Once Upon a Wartime
A Visit to the Once Upon a Wartime:
Classic War Stories for Children Exhibition
First published in 1982, Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse may not have been an overnight sensation but, as its current popularity will attest, it’s far from ready to be put out to pasture. After two sell-out runs in London’s National Theatre, and continued success in its ongoing West End run, the acclaimed stage adaptation of the novel has just premiered in New York, with a further production planned for Toronto in 2012. This Christmas will see the cinematic release of Steven Spielberg’s take on the tale of Joey and Albert, a project which is bound to cement the story’s status as a children’s classic. The novel itself also currently forms the backbone to an exciting and innovative special exhibition of war-themed children’s books at the Imperial War Museum London.
Once Upon a Wartime: Classic War Stories for Children offers an immersive multimedia journey through five classic British novels for young readers which share the theme of wartime experiences. In addition to Morpurgo’s text, the exhibition explores the stories of, and the history behind, Ian Serraillier’s 1956 novel The Silver Sword, Nina Bawden’s well-loved Carrie’s War, Robert Westall’s ever-popular The Machine Gunners and, the most recent of the texts, Bernard Ashley’s Little Soldier, published in 1999. The presentation of each text is supported by video, photography, sound projection, art and objects borrowed not only from the museum’s own collections, but also from the authors and their estates, including items usually held by the University of Reading Special Collections and the Seven Stories Centre, Newcastle upon Tyne.
Visitors, young and old – for there truly is something here for everyone – are guided through a range of wartime experiences as they move from book to book. The display for each text offers a thematic key, which serves to structure an initial encounter with each book, but which is quickly built upon and easily moved beyond. Though each text is examined individually, these five keywords of loyalty, separation, excitement, survival and identity work to connect the books, not only to each other, but also to the wider field of war stories for children.
Though each of the texts shares war as a common theme, their treatment of the subject matter varies greatly. While a familiar element of adventure surrounds the protagonists of the texts, each author’s different approach to the historical realities of war and their depiction of wartime violence sheds light on the timeless consideration of how much we tell the children. Serraillier’s The Silver Sword, written as central Europe attempted to rebuild itself in the aftermath of World War II and meticulously researched by the author, is betrayed by the hint of pastoral innocence which surrounds the Balicki children’s trek. By contrast, Bernard Ashley’s Little Soldier benefits from over 40 years of added debate about what makes appropriate reading for children, and involves a more accurate representation of the bloodshed and trauma of conflict. The exhibition design does not fail to reflect these changing times, and an actual M16 rifle forms a prominent, and shocking, part of the Little Soldier display.
The range of items included in each part of the exhibition testify to the seriousness and respect with which the museum has approached the subject matter. From personal items which inspired the writers to authentic war artefacts, the displays integrate seamlessly the lives of the writers and those of their fictional creations. Panels showing re-enactments of life in a Great War trench are accompanied by a painting of the horse Topthorn which, we are told, usually hangs in the kitchen of Michael Morpurgo’s home. A scale model of the Hepzibah’s kitchen gives way to Nina Bawden’s childhood teddy, which her brother carried with him into Wales when he was evacuated there during World War 2. Robert Westall’s typewriter is displayed close to a machine gun taken from a Heinkel 111 bomber shot down over Liverpool in 1940, and Bernard Ashley’s notebooks offer insights into his creative process. Perhaps the most poignant item offered up to the visitor is the actual silver sword which inspired Ian Serraillier’s novel. The small paper knife, used to open letters, was sent to him by his brother, and the inclusion of this exquisite miniature seems to offer up the exhibition’s unspoken message that suggests an intriguing link between violence and the written word.
Although the displays focus almost exclusively on the five key novels, the continued fictional legacy of wartime stories is acknowledged in the final part of the exhibition. The Library, a comprehensive amalgam of faux bookshelves and physical copies of texts for perusal, offers a sense of how large a field the thematic area of war stories for children is. With a selection of classic and recent novels, picture books and other texts from several countries, ranging from Mary Hoffman’sThe Colour of Home to Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, this area supports the exhibition and, before sending visitors on their way, offers them handpicked suggestions for further reading. This part of the exhibition is also graced with personal contributions from several of the authors and illustrators involved, including Michelle Magorian’s notebook from Goodnight Mister Tom and Shirley Hughes’ sketchbook with work from The Lion and the Unicorn. Many of the books highlighted in the exhibition are available in the museum’s gift shop and The Library offers an extensive and valuable online bibliography of the texts which form this part of the display.
There is a wide range of material relating to the exhibition available on the Imperial War Museum’s website, including teachers’ packs and supplementary resources. The support available for school visits is only one indicator of how closely the exhibition links the worlds of classic children’s literature and the classroom. There is no doubt an honest desire to educate young visitors about the place of historical and contemporary wartime experiences in modern childhood, although the strength of this connection between classroom and text perhaps confines the scope of the exhibition and may limit its contribution to the study of children’s literature. In identifying classic war stories for children, the selection seems to have been validated by the inclusion of only those which have proved to be tried-and-trusted successes in a classroom setting. There is an unacknowledged danger here of distancing the potential leisure reader from the texts, a risk increased by the fact that the most recent book examined is roughly the same age as the exhibition’s target audience. If, as the exhibition argues, war continues to be a definitive theme in contemporary children’s literature, there may perhaps be room for a wider acknowledgement of those recent texts which may also claim the honour of being classics.
The Imperial War Museum identifies itself as the museum of everyone’s story and aims to illustrate the history of modern conflict as told though the stories of those who were there. Addressing the ways in which fictional accounts have served this same purpose for young readers is a natural and admirable extension of the museum’s mission. The work of Once Upon a Wartime extends beyond the displays themselves into a wider engagement with the books, their creators and their legacies. It is also supplemented organically by the museum’s year-round exhibitions, especially the holdings of the excellent The Children’s War presentation and the impressive Holocaust galleries. It is also built upon by the museum’s own Children’s Literature Festival, which will be held this August and will feature an impressive array of events and speakers, including appearances by both Morpurgo and Ashley, as well as Michelle Magorian, Morris Gleitzman, Michael Foreman and Karin Littlewood.
The exhibition itself also hopes to give rise to a new children’s classic. Michael Morpurgo and Michael Foreman have collaborated on a new book, Little Manfred, a story which has its origins in an item on display in the collection. A pull-along toy dog, constructed from old apple crates by Walter Klemenz, a German prisoner of war working on a farm in Kent during World War II and given to the children of a farm worker there, inspired Morpurgo to tell the story of this children’s souvenir of a unique wartime experience. Of all the many wonders of the Once Upon a Wartime exhibition, there is perhaps no better example than this of the undeniable connection between history and story.
Once Upon a Wartime runs at the Imperial War Museum London until 30 October 2011, after which it will move to Manchester’s Imperial War Museum North from 11 February 2012 until 2 September 2012. For further information, visit www.iwm.org.uk/wartime.