Children’s literature of War and Peace in the Twentieth Century

This is a longer post than usual, in celebration of a significant project on children’s literature, undertaken by School of Education staff a couple of decades ago.  Sadly, the issues raised still have relevance today.

The Curriculum Centre has a collection of books called Children’s literature of War and Peace in the twentieth century. This collection encompasses and builds on a selection of texts used in an EEC Comenius project of the late 1990s.  For many years, we shelved these resources in a physically separate shelf space.  We have now dispersed the physical collection, but it remains available and searchable as a group on our catalogue:  War and Peace group.

The Comenius project was to record, disseminate, anthologise and teach about the children’s literature of war and peace in three countries: Belgium, Portugal and the UK.  The UK partner was Dr Carol Fox of the University of Brighton.  Project members collated an anthology of extracts from all sorts of children’s literature (picture books, graphic novels, fiction, poetry), plus a limited selection of passages from books which appeal to readers of all ages, for use in schools across a wide age range (KS2 to GCSE in the UK).  Works were translated into English, Belgian and Portuguese.  Great value was attached to introducing children to literature in translation, in order “to make teachers and young readers aware not only of what is being written and read in other countries, but also of what there is to gain from seeing a war through other eyes in different contexts” (Fox, 2000, p10).

Further information can be found in an article by Carol in Reading, UKRA, v.33 (3), November 1999 (Reading is the precursor title of the UKLA journal, Literacy).

In the Centre, we collected many of these books, and added to them, as the literature for children about the many conflicts of the twentieth century continued to grow.

One of the resources added to the collection was a special edition of a French periodical, Textes et documents pour la classe, number 764, published in 1998, so around the same time as the Commenius project was underway, entitled L’enfant et la guerre.  It is interesting to add a French perspective to the mix.  Many of the same issues and themes crop up.

Carol identified the drivers behind the project at that particular time as a millennial imperative, and an urgent need to record the past before the generations that lived it had gone.  Similar concerns pertain today with the recent centenary of WW1, and with the amazing Holocaust survivors who still testify to younger generations becoming quite elderly.

Conflicts around the globe are represented in the children’s literature of war.  There is, however, a marked preponderance set in the two world wars, and particularly the second, in Belgian and UK literature.  (For historical reasons, this is less so in Portugal.)  Project contributors noted this at the turn of the millennium.  The 1998 French book guide: L’enfant et la guerre also observed that most titles in publication at that time – both those written in French and those in translation to French – concerned the 1939-45 war. We see this emphasis continuing into the twenty first century and on to this day.  This despite the fact that further conflict with wide-reaching impact on international relations has reshaped the world.  The ensuing dislocation has prompted a substantial number of thoughtful publications on refugees and their experiences, in transit or on arrival, but little on the wars that sparked the displacement.   Perhaps an explanation for this lies, at least in part, in the relative clarity of the moral argument concerning WW2.

Conflicts represented in the UK anthology:

  • Partition of India
  • Vietnam
  • Laos/Cambodia
  • Israel/Palestine
  • Chile
  • Mozambique and Angola
  • Portugal
  • Kurdistan/Iraq
  • Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia
  • Northern Ireland
  • The Falklands
  • Gulf war
  • Timor
  • Bosnia/Yugoslavia
  • WW1 & WW2 dominate – but in many and various settings
  • Cold war

Claude Hubert-Ganiayre, writing in L’enfant et la guerre (1998, p19), identifies deeply-felt personal motivation for the authors of children’s war literature, including:

  1. The writer’s childhood experience of war
  2. Family background of suffering in war, which fed into the author’s own childhood
  3. The authors live in or were brought up in a place redolent of war
  4. The writer’s need to make sense of, unpick, or discuss the outpouring of images and news in various media
  5. The need to save history from winners and losers – it’s about human lives that need to have their story told

There are echoes of these in Morris Gleitzman’s letter to the reader at the back of his great book, Once, which is reviewed below: “This story is my imagination trying to grasp the unimaginable.”

Among the issues raised in the literature are, unsurprisingly, national identities, antisemitism and other forms of racism, and class relationships.  Perspectives on their colonial pasts vary country by country.  Carol notes that, for the UK, ‘Though there is a rich English children’s literature about colonialism, the colonial contribution to WW2 is a gap in the war books.’ (Fox, 1999, p127).  Carol posits some tentative explanations in her article.

There are issues of child abuse and child neglect, and the use of both as metaphor for the treatment of a whole people.

At genre level, there is an appreciation of how much, and what form of, information is age-appropriate.  Picture books aimed at younger children tend to be allegorical, such as David McKee’s Two monsters or animal fables, such as Michael Foreman’s War and peas.

Themes uncovered include

  • Resistance (The Resistance in France – see L’enfant et la guerre, p11) and individual resistance to oppression.
  • An emphasis on the home front – especially in tales of WW2, including evacuation (which may be painful, but also brings the familiar children’s fiction trope of escape/separation from parents and adult control).
  • Evacuation is just one aspect of the theme of exodus: exile, roaming, Kindertransport, and final journey.
  • Post WW2, in fiction set in Northern Ireland and the Falklands, for example, the literature tends to be critical of politicians on both sides, but not so of the ordinary soldiers caught up in the conflict. There is a focus in these later settings on soldiering, more so than in the WW2 stories.
  • As for the citizens of Northern Ireland, and of Israel/Palestine: commonly, both sides are presented, with explanation and not judgement.
  • The usefulness of children in wartime – ‘Whether… in Kazakhstan or a remote village in the English countryside, children seem to have useful ways of contributing to the struggle.’ (Fox, 1999, p128). Carol finds these children both more grown up and yet more childish than their modern counterparts, perhaps because the teenager phenomenon arose well after the war, whereas contributors to L’enfant et la guerre identify worries about children growing up too quickly.  The harsh realities of occupation perhaps account for this difference.
  • Alongside this are opportunities for dangerous adventures and fun. For children not subjected to Nazi persecution, war could have its up sides – ‘war as grand scale play…’  (Hubert-Ganiayre, 1998, in L’enfant et la guerre, p8).
  • The internment of German and Italian nationals provides many a plot and subplot.
  • Unpicking the charactorisation of the enemy, Carol finds the ‘good German soldier’ ‘who has a family at home and who can relate to the children of an occupied country’ (Fox, 1999, p128).
  • There are contrasts and comparisons in themes of heroism/cowardice and bullying/war-mongering.
  • Finally, of course, there are memorable examples of animals at or in war.


Is war literature appropriate for children?  Children love to play at being scared, and they like to hear readings of scary books.  There is perhaps an evolutionary or psycho-protective drive to practice and to work through scenarios and emotions.  As G.K.Chesterton told us, “Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”

Images of violence and war are omnipresent.  Fiction can help young people make sense of them.  News images, fractured, decontextualized, leave a sense of hopelessness. A good plot, a context, the rhythm of a story unfolding can encourage exploration and questioning.  Stories enable readers to identify with the protagonists, as real human beings with free will and self-determination, not as mere accidents of history.  They transfer to the young reader a sense of their own agency.

Here is an extract from Robert Westall’s 1975 Carnegie Medal acceptance speech, describing writing The Machine Gunners for his young son.  He describes the protagonist as:

A boy often knocked down, but never knocked out.   Who will go away and brood and ponder and come again.   Above all, a boy who leads his readers into moral dilemmas to which there is no easy answer.   Dilemmas they must solve for themselves.   The best moment in the reading of ‘The Machine Gunners’ to Christopher was the moment when he shouted ‘Chas is a fool – I would have done this.   I would have done that in the situation.’   He was morally involved.    …the worthwhile book is not the one full of moral teaching, but the book that leads its readers into one moral dilemma after another.  For them to solve for themselves.

Finally, a couple of staff favourites from our War and Peace collection include one work of fiction and one picture book.

Published in 2005, after the Commenius project, Once is a must-read for every child and every teacher.   It’s a good book to read aloud.  Felix lives in a convent orphanage in the mountains in Poland. But Felix is convinced his parents are still alive. When a group of Nazi soldiers come and burn the nuns’ books, Felix is terrified that his Jewish, bookseller parents will be in danger. Felix embarks on a long and dangerous journey through occupied Poland, befriending a little orphan girl called Zelda on the way.  Felix is young, naïve, misguided, thoughtful, optimistic, resilient and hugely lovable.  He has strategies to keep a hold on what is good and hopeful.  “You know when things are really bad and you feel like curling up and hiding but instead you take deep breaths and the air reaches your brain and helps you think better? (Gleitzman, 2005, p134).   Once is the first in a series of books that can’t be recommended too highly.


Sami and the time of the troubles is set in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war, Lewin’s rich watercolors dramatically depict the contrast between cellar-bound days and snatched outings into the brilliant sunshine. Text and illustration work together to depict worry tempered by family warmth, loss moderated by optimism. There only side taken is the side of the children who want to play outside.  They play at soldiers, but organise for peace. Detailed but straightforward, this beautiful book should appeal to a wide age range.



Fox, c. 1999.  What the children’s literature of war is telling the children, Reading.  Oxford: UKRA/Blackwells

Fox, C. 2000. Foreword to Fox, Leysen & Koenders, 2000, In times of war: an anthology of war and peace in children’s literature, London: Pavilion Books

Gleitzman, M. 2005. Once. London: Puffin

Heide, F.P., Gilliland, J.H. and Lewin, T. 1992.  Sami and the time of the troubles.  New York: Clarion/Houghton-Mufflin.

Hubert-Ganiayre, C. 1998. L’enfant et la guerre dans la littérature de jeunesse: exorciser les peurs, Textes et documents pour la classe, no 764, Centre National de Documentation Pédagogique

Westall, R. 1975. Carnegie medal acceptance speech, Robert Westall website: [accessed 14/2/2019]

3 thoughts on “Children’s literature of War and Peace in the Twentieth Century

  1. As a teacher educator I have used children’s picture books about WW1 as a resource. Are there any recent children’s picture books published in France near the centenary that might serve as a good comparison/contrast?

    1. An interesting question, thank you. There is a series of books by Patricia Crete, illustrated by Bruno Wennagel and Mathieu Ferret: Lucien, Soldat Francais; Franz, Soldat Allemand; Mikhail, Soldat Russe; Matthew, Soldat Anglais. These were published in 2014, by Quelle Histoire Editions. The same team produced an overview of the war in Premiere Guerre Mondiale (2016). Another illustrated book, published more recently (2018), is La Guerre des Trancheesby Erre Fabrice, illustrated by Savoia Sylvain, published by Depuis Jeunesse. All these are tagged as suitable for readers of 6 years and upward. (With apologies for not accentuating correctly – I can’t work out how in the ‘Comments’ section, sorry.)

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