1940s children’s books: peeps into the past
Children’s Literature: A Very Short Introduction
By Kimberley Reynolds
Children’s books are like time machines. Coming across the same edition of a much-loved book from childhood can instantly transport an individual back to the moment of reading. That visceral reaction, however, is rather different from the time-travel experienced by scholars who are working with children’s books from earlier periods. Sometimes these allow access to actual children and childhoods, as when their owners have written or drawn in them or otherwise affected the contents. More often, however, they take us back to particular moments in culture. Because children’s books are generally designed to tell children about the world and how it works, they can provide a wealth of information about everyday life and attitudes. Illustrated books can be particularly helpful in reminding us of what houses, schools, and high streets looked like; who looked after children and how; the rhythm of daily routines and how families and communities interacted.
Often it is not the most famous books that are the most interesting in this respect. Olive Dehn’s Come In (1946), for instance, takes us back to a time when children’s books were printed in two colours, when vacuum cleaners and refrigerators were such novelties they had to be introduced and explained to readers, and when mothers followed the advice of Truby King and parked their babies in the pram at the end of the garden all day. In Come In the gardener has to remind the mother to fetch her baby in because it is raining (although clearly not wealthy, this family has both a cleaner and a gardener, though neither live in, another detail of how people lived in 1946). Forgetting the baby is neither a comic nor a dramatic moment in the story, but just part of a day in the life of one family.
Come In draws heavily on Olive Dehn’s life, and this is another way in which the book can take us back to an earlier time since the family it features is clearly modelled on her own, making biographical investigation relevant. Unusually in a children’s book of any time the father is an actor. Olive Dehn was married to the actor David Markham who was a Conscientious Objector in World War II. He was imprisoned for a period when Dehn was a very young mother of three, and so it is possible to see this story of domestic routine as a retort to the disruptions and difficulties the pair faced. It is also explicitly feminist in its stance. The book is the work of two women: Dehn as writer with illustrator Kathleen Gell. Implicitly the point of view is the illustrator’s who, in a lovely metatextual moment at the end shows herself walking away from the sleeping household with smoke curling up from the cigarette she is smoking! The illustrator has been invited in to observe the family for a day because the mother has complained to the father that nothing interesting happens to her. This is no folktale about being careful for what you wish. The mother’s opinion is vindicated as she works through a round of daily chores while her husband, an actor, is off rehearsing for his latest play and is shown having an interesting and enjoyable time. He may be the bread-winner, but women’s work is demonstrably the more onerous.
Come In is a rich text by a woman of great character and conviction — at age seventeen she was escorted out of Germany by the Nazis for writing a highly disrespectful poem about Hitler for Punch. Despite its interest in the position of women, however, it essentially holds up a mirror to its time. Particular children’s writers, illustrators, and publishers more overtly attempted to challenge and change existing ways of thinking, and so give us a sense of how children were being encouraged to understand the world. One example is Eddie and the Gypsy (1935), a translation of Ede and Unko (1931) by ‘Alex Wedding’, the pseudonym of Grete Weiskopf, a children’s writer then based in Berlin. Like Olive Dehn, Weiskopf was not a fan of Hitler. Ede and Unko was among the books burned in 1939, by which time she and her husband had already been forced to flee Germany. Although the story itself would have displeased the Nazi regime since it portrays friendship between a German boy and a gypsy girl, no doubt the illustrations also offended the authorities since they were photographs of real children by John Heartfield (Helmut Merzfeld) who was known for his anti-Fascist montages.
Both Come In and Eddie and the Gypsy are so rooted in their time that reading them of itself starts a journey to the past. As this brief discussion has shown, for scholars the interlocking histories of children’s books and their creators can play a valuable role in helping to understand the mindset, the preoccupations and the taken for granted elements of life in the past.
Kimberley Reynolds is Professor of Children’s Literature in the School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics at Newcastle University. Her most recent book is Children’s Literature: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2011). She currently holds a Major Leverhulme Fellowship to write Modernism, the Left and Progressive Publishing for Children in Britain, 1910 – 1949.
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