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Literature in Conflict: Children's Literature in World War Two

by Keene Short

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor prompted the United States to join the Second World War, a conflict already thoroughly encompassing the Pacific, Europe, and North Africa. The sudden political shift sparked the emergence of literature related to the war, and an outpouring of literature addressing the complex issues involved in the war. The war effort absorbed writers from all backgrounds, including children’s writers.

For example, Theodore Seuss Geisel, otherwise known as Dr. Seuss, produced hundreds of war-related editorial cartoons for a New York-based newspaper called PM from 1941 to 1943, during the bulk of American involvement in the war. Although normally a children's cartoonist, these political cartoons were directed at adult audiences. often with patriotic messages urging readers to invest in war bonds. Dr. Seuss, then, put his career on hold to support the war effort from the home front.

During the war, many writers fled Europe for safety abroad. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was one such author, who was exiled to the United States after the Nazi invasion of France. While in exile, he wrote his novella The Little Prince and published it in both English and French in 1943, around the time he left for Algeria to fight with the Free French. The novella tells the story of a pilot who meets a prince of an asteroid stranded on Earth, and follows his exploration of Earth and human affairs. The novella is set in a subtle war-time space: the Sahara Desert where a pilot has crashed, reflecting the North African campaigns in the war.

War served as a backdrop for other war-time children’s literature more overtly. In 1943, the historical children’s novel Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes was published. The novel is set during the American Revolution and features both historical and fictional characters, exploring the impact on young men of going to war. Published two years into American involvement in the war and one year before the historic D-Day Invasion, Forbes uses a distinctly patriotic plot to explore many of the issues young men in the United States faced when preparing for combat abroad. A year later, Johnny Tremain won the Newbury Medal for Children’s Literature.

The war had a profound impact on literature in all genres. As many American writers joined the war effort on the home front, as Dr. Seuss did, literature quickly became a convenient propaganda tool. This was especially true in the emerging genre of comic books, a genre still somewhat loosely defined by 1941. Comic book writers and animators produced a plethora of characters and narratives dealing with American involvement both before and after the US entered the conflict. Some explored the war explicitly, such as a pre-Pearl Harbor narrative entitled Daredevil Battles Hitler from July, 1941, and numerous other arcs featuring Captain America, Superman, and other popular characters at the time directly confronting Nazis and Japanese soldiers. Other comic book authors utilized the genre to advertise war-related investments, featuring characters on covers urging readers to invest in war bonds, similar to Dr. Seuss's political cartoons.

War-time literature served a multitude of purposes, part of a phenomenon called total war in which war affects all levels of society in visible and active ways. Today, total war has diminished significantly, but literature can still be a venue for exploring military conflicts, and can do so in more complex ways. Markus Zusak's 2005 YA novel The Book Thief, for example, explores civilian participation in war efforts, set against the backdrop of Nazi Germany. Other recent literature delves into contemporary military conflicts directly: The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq and Narseen's Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan, both authored and illustrated by Jeanette Winter, explore life in Iraq and Afghanistan, offering children a unique perspective on life in and around war-torn places. New children's literature can articulate more complex and nuanced portrayals of regions the United States is engaged in militarily, which can be vital in preventing simplistic understandings of these conflicts. The above texts by Winter and Zusak help humanize civilians caught in the middle of military conflicts, and can help foster compassionate approaches to a myriad of issues related to war.