September 10, 2003: Features
By Anne Margaret Daniel *99
This July 1939 issue of Die Scholle, a German magazine for teachers, focused on preparing children for Allied attacks. This photograph of two girls with gas masks is on a poster for the Under Fire conference, and on display in the Brave New World exhibition in Firestone Library. (Cotsen Childrens library, department of rare books and special collections)
The children know. They have always known. But we choose to think otherwise: It hurts to know the children know. Thus we conspire to keep them from knowing and seeing. And if we insist, then the children, to please us, will make believe they do not know, they do not see. It is a sad comedy: the children knowing and pretending they dont know to protect us from knowing they know.
Maurice Sendaks preface to I Dream of Peace: Images of War by Children of Former Yugoslavia (HarperCollins, 1994) The children know violence.
They know it firsthand, as child soldiers in Africa, as victims of war and of urban and schoolhouse fury. They know it in television news reports and cop shows, and in video games. And they know it in literature, from the fairy tales of the brothers Grimm to J.R.R. Tolkiens trilogy, to juvenile stories that explore the experience of children during global wars.
Despite efforts by parents to shield their children from tragedy, matters of life and death have always been at the heart of enduring works for children, says Elizabeth Goodenough, a University of Michigan scholar of childrens literature. The Cotsen Childrens Library is set to explore the topic October 911 in an international conference on violence in the lives and literature of children. The conference, Under Fire: Childhood in the Shadow of War, will examine the different messages children receive about war and violence, and explore how literature about war and trauma actually can ease the way to adulthood by sparking resilience and resolve.
What is today the Cotsen Childrens Library was born in the 1960s, when Lloyd Cotsen 50 and his wife began buying books to read to their children. Almost a decade ago, Cotsen gave much of his collection to Princeton, where it is housed in Firestone Library. Princetonians may know the Cotsen library best for its public education programs at alumni events and throughout the year: storytelling sessions, puppetry workshops, and even walks with naturalists. But the librarys primary mission is to make Princeton an international research center for the study of childrens books through history.
Researchers in childrens literature and childhood have found themselves over the moon or, perhaps, over the rainbow in the bounty of the noncirculating collection of more than 50,000 rare childrens books, manuscripts, artwork, and toys. Included in Cotsens collection are items used to teach children how to make war, which helped inspire the Under Fire conference: for example, war strategy games from Nazi Germany, French Art Deco prints showing children how to support the war effort behind the lines, and Japanese magazines glorifying military technology. (Examples of these publications are on display in an exhibition, Brave New World, which runs in Firestones main gallery through October 26.)
The Under Fire conference was conceived by Goodenough and Mitzi Myers of U.C.L.A., a leading scholar of childrens literature who died in 2001; it was organized by Goodenough and Andrea Immel, Cotsens curator. Inspiration came from many sources: documentary films, recently published memoirs of the hidden children of the Holocaust, adolescents diaries from war zones, oral histories provided by teenage victims of urban and domestic violence, and recent fiction for young adults. All of these challenge the sometimes glamorous stereotypes of war stories.
Over the centuries and in all locales, conflict is present in the lives of children, and in their literature. During the Civil War, for example, children contributed directly to the war effort a phenomenon that was reflected in the books and articles they read, and in the games they played. Marquette University historian and conference presenter James Marten, author of The Childrens Civil War (1998), tells how even young children picked lint to be used to bandage wounds, worked in ammunition factories, raised money, collected food and supplies, and helped support their families while their fathers and older brothers were fighting the fight.
In a way, stories about and during wartime provide children with fantasy fulfilled: With adults engaged in other activities, children gain both great freedom and heavy responsibility. Wartime childrens stories deal with questions of nationalism, betrayal, questions of integrity and interpersonal relationships, argues Emer OSullivan, who studies the image of Germans and Germany in post-World War II British childrens fiction and will speak at the conference. What happens when the amorphous, terrifying enemy turns out to be just an ordinary person? Children in these stories confront this situation and they deal with it on their own, away from their parents.
OSullivan, an Irishwoman who teaches at the Johann Wolfgang von Goethe-University in Frankfurt, Germany, notes that in childrens literature published after World War II in England, Germans were portrayed as villains through the 1970s. By then, however, a generation of British authors who had experienced wartime fears of Germany and the reality of the Blitz had grown up to write childrens books that were giving way to more ambiguous, at times even positive, portrayals of individual Germans.
OSullivan offers as an example Robert Westalls The Machine Gunner, which won the Carnegie Prize, Englands top award for childrens books, in 1975. The faceless hordes of Germans, she says, are allowed to remain evil and threatening. But a German pilot, shot down and concealed near a small English village, is portrayed as a good person. The village boys, who find him and begin to care for him, realize this, and try to protect him when adults near his hiding place. The pilot is shot accidentally by the boys, who must then cope with this tragedy.
Two stories, The File on Fraulein Berg (1980) by Joan Lingard, and Spying on Miss Muller (1995) by Eve Bunting, also give more nuanced pictures of World War II, OSullivan says. In both, Northern Irish schoolgirls persecute and torment their German teachers, only to discover, years later, how cruel and wrong they had been. These stories caution that just because someones German, theyre not on the wrong side, OSullivan notes. The whole thing you can translate fairly easily into Catholic and Protestant, she says.
Childrens ability to handle trauma and be rewarded with happy endings is another recurring theme. Even the most frightening stories have satisfying finishes. The evil witch is burned to ashes in the oven in her gingerbread house. A young boy outwits the ogre at the top of the beanstalk. Cinderellas foot fits into the slipper. Max tames the Wild Things and has a hot supper after all.
That the classics of childrens literature are perceived to provide comfort in hard times is clear in the 1942 Oscar-winning film Mrs. Miniver, writes Maria Tatar *71, John L. Loeb Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures at Harvard, who is renowned for her work on childrens literature. In the movie, the indomitable title character lulls her children to sleep by reading Alice in Wonderland. Then, as Tatar notes, Mrs. Miniver repeats to her husband the last lines about how Alice would keep through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of a child; and how she would gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale. Fantasy consoles adults as much as it does children perhaps more.
In a paper to be presented at the conference, Tatar discusses the book Number the Stars (1989), by Lois Lowry. The storys 10-year-old resistance fighter recites to herself the tale of Little Red Riding Hood while she carries in a basket a package that could ensure the safe passage of Jewish refugees. Tatar believes such books are healthy because they empower children a kid can intervene and become a hero in the adult world, she says.
Tatar reminds us that childrens books, even picture books, have two audiences: youngsters and adults. In 1988, Maurice Sendak illustrated Dear Mili, a fairy tale by Wilhelm Grimm. Mili is a little girl who leaves her village and wanders in the woods, returning to lie down next to her mother so they may die together. Embedded in Sendaks book, Tatar notes, are all sorts of Holocaust imagery the towers of Auschwitz, skeletons in the roots of the trees, and Anne Frank. Childrens literature of this sort operates at a level accessible only to adults, Tatar says. In true childrens books, the child survives, and triumphs. Books that break this rule, such as Le Petit Prince and Dear Mili, are actually intended for an older audience.
In these fictional explorations of war and violence, the battles may not be like the real ones in the headlines. But, Tatar writes, they create a space for identifying and managing fears, for engaging in dialogue about what matters to us, and for imagining the utopian possibilities we abandoned on the way to becoming adults.
Anne Margaret Daniel *99 is a lecturer in Princetons English department and teaches Irish literature at New School University in New York. She is completing a book called Redheads.
For information about the Under Fire conference, call 609-258-1148 or visit www.princeton.edu/~cotsen/research/conferences.html.