- Children’s Literature and Culture of the First World War ed. by Lissa Paul, Rosemary Ross Johnston, Emma Short
Aptly, this impressive collection begins with a foreword by Michael Morpurgo, who notes that while the names of the soldiers are passing from memory, we should never forget the point of their sacrifice: “to create a world where their kind of suffering and dying is no longer necessary” (xiv). As the introduction reminds us, children are no longer noncombatants, but suicide bombers, soldiers. War is their milieu.
For the West in 1914, this was not so. For a long time, children were “situated on the fringes of war culture.” In this book, “they are at the center” (6). The scholars gathered here are for the most part liminalizing the narrative, augmenting, complicating, even challenging our prevailing intellectual history: as Margaret Higonnet declares, all “narratives matter.”
The nineteen essays divide into four sections, “Writing War,” “Propaganda and Experience,” “Education and Play,” and “Activism.” They originated as papers in an extended minuet: three conferences in three countries on three continents over three years, in Sydney (2011), Ontario (2012), and England (2013). The book draws to a close with an afterword by Peter Hunt, one of the conference shapers. At a hefty 347 + xviii pages, it’s a substantial thing. (There’s even writing on the back cover.) Readers get a lot of bang for the buck. [End Page 334]
Children’s Literature and Culture of the First World War properly begins with a magisterial example of literary criticism by Paul Stevens, who argues that Winston Churchill had an appetite for war that originated in his childhood reading of H. Rider Haggard, in whose novels a key association is forged between heroism and technology. Stevens emphasizes the hold upon Churchill of what Leo Marx called “the technological sublime,” the perception of power, even miracle, in the operations of the machine. Hopkins had his Windhover, Job his War Horse; Churchill had munitions.
Two fine, engaging essays on Italian children’s literature by Lindsay Myers and Francesca Orestano follow, noting that such books were meant to inculcate patriotic feelings in child readers while depicting warfare as a necessary evil. Under the pressure of war, Italian children’s literature shifted from fantasy to realism, a balance that other writers reprise. Noting the near absence of the child in the documentation of war experience, Andrea McKenzie plumbs the pages of St. Nicholas magazine for clues to how girls aged ten through seventeen “perceived, imagined, and wrote the First World War” (61). Expounding on the formidable cultural schemata that reinforced gender roles, she nimbly argues that they persisted in asserting their individuality, struggling against the magazine’s generalizing tendencies. Delineated by a similar struggle are the young black readers in Katharine Capshaw’s adroit discussion of Our Boys and Girls, a journal that she has niftily rescued from oblivion. Here, she argues, is a “deeply ideological and critical voice . . . articulated clearly and directly to young [black] people” without deference to “inter-racial commonalities” following the war (87, 89).
No less of a probing analysis of a children’s magazine is Agnieszka Stasiewicz-Bieńowska’s discussion of Ungdomsvännen: Illustrerad Tidskrift för Hemmet (The Youth’s Friend: Illustrated Magazine for Home), which concerns “the experiences of the First World War as conveyed in ethnic writings of Swedish immigrant youth in the United States” (93). Stasiewicz-Bieńowska also mulls over identity construction, and her essay is an illuminating work of cultural criticism on an under-studied topic. Whereas McKenzie finds that the war influenced girls to critique dominating national narratives, according to Stasiewicz-Bieńowska it ushered Swedish-American youth toward greater “un-hyphenated American identity” (102).
The focus on the reading and writing lives of young girls is reinforced and complicated by Andrew Donson’s essay on young German girls, who apparently had no problem imagining brutal military engagements or relishing the proposition that victory was predicated on military superiority (Siegfriede). Donson describes a (postliminal) turn toward greater...