History plans

I’ve spent some time looking through book lists and the library catalogue trying to find books we might use one our European trip. Tigger and I had talked about learning more about WWI and WWII while we are over there since we could visit actual sites and things. She has reminded me of this recently and is still keen. So keen that she’s started reading The Diary of Anne Frank because she knows we will visit the museum.

I think I have mentioned before that I would rather not teach WWII as primarily about the persecution/saving of Jews. Unfortunately that is the primary narrative of a lot of children’s literature about the war. It makes for a nice neat story of good and evil, but it seems to me that it distorts history. Not in the way that the revisionists would have it. I accept that the Holocaust happened and that it is historically significant.  However, Hitler did not invade Poland to find more Jews to persecute. He invaded Poland to expand the German empire. And no one went to war to save the Jews. Almost all of the allied countries had strong anti-semitic traditions of their own and many resisted taking in Jewish refugees throughout most of the war. But the market for books about imperialism written for middle school kids is probably very small. If anyone has any suggestions do let me know. We have the Horrible Histories so that might be okay.

We will also be talking about the Holocaust and I’ve been thinking about some of the material that would extend our reading of Anne Frank and that museum visit. I am going to check out two books that make a nice pairing of fiction and non-fiction: Darkness over Denmark by Ellen Levine and Number the Stars by Lois Lowry. Although we will not be staying in Denmark on our trip, we will be going to Copenhagen and staying in southern Sweden. I think this means we hit this topic at the beginning and the end of the trip (since we end up in Amsterdam).

I have a vague recollection of a book that I’ve read about recently that is about a German boy living in this time. I think his brother is a soldier or something. If this rings a bell with anyone or if anyone knows of good historical fiction or non-fiction from the German perspective, that would be of interest, too. One issue I would like to raise with Tigger is the way that we talk about ourselves and our enemies to make it possible to kill them without feeling like you are doing something wrong. I would also like to contrast those national myths (usually of good and evil, starkly contrasted) with the fact that the men on either side probably have more commonalities than differences. Or maybe just talk about how both sides will do this. Anyway, ideas are welcome for books.

I am having reasonable success finding material about World War I. I think I will take her to Vimy Ridge but I need to read a bit more so we can talk about this in a way that doesn’t just reproduce a nationalist myth. I had a rather disturbing (though mercifully brief) exchange with a veteran volunteering at the War Museum last year that I would rather not repeat. One way to do that is to talk about the concept of historical significance and why Vimy is so important in Canadian history. I’ve found At Vimy Ridge by Hugh Brewster in our library and will check it out. I also saw Vimy Ridge: A Canadian Reassessment advertised in The Beaver and thought I should read that for myself. I will also have a look at the picture book A Brave Soldier by Nicolas Debon and Linda Ganfield’s Where Poppies Grow.

Since the history of Europe is more than just the World Wars, I’ve also been investigating other things, though the possibilities are somewhat overwhelming. I’m taking my usual approach of finding good books and working from there. I came across a Deborah Ellis book about the plague in medieval France, A Company of Fools. I’ve heard good things about Ellis and have been meaning to try some of her fiction. Then I discovered a non-fiction book that would pair nicely with it, When Plague Strikes by James Cross Giblin. It covers the Black Death, Smallpox and AIDS and the review I read says it raises questions about the way we make sense of epidemics in circumstances of little real knowledge. But while we are on the topic of medieval France, I thought I’d check out a couple of books on Joan of Arc. Again looking at the reviews (my library catalogue often has the School Library Journal and/or Publisher’s Weekly reviews) I’ve decided on the Diane Stanley and the Josephine Poole  picture books. (Looking for links on Amazon is dangerous. I’ve now noticed that both authors have books on other subjects we are interested in.)

Although it is not at all related, except for being set in France, I am also going to look at Something Out of Nothing: Marie Curie and Radium. The week in Paris can’t be all about art.

As I think about these things I am constantly aware that we need to think ahead because our access to English language books will be very limited. But I am also aware that books are heavy and we don’t want to be carrying too much around. I also have some devious hope that book deprivation (at least compared to the usual voracious rate of consumption) will mean that Tigger will be interested in buying French language books when we get to Geneva/France. I can always hope. Her language skills are up to it but she has been refusing to do any French of late.

As I look over this I realize that the big hole in my trip planning is Germany. I have very little idea of what we will do there nor do I seem to have any ideas for history or fiction books to read while there. We have read one Patricia Reilly-Giff book, The House of Tailors, that begins in Germany on the French border. We’ll be staying in Bonn for 2 weeks and making day trips from there. All ideas (for visits or things to read) gratefully accepted.


6 thoughts on “History plans

  1. We love the Horrible Histories! I do worry about them being too, but I think Violet is fine with it.

    I wish I had suggestions for your trip, but we’re not quite there yet with our history. It sounds great, though.

    Regarding good and evil — we have talked about this a bit with fantasy books, that it’s easier when the “bad guys” are not human so that there is no worry about their side of the story.


  2. YOur plans sound Wunderbar! I will do some searching, as I also recollect a story of a German boy that I was given as a child. A family friend had actually been a Hitler youth, and once older understood the horror, but explained the situation in such a way that truly made one aware that there are two sides to every story. I’ll search the shelves…


  3. Or the market for juvenile books on totalitarianism.

    Not for your trip, but some good children’s books on WWII not on the subject of the Holocaust are “Snow Treasure” by Marie McSwigan (Norway), “The Greatest Skating Race” by Louise Borden (Netherlands), and “The Orphans of Normandy” by Nancy Amis.

    Both of the Joan of Arc books are lovely, words, pictures, and spirit. There’s also a nice book called “Marguerite Makes a Book”, about illuminated manuscripts. I think I remember that it’s set in Paris. If it were me, I could spend the whole time with my kids in the marchés and poking around the Marais.

    For Bonn, does it help that it’s Beethoven’s birthplace? For Germany in general, you could tie in the plague books with The Pied Piper of Hamelin. And a lovely, classic fun German book (there is such a thing!) is “Emil and the Detectives” by Erich Kästner, who was no fan of Hitler — he was arrested twice by the Gestapo and some of his books burned. Written in the late 1920s. Then again there are always the surprising tales of Baron Münchhausen, turned into a movie in the forties — commissioned by Goebbels of all people, with script by an uncredited (ha!) Kästner,



  4. I think there’s a book called Noughts and Crosses that is about 2 kids/young adults from 2 differetn groupings, one in and one out of power http://www.amazon.co.uk/Noughts-Crosses-Malorie-Blackman/dp/0552546321
    I haven’t read it. Good reviews (about racism, byut I’m thinking that the whole issue of how we describe our opponents to be able to kill them – or just revile them – may be in there. There is luurrve too, though, it says.
    Bonn- big in the holy roman empire. Also, early protestant bishops, calvinism, secularising; currently lots of international environmental orgs are based their – climate change, against desertification.

    have fun!


Comments are closed.