Viewed in 2010, some of the early 20th century children’s books Lissa Paul is studying look a little surreal.
There’s An ABC for Baby Patriots, where B stands for battles and C stands for colonies. There’s an ad that encourages kids to dress up a male paper doll, pictured on a missile-firing battle ship, in Navy regalia.
In the years just before the First World War, the professor of Education says, children’s books and popular culture promoted proud support of the British Empire. So when war was declared in 1914, young boys were already primed to fight for their countries.
As the 100th anniversary of the First World War approaches, the UK’s Leverhulme Trust is funding three international conferences to study children’s literature and culture in the years approaching the First World War. Paul is organizing the Canadian conference.
From the Boy Scouts, formed in part to train boys for future military life, to books promoting the virtue of supporting king and country, children’s literature presented the glory of war strongly enough to suppress all instinctive, religious and cultural imperatives against killing, Paul said.
“If you’re going to get young people to overcome those instincts, you have to work pretty hard to create a culture that makes it not only acceptable, but desirable,” she said.
By studying children’s literature and culture in the pre-war years, “we’ll gain insights into how children were enculturated,” she said. “If we’re ever going to stop war, we have to understand what encourages people to fight.”
The conferences, part of the international research project Approaching War, will take place in Australia, Canada and England in 2011, 2012 and 2013. The Australian conference, located at the University of Technology Sydney, will be in November or early December of this year. A three-day conference is being tentatively constructed for May 9 to 12, 2012, in Canada, starting at Brock and moving to McCrae House in Guelph, birthplace of In Flanders Fields author John McCrae. The third conference will be in Newcastle, UK. Newcastle University, the University of Technology Sydney and the Toronto Public Library (through its Osborne collection) are part of the research project.
Paul, who has been at Brock since 2005, has a long-time interest in children’s literature. Her new book, The Children’s Book Business: Lessons from the Long Eighteenth Century, was published Dec. 14 by Routledge. She is an associate general editor of The Norton Anthology of Children’s Literature (Norton 2005),authored Reading Otherways (Thimble 1998) and was the content editor of Growing with Books: Children’s Literature in the Formative Years and Beyond (Ontario Ministry of Education 1988).
When it comes to relationships between children’s culture and war, the First World War is particularly interesting, she said. Its iconography, from Snoopy’s Red Baron to imagery in war games, endures even now.
“Through the First World War, boys especially were encouraged to believe that war was an exciting adventure, a noble thing in which people should engage,” she said. “What were the conditions that allowed that war to take place? What were boys seeing that made them say ‘This is what I’m going to do: kill or be killed?’”