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I'm author of The Snipesville Chronicles. I'm also a published academic historian, but don't hold that against me.Oh, and I'm a Brit. I just happen to live in Georgia.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Evacuees, Blitz and Books: A List From My WW2 Schools Visits

I love my schools roadshow about life in World War Two Britain: When a kid blurts out "That's just like The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe!", my day is officially made.

But I count it secondary whether a kid becomes interested in this particular subject so long as my time at schools stimulates new ideas and activity. Some kids go off and interview grandparents about WWII America, some are fascinated enough by the old British Monopoly set to pull out their own to compare, and it's especially lovely to motivate some kids to read my novel, I'll admit it, particularly if reading it brings them full circle to an interest in history. Mostly, however, I'm happy just to have jumpstarted kids' thinking, especially given the relentless drilling and testing that characterizes public schooling today.

For those kids who do want to explore further the subject of British life in WW2, here are just a few suggestions for books to add to your school or home library. They may be available from library wholesalers, they may be available from Amazon.com (often in used editions: see links below for availability), and they are certainly available direct from the British Amazon.co.uk (you will need to set up an account, exactly in the same way as American Amazon.) The links are to Amazon.com.

The list is arranged in order of reading/subject matter challenge, beginning with the most accessible. Oh, and don't miss the music, either: Check out the Amazon list at left for my selections from wartime Britain.

Rebecca Hunter with Angela Downey, A Wartime Childhood (Family Scrapbook Series) (Evans Brothers, 2005)

Today, Angela is a grandmother of six. But she was four years old in 1941, when her mother took her to live in the countryside, safe from the bombs raining down on London. There, in a small village, Angela lived with a foster family for the next three years, seeing her mother only once a year.

Angela tells her own story of life as a wartime evacuee (and the story of her family members), which personalizes what is actually a broad introduction to life in Wartime England. A picture book, Wartime Childhood includes the key themes: air raids, evacuation of children, food rationing, and war work. The text is sparse, but the graphics are varied, and the book also includes well-presented and contextualized documents (including a letter home that Angela wrote after her father was killed in action.)

This is a highly recommended introduction to the subject for ages 7 and up, very much accessible to American kids, and sure to create good talking points.

Peter Hepplewhite, An Evacuee's Journey (History Journey Series) (Hodder Wayland, 2003)

Much like A Wartime Childhood (above), An Evacuee's Journey threads the story of one child throughout the book. In this case, however, he's Joseph Thompson, he's fictional, and his story is told in third person. The text is heavy on facts and figures, and includes broad context: It begins by explaining the rise of Hitler, for example. However, it is nicely balanced with more accessible materials about everyday life.

A short anecdote about "Joe's" life that relates directly to the text kicks off each two-page chapter. We see Joe reacting to the announcement of war in September, 1939, for example, and read about his being fostered by a farmer and his wife. Short and lively quotes add the voices of real evacuees, and photographs are varied: alongside the black and white photos of wartime kids, check out the staged color photo of a week's worth of food rations. Pithy captions explain the graphics, and help promote critical thinking: Kids are urged to note how an advertiser uses the theme of evacuation to sell a drink mix. I was especially impressed that the book touches upon the variety of experiences among evacuees: Joe is happy, but his best friend is removed from a foster home after repeated beatings. The author, to his credit, explains without rancor that many foster families were ill-equipped and unwilling to care for evacuees.

Great for ages 8 and up.

Rachel Wright, World War II (Crafts Topics Series) (Franklin Watts, 2008)

Despite the sweeping title, this title is primarily about the wartime British Home Front. The text is a little more "textbooky" than most, and the focus is on the adult experiences of food rationing, clothes rationing, mass entertainment, and war work. The appeal is in the activities: As a nice counterpoint to the whiteness of the Brits in contemporary photos, two Indian-British kids are the models who demonstrate making a fake tin helmet, a truly repulsive-looking mock-apricot flan (tart) from a wartime recipe using carrots, and a cardboard U.S. aircraft.

My complaints? There's a "Now what?" quality to the activities. It would be great to have suggestions for dramatic play to go along with the crafts, and a text that sparks empathy and imagination. Still, if you can get it cheap, it might be a useful addition. Ages 8 and up.

Terry Deary, The Blitzed Brits (Horrible Histories Series)

True to the series' title and reputation, this is horrible history at its best. Read about the evacuees whose parents didn't want them back when the war ended… The evacuees who arrived with fleas and had no idea how to eat at a table… And don't miss the stories of people who used the black market to cheat on rationing. It's good for everyone to learn that the people of the past weren't always perfect, and, no, this doesn't make kids depressed and cynical as the Appropriateness Police blithely assume. Indeed, kids are gleeful to discover that adults are people, too, and that their behavior can make kids seem morally superior. Check out the recipes for truly awful wartime food to try at home. No color pictures, but plenty of cheery black and white cartoons. Ages 8 and up.

Nina Bawden, Carrie's War (book and DVD)

The book's a classic, but whether kids like it or not will depend on their general taste in books. This is a gentle story of an evacuee and her brother who are sent to rural Wales, far from the bombs of the Blitz. The strength of the book is in the characters, from the terrified Auntie Lou, to the bullying Mr. Evans, the sensible (and amusing) Albert Sandwich, and the daffy Mrs. Gotobed. Nina Bawden was herself an evacuee in Wales, and, although she maintains that Carrie's War isn't autobiographical, she writes from experience. Ages 9 and up.

The Carrie's War DVD…is okay. It has far too much of a modern tone for my taste, so that the characters seem anachronistic for the Forties. Mr. Evans is too sympathetic (to appeal to the adult audience, I suspect), while Carrie and Nick seem too worldly and self-assured. However, the BBC has not yet released the 1975 version on DVD, so this is the one we have. Still worth a look. Ages 9 and up.

Michelle Magorian, Goodnight, Mr. Tom

A lonely and sweet old man takes an abused evacuee into his home and heart. One very humane novel with a sweet ending. Ages 10 and up.

Annette Laing, Don't Know Where, Don't Know When (Confusion Press, 2007)


American kids from 2008 become British kids in 1940. Enough said, since it is (full disclosure) my book.

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