Scary times! Why stories about the Second World War remain so popular with boys.
Seventy years on, young readers are still avidly devouring stories set during WWII, and every year new titles are published to satisfy their insatiable appetites. As a writer of such novels, I think I know why this is, and it comes as no surprise to me, despite the fact that we all know how the war ended! And I think the reasons go deeper than simply boys liking stories about war, armies, aircraft etc…
Post-war children’s classics such as Goodnight Mister Tom, Nina Bowden’s Carrie’s War and Robert Westall’s The Machine Gunners & Blitz Cat tended to focus on the ‘war at home’ in Britain. In fact, it might be said that in the immediate post-war decades (to the 1980s), children’s literature largely steered clear of the worst aspects of war. It was as if Anne Frank’s diary had the role of giving that kind of insight. And, of course, it does, but only to a point. This cautious approach was understandable to a generation of adults who’d lived and fought, were weary of war, and desperate to protect their children from such horrors. But, I believe they missed an important point.
I grew up in this post-war period but was fortunate to hear stories first hand; one of my teachers had been in the RAF and flown Pathfinders. I also heard stories about family friends; one of my godmothers had worked for the French Resistance. Later on in life, I was privileged enough to meet the wonderful Miep Gies who famously helped the Frank family while they were in hiding and who rescued Anne’s diary from the Annex. They were remarkable people.
In recent times, the nature of wartime children’s literature has changed. With titles like Mal Peet’s Tamar, John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, James Holland’s Duty Calls series, Robert Muchamore’s Henderson’s Boys, and my own Resistance & Special Operations series (just to name a few), stories have reached out into the heart of the conflict. Interestingly, readers often say to me that what they like about my books is that my characters get involved with the war, that they’re not just innocent bystanders. This aspect is important to me too, because it’s easy to forget that a whole generation of children lived through Nazi occupation and witnessed all aspects of war, and many did indeed get involved with resisting. In response to my books, I’ve even received correspondence from older readers telling me stories of when, as teenagers, members of their family had worked for the resistance, risking their lives. They tell me this with immense and justifiable pride. Vindication, I think.
At their heart, the majority of WWII stories explore some of the most powerful and appealing themes in storytelling; personal fears, danger and sacrifice, the struggle of good versus evil, the defence of freedom, and testing ones courage to the limit. To be fair, this is also true of many books of other genres (science fiction, fantasy). In fact, pick any fiction book from a library shelf and I bet it explores at least one of these themes in some way. But, there are key differences in the case of stories set in WWII.
Firstly, it was a world that really existed, is still recognisable to us today, and is within living memory for some parents and grandparents. It was also all-out war on an unprecedented and almost unimaginable scale, not witnessed before or since. The very worst aspects of mankind’s nature were exposed in its horrors and, yet, in the midst of the darkness, the very best of mankind shone through and triumphed.
It’s the fact that such a time really existed that I find so captivating, thrilling, and often extremely scary, and I think readers do too. As a writer I have no need to create some fantasy world, or one of evil monsters or superheroes to have the reader on the edge of his or her seat and biting their nails – the real world back then will do nicely. Put bluntly, it was the mother of all wars – accounting for an estimated 55+ million lives in just six years. And, yet, I don’t think the appeal to readers comes from the scale of the conflict, rather the complete opposite.
It is the stories of individuals caught up in it, the soldier wading towards the beach on D-Day as bullets fly past him and his comrades fall, the Spitfire pilot in the midst of a soaring dogfight, the family in hiding or being arrested and carted off to a concentration camp, the resistance fighter risking all when surrounded by the enemy, or the spy or secret agent on a dangerous mission. Through the eyes of such people (characters) the true nature of war is exposed. The choices and decisions they are forced to make challenge our very moral fibre, questioning our beliefs about who we are and what mankind is capable of. And, despite the fact most of us find war abhorrent, we also know that it can be justified – there are simply some things that are worth fighting for. It is exciting and very, very powerful stuff.
There’s a second element to the enduring popularity. It’s the fantastic ingenuity and courage of those involved. The war was a rich seam of astonishingly original ideas and rapid developments, of incredibly audacious missions and seemingly impossible achievements. Whether it was the evacuation of over 330,000 troops from Dunkirk, the brilliant minds of the code-breakers, the boffins who developed radar, the celebrated dam busters (Barnes Wallis’s bouncing bomb), or the brave citizens who became active members of resistance movements or who risked their lives while hiding people from arrest, all have truly jaw-dropping stories to tell. Some are well known, others have only recently been revealed as Top Secret documents are released or people have finally broken their silence. For a writer there is an almost endless source of inspiration. For the young reader there are plenty of thrills and spills as this most dangerous of times is brought back to life on the page.
C Simpson April 2012
Huge thanks to Craig for taking the time to write this for The Book Zone. If your son is a reluctant reader then the Special Operations books could be the ones to get him hooked.