A thoughtful new exhibition at Imperial War Museum North considers what we learn about war from the pages of children’s books. Kate Feld gets the story.
War is something we might associate with adult worries, but it’s a hard reality that countless children have had to come to terms with. But if you’re one of the lucky kids who don’t have to experience it first-hand, how do you learn about conflict? You learn by listening to stories told by friends and family, and from the stories encountered in books, comics and movies that make war real for young people. It’s just these stories that Imperial War Museum North celebrates in Once Upon a Wartime, a compelling new exhibition about war in children’s literature.
Although there are so many wonderful books set during wartime, this exhibition focuses on five carefully-chosen modern classics: War Horse by Michael Morpugo, Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden, Robert Westall’s The Machine Gunners, The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier and Little Soldier by Bernard Ashley. Spanning different wars on different continents, the stories depict fictional kids in true-life situations that really resonate with young readers.
Over six rooms the exhibition weaves film and multimedia, text, objects and environments into a rich experience for families. Yes, it’s a learning experience, but one without any connotations of dullness, at least for school-age kids old enough to read the books featured here. Crawl into the secret fortress from The Machine Gunners (complete with comics pasted on the wall), explore The Silver Sword’s underground school, or walk through a meticulously recreated 1940s Welsh kitchen from Carrie’s War. Gaze in awe at the painting of Topthorn the horse, one of the inspirations for Morpugo’s acclaimed book – later a hit play, and now a Stephen Spielberg movie – about the equine heroes of the Great War. As always, items from the museum’s collections bring stories to life: kids can get a close look at a tail fin from a German bomb, evacuee labels and a training horse from the First World War. Even the grownups might rightfully consider this fascinating stuff.
Geoff Fox is a storyteller and authority on children’s war literature who worked on the exhibition, which was two years in the making. He’s old enough to remember a jet falling on his house in Timperley during the Second World War; for him, the war was real in a way it can never be for the children of today. “The great thing about this exhibition is that it uses story as a way of drawing people into it,” says Fox. “The ideal audience would be a grandparent, parent and child walking through it together. So much triggers conversation, questions and memories.” His argument rings true. War is something best learned about while holding your parent’s hand, or sitting on your grandad’s knee. And no matter how old we get, we’re all still learning about it.
Once Upon a Wartime, 11 February-2 September, Imperial War Museum North. Free. Images: courtesy Imperial War Museum North.