Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Writing First World War for children, part I

Yesterday I went to London for a symposium in the British Library on writing for children about First World War. I went because I am involved with the group that organised it, and I am not sure what my expectations were. War Horse is one of the best books ever written about any war, and it is also a very interesting phenomenon because the novel, the theatre performance and the film are all brilliant, each in its own way. I was particularly sceptical about the film, but it was excellent. Anyway, Michael Morpurgo was obviously there, but I must admit that I wasn't familiar with the other three writers. They had fifteen minutes each to tell the audience why and how they write about First World War for children, and they had very different approaches, which was very interesting. I have already bought three books.

If I had moderated the discussion I would have probably asked quite different questions from those posed because I am an academic and interested in boring things, like fictionality. How do you make today's children understand that all this really happened? That it isn't fantasy, adventure, dystopia, computer game? Many books use authentic letters, photos and other documents, but why is great-great-Uncle Will more real than any adventure hero? It's all once upon a time, not my time, not your time, but somebody else's time. How can we make children feel the pain and the horror? Do we want them to feel the horror?

But mostly the questions were good, and the answers better still. I was pleased to hear that the writers believed that French and even German fates deserved to be portrayed.

And yet I could not help thinking: what about the Eastern front? The writers discussed at length how the war between the UK and Germany started, but the war actually started between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, very far away from the UK. I am sure the writers knew it, but for them it was a small fact of little consequence. Their war was elsewhere. (I know I am unfair).

And for Russia, the war brought about the worst human tragedy of all times, the aftermath of which we see today in Ukraine, and who knows how close we are to Third World War. I hope I am wrong.

I am deeply moved by British memory of the Great War. I am a bit envious. I wish I had a generational memory I could cherish, but for my country, these was no victory.

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