Children’s Literature and War

It’s the 11th November. On this day at 11am in 1918, the armistice was signed between Germany and the Allied forces and hostilities were ceased. Following a few signatures between a few men the war, which had changed lives and the world irrevocably, officially came to an end.

So why am I writing about this on a children’s literature blog?

I want to take the moment to address the presence of war literature for children.

Violence. Fighting. Death. Pain. Heartache. There’s arguments for presenting these things in children’s literature and there’s arguments against it. Lydia Kokkola has written an excellent book which discusses the representation of the holocaust in children’s literature. One of her key arguments is very simple. Should children be exposed to this sort of thing in their literature or not?

For me, this sort of thing goes to the very heart of the concept of literature. One of our great gifts of being human is language. And language helps us decode the world around us. Without language we struggle and become marooned in our own private existence. We lose our identity as there is no way for us to validate this against external forces. How can we know who or what we stand for when we do not know who or what the external influences are? Can a human exist without context?

Stories, storying and language all help us understand the world we live in. They help us realise we’re not alone. They help us gain a path out of the darkness by signposting a way out. They provide us with our context for existence. And they allow us to connect with each other.

So should the story shift depending on who we tell it to? I’m drawn to the example of the Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Here’s a book, definitely orientated towards children, and yet the subject topic of the Holocaust was such that upon reading the last page I felt physically winded. Is that because of my knowledge of what the ‘striped pyjamas’ actually stand for? Is it because of the internal narrative of the book or is it because of the external narrative of my knowledge of the second world war? It also left me intrigued. Is it possible to interpret the story on a much simpler level? Is it just about friendship existing where you least expect it? Is the lesson not to be horrified but to be proud of two children and their glorious innocence of the situation they were involved in?

So yes. Children should read this stuff. Not just for the duality of interpretation that may (and just let me repeat that, may) pull a text in a different direction than their adult counterpart.

They should read it to learn of their history. They should read it to understand what makes a person a person.

War literature tells us of people who lived and died in the worst of times. Of heroes and villains. Of darkness and light.

It forces us to see past statistics and static pictures in a text book. It forces us to inhabit a situation through the cipher of a character.

War literature also makes us become moral readers. To gain some sense of ourselves, to question what we would do. And it’s okay to think I don’t know. The important thing is to ask that question.

But perhaps more importantly than all that, there’s one big reason that children should be exposed to war literature. Children grow up. Become adults. And it’s adults who get us in these messes. Children need to know what sacrifices have been made in their name so that they don’t grow up and carry out the same mistakes.

Sit down with your children. Open a book. Tell them of what these people did. And be proud that you live in a free and empowered society that lets you do this.

Never forget.