The Open House for The Children’s War: Images of World War II in Children’s Books captivated students and community members between pages of optimistic and honest war narratives and illustrations at Emporia State's William Allen White Library.
Public Services Supervisor Rebekah Curry researched 11 books from the May Massee Collection. Massee was an influential children’s book editor from the early 1920s to the early 1960s. She worked with prominent authors and illustrators during that time, including Robert McCloskey, the author and illustrator of “Make Way for Ducklings” and Ludwig Bemelmans, author and illustrator of the “Madeline” series. When she died, the collection was donated to Emporia State University in 1972.
Curry was originally researching something else when she started noticing these books. She found herself thinking about them and gaining interest in how the authors dealt with and portrayed WWII as a literary subject, especially since these books were published between 1944 and 1959 by authors who had personal connections to the war, freshly emerging on the backside of the war. After a couple of months of preparation, Curry was ready to display the exhibition.
“Part of what’s interesting about it is getting that more contemporary view, because so much has been said and continues to be said about World War Two after the fact,” Curry said. “Every year there more books, more films, more documentaries and so forth, but I thought it was really interesting to see how authors were portraying that at the time, and also there's the added dimension of how they were portraying it for an audience of children and seeing what they might emphasize, what they might deemphasized [and] how they would treat that topic for that audience.”
Curry said overall the books were both optimistic yet honest about the effects of that war on children. They all have a happy ending. Nine of the books have child characters who have lost their home, their parents or both due to the war. Some of what the characters deal with would now be considered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Considering contemporary literature about war, Curry said for younger audiences, more uplifting endings and a redemptive aspect are still common inclusions, though more authors are now willing to spend time with darker aspects and less-than-happy endings.
None of the books directly address the Holocaust, neither are there any German-based or -written books. Italy and Japan are represented, and the American characters are “almost universally positive,” one of the informational signs read. From her research, Curry speculates the Holocaust was still too grim a subject to directly address, especially when it may involve children of the Hitler Youth or families who resisted the war. More explicit Holocaust books became popular in the 1970s.
In addition to having the actual books and informational signs displayed, some original and some recreations of illustrations were also displayed.
Graduate English student Kat Fox visited the exhibition after seeing the sign on her walk past the library.
“This is super cool,” she said, “I thought, ‘That could be a cool thing to check out,’ and indeed it is.”
Fox said the books reminded her of the kinds of books her mother had her read when she was little, especially when learning about history. She was not familiar with these books in particular, though.
“I think it’s really neat to see them all in a collection together the way they are,” she said.
The exhibition will be displayed through the end of the fall semester in room 308B in the William Allen White Library.