From running the Junior Red Cross and rumbling enemy submarines to much sadder stories: Anne Miller looks at children’s classics at war.
Cyril, Anthea, Robert, Jane and the Lamb are first introduced in E Nesbit’s 1902 novel Five Children and It. The children’s classic tells of the siblings’ adventures with the Psammead, a sand fairy who can grant wishes but hates water. They returned in two more adventures – The Phoenix and the Carpet and The Story of the Amulet – then reappeared in 2014 in Kate Saunders’ novel Five Children on the Western Front – which won that year’s Costa Children’s Book Award.
The latest version sees the family caught up in the first world war: Cyril and Robert sign up as soldiers while Anthea works as a nurse and Jane fights to train as a doctor. Stories set in wartime are not generally supposed to be cheery but there is something especially awful about finding characters you knew from idyllic children’s stories caught up in horrendous situations.
In their Five Children and It days the levels of peril were limited to being stuck on the top of a church tower or having their wish for a castle granted and then finding out that it was being besieged. In World War I the dangers are much more real and any disasters won’t be put right at sundown.
It’s not only the Five who are caught up in changing circumstances – here are some more classic characters who didn’t just live happily ever after at the end of their much-loved tales.
Anne of Green Gables
Anne Shirley is first introduced as a talkative, imaginative 11-year-old who readers watch growing up and getting in and out of scrapes: floating down a river, tumbling off a roof and falling in love with her sworn enemy Gilbert Blythe.
The further books in the Anne series see her teaching, studying at university and setting up home with Gilbert. Her world is not without sadness but it is full of the best things in children’s books – hopes, dreams, friendships and imagination. It’s about as far from the horrors of World War I as you could imagine, which is why the eighth book in the series packs such a punch.
By the time Rilla of Ingleside rolls around, Anne’s timeline has caught up with the first world war, although it takes a while for the characters in the book to fully realise the extent of what is happening.
The opening chapter sees Anne and her friends reading the newspapers, with Susan Baker commenting: “There is not much else in the paper of any importance. I never take much interest in foreign parts. Who is this Archduke man who has been murdered?”
The book’s main focus is on Anne and Gilbert’s youngest daughter Rilla. The only one of her family not concerned with going on to further study, she is simply in search of a good time and can’t wait to grow up and be 15.
When the war hits she does indeed grow up quickly – though not in the way she had planned – and finds herself running the Junior Red Cross and adopting a war baby whose mother has died and whose father is overseas.
Meanwhile, her brothers go off to war. It’s awful when the eldest, Jem, signs up straight away, eager to do his duty, but it is even worse when his gentle brother Walter enlists. He is a poet who hates violence but forces himself to go as he believes it is the right thing to do.
His verse, The Piper, ends up becoming one of the defining pieces of the war: “The whole great heart of humanity caught it up as an epitome of all the pain and hope and pity and purpose of the mighty conflict, crystallized in three brief immortal verses. A Canadian lad in the Flanders trenches had written the one great poem of the war. ‘The Piper’, by Pte. Walter Blythe, was a classic from its first printing.”
Pauline, Petrova and Posy Fossil don’t exactly have it easy in Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes (1936). They were all adopted by GUM (as they nickname their new Great Uncle Matthew) and after he fails to return from a trip their guardian (Garnie) has to take in boarders to make ends meet and sends them to train at Madame Fidolia’s Children’s Academy of Dancing and Stage Training.
They live simply but the bond between the three of them and the details of their lives is a joy to read. At the end of the book Posy heads off to Czechoslovakia to train as a dancer.
Eight years later the Fossil sisters appear again in Theatre Shoes (originally published as Curtain Up in 1944) as mentors to a new set of siblings, the Forbes family, whose father is missing in action.
The book opens with a note from Streatfeild saying that “since the beginning of the war, innumerable children in America have very kindly written to ask me how the Fossil children are getting along; particularly since the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, I have had anxious inquiries about Posy.” She goes on to reveal that Posy is living with Pauline who is an actor in Hollywood and Theatre Shoes reveals that Petrova, who hated the stage but loved engines, is a pilot in the Air Transport Auxiliary.
Theatre Shoes is firmly set in wartime, with references to rationing, scarcity of goods and special precautions when arranging shows: “Owing to the possibilities of air raids and the fact that most of you live at a distance, these concerts will take place in the afternoon, usually on a Saturday so that you get home well before black-out.”
“Stories set in wartime are not generally supposed to be cheery but there is something especially awful about finding characters you knew from idyllic children’s stories caught up in horrendous situations.”
Lindgren, creator of Pippi Longstocking, kept a painstaking diary during the second world war, scouring newspapers to record what was happening around the globe and relaying her life in Sweden.
An early entry begins: “Anne-Marie came round this evening and we have never had a more dismal ‘meeting’. We tried to talk about things other than the war but it was impossible. In the end we had a brandy to cheer ourselves up, but it didn’t help.”
In the introduction, her daughter Karin mentions that her mother had an evening job working in state security at the secret Postal Control Division – and was tasked with steaming open correspondence to check the contents. Lindgren kept a note of particularly interesting snippets and copied some of them into her war diaries.
The full account has been recently translated into English and published as A World Gone Mad: The Diaries of Astrid Lindgren 1939-45. The diaries also mention the beginnings of her literary career – the first Pippi book was published in 1945.
Finally, Enid Blyton wrote prolifically during the war but the Famous Five and the Five Find-Outers’ baddies tended to be low-level smugglers, opportunistic thieves or devious plotters rather than anything too sinister. Blyton also wrote a short series about The Adventurous Four – set in Scotland – and in the first book the baddies are quite clearly the Nazis.
Set in wartime, the children sail off for an adventure and end up stumbling across an enemy submarine base: “’Golly!’ said Jill. ‘One – two – three – four – five – six – seven – however many submarines are there? And all of them marked with the crooked cross.’”
However, it’s probably a good thing Blyton didn’t set all her adventures during the war, otherwise the Secret Seven seem slightly sinister in this scene as they arrange their clubhouse: “’Nice!’ said Janet. ‘I’ve put the SS on the door.’”
Catch up on Anne’s previous Fully Booked columns here.
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Anne is a QI Elf. She has two Blue Peter badges, reached the semi-finals of Only Connect and really likes puffins. @miller_anne