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Should Children Read Books about War?(part 1)

This post was originally written for The Bookwallis on Facebook, for the theme 'Voicing the silences in children's literature.


Adults believe children need to be protected from dark themes, but in reality these themes exist all around us.

Children are constantly interacting with adults...from family members to teachers. In families and schools everyday crises and challenges are often discussed and the news dissected. This is life. Children are part of all the goings-on in their immediate surroundings as well as privy to situations in the wider world, thanks to the media.

Books must reflect what they hear and see around them. Books not only help children understand what is going on in the world, but most importantly books help children to know that often through the darkness, goodness and love shines through, helping them build hope and trust in the future.

Over the next two posts I will cover books on…


During the First and Second World Wars, ‘war’ themed books for children were very popular. Often one sided, these books had roots in propaganda which trumped up the need for war and the bravery of those who went out to fight for their country. Propaganda in children's books also spread hatred directed against certain ethnic groups who were blamed for the problems being faced by the country or propaganda directed against the enemy country. The aim was to justify the war and rile up support from the people.

Today's war stories are relevant in a completely different way.

Unfortunately, war/ violence/ conflicts seem ever present in our lives. At any given point in time, there is conflict in some part of the world. If we peel away the layers of a conflict, we peel away the layers of violence, only to find layers of hatred, injustice, intolerance, misunderstandings, a fear of acceptance... all of which have their roots in ignorance. This ignorance is the easiest to prey on with sensationalised news, often fake, through social media that fiery conduit, which disseminates misinformation at lightning speed.

The reality of war/conflicts and its consequences are horrific, and could affect any of us, even those of us in safe comfortable lives. If we understand this, would we choose to yell shouts of triumph every time a government boasts of a successful skirmish? Would we be as quick to click ‘forward’ on those propaganda infused, hate filled Whatsapp forwards? Would we question the veracity of the facts being dished out? Would we choose representatives to government who speak a language of hate and violence? Would we hesitate to question those in authority?

How does this matter to children, they are hardly the ones casting their votes...I hear you ask.

Their time will come. And when it does, have we helped them develop a thinking mind, a critical mind, a questioning mind? How will they develop a sense of empathy for those in situations that are inhuman and life threatening...empathy which will hopefully guide them in their choices as adults.

When children learn history in school, they fail to relate to the events as...

Most school texts are adult-centered, portraying the events of war in a vague and biased matter, thereby failing to make connections with students.’ (Brown, 39).

Books (fiction/ historical fiction) about war and conflict written for children are written from a child's perspective, helping readers relate to the characters in the stories. The events and experiences are shared from a personal angle, in an engaging narrative and often in a non-analytical manner. What war themed stories and books give us, is an opening into experiences different from our own, and an understanding that these events can be overcome. They are a medium of hope.

War, conflict, violence are all difficult topics to explain to a child. Picture books serve as a great support for the youngest child, when these questions do crop up and can scaffold the comprehension of older children who are well into chapter books.

There are many many books about war. I have tried to feature books set in different parts of the world to highlight its occurrence across the globe.


1. THE DAY WAR CAME by Nicola Davies; illustrated by Rebecca Cobb

This simply narrated, poignant and powerful picture book, is endorsed by Amnesty International. “The day war came there were flowers on the window sill and my father sang my baby brother back to sleep.” It tells of an ordinary day in the life of ordinary people just like you and me, when war came and turned the town to rubble. A moving story written in poetry form, is a book about the devastating repercussions of war, yet remains a book about hope.


Don’t let its rhyming text and Dr.Seuss tag fool you, it holds a chilling ending, which will shock and nudge discussions. This powerful book has led to many discussions with my secondary students. The Yooks and the Zooks are divided over which side of the bread is the correct side to butter! They are the deadliest of enemies, each side warning their young to beware of the other. This story is an allegory for the arms race, as increasingly sophisticated and powerful weaponry is invented, until at last the Yooks and Zooks find themselves in a stalemate of potential mutual annihilation. It is most effective with older children, as they activate all their schema to appreciate Dr. Seuss' clever, powerful text and satire.

3. WHY WAR IS NEVER A GOOD IDEA by Alice Walker; illustrated by Stefano Vitale

‘Though War is Old/ It has not/ Become wise.’ Alice Walker personifies war as she illustrates its random violence. This is a powerful book for all ages, which will leave you shell shocked as the lyrical poetry opens your eyes to the horror of war and its impact on the world, its inhabitants, nature, history, art. The evocative illustrations emphasise the book's anti-war stance.

4. THE CONQUERORS by David Mckee; This parable-like tale, tells the story of a large and powerful country ruled by a powerful General. The General leads his army into all the other countries, attacks and conquers...‘So they can be like us’. Eventually, only one tiny country is left. When the General marches in with his troops, they are surprised that they are welcomed with kindness rather than retaliating violence. Who conquers whom? the question the reader will wonder about.


5. NUMBER THE STARS by Lois Lowry (9+)

Narrated by 10 year old Annemarie, this is not a typical World War II book. This fictionalised account of how the Danes managed to save nearly the entire population of Danish Jews...nearly 7000 from deportation and almost certain death in the concentration camps. In this story Annemarie’s family...part of the Danish resistance, helped hide and smuggle the family of Annemarie’s best friend...Danish Jews, across the sea to Sweden, after their country was invaded by Germany.

6. BAMBOO PEOPLE by Mitali Perkins (10+) Chiko, a gentle, book loving boy is forced into the army by trickery after responding to an advertisement in the newspapers for school teachers. Tu Reh, lives in a refugee camp on the Thai-Burmese border. He burns with the need to avenge the Burmese soldiers who burned his home in his Karenni village. Narrated from both sides of the conflict between the Burmese army and the Karenni tribe, by Chiko a child soldier and Tu Reh, a refugee, Bamboo People tells us the human side of the war. Fear, anger, violence, prejudice give way to bravery, compassion, friendship and most importantly discusses the question ‘what does heroism really mean?’

7. THE KITES ARE FLYING by Micheal Morpugo ( 8+) Said, a little Palestinian shepherd boy, spends all day making kites. Said doesn’t speak. The book is narrated in part through Said’s monologue with his brother, who had been shot by Israeli soldiers. Max, is a filmmaker who wants to tell the stories on how the conflict affects ordinary lives on both sides of the dividing wall. An accident brings Max into Said’s community, where he learns that Said hasn’t spoken since the death of his brother. Max is curious about the kites that Said makes, each one with one word written across it…SALAAM or PEACE. What does Said plan to do with the kites? This book, filled with hope and joy, tells of friendship and connections that transcend the barriers of race, religion, politics and the huge dividing wall.

8. WHEN MORNING COMES by Arushi Raina (Young Adult) Arushi Raina captures the Soweto Uprising, a watershed moment in the history of the apartheid regime in South Africa as young students organised a mass protest against the “baas law” (the imposition of Afrikaans as the language of instruction) all across South Africa in 1976. Written from the point of view of four young people. Zanele, a black night club singer and student organiser and Thabo, her friend and gang-member, who live in Soweto, a black township, Jack a white student bound for Oxford, living in a white area in Johannesburg and Meena, a resourceful young Indian girl who works in her father's provision store. The book captures the systematic and institutionalised racism, police brutality and the degrading and violent nature of apartheid.



THE DAY WAR CAME * Show the children the end papers on the inner front cover, ask them to predict why there are so many empty chairs. Now on the back of the book...why are the chairs occupied? What do you think it means? Get children to predict what the book may be about. * At the end of the story, the boy demonstrates kindness to a stranger. What are simple acts of kindness we could do to help those we may have noticed around us, who need it. * Explore the emotions the little girl could be going through at various points in the book.

THE CONQUERORS * This is a wonderfully simple picture book, yet one that can open out debate and dialogue around three complex questions with older secondary students... 1. When countries resist invaders by force could they have their traditions erased or are they protecting their culture? 2. Is smiling, gentle acceptance of invaders a way to assimilate different cultures? Is this a good thing? 3. How important is identity, culture and traditions?

THE BUTTER BATTLE BOOK * Guide children in linking the text to the arms race. * While they may seem relatively simple, many of Dr. Seuss books explore politics. Senior students, well versed with history, with a little suggestion can read and connect the books to various political figures and events. * This book can be used to explore the idea of satire.

NOTE: Picture books are powerful for any age group, but it would be a pity to make the connections for the children. It’s best that children interpret and apply their own prior knowledge to understand this book. I therefore would use it with children already familiar with the arms race, and appreciative of satire.

“Wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows.” ― Martin Luther King Jr.

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