How do children learn about war? Some learn from experience, of course, from being caught up in terrible events - as victims, refugees, child soldiers. My parents were both wartime children. My mother was evacuated from her London home and attended nine primary schools. My dad grew up in South Wales, taught by his Home Guard father how to make basic explosives. If the Germans invaded he was to kill his mother and brothers, then take to the woods and try and kill as many of the enemy as possible.
My generation, and those born after me were luckier by far. We got to learn about war from books. History books told us the dry facts (although in the 1970s, history meant Tudors and Stuarts, not the recent past) but novels taught us how it might have felt to be part of those events. Books like Carrie's War by Nina Bawden and Ian Serraillier's A Silver Sword shaped our understanding of the world we had been born into.
These are just two of the books featured in a new exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London which opens on February 11. Once Upon a Wartime: Classic War Stories for Children uses life-size sets, scale models and interactive displays to engage children with books set in wartime. The other books featured are Michael Morpurgo's War Horse, Little Soldier by Bernard Ashley and The Machine Gunners by Robert Westall. Little Soldier is about an African child refugee, starting a new life in London, desperate to avenge his slaughtered family; a far cry from the trench warfare of the First World War captured so evocatively in Morpurgo's book. Putting these books together will encourage children to make links and spot differences, to examine the way that war stories are told and the many things we can learn from them.
The exhibition will show children how the author built a work of fiction, displaying notebooks, manuscripts and photographs, and also put the text in a historical context, with artefacts including evacuee letters and labels, and the fin of a German incendiary bomb. Michael Morpurgo is writing a short story to mark the opening of the exhibition. Other wartime books will also be featured, and in August a children's war literature festival will be held at the museum with lectures, workshops and discussions led by authors.