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History and humanity collide in children’s books recounting horror of war

War and human suffering seem unlikely subjects for children’s picture books, but two University of Southern Queensland academics have explored how one significant wartime event has been depicted in children’s books and the impact of literacy on historic recounts.

Professor Margaret Baguley and Associate Professor Martin Kerby turned the pages of four children’s books published to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the 1914 Christmas Truce, where British and German soldiers mutually stopped fighting on the Western Front for around 48 hours during World War One.

“Investigating this moment in time it’s important to note that the ‘imagining’ of the Great War in the UK has always been framed by the existence of two Western Fronts – one literary and the other historical,” Associate Professor Kerby said.

“We wanted to explore how more recent publications dealt with the Christmas Truce, which has really become an historical touchstone for authors who are devoted to the literary imagining of the narrative.”

In their paper, A beautiful and devilish thing: children’s picture books and the 1914 Christmas Truce, Professor Baguley, and Associate Professor Kerby explore how text and image combine to create moving and insightful morality tales that use the facts of an historical event to communicate a vision of humanity rather than a work of historical research.

“It is hardly surprising that morality and humanity feature as the cornerstones of these publications as picture books are usually chosen by parents or family members, and often reflect what parents and teachers wish for children,” Professor Baguley said.

“As they are integral to a child’s early exposure to literature, they are also a powerful ideological tool, one capable of making an unchallenged contribution to social and political discourse.”

The research analysed the text and images of Shooting at the Stars: The Christmas Truce of 1914 (Hendrix, 2014), And the Soldiers Sang (Lewis and Kelley, 2011), The Christmas Truce (Duffy and Roberts, 2014) and The Christmas Truce: The Place Where Peace Was Found (Robinson and Impey, 2014).

“We found that the authors and illustrators were drawn to an event that communicated a vision of human nature that appeared to them to be the antithesis of a futile war that destroyed a generation,” Professor Baguley said.

“Similarly, to other authors and illustrators who have tackled the Great War, those featured in our research paper also seek to transform the historical event into a universal human experience.

“The positioning of the horror of war as a binary opposite to humanist values can be a problematic construct though, as it has become so automatic a convention that it does not always convey the horror that it is meant to express.”

ImpeyChristmasTruceSnippet: Illustration by Martin Impey from The Christmas Truce by Hilary Robinson and Martin Impey (2014). Reproduced with permission.  (These words/credit must be used with image)
man and woman sitting
Associate Professor Martin Kerby and Professor Margaret Baguley (Credit UniSQ Photography).