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Helping children understand war

Helping children understand war — We review ”The Butter Battle Book,” ”The Kestrel,” ”Going Solo,” and other children’s books

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ABC News anchorman Peter Jennings was host of a recent Saturday-morning special in which he answered kids’ questions about the war in the Persian Gulf. Katherine Couric of NBC’s Today did a similar show. And PBS’ Fred Rogers did a series of messages telling children they should talk openly and honestly about their war-related emotions.

With news of the war dominating television, newspapers, and magazines, kids have plenty of questions about the current conflict — and about war in general. Here, a selection of recommended books on how wars start, how they’re fought, and how they end.

War Boy: A Country Childhood Michael Foreman
Michael Foreman, one of Britain’s most celebrated illustrators, spent his early childhood in a Suffolk village during World War II. His mother kept the one village shop, which became a cozy haven for the hundreds of servicemen stationed nearby. Foreman’s memoir is a curious mixture of boyhood nostalgia and the alarms and excitements of living through constant bombing raids. While thatched houses burned and the school was smashed to rubble, the children played at soldiers and cowboys, stole the vicar’s apples, and schemed to get penny candy.

Foreman’s prose is vivid, blunt, sometimes disjointed, and fascinatingly detailed. His illustrations range from precise diagrams of bombs, air raid shelters, and planes to lush watercolors of village and country life. It’s a feast for military and nostalgia buffs and an eye-opener for children who haven’t experienced war. AMichele Landsberg

The Shining Company Rosemary Sutcliff
Based on The Gododdin, the earliest surviving North British poem, this skillfully written novel set in A.D. 600 has all the air of high adventure and intrigue of the best historical fiction. The story, drawn from actual events, traces the development of young Prosper, living peacefully in the south of Britain. Prosper eventually answers a prince’s call to train and fight with the Companions, a group of 300 men, against the invading Saxons. Young readers enthralled by the supposed glory of battle would be wise to pay particular attention to the powerful description of Prosper’s first encounter with death and how it changes him. They also should note the extraordinary act of treachery on the part of the king Prosper serves. The book puts forth the notion that neither war nor those who conceive of it are ever quite as noble as they seem. AJeff Unger

The House of Sixty Fathers Meindert DeJong; pictures by Maurice Sendak
”What is war?” my 4-year-old daughter wants to know. I hesitate between two impulses: I wish to allay her fears, to reassure her that she will come to no harm, but at the same time I want to tell her the truth. War hurts.

For parents similarly baffled by the dilemma of explaining war I cannot recommend too highly The House of Sixty Fathers, a classic novel written in the 1950s by Meindert DeJong. Set during the Japanese invasion of China in World War II, the story gives us a child’s view of the world turned upside down. Accidentally separated from his family while fleeing the Japanese army, Tien Pao finds himself alone in enemy territory. Bewildered, hungry, and exhausted, the boy nevertheless risks his life to save an American pilot — an act of empathy that eventually ensures his own survival and return to his family.

The House of Sixty Fathers delineates the human face of war with aching intimacy but also reminds us of the fund of courage, tenacity, resourcefulness, and generosity that even a small boy with only a pig to keep him company can discover in himself. It accomplishes the difficult task we all face of reassuring our children while telling them the truth about what is going on in the world. A+Angeline Goreau

The Kestrel Lloyd Alexander
The lingo and the weapons may change, but war’s always hell. Although The Kestrel takes place in one of those vaguely medieval kingdoms frequented by fantasy writers, its story parallels the one unfolding in the Persian Gulf.

In this sequel to the 1981 novel Westmark, the tiny country is attacked by its inland neighbor, Regia. Early reports bode well: “A minor engagement at an obscure bridge was setting the population in joyful frenzy.” The war will last “two weeks — maybe three.”

But it lasts longer — long enough for gamine Queen Mickle to distinguish herself as warrior and peacemaker and for her boyfriend Theo to turn into a heroic soldier — or is he a barbaric killing machine? As the legendary Kestrel, he is both, and therein lies the awful ambiguity of war.

Set against a backdrop of comic secondary characters, Theo’s transformation is chilling. So are the battles: Bodies turn a river “a pinkish hue.” But Alexander also does justice to the soldiers’ esprit de corps and the thrill of combat. In showing war’s seduction as well as its horror, The Kestrel makes a sophisticated case for peace. And it ends happily. ASusan Stewart

The Butter Battle Book Dr. Seuss
Funny, frightening, and full of fine outrage, Dr. Seuss’ The Butter Battle Book is a perfect allegory. Published in 1984 (the same year that Seuss, a.k.a. Theodor S. Geisel, won a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation), Butter takes aim at an arms race. But its real target is war itself.

The Yooks and Zooks are divided by a wall, a border patrol, and a cultural gap: Yooks eat their bread butter side up, Zooks eat it butter side down. One day, VanItch, one of the Zooks, hits Grandfather Yook’s “Snick-Berry Switch,” a prickly stick, with a slingshot. Immediately and automatically, hostilities escalate.

The “Boys in the Back Room” build bigger and bigger weapons, matched at every turn by the Zooks. What began with a slingshot becomes a quasi-nuclear impasse, with the population underground and guards menacing each other with identical “Big-Boy Boomeroos.”

And then… nothing. Butter ends (in standard Seuss reading time: eight minutes) with a discomfiting “We will see. ” Dread can be as powerful an emotion as horror. If you could wage war by throwing books, Butter would have the impact of a Cruise missile. ASusan Stewart

The Pushcart War Jean Merrill; illustrated by Ronni Solbert
When the “Big Three” truck companies declare a secret war on New York’s pushcart peddlers, the peddlers arm themselves with peashooters and mount a guerilla resistance, led by General Anna and Harry the Hot Dog. In this deadpan 1964 classic, Merrill brilliantly satirizes the motives, methods, and madness of contemporary war. Scintillatingly funny dialogue, warmly engaging characters, and comic-opera skirmishes keep the action lively. Meanwhile, children will absorb a thoughtful lesson in why and how people make war — and peace. AMichele Landsberg

Going Solo Roald Dahl
Reading this sequel to Boy, the first part of Roald Dahl’s autobiography, is as effortless and enjoyable as listening to an experienced storyteller — which just happens to have been what Dahl was. He wrote Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, among other notable books. In this case, the former World War II Royal Air Force pilot vividly recounts his years in Africa and his career in the military, including the time he crash-landed his fighter in the desert because he had been given faulty directions. (Dahl says here that when he wrote about the incident for The Saturday Evening Post, the magazine made it seem he had been shot down.)

Dahl’s writing recalls George Orwell’s — elegant, graceful, lucid. There’s not a hint of self-consciousness, except in the insights Dahl offers about his own inadequacies as an airman. He makes it clear that the military life, in peace and in war, can often be both harrowing and brutalizing. AJeff Unger

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