‘Review note: centenary war and peace stories for children’, Honest History, 24 June 2014 updated
He had killed a man not six hours before. He had killed six men during the past month – or was it a year? – he had forgotten. Time had become curiously telescoped lately. What did it matter, anyway? He knew he had to die some time and had long ago ceased to worry about it.
That was an early paragraph in the very first Biggles story, The White Fokker, published in 1932. Like the other hundred books published by ‘Captain’ WE Johns, it gave young men of the Empire a jolly good introduction to how one fought for King and Country. Johns also wrote, during and just after World War II, some books for gels about a uniformed damsel nicknamed ‘Worrals’. The books included Worrals Carries On, Worrals in the Wilds and Worrals Down Under. Again, they included a good deal of patriotic biffo.
By contrast, the centenary crop of children’s books about war seem destined to rouse emotions more complex than those fanned by ‘Captain’ Johns. Anzac Biscuits, by Phil Cummings and Owen Swan, is about how Rachel cooks Anzac biscuits to send to Dad in the trenches, My Mother’s Eyes, by Mark Wilson, is based on the letters home of teenage soldiers and The Poppy (Andrew Plant) is about the bond said to have been forged between France and Australia by the Battle of Villers-Bretonneux. Adjectives like ‘touching’ and ‘evocative’ dot the blurbs for these books.
Then there are are two newish children’s books about the men of the Light Horse. Light Horse Boy, by Diane Wolfer and Brian Simmonds, is about ‘how Jim and Charlie abandon the Australian outback for the excitement and adventure of the war to end all wars. But in the Light Horse they quickly discover the brutal realities of life on the frontline. And nothing will ever be the same again.’
Gallipoli (Kerry Greenwood and Annie White) is about Light Horse men, Dusty and Bluey. It ‘is a story of family and friendship. It is the story of Gallipoli.’ Meanwhile, apparently not in the Light Horse but certainly at Gallipoli, ‘best friends, Wally and Roy, and new mate, Tom’, having been among the first to enlist, then ‘find themselves locked in combat with a formidable enemy, a ferocious landscape, flies, fleas, cold and disease’. The cover illustration on this book, An Anzac Tale, by Ruth Starke and Greg Holfeld, is a painting of a kangaroo wearing a slouch hat.
Readers can judge for themselves the extent to which the books above repeat familiar tropes of mateship, sacrifice, innocents abroad and grief on the home front. (We have not yet read any of them.) Younger readers, of course, will not realise they are tropes. How much these readers come to understand of war by reading these books will be influenced by how much reality – bombs and bullets and evisceration and drawn-out death agony – is mixed in with the lesser drawbacks listed in the blurb for An Anzac Tale.
Two books about more recent wars may present a more balanced view. John Schumann’s classic song of the Vietnam era, I Was Only Nineteen, has been illustrated by Craig Smith. The words (‘The Anzac legends didn’t mention mud and blood and tears’) are as powerful an evocation in print of the effects of war as they were when first sung. There is a You Tube video also and the inspiration for the original song has been interviewed. Paul Daley’s review.
An even more recent war features in The Afghanistan Pup (Mark Wilson again). The book describes not only the experience of a young Australian soldier but also – unusually for Australian war books, even ones written for children – the impact of war on the inhabitants of the war-torn country, in this case an Afghani girl.
Outside the authorial mainstream but hitting the realism button hard are the comprehensive (125 pages) lesson materials The Enduring Effects of War: Introduction. These have been prepared for Year 9 and 10 students by the Medical Association for Prevention of War, Act for Peace and the History Teachers’ Association of Victoria and they cover biological and chemical weapons, the changing nature of war in 2oth century Australia, death from above and below, diseases of conflict, the first casualty of war is truth, international diplomacy, the militarisation of Australian history, the peace movement and resistance to war, returning home from war, technology and war, and who is my enemy?
There are videos, comprehensive links, lesson plans and activities. Set alongside the output of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, the Australian War Memorial and other official proselytisers, this is an essential resource.
Almost finally, on the blog of primary school librarian, Lisa Hill, there is some thoughtful information about how children at different levels can be taught about war. It is mixed in with some book reviews. Lisa touches on the sensitive issue of how much children can be taught about war at what ages, which Honest History has looked at here and here.
BY THE WAY … If you have read any of these books and you would like to do a brief review (up to 200 words) we would love to get it at firstname.lastname@example.org or just send us a comment below.