War - Forms and genres - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


38. War


Carol Fox and Peter Hunt


Given that there is a tradition in children’s literature of protecting children, it is perhaps surprising that war books currently constitute such a popular genre. The reasons that writers and critics give for this preoccupation are straightforward, and focus on realism and knowledge. Edward Ardizzone - both a portrayer of idyllic childhood and a war artist - said:


I think we are possibly inclined, in a child’s reading, to shelter him too much from the harder facts of life. Sorrow, failure, poverty, and possibly even death, if handled poetically, can surely all be introduced without hurt ... If no hint of the hard world comes into these books, I’m not sure that we are playing fair.

(1980: 293)


War is one of ‘the harder facts of life’; war is all around us; war infuses, directly or indirectly a large proportion of the books on children’s shelves. As Barbara Harrison in her pioneering study of books about the Jewish holocaust wrote: ‘war is an ever-present reality for vast numbers of children; we who can choose to keep our children ignorant are a minority’ (1987: 87).

The editors of a collaborative selection of reviews, War and Peace in Children’s Books, put it this way:


We do not think it is accidental that so many children’s books on the Second World War are being published now at the close of the twentieth century. There is a feeling that records need to be set straight and passed on to the generations that will grow up in the twenty-first century, and perhaps an even stronger feeling that it is not too late to educate children about war and its consequences.

(Batho et al. 1999)


The emphasis by critics is very often on the educative virtues of war books. Barbara Harrison, writing about war books published in the USA, sums up a common attitude:


The books are important documents for historians and for social and political scientists ... But we must acknowledge at the outset ... the quintessentially moral nature of these books. They instruct: they seek to make people better than they are ... A tragic work of art deals with human aspiration and suffering, and it examines with profound seriousness the place of the individual in the universe.

(1980: 68)


Kate Agnew and Geoff Fox are similarly optimistic:


In the treatment of the two world wars in recent novels and picture-books ... young readers are invariably urged to examine the nature of violence and suffering, persecution and endurance, hatred and loyalty, selfishness and sacrifice. They are asked to share the writers’ condemnation of war and the repugnant beliefs which lead to conflict, and to feel compassion for the anguish imposed upon the innocent many by the powerful few.

(2001: 53)


The opposing argument might be that not all books about war are so high-minded, and many countries have published, and publish, propagandist and jingoistic materials, very often in the form of comic books. The fact of the subject-matter being war does not automatically imbue the texts with virtue. It is also interesting to note the slight ideological myopia in what Agnew and Fox call the ‘repugnant beliefs’ which lead to conflict: whose repugnant beliefs are we talking about? We do not have to look back very far to find, in nineteenth-century Britain, for example, novels for boys about the British wars, which were instrumental in building the Empire and promoting a concept of British boyhood and British codes of behaviour (see Butts 2000; Richards 1989) which would be scarcely sustainable today. Indeed it is generally agreed that the portrayal of war over the last fifty years in children’s books across the world has changed radically, and is far more inclined to take a revisionist, often postcolonial, balanced view of conflicts. There is no doubt that, generally, there has been what Agnew and Fox call ‘the gradual shift - especially in the United Kingdom - from the cultural certainties of 1914 to the pluralism and ambiguities of 2000’ (2001: 1; and see also Fox 2001; Girouard 1981: 290; Butts 2000: 138).

Equally, it can be argued that war is not an appropriate subject for children’s literature: as Eric Kimmel wrote, ‘To put it simply: is mass murder a subject for a children’s novel?’ (Harrison 1987: 70). For some writers, the answer to that question is yes: Gudrun Pausewang’s The Final Journey ([Reise im August] (1992/1998) is a book that ends in the gas chamber:


The heavy iron door slammed shut.

Alice tipped back her head. Soon, soon, water would pour down over her from the nozzle up there. The water of life. It would wash her clean of the dirt and horror of the journey, would make her as clean as she had been before. She raised her arms and opened out her hands.

(1992/1998: 154)


Is this kind of writing pushing at the boundaries of fiction? Should fictions be made of such harsh realities? Are books such as Anne Frank’s Diaries (of which a new edition, with previously unpublished material, appeared in 1995) so powerful that fictionalised imitations are unnecessary or demeaning?

There is also a fundamental problem, as Barbara Harrison points out: books on the subject of war go against a basic principle of children’s literature:


...although there is now greater candour in literature for the young than ever before, the one characteristic which adults are reluctant to see diminished in any way is hope, traditionally the animating force in children’s books. Many adults cannot endure the thought that during the Holocaust, hope ... was swept into the ovens.

(1987: 69-70)


In most children’s books, writers are giving the disempowered, the weakest members of society - the children - a form of power through fiction, through both fantasy and a kind of realism. If ‘realism’ in fiction is seen as relating in a direct way to the real world, writers are usually dealing with topics where the child at least has a chance of being actually empowered. But in the case of war, it might be argued, adults are disempowered too: and if children are given a story in which even the adults are disempowered, what hope of power is there for the children? The harsh realism is such that there can be no escape in real life, and no retreat into fantasy in fiction. As Ursula K. Le Guin put it,


To give the child a picture of ... gas chambers ... and say, ‘Well, baby, that’s how it is, what are you going to make of it?’ - that is surely unethical. If you suggest that there is a ‘solution’ to these monstrous facts, you are lying to the child. If you insist that there isn’t, you are overwhelming him with a load he’s not strong enough yet to carry.

(Haviland 1980: 112-13)


There is another problem associated with this: in practical terms, should books which deal with war be freely available to the youngest and (possibly) most impressionable readers? Should, for example, a picture book such as Junko Morimoto’s My Hiroshima (1987), which depicts an idyllic life before the dropping of the atomic bomb and a horrific life (and graphic deaths) immediately after it, be given to children without mediation, introduction or policing by adults? (At the least, some expansion of the bald statements of fact inside the back-cover of that book: ‘At 8.15 a.m. on August 6, 1945, an atomic bomb was dropped’ might be thought to be necessary.)

It is, however, widely assumed that fiction can say the unsayable, increase our response, and add metaphorical depth or symbolic coherence.


Events on a grand scale, mass sufferings, catch the imagination and arouse compassion only incompletely and in an abstract way. We need a specific example to arouse our love or fear. We are so made that the face of a weeping child touches us more than hearing that a whole province has died of starvation.

(Joseph Kessel quoted in Gutman 1989/1991: 5)


Many of these questions have been examined in a project, ‘War and Peace in Children’s Books’, funded by the Comenius Programme of the European Community. Among other things, this collaborative project looked at how war is represented in the children’s books of Belgium, Portugal and the UK; it produced a tri-lingual catalogue (Batho et al. 1999), three anthologies Kom Vavavond Met Verhalen (Leysen et al. 1999), In Times of War (Fox et al. 2000), and La Longe, A Paz (Fonesca et al. 2001), in-service teaching materials, and a symposium held at Ypres in 2000.

In Belgium and the Netherlands there had been a flood of literature about the Second World War, as opposed to Portugal, although the project did include some historical material from Portugal, where the past of colonial voyages of exploration is still very dominant in the way war is represented for children. The books looked at came from most European countries - Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Poland, the former Czechoslovakia, Latvia and Italy - as well as from Japan, China, the USSR and Indonesia. (It is worth mentioning here that the English books collectively tended to under-represent the role of the armed forces in books about the Second World War, which tend to be located on the ‘home front’.) Other conflicts represented included the partition of India, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, Israel and Palestine, South Africa, Mozambique, Angola, Kurdistan and Iraq, Eritrea, Somalia and Ethiopia, Northern Ireland, the Falklands/Maldivas, the Gulf, East Timor and the former Yugoslavia.

It is interesting that the least stereotypical examples that were found were in adult books, notably Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1986) and Tardi’s C’etait la guerre des tranchees (1993), one of the few places where the international contributions to the First World War were acknowledged.

The research showed the immense popularity of war books, finding that they used a wide range of genres, including some, such as time-slip fantasy and comedy, that might not appear to be appropriate. Some themes emerged strongly. The first was the mythologising of war; there are many images that have become iconic in both general and specific ways. In books about the First World War, there are instantly recognisable images - for example, poppies, no-man’s land, the story of the Christmas fraternisation between German and British troops (as in Michael Foreman’s War Game (1993) - and these iconic forms do their work on 11 November each year in many European countries. There are more specific examples, such as the way in which Roberto Innocenti copied famous photographic images from the holocaust (notably a frightened small boy with his hands in the air) in Rose Blanche (Gallaz 1985).

The images in British books about the Second World War tend towards mythologising such concepts as ‘our finest hour’, and the tone of Dutch, Flemish and French stories tends to be much grimmer. A rare and classic example of a British appreciation of the situation of the occupied countries occurs in Robert Westall’s The Machine Gunners (published, perhaps significantly, in 1975, long after the war). Some Polish officers, stationed in the north of England, encounter the misguided children; there is a brief exchange of fire.


A scarecrow figure, waving a dirty white flag on a twig, was walking out from between the trees ...

‘Ah, see [said Major Koslowski], typical Nazis - cowards and improperly dressed too. I have a mind to shoot him as a spy.’

‘You can’t shoot a man who’s carrying a white flag [said the local policeman]. It isn’t fair.’

‘Ah, the English Gentleman - always so bloody fair. Perhaps if your homes had been burned to the ground you would not be so concerned to be bloody fair.’

(Westall 1975/1994: 179)


Similarly, there is a lot of stereotyping both of national characteristics and of individuals; the fact that a characteristic book that does this, Michelle Magorian’s Goodnight Mr Tom, is now regarded as one of the hundred favourite books in English, demonstrates the continuing appetite for simplification. Although there has been a good deal of questioning of recent wars, for example in Robert Westall’s Gulf (1992), it would seem that in the UK the Second World War has remained sacrosanct, as it encapsulates so many national myths of independence.

The holocaust features extensively in European books for children, and there is a notable Australian example in Margaret Wild’s Let the Celebrations Begin (1991), with the controversially colourful and eccentric illustrations by Julie Vivas.

Across the world, authors have tried to deal with the small and large horrors of war, from Josephine Feeney’s Truth, Lies and Homework (1996) about the dilemma of an Irishman refusing to fight for Britain, Yoko Kawashimi Watkins’s So Far from the Bamboo Grove (1986), about a Japanese family forced to leave Korea when the Koreans regain control, Theodore Taylor’s The Bomb (1995) about the aftermath of the war on Bikini Island, Graham Salisbury’s Under the Blood Red Sun (1994) on the backlash against Japanese Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and perhaps the most famous example from the USA, Bette Green’s Summer of My German Soldier (1986), about an escaped prisoner of war in Arkansas.

The treatment of war as entertainment goes back to the earliest oral tradition, but the commodification of real war, and its packaging on television, has led to a problem in explaining to young readers what war is actually like. Among the few books that address this very difficult problem are Terry Pratchett’s Johnny Maxwell trilogy (Only You Can Save Mankind (1992), Johnny and the Dead (1993), Johnny and the Bomb (1996)) which deals with the reactions of contemporary teenagers to war - and in doing so makes the point (to them) that they do not, and perhaps cannot, understand.

Only You Can Save Mankind is a peace parable. Johnny Maxwell is drawn into a computer game in which he finds that the aliens he is supposed to eliminate have feelings too. Meanwhile, in ‘real life’, the first Gulf War is being reported on the television, but it only impinges on Johnny very obliquely:


There was a film on the News showing some missiles streaking over some city. It was quite good.

(Pratchett 1992/1993: 22)


And, later


There was an extended News ... There were the same pictures of missiles streaking across a city that he’d seen the night before, except that now there were more journalists in sand-coloured shirts with lots of pockets talking excitedly about them ... There was some History homework about Christopher Columbus. He looked him up in the encyclopedia and copied out four hundred words.



The children discuss the war in adult terms, but it is only Johnny, who thinks differently about things, who sees the problem: one boy says


‘I mean - the whole world seems kind of weird right now. You watch the telly, don’t you? How can you be the good guys if you’re dropping clever bombs right down people’s chimneys? And blowing people up just because they’re being bossed around by a looney .’

[and another says]

‘... There was a man on [the television] saying that the bomb-aimers were so good because they all grew up playing computer games .’

‘See?’ said Johnny. ‘That’s what I mean. Games look real. Real things look like games ... We always turn [war] into something that’s not exactly real. We turn it into games and it’s not games. We really have to find out what’s real!’

(115, 116, 117)


The modern war story takes several forms. The heroic adventure, the genre hero story set in war, featuring such fictional heroes as the British airman ‘Biggles’ by W. E. Johns, are books that make war a game and killing an incidental piece of fun, and they are on the decline. Otherwise war can be a backdrop to the characters’ actions, as in possibly the most famous British example, Nina Bawden’s Carrie’s War (1973). This is about evacuee children - children who were moved out of the cities to save them from bombing raids in the Second World War - a subject highly susceptible to pathos and sentimentality (for a documentary account, see No Time to Say Goodbye (Wicks 1988)). But Bawden makes it into a novel for children by concentrating on human relationships. The war may have brought about this situation, but it is off-stage. On the children’s last day in the secluded Welsh valley to which they have been sent, Carrie, the teenaged female hero


thought of bombs falling, of the war going on all this year they’d been safe in the valley; going on over their heads like grown-up conversation when she’d been too small to listen.

(Bawden 1973/1988: 134)


Alternatively, characters can be directly involved in war; or it can be a fact that the story has to fit into, or it can be manipulated to fit the story, as David Rees’s The Exeter Blitz (1978) - where history is slightly bent for the convenience of the plot - to produce a dramatic climax. Those stories where children participate in historical events can be unconvincing, because of the need to manufacture heroism as in Jill Paton Walsh’s The Dolphin Crossing (1967) which deals with the Dunkirk evacuation.

The most successful books are perhaps those where children are involved in war almost obliquely, as in Judith Kerr’s Out of the Hitler Time trilogy, beginning with When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (1971) where a family moves from Germany to France and to Britain at the beginning of the Second World War. A similar trilogy by Irene Watts, who was a child rescued from Nazi Germany by the Kindertransporten, begins with Goodbye Marianne (1998).

If war is a fact of human existence, then writers will write about it. It may be, as the British adventure-writer Henry Rider Haggard wrote in his autobiography (published in 1926), the lesser of two evils:


Personally, I hate war, and all killing ... but while the battle-clouds bank up I do not think that any can be harmed by reading of heroic deeds or of frays in which brave men lose their lives.

What I deem undesirable are the tales of lust, crime, and moral perversion with which the bookstalls are strewn by the dozen.

(Rider Haggard 1926: 105)


But, positively, a faith in fiction as an instrument of good clearly remains strong, and as Agnew and Fox said of the authors they had read in preparing their critical work, Children at War, they all share a passionate belief that children must be made aware of the evils of the past and the courage with which that evil has often been met; and also that young readers need narratives which explore the nature and experience of war if they are to make sense of the world they have inherited and the future they confront.

(2001: 79)



Agnew, K. and Fox, G. (2001) Children at War. From the First World War to the Gulf, London and New York: Continuum.

Ardizzone, E. (1980) ‘Creation of a Picture Book’ in Egoff, S., Stubbs, G. T. and Ashley, L. F. (eds) Only Connect. Readings on Children’s Literature, Toronto: Oxford University Press, 289-98.

Batho, R., Clay, J., Devynk, A.-M., Fox, C., Guterres, R. and Leysen, A. (eds) (n.d. [1999]) War and Peace in Children’s Books, Leuven: University of Brighton.

Bawden, N. (1973/1988) Carrie’s War, London: Gollancz.

Butts, D. (2000) ‘Biggles - Hero of the Air’, in Jones, D. and Watkins, T. (eds) A Necessary Fantasy? The Heroic Figure in Children’s Popular Culture, London: Garland, 137-52.

Fonesca, M., Koenders, I., Leysen, A. and Fox, C. (2001) La Longe, A Paz, Lisbon: Edi^oes Afrontamento.

Foreman, M. (1993) War Game, London: Pavilion.

Fox, C. (2001) ‘What Do We Tell Our Children?’ in Meek, M. (ed.) Children’s Literature and National Identity, Stoke on Trent: Trentham Books.

Fox, C., Leysen, A. and Koenders, U. (2000) In Times of War, London: Pavilion.

Gallaz, C. (1985) Rose Blanche, ill. Innocenti, R., London: Cape.

Girouard, M. (1981) The Return to Camelot: Chivalry and the English Gentleman, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Gutman, C. (1989/1991) The Empty House, South Woodchester: Turton and Chambers.

Harrison, B. (1987) ‘Howl like the Wolves’, Children’s Literature 15, 67-90.

Haviland, V. (ed.) (1980) The Openhearted Audience: Ten Authors Talk about Writing for Children, Washington, DC: Library of Congress.

Leysen, A., Fox, C. and Koenders, I. (eds) (1999) Kom Vavavond Met Verhalen, Mechelen: Bakermat Uitgevers.

Morimoto, J. (1987) My Hiroshima, London: Collins.

Pausewang, G. (1992/1998) The Final Journey [Reise im August], London: Penguin (Puffin).

Pratchett, T. (1992/1993) Only You Can Save Mankind, London: Transworld (Corgi).

Richards, J. (ed.) (1989) Imperialism and Juvenile Literature, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Rider Haggard, H. (1926) The Days of My Life, London: Longmans, Green.

Spiegelman, A. (1986) Maus, London: Penguin.

Tardi (1993) C’etait la guerre des tranchees, Brussels: Casterman.

Westall, R. (1975/1994) The Machine Gunners, London: Penguin/Puffin.

Wicks, B. (1988) No Time to Say Goodbye, London: Bloomsbury.


Further reading

Fox, C. (1999) ‘What the Children’s Literature of War is Telling the Children’, Reading (UKRA) November: 126-31.

Petzold, D. (1997) ‘An Awfully Big Adventure? Representations of the Second World War in British Children’s Books of the 1960s and 1970s’, in Beckett, S. L. (ed.) Reflections of Change. Children’s Literature since 1945, Westport: Greenwood, 163-9.

Short, G. (1997) ‘Learning through Literature: Historical Fiction, Autobiography, and the Holocaust’, Children’s Literature in Education 28, 4: 179-90.