How to explore war with children? Part 1

Once Upon a Wartime, an exhibition which opened earlier this month at London’s Imperial War Museum, takes five children’s novels about war and conflict and uses them as a starting point to explore what war can mean for children.

Imperial War Museum entrance

War Horse by Michael Morpurgo, Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden, The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier, The Machine Gunners by Robert Westall and Little Soldier by Bernard Ashley provide the inspiration and setting to explore themes of loyalty, separation, excitement, survival and identity. Whilst these are books typically read by children older than my normal focus here on Playing by the book, I was nevertheless extremely keen to visit this new exhibition, to discover what inspired the authors to write their books and find out about the historical context of each story through objects, photographs and films.

I was also very interested to see how the museum chose to bring these books to life – exhibitions about children’s literature are not that common – and I thought you too would be interested to see how these books have been translated into a family exhibition.

In my review which follows I’ve included plenty of photos (to give those of you unable to visit the exhibition the best possible flavour if it) and I’ve split my review over two posts – the second half will appear tomorrow.

Once Upon a Wartime is divided into 5 distinct sections each focussing on one children’s book about conflict. The first zone visitors enter is dedicated to War Horse by Michael Morpurgo, the story of Joey, a farm horse who is caught up in the horrors of the First World War.

In this area of the exhibition you come face to face with a life-size horse used in battle, giving you an impression of the power and stature of these beasts.

War Horse

There is a moving display of posters promoting horse welfare during the First World War, medals and medicine they received.

War Horse

As in each zone, one cabinet is given over to items directly relating to the novel, including in this case an excerpt of the manuscript for War Horse (see below). I learnt that Morpurgo drew on three main sources of inspiration for this book: By chance Morpurgo met a First World War veteran in his local pub who told the author about his experience in a cavalry regiment, then Morpurgo came across a painting of a cavalry charge that profoundly moved him, and thirdly Morpurgo overheard a shy boy with a stammer talking to freely to horse – just as Albert does to Joey in the book.

Click for larger image

As well as a model of a warren of trenches this section of the exhibition includes a life-size wooden cavalry horse, which was used to teach soldiers how to equip horses.

In the darkened space, thinking about the First World War and the real soldiers who had originally used this horse, and wondering about the experiences they went on to have, and whether or not they made it back alive I was moved and saddened. I couldn’t but help think of my own family members who went to war and what happened to them and so before even leaving this first area of the exhibition, my mood was reflective and what I was looking at suddenly became personal. Now that I’m writing this up, I can’t get the song Two Little Boys out of my head, actually a beautiful song about friendship and war if you can get over the associations it has with Rolf Harris – listen to Hue and Cry performing it (slightly adapted) here.

Moving on, the next area is dedicated to Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden, a book about a sister and brother’s experience of being evacuees during the Second World War. Artefacts on display include a suitcase full of items an evacuee might have taken with them, the documentation that surrounded being sent away as an evacuee and visiting evacuees and posters of the time encouraging families to see evacuation as a good thing.

Carrie's War

Here a model train whizzes round and round at knee height – just right for young children to watch – symbolically leaving London and arriving in rural Wales, the journey taken by Carrie and her brother in Bawden’s book.

Taking evacuees from London / Carrie's War

Next up is Hepzibah’s kitchen, a place of warmth and security for Carrie and her brother. Visitors can sit at the table, open the cupboards and learn about rationing. Although the items here are all “fake” – a stage set essentially – I really liked the opportunity this gave for me to actually step into the story, rather than to simply look into glass fronted cabinets full of museum items.

Photo: Imperial War Museum
The skull in Carrie's War

No one in my family was evacuated, but I couldn’t help pondering what sort of lasting impact it may have had on both the children and parents involved. Being separated at a time of high anxiety can’t have been easy for either the adults or their kids, and I would have like to have seen this explored a little in the exhibition, perhaps with some interviews of evacuees as adults much later in life – especially as this reflection on Carrie’s time as an evacuee is what frames the book.

A panel in the exhibition notes that Carrie’s War was very much based on Bawden’s own experience as an evacuee, and apparently the author found being an evacuee “wonderful” but I can’t believe it was as idyllic for all children (or parents) involved. How would you feel if you had to send your children to live with an unknown family hundreds of miles away for months on end?

The next space is dedicated to The Machine Gunners by Robert Westall.

As for each book, there is a display including original manuscripts from the author alongside items mentioned in the text, and also an audio excerpt of an interview with the author.

The Machine Gunners display case

An MG15, the type of gun that Chas takes in The Machine Gunners from the crashed German bomber is, of course, on display.

I particularly liked the planes flying above – all accurate models of different types of plane flown during the Second World War. These cast fantastic shadows over this section of the exhibition, creating an atmosphere in which it was easy to imagine oneself running for cover during an air raid.

A mock-up of the fortress which Chas and his friends build is a fun part of the exhibition. Visitors can go right inside, sit down and imagine themselves defending the country from occupation.

Photo: Imperial War Museum

Have you or your children read War Horse, Carrie’s War or The Machine Gunners? What were the most moving parts for you?

Don’t forget to come back tomorrow when I’ll continue with my description and review of Once Upon a Wartime.

16 Responses

  1. Choxbox

    Wow. Every post of yours makes me glad I discovered your blog. Awesome and thank you for taking us to the museum while being thousands of miles away.

    As soon as I read the title of your post I thought MORPURGO! The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips is also a superb first introduction to war. All the ladies and gentlemen involved with the big decisions regarding war and conflicts should read these books – maybe the world will be different then.

    • Zoe

      Oh choxbox! What a way to start my day – with your lovely comment 🙂 Thank you.

      I haven’t read The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips but I’ve now put a reservation on it in the library – thanks for the suggestion.

  2. Jenny

    Wow, amazing post, thanks. I really hope I’m going to be able to visit the exhibition while it’s on. I’ve been thinking about children’s fiction and depictions of war quite a bit recently as I’ve been choosing some historical books for my son’s primary school library. I always enjoyed war fiction as a child, although I think that I read it in quite a different way than I would now as an adult and a mother. I loved Carie’s War as a kid but in my mind the war was kind of a backdrop for the part that terrified me which was the incident with the skull and her feelings of guilt at having done something secretly very bad. It still stops my breath thinking of that now! With The Silver Sword I was facinated with the idea of the children being on their own and fending for themselves. The whole concept of evacuation or of separation from your family was the focus for me as a kid, imagining myself in that situation and the psychological implications of it. It wasn’t until I was about 13 and we studied the poets of the 1st WW that I think I began to think about the horrors of war or even war as a subject rather than a backdrop for some other kind of psychlogical drama.
    My Nan is 97 and lived through the Blitz in London with my two uncles as small children. She has always been an awesome storyteller and my childhood was filled with her war stories too- most of them were tales of daring escape and the kindness of others in adversity. She was evacuated to Portsmouth, of all the silly places, at the beginning of the war. Once she found out where she was (the station signs were blacked out of course) she stayed one night and hitched a lift back to London with the Czech Army whom she flagged down in the road (she just started walking back with a 4 and 6 yr old so certain she was that Portsmouth would be bombed, which it was days after). She said that if she was going to be bombed she wanted to deal with it with her family and friends in her beloved London and she stayed there for the duration of it. Anyway, I digress… I’ve always enjoyed war fiction although now I read it totally differently I think. Have you read Fireweed by Jill Paton Walsh as that’s amazing too, it’s about two children living through the Blitz in London on their own after getting separated from their familes- I read that recently and wish I’d read it as a kid.
    One thing that always strikes me about WW2 fiction is how much it still influences us all today, we tell our children about it, we don’t want them to forget, it’s still very much a part of our psyche as the war generation are still around and the changes that the war made to families, lives and cities can still be felt, even now. When I think of all the conflict in the world I always think of how long it’s going to take the people involved to deal with the shock of it and the damage- not just the structural or the physical but the psychological trauma. This gets passed on to children born after the war (my mum was born in 1950 for example) and even their children’s children. I tell my boys about my Nan and Uncles in the war now although I think the horror of it has been watered down through the generations somehow and it’s more of a story, less personal narrative now. My eldest was born 60 years after the end of the 2nd WW for example. Writing war fiction, especially children’s war fiction is a way that we as adults deal with the psychological damage of war (damage sustained by precious generations even) as well as having the purpose of educating the next generation in the hope that they will never find themselves in the same situation.

    • Zoe

      Thanyou Jenny for such a generous and thoughtful comment. For me too, the most interesting aspect of Carrie’s War was the feeling that Carrie had caused this terrible thing to happen. And that doesn’t get mentioned in the exhibition, which very much focusses on the war aspect of the book. Your nan sounds amazing. It does make you wonder what was in the minds of the people who thought Portsmouth would be a safe place for evacuees! Ooh Fireweed – I read it a VERY long time ago. Thanks for reminding me – I shall look it out again. It would be interesting to hear what books you’ve chosen for your son’s primary school.

  3. se7en

    Oh AMAZING!!! We were in London a couple of years back and every kid got to choose an outing. My son chose the Imperial War Museum and I remember thing – how in the world will we manage that one “tactfully.” Well it was simply the most wonderful outing with heaps to see and do and touch, they had an exhibition on children of World War 11 and it was simply wonderful to walk through the kitchen and play with the toys that my father had talked about for his childhood. Really a wonderful step back in time!!! We would love to go to this exhibition, but will have to settle on reading the books instead!!!

    • Zoe

      Hi Se7en, Yes, the museum does well in introducing difficult themes and topics in a sensitive way. I hope that all the photos at least give you a flavour of the exhibition!

  4. kelly

    I want to take my grandma to this exhibition.

    She was an evacuee who was moved around several times as she kept on being relocated to areas that then went on to be bombed.

    To this day she hides in thunder storms – normally in the airing cupboard!

    She has written a short story about her life as an evacuee, which I can send to you via email if you would like a copy. My kids love it, and love that it is about their great nana.

    • Zoe

      Hi Kelly, wouldn’t that be brilliant – taking your grandma and your kids to see this. I can imagine some wonderful conversations. Thanks for the offer of her short story – that would be *great* to read.

  5. Ali B

    Hi Zoe, thank you for bringing this to my attention. I have to be in central London next week, when half term is over and hopefully there won’t be too many school trips… I’ll hopefully have time to visit.

    I’m interested that Carrie’s War was chosen, and not Goodnight Mr Tom. I think that having an Anderson shelter might have been a good idea- my mum’s family had one (she grew up in Liverpool), and she often talks about how frightening it was. She was 6 when war ended. My dad was the same age, evacuated from North West London to Wales. It permanently affected his relationship with his parents, being separated at such a young age.

    • Zoe

      Hi Ali, if you make it to the exhibition do let me know what you think. I’d love to hear your opinion of it. Yes, I don’t know why Goodnight Mr Tom wasn’t chosen, but I do know that Michelle Magorian is taking part in the children’s literature festival being organised as part of this exhibition – on 14 August Michelle will be taking part in a discussion about Goodnight Mister Tom, looking at how the story’s been bought to life in various different versions, on stage, screen and radio. Tickets cost £6 and are bookable via the IWM website I believe.

  6. Corinne Robson

    I’ve read quite a lot about this exhibit but seeing your photos really brings it to life for those of us on the other side of the pond who will never see it in person! Thanks so much for posting. I’ll have to blog about this and link it here so that others can get a real feel for the exhibit by seeing your pics and reading your amazing review.

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