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Daddy, what did we do in the war?

Children's novels about conflict are enduringly popular and, as Paul Bignell discovers, they ask increasingly difficult questions

War, since the dawn of literature, has supplied writers with a great deal of ammunition (if you'll excuse the pun).

Enthralling and horrifying readers for centuries, war literature, at its best, studies the endurance of the human psyche in all its bloody detail. But how do we explain it all to our kids?

In an era in which children routinely massacre pixelated characters for fun in the latest video games, and TV violence continually seems to up the ante, one would have thought that an exhibition which aims to bring the stories of war dramatically to life might be entering an already saturated market.

But a new exhibition that opens on Friday at the Imperial War Museum London is aiming for a more subtle effect. Once Upon a Wartime: Classic War Stories for Children looks at some of the best-loved books written for children about conflict. Through a series of themed, life-sized sets and models, it aims to recreate the atmospheric world of Michael Morpurgo's First World War novel War Horse, and life through an evacuee's eyes in Nina Bawden's Carrie's War, right up to the "war" fought among the tower blocks of London's street gangs, in Bernard Ashley's Little Soldier.

Organisers say that the exhibition is aimed at children and adults alike, whether or not they have read the books. Relevant historical artefacts are on show to aid viewers. There are evacuee labels, letters from children packed off to the countryside during the Second World War – even a tail fin from a German incendiary bomb and a mock Anderson shelter are on display. Other exhibits include a mock-up of Hepzibah Green's kitchen, in which much of the action in Carrie's War is played out, and the schoolboys' secret fortress from Robert Westall's The Machine Gunners.

The majority of children's war fiction seems to stem from the experiences of authors when they were children themselves. Bawden's wartime evacuation to rural Wales as a child directly influenced Carrie's War, which has twice been adapted for children's television – in 1974 and 2004. Similarly, Morpurgo experienced life as an evacuee in Cumberland during the Second World War.

Judith Kerr's 1971 book When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is the semi-autobiographical story of a little girl forced to flee her home in Nazi Germany, leaving behind her beloved favourite toy. It is still read in German and British schools, as an introduction to the period. "I had been to see The Sound of Music with my son," she explains, "and when we came out, he was terribly pleased and said, 'now we know what it was like when mummy was a little girl'. So I thought something really must be done. I think I wrote it to say something about my parents. I wanted to tell my children about what happened."

Dr Geoffrey Fox, an academic who studies children's war literature and co-wrote a book called Children at War, is a consultant on the exhibition. He also recalls his own childhood when he talks about the subject. He describes the moment when, during the Second World War, he saw a plane crash into his home in Manchester. "I often tell that story in schools and the reaction from the kids is marvellous. They are absolutely fascinated. They then see me as a living piece of history and think, 'gosh, that could have been my Grandpa.'"

Bernard Ashley, the author of Little Soldier, believes that children's war stories are timeless and can have a profound affect on the reader: "There can be a bonus in a book, where a child can read it and think, 'Well, I'm not the only one'. Some children will find themselves the 'reluctant warrior', as so many do on housing estates in Britain – forced into what they do by peer pressure. So, to find another situation that makes you think, 'well I'm not the only one' is a good thing."

He adds that the gamut of emotions that stem from war stories make them enduring and dramatic to young readers. "There are those inner feelings of hatred, fear towards the enemy, but also a sort of solidarity, the feeling of belonging to a group," he adds.

But what do the children actually think of these books? Thirteen-year-old Jessica from East Barnet School in north London has just finished reading Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian. She says: "By the end of the book, which we read together in school, we were all cheering. It was quite moving. I could sympathise with what the main character was going through in the book."

The 30-year-old novel, which follows a lonely young boy evacuated from London and put into the care of an equally lonely elderly recluse, is about to hit the stage, produced for the theatre by David Wood. The original novel has sold more than 1.2 million copies – a blockbuster long before the reign of Harry Potter.

It would seem that children's war stories also chime with teachers. Susan Elkin, a writer and former teacher, said: "The one I started teaching back in the 1960s was The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier. It's just absolutely wonderful. I must have read it 100 times, because I taught it, and I still cannot read the last few pages aloud without weeping. It was a very popular text with the children."

Experts argue that children are ever more resilient and curious. Children's books of all kinds seldom pull punches when it comes to explaining the brutality of conflict, frequently blurring the lines between what is thought of as children's and adult literature.

"In the past 35 years, authors have not flinched from getting into what previously they would have avoided in children's literature," says Dr Fox. "There has been extensive treatment of the Holocaust, for example – either by Holocaust survivors or by their children. Books published for children are now read more and more by adults. Books which largely happen inside a cattle truck on its way to Auschwitz for example – as Gudrun Pausewang's The Final Journey does – can't spare any detail and don't." The key, suggests Dr Fox, is not in the glorification of violence, but in its acknowledgement as an integral part of the story.

Judith Kerr concurs. "You have to write about things as they were," she says. "There's no point in writing about things unless you are honest about it. Children are resilient. They just accept what is happening."

The Imperial War Museum's exhibition opens on Friday at Lambeth Road, London SE1 (iwm.org.uk)

The Extract

From Carrie's War by Nina Bawden, Puffin Books £6.99

"I was here, with Uncle Nick, thirty years ago. During the war....The Government sent children out of the cities so they shouldn't be bombed. We weren't told where we were going. Just told to turn up at our schools with a packed lunch and a change of clothes, then we went to the station with our teachers. There were whole train-loads of children sent away like that." "Without their mummies?" the little ones said. "Without their dads?" "Oh, quite alone," Carrie said. "I was eleven when we first came here. And Uncle Nick was going on ten."