This exhibition, prepared by third-year students in Advanced English Research methods, commemorates the centenary of World War I (1914-1918) by curating books associated with the topic of war held in Ryerson University’s Children’s Literature Archive. Our exhibition showcases books from this collection that are about war as well as books produced and received during wartime. A large category in this exhibition includes books connected contextually and experientially rather than topically with the theme of war: that is, publishers, editors, authors, and illustrators published them, parents purchased them, and children read them during times of extraordinary conflict and trauma. The books curated here connect with wars stretching over a hundred years and across many continents: from the American Civil War in the 1860s to the Vietnam War in east Asia.
Most of the books in this exhibition are associated with World War I (1914-1918) and World War II (1939-45), both European conflicts whose devastating consequences stretched around the world to affect people on many home fronts, including children of many ethnicities. All the books were read by children in Canada; some were published in Canada; many were published in the United States and Britain. The most recent book curated in this exhibition is the locally produced picture book by Groundwood Books in Toronto: Nicholas Debon’s critical take on the devastation caused by WWI in his self-illustrated A Brave Soldier (2002), which is one of the only works to include a black soldier. The oldest book curated in this exhibition is the illustrated retelling of a centuries-old poem, Una and the Red Cross Knight and Other Tales from Spenser’s Faery Queen, published in England in 1905 and reprinted during the war years for its nationalist values. Canadian Wonder Tales is unique in that it features aboriginal stories, was compiled from the trenches of World War I by a McGill English professor, and was reprinted in 1974 with native-inspired illustrations by Elizabeth Cleaver. Also important to note is that L. M. Montogomery’s last work in her Anne series, Rilla of Ingleside (1921), is the first Canadian novel to deal directly with the experience on the home front during World War I.
The books in this exhibition do not only range widely in terms of time, place, and setting; they also vary greatly in genre and intended audience. There are picture books for pre-literate children, illustrated poetry and animal stories for older children, dramatic drills for school children, adventure magazines for boys, domestic fiction as well as adventure fiction for girls, and non-fiction and collections of illustrated fairy tales for all ages. Despite this wide variety, children’s books associated with war have some common themes. Firstly, literature gives both readers and writers a chance to escape the hardships of war while simultaneously giving them an opportunity for expressing themselves creatively—an important outlet when faced with the destruction of familiar places and the loss of loved ones. Secondly, literature produced and read during wartime—including seemingly innocuous fairy tales— is often nationalistic, didactic, and propagandistic. Thirdly, children’s literature is always embedded in the ideology of its time and place, and these values, beliefs, and biases are evident in war books in their shaping of gender roles, their sometimes racist attitudes, and their assumptions about class. Finally, these books often demonstrate the changing meanings of what being a “hero” involves for men, women, and children, the importance of cultural preservation and traditions, and an apparent nostalgia for a simpler, more innocent time before the war.
You can browse the title/author list below, or use the search bar (Q) to type in a key word. We hope you enjoy our exhibition on Children’s Books and War!
Members of the ENG810 W2014 class and Professor Lorraine Janzen Kooistra
Children At the Homefront in Edith Lelean Groves’ Saluting the Canadian Flag and The Soldiers of the Soil and the Farmerettes
Jamie Lee Morin