Once upon a Wartime

Last week we had a couple of days in London, during which we paid a visit to the Imperial War Museum, as I wanted to see the 1940s House before it finally closes at the end of January, as well as the Once Upon a Wartime exhibition of children’s books, which is due to close at the end of October and will then transfer to IWM North. Once Upon a Wartime is really aimed at children, but the exhibition included several books I remember borrowing from the school library when I was about 10, and I wanted to see how the exhibition ‘framed’ the problems of war for children. As it turned out, it wasn’t what I expected, but it was well done and I enjoyed it.

The premise of the exhibition was to take five well-known books written since World War Two, and to fit each of them into certain categories: the information at the beginning of the exhibition suggested that children’s books about war tended to contain certain themes: loyalty, separation, excitement, survival and identity. In fact, though, the exhibition did much more than that, using particular aspects of the books to teach the visitor about aspects of different conflicts.

The first book was Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse, which, it was suggested, embodies the theme of loyalty in war. Most of the exhibition featuring this book looked at the role of horses in the First World War, from a model of a horse in full kit, to footage of horses on the battlefield. The second book, one of the ones I enjoyed as a child, was Nina Bawden’s Carrie’s War, whose theme is separation. There was plenty of information about evacuees relating to the book, and the lives of children who were evacuated, as well as information about the experiences of the author which led to the writing of the book.

Next was The Machine Gunners by Robert Westall, a book I remember finding thrilling, and indeed the chosen theme here was the excitement that children may find (however inappropriately) in war. The perception of war by children who have been sheltered from its worst aspects was well-depicted here, looking at children’s search for trophies from crashed planes, for example, and their desire to capture an enemy soldier. The book ends sadly, though, and the need to balance excitement with the true nature of war was brought out carefully here.

Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword was the next book; the theme was survival, and the exhibition told the story of displaced children in Europe, with direct experiences of the terror and destructiveness of Nazism in countries such as Poland. A huge map showed the experiences of children all over Europe. The final book was Bernard Ashley’s Little Soldier, the only one featured which I haven’t read. The theme was identity, linked to ethnicity and the issue of child soldiers. The most contemporary of the books featured, it seemed a worthwhile note to end on, looking at issues which face children in war zones and even in this country today.


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