History - In toon with the times - Wartime animations are a window to the past

28th September 2012 at 01:00

This month, it is 100 years since the birth of legendary cartoonist Chuck Jones, the creator of characters such as Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner.

Years ago, watching my pupils cram page after page of their jotters with drawings, laughing as they competed to create the funniest cartoon, I was inspired to use cartoons in lessons I was planning on the Second World War. Investigating the cartoons of the era, I found the likes of Bugs Bunny taking on the Nazis and, of course, winning in the most slapstick fashion possible. The image above is from the Oscar-winning cartoon Der Fuehrer's Face (1942), in which Donald Duck has a nightmare about living under Nazi rule.

I introduced the cartoons as we looked at propaganda art. Some are nearly 70 years old, but my class loved them. Age or historical relevance did not matter to them. It was the basic elements - a simple story, the good guy always winning, exaggerated characters and slapstick - that had them gripped.

When I discussed with my class why these types of cartoons were made during the war, explaining that their principal purpose was to raise morale, the children understood them on a different historical level. They had laughed at the cartoons and enjoyed seeing the Nazis being beaten, just as people during the war would have done. It was a way of getting them to experience a little bit of the war for themselves.

Looking at other famous cartoons such as Tom and Jerry, it becomes clear that they were illustrating the times they were written in. For example, the houses always had an African-American maid, signifying a period in US history when white and black Americans were accorded different status.

So successful was this experience that I began to use feature animations such as Pixar's Cars to help struggling writers understand plot formation and character development. We used storyboards to plot stories and backed them up with clay-based animations inspired by Wallace and Gromit. Using formats the children were comfortable with made the process of writing more purposeful for them.

No matter how they are used, cartoons are a treasure trove for primary schools - and they keep the little darlings quiet for five minutes, too. Thanks for that, Chuck.

Chris Fenton is an associate headteacher in the North West of England

What else?

Introduce pupils to political cartoons with a PowerPoint and blog from annajordan.


Ask pupils to create their own newspaper cartoons using a guide from Gloucestershire Archives. bit.lycartoonnews.

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