Tuesday, 10 July 2012

World War II and Children's Literature

It’s a fair bet that any Key Stage 3 (11-14 year old) students who are studying World War II will have come across either John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas or Morris Gleitzman’s trilogy: Once, Then and Now. One of the most striking features of these books is the narrative technique. Though Boyne uses a third-person narrator in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, the focaliser (for all but the last section) is Bruno, the 9-year-old son of the Auschwitz commandant. Gleitzman’s novels are narrated by Felix who, at ten years old, is even more clueless than Bruno, at least at first. As Leo Benedictus has pointed out in an excellent article about hindered narrators, “this kind of novel, told in the first person by a character with a limited ability to understand the world or write about it, is the genre that defines our times”.

So what's going on here? Using a hindered narrator often helps an author create a sense of complicity between the writer and the reader. We are encouraged to read between the lines, to bring our contextual knowledge to bear on the book, to judge the narrator. However, with children it's not so straightforward. They may or may not have contextual knowledge. They may not be able to stand back so easily (depending on their age, quite apart from anything else).

It would, in other words, be easy to see The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and Once, Then and Now as fundamentally different from earlier children's fiction, from, say, The Silver Sword or Hilda van Stockum's The Winged Watchman. The authors are more knowing and the readers are expected to be so as well. But it may not be quite as simple as this.

Like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, The Winged Watchman, a novel about the Dutch Resistance, is written in the third person but gives us a child’s perspective. It differs not in kind but in degree. The setting, and many of the characters, are openly Catholic but, more significant, is the subject matter. Rather than dealing directly with the holocaust, van Stockum focusses on resistance to the Nazis and so has to have write differently.

What has changed since her time is that children's literature has increasingly addressed the toughest of subjects head on, including the holocaust. It is therefore no surprise that children's authors like Boyne and Gleitzman use hindered narrators. How else could they possibly present such horrifying events to their young readers?

However, we shouldn't be fooled into thinking that the horrors of war have never been addressed in children's fiction before. It's just that in books like The Silver Sword and The Winged Watchman, both of which also focus on the experience of children in the war, the holocaust is held at arm's length.

Does this make them less valid? More escapist? I don't think so. Hilda van Stockum's response to the horrors of the war is no less historically informed and certainly no less valid in its own way than Boyne’s or Gleitzman’s. Boyne and Gleitzman gained something from having the benefits of historical distance but van Stockum gained something from living when she did and from having relatives who experienced life in the Netherlands during the war.

I haven't got space to deal fully with Boyne’s and Gleitzman’s books but I'll try to return to them another time. Gleitzman’s books, in particular, deal explicitly with Catholicism in interesting but challenging ways and so deserve further consideration.

Boyne's and Gleitzman's novels are certainly worth reading with care but we shouldn't neglect earlier fiction about the war, so if you want to read some more of van Stockum's wonderful children’s fiction you could click here.

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