'What, oh what, is the use? Why all this destruction?

15th September 2000 at 01:00
IN TIMES OF WAR: An anthology of war and peace in children's literature. Edited by Carol Fox, Annemie Leysen and Irene Koenders. With Rob Batho, John Clay, Manuela Fonseca and Annemie Devynck. Pavilion Books pound;12.99.

When war becomes history, it generally becomes a matter of mere statistics. Battles were won or lost, armies were victorious or vanquished, hundreds of thousands were slain. But this kind of remembering diminishes the role played in war by ordinary individuals, human beings caught up in circumstances beyond their comprehension and control.

This anthology sets out to give a voice to such people. The result is a volume for which the phrase "lest we forget" would serve well as an epigraph. And it offers greater insights into the devastation of war and the personal tragedies it brings in its trail than most history textbooks.

The origins of In Times of War, launched this week near the Flanders war cemeteries, lie in the Comenius Project, a creative enterprise funded by the EU and involving the collaboration of Britain, Portugal and the Netherlands. Aware of the extent to which the Second World War remains a powerful source of inspiration for children's literature, the project aims to examine this material and bring some of its vast quantity to a readership beyond the countries where it is written or published. To share and compare such writing and be aware of such widely differing perspectives is an act of international co-operation which, paradoxically, challenges those assumptions and prejudices that give rise to war in the first place.

Arranged in seven sections under such headings as "Remembering and Forgetting", "Escape, Survival and Rescue" and "Friend or Foe", the editors' material draws on a fascinating range of sources, many of which will be unknown to a British readership. There are some 40 prose excerpts, some 20 poems, one playscript and artwork as diverse as Raymond Briggs's for Ethel and Ernest and Art Spiegelman's for Maus.

Most of this content has its publishing origins in the three territories collaborating in the project, though the historical and geographical settings of the wars mentioned are wider than this might suggest: there is provision for Rwanda, Vietnam, the Gulf and Ulster as well as for Nuremberg, Sarajevo, Mozambique and Kazakhstan.

Much thought has been given to the order in which the material is presented. There re, as a result, some very illuminating - and often moving - juxtapositions of mood, tone, style and detail. The opening section is especially striking in this respect. "Play", "dreams" and "reality", the key words of its title, assume many connotations - all ultimately pointing to an important theme: the disjunction between the imagined vision and the lived experience. "Playing" at war can take many forms, and even its more innocent manifestations can acquire an unsettling aspect, as demonstrated in the use of an excerpt from Andrew Davies's novel Conrad's War.

The themes of "escape, survival and rescue" tend to dominate many of the best-known children's war stories, but in her section under this title Fox chooses largely to avoid material with which her British readers might already be well acquainted. Accordingly, while we are given a reminder of Michael Morpurgo's Waiting for Anya, we also have the opportunity to meet 15-year-old Tan, the Vietnamese refugee hero of Willy Spillebeen's Een pluisje van de zee (A Piece of Fluff from the Sea), not to mention the count and countess from Bart Moeyaert's Holle Bolle Gijs II (Fatso II), fleeing war-threatened Belgium to the safety of Switzerland, their every justificatory word beautifully observed by the novel's child narrator.

Predictably, perhaps, the most touching of Fox's excerpts are those that deal with the Holocaust. Anne Frank is here, though not exactly as we might expect; instead, we see her in the context of Anne Frank Beyond the Diary by Ruud van der Rol and Rian Verhoeven, which combines facsimiles of her original pages and authorial commentary.

Her diary entry for May 3, 1944, is reproduced here, evidently used to encapsulate the thinking which this anthology seeks to encourage: "What, oh what, is the use of the war, why can't people live peacefully together, why all this destruction?" For the most horrific exploration of this central question, we turn to the cartoons of Spiegelman's Maus, although we are quite correctly reminded that it is not a children's book.

In her skilful combination of text and illustration Carol Fox has produced what will for a long time remain the definitive children's anthology on this particular topic. It is at once timely and timeless, a humane and positive denial of what Othello famously called the pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war.

Robert Dunbar.

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