a slave mother and a wealthy French father who rose the ranks of 18th-century French society and becoming a violin virtuoso.

Carnation, Lily, Lily Rose tells the story behind a painting by John Singer Sargent and was nominated for a Governor General’s Literacy Award.

But it wasn’t until a trip to Normandy when he realized that the story of Canada’s role in the Second World War wasn’t being told.

That’s when he wrote his first war book for children, On Juno Beach.

Kids started coming up to him and telling him that this book was one of their favourites.

Kids liked learning about their history – especially the shocking little details.

For example, in Brewster’s next book, At Vimy Ridge, he describes what would happen when soldiers got trench foot: Their feet would turn black and their toes would fall off.

Factoids like that are enough to keep anyone’s attention.

Which brings us back to the problem of mustard gas.

The battle took place in Ypres – which English Canadians mispronounced as Wipers, partly because they didn’t understand the French pronunciation and partly because Ypres was a good place to get wiped out.

When they arrived they saw French troops retreating toward them, eyes bugged out in fear.

A ghostly cloud of yellow gas seemed to be following close behind.

“And do you know what those Canadian soldiers did to deal with the gas,” Brewster asks the class.

A boy in the back raises his hand.

“They urinated on pieces of cloth,” he answers studiously.

“That’s right, they peed on their handkerchiefs.”

In this way, Canadian soldiers earned the reputation of being a brave and intelligent fighting force.

And Canadian history became just a little more gross – or “awesome,” depending how you look at it.

Contact Chris Oke at