Friday, 28 January 2011

War Stories by Keren David

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.
Judah, my 11-year-old son loved War Horse, and has read the book and seen the play. His dad took him to the Imperial War Museum to find out more about trench warfare, and we've also visited First World War cemeteries. Judah didn't just learn about the war from these experiences -  although he did learn a great deal. He thought a lot about the differences between a book and a play, and the difficulties involved in staging a play about a horse. Who knows what extra insights this exhibition will give him? Bravo to the Imperial War Museum for celebrating children's literature in this way, and I hope that many schools will be able to afford to take their pupils to see it.


catdownunder said...

"The Captive Isle" by Veronica Robinson and "The Dolphin Crossing" by Jill Paton-Walsh also come to mind. (The latter caused an uproar here in Australia because it dealt with death. As a school librarian I was required to "advise the parents" before the children were permitted to read the book.)

Anonymous said...

Aren't these books all rather one note?

I worry that in dwelling on the grim tragedy, we miss learning from the way people got on and got the job done.

What happened to classics like Ronald Welch's "Tank Commander"? (Competent hero gets the job done despite the well drawn horror of WWI, and the military conservatism of his own side.)

Sarah Taylor-Fergusson said...

The Imperial War Museum are so good at handling the children's version of war. They did an excellent Second World War evacuees' exhibition a few years back.

Your poor father! I hope he didn't worry about his responsibilities as a child?

My own father, born 1936, was taught by his father how to make quite large bombs, and one of his creations blew a substantial hole in the field behind their house. I suppose this was their way of lightening up their wartime experience.

Neezes said...

It's amazing what you learn from these - much more vivid than a history lesson as you point out. Perhaps your son would like Conrad's War by Andrew Davies - I read at that age and loved it! Very surreal, and great scenes inside a bomber and a POW camp.

Playing by the book said...

I've a giveaway of a family ticket to this exhibition on my blog at the moment:

Would be great if you could spread the news as the exhibition sounds wonderful. And I'm loving the excuse it's given me to re-read all these books!

Anonymous said...

The BBC made an excellent series based on "The Silver Sword" back in the 1960s but the tapes were lost / wiped. Maybe somebody could at least find the scripts.