American Friends Service Committee
Sara Burke, Managing Editor
Sam Diener, Editor
Pat Farren, Founding Editor
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Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.
Views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of the AFSC.
A Preoccupation with Stories of Occupation
is an AFSC volunteer, -librarian, and teacher who writes frequently
about children's books.
I found myself in a strange place for a children's librarian this year. I was finding it difficult to read children's books. Much of what I was attempting to read was breaking my heart. I wondered if I was getting too old for exciting stories set in tough times. Did the books hold out false hope, or not enough hope, for a peaceful future? I was feeling badly about the inability of adults to create a better world for children, and I felt a strong desire to buffer my students from the grim realities of life.
It was while reading a string of historical novels, all set in Greece at the time of World War II, that I finally realized what was bothering me. I was making connections between these stories and the experiences of so many children who are living now through war and occupation, including the US occupation of Iraq.
Those children in the streets of Athens and in the rugged mountains with the young resistance fighters might as well be the children in Afghanistan, Iraq, and, yes, Palestine. Some of the children were orphaned, some were taking part in the armed resistance to the Nazi occupation, others were choosing a path of nonviolent resistance, and all of the children were hungry and worried about their survival. In the end, not all of the brave children in these books survived. I could only think about the children of the Middle East.
I wondered: where are the books about children living under current military occupations? Are they being written; are they germinating in the minds of young people who will someday tell their stories? Will books such as these ever be published in English for future American generations to read? In this article, I will share with you some of what I found.
First, let's look at two particular books suitable for younger readers about Greece's wartime experiences, The Real Plato Jones by Nina Bawden (Clarion Books, 1993) and Petros' War by Alki Zei (Dutton, 1974).
While Bawden's book is about a contemporary young boy sorting out his identity issues as the offspring of a Greek mother and a British father, he is also learning (along with the reader) about his family's past, and about a fateful decision made by his Greek grandfather during World War II. The Nazi occupiers presented his grandfather with a stark choice: either betray the resistance fighters in the mountains, or they would destroy his village of old people and children. In a believable way, Plato Jones redeems his family's honor and defines himself as a "citizen of the world."
Petros' War is also definitely worth tracking down at a used book store, on the internet, or in your library. The book is based on the childhood experiences of the Greek author who wrote the book in the 1970s while living in political exile in Paris. The young protagonist, Petros, is authentic and engaging. He and other children are initially enthusiastic about war and thrilled by the excitement around them, but the daily grind of wartime occupation sobers them and they grow up quickly. The depictions of the greed of the neighborhood baker, other neighbors' tacit support for the Germans, and the escalating resistance of Petros and his friends, make this a complex but highly readable novel for older children.
There are many other stories and novels set in Europe concerning German occupation and resistance to the Nazis. I will mention only a few of my favorites. Foremost is Number the Stars by Lois Lowry (Houghton, 1990). This child-friendly and upbeat book, featuring a strong and fully realized Danish Christian girl as a protagonist, tells of the amazingly successful evacuation of the Danish Jews to Sweden. Other notable books in this niche include The Island on Bird Street and The Man From the Other Side, both by Uri Orlev (Houghton Mifflin, 1981 and 1989) each set in the Warsaw Ghetto of Poland. The Good Liar by Gregory Maguire and Twenty and Ten by Claire Bishop (Scholastic, 1969) are set in occupied France and both present children not just as victims of occupation but also as war resisters themselves.
The impact of these and other books on US children and adults over the past two or three decades should not be underestimated. In the hands of enlightened adults, education about the Holocaust, using many of these books of fiction, is often extended to include the lesson that this should never happen again to Jews or to anyone, anywhere, and to encourage children to make connections with current world situations. These books can be used to counter anti-semitism. However, cumulatively, they also tend to reduce Jewish history solely to the period of the Holocaust and have a tendency to depict Jews only as victims, not as resisters. Furthermore, in the US, depicting Jews in history solely in the role of victim sometimes segues dangerously into unquestioning support for Israeli and US governmental policies in the Middle East.
During the past ten years a few good books have been published which tell stories of children caught in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Best among them are the books written by the poet and novelist Naomi Shihab Nye. Born to a Palestinian father and an American mother, she writes books based on her own journeys to the Middle East to meet her Palestinian family. Her books include the picture book Sitti's Secret (Aladdin, 1997) and Habibi (Simon & Schuster, 1997).
Two other thoughtful, reflective novels should be mentioned. Samir and Yonatan by Israeli writer Daniella Carmi (Scholastic, 2000) tells the story of a young Palestinian boy whose brother has been killed by Israeli soldiers. In the hospital, recovering from an unrelated accident, Samir meets Yonatan and other Israeli children. A cautious friendship develops, but Samir continues to worry about his people and their future.
A Stone in My Hand by Cathryn Clinton (Candlewick, 2002) is about a Palestinian girl living in Gaza during the first Intifada. Malaak is deeply traumatized by the violence and hate around her and is trying to find ways to cope other than picking up a stone.
I want to conclude with a look at some upbeat picture books which also address the theme of military occupation.
Once Upon a Dinkelsbühl by Patricia Lee Gauche, illustrated by Tomie de Paola (Putnam, 1977) is the retelling of a German legend in which the children of medieval Dinkelsbühl convince the leader of plundering Swedish soldiers to leave town. Similarly, Rebel by Allan Baillie, Illustrated by Di Wu (Ticknor & Fields, 1994) tells of villagers in Burma who manage to outwit and turn back the General who has marched his occupying army into town.
In 1964 during the Cold War, Anita Lobel published the wonderful parable Potatoes, Potatoes and it has just come out again (Greenwillow, 2004). It tells of two brothers who become enemies at war until they find themselves fighting in their own mother's garden. It is their wise mother who finds a way to stop the war and reestablish peace.
And, perhaps the best for last: Manneken Pis: A Simple Story of a Boy Who Peed on a War by Vladimir Radunsky (Atheneum, 2002). What better way to end war and occupation than by pissing on it! This is the story some tell about a little boy in Brussels, Belgium. He is immortalized in bronze -- down in the old city. Perhaps you have seen the statue? Perhaps you will read this simple story -- which isn't so simple after all.
I still have some doubts about the harshness
of many of the novels about war, occupation, and resistance for
the very young. Yet, I do remember that as my husband finished
reading Number the Stars aloud to my daughter, then eight
years old, he shed tears, in a way that surprised him, while she
was stoic, most impressed with the cleverness and bravery of the
Danish people. Children like good stories. It seems to be the
attitudes of the characters, their heroism, and the triumph of
good over evil that speak most powerfully to young readers.