How to explore war with children? Part 2

Continuing where I left off yesterday with my description and review of London’s Imperial War Museum‘s new exhibition, Once Upon a Wartime, the fourth section of the exhibition is dedicated to Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword, the story, based on true events, of a small band of Polish children who travel from Warsaw to Switzerland in search of their family, having been separated from them earlier in the Second World War.

Click to view larger image

Above is a section of the cabinet including some of Serraillier’s original notes and then for comparison, an excerpt from the final manuscript for The Silver Sword.

The Silver Sword

This is the silver sword – actually an envelope opener sent to Serraillier by his brother, but which provided such inspiration for the novel.

Illustrated route taken by children in The Silver Sword

A beautiful space in the exhibition is an illustrated map of the route taken by the children on their way to Poland. I felt this helped give a sense of scale to their journey and made me think about what astonishing things people can achieve, and about what conditions bring out hidden strengths and perseverance in us.

The map included several video screens with questions posed to us the visitors, asking about the choices we might have made at various junctures along the way. Whilst the idea for this was great, it didn’t quite come off, in my opinion. The questions posed were too simple and the answers lacked contextualization. Perhaps the questions and answers were written to engage younger children, but they could have included a little more information so that adults could also enjoy this section.

The fifth and final book presented in the exhibition is Little Soldier by Bernard Ashley. This book was new to me and tells the story of a boy soldier from east Africa who is “rescued” (my quotes, not Ashley’s) and taken to the UK. He finds it hard to settle and continues to find conflict everywhere in his life, now with gangs on the streets of London.

Storyboard for Little Soldier

Whilst I thought it was an excellent choice to include this book, a book not about either of the world wars, a book set in contemporary rather than historical Britain, a book about what real fighting and face to face conflict can mean to a child, I didn’t think this area of the exhibition worked particularly well.

Photo: Imperial War Museum

Perhaps because the book was least well known to me I wanted much more information – about child soldiers, about conflict in Africa, about the book. Instead most of this space was given over to a visual landscape of tower blocks superimposed on images of an African landscape and the video about child soldiers was too short and didn’t pose enough engaging questions.

Photo: Imperial War Museum

I lingered longest in the very final space of the exhibition – a library of war and conflict themed children’s books available to pick up and read. Including this space was inspired thinking. It gave further context to everything I’d seen in the exhibition and opened it out to further conflicts, themes and ideas. I left feeling inspired to read many more books, and thinking that this exhibition was just the beginning, rather than a closed little unit I could shut the door on and forget over my cup of tea and piece of cake in the museum cafe.

That said, I wish this book space had been much larger. Although there was a seating area, it wasn’t large, and I can well imagine lots of families wanting to sit and linger in this space. I was lucky, I could just sit on the floor with a pile of books beside me, but this won’t be possible when the exhibition is full of people.

The inspiration for the Morpurgo/Foreman book commissioned to celebrate the exhibition

The very final item in the exhibition was this pull along dog made by a Second World War German prisoner of war in England. Made of apple crates it is the inspiration behind a new novel by Michael Morpurgo, commissioned by the Imperial War Museum and illustrated by Michael Foreman; Little Manfred will be published in June.

According to the forthcoming book’s blurb, “Alex and his sister Charley know that their mother is very fond of the little wooden pull-along dog with the wooden wheels as it sits in pride of place on the window sill, but they don’t know why it means so much to her. But then the day comes when they meet two old men on the beach near their farm and a magical and inspiring story unfolds of shared comradeship and friendship against all odds and the destruction of war”.

I’ll certainly be looking out for this book when it hits the shelves later this year.

Hopefully this extended description has given you some flavour of the exhibition. I was very pleased to have been able to visit it, and would encourage anyone who can get to London before November to visit it (the exhibition moves to Manchester next year). That said, I’ve a few more aspects of the exhibition I’d like to comment on.

The exhibition space was dark, narrow and tunnel like. I wondered if this had been a deliberate choice – to replicate trenches, or to create an oppressive atmosphere, appropriate for the books being explored. Perhaps, but I did wonder how well this space would work on a busy day when the exhibition is packed full of noisy school children, or families with pushchairs – I suspect it won’t be so easy to linger over the displays and take the opportunity to reflect personally on conflict and the themes of loyalty, separation, excitement, survival and identity that this exhibition sets out to explore.

I wish the exhibition could have included many more hands-on artefacts. For example a replica lifesize horse for training the soldiers (rather than only one behind a glass cabinet) could have been included for children, indeed everyone, to have an actual go at harnessing. Yes, you might not want children handling guns and grenades, but more objects, even if replicas rather than original items, to physically handle would have bought further aspects of the stories to life.

Although it may be the case that not that many young children will visit the exhibition (given the nature of the museum as a whole), one of the reasons I would have liked to see more hands-on items is that these work exceptionally well (in my experience) in engaging (not only) the youngest of museum visitors. I’m sure entire families will take the exhibition as an opportunity for a day out, and the predominance of glass fronted cabinets in this exhibition may work well for older visitors but won’t engage little brothers and sisters being taken around. That said, I was pleased to see that the designers had been height and language aware. Many display cabinets were easy for children to look into without being picked up, and there were boxes to stand on if one did need a bit of help to look at an object.

For me, there was one particular object missing from the exhibition. One of the items in the Kids in Museums Manifesto is “Make the most of your Wow! factor. Everyone finds real objects awesome. Exploit what makes your museum unique.” Before I visited the museum the single item I had been expecting and hoping to see in the exhibition was a German plane, as in The Machine Gunners. As the museum if full of real planes I had perhaps assumed they would include one in their exhibition, but there wasn’t one and I was left feeling that they’d missed out on an opportunity for creating a real focus for the exhibition, a single item with a big WOW factor.

On an almost final note, although it would be perfectly possible to visit this exhibition not having read any of the books (each section includes a storyboard summarizing the book being explored) do take the opportunity to (re)read the books before you go. It will be a much more rewarding experience if you do so.

For more view and reviews of this exhibition you might take a look at:

  • A review from the London Review of Books
  • A review from The Telegraph
  • An audio item about the exhibition from the BBC World Service
  • Michael Morpurgo and Julia Eccleshare discussing why wartime novels are such an important genre for children on the BBC’s Woman’s Hour
  • Commentary from History Today’s blog

  • And if you’re looking for an excuse to book a trip to London you might want to time it to coincide with the Children’s Literature Festival hosted by the Imperial War Museum 13-21 August 2011. Authors and illustrators who will be taking part include Michael Morpurgo, Marcia Williams, Michelle Magorian, Jane Serraillier, Karin Littlewood, Bernard Ashley and Maurice Gleitzman.

    And now, really finally, if your kids read the books and are inspired to write a review of any of them, they could get their reviews published and win a family ticket to the exhibition. Full details here.

    10 Responses

    1. Anamaria

      Zoe, thank you so much for your descriptions and insight on this exhibition. I was disappointed that it wasn’t opening until after we left London, and you’ve given me a great sense for what it’s like–and a pile of books to add to my to-read list as well. As always! Thanks again!

      • Zoe

        Hi Anamaria, yes it’s a shame you couldn’t get to the exhibition. I wonder if there is a US museum to which it could tour? Maybe the books are too British for it to be a bit success over there. What US books would you choose if you were designing a similar exhibition for a US audience?

    2. Alex Baugh

      Hi Zoe,
      I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your two part report on this exhibit. Of course, you know I am very interested in this subject. You really provided a genuine sense of the exhibit. I was hoping to get to England this year and, perhaps after the Royal Wedding, I will be able to. I am dying to see Once Upon a Wartime.
      Thank you so much, again for such a great indepth report.

      • Zoe

        I was definitely thinking of you Alex whilst I was at the exhibition- it would have been so good to talk to you as we went round as you would have been able to provide an excellent commentary I’m sure. I hope you do manage to make it to the exhibition sometime this year. If you don’t make it to London this year, it’s in Manchester next year.

    3. Sara Lewis Holmes

      Wow. Thank you for this—your detailed posts were fascinating. My husband and son went to the Imperial War Museum when my son was four years old, and I doubt he remembers a bit of it, but he’s now a Peace, War and Defense major in college, and wants to do an exchange semester in London. I would love to find a way to get over there to see this exhibit, and I wish there was one like it in the States.

      P.S. Author Rosanne Parry sent me here, because she and I and author Suzanne Morgan Williams have given panel talks on Military Families in Fiction, so this topic is dear to all three of us.

      • Zoe

        Hi Sara,
        Thanks for your kind words. Yes, I’d love to see how this exhibition could translate around the world – what different books would be chosen in different countries to explore the same themes. Your talk in Military Families in Fiction – do they focus on adult fiction of children’s fiction?

    4. Sara Lewis Holmes

      Zoe, we focused on children’s fiction, with an emphasis on providing resources to teachers and others who have military kids in their classrooms and communities.

      Together, we compiled a resource list (U.S. based) which you can see here:

      The discussion after the panel was wide-ranging, though, covering how to handle the topic of war when kids’ parents might not want you to, and how literature in particular can be a healing force for veterans and their families.

      • Zoe

        Thanks ever so much for sharing Sara – I’ll be linking to your page next week when I post the list of books which formed the library at Once Upon a Wartime.

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