- "I'll Write What Needs to Be Remembered":The Use of Verse in Children's and Young Adult Historical Fiction about the Vietnam War
From protest songs to the war poems of veterans, poetry has played a powerful role in constructing the American narrative of the Vietnam War. John Clark Pratt notes that "poetry that documents the attitudes toward the Vietnam War—as well as the origins, development, and conduct of the war—is both pervasive and significant." Works written during and after the Vietnam War allow for "a historical, intellectual, and emotional chronology of men and women at war that is indeed unique" (Wittmann 669), and, in cases where veterans author these texts, poetry often documents the war in a "journalistic but also more than journalistic" way that combines factual details with emotional realities (Gotera 5). Seven recent children's and young adult novels about the Vietnam War have turned to poetry to tell compelling narratives about this divisive historical moment.1 The most well-known of these is indubitably Thanhha Lai's award-winning Inside Out & Back Again, which recounts the journey of Vietnamese refugee Hà and her family as they travel to America. Ann E. Burg's All the Broken Pieces similarly follows a Vietnamese protagonist, a boy named Matt who has been adopted by an American family. Other novels such as Michael J. Rosen's Running with Trains, Jen Bryant's Kaleidoscope Eyes, and Maria Testa's Almost Forever tell the stories of children living in the United States, some of whom have family serving overseas. Chris Crowe's Death Coming Up the Hill, the most recent of the books, is written from the perspective of a teen who decides to enlist in the military, and Sherry Shahan's Purple Daze is focalized through multiple narrators, including teens protesting the war, supporting the war from home, and engaging in combat. [End Page 162]
Karin Westman argues that in children's books about war "the ideological work of 'children's literature' carries greater weight and has a wider reach" (216), and, indeed, children's war novels tend to feature explicit ideological stances. In her book, Child Sized History: Fictions of the Past in U.S. Classrooms, Sara Schwebel divides children's historical fiction depicting war into three generations. Whereas first-generation books view war as universally strengthening and second-generation works cast war as entirely tragic, third-generation books, published after 9/11, mix the two previous categories. These third-generation books reintroduce questions of justice while portraying the reality of war (83). Schwebel notes that authors' aesthetic choices in representing war contribute to their larger goals. For example, postmodern storytelling techniques such as experimental forms and the inclusion of actual and fictionalized historical documents combat the idea that war stories can be conveyed effectively in simplistic, linear narratives.
From the perspective of rhetorical narrative theory, which views narrative as a purposeful communicative act, authors' make specific rhetorical choices to facilitate particular responses in implied readers2 (Phelan). The use of the form of the verse novel in literature for children and young adults can be understood as a narrative tool drawn upon because of its affordances for telling certain kinds of stories. Wendy Glenn argues that "an author's choice of form in the creation of a novel may reveal as much or more than the content itself" (27). By conceptualizing the use of verse as a particular narrative choice, I examine how verse functions in concert with other narrative elements in order to engage the implied child or adolescent reader in thoughtful interrogation of the Vietnam War, an understanding that becomes particularly important given contemporary world events.3
In the late twentieth century, educational studies drew attention to the lack of substantive time spent on the Vietnam War in primary and secondary social studies classrooms (Dunn; Schlene). More recent scholarly work suggests that little has changed: "The Vietnam War had profound consequences for U.S. foreign policy, domestic politics, and America's social history, yet students in the United States generally know very little about the war" (Kirkwood, Fuss, and Benton 362). This lack of knowledge belies the Vietnam War's...