The Pig War – Perfect Picture Book Friday

Yes, it’s hard to believe that we nearly went to war over a pig, but it’s TRUE! And this book turns the incident into a funny, but cautionary tale that isn’t stridently moralistic. And you have to love that pig blimp leaping over the harbor on the cover!

The author, Emma Bland Smith, first provides context for readers: a map of where this happened, in the San Juan Islands off the northwest coast of the U.S., the date (1859), the setting, the characters, and—most importantly—the mood that was “about to change, for the worse.” This sets the perfect tone for the story: serious cheekiness.

Text ©️Emma Bland Smith Illustration ©️Alison Jay

One spring day an American settler named Lyman Cutlar looked out his window and spied a large pig rooting in his potato patch. The pig was British. Or at least its owner was.

As Cutlar chases the pig, the text offers additional context, saying that the U.S. was on reasonable terms with the Brits after the Revolutionary War (nearly a century before) and the War of 1812 (settled 30 years after that). Both groups were living civilly with each other, although in separate groups on the island.

Bland’s speculation about the inciting incident is filled with humor:

Maybe Lyman hadn’t had his coffee. Maybe he’d slept poorly. Maybe he was looking forward to boiling those potatoes….But for whatever reason, when he saw that pig, he got cranky….and the pig paid the ultimate price.

The rest, they say, is history.

Lyman regrets his hasty decision, and offers to pay its owner for the animal he’s killed. Its owner (with a gleam in his eye) demands an outrageous amount of money, and the two start to fight. Let’s just say that matters escalate to unbelievable (if it weren’t really true!!) proportions. Letters are written. The military gets involved.

Ships from both sides amass in the harbor. Tensions rise. How will this all end?

You’ll have to read the book.

Alison Jay’s illustrations, with some wonderfully distorted perspectives, are fabulous and serve as a distinct metaphor for the story. They also enhance the playful aspect of what could have been a very dry history lesson. I love how the humor bleeds into the jacket copy, describing the author as an American citizen, and the illustrator as a British subject. A lovely way to show that we’re all back on speaking (and creating) terms, LOL.


Pair this book with Enemy Pie by Derek Munson or The Fort by Laura Perdew

Teach kids concrete ways to resolve conflicts

Make a PEACE flag

Title: The Pig War: How a Porcine Tragedy Taught England and America to Share

Author: Emma Bland Smith

Illustrator: Alison Jay

Publisher: Calkins Creek, 2020

Ages: Elementary school

Themes: conflict resolution, U.S. History, San Juan Islands

For more perfect picture book recommendations, please visit Susanna Hill’s website.

16 thoughts on “The Pig War – Perfect Picture Book Friday

  1. Kate Teves says:

    Eek! This looks HILARIOUS and adorable and wonderful! I am going to check right now to see if my library has it. What a unique and strange-in-all-the-right ways book. Thrilled for the recommendation – thank you.

  2. Sarah Tobias says:

    It seems odd to say this book is timely since it’s about something that happened in our past, but if we can learn from our past, maybe we can stop some of the current extreme crazy before it gets worse. I look forward to reading this book.

  3. Patricia Tilton says:

    You shared enough that I’m going to have read this incredible story. I can’t believe its based on a true story. It sounds hilarious! I always enjoy how you review books! Thanks for sharing this one today. And I agree that this is a timely book about conflict resolution — and told in a way kids will understand!

  4. ptnozell says:

    Who knew that a meandering, hungry pig could cause such a stir. Sounds like a wonderful tale to kindle a love of history in kids and discuss conflict resolution.

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