Making Sure the Story Comes True

December 01, 2012

Making Sure the Story Comes True

As it is almost always adults who write for children, and in many cases parents, teachers, and educators who consume, select and disperse texts for children, children’s literature reveals much about what our culture holds dear. Books for children reveal not only what we want children to know and learn but also what we often wish, in our most honest moments, for ourselves.

What commitments and values are revealed, then in texts that take up issues of war, peace and memory for children?

Children's war fiction has, of course, a long history in itself. Many children’s literature ‘classics’ feature the war-scapes of France and Britain in the World Wars—from the intrepid aerial adventures of W. E. Johns’ ‘Biggles’ character to the explorations of wartime trauma in Michelle Magorian’s Good Night Mister Tom and on to the war-ridden worlds of curriculum mainstays, The Silver Sword and I am David. Although it is beyond the scope of this discussion to document the history of war fiction, it is important to note a broad shift in the ideological tenor of such works (at least in the ‘anglosphere’ of Britain, American and Australia). From texts composed in the interwar period that typically glorified the valour of war and the benevolence of empire, we have moved to a type of war fiction that is nearly always concerned to some degree, overtly or implicitly, in peace promotion. This trend has only intensified in the twenty-first century. Indeed, since the turn of the millennium there has been a proliferation not only of children’s books concerned with peace, but also books about such books by children’s authors, educators, theorists and critics.[1]

In the to-and-fro of this chatter there is considerable disagreement about what exactly should be told to children in these texts. How much violence is too much for children? Can and should such books be enjoyable? Is it even possible to tell the truth through fiction? But one premise remains unquestioned: children need to be told of war through historical fiction. A consensus has arisen among authors, educators and other stakeholders that children’s books should play both a memorialising role (where past conflicts are ‘remembered’ and transmitted to children who have no real memory of them themselves) and serve a preventative function. Through imaginative immersion, it is hoped, readers will learn of the dangers and perils of war, and heed warnings not to repeat the same mistakes in their lifetimes. Thus, children’s literature concerned with war and peace, is, as Mitzi Myers put it, ‘inherently didactic’.[2]

But more than the technics and aesthetics of didacticism are at stake. There is in fact an entire universe of meaning immanent in pro-peace children’s texts, one which warrants scrutiny from Christians for its claims about the grounds for hope and redemption. One does not need to be a Christian scholar, however, to spot the transcendent claims implicit in children’s literature.

Leading Australian children’s literature expert Professor John Stephens of Macquarie University argues that we need to be aware of the radically ideological content of children’s literature. Sometimes the most seemingly ‘innocent’ texts are far from so, he shows.[3] He is right. Children’s books often act as sites into which a culture’s ethics, expectations and hopes are poured, whether transparently or opaquely. Indeed, Stephens argues children’s literature offers a modern, secular equivalent of the older educative function of religion. As he argues: ‘children’s literature attempts…to cultivate ethical and cultural values which would function as a replacement for or surrogate form of older forms of socially inscribed transcendent meaning, especially religion’.[4]

What, then, are the elements of ‘transcendent meaning’ purveyed to children in contemporary pro-peace texts? Indeed, going further than Stephens’ concern with ‘ethical values’, are there even more fundamental narratives of peace and hope implicit in such schemes of transcendent meaning?

To narrow the enquiry, our focus here is on one particular author: the UK’s third Children’s Laureate and bestselling author, Michael Morpurgo.[5] The author of War Horse, which was recently released as a film directed by Steven Spielberg, is the first to admit that war is a key preoccupation in his work. Indeed, he is undoubtedly among the most influential and prolific authors of books about war for children writing in the world today (his works have been translated into several languages including Japanese, Spanish and French). The recipient of several major awards, Morpurgo features prominently in the British curriculum, and his influence is buttressed by government, educators, publishers, and culture-makers alike.

Since penning his first novel, Waiting for Anya (1978), a story of the Second World War set in rural France, at least twenty—and the number seems to rise by the year—of Morpurgo’s publications have a major focus on the topic of war. While the most recurring and predominant conflict to appear across Morpurgo’s war fiction is the Second World War, followed by World War One, he has not limited himself territorially, nor to a predominantly British perspective. His fictions venture across warscapes of the Spanish Civil War, France, Rwanda, Iraq and Gaza. Morpurgo’s texts, then, in their proliferation and prominence, provide an ideal arena in which to explore contemporary ideas of war and peace in children’s literature.

In examining Morpurgo’s treatment of war and peace, we do well to consider the insights offered by the emerging discipline of children’s literature criticism. What becomes clear is that while Morpurgo writes for a contemporary audience, and does so with twentieth century warfare in view, his hopes for peace—his schemes of transcendent meaning—arise from a framework inherited from the Humanist, Romantic and Pastoral conventions of earlier centuries.

Morpurgo’s schemes of redemption and peace appear to have at least three pillars, each of which relate to attributes of the children’s literature ‘genre’ highlighted in contemporary scholarship.

1) Romanticism and the redemptive sphere of childhood

A foundational idea for Morpurgo’s fiction is the notion that childhood is a state separate, free and untrammelled by adulthood. Warfare is a result of adult artifice having strayed from the freedom and purity of childhood. Child readers are positioned to critique the foolish, adult world of war, by retaining the innocence of their viewpoints, ostensibly free from peace-destroying ideologies such as nationalism and racism.

So important is the role of the child in much of children’s literature that several scholars (not with Morpurgo in view necessarily) have pointed to a recurring image of the ‘redemptive child’.[6]  For Nikolajeva, the figure of the redemptive child is part of the greater construct of childhood created in books written by adults for children, and thus a formation and creation of adult minds and imaginations. It was Romanticism that defined the child as separate from the adult, and thus childhood as a separate state, ‘encompassing remarkable freedom from most of the defining attributes of adulthood’.[7]

In Morpurgo’s work, the redemptive child appears frequently as instrumental in narrative and plot roles. Children are peacemakers, precisely because they are not adults; their potential for growth is still intact, they are free from the constraints of adulthood. Peace promotion takes place through a deliberate construction of childhood that places the child as both hope of the future, and healer of the traumas of the past.

A striking example of the figure of the redemptive child is seen in Morpurgo’s delicately illustrated novella for mid-late primary age readers, The Mozart Question. In this, one of Morpurgo’s best-known war texts, childhood is used to frame not just any historical trauma or war-event; here Morpurgo seeks to bring child readers to an encounter with the Holocaust.[8]

Child narrators buffer the child reader (and perhaps the adult reader too) from the hard-hitting impact of the raw historical past. As well as a protective role, the figure of the child character also plays an active role, helping to heal the past and restore hope to this seemingly irredeemable event.

When young Paolo Levi, the main character, learns the solemn secret behind his parents’ past (the answer to the Mozart question)—namely, that they were both Jewish musicians in a concentration camp in World War II, and were forced to play music for German guards and fellow prisoners—he is both ‘horrified’ and ‘honoured’ to share in their past (p48). Paolo unburdens his parents of their heavy past, playing a salvific role by receiving it and in turn transforming it.

Somehow, Paolo is not unduly burdened by his parents’ confession, but is able to see light as well as darkness in the story. As he tells readers: ‘so began the saddest, yet the happiest story I ever heard’ (p48). Paolo is not just listener but enactor of their redemption. Through Paolo the parents are reunited with an old friend from the concentration camp, fellow musician Benjamin. The reunion establishes a sense of wholeness out of the broken past.

Through Paolo, music itself is ultimately redeemed. Listening to Paolo play, his parents are able to love music once more, and ultimately, at the book’s end, even Mozart (whose music had been associated with the experience at the death camp) takes on a newly inscribed positive meaning. Here, Morpurgo elevates the child’s role to sublime levels. The music Paolo plays is ‘heavenly’ (p71, and illustrations pp74f). It is the child who helps facilitate the reunion that is repeatedly described as miraculous (p44). Through the child, it is musical destiny that is passed on rather than inter-generational trauma.

The overall message of The Mozart Question is one of the regenerative power of hope and belief in the hands of the child.

2) The pastoral vision of a redemptive return to nature

Part of the way childhood appears as redemptive is through its framed proximity to ‘nature’.[9] Nikolajeva sees much in children’s literature today that mimics patterns of older pastoral conventions in literature, especially in the conceptualisation of childhood as ‘a lost Arcadia’.[10] The dichotomy between innocent childhood and corrupt adulthood is mapped onto a broader distinction between nature and artifice. Warfare belongs to the quadrants of adult artifice; hope for peace lies in the opposite quadrants of childhood and nature.


Such a division allows Morpurgo to construct a narrative with a moral lesson that appears in various guises more or less consistently across his corpus (and arguably across our culture). To paraphrase in blunt terms, the story runs something like the following. Nature is, by nature, harmonious and peaceful. The artifice of adult civilization—whether British, German, Iraqi or American—generates war in so far as it departs from the state of nature through its hubris and foolishness. However, children are closer to nature and thus closer to its natural harmony. If children could be encouraged to retain their proximity to and love of nature, even as they develop, they would retain their innocence—their childlikeness—and this would all make for peace not war. In a sense, children need to stay as children even as they become adults.

In Morpurgo’s work, the equation of childhood and non-human nature as allies in a broader critique of war is clear. In some texts, the presence of animals dominates. In many texts, the innocent farmyards of pastoral idylls both critique the war-scapes subsequently presented and provide redemptive refuge to child characters having traversed them. In War Horse, the viewpoint of the animal is used to represent the transcendent viewpoint of the child.[11]

A novel of the First World War, War Horse follows the story of Joey, an exceptional and beautiful horse, and his boy-owner Albert, from the rural landscape of England to the heart and horror of the trenches. Throughout this text, Joey’s voice and sympathies (the novel is narrated from the perspective of the horse, much as Anna Sewell did much earlier in Black Beauty) both serve to distance children from the horrors, and mediate the conflict. Unlike men, who create war, the horse is apolitical, a form of peace-arbitrator in the middle of the conflict. This is most clearly seen when Joey is trapped in no-man’s-land and troops from opposing sides meet in the middle to rescue him. Joey is pure—unadulterated by the evils of war-making man. If only we were all like him—or at least like the common boy soldiers from simple, rural backgrounds (closer to nature) instead of the conniving metropolitan Generals—then peace would be possible.

War Horse is ultimately a romantic rather than a realistic story. Against all odds Joey and Albert are reunited on the war fields, and return to the peaceful fields of England largely unscarred from their experience, and nature heals over the wounds of war.

3) The redemptive act of childhood reading

Finally, a third and related element of transcendent meaning in Morpurgo’s work is the almost sacred elevation of the acts of childhood reading and imagination depicted in the texts. Here Morpurgo’s works, as do many other children’s books, turn inward and venerate the forces of story and childhood imagination and belief. Just as the sphere of childhood is fruitful for peace, so too is the institution of the children’s book.

Children’s literature, even today, draws deeply from the ideological pool of liberal humanism. There are several ways this occurs, as scholars such as John Stephens have identified: faith in the power of the imagination, the importance of teleology in narrative, and a commitment to literature as restorative and therapeutic.[12] Each of these is overtly and implicitly apparent across the corpus of Morpurgo’s war work. One story in particular, treated below, highlights just how close to religion Morpurgo depicts the act of reading and imagination for children to be.

In I Believe in Unicorns, an illustrated novella for middle primary school readers, Morpurgo brings children to a consideration of war and peace via an unusual route. [13]The novella tells the story of young Tomas, and his life-affirming conversion from being an avowed non-reader, to a lover of books. The plot is divided roughly into three parts. The first part concerns Tomas’ reluctance to read and his preference for experience over books. The second section relates Tomas’ entrance into the world of the library and the stories he hears from the powerful voice of the village librarian—an eccentric and priestly character—who sits poised on a carved wooden unicorn.

Among the librarian’s repertoire is a re-telling of the biblical account of Noah and the Flood which includes unicorns as the forgotten animals of the Ark. Left to fend for themselves in the flood waters, these magical creatures emerge victorious, bringing ‘luck’ and success to Noah’s endeavours. Unicorns remain throughout the text as potent symbols of magic and power.

The third section of the story shifts momentarily outside the library to the coming of war to Tomas’ village. Readers see very briefly the devastating effects of war, but the ultimate victory is gained not by the enemy, but by the village children and the librarian. Victory comes, though, in the form of salvation for the books and the wooden unicorn from the ravages of fire and war. By extension, not only is the realm of childhood reading and imagination saved, it figures as the saviour. The forces of war—past and present—are overcome by childhood volition, imagination and belief.

At this point the librarian gives an important and revealing speech. She reveals that her father carved the wooden unicorn, and that it was the unicorn that has kept the books and the children safe.  Even as the village burns around them, she looks confidently and proactively to a restored and happy future post-war. She instructs the children: ‘All we have to do, children, is to make sure this story comes true. You really have to believe something will happen before you can make it happen. And we will make it happen, because I told you this story sitting on the magical unicorn, didn’t I?’ (p73).

Children—through their capacity for belief, hope and imagination—are endorsed as the hope and restoration of the future, as transcending war’s causes and effects. The reader is positioned, too, to take up the confession of Tomas in the final lines of the book: ‘I believe in Unicorns. I believe in them absolutely.’ (p76)


Finally, what does all this say of the meaning of peace as proffered to children through war fiction? It seems a precarious peace that we adults offer the younger generation: a peace that rests on the very concept of childhood itself, childhood as it is constructed from fragments of humanistic and Romantic thought, and a childhood in which they star as believer, imaginer and redeemer. It is, in many ways a utopian vision. Highlighting the ideological underpinnings of Morpurgo’s peace writings brings into sharp relief our culture’s notions of childhood as they contrast with Biblical insights. Is childhood the sphere of freedom and innocence that children’s literature imagines it to be, or does being born ‘in Adam’, as the New Testament puts it, mean childhood is bound together with adulthood in shared subjection to ‘the law of sin and death’? And what of the redeemer child? To be sure, there has come a redeemer-child: Emmanuel. But his peace was no bloodless peace wrought out of good-will, imagination and the retention of child-like innocence. It was the victory of the servant-king: a victory whose spoils—among which is the reign of peace in a redeemed creation—are still to be fully realized.

Yes, Morpurgo is right to critique adult artifice as it causes war; this is by no means a call for more pro-war books for children! And yes, firing children’s imaginations with historical fiction can be of great benefit. In fact, the reading of such fiction is rightly said to promote empathy and understanding and to discourage solipsism among child readers. But it is worth being aware of the subtle ideologies underpinning such fictional work, even ones in favour of peace. For, perhaps most of all, it is not the children we ought to worry about. While on one level we can all be aware of the obviously fictional nature of tropes such as the redemptive child or redemptive nature, they remain figures that we adults often wish we could believe in. As Nikolajeva argues, children’s fiction can, as well as serving children, function as ‘a form of therapy for frustrated adults’.[14] Pinning our hopes for peace on our children—on childhood itself—is a form of nostalgia that betrays our longing for true redemption, and may turn out to be another way of crying out ‘peace when there is no peace’.[15]


[1] One particularly good example of such a work is Carol Fox, Annemie Leysen, and Irène Koenders (eds), In Times of War: An Anthology of War and Peace in Children's Literature (London: Pavilion, 2000).

[2] Mitzi Myers, ‘Storying War: A Capsule Overview’. The Lion and the Unicorn : a Critical Journal of Children's Literature Vol.24(3), 2000, pp327-336, 327.

[3] John Stephens, Language and Ideology in Children's Fiction (London: Longman, 1992).

[4] John Stephens and Robyn McCallum, Retelling Stories, Framing Culture: Traditional Story and Metanarratives in Children's Literature (New York: Garland Pub, 1998), p15.

[5] Morpurgo was Children’s Laureate from 2003-2005. An up-to-date biography of Morpurgo (a mark in itself of his popularity) is Maggie Fergusson, Michael Morpurgo: War Child to War Horse (London: Fourth Estate, 2012).

[6] Margot Hillel, ‘“A Little Child Shall Lead Them”: The Child as Redeemer’. Roderick McGillis(ed.), Children's Literature and the Fin De Siècle (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003), p62. Maria Nikolajeva, ‘“A Dream of Complete Idleness”: Depiction of Labor in Children's Fiction’. The Lion and the Unicorn : a Critical Journal of Children's Literature Vol.26(3), 2002, pp305-321. Karin Lesnik-Oberstein, ‘Children's literature and the environment’. Richard Kerridge and Neil Sammells (eds.), Writing the Environment: Ecocriticism and Literature (London: Zed Books, 1998), pp208-217.

[7] Nikolajeva, ‘A Dream of Complete Idleness’, p306.

[8] Michael Morpurgo, The Mozart Question (London: Walker Books, 2007).

[9] Lesnik-Oberstein, ‘Children's literature and the environment’. See also, Roni Natov, The Poetics of Childhood (New York: Routledge, 2003).

 [10] Nikolajeva, ‘A Dream of Complete Idleness’, p306.

[11] Michael Morpurgo, War Horse [1982] (London: Egmont, 2007)

[12] Stephens, Language and Ideology in Children's Fiction.

[13] Michael Morpurgo, I Believe in Unicorns (London: Walker Books, 2006).

[14] Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in Children's Literature (Lanham, MD: Children's Literature Association, 2000), p259.

[15] Jeremiah 6:14

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