The illustrated soldier and the book-hack

It is clear from recent headlines that the public perception of the military and the way military conflict is represented and understood in society is contested. This affects how veterans re-configure themselves as civilians because the process can be disrupted by what they feel are, in many cases, incomplete (mis)representations of their professional lives, and their military service. So, what do armed forces veterans think of the way the military is depicted in contemporary picture books for children and does it matter?

Children’s picture books are a significant aspect of contemporary mainstream culture and so form an important part of our shared view of ourselves, our communities and wider society.

Working with Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books, and Forward Assist, an award-winning service veterans charity, we’ve been looking at how depictions of soldiers in contemporary children’s picture books can play a role in helping ex-forces personnel make the transition back to civilian life by reflecting on how their lives and their service are portrayed in books for the young.

Through a process of discussion, debate, and ‘book-hacking’, veterans gave their responses to texts and images in a number of illustrated children’s fiction books that use the military as characters. Book-hacking is the name we gave to the process of close, critical group reading followed by creatively annotating the books to include the unheard soldiers’ voices to the scenarios the books dealt with.

Many of the veterans we spoke with had mixed views about the portrayals of the military in the books. There was some frustration and sadness about hostile representations that seemed to portray soldiers as a group-mind, unthinking and without compassion. That said, most felt that a few of the books accurately depicted aspects of armed service such as loneliness, propaganda, the positive effect of a place and community on serving personnel, and even empathy with the enemy.

As readers and parents of readers – most of the veterans we spoke with are parents -  they all had very positive feelings about the importance of children’s literature and the role of reading in building understanding and empathy. While feeling some frustration about what they saw as hostility toward the military, and a naivety about simplistic solutions for a peaceful world, they affirmed the capacity of children’s picture books to tackle ‘big’ subjects effectively.

Clearly these service veterans are not the primary readership for the books we looked at but for those who commission and work with children’s picture books it is worth saying that while these service veterans were disappointed at the narrow range of publications portraying contemporary, rather than material about WW1 and WW2, they felt that the picture book was an important form for their often problematic stories to be told.

Dr Helen Limon is a research associate - creative writing at Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts, Newcastle University.