There are so many new books about the First World War that it is hard to know how to select the ones that would provide the best introduction to it for primary school children. Do you think these books are a good way to help children learn more about the subject?
During the next four years – and particularly right now at the beginning of the centenary anniversary – everyone will be thinking about the First World War and revisiting it in as many ways as possible. In all media it is the opportunity to bring back old favourites such as the classic play Oh! What a Lovely War which was first performed in the 1960s.
For primary school children, it is all a very, very long time ago and everything about the period seems very old-fashioned. While they can be quite easily introduced to some specific aspects of life then, such as the clothes of the time, it is almost impossible for them to imagine just how different social attitudes to everything were at the time. Understanding the different ways in which boys and girls were treated in terms of educational opportunities, how firmly people were bound by their class, how mono-cultural society was – all of this is hard to convey from the changed perspectives of the twenty first century. But, without some knowledge of that, so much about the First World War and especially the emotions about it, and, in particular, the mismatch between what the soldiers actually experienced and how the civilians at home saw it, is hard to understand. Obviously, such an turbulent and devastating historical period as the four years of the First World War can never be covered in one book, or even in many, but the more children read about this period, and especially, the more the hear what the people said at the time, the better informed they will be. The use of Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke and the other war poets’ verse for GCSE set texts over so many years is testimony to that.
Apart from contemporary sources, there are some excellent titles which will fascinate readers and inform them acutely and vividly about the time. Because of its immediacy, the diary form is very successful at this. Two good examples are Marcia Williams’s Archie’s War and Lynne Huggins-Cooper’s One Boy’s War. Other popular and successful novels include two about the role animals played in the war – Michael Morpurgo’s classic War Horse, a wonderful book before it became a smash hit play, and Sam Angus’s Soldier Dog, the story of how a messenger dog helped in the conflict. Michael Foreman’s War Game is set right on the battlefield where it describes how a group of friends who have arrived as newly recruited soldiers survive the horrors of life in the trenches and how they experience the amazing and historic football game on Christmas Day 1914. Further from the action, but excellent on period background, is John Boyne’s Stay Where You Are and Then Leave, the story of a young boy’s confused view of the war and his father’s role and, for slightly older readers, K.M Peyton’s Flambards Trilogy, which includes a wonderful account of the early days of the airforce in The Edge of the Cloud.
There are also many excellent non fiction accounts of many different aspects of the time. These include Terry Deary’s Frightful World War One, Tony Robinson’s Weird World of Wonders: World War 1 and Paul Dowswell’s The First World War, which is a collection of true stories. All of these will help to convey some of the emotions and the realities for soldiers and civilians.